Different Diseases, Different Cures

Medieval Sufis were extremely diverse in terms of doctrine, practice, style, social status, and manner of life. As a result, establishing a common thread or unifying theme can be difficult. The  author of the work excerpted below, ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī (d. 525/1133), is no exception. Educated in all of the ‘classical’ courses of study of his time, from law to tafsīr to literature, Hamadānī came to embrace a rather idiosyncratic form of Sufism, resulting in accusations of Ismai’ali ‘heresy’ from his political enemies. Perhaps in part due to such accusations, coupled with political and social conflict Hamadānī found himself embroiled in, our author was executed in 1133 at a relatively young age (some sources give his age as thirty-three, others a somewhat older age). Before his execution—which had echoes of the execution of the famous martyr of Baghdad, al-Ḥallaj—Hamadānī wrote numerous treatises, poems, and letters. While some have not come down to us (for instance, he was said to have partially completed a Qur’an tafsīr, which has not survived), a considerable portion of his corpus has been passed down, including a trove of letters, a lengthy philosophical-theological treatise in Arabic, and his Persian handbook of Sufism, the Tamhīdāt, which I have excerpted from and translated here.

Hamadānī deals with two important themes in medieval Sufism: the question of personal epistemology, as it were, and the importance of the spiritual shaykh. His answers to these questions, while drawing upon an already well-established tradition within Sufism, also display his own interpretations and ideas. Certainly Hamadānī is eager to root his arguments in both Qur’an and hadith, while giving both a decidedly different interpretation than would be likely be found among more ‘exoteric’ interpreters. Indeed, the arguments put forward here—for the epistemological veracity of the illumined, properly disposed heart, and the absolute vitality and power of the spiritual master—found resistance and even violent condemnation among some of the non-Sufi ‘ulama of Hamadānī’s era, and afterwards; nor did all Sufis accept positions such as these, either. That is to say nothing of some of Hamadānī’s quite radical and even transgressive positions enumerated elsewhere in this treatise; he is quite comfortable with neo-Platonic philosophy and its theological implications, for instance. However, this work does not seem to have been primarily intended as an apologetic; it seems to have been aimed at initiates or potential initiates into the mystical path of Islam. It is ostensibly addressed to one ‘Aziz, an enquirer into Sufism; implicitly, it is directed to all who are sympathetically interested in the esoteric dimensions of religion. It is written in Persian, not Arabic, thus representing a relatively early vernacular work of Sufism; the language is clear and eloquent, without being overly obscure or excessively Arabicizing. That said, this text is still aimed at possessors of at least a middling education, people capable of reading and more or less understanding the Arabic of the Qur’an and hadith (italicized in my translation).

For more on Hamadānī, his life and works, see Hermann Landolt, ‘‘Ayn al-Qudat Al-Hamadani,’ in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Third Edition), 2009, Brill Online, ed. Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas and Everett Rowson. (E.J. Brill), available (for free!) here; and Carl W. Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism. SUNY Press, 1985.

Do you understand, O ‘Aziz? The scent from this hadith—The believer is the mirror of the believer—adheres to this subject. For everything that one does not know but wishes to know, there are to ways available [to come to know it]. The first is that by one’s own heart (dil) one ascend, through contemplation and deliberation, until he attains to the right knowledge of the matter. Muhammad—upon him peace—said about this: Consult your heart for legal opinions (istafti qalbaka), verily, your seeking of legal opinion are the muftis. He said: all that is brought before it, the place and mufti of that ought to be sincerity of heart. If the heart gives a fatwa, it is the command of God—do it; if it does not give a fatwa—leave it off.  It is manifest that Verily, the angel has a portion, and the satan has a portion. Whatever the heart gives as a fatwa is divine, and whatever it rebuts is satanic, and the occurrence of these two portions (dū lamma) is in all bodies, among both believers and unbelievers. Our deeds become difficult in that regard when our mufti is the commanding lower self (nafs-i amare) that is the soul commanding evil (Q. 12.53). Everyone whose mufti is the heart is God-fearing and happy, while everyone whose mufti is the lower self (nafs) is a loser and unhappy. If someone does not have the aptitude or predisposition to know [religious knowledge] by means of his own heart, he must seek the heart of someone else and ask of someone with this aptitude—So ask of the people of remembrance if you do not know (Q. 16.43), so that someone else’s heart becomes your mirror.

