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

Milk, Blood, and Devotion

Pardon the paucity of posting- it goes without saying that I’m keeping busy here at the mid-point of the semester, though that’s not really a good excuse for not writing, since I manage to find time to waste on less productive things on-line…

One of my projects that’s keeping me busy involves looking at various Qur’anic tafsir– commentaries- on verses 67-69 from Surah al-Nahl, the Surah of the Bee. The verses in question deal with, among other things, the eponymous bee, which brings up a surprising range of questions for the various commentators I’ve looked at so far. The most exhaustively covered aspect regarding the bees seems to be a phrase that describes honey as a medicine for people (or at least the commentators all suppose that honey is what’s being referred to- like much of the Qur’an, there is a great deal left unsaid. Qur’anic commentators were exploiting the silences in the text long before it was cool to do things like that…). Before the bit about the bee, however, there is a description of milk and where it comes from: ‘Truly, you have in grazing beasts a sign- we give you to drink from their bellies what is between blood and stomach-contents (farth, a rather difficult word to convey into English): milk pure, palatable for drinkers.’

This gives rise to all sorts of questions for commentators, who tackle their material in a surprisingly wide-ranging manner. This is one of the things that has struck me in learning to read tafsir: that while there is indeed a remarkable continuity and stability in these writings, there is also great diversity, especially in how the material is arranged, and what sorts of ‘standard’ questions the author picks, and even more importantly, what he chooses to say about those questions. The following is a nice example of some of the issues one finds in tafsir, and how they might matter in working out what all these authors are doing with the text of the Qur’an, its interpretative tradition, and its devotional use:

‘The second question/disputed matter: God pointed out the greatness of His power in the pure issuing out of milk from between the stomach-contents and the blood, from between the red of the blood and the filthiness of the stomach-contents (al-farth). And though the two had been joined together in one receptacle, when you look to its colour you find it white, plainly pure from the filth of its neighbor. And when you drink it, you find it palatable (sā’igan), against the disgustingness of the stomach-contents- meaning, then, [milk’s] deliciousness. And some say sā’igan to mean no one chokes on it, and truly it has this attribute. However, the notation [above] still holds regarding the deliciousness and pleasantness of the taste, [as opposed to] the odiousness of the neighbor from which it is separated while in the stomach, that is, the disgusting stomach-contents.

‘This is a power that is impossible except to the Regulator of all things for [their] benefit.’

Ibn ‘Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an, 1145.

This brief excerpt comes from an eleventh to twelfth century commentator, Ibn ‘Arabi of Seville (not that Ibn ‘Arabi from al-Andalus, but a different, far less well-known, and much easier to read and decipher Ibn ‘Arabi), in his Ahkam al-Qur’an, which is a selective tafsir: he only deals with ayah that, ostensibly, have a legal importance.

But as you might have noticed, there’s not really any legal matters at play here. This excerpt follows a long grammatical excursion, and is followed by a legal/hermeneutical question. While I’ve just started this particular tafsir, I would suggest that we see in this small example that even a seemingly narrowly focused work is not in fact so narrow. Nor, I might suggest, should we understand legal matters in general as being carefully divided off from things we might rather label ‘devotional.’ Rather, things seemingly as mundane as legal matters and grammar and vocabulary explanation can provide opportunities for expanding the text’s devotional and contemplative possibilities. Here, Ibn ‘Arabi is dealing with a question of word meaning: the proper connotation of sā’igan. Ibn ‘Arabi resolves it by offering two possibilities, and indicating which he thinks is preferable. Like any grammatical explanation, the commentator is here guiding the reader into a new understanding of the text, creating a new text. But why? Obviously one of the primary reasons one employs a tafsir is to simply understand the often eliptical and opaque words of the Qur’an- otherwise, one ends up confused in many places. The text calls out for an interpreter, if only on the grammatical and syntactic level. How a given commentator reshapes the text depends on all sorts of factors- what elements he chooses to emphasize, which authorities he draws upon, even how he organizes his material. Each commentator arrives at a somewhat different text, a text that can, from then on, be experienced through the lens he has created for us.

Among the concerns of commentators, and the one I want to focus on here, is that of guiding the reader into the ‘devotional’ meaning of the text, a meaning that will guide him as he reads the Qur’an for himself, whether in a contemplative setting or in a public-liturgical one or as part of further study. As al-Ghazali argues in Volume 1, Book 8 of the Ihya, proper recitation of the Qur’an- recitation that becomes ‘present’ (hudur) to the heart- depends upon a good understanding of the text itself. This involves, obviously, understanding grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, but I would suggest that it also involves being guided into the ‘worshipful’ junctures of the Qur’an, some of which may not be immediately obvious. In the case of the passage above, the text itself indicates that the giving of milk is a ‘sign,’ an ‘indication,’ (‘ibratan); in this case, Ibn ‘Arabi points out again what has already been ‘pointed out’ (nabah) in the text. If the reader missed the significance, the commentator reiterates and expands it, and directs him to the proper response: wonder and praise over the power of God.

The vocabulary question, then, becomes a textual fissure from which Ibn ‘Arabi can direct the reader, not simply to a better understanding of a given word, but to a better understanding of the power of God in the natural world. By unpacking the text, he deepens the reader’s awe and reverence associated with this single ayah, which the reader can then retain when he comes back to this ayah in any other context. It also has the function, I think, of not only explicating the potentially hairy syntax of the Qur’an, but also of more closely linking the textual ‘sign’ to the physically perceived world of cows and milk. By emphasizing the process of milk-production, the commentator can perhaps guide his reader to recollection of the ‘sign’ even when the reader is outside of the text itself- say, drinking milk or seeing a cow. Either within or outside the text, the intent, I think, is to evoke in the reader worship, devotion towards the Creator. While textual explication on a very straightforward level is important, obviously, it is not necessarily the only or even primary concern.

This is also true, I think, for both Eastern and Western Christian commentators: even the long lines of often times dry grammatical explanation ultimately direct back to a devotional- for lack of a better word- use of the scriptures. This is in fact a rather important point that cannot be stressed too often: for medieval users of scripture- Christian, Jewish, Muslim- the text is not simply an artefact to be examined. It is always the words of God speaking and offering a means to approach the Divine. Text does not exist for text’s sake; even the driest of commentators (and trust me, they can be terribly dull, across confessional lines…) is working towards a deeper and more knowledgable experience and understanding of God through his exegesis. Even in, say, the ‘Antiochian’ tradition of exegesis, there is a very marked difference between the ‘historio-critical’ and what a late antique or medieval exegete is doing, though the external forms may on first glance appear similar.