The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the 18th century Moroccan Sufi Ahmad ibn ‘Ajiba’s mystical commentary on the Qur’an. He provides in this excerpt an excellent summary of the ‘genres’ of tafsir from the perspective of a scholar who was both trained in the full range of traditional Islamic exegesis and who embraced the particularly Sufi mode of interpretation later in life.
The Prophet’s saying, ‘Every verse has an outer aspect and an inner, a limit and a vantage point’ thus means that the outward is for those such as the grammarians, the experts in language and declension. The inward is for those concerned with the meanings of words, the commandments and prohibitions, parables and narratives, the affirmation of God’s oneness, and other like teachings of the Qur’an, such being the domain of the exegetes. The limit is for the juridical scholars (al-fuqaha) who are concerned with the derivation of rules from the verses, who come to a verse and then carry its arguments as far as possible but without addition. The vantage point (al-muttala’u) is for the people of spiritual truths among the greatest of the Sufis, where, from the outward meaning of a verse, they look down, as it were, into its inward meaning. Then are unveiled to them, through reflection upon the verse, its mysteries, teachings, and mystic sense.
Literally, muttala’u means any place from which one may look down upon something from its highest to lowest point and this word is mentioned in a sound hadith referring to the ‘terror of the vantage point’ by which is meant a place of approach from which one will look down upon the events of the Last Day. Thus too can it be said [in Arabic], ‘Where is the vantage point of this question?’ meaning its point of approach, which is literally an elevated point from which something may be seen from its highest to lowest limits. In a like manner do the people of spiritual truth look down from the outward meaning of a verse into the mysteries of its inward dimension and then plunge into the depths of the ocean. And God Most High knows better.
Ahmad ibn ‘Ajiba, Al-Barh al-Madid (The Immense Ocean), trans. Mohamed Fouad Aresmouk and Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2009), 3-4.