Tafsir Interiorized and Acted Upon

The following passage, which I came across (already translated into English, al-hamdulillah...) in Vincent J. Cornell’s excellent and engaging study, Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism, offers a lovely snapshot into the process of scripture engagement, the use of tafsir (commentary) and hadith, in the life of a twelfth-thirteenth century Maghrebi Sufi, Abu al-‘Abbas al-Subti (born in Sebta, or Ceuta if you prefer). One of the things that has recently begun to interest me is the way in which Sufi readers of the Qur’an- formal exegetes and others- tend to interiorize and ‘personalize’ the text of the Qur’an to a degree that more ‘traditional’ tafsir-composers do not, at least not within their text. This is not to say that other tafsir-writers are not striving for an interior and external ‘inscription’ of the scriptural text: I think they are, as well as a broader ‘inscription’ of the Qur’an and its interpretation upon the whole of Islamic life and doctrine. But this is done in a different manner from Sufi exegetes/readers (the line is of course blurry or non-existent; on a certain level, to read with some consciousness and desire for application is to do exegesis, whether in a formal tafsir setting or not) .

The following text is a good example of what I am trying to get at (and there is of course a lot more going on it besides the use of scripture I am interested in here). In it al-Sabti describes for us a very personal experience of a particular verse, in which he feels as if it is he himself whom God is speaking to; this textual-personal juncture leads him to the exegetical tradition, which in turn leads him further into the exegetical/para-exegetical tradition of hadith. His application of this whole complex of scripture and exegesis/tradition is deeply personal and interiorized while simultaneously rooted in traditional sources. His personal reception, via tradition, of the text then leads him to a very physical, ‘real-world’ inscription of the text. Finally, he describes two further explorations of the same verse, which has become so deeply ingrained/inscribed in his person. These two further explorations are conducted in ‘meditation’ which al-Sabti does not explicitly tie into any given exegetical or otherwise tradition. Here he presents himself in a sort of direct dialogue with the verse, though we should keep in mind- as al-Sabti would probably be himself pleased to remind us- that his engagement even on the level of ‘direct meditation’ would still lie within a whole matrix of exegetical tradition, textual context, and his own years of performing and speaking and meditating upon this particular verse. The sacred text has its own potency here, one which is certainly harnessed and guided and augmented by other factors- al-Sabti’s acts of interpretation and embodiment, for instance- yet also retains its own power, its own direction, that carries al-Sabti along for many (apparently quite productive) years.


I found a verse in the Book of God that had a great effect on both my heart and my tongue. It was, ‘Verily, God commands justice and the doing of good.’ I pondered this and said [to myself], ‘Perhaps [finding] this is no coincidence and I am the one who is meant by this verse.’ I continued to examine its meaning in the books of exegesis until I found Gharib at-tafsir, which stated that [the verse] was revealed when the Prophet established brotherhood between the Emigrants (muhajirun) and the Helpers (ansar). They had asked the Prophet to establish a pact of brotherhood between them, so he commanded them to share among themselves. In this way, they learned that the justice commanded [by God] was through sharing. Then I looked into the saying of the Prophet: ‘My community will be divided into seventy-two sects, all of which will be in the Fire except the one followed by me and my companions,’ and found that he said this on the morning of the day that he had ordered the pact of brotherhood [to be established] between the Emigrants and the Helpers…. So I understood that what he and his companions adhered to were the practices of mushatara and ithar. Then I swore to God Most High that when anything came to me I would share it with my believing brethren among the poor. I followed this practice for twenty years, and this rule affected my ideas to the point where nothing dominated my thoughts more than uncompromising honesty (sidq).

After I had reached forty years of age, another idea occurred to me, so I returned to the [original] verse and meditated upon it, and discovered that justice was in sharing but that true goodness (ihsan) went beyond that. So I thought about it a third time and swore to God that if anything, small or large, came to me, I would keep one-third and expend two-thirds for the sake of God Most High. I followed this [practice] for twenty years, and the result of that decision among humankind was [both] sainthood (wilaya) and rejection; I would be venerated by some and rejected by others.

