To Speak, To Think, To Remember

In secular usage, meditari means, in a general way, to think, to reflect, as does cogitare or considerare; but, more than these, it often implies an affinity with the practical or even moral order. It implies thinking of a thing with the intent to do it; in other words, to prepare oneself for it, to prefigure it in the mind, to desire it, in a way, to do it in advance- briefly, to practice it… To practice a thing by thinking of it, is to fix it in the memory, to learn it. All of these shades of meaning are encountered in the language of the Christians; but they generally use the word in referring to a text. The reality it describes is used on a text, and this, the text par excellence, the Scripture par excellence, is the Bible and its commentaries. Indeed, it is mainly through the intermediary of ancient biblical versions and through the Vulgate that the word (meditation) has been introduced into the Christian vocabulary, particularly into monastic tradition, where it was to continue to retain the new shade of meaning given it by the Bible. There, it is used generally to translate the Hebrew hāgā, and like the latter it means, fundamentally, to learn the Torah and the words of the Sages, while pronouncing them usually in a low tone, in reciting them to oneself, in murmuring them with the mouth. This is what we call “learning by heart,” what ought rather to be called, according to the ancients, “learning by mouth” since the mouth “meditates wisdom”: Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. In certain texts, that will mean only a “murmur” reduced to the minimum, an inner murmur, purely spiritual. But always the original meaning is at least intended: to pronounce the sacred words in order to retain them; both the audible reading and the exercise of memory and reflection which it precedes are involved. To speak, to think, to remember, are the three necessary phases of the same activity.

To express what one is thinking and to repeat it enables one to imprint it on one’s mind. In Christian as well as rabbinical tradition, one cannot meditate anything else but a text, and since this text is the word of God, meditation is the necessary complement, almost the equivalent, of lectio divina… For ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it “by heart” in the fullest sense of this expression, this is, with one’s whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.

Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, pp. 16-17

Surah al-Kawthar, Part Two, ii

Continued from last week’s post, the tafsir of al-Tabrisi on the 108th surah of the Qur’an, Surah al-Kawthar. Previous posts:

Part One

Part Two, ii.

I must apologize for the somewhat more provisional nature of the following translation. As I have marked in a couple of places with [?], I was rather stumped by some more intricate bits and odd vocabulary usage. This second half of the surah’s commentary has several issues of liturgical usage that assume the reader’s prior knowledge, and hence this block of commentary probably feels more opaque than the previous one. It continues themes of integrating the Qur’an with wider Islamic belief and practice, both by bringing incidents from the traditional account of the life of Muhammad to bear on the verses, and by seeking to understand them in light of Islamic ritual practice. And as with previous examples, we see a lot of multivalency. A word like al-nahr- which I have largely translated ‘sacrifice’- is in fact not so simple, and is interpreted in a wide number of ways here. It can even come to mean a particular hand arrangement in prayer- which at first glance seems a long ways from its standard lexical meaning. Our author, like many commentators, tends to avoid giving his definite opinion, and instead usually lets various understandings stand as equally viable solutions.

[v. 2]

‘So pray to your Lord and sacrifice.’ God enjoined upon him [Muhammad] thanksgiving for the exceedingly great grace, in that God said: ‘so pray’ the prayer of the festival, because He followed it up with the sacrifice, that is, ‘and sacrifice’ your sacrifical animals- this according to ‘Atta’, ‘Akrima, and Qatāda. Ans ibn Mālik said: the Prophet of God, peace and prayers of God be upon him, used to sacrifice before he prayed, so [God] commanded him to pray [first], then sacrifice. And it is said: the meaning of ‘So pray to you Lord’ is the obligatory prayer of early morning with the addition of ‘and sacrifice’ the body in [the valley of] Mina, according to Sa’īd ibn Jabīr and Mujāhid. Muhammad ibn Ka’ab said that people used pray to other than God and sacrifice to other than God, so God, Exalted is He, commanded His Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, that his prayer and his sacrifice be through the body [?] a means of approach to Him and purely devoted to Him. And it is said: the meaning of ‘So pray to your Lord’ is the written prayer and the facing of the qibla with your sacrifice. And the Bedouin say: ‘Our camps engage in intercine fighting (tatanāhir),’ that is, those slaughters those, meanings he faces him. And [the poet] recited: ‘Abū Hakm- are you the uncle of Mujālik and master of the people of al-Ibtāh of intercine strife?’ That is, some slaughtered some, and this is the opinion of al-Fara’a.

