Oxford University Press in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies
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 Sīnā (d. 428/1037) and Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1045/1636), in addition to studies of a range of Sufi perspectives, from al-Sulamī (d. 412/1021) and al-Qushayrī (d. 465/1072) to Rūzbihān Baqlī (d. 606/1209), as well as representatives of the Ibn ʿArabī and Kubrāwī 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.
Notes on Contributors
Note on Transliteration, Conventions and Abbreviations
Introduction, Annabel Keeler and Sajjad Rizvi
Part I: Comparative Hermeneutics
1. The Countless Faces of Understanding: On Istinbāṭ, Mystical Listening and Sufi Exegesis, Sara Sviri
2. The Interpretation of the Arabic Letters in Early Sufism: Sulamī’s Sharḥ maʿānī al-ḥurūf, Gerhard Böwering
3. Towards a Prophetology of Love: The Figure of Jacob in Sufi Commentaries on Sūrat Yūsuf, Annabel Keeler
4. Making it Plain: Sufi Commentaries in English in the Twentieth Century, Kristin Zahra Sands
Part II: Commentators and Texts in Focus
5. Outlines of Early Ismaili-Fatimid Qur’an Exegesis, Meir M. Bar-Asher
6. Ibn Sīnā’s Qur’anic Hermeneutics, Peter Heath
7. Qushayrī’s Exegetical Encounter with the Miʿrāj, Martin Nguyen
8. Shahrastānī's Mafātīḥ al-asrār: A Medieval Ismaili System of Hermeneutics?, Toby Mayer
9. Qūnawī's Scriptural Hermeneutics, Richard Todd
10. Eschatology and Hermeneutics in Kāshānī's Taʾwīlāt al-Qurʾān, Pierre Lory
11. Simnānī and Hermeneutics, Paul Ballanfat
12. Speech, Book, and Healing Knowledge: The Qur’anic Hermeneutics of Mullā Ṣadrā, Janis Esots
13. Aspects of Mystical Hermeneutics and the Theory of the Oneness of Being (waḥdat al-wujūd) in the work of ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (d. 1143/1731), Bakri Aladdin
14. The Sufi Hermeneutics of Ibn ʿAjība (d. 1224/1809): A Study of Some Eschatological Verses of the Qur’an, Mahmut Ay
15. Beyond the Letter: Explanation (tafsīr) versus Adaptation (taṭbīq) in Ṭabāṭabāʿī s al-Mīzān, Amin Ehteshami and Sajjad Rizvi
Index of Qur’anic Citations
“Keeler, Rizvi, and their authors have undoubtedly made a major
achievement in bringing such a wide variety of sources together in The Spirit and the Letter.
Aside from the fact that the articles they've collected span enough
traditions and periods to appeal to Islamic studies scholars of a
variety of different stripes, their ability to find terms that can
coherently render such a variety comprehensible is in its own right a
major contribution to the field.” – Robert Landau Ames, Reading Religion
“This is the first major work on the key mystics and theologians who composed esoteric commentaries on the Qur’an. Fifteen erudite contributions by some of the most eminent authorities in the field of Muslim philosophy, Shi‘i exegesis, Ismaili thought, Akbarian theosophy and Sufism, explore over a millennium of esoteric commentators and commentaries on the Qur’an. Accompanied by an introduction that exhaustively examines the various intellectual trends, theological schools and theosophical terminology relating to mystical exegesis of the Qur’an, The Spirit and the Letter provides the most accessible treatment of the inner dimension of Muslim scriptural hermeneutics written to date."
– Leonard Lewisohn, Senior Lecturer in Persian, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter
“This unique volume brings together a set of fascinating and methodologically sophisticated studies on a wide variety of esoteric approaches to the Qur’an. These collectively display the rich diversity of literary genres and authors engaged in esoteric exegesis in the Islamic tradition. Beginning with a comprehensive and incisive intellectual history of Sufi, Shi‘i and philosophical exegesis, the volume offers both fresh readings of familiar works, and serious introductions to others.”
– Maria M. Dakake, Chair and Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, George Mason University
Annabel Keeler is an Affiliated Researcher at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and a Research Associate of Wolfson College, both at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include Sufi exegesis, early to ‘classical’ Islamic mysticism, Persian literature and prophetology. She is the author of Sufi Hermeneutics: The Qur’an Commentary of Rashīd al-Dīn Maybudī (Oxford, 2006) and co-translator of the commentary of Sahl al-Tustarī, under the title, Tafsīr al-Tustarī (Kentucky, 2011).
Sajjad Rizvi is Associate Professor of Islamic Intellectual History at the University of Exeter. Trained as a historian at Oxford and Cambridge, he has previously taught at the universities of Cambridge and Bristol. A specialist of Islamic thought in the Islamic East, he is the author of Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (Oxford, 2007) and Mulla Ṣadrā and Metaphysics (London, 2009), and is currently working on a study of the same thinker's noetics. His future projects include a comparative history of philosophy in the Persianate eighteenth century, and an intellectual history of Islamic philosophical traditions in India from 1500 to 1900.