Esoteric interpretation of the Quran, also known as Sufi interpretation and taʾwīl (تأويل), is the allegorical interpretation of the Quran or the quest for its hidden, inner meanings. It was a synonym of conventional interpretation in its earliest use, but came to mean a process of getting to the most fundamental understandings of the Quran. Esoteric interpretations do not usually contradict the conventional (in this context called exoteric) interpretations, instead, they discuss the inner levels of meaning of the Quran. The words 'Ta'wil' and 'Tafsir' have been translated to explanation, elucidation, interpretation, and commentary, but from the end of the 8th century onwards, 'ta'wil' was commonly regarded as the esoteric or mystical interpretation of the Quran while the conventional exegesis of the Quran was called 'tafsir'. The term batin refers to the inner or esoteric meaning of a sacred text, and zahir to the apparent or exoteric meaning. Esoteric interpretations are found in Sufi, Shia, and Sunni interpretations of the Quran. A hadith which states that the Quran has an inner meaning, and that this inner meaning conceals a yet deeper inner meaning, and so on (up to seven levels of meaning), has sometimes been used in support of this view.
Scholars agree that some passages of the Quran leaves certain ideas to be implied rather than stated, and from the outset, the Quran cautions that some verses are literal and others are metaphorical named 'muhkamat' and 'mutashabihat':
- "It is God who has sent down to you the book: In it are verses clear (muhkamat), they are the foundation of the book, others are unspecific (mutashabihat)." (Quran 3:7)
The Quran does emphasize that it is not difficult to understand:
- "We have made the Quran easy to understand, but is there anyone who would pay attention?"(Quran 54:17)
Esoteric exegesis attempts to unveil the inner meaning of the Quran by moving beyond the apparent point of the verses and relating Quranic verses to the inner and metaphysical dimensions of consciousness and existence. The exoteric aspect is the literal word, the law, and the material text of the Quran while the esoteric aspect is the hidden meaning. Esoteric interpretations are more suggestive than declarative, they are 'allusions' rather than 'explanations', they indicate possibilities as much as they demonstrate the insights of each writer.
Only a few examples are given here. In 7:172 the Quran states:
- "And when Your Lord summoned the descendants of Adam, and made them testify about themselves. "Am I not your Lord?" They said, "Yes, we testify." Thus you cannot say on the Day of Resurrection we were unaware of this."
According to the above mentioned verse, before creation, God called the future humanity out of the loins of the not-yet-created Adam and addressed them with the words: "Am I not your Lord?", and they answered: "Yes, we witness it". In Islam, this "primordial covenant" is the metahistorical foundation between God and humankind.
The Quran first mentions an 'inner meaning' (ta'wil) in chapter 18:65-82 in the story of Moses and Khidr (a mystical figure of the ancient middle east who reluctantly accepts Moses as his traveling student), when Khidr performs strange acts Moses questions him about his acts, Khidr gives him the 'inner explanation' (ta'wil) of his actions. Along the way, this esoteric being damages a boat belonging to poor people. Moses is so disturbed that he couldn't stop protesting despite his agreement to keep silent. At the end of the journey Khidr tells Moses the reasons for his inexplicable actions: "As for the ship, it belonged to poor people working at sea, so I intended to cause defect in it as there was after them a king who seized every ship by force."
And in 55:79 the Quran describes itself: "This is an honorable Quran, in a book hidden, which none can touch except the purified." In the exoteric sense, the Quran requires Muslims to perform ritual cleansing of their hands before touching it. Esoteric interpreters were of the opinion that it implies that individuals with spiritual purity are able to grasp the meaning of the Quran.
Attar of Nishapur, the 12th-century mystical poet, gives a mystical interpretation of the Quranic story of the descent of Adam and Eve from Paradise to Earth. According to Attar, "the man whose mind and vision are ensnared by heaven’s grace must forfeit that same grace, for only then can he direct his face To his true Lord."  Occasionally a verse may be interpreted in a sense very different from its conventional meaning. For example Hamadani in his book Tamheedat ('Preludes') interprets 104:6-7 ("It is a fierce fire created by God, to penetrate into the hearts.") which conventionally refers to the punishment in hell, as passion of divine love. Hamadani interprets 14:48 ("On the Day when the earth is changed into another earth, and the heavens, and they will emerge before God"), which conventionally describes the day of judgment as a description of the moment of spiritual awakening or enlightenment. Sufis believe that Quran's initial letters (Muqatta'at) conceal mysteries that can not be fully expressed in words and should be understood by means of mystic experiences. In Sufi commentaries of the Quran, Sufism concepts are commonly related such as the hierarchical levels of realities in human experience (human, supra-sensible, and Divine levels), the various states of consciousness such as passing away in God (fana) and subsisting through God (baqa), and the ideas concerning the six subtleties (lataif-e-sitta).
