On the Poor Ones and Why They Are Called Sufis

While later medieval Sufism is represented in some extremely subtle, sophisticated, and often very complex texts, produced by and for the intellectual elite, writings intended for a less rarified milieu were also very common. Indeed, many prominent Sufis wrote treatises and commentaries designed to make esoteric, philosophical tenets of mystic though and practice more accessible and more widely dissimulated. Treatises and pamphlet from less prominent and indeed unknown writers were also common, often attached to and advocating a particular Sufi ‘order’ (ṭarīqa), with its particular rites, canon, saints, and chain of authorities often stretching back to a semi-legendary eponym. The text I have excerpted and translated below is an example of this less ‘sophisticated’ and generally more accessible strain of Sufi writing, writing that was intended for, if not the masses, at least a relatively broad audience. Furthermore, as the text below especially demonstrates, we can get a better idea of the actual reception of the often difficult, even impenetrable, ideas of mystico-philosophic Sufism, and the ways in which rituals and ritualized behavior and dress (among other things) were perceived and practiced.

This text, entitled the Sirr al-Asrār—‘Secret of Secrets’ is a workable, if imperfect, English translation—is also an excellent example of another phenomenon common in the medieval world: the automatic verification of a text by attaching it to the name of a prominent, respected figure in the past. In this case, at some point in its history (either at the hands of the original author or a later redactor) the Sirr al-Asrār was attributed to none other than the great Sufi-Hanbali preacher of eleventh-century Baghdad, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jīlānī. This attribution continues to this day, and is almost certainly the reason an otherwise rather unremarkable introductory text can today be found in numerous printed editions and in various translations, including a couple into English (which should be considered devotional paraphrases, not translations, I might add). That it simply cannot in fact be from the Baghdadian preacher’s pen is obvious from even a cursory comparison between the established authentic writings of al-Jīlānī and this text: not only is the Arabic much choppier and less rhetorically powerful, but the ideas and practices expressed here are often derived from a quite different, and chronologically later, mystical milieu than that of al-Jīlānī. That is to say nothing of the now anonymous author’s occasional citation of Persian poetry, including Rumi, who lived long after ‘Abd al-Qadir’s death. Rather, it is likely that the text was either composed by a now anymous author, perhaps a member of the Qadiriyya order (which claimed ‘Abd al-Qadir as its eponym), and then later attributed to the famous Eponym accidentally or otherwise; or it was labeled with ‘Abd al-Qadir’s name from the beginning. The former seems more likely, as other than the initial attribution—an easy thing to modify—the text does not make any further effort to identify with ‘Abd al-Qadir.

As for the content translated and presented here, there are several interesting points. First, our author presents a simplified Sufi cosmology, which curiously emerges as a result of the question of the much debated etymological origins of the term ‘Sufi.’ After establishing a mystical cosmology, our author then continues his discussion of Sufi ‘poverty’ and how the true inner nature of Sufism is reflected in both the practices and clothing of the Sufis. As is often the case with handbooks and introductory treatises such as this, objects and rituals provide an easy locus for allegorical explication and theological teaching. Here, clothing is our author’s springboard for laying out the inner meaning of Sufism. Yet we should not imagine that such connections are incidental for our author: rather, as is indicated by the opening discussion of cosmology, and the constant reference to Qur’an and hadith (especially hadith), the world and all its parts are part of the things symbolized. Allegorical connections are not accidental, but reflective of essential properties, of an essential divine economy linking things together and providing the world with divine significance. Hence while the objects discussed might be mundane, and the language of this treatise not exactly representative of high-style, our anonymous author sought to introduce his readers to a truly rarefied, and wondrous world indeed, one in which they also could participate and partially, at least, understand.


