The following are two selections from the formative Sufi Qur’an commentary of al-Sulami (whom I have written about previously here and here). There are several interesting hermeneutical moves that al-Sulami makes in these two selections, moves that will be familiar to anyone conversant with Patristic and medieval Christian commentary. In the first selection, of Quran 2.158, al-Sulami has selected exegetical thoughts concerning the two hills al-Safa and al-Marwa, two small peaks that form part of the rituals of the Hajj (here is a decent overview of the two hills and their role in the Hajj)- pilgrims move around the two at one point in the pilgrimage’s rituals. It is this ritual significance that our exegetes here have in mind when addressing the verse in question. What, in fact, is the significance of these two hills, and how do they relate to the wider goals of the Sufi? Al-Sulami (and his sources) answer in two ways. First, they emphasize the importance of inner transformation and sight when carrying out the rituals of the Hajj- they do not negate the outward performance, but, as with formative Sufism generally, call for a carrying out of the outward acts alongside one’s inner acts.
Second, our exegetes look to the names of the hills themselves and mine them for significances that would resonate within Sufism. This is a type of exegesis that appears frequently in Christian Patristic commentary (East and West, Latin, Greek, Syriac, and others), enough so that by the early Middle Ages entire treatises devoted to etiologies and etymology could be found- with place names being particularly popular sites of examination. Keep in mind when reading this sort of commentary that for these writers, Christian or Islamic, names are not accidental occurrences, but have the capacity of representing deeper realities, of conveying multiple levels of meaning.
Finally, a note on the word I have translated godly manliness: al-muru’a is a tricky term, one that I have yet to find a good translation for. It has a whole web of meanings and connotations that develop around it through Sufi thought and a little later in futuwwa treatises and other genres. The Latin concept of virtus is perhaps the closest thing to muru’a, although the two ideas are not synonymous. Here it has a specifically religious sense, hence my tentative translation.
As for the second selection, it is fairly straightforward. The unstated question of our exegetes is: how is one to remain devotedly in mosques (or anywhere else)? The answer: this verse can be understood, with a little exegetical tweaking, to command not just devoted seclusion in a literal, physical place of prayer, but the transformation of one’s self into a continual site of prayer and devotion to God. Hence the command given in the scripture passage becomes broader and deeper, enjoining a state of secluded devotion not just at certain times or places, but at all time, and in all places.
Q. 2.158: His saying, exalted is He: ‘Verily, al-Safā and al-Marwa are among the rites [or symbols] of God.’
It is said: whoever climbs al-Safā and does not unite his secret to God, nothing of the rituals of the Hajj are clear to him; and whoever climbs al-Marwa and the realities of the Unseen are not clear to him, perceives nothing of the rituals of the Hajj.
And it is said: al-Safā is the place of concord (al-musāfāh) with the Truth, and whoever does not devote himself singularly to the concord of God, let him understand that he has squandered his days and the running of his course in his Hajj. I heard Mansur speak a tradition related back to Ja’afar, who said: ‘Al-Safā: the spirit, due to its being clean (safā’) of the filth of divergences [from God]. Al-Marwa: the self (al-nafs), due to its employment of godly manliness (murū’a) in standing to service of its Lord.’ And he said: ‘Al-Safā is the purification of spiritual knowledge, and al-Marwa is the godly manliness of the knower. Al-Safā is cleansing from the turbidity of this world and the passions of the self, while the running of the course [between the two hills] is fleeing to God, and when one unites his running of the course to fleeing to God, he is not rendered empty by looking to something other than God.’
Q. 2.187: His saying, exalted is He: ‘Remain devotedly in the mosques.’
Al-Wasitī said: the devoted remaining is the imprisoning of the self (al-nafs) and the binding of the limbs and attention to the time- then, wherever you are, you are remaining devotedly.
One of them said: The Sufis are remain devotedly through their inner secrets before God- nothing from temporal occurrences effects them due to their total immersion in divine witnessing.
Al-Sulami, Haqa’iq al-Tafsir