This volume is the first to focus specifically on esoteric interpretation as a phenomenon in the field of Qur’anic exegesis and to show the plurality of ways it has been manifested in different Muslim traditions. Concern with the inner, spiritual implications of the Qur’an has usually been associated with mystical and Sufi trends in Islam. However, there have also been exegetes among the Shi‘a, as well as among philosophers, who sought to supplement their understanding of the Qur’an’s apparent meaning by eliciting deeper significations through contemplation of the verses.
The Spirit and the Letter examines the multiplicity of these esoteric approaches, covering a period that extends from the third/ninth century to the present. It includes chapters on philosophical and Shi‘i exegetes, such as Ibn Sina (d. 428/1037) and Mulla Sadra (d. 1045/1636), in addition to studies of a range of Sufi perspectives, from Sulami (d. 412/1021) and Qushayri (d. 465/1072) to Ruzbihan Baqli (d. 606/1209), as well as representatives of the Ibn ‘Arabi and Kubrawi schools. Considered together, the range of studies in this volume enable us to see what these approaches have in common and how they differ, and how the hermeneutics and content of exegesis are affected by doctrinal and ideological perspectives of various traditions and periods. Furthermore, they deepen our understanding of what actually constitutes esoteric interpretation and the need to look beyond the letter to the spirit of the Qur’anic word.
Synopsis by chapter
For a detailed synopsis of each chapter, see the Introduction pp. 21–38.
The volume’s Introduction, by Annabel Keeler and Sajjad Rizvi, provides a detailed examination of key ideas and intellectual contexts surrounding various approaches to esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an, defined broadly as eliciting its inner or deeper (batin) significations.
The first section, ‘Comparative Hermeneutics’, opens with Sara Sviri investigating two terms in their relation to specifically Sufi exegesis (Chapter 1). She finds that istima‘ (listening, and specifically listening to the recitation of the Qur’an as a mystical practice), rather than istinbat, stands out as especially pertinent for the Sufis, and discusses the term and its relevance through an analysis of three Sufi authors.
Gerhard Böwering (Chapter 2) investigates the Sufis’ mystical and symbolic interpretations of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, and in particular, the mysterious ‘disconnected letters’. Central to his study is Sulami’s Sharh ma‘ani al-huruf, a treatise on the science of letters.
Annabel Keeler (Chapter 3) compares Sufi commentaries on Surat Yusuf (Q. 12) by Sulami, Qushayri, Maybudi (fl. 520/1126) and Ruzbihan Baqli, showing how they reflect developments in mystical doctrine. In particular, she focuses on the emergence of the doctrines of love and how this affects the understanding and interpretation of the prophet Jacob.
Kristin Sands (Chapter 4) discusses two twentieth-century Sufi exegetes, Fadhlalla Haeri and Lex Hixon, who both composed commentaries in English. She shows how Haeri and Hixon achieved a shared commitment to a broader dissemination of some of the inner meanings of the Qur’an using different styles and methods of interpretation, and considers that both exemplify the adaptability of Sufi exegesis in its ability to respond its environment.
The second part of this volume comprises studies which focus on particular commentators (or sets of commentators) and specific texts. It opens with a study by Meir Bar-Asher of the hermeneutics of the early Ismaili-Fatimid tradition (Chapter 5), in which he examines several key issues of Ismaili-Fatimid Qur’an exegesis through a brief survey of several Ismaili writings, in particular the works of Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr al-Yaman (d. second half of the fourth/tenth century) and al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān (d. 363/974).
Peter Heath’s chapter (Chapter 6) is devoted to Ibn Sina’s hermeneutics, focusing on eight tracts of commentary on the Light Verse (Q. 24:35). Two key issues underlie Heath’s methodological approach to this subject: how to understand the philosopher’s hermeneutical method, and the question of the authenticity of the texts.