After twenty [more] years, I meditated on the first obligation of the station of goodness (ihsan) required by God Most High for His worshipers, and found it to be gratitude for His bounty. This is proven by the emergence of the instinct toward good at birth, before the acquisition of either understanding or intellect. I then found that eight grades of behavior were required for charity and that seven other grades [were required] for ihsan in addition to [those required for] justice. This is because for oneself is a portion (haqq), for the wife a portion, a portion for what is in the womb, for the orphan a portion, and a portion for the guest… Once I arrived at this degree, I swore an oath to God that whatever came to me, whether it be little or much, I would keep two-sevenths of it for myself and my wife and [give up] five-sevenths to the one for whom it was due.

Abu al-‘Abbas al-Subti

This Is The Very Nature of Love

And now I give you an example from the Fathers. Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The centre point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Now concentrate your minds on what is to be said! Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the centre; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the centre are the lives of men. To the degree that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do in fact come close to God and to their neighbor. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God. Now consider in the same context the question of separation; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they recede and become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another. See! This is the very nature of love. The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza, On Refusal to Judge Our Neighbor

The Good Tree of the Heart

The following is an excerpt from the Qur’an commentary of the important eleventh-century Sufi writer al-Sulami, who wrote a prodigious number of texts, the most significant- in terms of later use and emulation- where the tafsir excerpted here and his Tabaqat al-Sufiyya, a collection of biographies of Sufis of preceding generations. Much of his work- such as the example here- involves compiling and reworking material from previous Sufis (and other sources); some of it, including- perhaps- the final paragraph here, are al-Sulami’s own compositions. At any rate, al-Sulami represents a consolidation of the early stages of Sufi thought and practice, as well as the reconciliation- or attempt at it- of conflicting or divergent strands of Sufi teachings and other forms of mystical practice.

I thought this selection gives a quite readable and approachable example of how eleventh-century Sufis are doing Qu’ran commentary; instead of the specialized grammatical and syntactical vocabulary of ‘conventional’ commentaries, Sufi technical terms are worked into the exegesis, at once reinforcing Sufi concepts and practices with Qur’anic dicta, while also ‘Sufi-ising’ the Qur’anic text itself. Another significant difference in all early Sufi tafsir, and even most later ones, is the selective nature of Sufi commentaries. Rather than go verse by verse, they select certain verses as locii for interpretations and explanations, usually- though not always- forgoing more conventional explanations for an interpretation that ties the text into Sufi understanding and practice. The following is an lovely example that also reveals the relative freedom and resulting artistry this particular exegetical technique can unlock.

To make the translation a little clearer for those not familiar with Sufi terminology, I have placed expansions of certain terms in brackets. Some words are simply impossible to really get across; a couple- including the bit about the wind blowing upon (or blowing into place?) a ‘mark’ on the heart- I don’t exactly understand myself. That’s part of the fun: and quite possibly the intended experience.


His saying, mighty and glorious is He: ‘And the likeness of a good word is a good tree.’ (Q. 14.24)

Ibn ‘Ata’ said: The good word is ‘No god but God’ in regards to the assertation, and the good tree is the triumphing of the secrets (asrār) of the professors of God’s oneness over the filth of desires, through faith in God, and through the cutting off for His sake of whatever is other than Him.

Muhammad bin ‘Alī said: the good tree is faith, God establishing it in the hearts of those He loves, and He makes its earth congruity [with His commands], its leaves sainthood/governance, its sky assistance, its water soliciting guidance, and its branches sufficiency. Its leaves are sainthood, its fruit union [with God], its shade intimacy. Its branches (aghsānuhā) are rooted firmly in the heart/core of the friend/saint, and its twigs (farū’uhā) are firmly rooted in the sky, through the superabundance of the presence of the Omnipotent. The root tends to the branch through continuious compassion and watchfulness, and the branch guides the root through what is gathered from the state of witnessing and proximity [to God]; thus, the heart of the believer and his benefits is disclosed.

