Surah al-Kawthar: Sufi Tafsir: al-Sulami

Now for something rather different. Here we have an early example of Sufi Qur’an exegesis, composed by the eleventh century Sufi al-Sulamī; it will be followed in a day or two with an excerpt from a much later Moroccan Sufi, ibn ‘Ajiba. Hermeneutically, al-Sulamī’s exegetical moves here are not terribly different from his more exoteric contemporaries. For instance, in interpreting the tricky term al-kawthar, where other exegetes expand upon the term using ‘standard’ Islamic concepts, al-Sulamī deploys Sufi ideas and terms as possible explanations. As with the non-Sufi commentaries, all of his possible explanations follow from the exegetical commonplace, well established by the eleventh century, that al-kawthar was either ‘abundance of good’ (which could encompass, as we have seen, virtually anything) or ‘a river in Paradise.’ Al-Sulamī follows from both, expanding upon them, but from a Sufi perspective.

Also similar hermeneutically to other commentators is the Sufi ‘occasion of revelation’ included here. Or at least its form reminds us of an occasion of revelation story- in fact, its inclusion of the occasion of revelation of the verse in question is only a secondary component of the story. The scripture references reinforce the story, which itself does relatively little to explain the verse at hand. Rather, this is perhaps less an occasion of revelation story as it is an instance of what Gerhard Bowering has described as a process in which particular ‘key-notes, words, or phrases set off’ a mystical commentator into a story or explanation or burst of poetry. While all tafsīr- Sufi and non-Sufi- tends to be rather free-flowing, Sufi tafsīr in particular tends to have a measure of freedom and sometimes seeming randomness that sets it apart from other forms of Islamic exegesis. Perhaps this is intentional: like mystical experience itself, the ‘inner’ appreciation of the text is harder to control, is more ‘random’ and organic. And also like mystical experience, perhaps the apparent dissonance of conflicting opinions, one after another, is the point: that all of these senses and interpretations can coexit, because of the ultimate inexpressibility of the inner experience, of the inner meaning.

His saying, exalted is He: ‘Verily, We have given you al-kawthar.’ Al-Sādiq said about His saying ‘I have given you al-kawthar’: [it is] a light in your [Muhammad’s] heart, that is on account of Me, and it cuts you off from what is other than Me. He [al-Sādiq] also said: intercession (al-shifā’a) for your community (ummatika).

One of them said: ‘We have given you’ miracles which increase in number the people of compliance (ahl al-ijāba) in accordance with your summoning. And ibn ‘Attā’ said: [al-kawthar is] the message and prophethood. And ibn ‘Attā’ said: [al-kawthar is] knowledge of My Lordship, and being singled out by My unicity, My power, and My will. And Sahl [al-Tustarī] said: [al-kawthar is] the basin [in Paradise], you give to drink whom you will by My permission, and you forbid [to drink from the basin] whom you will by My permission.

Al-Qāsim said about His saying, ‘Verily, the one who hates you, he is cut off (al-abtar),’ that is, out of commission, cut off from the good things of the two worlds together.

Abū Sa’īd al-Qarashī said: when there descended upon the Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, [the verse] ‘O those who are summoned, desire from your Lord the means, closeness.’ The Prophet said: ‘O Lord, you took Ibrahīm as a friend (khalīlan), and Mūsā as a spokesman (kalīman), so with what do you distinguish me?’ Then God, exalted is He, sent down [the verse] ‘Have We not opened your chest?’ But he [Muhammad] was not content with that, so God sent down [the verse] ‘Did He not find you an orphan then give [you] shelter?’ But he was not content with that, and He changed him so as to not be content, because reliance upon one’s state (al-hāl) is the cause of the cutting off of the highest degree [i.e., being content with a lower spiritual state prevents the attainment of the highest spiritual state]. So God sent down [the verse] ‘Verily, We have given you al-kawthar,’ but he was not content with that until, as we report, Jibrīl, peace and prayers of God be upon him, said: ‘Verily, God, exalted is He, greets you with peace, saying: “If I have taken Ibrahīm as a friend, Mūsā as a spokesmen, then I have taken you as a beloved one (habīban) and as My power, for I have prefered My beloved over My friend and My spokesman.”’ So he [Muhammad] was content, and this is more glorious than [the state of] satisfaction because of this audacity of speech and argument, because satisfaction is for the beloved, while distraction and expansion are for the friend. Or have you not looked to the story of Ibrahīm, prayers of God be upon him, and his state was that of glad tidings; he argued with Us and he is [in the state of] expansion/joy.