The Twelfth Chapter, On the Poor Ones and Why They are Called Sufis

Some of them say because they used to dress in wool (al-ṣūf) or because they purified (ṣafū) their hearts from worldly worrisome affairs or because they purified their hearts from all other than God. And some say because they will stand on the Day of the Resurrection in the first row (al-ṣaff al-awwal) in the World of Proximity (‘ālam al-qurba). For the world is four:[1] the World of Kingship, the World of Sovereignty, the World of Divine Omnipotence, and the World of the Divine Essence, and it is the world of reality. And likewise the knowledges are four: the knowledge of the Shari’ah, the knowledge of the Mystical Way, the knowledge of Gnosis and [the knowledge of] Reality. And likewise the spirits are four: bodily spirit, luminescent spirit, governing spirit, and holy spirit. And likewise the divine manifestations are four: the manifestation of the subtle traces, the manifestations of the acts, the manifestation of the attributes, and the manifestation of the essence. And likewise the intellect is four: the basic intellect, the customary intellect, the spiritual intellect, and the universal intellect.[2]

And in the reception of the four aforementioned worlds, knowledges, spirits, manifestations, and intellects, some of the people are bound to the first knowledge, the first spirit, the first manifestation, the first intellect, in the first Garden, which is the Garden of refuge. And some of them are bound in the second and they are in the second Garden, the Garden of beneficence. And some of them are bound to the third, and they are in the third Garden, the Garden of paradise. And they are heedless of the reality of those things, while the people of the Truth from among the gnostic renunciants flee from all of it and are united to the reality and the proximity; they are not bound to anything other than God, exalted is He, and the follow after His word, exalted is He. So they flee to God, and as he—the most perfect of prayers and peace be upon him—said, ‘This world and the next are ḥarām for the people of God.’ And the intended meaning of ẖarām here is not that the two things are prohibited to them, but rather they have prohibited them from themselves that they would seek them and be attached to love of them. For they say: ‘Verily, we are sinners [?], while those two things are temporally originate—so how can one temporal being seek after another temporal thing? On the contrary, it is incumbent on such a one that he seek the originator.’

And He says in the sacred hadith[3]: ‘My love is the love of the poor ones.’ And he said, peace and prayer be upon him, ‘Poverty is my pride, and I take pride in it.’ The intended meaning of poverty here is not the common meaning of poverty, rather, the meaning of poverty here is dependence upon God, mighty and glorious is He, and abandoning what is other than Him, from the benefits of this world and the next. The [ultimate] meaning from it is is annihilation (al-fanā’) in God, such that nothing remains in the self for the self, and nothing is encompassed within the heart other than God, as God, exalted is He said: ‘Neither My earth nor My heavens encompass me, but the heart of My believing servant encompasses Me.’ The intended meaning of ‘believing’ is he who has purified his heart from human attributes and has emptied [it] of alterities, so the Truth encompasses his heart in reflection. Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī,[4] God be merciful to him, said:’If the Throne and what is around it were cast in a corner among the corners of the heart of the gnostic, he would not sense it.’ So He who loves those beloved ones, He is with them in the Other World. The sign of their love is their companionship and yearning for God, exalted is He, and encountering Him, as He said in the sacred hadith: ‘The desire of the pious stretches out towards encountering Me, and I strengthen desire toward [sic.] them.’

As for their clothing:[5] it is in three types, as we mentioned in chapter three. As for their works: the work of the novice is variegated with the praise-worthy and the blame-worthy. The work of the intermediate is variegated with praiseworthy colours like the light of the Shari’ah, the Mystical Path, and gnosis. Their clothing is variegated likewise, like white, blue, and green. The work of the realized one is emptied of colours entirely like the light of the sun—its light does not receive colours; likewise, his clothing does not receive colours, just as black does not receive colours. It is the sign of annihilation (al-fanā’), and it is the veil of the light of their gnosis, as the night is the veil of the light of the sun. And God, exalted is He, has said: ‘We made the night a garment, and we made the day as livelihood.’ Therein is a subtle indication for one who possesses the inner kernel of the intellect and of knowledge.

