Sufi exegesis of the Qur’an was often quite divergent with the broad consensus of ‘exoteric’ exegetes: Sufis ‘heard’ different things in the Qur’an, and looked for more ‘esoteric’ depths to the established meanings other exegetes worked within. Yet at the same time Sufi exegetes did not reject those meanings. In fact, they very much operated within the wider exegetical scheme. This exegetical scheme could manifest itself in quite subtle ways, ways that remind us that in late antique and medieval ‘scriptural communities’ scripture was never read in isolation from exegesis or from the wider religious and cultural life of the community. Rather, scripture and scriptural exegesis became deeply integrated in the thought-worlds of writers across the spectrum, almost to the level of an automatic ‘reflex’. This reflex shows up quite well in comparing two seemingly quite different exegetical approaches to the same verse.
In the first example, a citation in al-Sulami’s tafisr of the great formative Sufi teacher Sahl al-Tustari, what we would probably call ‘allegory’ is clearly being deployed. The second example is a much longer and much more ‘traditional’ passage from the voluminous al-Tabrisi, an eleventh century author who consolidated much previous material and recrafted it according to his particular literary scheme. At first glance the two passages seem to have little in common, save a shared reference. Al-Tabrisi does not point out any allegorical or mystical significance; al-Tustari gives no ‘literal’ meaning. However, informing al-Tustari’s interpretation, in fact making it understandable, is the ‘literal’ exegesis that lies in the background. The verse in and of itself is relatively unclear, especially the odd term ‘adjacent neighbor.’ It is only with an exegetical unpacking that the various terms can be differentiated and explained. It is this unpacking that al-Tustari’s exegesis takes advantage of. Knowledge of this ‘literal’ exegetical background also gives an unspoken, deeper significance to al-Tustari’s symbolic equivalences. To explain: if the heart is the nearby neighbor, we know from the ‘literal’ exegesis that it has the most ‘rights’ and is, according to some commentators, to be understood as a kinsmen: someone related by blood, and not merely physical proximity. The adjacent neighbor, understood by al-Tustari to be the ‘lower self’, retains rights as well, but is essentially foreign: either distant geographically or unrelated in terms of blood. The companion, understood by literal exegetes to be someone you are traveling with, is the intellect: a helper in the way, essentially. Finally, the bodily limbs, if equated with the traveller (who is by definition a foreigner to be treated with hospitality), are for the spiritual adept not truly essential, but still important and to be treated with care. All of these meanings depend upon two levels of background knowledge: knowledge of the wider exegetical apparatus for this verse, and knowledge of Sufi terminology. Once again we see the importance of approaching Sufism- especially early Sufism- as a movement very much embedded in and interacting with the wider Islamic tradition, and not as an exogenous thing grafted onto ‘orthodox’ Islam.
His saying, exalted and glorious is He: [And show kindness to] to the neighbor who is close [to you], and to the adjacent neighbor [or: unrelated neighbor], and to the companion nearby, [and to the traveller].
Sahl [al-Tustari], God be merciful to him, said: the neighbor who is close is the heart, and the adjacent [or distant, see below] neighbor is the self (al-nafs), and the companion alongside is the intellect (al-‘aql), which comes to know the imitation of the Way and the Law. The traveller is the bodily limbs that are obedient to God, exalted and glorified is He.
Tafsir al-Sulami, Q. 4.36
The neighbor who is close and the adjacent neighbor: it is said: its meaning is the neignbor who is close through kinship, and the adjacent neighbor is one with whom you and he have no kinship, according to ibn ‘Abbas, Mujahid, Qatada, Dahak, and ibn Zayid. It is said that the intended meaning here is a neighbor close to you through Islam, while the adjacent neighbor is the non-believer distant in terms of religion. It is related that the Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him, said: ‘There are three sorts of neighbors: a neignbor who possess three rights (huquq)- the right of the neighborhood, the right of kinship, and the right of Islam; a neighbor who possess two rights- the right of the neighborhood, and the right of Islam; and a neighbor who possess the right of the neighborhood, [namely], unbelievers among the People of the Book.’ Al-Zajaj said: the neighbor related to you is he who is close to you and you are close to him, and who knows you and you know him. And the adjacent neighbor: the stranger [or simply the one who is more distant]. It is related that the limit of a neighborhood runs out to forty houses, and it is related that it is forty dhara’ [approx. eighty feet]. He said: it is not possible that the intented meaning is the neighbor who is close through kinship, because mention of kinship and the commanding of good deeds towards them came earlier, through His saying and to those nearby. It is possible to answer him that [this meaning] is possible. Mention of kinship had come before because a neighbor, if related by kinship, possesses the right of both kinship and neighborship. The relative who is not also a neighbor still has the right of kinship reckoned to him, while the singularities of the related neighbor are presented as preferable through this mentioning [?].
And the companion nearby: in its meaning are four intepretations: the first of them: that he is a comrade on a journey, according to ibn ‘Abbas, Sa’id ibn Jabir, and others. And good deeds towards him are by way of benifience and proper companionship. The second of the interpretations: that it is one’s spouse, according to ‘Abdallah ibn Sa’ud, ibn Abu Layla, and al-Nakha’i. The third of the interpretations: that he is one cut off from his journey, hoping for some benefit from you, according to ibn ‘Abbas in one of the reports [he relates], and according to ibn Zayd. And the fourth of the intepretations: that he is a servant who serves you. However, the first interepretation makes allowance for the other two [to be correct also].
And the traveller: its meaning is the traveler on the road, and there are two ideas contained therein: that he is the traveling stranger, according to Mujahid and al-Rabi’. And it is said: he is a guest, according to ibn ‘Abbas. He said: Showing hospitality to a guest for up to three days is a commonly acknowledged good deed (ma’ruf), and every such good deed is an act of almsgiving. And Jabar related that the Prophet said: ‘Every commonly acknowledged good deed is an act of almsgiving. It is concordant with the good deed that you meet your brother with a joyful face, and that you empty your bucket into the vessel of your brother.’
Tafsir al-Tabrisi, Q.4.36