As for what is related on the authority of ‘Alī, that its meaning is ‘Lay your left hand upon the right, opposite the sacrifice during the prayer’: it is not sound, because all of its pure transmitters have related it alongside a differing [opinion], which is that the meaning is ‘lift your hands before the sacrifice during the prayer.’ On the authority of ‘Umar ibn Yazīd: he said: ‘I heard Abū ‘Abd Allāh say regarding His saying “So pray to your Lord and sacrifice”: “It is the lifting up of your hands in front of your face.”’ And ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sanān related similar reports.

And on the authority of Jamīl: he said: I said to Abū ‘Abd Allāh, “So pray to your Lord and sacrifice,” and he said, “With his hand, like this”- meaning, facing the qibla with his hands before his face during the opening of the prayer.’ And on the authority of Hamād ibn ‘Uthmān: he said: ‘I asked Abū ‘Abd Allāh, “What is ‘the sacrifice’ (al-nahr)?” He raised his hand to his chest, saying, “In this manner.” Then he lifted them above [his chest], saying, “In this manner.” Meaning, the facing of his hands towards the qibla during the opening of ritual prayer. And it is related, on the authority of Muqātil ibn Jayān, on the authority of al-Asbagh ibn Nabāta, on the authority of the Commander of the Muslims [‘Alī]: ‘When this surah was sent down, the Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, said to Jabrīl: “What is this sacrifice that my Lord has commanded to me?”’ He [Jabrīl] said: “It is not a slaughtered sacrifice; rather, He commanded you, when you enter into the state of ritual purity for the canonical prayer, that you lift your hands when you exclaim ‘God is great,’ when you makes raka’as, when you raise your head from the raka’as, and when you bow down.”’ Verily, it is our ritual prayer, and the prayer of the angels in the seven heavens. For if there is for everything an ornament, then the ornament of ritual prayer is the lifting of the hands at every exclamation of ‘God is great!’ The Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, said: ‘The raising of the hands is part of submission (al-istikāna).’ I [‘Alī?] said: ‘What is submission?’ He said: ‘[It is mentioned in] the recitation of this verse: ‘So they do not submit to their lord, nor submissively seek Him.’ al-Tha’alabi and al-Wāhid relate this in their commentaries.

[v. 3]

‘Verily, he who hates you, he is cut-off.’ Its meaning is that the one who despises you, he is cut off from good things, and he is al-‘As ibn Wā’al. And it is said: its meaning is that he is most diminished, most humiliated, by his being cut off from every good, according to Qatāda. And it is said: its meaning is that he has no son in reality and that whoever is ascribed [as being related] to him is not through his son. Mujāhid said: ‘The cut-off’ (al-abtar) is he who has no progeny, and it is an answer to the saying of Quraysh: ‘If Muhammad (peace and prayers of God be upon him) has no progeny, he will die, and we will finally be relieved of him and his religion will be obliterated, and if no one remains to follow his summons, his order is cut off.

And in this surah are indications of the sincere truthfulness of our Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, and of the soundness of his prophecy:

The first of them: that he could relate what was within the souls of his enemies and what proceeded from their tongues, and that did not attain to him, but it is incumbent upon what he related [ie, it befell his enemies as opposed to him].

The second of them: that He said: ‘We gave you al-kawthar,’ so He manifested how his religion expanded, his command was exalted, his descendants increased until his lineage was greater than every other lineage, and there is nothing of that in this state [of being cut off].

The third of them: that all of the eloquent people of the ‘Arabs and the non-‘Arabs have failed to produce anything like this surah, in regards to the conciseness of its utterances within its bounds. They have desired its [ie the Qur’an’s] nullification since the Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, was sent, up to this the present day- and this is the aim of the inimitability [of the Qur’an].

The fourth of them: that [God] promised [Muhammad] aid against his enemies, and related to him their downfall and the cutting off of their religion or progeny. The intrinsic significance regarding what is reported by Him in this concise surah is from the similarity of the sections to the divisions and ease of the exits of the particles [?] through the beauty of the combination and the receptivity of each of its meanings by what He displays through that which is not hidden to he who is aware of the interworkings of the speech of the ‘Arabs.