Martin Nguyen (Chapter 7) examines Qushayri’s interpretation of the mi‘raj (heavenly ascension) and specifically Q. 53:1–8. Qushayri wrote two commentaries on this passage, one in his tafsir and the other in his Kitab al-Mi‘raj, which Nguyen compares as an insightful case of exegetical inter-textuality for a Sufi scholar. Translations of the two texts follow his discussion.
Toby Mayer’s contribution on Shahrastani (d. 548/1153) (Chapter 8) bears witness to the growing literature on Ismaili approaches to the Qur’an. Mayer demonstrates how a complete system of hermeneutics is presented through a set of complementarities, including two that seem quite unique to Shahrastani. He argues that Shahrastānī’s system discloses a ‘semantic logic’ of the Qur’an – the fundamental ideas themselves which inform and underlie it.
Richard Todd (Chapter 9) studies the scriptural hermeneutics of Qunawi (d. 673/1274), one of Ibn ‘Arabi’s direct disciples and his step-son. Todd’s study is mainly focused on Qunawi’s commentary on Surat al-Fatiha (Q. 1), known as I‘jaz al-bayan, including an analysis of how Qunawi’s characteristic theories both inform and permeate his approach to esoteric interpretation.
Pierre Lory (Chapter 10) looks at the hermeneutics of another proponent of Ibn ‘Arabi’s teachings, that is, Kashani (d. between 730/1329 and 736/1335). Lory analyses Ta’wilat al-Qur’an from the perspective of ‘sacred history’, the keys to which are the Qur’anic accounts of the prophets’ lives. He especially focuses on Kashani’s understanding of Jesus as a model of the mystic’s evolution towards spiritual perfection.
Paul Ballanfat (Chapter 11) discusses the opening section of the Qur’an commentary of Simnani (d. 736/1336), known as the Tafsir najm al-Qur’an; he challenges the idea that the opening part of Simnani’s tafsir is an introduction that precedes a commentary, arguing rather that Simnani is concerned with hermeneutics itself, the point of which is the communication or ‘circulation’ of knowledge between the spiritual master and the disciple or aspirant on the spiritual way.
Janis Esots (Chapter 12) examines the hermeneutical theory of the Shi‘i philosopher Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, better known as Mulla Sadra. Esots observes that Sadra’s approach to interpretation can, generally, be considered as philosophical ta’wil, with the addition of some elements of mysticism. Accordingly, he treats the Qur’an as a system of symbols that refer to noetic or intelligible realities.
Bakri Aladdin (Chapter 13) analyses the hermeneutical treatise al-Wujud al-haqq by the Naqshbandi Sufi al-Nabulusi (d. 1143/1731). As Aladdin shows, this treatise seems to have two main aims: to provide a historical context for Sufi exegesis, and to show how Sufi hermeneutics can be applied to support the theory of ‘the oneness of being’. He sees Nabulusi’s doctrines as consisting of a synthesis of the thought of Ibn ‘Arabi, Ash‘ari theology and later Shadhili thought, among others.
Mahmut Ay (Chapter 14) focuses on al-Bahr al-madid by Ibn ‘Ajiba (d. 1224/1809), a Moroccan Sufi of the Darqawi order. Ay’s detailed examination of Ibn ‘Ajiba’s interpretations of eschatological events mentioned in the Qur’an indicates that in his esoteric commentary he consistently interprets these aspects allegorically as references to the spiritual journey or to mystical experience.
Amin Ehteshami and Sajjad Rizvi (Chapter 15) bring us to the modern period, examining the most influential and scholarly Shi‘i commentary of the twentieth century, al-Mizan fi tafsir al-Qur’an by the philosopher of Qum, Tabataba’i (d. 1981). Tabataba’i argues strongly against eisegesis, and is critical of both philosophical and Sufi commentaries and ta’wil works for their imposition upon the text. Yet, Ehteshami and Rizvi argue, Tabataba’i’s own intellectual formation, and an extent some of his works, demonstrate how he privileges the esoteric, which in his case means applying to the text the learned Shi‘i and philosophical wisdom he has acquired.