- "The Quran possesses an external appearance and a hidden depth, an exoteric meaning and an esoteric meaning. This esoteric meaning in turn conceals an esoteric meaning so it goes on for seven esoteric meanings (seven depths of hidden depth)."
- "The book of God comprises four things: the statement set down, the allusions, the hidden meanings relating to the supra-sensible world, and the exalted spiritual doctrines. The literal statement is for the ordinary believers. The allusions are the concern of the elite. The hidden meanings pertain to the friends of God. The exalted spiritual doctrines are the province of the prophets."
The most important author of esoteric interpretation prior to the 12th century is Sulami (d. 1021 CE) without whose work the majority of very early Sufi commentaries would not have been preserved. Sulami's major commentary is a book named haqaiq al-tafsir ("Truths of Exegesis") which is a compilation of commentaries of earlier Sufis.
Sahl Tustari (d. 896) was among the most important mystics of the early formative period of Islamic mysticism. His commentary (tafsir al-Quran al-azim) has been compiled later by his disciples and preserved as a commentary on the Quran. Tustari's commentary does not comprise interpretations of every single verse rather there are comments on a selection of verses.
A spiritual commentary of the Quran is attributed to Jafar al-Sadiq (Tafsir Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq) however its authenticity remains suspect. This commentary conveys a spurious textual tradition and do not contain much reliable material, however, the items cited on Jafar sadiq's authority in Sulami's book seems to be based on identifiable chains of transmitters.
From the 11th century onwards several other works appear, including commentaries by Qushayri (d. 1074), Daylami (d. 1193), Shirazi (d. 1209), and Suhrawardi (d. 1234). These works include material from Sulami's books plus the author's own contributions. Many works are written in Persian such as the works of Maybudi (d. 1135) kash al-asrar ("the unveiling of the secrets").
Rumi (d. 1273) wrote a vast amount of mystical poetry in his book Mathnawi. Rumi makes heavy use of the Quran in his poetry, a feature that is sometimes omitted in translations of Rumi's work. Rumi's manner of incorporating Quranic verses into his poetry is notable in that he does not use them as proof-texts rather he intertwines Quranic verses with his poetry. It is no surprise that sometimes learned scholars miss many such allusions to the Quran.
Simnani (d. 1336) wrote two influential works of esoteric exegesis on the Quran. He reconciled notions of God's manifestation through and in the physical world with the sentiments of Sunni Islam. Simnani was a prolific author, 154 titles are ascribed to him, of which at least 79 exist today.
Comprehensive Sufi commentaries appear in the 18th century such as the work of Ismail Hakki Bursevi (d. 1725). His work ruh al-Bayan (the Spirit of Elucidation) is a voluminous exegesis. Written in Arabic, it combines the author's own ideas with those of his predecessors (notably Ibn Arabi and Ghazali), all woven together in Hafez, a Persian poetry form.
Shia Islam is a branch of Islam in which one finds some of the most esoteric interpretations on the nature of the Quran. Shia interpretations of the Quran concern mainly issues of authority where the concept of Imamat is paramount. In Twelver Shia Islam, there are mainly two theological schools: the Akhbari and the Ususli. The first school interprets the Quran mainly through reliance upon traditions (hadith) ascribed to the Imams. The Second school gives more power to independent reasoning and judgment (ijtihad). Ismaili interpretation shares common ground with Sufism. The method is called kashf, an “unveiling” to the heart of the interpreter, and is dependent upon the master, the grace of God, and the spiritual capacity of the interpreter.
Validity of esoteric interpretations
There is almost no dispute among Muslims that the Quran has concealed meanings however this does not mean that every esoteric interpretation of the Quran is necessarily valid. Some interpreters are known to have overplayed the allegorical aspects of the Quran, claiming privileged understanding of its contents and distorting its meaning. The authority of the person who extracts these meanings is also a matter of debate. Mainstream theologians, were willing to accept these interpretations if certain conditions were met. One of the most important criteria is that the interpretation should not conflict with the literal meaning of the Quran. Suyuti (d. 1505CE) believed that exegesis should be rigorous because non-rigorous methods cause misunderstanding. Taftazani (d. 1390CE) believed that pure gnosis and perfection of faith can be achieved when the subtle allusions of the Quran are harmonized with the literal sense.
Kristin Zahra Sands in the beginning of her introduction asks two questions: How can one begin to say what God "meant" by His revelation? and How does one balance the desire to understand the meaning of the Quran with the realistic fear of reducing it to the merely human and individualistic? The most basic question is how to best approach the Quran in order to discover its richness and transforming possibilities. According to Sands interpretation of the Quran is an endless task which is different for each individual and the language and type of discourse chosen to interpret varies with different commentators.
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