The Sufi spiritual path explained by eleven Qur’anic commentaries

This article was published in Oasis 29. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:01:52

Copertina Tabbara.jpg 


Nayla Tabbara, L’itinéraire spirituel d’après les commentaires soufis du Coran, Vrin, Paris, 2018


The Sufi path is a slow and demanding one. It is made up of constancy, patience, spiritual states to be reached and rites of passage to be followed. Nayla Tabbara tells us its story in her book, L’itinéraire spirituel d’après les commentaires soufis. To do this, she uses eleven Sufi commentaries on the Qur’an’s Sura 18 (al-Kahf—“The Cave”) all written between the eighth and the twentieth centuries. The book does not only constitute a means of understanding the Islamic mystical journey but also permits a thorough grasp of Qur’anic exegesis, from its first beginnings to the present day. Indeed, one of its aims is to demolish the idea—widespread amongst non-experts, above all—that there is only one single, literal interpretation of the Muslim sacred text. An idea that tends to give Islam a monolithic image since it does not take into account the great variety of commentaries of a linguistic, historico-critical, theological, spiritual, philosophical etc. nature in existence. In illustration of this complexity, the book’s first chapter outlines the history of Qur’anic exegesis, moving from the first, more confused centuries to subsequent developments, which saw it become a complex, autonomous science. The author then sets out the various types of Qur’anic commentary, clearly and lucidly showing their distinctive features and points of contact, whilst paying particular attention to the etymological origin of words.


It is only in the second chapter that one comes to the book’s central theme, the Cave sura. Tabbara sets it out and uses the various interpretations it has received over time to analyse it in detail. The sura belongs to the second Meccan period. Its 110 verses contain some parables and three main stories. It derives its very name from one of the latter: the story of the sleepers in the cave, who are generally identified as the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus in the Christian tradition. It is considered the “eschatological sura par excellence” (p. 60) on account of its content relating to the end times, the Anti-Christ, the Day of Judgement and the Resurrection. There are multiple reasons why the author chose this sura, as she herself explains. In addition to the strong eschatological features and its importance at a popular level, it is a sura with a universal nature and contains stories belonging to other denominations and having an inter-religious significance. Lastly, it is a sura that Sufis hold particularly dear and one that they take as a model of the mystical spiritual path. It is on this theme that the second part of the book concentrates (chapters 3-8). It is a journey: from the more didactic rationality of the first chapters to the spiritual in-depth analysis to which Sufi exegesis leads.


Unlike the traditional commentaries, Sufi ones attach particular importance to the role of the exegete who, to borrow the famous expression referring to Shi‘ite imams, becomes a “speaking Qur’an” (p. 18). Indeed, in the mystical context, the commentary emerges as a dialogue between the text and life: each aids an understanding of the other. A particular feature of the Sufi commentaries is the zāhir/bātin (apparent/hidden) dichotomy i.e. the idea of an esoteric meaning hidden behind the apparent (literal, linguistic) meaning. Indeed, for Muslim mystics, the ultimate purpose of the Qur’an’s stories is the pedagogical one of indicating a “personal and spiritual” journey “along God’s path” (p. 67). This is particularly true of the Cave sura. Analysis of the eleven Sufi commentaries on this sura allows the author to trace the guidelines offered by the Muslim mystics’ thought and spiritual journey, whilst touching on all the main themes.


Every dimension is covered and explained in all its many nuances and varieties of interpretation, in the light of the sura’s various exegeses. The Sufi commentators often diverge on individual aspects but the interior struggle “with a view to the elevation of one’s being” (p. 95) is fundamental for all of them. It is a path that envisages a passage “from multiplicity to unity” (p. 95), by way of a progression in the (permanent) spiritual stations and an elevation in the (temporary) spiritual states. The ultimate end of the journey is holiness and complete union with God. The story of the sleepers (Qur’an 18:9-26) who, after being persecuted for their faith, take refuge in a cave and miraculously re-awaken after sleeping for hundreds of years thus becomes, for many Sufis (including the eleventh-century commentator al-Qushayrī) the image of the stations of detachment and isolation from the world that are necessary in the journey of approaching God. Like all the stations, these too depend in primis on human will but are supported by the divine aid that smites ears (Qur’an 18:11) and strengthens hearts (Qur’an 18:14). For the medieval mystic Baqlī the cave therefore becomes the “nuptial chamber” or the “cave of His union” (p. 111).


The story of Moses (Qur’an 18:60-82) has also been interpreted in several ways. It tells of the relations between the Hebrew prophet and a wise servant who possesses a divine knowledge (Qur’an 18:65). While Moses follows him in order to learn it, the servant carries out a series of apparently negative actions that, in the end, reveal a salvific purpose. It is precisely this story that was to become the supreme model of suhba (companionship) between the disciple and the Sufi master, a key concept of Islamic mysticism.


What is particularly striking, in addition to the author’s deep knowledge of the subject treated and her ability to present it in the round, is her insistence on the interpretational differences within the Sufi world and its commentaries. Nayla Tabbara thus succeeds in her intention (declared in the introduction) to account for the great complexity both of the Muslim world, in general, and of the exegetic and then Sufi one, in particular, whilst at the same time letting its basic pillars emerge.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Viviana Schiavo, “The Cave Sura, Symbol of the Sufi Journey”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 137-9.

Online version:
Viviana Schiavo, “The Cave Sura, Symbol of the Sufi Journey”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/the-cave-sura-symbol-of-the-sufi-journey