And also: the people of proximity are in this world in prison, homesickness, sorrow, distress, trial, testing, and oppression, as he—the best of prayer and the noblest of peace be upon him—said: ‘This world is the prison of the believer.’ So darkness [of clothing] is befitting. The saying of the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, has been shown to be true in this regard: ‘Tribulation is entrusted to the prophets and the saints, then those most like [them], then those most like [them].’ And the wearing of black clothes and the putting on of a black turban—this clothing is the clothing of tribulation and of those mourning the affliction of the escape of the reception [of divine things], such as unveiling, witnessing, and realization. And [it is for] the death of the life of eternity, and the like—of desire, tasting, passionate love, the holy spirit, and the degrees of closeness and union. Those [so afflicted] are among the greatest of the afflicted. Without doubt, whoever wears the clothing of mourning for the length of his life, it is because benefit of the Other World escapes him. It is like a woman who, when he husband dies, God commands her to wear the clothing of mourning for four months and ten days due the escape of benefit of this world below. As for the temporal extent of the mourning of the Other World, it is without limits, as he said, peace be upon him: ‘The sincerely purehearted are in possession of a matter of truly grave seriousness.’

So all of this is from the attribute of poverty and annihilation. And in the report (al-khabr), ‘Poverty is black of face in the two Houses,’ meaning, it does not receive colours save the light of the face of God. The descent of blackness totally makes empty the face and increases in it beauty and grace. And if the people of proximity look to the beauty of God, their eyes do not receive afterwards anything other than God, and they do not look with desirious love towards anything else. Rather, their object of love and their object of seeking is God, in the two Houses, not intending anything other than God, because God, exalted and blessed is He, created the human person for true knowledge of Him and union with Him. So it is incumbent upon the person that he seek what he was created for in the two Houses together, lest he waste his life with what will not aid him, and lest he forever rue after his death the wasting of his life.

Pseudo-‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jīlānī, Sirr al-Asrār, Chapter 12.

[1] The four-fold world scheme was, by the time this text was written, a pretty-well established trope in mystical cosmology. Like so many things, it was enumerated in the greatest depth and sophistication by ibn ‘Arabī, but the various ‘spheres’ or ‘levels’ of existence have a much older and broader pedigree. In some ways they can be traced back to Neoplatonic thought, and perhaps elsewhere. Their exact meanings and connotations vary, and anyway are not the issue here: here they simply appear as rather mysterious, esoteric signifiers.

[2] Lists of things, especially corresponding things, are of course a popular pedagogical device, and not just in the Middle Ages. Numerical symmetry is also a rather enduring trope.

[3] Sacred hadith: ḥadith qudsī, a saying attributed directly to God. While never a huge portion of canonical hadith collections, and often seen as dubious in nature, several such hadith attained prominence in formative Sufism. For instance, ‘I was a treasure and longed to be known…’ appears continuously in Sufi writings; it would become a particularly important text for ibn ‘Arabi and his followers.

[4] An important early Sufi, often described as belong to the ‘intoxicated’ ‘school’ of Sufism along with al-Ḥallāj—a description that while obscuring of much, does indicate the often ecstatic and somewhat radical nature of many of Bisṭāmī’s sayings.

[5] Our anonymous author here rather abruptly shifts gears, entering into a discussion of the mystical significance of the garb of particular Sufi orders and ranks: yet another indication that the author is writing during a period of proliferating Sufi orders, not during the period of ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jīlānī.

Sufi Concision

One of the most prolific Sufi masters and authors to live in the Ottoman Empire was a Turkish mystic and scholar named Ismāʿīl Ḥaqqī (1063-1133/1652-1725), who spent his childhood near Edirne, then received his education in Edirne and Istanbul. After several years of traveling to various corners of the empire, he settled down in Bursa, where he lived as a Sufi master and teacher and eventually head of the Jilwatiyya order. Besides his training in the Sufi path, Ismāʿīl Ḥaqqī received, and deployed in the course of his career, a broad education, from philosophy and music to Qur’anic exegesis and Persian poetry. He wrote a great deal- some 104 works, a majority in Turkish, though with a sizeable number in Arabic. The excerpt below comes from his primarily Arabic (with a little Persian mixed in) Qur’an tafsīr, the Rūḥ al-bayān, a multi-volume work that stands out as a quite original and often creative endeavor. Philosophy, mysticism, grammatical science, hadith, and many other components all make up this major work, which, so far as I know, has received little notice from Western scholars.