I heard Muhammad bin ‘Abd Allah al-Damashqī saying: I heard ibn al-Mawlad saying: Abū Sa’īd al-Khrāz said: the treasures of God in the sky are the unseen (al-ghayūb), and His treasures upon the earth are hearts. For God the Exalted created the heart of the believer as a house of His treasures, then sent a wind which blew upon it a spot of unbelief, associationism (shirk), hypocrisy, and deceit. Then He created praise, and it rained down in [the heart], then He firmly roots in it a tree. Then it bore fruit of good pleasure [with God], love, gratitude, purity, sincerity, obedience- so His saying ‘Like a good tree its root is firmly established and its brances are in the sky.’

Some say: Every tree in this world below, whenever it does not have its portion of water, it dries up. And the tree that is in your heart dries up whenever you do not water it with the water of repentance and the water of remorse, then with the water of sorrow, then with the water of holy desire. Then come clouds of grace, and they rain upon your heart the rain of [divine] mercy until there is the water of service [to God] beneath and the water of [divine] mercy above, so that it will be fresh and pleasant. Then three things come: the way of servanthood in the lower self (fī ‘l-nafs), the way of praise in the heart, and the way of remembrance (dhikr) in the secret (al-sirr). The service of the lower self is obedience, the service of the heart is intention, and the service of the secret is continual watchfulness. Then there rains upon it, rains upon the lower self the rain of guidance, upon the tongue the rain of subtletly, upon the heart the rain of sublimity, upon the secret the rain of grace, upon the spirit the rain of nobility. Then there sprouts from the rain of the tongue gratitude and trust; from the rain of the lower self obedience and piety; from the rain of the heart truthfulness and purity, and from the rain of the secret, holy desire and diffidence; and from the rain of the spirit, vision and encounter [with God].

Abū ‘Abd al-Rahman Mahmud bin al-Hussayn bin Mūsā al-Azdī al-Sulamī, Haqā’iq al-Tafsīr, Vol. 1 (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Almīa, 2001), 344.

The Hitchhiker

The following is a true story, as true as any story we tell can be true. I wrote it down a couple days after the incident- a couple years ago now- and have only polished things up some, done a little editing, since then.

I still sometimes think about K. and wonder what became of him, if I did the right thing, if I should have called the police, etc. God knows best.


I drove along the interstate and saw him waving his arms wildly on the side of the road. Dear God I thought- and sped by, my car already up to speed, my senses tightened- late night, always alert, even if I’ve been drinking- I rush on, on, I see the arms waving, I have to turn around, so I pull off at the next exit. The gas stations are glimmering in their cold cold light. The day was warm but now it is cold outside. I swing back onto the interstate and my mind revolves what can happen when you pick up people on the side of the interstate at eleven o’clock at night. Death by shooting is the easiest, and least imaginative. We will engage in small talk, I will ask his name, he will look uncomfortable (I imagine, for whatever reason, he will be uncomfortable- shouldn’t killing another human being in cold blood make you uncomfortable but maybe it doesn’t?), will shift in the seat. When he shifts his weight against the door and looks out, his soul locked in an existential struggle (there has to be a struggle going on), he looks at my icon of Christ on the dashboard, and in that moment he almost repents of his evil. But just almost. It is dark after all so he might not see anything. He whips out his gun, his resolve returning, and points it at me, orders me to drive to the next exit above town. I also think of: my family, our cats, that Tom Cruise movie I have just seen that wasn’t very good, and a street food vendor in Fes. All of these things go through my mind. We turn off, he orders me out of the car, I make a run, he shoots, I fall over, he shoots again, gets in my car, and for good measure tears out the icon of Christ and throws it out the window. Like a damn Flannery O’Connor story. Of course.

The fingerprints on the icon are what convict him. I used that glossy wide tape to attach them. Perfect. But I am still dead.