The Genres of Tafsir

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.

Surah al-Kawthar, Part One


Surah al-Kawthar is one of the short, somewhat enigmatic final surahs of the Qur’an. Despite its brevity, it contains several matters that proved to be of abiding interest to medieval exegetes: curious vocabulary (including two hapax legomenons), somewhat odd syntax, and the common Qur’anic problem of what feels like a background narrative informing the surah. However, as is so often the case in the Qur’an, no narrative is actually supplied by the text; no context at all is forthcoming in the text itself. It was the task of medieval exegetes to supply an informing narrative to explain the ambiguity of these short verses. Thus within a short space the exegesis of Surah al-Kawthar provides an excellent example of many of the concerns and techniques of medieval Muslim commentators. It also presents a concise introduction to the problems of translating and interpreting the Qur’an, and how those two concerns intersect. I will be presenting here, over the next few weeks, several samples of medieval exegesis dealing with this surah, drawn from a wide range of commentary styles. My hope is that this selection of material will provide interested readers with a taste of some of the many ways in which medieval Muslims interacted with their sacred text. And while I am not as conversant with contemporary Muslim approaches to the Qur’an as I am with medieval approaches, modern Islamic commentary on the Qur’an tends to be much more in continuity and in conversation with the medieval tradition than, say, most contemporary Christian approaches to the Bible. Hence an understanding and appreciation of medieval Islamic exegesis is arguably key for better understanding between contemporary Muslims and non-Muslims, particularly between those of us who also have sacred scripture and its community-based interpretation at the center of our faith and practice.

My choice for an introduction comes from the Qur’an tafsīr (commentary) of Fadl ibn al-Hasan al-Tabrisī (b. 470/1077-8, d. 548/1154), the Majma’ al-Bayān fī al-Tafsīr al-Qur’ān. Al-Tabrisī (sometimes vocalized al-Tabarsī) was an Imani Shi’a, but his tafsīr drew extensively upon ‘mainstream’ Sunni traditions, and represents a culmination of the classical Sunni tafsīr tradition that had been taking shape for several centuries before. His tafsīr makes for a good introductory text due to both its mid-point location in the medieval exegetical tradition, and because of his acute sense of organization. Helpfully, al-Tabrisī divides his material into sections according to the exegetical content. Hence particular grammatical or syntactical issues are given their own section; differences in voweling of the text are assigned a section; and the overall ‘meaning’ of the text is given the (usually) longest section. I have done my best at rendering the grammatical explanations into English; these are, for me, more difficult both to understand and even more so to translate. Nonetheless, these somewhat obtruse matters are vital parts of Qur’an tafsir. Indeed, grammatical exegesis was, for some medieval exegetes, the chief function of tafsīr, a concern that becomes more understandable in light of the emerging doctrine of the inimitability of the Qur’an. In contrast, in some ways, to the concerns of many medieval Christian exegetes, the specific linguistic content and nature of the Qur’an was generally of extremely high importance to Muslim commentators, resulting in very close attention to the intricacies and obscurities of the text’s grammatical and syntactical workings. The fact of the Qur’an’s being in Arabic was not incidental for the Muslim exegete; rather, it was fundamental to his understanding and interpretation of the text.

Closely related to concerns of grammar and syntax, issues of vocabulary are somewhat easier to convey in English, but still present a challenge. For instance, in this surah, the stand-out word is the eponymous term al-kawthar, which I have left untranslated everywhere it appears. My reason for doing so should become clear: there is no consensus what this Qur’anic hapax logomen means. According to some authorities, it means ‘abundance [of good]’; for others, it is a place in paradise- either a river, or a basin of water. And then there are more interpretations: by the fifteenth century, al-kawthar had been assigned almost every imaginable signifaction from the conceptual world of Islam. Al-Tabrisī provides the reader with many of them, instead of trying to reduce the tradition to a manageable homogeny, he presents the somewhat over-grown feeling diversity of interpretations. This ‘decentralized,’ multivalenced quality is in fact central to the nature of the tafsīr tradition, and is not simply due to editorial timidity on the part of a given exegete.