O friend, hearts are divided into two divisions: the first is that which stands facing what the Pen of God has written upon it: God wrote in their hearts faith (Q. 58.22), and the right hand of God is the scribe. Then whatever he does not know by means of the elevation of his own heart he will come to know. The second division, however, neither attains nor has aptitude to stand facing the Pen of God. When such a one seeks out and comes to know from one whose heart is a mirror and tablet for the Pen of God, he knows from this that it is God who is seen in the mirror of the  soul of the spiritual master (pīr). The spiritual master sees himself in the mirror of the soul of the disciple (murīd), while the disciple sees God in the mirror of the spiritual master’s soul.

And it is like all that we said: all who are sick arise and go to a physician each one seeking a cure. The physician gives them different prescriptions in view of the assuaging of different diseases. If someone says, ‘These different prescriptions are due to the ignorance of the physician,’ he has spoken in error, and this speaker is ignorant of the fact that the difference of prescriptions occurs due to the difference of diseases. For diseases are of various sorts, and prescribing for all diseases with one disease in mind would be ignorance and error. Those who understand what has been said understand the matter. For the formal cause of religion and of the Islam of form is of one sort. Islam is built upon five. The essential prescriptions [of Islam] are fixed, which are the five prescriptions that are the healing and curing of all believers. As for internal works and the illumination of the heart, they are unbound and innumerable. Without doubt, every spiritual master must act as an adroit physician who treats the disciple, and for every different disease command a different medicine. For all those who have abandoned cure and physician it is better that they go under the disease, for If God knew of any good in them, He would have made them hear (Q. 8.23). So it is necessary to travel the Path with an adroit physician; in accordance with the consensus of the shaykhs—God have mercy on their souls—it is a legal obligation. Because of his they say: Whoever has no shaykh has no religion. The shaykh also has obligations, to accept successorship (khilāfat) and to teach disciples the obligations of the Path. If you desire from God the best of perfection, listen to His words: It is He Who made you khalifs on the earth and raised some of you over some of you in ranks. And in proof of internal successorship (khilāfat-i bāṭin) in another place He says: He will make them succeed them as He made those before them to succeed (Q. 24.55).

ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī

Mu’tazila Exegesis: ‘Abd al-Jabbar’s Tanzih al-Qur’an

I have featured on this blog a number examples of several different modes of scriptural exegesis in the medieval world (and a couple relating to the ‘early-modern’ era). The following represents yet another ‘mode’ of exegesis, here hailing from the Islamic theological tradition known as Mu’tazilism specifically, from the philosophical-theological tradition of kalam more generally. To make a quite long story short, kalam– literally, ‘speech,’ or perhaps more aptly, ‘talking’- is ‘dialectical theology,’ developed in the Arabic milieu of late formative Islam, but adopted by Christian and Jewish theologians as well. It seems to have initially developed as a way of dealing with theological and politico-theological issues in the early Muslim communities, eventually solidifying into distinct ‘schools’ of theological thought and practice, all more or less committed to a clarification of and defense of Muslim orthodoxy (the definition of which of course varied depending on who you asked) through the use of rational, discursive inquiry and methods. The Mu’tazila represented (or rather, represent, as there are some representatives of the tradition still about) what is sometimes incorrectly regarded as a more ‘liberal’ view of orthodox theology, a view that seems to have arisen among contemporary Western commentators due to the Mu’tazila insistence upon free will, on the one hand, and the createdness of the Qur’an, on the other. While both positions were indeed held by the Mu’tazila, it was not out of some commitment to ‘liberalism,’ a meaningless term in this case. Rather, the Mu’tazila saw themselves as upholders of both proper orthodoxy and of a deeply rational system of thought and doctrine; many of their doctrines, such as the status of the grave sinner, would no doubt strike many contemporary Western observers as ‘harsh.’

But all of that is beside the point of this post, which is rather to highlight the rational-theological commitments and techniques of the Mu’tazila in particular, and of the mutikallimun (dialectical theologians) in general. These commitments are very much on display in the exegesis generated by the dialectical theologians; the theologian I have selected for translation here, ʻAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Asadābādi (935-1025), was one of the most productive and astute theologians the Mu’tazila produced. Coming towards the end of the so-called ‘classical period’ of Mu’tazila thought, ʻAbd al-Jabbār both recapitulated previous doctrinal and philosophical developments and formulations in addition to his own creative additions to the tradition. Among his contributions were exegetical works that reflect the concerns and methods of both the tafsir tradition and that of kalam in general. The following excerpt comes his work the Tanzīh Al-Qurʼān ʻan Al-Maṭāʻin, in which ʻAbd al-Jabbār selects particular passages from the Qur’an due to problematic, theologically productive, or ambiguous nature in terms of grammar, arrangement, or vocabulary. For instance, in the following excerpt, dealing with verses from Surah Ta-Ha, ʻAbd al-Jabbār examines a verse that might seem at first to support an anthropomorphist reading of the Qur’an; he presents an interpretation in accordance with Mu’tazila theology. The other passages have to do with difficulties and ambiguities of other sorts; all are solved by ʻAbd al-Jabbār using rational, discursive methods, reflective of the methodological commitments of the Mu’tazila in general.

