Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Esoteric Exegesis of the Quran.

I'm reading a great book now " Tuhfah Yi-Abbasi: The Golden Chain of Sufism in Shi'ite Islam" by Shaykh Muhammad Ali Mu'addhdhin Sabzawari Khurasani translated by M. H. Faghfoory. It had a section on the esoteric exegesis of the Quran that I wanted to share!:

In a discourse on the nature of the Quran, Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq said, " The Book of Allah is of four natures: al-'ibarah, that is to say, the text, that is for the common people; al-Ishara, i.e. allusions that are for the select (khawass) al-lata'if, that is fine mysteries that are for the friends of God (awliya); and finally, al-haqa'iq, the truth which is for the Prophets (anbi'ya)."

The manifest meaning of the revelation (al-Zahir) can be understood by ordinary people (al-nas) who accept the principles of religion and observe its commands such as the daily prayers, fasting and other rituals. The inner meaning of the revelation however, can be understood only by those who have purified their hearts and those who have emptied it form anything other then God, as the Quran testifies: "Verily, this is indeed a nobel Quran , in a Book kept hidden, which none touches except the purified".

God the Almighty says in the Quran " Verily, We gave the Book as an inheritance to those whom we have selected from among our servants." It is obvious that what is meant by the Book is not only the Nobel Quran in its descended form (kitab munzal), but more importantly, the reality of the Quran that is Kitab al-maknun.

Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib asked the Prophet " O Messenger of God! How would I spread your message to people after you?" The Prophet answered, 'inform people of the non-manifest meaning (ta'wil) of the Quran, that is difficult for them [to understand]. Only God Knows Quran's reality and reveals it only to the Pure (mutahharun) and those who are steadfast in knowledge (rasikhun fil'ilm)" When a man asked Imam Sadiq who the steadfast in knowledge are, he replied that "They are the progeny of Muhammad."

In another discourse on the Quran, Imam Jafar al-Sadiq said:" Verily God taught His Messenger the science of interpretation of the Quran (tanzil and ta'wil), then he taught those sciences to Ali and by God, Ali taught them to us."

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I also wanted to share a statement of the great Sufi Hamid Al Ghazali on the topic of Quranic exegesis as well because it ties in perfectly with the above teachings:

"The man who claims that the Koran has no meaning except that which the exoteric exegesis has transmitted is acknowledging his own limitation. He is right in his acknowledgment, but is wrong in his judgment that puts all people on the level to which he is limited and bound. Indeed, reports and traditions ( of the Prophet and others) indicate that for men of understanding there is great latitude in the meaning of the Koran. Thus 'Ali said "The Messenger of God did not confide to me anything which he concealed from people, except that God bestows understanding of the Koran upon a man." If there were no meaning other than that which has been transmitted, what then is meant by that understanding of the Koran? The Prophet said , "surely the Koran has an outward aspect (Zahr) , an inward aspect (batin), an ending and a beginning." This tradition is also related as being from Ibn Mas'ud on his own authority, and he was one of the scholars of exegesis. What then is the meaning of the outward aspect, the inward aspect, end and beginning?"

Ali said, " If I wished I could load seventy camels with the exegesis of the Opening Surah (al-Fatiha) of the Koran". What is the meaning of this, when the exoteric interpretation [of this Surah] is extremely short? Abu al-Darada said " A man does not truly understand until he attributes different perspectives to the Koran." A certain scholar said "For every Koranic verse there are sixty thousand understandings and what remains to be understood is even more ." Others have said " The Koran contains seventy seven thousand two hundred sciences, for every word in it is a science, and then that number can be quadrupled, since every word has an outward aspect, an inward aspect, an end and a beginning"

The Prophets repetition of the phrase " In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate" twenty times was only for the purpose of pondering its esoteric meanings (batin ma'aniha). Otherwise its explanation and exegesis are so obvious that someone like him would not need to repeat it. Ibn Masu said " He who desires the knowledge of the ancients and the moderns should ponder the Koran." and that is not something that can be attained merely by its exoteric interpretation".


  1. Hi Simurgh,
    Olivia here, from Amazon forums. Are you Muslim, or do you just study Islam? My husband has been teaching me and our kids about the Quran. He's been telling me that the Quran is full of science. Things that were not known at Prophet Muhammad's time. Are you finding that to be the case?

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  3. Yes, I am a Muslim. I just converted a few months back actually. I haven't really studied that particular issue (of scientific facts being revealed in the Quran before their modern re-discovery) in depth but I have seen a few books make mention of it usually in reference to the development of the embryo and a few other issues. Some of the things pointed out by various authors seem to have merit and others seem like they require a pretty convoluted reading of the Quran to make it state the scientific point the author is trying to imply is contained in it. The chief concern of the Quran isn’t merely to inform about “scientific” or “historical” facts but rather to illuminate eternal Truths that transcend the world of becoming and change all together. In saying that though I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t contain such facts as signs to humanity of it’s truthfulness in general though.

  4. I agree about science not being the main objective of the Quran, enlightenment to the truth of God's message is. I just find it intersting that there are things in the Quran that scientists are just beginning to learn about now.

    Just curious, but why did you convert to Islam? Were you a Christian before you converted?

  5. I came across the poetry of Rumi and it sort of drew me into the world of Islam. So I guess it was Sufi aspect that first attracted my attention. Then I started reading the works of Henry Corbin, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Shabistari, Jami, Suhrawardi, .... and I knew I found a religion that was for me. I was a Christian for some time before that.