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

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