Surah al-Kawthar: The Tafsir of al-Baydawi

Still within the ‘mainstream’ tafsir tradition, the following selection comes from the famed- and still widely used- tafsir of ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali Abu al-Khayr Nasr al-Din al-Baydawi, a thirteenth century Shafa’i scholar and jurist from the city of Shiraz. Unlike al-Tabrisi’s tafsir, which is relatively expansive, al-Baydawi composed a much briefer tafsir, that depends to a certain extent on the reader’s prior knowledge of the exegetical tradition and method. As Waled Saleh has argued, these shorter tafsir seem to have arisen out of a pedagogical need, either as an instrument in instruction by a master in exegesis or a student’s own study aid. For those familiar with the Western Christian tradition of exegesis, these shorter commentaries are somewhat reminiscent of the glosses that emerge for Scripture study in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

As you read, imagine that this is your first introduction to the exegetical tradition on this passage- does it seem sufficient? Is it understandable (and keep in mind that I have expanded a bit to make the conciseness a little less concise and more understandable)? What else might a medieval student or interested reader use a commentary of this length for?

Al-Baydawī, Tafsīr Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl

Mekkan, three verses.

In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.

‘Verily, we gave you’- [there is a variant] reading of antīnāka-al-kawthar’: prodigious abundant good, of knowledge, deed, and the exaltation of both worlds. And it is related, on [Muhammad’s] authority, peace and prayer be upon him: ‘[Al-kawthar] is a river in paradise, and my Lord promised me it- in it is abundant good- sweeter than honey, whiter than milk, colder than snow, softer than cream; its brims are of chrysolite. Its drinking vessels are made of silver; he who drinks of it does not thirst [again].’ And it is said: a basin is in it. And it is said: [al-kawthar] is his sons and descendents, or the ‘ulamā’ of his community, or the glorious Qur’ān.

‘So pray to your Lord’: so persevere in the canonical prayer devoted only towards God, exalted is He, differing from the one heedless [of God’s grace], the hypocrite- [rather, be] grateful for His graces, for the canonical prayer is the uniting of the various parts of gratitude. ‘And sacrifice’: The torso [of the sacrificial animal], which is the best of the goods of the Bedouin. And give alms to the needy, differing from he who turned them [the needy] away and deprived them of small kindnesses (cf. Q. 107.5-7). [This] surah is complementary to the preceding surah. The canonical prayer [here] has been interpreted as the prayer of the festival, and the sacrifice as the [whole] slaughtered animal.

‘Verily, he who hates you’: whoever hates you, God hates him. ‘He is cut-off’: he who has no offspring, for no descendants remain to him, no glorification of remembrance, but as for you [Muhammad], your progeny remains, [as does] the glorification of your fame, the praise of your virtue- up to the day of the Resurrection, and there is for you in the Other World what is beyond description.

On the authority of the Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him: ‘Whoever recites Surah al-Kawthar, God will give him to drink from every one of His rivers in Paradise, and He will write [to his account] ten good deeds with the number of every sacrifice which the servant offers on the day of the great sacrifice.’

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.

Surah al-Kawthar, Part Two, i.

The tafsir of al-Tabrisi, continued, this time from the largest section, dealing with the overall ‘meaning’ of the surah. Below is his interpretation of the first verse; the next two will follow in a few days.