Finally, for a more in-depth analysis of mutikallimun tafsir, including that of ʻAbd al-Jabbār, the following paper of mine and the bibliographical references contained therein might prove useful: Kalām at the Interstices of Tafsīr: Theology, Contestation, and Exegesis in the Qur’an Commentaries of al-Maturidī and ‘Abd al-Jabbār.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, A revelation from Him Who created the earth and exalted heavens (Q. 20.4)—what is the purpose of His saying after this, The Merciful rises (istiwā) over the throne (Q. 20.5)?

We answer: God magnified the prestige of the Qur’an in that it is a revelation from Him Who created the earth and heavens, then He followed this with His being more magnified than that, saying: The Merciful rises over the throne. The intended meaning is possession and power over it because the throne is among the most magnificent things He created. He makes it clear that He is powerful over it with His magnificence and over the heavens and over the earth, and He rules what is the heavens, the earth, what is between them, and what is under the surface of the earth. So people know the magnificence of the place of the Qur’an through His description of it, and hold fast to its rules of behavior and judgments, for that was sent is from God regarding the overseeing office of the Qur’an.

And we have made clear beforehand the nullity of the doctrine of the anthropomorphists regarding God’s rising over the throne.[1] We said that from accepting that [doctrine] as sound, God is made to be a sensory object, possessing shape. And from this condition it follows that He is temporally originated and dependent upon being in a shape. So, rather, the intended meaning [of istiwā] is possession and power, as we have mentioned.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, If you speak publicly—then behold, He [also] knows the secret and what is more hidden (Q. 20.7): What is the meaning of His saying the more hidden, as there is nothing more hidden that the secret?

We answer: What alights upon the heart and arises in a one’s soul is even more hidden than the secret, so He points out the glory of His rank and knowledge of that, then says: God—no god but He; His are the beautiful names. So He points out by that what is incumbent upon one who remembers His names which inform about the magnificence of His rank, in accordance with His preceding words: A revelation from Him Who created the earth. And there is no avail in remembering the names of God except that one have in mind what they inform about Him—in regards to what His magnificence and glory require.

Question: Perhaps it is said, what is the meaning of His words, Verily, I am your Lord, so take off your sandals (Q.20.12): if it was permissible that he continue wearing the rest of his clothes, why was he forbidden from wearing his sandals while in the Holy Valley?

We answer: Sandals are not worn within the same parameters as other types of clothing. For one does not wear them inside his house, as he wears them [outside] in order to repel injury in places filthy refuse and other things accumulate. It is because of this purpose that in customary usage, when one wishes to honor a place, he takes off his sandals. God wanted to make clear to Moses the magnificence of the site of the Holy Valley, and He desired that the grace (baraka) of that valley adhere to Moses, so Moses touched the valley with his bare feet. God wished for Moses to know the magnificence of his location through that deed. It has also been related about his sandals that they were made from the skin of a donkey not killed in accordance with ritual purity. If that was the case, then it has precedent [as an explanation] in regards to the taking off [of the sandals]; if not, then what we previously discussed is a sound point of view.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, No god except Me—so serve Me and attend rightly to ritual prayer for My remembrance (Q.20.14). What is the meaning of His words for My remembrance, as ritual prayer is not properly carried out unless it is for His remembrance?

We answer: His words for My remembrance are directly related to the ritual prayer and to service to God together. It is as if He had said: Serve Me for My remembrance and attend rightly to the ritual prayer for My remembrance. Neither are sound unless one remembers God and confesses His oneness, because the one heedless of that is not prepared for what he is doing. It is in view of this that one struggles (yajtihad) to be on guard against distracted inattentiveness. So one who remembers God is on the straight path in his performance of his service towards God. God specifies [here] ritual prayer with remembrance, but it applies to all acts of worship, being emphatically important for them.

ʻAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Asadābādī. Tanzīh Al-Qurʼān ʻan Al-Maṭāʻin. Al-Ṭabʻah 1. Dirāsāt Ḥawla al-Qurʼān 2. (al-Jīzah: Maktabat al-Nāfidhah, 2006), 278-9.


[1] ‘Anthropomorphists’ interpreted the term istiwā in its most literal fashion, as reference to God corporeally rising above the material throne. At least, such a literalist, rather crude position is attributed to certain opponents by ‘Abd al-Jabbar; whether it was actually held in such a literal fashion by anyone, or more than a few, is another question.