I also go through other, briefer, and less obvious, scenarios, as I speed back southward and turn around at the next exit. There is bludgeoning, suffocation, various sorts of edged weapons, possibly even poison. At this point I am approaching, I have slowed down and am scanning the roadside. I wonder if he speaks English. Probably he is Latino, running from a drug cartel, and by picking him up I will become the new target of the gang, and they will shoot me and burn my parents’ house down. I saw that movie too. I see the person- he’s shorter than me, kind of brown skinned, yes- I pull over, roll down my window.

-What’s wrong?

Nothing. Should I try Spanish? I think Que necessite? Is that right? Probably not going to be Arabic (why the hell would it be Arabic we’re in South Mississippi but maybe?)

-Do you need help?

-Yeah, yeah, my mom- uh-

-Ok, ok, get in, get in.

He’s clearly a kid, as in my little brother’s age, twelve or so, though not his size. He climbs in, his knees pulled up (I’m getting a little weirded out at this point and don’t think to adjust the seat- also I am on the side of the interstate in the middle of the night). I ask him- well, what do you ask a kid you’ve just picked up on the side of the interstate in South Mississippi in the middle of the night?

-Ah, what happened- what’s wrong?

He replies, panting and verging on tears, that his parents left him at a gas station, he looked up and they were gone, he doesn’t know why. He seems strangely controlled in telling me this even if there are tears verging but still, and I am suspicious (if that’s the right word). It is also evident after a few moments that he has, what do you say, issues, a handicap. I suggest we call the police. I have never thought about what I would do upon finding a child wandering down the side of the road past midnight. These things just do not come up when one is contemplating possible emergency scenarios. Fire- check. Airplane crash- check. Tornado- check. Nuclear attack- check. Picking up run-away child on side of interstate- have to think about it?

He asks to call his sister. I give him my cell-phone. He dials her, she answers, he says he has walked several miles down the highway. He hands me the phone.

-Hi, yes, is this his (I don’t know his name, forgot to ask)- sister?

It is.

-Um, I found your brother, on the interstate, we’re pulling off at exit 69, uh Hattiesburg, yeah.

She is in Bay Springs, forty, fifty miles up the road. I picture driving to Bay Springs and driving up to a trailer (it has to be a trailer for whatever reasons) and delivering the kid to his sister. Why his sister? She is going to call his mom, who will call me. Ok. I pull off to a gas station. Mom calls. Yes, yes, he has Asperger’s Syndrome, has run away before, police called, etc., she is coming, I will wait here.

We go inside. I suggest we get something to drink, and also a donut. Eating donuts is always comforting. If I were going to run away from home in the dead of night I think I would want a donut afterwards. Krispy Kreme- the real thing. I briefly think- what if he’s allergic? Do people with Asperger’s- do they eat donuts? Of course they do. I glance over at him. He’s- well built. Let’s get donuts! I suggest. Ok.

His sister calls back- says his mom is coming, but don’t tell him, he’ll get upset, make him think she (sister) is coming. Ok ok I say, fumbling for my wallet. What the hell, what the hell. I put the things on the counter, assuring sister all will be ok, pay, she says bye (sister), cashier is not talking to me, does not know about Asperger’s, does not know about hitch-hiking children, does not even seem to wonder why a white twenty-something with a university accent wearing a damn scarf and corduroys is towing about an overweight partially African-American kid. I drop my pennies on the floor. There’s a hole in my wallet. It’s old.

-Eh, I say laughing, ha ha, there’s a wallet in my hole! Also I am thinking: I hope your mother’s not a child-abuser.

We go back outside and get in my car. We talk. He seems nervous, but I figure it’s just the Asperger’s. His name is K., he is twelve, has a birthday soon, his brothers are older, and one is a bully. His favorite subject is math. I tell him about myself and my family. I don’t like math I’m not very good at it. We eat our donuts and he drinks the Gatorade I bought him. I nervously drink the bottled water I bought (why am I so nervous?). I like the kid. I wonder- the woman claiming to be his mother, is she? Should I have called the police? How are you supposed to figure these things out anyway, in the so-called heat of the moment (it’s actually pretty cold outside tonight)?