As for the other issues that arise in the context of this sample of tafsīr, I will address them point-by-point in my ‘super-commentary’ on the tafsīr. My comments appear in {brackets}. I have divided al-Tabrisī’s exegesis into two halves, the first of which is below, the second of which I will post in the next day or two. Also, in conjunction with this project, I am developing a bibliography and a glossary of terms, both of which will address the history of Qur’an interpretation and wider issues of medieval exegesis, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. And as always, if you have a question, comment, or correction, please let me know.

Fadl ibn al-Hasan al-Tabrisī. Majma’ al-Bayān fī al-Tafsīr al-Qur’ān. Volume 4. Qum: Maktabat Āyat allāh al-‘uzma al-Mar’ashī al-Najafī, [1983]. 548-550.

Surah al-Kawthar

[This surah is] Mekkan, according to ibn ‘Abās and al-Kalbī. [It is] Medinan according to ‘Akrima and al-Dahāk, and it is three verses in toto.

{Surahs, fairly early on, came to be grouped according to their reputed place of revelation: either Mekka or Medina. However, as evident from what al-Tabrisī tells us, there was often lack of agreement on the correct provenance.}

On Its Virtue (fadluhā):

According to the hadīth of my father, whoever recites it [the surah], God will give him to drink from the rivers of Paradise, and He gives of the wage according to the number of each sacrifice the servant presents Him in the day of ‘Eid, and they draw near to the people of the Book and the associators. Abū Basīr, on the authority of Abū ‘Abd Allāh, said: whowever recites ‘Verily, we gave you al-kawthar…’ in his obligatory prayers and in his superogatory prayers, God will give him to drink on the day of resurrection from al-Kawthar, and his spokesman is Muhammad.

{The ‘virute’ of a surah is a relatively late component of the tafsīr tradition that seems to have become ‘mainstream’ in the eleventh century, though not without dispute. The shorter surahs especially would come to be associated with all sorts of gracious benefits that God would bestow upon whoever recited them. Some of the benefits, as here, are directly related to the content of the verse; others, particularly the final very short surahs, would convey the same spiritual (and perhaps temporal) benefits as reciting the entire Qur’an. This somewhat magical use of the Qur’an was not limited to recitation: amulets and other incantational devices were prescribed by quite orthodox ‘ulama, including as rigorous a man as ibn Kathīr, disciple of the hardline reformist ibn Taymiyya.}

On Its Interpretation (tafsīruhā)

God condemns in this surah the one who abandons ritual prayer and forbids almsgiving, and He mentions in this surah that those who did that lied to him [Muhammad], so He gave to [Muhammad] plenteous good things and commanded him with the observance of the ritual prayer, saying: ‘In the name of God the compassion, the merciful: Verily, we gave to you al-kawthar, so pray to your Lord and offer sacrifice; verily, the one who hates you- he is cut off.’

On the Vocabulary (al-lugha)

Al-kawthar is [of the pattern] fū’al from [the word] al-kathira, and it is the thing which is, in this matter, in abudance- al-kawthar is abudance of good things and gifts, in two aspects: the gift of conveyance of property, and the gift of other than the conveyance of property. So He gave him al-kawthar, [that is] He gave him conveyance of property just as He gave the wage, and it originated in a gift which one gives when one receives [something]. And the one who hates (al-shānī’) is the hateful one, and the ‘one cut off’ (al-abtar), it originated from the ‘cut-off’ donkey. And he is cut off, sinful. And in the hadīth of Zīyād: he delivered a cut-off address, because he did not praise God in it and did not pray for the Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him.

On the Expression (al-a’rāb)

And [the imperative verb] ‘sacrifice,’ its object is omitted, that is, [it would be] ‘Sacrifice your animal intended for sacrifice,’ just as the pronoun is omitted in his saying ‘They are the clan that envy slows down,’ that is, envy slows them down, that is, that they are connected to slowness. As for the His saying: ‘The one who hates you, he is cut-off’: the missing syntactical element is ‘not you,’ that is, ‘he is the one cut off, not you,’ because he mentioned you, significantly, in the nominative. ‘I mentioned:’ I mentioned with me [?] and ‘divided, cut-off,’ are predicates of a nominative clause.