Which Breasts are More Delightful?

The excerpt below is from a Western Christian exegete, Alan of Lille (1128?-1203), a scholar and teacher who composed a number of works of Scripture commentary. While there are many similarities between this Latin commentary and that of Gregory of Narek’s Armenian commentary—they are both coming from a broad tradition of Song of Songs interpretation—there are also some marked differences. Alan’s allegorical reading moves along a different track: whereas Gregory read the Song as referring to the relationship between Christ and the soul, Alan here informs us of at least two possible readings. One is that of the Song being about Christ and the Church, a fairly common interpretation in the Latin West. However, such a correspondence is not Alan’s intention here. Rather, as he notes at the beginning of his commentary, he is going to read the Song as being about Christ and His Mother, the Virgin Mary. To a modern reader, even one sympathetic to allegorical and multi-valenced readings of Scripture, this is neither an obvious nor perhaps particularly tasteful interpretation. However, Alan develops it in depth and on multiple levels, as evidenced here. His interpretation is subtle and deliberately multi-valenced, developing a range of correspondences and meanings, some on a ‘literal’ level, others at a deeper allegorical or ‘mystical’ level. Finally, alongside the allegorical or mystical sense, Alan also wishes to develop a didactic or pedagogical meaning within the text. All of these levels are visible in this fairly brief excerpt, evidence of a fairly sophisticated and involved reading of one of the most treasured and commented-upon of all Scriptural texts in the Latin West.

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 2. … And so, although the song of love, Solomon’s wedding song, refers particularly and according to its spiritual sense to the Church, in its most particular and spiritual reference it signifies the most glorious Virgin: this, with divine help, we will explain as far as will be within our power.

3. So it is that in her eagerness for the presence of the Bridegroom, longing for that glorious conception of which she was told by the angel and out of her desire for the divine incarnation, the glorious Virgin speaks thus:

4. May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: This is but to say what is elsewhere said in these words: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word. For she had listened to the Archangel Gabriel who was sent to her as a heavenly proxy for her Bridegroom; and he honours the Virgin, filled as she is with extraordinary and spiritual blessing, and speaks a special and unheard of greeting: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. And when she heard that the Son of God would be born of her, she found no cause for self-congratualation in this news, she did not allow herself to be carried away by this word, nor did she take pride in herself because of her child; rather did she humble herself in and through all things before God; and, never doubting the prophetic word, she replied: Behold the handmaid of the Lord.

5. Which is the same as saying: be it done unto me according to your word, that is, at your word I will conceive the Word of God. And this is what is meant here by: May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth….

8. For your breasts are more delightful than wine: Which is as much as to say, ‘You desire my kisses and I your breasts, for your breasts are more delightful than wine.’ I can read this literally as referring to the Virgin’s natural breasts, for the Gospel speaks of them in these terms: Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you have sucked. Which breasts are more delightful, which better, than those which gave milk to Christ, milk drawn not by the foulness of lust, but from the rich store of virginity? Christ longed for those breasts, he longed to draw milk from them, so as to experience not the deceitful taste of the flesh, but rather the antidote of her virginity. Those breasts were to Christ sweeter than wine, sweeter than the most pleasing of all drinks. For wine is the drink of drinks; it is what we mean we speak of ‘having a good drink.’

9. More fragrant than the finest ointments, that is, they may be compared to fragrance to the very best oils; for what oils emit by way of fragrance, the virginal breasts bestow in integrity. Because as the one attracts by its fragrance, the others nourish Christ on their auroma.

Alan of Lille, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Denys Turner in Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs.

For as the Drunkard But Thirsts the More

The following is an excerpt from a commentary on the Song of Songs by the tenth century Armenian scholar Gregory of Narek (945?-1003). Like many medieval Christian exegetes in both Eastern and Western traditions, Gregory’s exegesis tends to be allegorical: he interprets the text through a system of correspondences between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ meanings. Like many medieval exegetes, for Gregory this ‘allegorical’ method operates alongside a view of Scripture and Scriptural truth that allows for and even demands multiple perspectives, valuations, and interpretations of the same text. As he notes in this brief excerpt, ‘full understanding of the sacred Scriptures’ is ultimately unattainable, given their divine inspiration: just as God is ultimately uncircumscribable and undefinable, the Scriptures He has revealed ultimately elude a final pinning down. Their truth unfolds continuously through the process of reading, meditation, practice, and exegesis.