His mom pulls up- he recognizes the van- I get out, he stays (I have already adjusted the seat so he’s not scrunched up against the dash). The mom is- large. I would not cross her. Not want to meet her in a dark alley. Or maybe even a well-lit one. She has a tattoo- I can’t tell of what- on her shoulder (she is wearing a tank-top, looks like she just got out of bed, which she probably did). She is not happy. She pulls K. out of the car, he does not look happy either, I am only confused, and would be unhappy if not so confused. Mom (is it mom?) is upset, I can imagine, they turn to go, she tells me thank you, I say no trouble (happens all the time you know just a day’s job).

I pull out of the gas station. I am not entirely sure what just happened. A few miles down the road I think to call the sister, and do- she tells me this has happened before, mom didn’t want to call the police because K. had a record (running away), and- that’s it. This is the end of the story, except in so far as I am telling it. The end for me- of course like everything else it keeps spinning off, the story of which I am not a part, the narratives that unfold outside me, beyond, forever beyond my knowledge. I intersect, here and there- here we are in this bizarre world of ours- and then we go on hoping none of our narratives end (or grind along) in some godawful tragedy. We hope most of our stories never make it into print, because that’s usually a bad thing. And our attempts to be present with people, the movers in these strange and difficult stories- are difficult, when the narratives, when the stories seem so divergent, our connections so tenuous. God knows it’s not easy.

And God knows best.

Two on Anger

As I was reading through Annabel Keeler’s translation of the ninth-century Sufi Sahl al-Tustari’s commentary on the Qur’an (available online) this evening, I came across the passage below, and was immediately reminded of a quite similar story from the Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt (and perhaps Palestine as well); the second story is also reproduced below. Are these two stories related? Obviously the details are slightly different, but the similarities are still pretty remarkable, if only for a congruence of values. Yet even the forms of the two stories are quite similar, enough to suggest to my mind the possibility of a relationship. There were, at some point, stories of the Desert Fathers translated into Arabic in Egypt, and these stories certainly circulated all over the Middle East and beyond. Could some of them have somehow entered the early Sufi milieu, enough to show up in the extant texts? I wouldn’t discount it…

That said, it was good to come across this story- I needed it personally. Unlike the anonymous Muslim and Christians, I have not yet overcome anger or reached a point of letting go of things. Anger is a viscous enemy; God grant us all the grace of resisting it!


It was related that there was a man among the devout worshippers (‘ubbād) who never used to get angry, so Satan came to him and said, ‘If you get angry and then show patience your reward will be greater. The devout worshipper understood him, and asked, ‘How does anger come about?’ He said, ‘I will bring you something and will say to you “Whose is this?” to which you should say, “It’s mine.” To which I will say, “No it’s not, it’s mine.” ‘ So, he brought him something and the devout worshipper said: ‘It’s mine!’ to which Satan said: ‘No it’s not, it’s mine!’ But the worshipper said, ‘If it’s yours, then take it away.’ And he did not get angry. Thus did Satan return disappointed and aggrieved. He wished to engage his heart so he could get what he wanted from him, but he [the worshipper] found him out and warded off his deception.

Sahl al-Tustari, Tafsir al-Tustari Q. 114.4


Two old men had lived together for many years and they had never fought with one another. The first said to the other, ‘Let us also have a fight like other men.’ The other replied, ‘I do not know how to fight.’ The first said to him, ‘Look, I will put a brick between us and I will say: it is mine; and you will reply: no, it is mine; and so the fight will begin.’ So they put a brick between them and the first said, ‘No, it is mine’, and the other said, ‘No, it is mine.’ And the first replied, ‘If it is yours, take it and go.’ So they gave it up without being able to find a cause for an argument.

Paradise of the Desert Fathers