On the Meaning (al-ma’anā)

[v. 1]

God addressed His Prophet regarding the enumeration of His benefit upon him, saying, ‘We gave to you al-kawthar.’ They [the exegetes] differ regarding the interpretation of al-kawthar: it is said, it is a river in Paradise. On the authority of ‘Aisha and ibn ‘Umar, ibn ‘Abās said: ‘When [the surah] ‘We gave you al-kawthar’ descended (nazalat), the Prophet of God, peace and prayers of God be upon him, ascended the minbar and recited it to the people. When he descended (nazala), the people asked: “O Prophet of God, what is that God gave you?” He replied: “A river in Paradise, whiter than milk, straighter than an arrow shaft, its brim is [made of] domes of pearl and sapphire. A green bird returns to it which possesses necks like the necks of the long-necked camel.” They said: “O Prophet of God, what are the benefits of this bird?” He replied: “Have its benefits not been reported?” They replied: “Nay.” He said: “Whoever eats this bird and drinks the waters, he attains the good will of God.”’ And it is related, on the authority of Abū ‘Abd Allāh, that he said: ‘A river in Paradise, He gave His Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, as compensation for his son.’ And it is said: it is the basin of the Prophet, peace and prayers of God be upon him, upon which the people on the day of the Resurrection are more numerous than a gift.

And ’Ans said: ‘One day the Prophet of God, peace and prayers be upon him, provided for us a clear and certain proof which he manifested to us when he was taking a nap then lifted his head smiling. So I said: “What made you laugh, O Prophet of God?” He replied: “There just now descended to me a surah,” then he recited Surah al-Kawthar, then said, “Do you understand what al-kawthar is? We replied: “God and His Prophet know!” He said: “It is a river which my Lord has promised to us, upon it is goodness in abundance; it is my basin to which my community will return on the day of the Resurrection. Its vessels are of the number of the stars of heaven. Then the horn [of the angel of the Resurrection] will stir them, and I will say: O Lord! Verily they are my community. He will say: ‘You do not know what they brought about after you.’” [This hadīth] is related by Muslim in the Sahīh.

And it is said that al-kawthar is abundance of good things, according to ibn ‘Abās, ibn Jabīr, and Mujāhid. And it is said that it is prophecy and the Book, according to ‘Ikrama. It is said it is the Qur’an, according to al-Hasan. It is said it is abundance of companions and adherents according to Abū Bakr ibn A’īsha. It is said it is abundance of descendents and progeny; that is, the abudance of his progeny is manifested from the sons of Fātima, so that their number is without reckoning, and He joined to the day of the Resurrection the prolongation of them. And it is said it is intercession, as related by al-Sādiq and al-Lafaz. And all [of what has been mentioned] is possible, so it is incumbent that one tolerate all that is mentioned from the various opinions (al-aqwāl)- so God, exalted and glorified is He- has given him abundance of good (al-khayr al-kathīr) in this world and promised him abundance of good in the Other World, and all of these opinions are an elaboration of this summation- that it is abudance of good things in the two worlds.

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.

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

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.

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

On Cultural Relativity, Scripture Exegesis, and the Rule of Love

Re-reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s On Christian Teaching, I have been struck- again- at just how much the great North African saint is able to cover in a relatively small space, and within what seems like a fairly circumscribed and particular topic- the proper technique of scripture exegesis. Yet St. Augustine covers everything, it seems like, and it’s a joy to read: he works through sign-theory of language, how to confront the Zeitgeist and come out the richer, the role of art and science in the life of the Christian, the healing power of Christ- along with the expected exegetical techniques. It’s a little breathless at times, as he weaves in and out of topics while continually drawing the conversation back to exegesis and scripture. He often times manages to feel remarkably contemporary to our own concerns, while also quite clearly transcending (well, transcending is obviously anachronistic) our usual categories for thinking about scripture, exegesis, epistemology, and so on. St. Augustine is neither a ‘fundamentalist’ nor a ‘liberal’ in thinking about scripture: scripture is inspired, inspired through the writing of the human authors, who are clearly agents and not mere autodidacts. Scripture can have multiple, simultaneous senses, and St. Augustine is remarkably comfortable with conflicting translations even, on some levels (some translations are just bad, he suggests, and easily enough corrected). The ultimate rule for exegesis is a little startling: whatever encourages love of God and other people, is the best- the true- interpretation. And if an exegete arrives at an edifying meaning not intended by the original author- well, that’s good too.