This does not mean, for Gregory or any other exegetes, that commentary should simply proceed as the exegete wishes (though allegorical interpretations can sometimes seem as such). Rather, Gregory and others operated within particular traditions and tendencies of interpretation, building upon the work and meditation of others, often reproducing or expanding upon previously established sets of correspondences and interpretations. For instance, in this excerpt and throughout his commentary on the Song of Songs, Gregory makes use of the Patristic-era theologian and exegete Gregory of Nyssa. He is also drawing upon an old, and exceedingly broad, tradition of allegorically and typologically reading the Song of Songs. In Gregory of Narek’s reading, the Beloved is the human soul, while the Lover (in the Armenian translation of the Scriptures, the Nephew) is Christ. It is from this basic correspondence—one of several possible allegorical or typological correspondences commonly encountered in medieval exegetes—that the rest of his interpretions proceed.

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5.6 I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word: See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of His knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that which I had received when I opened.

For that reason she says, My Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen than He at once withdrew, swift as the lightning. And my soul went out with his word; that is, ‘having obtained a small glimmering of His words my soul left me and pursued His words.’ To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had obtained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain. By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person yearns after the maning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 148-9.

The Palm Tree of the Soul: The Mystical-Philosophical Tafsir of ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani

Few thinkers of any sort in medieval Islam have had as much influence in later Islamic traditions—Sunni and Shi’i and all the permutations within those categories—as the great Andalusian mystic, philosopher, and prolific author Ibn ‘Arabī. Like so many seminal philosophical and mystical thinkers, his later followers and interpreters would vary greatly in their defense, appropriation, and creative expansion of the master’s work and thought. This is perhaps especially the case for Ibn ‘Arabī, an especially dense and difficult author. Already a figure of controversy in his lifetime, Ibn ‘Arabī’s value and legacy continue to be contested points, both within the field of Islamic thought and practice and within the field of historical enquiry. The passage translated below was written by one of Ibn ‘Arabī’s many later followers. Like many others, ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashanī (d. 730/1329) drew upon the writings of the ‘Greatest Master’ in a creative fashion; he did not simply reproduce Ibn ‘Arabī’s ideas or methods—an improbable task, anyway. Rather, as we see in this example of al-Kashanī’s tafsīr, he drew upon Ibn ‘Arabī’s language, concepts, and tendencies to craft his own system of mystical-philosophical theology and hermeneutic. Having studied Avicennian philosophy before embracing Sufism via Ibn ‘Arabī, al-Kashanī’s mystical-philosophical ‘system’ draws upon both traditions. His writings—several of which are commentaries upon the work of Ibn ‘Arabī—tend to have a highly pedagogical edge to them, both in intention and in format and composition. Suffice to say, al-Kashanī is a much easier writer to read than Ibn ‘Arabī. This is not to say his ideas or language are simple, however; they are not. But they are deliberately more accessible and systematic than Ibn ‘Arabi’s works.

Among al-Kashanī’s numerous extant writings, one of the most frequently printed is his Qur’an commentary. However, despite the virtually uncontested ascription of the Ta’wīlāt al-Qur’ān to al-Kashanī, this text has been repeatedly printed by modern publishing houses under the name Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-Karīm and ascribed to Ibn ‘Arabī himself; as one scholar has suggested, this strategy is probably at least in part a marketing ploy.[1] At any rate, the tafsīr is relatively brief (for commentaries)—about a thousand pages in two volumes in the edition I am using—and very readable, particularly compared to Ibn ‘Arabī’s dense and rather convoluted style. Al-Kashanī, like many other ‘specialized’ commentators in other ‘genres’ of commentary, engages in selective commentary, rather than trying to comment on every single line. His concerns are, as might be expected from my brief synopsis above, philosophical-mystical. His exegetical method in most of the commentary might be described as ‘allegorical’ (a problematic but still useful term, I think). However, as I plan on posting excerpts from several more ‘allegorical’ minded commentators, from multiple high medieval traditions, in coming days, I will refrain from a further analysis. Rather, take note of the obvious exegetical moves al-Kashanī makes here, and the underlying philosophical, religious, and ‘mystical’ ideas and concerns he reveals in this short passage. What sorts of things does al-Kashanī presuppose about the world, things that would be accepted by most people in his society? What sorts of things might be contested in his analysis? How does his mystical ‘system’ correspond to the Qur’anic text, and is he consistent in his application?

[Text]: Q.19:22-26: So she [Mary] became pregnant with him and withdrew with him to a remote place. Then the labor pains brought her to the trunk of the palm tree; she said: O that I died before [this], forgotten, forgetting. Then he cried out to her from below her—Lest you be sadded, your Lord has placed flowing water below you. And shake towards you the trunk of the plam tree; there will fall to you ripe harvestable dates. So eat and drink and refresh yourself. And if you see anyone from among men, say: I have vowed to the Merciful a fast, so I will not speak today to anyone.