{I am unclear on the final sentence of this passage; however, the basic gist of this passage should be clear. Al-Tabrisī senses that for some of the surah’s clauses certain elements seem to be missing, a common occurrence in the Qur’an. Hence supplying missing syntactical elements (taqdīr) would become a central concern of most exegetes; sometimes the missing elements are fairly obvious and unproblematic. Elsewhere the exegete can considerably modify the sense of the text by supplying what he deems to be missing- which may or not be the case here.}

On the Sending Down (al-nazūl)

It is said that this verse descended regarding al-‘As ibn Wā’al al-Sahmī, that he saw the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, leaving the mosque (al-masjid), then the two encountered each other at the door of the Banu Sahm and spoke with each other. And people of Quraysh were sitting in the mosque and when al-‘As entered they said, ‘Who were you talking with?’ He replied, ‘The cut-off one (al-abtar).’ Before this, ‘Abd Allāh, the son of the Propeht of God, peace and prayers be upon him, had died (and he was the offspring of Khadīja). And they used to call whoever did not have a son ‘cut-off’ (abtar), so Quraysh called him ‘cut-off’ and ‘one who cuts off’ due to the death of his son, according to ibn ‘Abās.

{As I mentioned above, many verses of the Qur’an seem to have a story of some sort behind them, either as part of the structure of the verses, or as a story lurking behind them, as here. Medieval exegetes sensed a need for narrative in both the narrative absences and elipses, and in the seeming narrative behind a verse’s revelation. The latter- the ‘why’ of a verse’s revelation- fits in a particular category, asbāb al-nuzūl, ‘causes of revelation.’ In this case, the story about Muhammad’s mocker al-‘As explains why the enigmatic third verse was revealed: as a clever rebuke. Not all verses, or even most verses, have asbāb al-nuzūl, and as we will see in the next installment, there are other ways a verse can be inserted in a narrative.}

The Creator’s Power Will Be Made Known in Them

On the symbol of the ministry of the saints that is to be seen in the natural world:

1. An illustration of what is hidden in seedlings can be seen through the labours which the saints and (other) godly persons endure in themselves for the sake of God. For under the ordinary appearance of (seeds) at the time when the land is tilled April’s own transformation keeps hidden the abundance of ineffable transformations and the beauty of the various variegated colours which it will (in due course) bring out and display, as a wonderful vesture and adornment for the earth that had been nurturing the (seeds) within itself.

2. This symbolic significance which can be recognized in tiny seeds holy people engrave spiritually in their minds when their ministry is depressing and darkened, as a demonstration that the Creator’s power will be made known in them, and they wait expectantly to see in themselves, as a result of the strength of these ordinary labours, an ineffable transformation which will become perceptible as a result of (or, after) them, through the workings of the Holy Spirit which they will receive subsequently in accordance with the progress of their ascetic conduct.

St. Isaac of Nineveh, ‘The Second Part,’ Chapters IV-XLI, trans. Sebastian Brock, in the CSCO, vol. 555.

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.

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

Smashing Your Idols and Forgetting Your Prayers

These short texts are excerpts from two medieval Sufi texts, one by the important formative-period Sufi author and biographer al-Sulami; the other by an early-thirteenth century, and rather less known, Sufi writer named al-Ardabili. The poetry by al-Shibli is from al-Sulami’s biography (in his Tabaqat al-Sufiyya) of that early Sufi master; the second is from a brief work of al-Ardabili’s titled Kitab al-Futuwwa, the Book of Futuwwa (virtuous youngmanliness is one possible translation of this rather amorphous complex of values and practices). The second text especially struck me as an illuminating and succinct example of early Sufi ‘allegorical’ (or perhaps more aptly, ‘typological’) use of scripture.


Today I forget my prayers because of my impassioned love-
I do not know my morning from my evening-
Remembrance of You, my Lord, is my food, my drink,
And Your face, if I see, is the cure of my disease.