Over all is the rule of love, as exemplified in the passage I present below. Love of God is the centering point for human life, and when we love God we will love ourselves and others properly, not dominating and controlling them but embracing them in kindness and knowledge of our mutual places in God’s divine economy. There is, I think, an implicit critique of pretty much all forms of human authority and domination of each other going on here, even if St. Augustine does not fully articulate it. He envisions life lived under the sign, the rule of Love, in which human relationships are properly ordered, not through the pride and lust of the powerful and dominating (or ourselves attempting to be powerful and dominating), but through a love-centered orientation towards God. Even the task of exegesis, as he argues at the beginning of this work, is a love-centered task. The very existence of exegesis forms community, as we need each other to truly understand the sacred text; we are not to boast over our special knowledge of the text nor hoard it or lord it over others. Even commentary ought to be done under the rule of love- agaparchy, we might call it- though of course there is no ‘system’ here, since love is particular, is oriented first towards the Person of God, then to those we live with, our neighbors.

But anyway- one could spend pages (and plenty of people have!) on the many things St. Augustine is doing and saying in these pages and in others. I am always amazed at the scope, and the frequent bursts of beauty and sense of love, even as in other places St. Augustine’s fallibility and limitations are equally in sight. But throughout I find that he presents possibilities and points of thinking- and doing, loving, acting- that continue to be full of potential and possibility, and, I suspect, will be for years to come.

This example comes from Book Three, and in it we see a good instance of St. Augustine’s welding of seemingly extra-exegetical concerns- here, what we might identify as ‘cultural relativism’- with explicitly exegetical and theological concerns. The exegetical concern is to explain the seemingly odd or even shocking behavior of Old Testament figures; the theological concern, so far as it is separate from the exegetical, is to reconcile the apparent relativism of cultural convention with an over-arching moral order. Obviously, St. Augustine’s words do not fully sum up the issues we might raise here- but they’re remarkably deft and penetrating, and within a quite short space. There is lots to think about, and not just to think about- the rule of Love, St. Augustine would tell us, is not a political program or an abstract problem. It is a way of life, realized in the love of Christ, and lived out day-by-day, step-by-step.


‘Whatever accords with the social practices of those with whom we have to live this present life- whether this manner of life is imposed by necessity or undertaken in the course of duty- should be related by good and serious men to the aims of self-interest and kindness, either literally, as we ourselves should do, or also figuratively, as is allowed to the prophets. When those who are unfamiliar with different social practices come up against such actions in their reading, they think them wicked unless restrained by some explicit authority. They are incapable of realizing that their own sort of behavior patterns, whether in matters of marriage, or diet, or dress, or any other aspect of human life and culture, would seem wicked to other races or other ages. Some people have been struck by the enormous diversity of social practices and in a state of drowsiness, as I would put it- for they were neither sunk in the deep sleep of stupidity nor capable of staying awake to greet the light of wisdom- have concluded that justice has no absolute existence but that each race views its own practices as just. So since the practices of all races are diverse, whereas justice ought to remain unchangeable, there clearly is no such thing as justice anywhere.

To say no more, they have not realized that the injunction “do not do to another what you would not wish to be done to yourself” can in no way by modified by racial differences. When this injunction is related to the love of God, all wickedness dies; and when it is related to the love of one’s neighbor, all wrongdoing dies. For nobody wants his own dwelling to be wrecked, and so he should not wish to wreck God’s dwelling (which is himself). Nobody wants to be harmed by anybody; so he should not do harm to anybody. So when the tyranny of lust has been overthrown love rules with laws that are utterly just: to love God on his account, and to love oneself and one’s neighbor on God’s account. Therefore in dealing with figurative expressions we will observe a rule of this kind: the passage being read should be studied with careful consideration until its interpretation can be connected with the realm of love. If this point is made literally, the no kind of figurative expression need be considered.’

St. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, Book Three, XII-XIV