[Commentary]: And the union of the spirit of Jesus with the sperm (al-nuṭfa), however, is after the occurrence of the sperm in the womb and its repose therein, while it mixes and merges into one, becoming a nature (mizājan) fit for the reception of the spirit.[2] So she withdrew with him (bihu), that is, with him (ma’hu), to a remote place, far from the first eastern place, for it happened to her in a foreign place which is the world of physical nature (‘ālam al-ṭabī’a), the material horizon, and so He said: Then the labor pains brought her to the trunk of the palm tree, the palm tree of the soul. So he cried out to her from below her, that is, Gabriel cried out to her from the lowest [place] in relation to her place in regards to the heart, that is, from the world of physical nature, that which had saddened her with respect to it, the pregnancy which was the cause of her being pointed out and expelled. Lest you be saddened, your Lord has placed flowing water below you, that is, a small stream, from the unseen of physical-natural knowledge, and knowledge of the oneness of actions, with which God singled you out and purified you—as you saw He who generated the fetus from your sperm, uniting it together.

And shake towards you the trunk of the palm tree of your soul, which was lofty through hearing the Spirit, through your connection to the Spirit of holiness, and became verdant with true life, after its aridity from spiritual exercise and its dryness from being forbidden the water of passion and its life. And it bore fruit of gnosis (al-ma’ārif), and inner meaning; that is, Set it in motion with contemplation. There will fall to you, of the fruit of gnosis, and realities, ripe harvestable dates. So eat, that is, from above you, the dates of the realities, of divine gnosis, of knowledge of the manifestation of the [divine] attributes, of the gifts, and of the states. And drink, from below you, the water of the knowledge of physical nature, of the wonders of creation, of the mysteries of the divine actions, of knowledge of tawakkul, of the manifestation of the actions, of the virtues, of the acquisitions, as God says: They would have eaten from above them and from below their feet (Q. 5.66b).

And refresh yourself, by grace, by the blessed son, the existent through divine power, the gift through divine providence. And if you see anyone from among men, that is, from among the people of exotericism, those veiled from the realities by the outer appearances of the means, by the creation, by the judgements, from the wonders and from divine power—those who do not understand your word, and do not speak truthfully regarding you or your state, due to their conformity with custom, and their being veiled by intellects muddied by delusion, veiled from the light of God. Then say: I have vowed to the Merciful a fast, that is, not to talk about anything of your matter, nor to keep on talking with them about what they are not capable of receiving, as one speaks in accordance with his own state.

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[Text]: Q. 20:6-13: And what is in the heavens is His, and what is on the earth, what is between the two, and what is under the ground. And if you speak publicly, He knows the secret and [the] more hidden. God—no god save He; His are the beautiful names. And has there come to you the story of Moses? When he saw a fire, he said to his people: remain; I espied a fire, perhaps I will you from it a firebrand or may find at the fire guidance. And when he came to it, it was cried out, O Moses! Verily, I am your Lord, so take off your two sandals, for you are in the holy valley Ṭuwa. And I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed.[3]

[Commentary]: And what is in the heavens is His, to and what is under the ground: evidentiary proof of the total embrace of His force and of His dominion over all, that is, everything is under His dominion, His force, His governing power, His effectual influence: you do not come-into-being, do not move, do not come-to-rest, do not change, do not subsist, save by His command. And likewise, you pass away in whole overcome by His oneness, and the obliterating power of His compulsion: you do not hear, do not see, do not strike, do not walk, except in Him and by His command.

And if you speak publicly, He knows the secret and [the] more hidden: evidentiary proof of the perfection of His kindness. That is, His knowledge is effective in all things. He knows their exteriors and interiors, the secret, and the secret of the secret. Likewise, if you act publicly, or covertly, then He knows it, public and covert.

And whereas the aforementioned attributes were the sources with which there is no attribute save under their totality, and there is no name save it is included in these aforementioned names, and the essence is not made multiple by them, so He says: God. That is the way-station (al-manzil) described by these attributes, He is God, there is no god save He, His unitary essence is not made multiple, nor is the reality of His He-ness [made multiple] by them, and He is not numerically compounded. For He is He in eternal duration, just as He was in eternity. There is no he save He, no existence other than Him in regards to His absolute unicity and His being the source of all things. Whereas He mentioned: His are the beautiful names which are His essence in regards to the particularization of the attributes.