– al-Shibli


Ja’afar bin Nasīr al-Khladi said: The virtuous young man (al-fatā) is he who slays the enemy of the Beloved, for the sake of the Beloved, and on account of this He spoke of Ibrahim- upon him be peace- when he turned the idols into tiny pieces (ja’ala al-asnām jadhādhan) and broke them. They said: ‘We heard a young man (fatā) called Ibrahim mention them.’ (Q. 21.60) And the idol of every one is his nafs [the lower, passionate ‘self’] and his passions, and when he smashes his nafs and is at enmity with his passions, he is worthy of the name of futuwwa.

Al-Hārith al-Muhāsbī said: Futuwwa is that one acts justly yet does not demand justice [for himself], and expends freely yet does not take.

– al-Ardabili

Films & Music in Review

First, the music: if you’ve never heard of Lee Bozeman, well now you have, and you ought to go and listen to his work, all of which you will find linked to on his blog. His project from a few years back All Things Bright and Beautiful is one of the loveliest, lushest art-rock/post-rock albums to have come down the pike in a while. Besides being beautiful to listen to, Bozeman is a skillful lyricist, weaving the malaise of contemporary society, reflections from Western Christian thought and Orthodox theology and liturgy (Bozeman is currently attending St. Vladimir’s). It’s not a combination you get everyday in any genre of music, to be sure.

Next, two films, neither of which are especially recent, but I only lately got a chance to see them. First, Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film Offside works through a very straight-forward storyline: several Tehrani girls want to watch the World Cup qualifier game but are barred from the stadium by Iranian law. Their attempts to sneak in and blend into the all-male crowd fail, and they are placed in an impromptu holding pen just out of sight of the game. The rest of the film focuses a tight lens on their interactions with their guards. There is a lot of potential for straight-up propaganda here, and the film does engage in some rather obvious castigation of the quite ridiculous law and the young soldiers’ participation in it. However, what saves the film is its willingness to humanize the soldiers, revealing them to be more or less unwilling agents, drafted and stuck and not wanting to get stuck deeper in. The film’s final scene takes place in a police van with the girls being driven to the Vice Squad headquarters, accompanied by two of the soldiers. The journey is interrupted by the joyful anarchy of the post-victory celebration, and the film ends on a decided high-note.

Also hailing from an Iranian director, Majid Majidi’s Baran is in many ways a quite different creature: it is on one level an extended allegory of the path of the Sufi aspirant to the Divine, and is suffused with imagery taken from Rumi and others. The plot revolves around a young Iranian, Lateef, who is presented, ‘pre-repentance,’ as a hot-headed, vindictive kid who deeply resents Rahmat, the young man (or so he initially thinks) who replaces his position as tea-wallah on a Tehran construction site. Upon discovering the young man’s secret- he’s no young man at all, but a girl disguised as such in order to support her family, Afghani refugees from that country’s endless conflicts. Upon the discovery- the initial ‘tasting’ of the divine in the allegory- Lateef is transformed, and the rest of the film is devoted to his devotion to the Beloved, whom he does not truly ‘draw near’ to until the end of the film, and then only briefly. In between, Majidi paints a beautiful picture of the aspirant’s spiritual journey, concluding with Lateef’s losing of his identity for the sake of the Beloved (in this case, selling his precious ID card) and his transformation after the moment of fana’ in meeting the Beloved.

As you might have gathered, a prior knowledge of Sufi themes and practices (and, I ought to add, themes and practices also found in Shi’a Islam, whose relationship with Sufism is long and complicated), especially as revealed in Persian poetry, helps a lot in enjoying this movie. This is a philosophical, ‘mystical’ even film, and much of the pleasure of watching it comes from an awareness of the multiple layers of meaning and significance at work. That said, it is not as philosophically challenging as, say, an Abbas Kiarostami film. The story is straight-forward enough and can be appreciated on the external- zahir- level. Like Majidi’s other films, this one is visually beautiful, especially the scenes shot in the countryside around Tehran. There is also a political undertone- Afghan refugees and their struggle with immigration law (and anti-immigrant sentiments) is central to the film, and will strike American (or European or South African or Mexican or…) viewers as terribly familiar. While Majidi does not assault state power as head-on as Panahi, the critique is certainly still there, and quite effective. But at heart this is a film about something that transcends any particular political situation: the love of man for God, the love of one person for another, (the two having a way of mingling together and overlapping) love that both transforms and consumes, love that is not safe but all-consuming.