When he [Moses] saw a fire, it is the Spirit of holiness, that which kindles from itself light in human souls; he saw it by the refreshed eye of his inner sight, by the light of guidance. He said to his people the capacities of the lower self, Remain, be at rest, and do not set out, since the course (al-sīr), rather, arrives at the holy world (al-‘ālam al-qudsī), and he is joined to it in the presence of these human capacities, from the outer and inner senses, the objects of concern for it.[4] I espied a fire, that is, I saw a fire. Perhaps I will bring you from it a firebrand, that is, a conjunctive luminescent aspect (hai’a), by which all of you (pl.) will be benefited. So [Moses] will be illumined and his essence become an excellent quality. Or I will find at the fire one who will guide me through knowledge and gnosis, the reason for divine guidance to God (al-Ḥaqq), that is, the [revealed] scriptures, by the conjunction through them to the luminescent aspect (hai’a: or, ‘form’), or the cognizant aspect.

And when he reached it, that is, was joined to it, it was cried out, from behind the fiery veil, which is the pavilions of glory and might, the divine presence being veiled by it. O Moses! Verily, I am your Lord! Veiled by the fiery form, which is one of the veils of might manifest in it. So take off your two sandals, that is, your lower self and your body, or rather two existents, because one, if he is stripped of the two, he is stripped of two existents. That is, likewise, in your spirit and your secret you were stripped of their attributes and aspects, so that you are joined to the Spirit of holiness, and stripped in your heart and your chest from the two, the cutting off of attachment to all things, the effacement of the traces, the extinguishing of the attributes and actions. He names them two sandals, and He does not name them two articles of clothing, because if he were not stripped of wearing the two, he would not be united to the world of holiness. And the state is the state of union, so He commands him with the cutting off of all things in view of Him, as He said: Be devoted to Him entirely. So it is as if his attachment susbsisted with the two, and the attachment through the two caused his foot to slip, [the foot] being the lowest aspect of the heart, designated by ‘front’ (ṣadr). Then the two, after the the spiritual, secretual betaking towards holiness, He ordered the cutting off of the two in the station of the Spirit, and for this He justified the necessity of the taking off by His words, You are in the holy valley Ṭuwa, that is, the world of the Spirit, clear of the traces of attachment, the forms of dependencies, and the extended attachments; [it is] named Ṭuwa, due to the concealment (ṭayy) of the conditions of the domain, and of the celestial and terrestrial bodies beneath it.

He has spoken truthfully who said: ‘He commanded him to put the two [sandals] down due to their being made from the skin of a dead donkey, without tanning.’ And it is said: ‘When He cried out, Satan whispered to him: “Satan cried out to you.”’ So he said: I am discriminating! I heard from six sides with all my members—and that could not be save from the cry of the Merciful.’[5]

I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed: this He promised with the election that is after the perfect essential manifestation, that which leveled the mountain of his being  (wujūdihi) with the annihilation in it by being leveled, and his thunderstruck prostration at his recovery through Real Being, as God said: when he was restored he said: Glory to you! I turn to You, and I am the first of the believers: [God] said: ‘O Moses! I have chosen you in preference to all other people, as My messenger and My word.’ This manifestation is the manifestation of the attributes, before the manifestation of the essence. And for this He sent him, and he did not here ask Him for information concerning the revelation. And He commanded him with spiritual exercise, with being-present, with watchfulness, and He promised him the great resurrection in short time, so this election is close to the foundational choosing alluded to in His words: Then his Lord chose him; so turn to Him and be rightly-guided, a middle between him and between the electing.


[1] James Winston Morris, ‘Ibn ‘Arabi and His Interpreters:  Part II (Conclusion): Influences and Interpretations, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 107 101-119.

[2] Mizāj is derived from a root that means ‘to mix, to stir’; the term might best be translated as ‘humoral nature’ or ‘disposition,’ as the conceptions behind the term lie in Galenic theories of the humors and their particular presences and circulations in the body.

[3] Some readers will perhaps be familiar with a much earlier instance of a mystical/allegorical interpretation of the story of Moses: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. As we see here in al-Kashanī’s interpretation, Gregory reinterpreted the historically particular life of Moses along universal lines, as being the story of the human soul in its progress towards God. Likewise, al-Kashanī here finds in the story the opportunity to lay out theology and a supreme example of human experience of God. While he does not deny the historical particularity of the story, that historical particularity is not especially important here—rather, it is the universal truths al-Kashanī finds revealed, mystically and anagologically, in the story.

[4] I.e., Moses said to his lower capacities/potencies: remain here while I [viz., the higher self/spirit] go towards the fire. The sense is that the lower self cannot embark on the path to the ‘hallowed world.’ I am not entirely satisfied with my translation here, but I think the sense is clear.

[5] Al-Kashanī occasionally, as here, inserts material from ‘exoteric’ exegesis, most likely in order to demonstrate that his ‘esoteric’ reading of the text does not preclude more common, ‘established’ exoteric readings drawing upon other forms of explanation and exegetical authority. This is not unlike medieval Latin Christian exegesis, with its levels of meaning (four in many accounts, but more or fewer in other reckonings), the allegorical or the tropological not excluding the literal/historical. For al-Kashanī and other ‘esoteric’ exegetes of the Qur’an, however, the relation between the ‘literal/historical’ and the ‘allegorical/mystical’ could be somewhat more ticklish a subject than in Latin Christendom.

On the Ravens and Elijah

The following is a translation of two short exegetical texts by Mar Jacob of Edessa, a Syriac Christian bishop, ascetic, and exegete who lived and wrote in the second half of the 600s. The texts are fairly self-explanatory: Mar Jacob is examining the story of Elijah and the ravens, found in 1 Kings 17. Jacob’s approach is two-fold: first, he looks at what was apparently a disputed question about the ‘literal’ or ‘fleshly’ meaning of the passage, namely, whether the food brought by the angels was from the ‘common’, pre-existing creation of God, or whether it was a new creation equivalent to God’s initial act of creation. A similar question was in play concerning the ram that replaces Isaac in the famous mountain-top sacrifice story. If I am remembering correctly, this was a question that occupied Jewish exegetes as well; I am not sure if similar issues show up in Islamic exegesis or not. The second question Mar Jacob is interested in is the ‘typological’ significance of the story, or, as he also phrases it, the spiritual or mystical meaning. If you will, this meaning lies ‘deeper’ in the text, connecting the story to the larger story of Christ. Typology runs throughout Mar Jacob’s exegesis, which of course is not unusual: typology is arguably the uniting theme in ancient and early medieval Christian exegesis, Syriac, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Ge’ez, and so on.

My translation here is more provisional than usual; my Syriac skills are not up to par with my Arabic, at least not yet, and a couple of lines here still leave me stumped as to their exact meaning. As with any text in any language, and exegetical texts particularly, full comprehension only comes through entering into the complex, multifaceted thought-worlds that inform even as short a text as this. I am still very much in the process of exploring those vast late antique and medieval thought-worlds that writers like Mar Jacob helped created and inhabit.

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From the Fifteenth Scholium: On the Ravens Who Brought Sustenance to Elijah the Prophet

The ravens brought sustenance to Elijah the Prophet who was hiding before the Jordan- meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The [following] question precedes spiritual interpretations (ta’uria– from Gk. theoriaruhnita) that are manifest by these words, speaking the literal word on account of these, investigating the ineffable on account of this which people ask: whether it was a new creation commanded by God, namely, the bringing of sustenance to the Prophet who had fled and was persecuted: or whether it was from the pre-existing and common creation of God, Maker of all that is. And we say: that the bread and the meat, which were brought by the ravens, were from this common creation, created by Him who is creator of all. They were not a new creation that was created, each day, one by one, through a command of God, as is the surmise of [some] men. And these [the meat and bread] were from a man who feared God and the prophet. By the command of God he placed them before the ravens, so that they took them up and transported them to Elijah- in the morning bread made from grains baked and toasted by fire; and in the evening meat of animals that had been boiled with fire. These ravens were winged ceatures that ate meat, but were servants due to the command of God, who is powerful over all.  And they were not angels, as [some people] say foolishly. And the story is thus [known] from history.

Demonstration of the Depicted Likeness of the Ravens, the Bread, and the Meat Brought to the Prophet:

There is also spiritual significance that comes from these typological words. The meat that in cloudy times and in the evenings was brought to the prophet, is for us an announcement: the action [of bringing the meat] is a type of the sacrifice of animals, that was until then by means of the shadowing darkness of the law obscured, and that was given to the community hidden beyond the physical Jordan. The bread that was by morning given to the prophet hidden beyond the Jordan is depicted for us as a type of the heavenly, divine bread that is quickened in the dawn of the new creation: for the set-apart community of the Messiah, which has crossed over this and the spiritual Jordan. Ravens are impure beasts, yet are ministers [of God] which are appointed as symbols for us: of those priests of the Church of the Messiah, although from the [impure] nations, [are priests] of the Body and Blood the Messiah, a lamb with no spot, no sin: heavenly, vivifying bread. This is the significance of these words.

Layering Meaning: Two Sufi Tafsir Excerpts

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.

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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