The excerpt below represents an aspect of Ismāʿīl Ḥaqqī’s tafsīr that I think might well be unique to him (though of course I could be quite wrong on that, so don’t quote me on this!); if not unique, it still stands out as unusual and rare. After providing a somewhat eclectic but largely ‘exoteric’ interpretation of the first few verse of Sura al-Hūd, Ismāʿīl Ḥaqqī presents a lemma-by-lemma ‘mystical’ commentary that is highly abbreviated, similar to the concise, abbreviated ‘exoteric’ commentaries that were especially popular in the Ottoman realms (see Bayḍawī’s relatively short commentary, the Tafsīr Anwār al-Tanzīl wa Asrār al-Ta’wīl, for an example). He titles these sections Stellar Interpretations, a phrase which immediately calls to mind mystical modes of exegesis (see note one below). Whereas most Sufi commentaries dealt with particular verses or blocks of verses, our author works through each lemma and line, integrating the whole of the text into a concise Sufic interpretation. What is the logic of such an approach? Perhaps Ismāʿīl Ḥaqqī wishes to demonstrate the complete compatibility of the Qur’anic text with the Sufi path and Sufi doctrine. Against naysayers who might wish to contest the Qur’anic quality of Sufism (and especially the ibn ‘Arabi influenced Sufism someone like Ismāʿīl Ḥaqqī espoused), our author presents a lemma-by-lemma reading of the scriptural text that uncovers Sufi belief and practice consistently and clearly, with little metaphysical or rhetorical maneuvering.

Alif-Lam-Ra: A Book whose verses were established, then were set forth in detail, from the Presence, Wise, Knowing. Serve none save God; I am to you from Him a warning, and good news. And you that seek forvgiveness of your Lord, then turn to Him, He gives you enjoyable provision to an appointed term. And there comes to every possessor of grace His grace. And if you turn back, then I fear for you the punishment of a great Day. To God you return, and He is over everything powerful.

And in the Stellar Interpretation [1] (al-ta’wīlāt al-najmiyya): Alif-lam-ra: the alif points to God (Allāh), the lam, to Gabriel, and the ra, to the Prophet (al-rasūl). A Book whose verses were established: meaning the Qur’an, a book whose verse are established by wise ordinance, as His words say: He makes you to know the Book and wisdom. So the Book is the Qur’an, and the wisdom is the realities, the meanings, and the mysteries that are incorporated in its verses. Then were set forth in detail: that is, these realities and wisdoms were made evident to the hearts of the gnostics. From the presence of [the] Wise: He deposited in [the Qur’an] the overwhelming wisdom which no one else is capable of depositing in it, and this is a mystery from among the mysteries of the inimitability (i’jāz) of the Qur’an. Knowing: over the instruction of those things from His presence to whomever He wills among His servants, as His words say: Then they found one of Our servants, unto whom We had brought mercy from Us and had taught him knowledge from Our Presence (Q. 18.65). Pointing out that the Qur’an has an exterior which the grammarians (ahl al-lugha) know about, and an interior which only the lords of hearts whom God has graced with knowledge from the Presence know about. And the summit of wisdom and its mystery is that you say: O Muhammad, what relates to you will not perish [?]. Serve none save God: that is, do not serve Satan, the world, the passions, nor what is other than God. I am to you from Him a warning: I warn you against being cut off from God, you that serve, obey, or love other than God; and the punishment of the servant is in Gehenna. And good news: I give you good news of mystical union and the graces of reunion [with God] in the house of magnificence, you that you serve Him and obey Him and love Him.

And the Prophet is specified by the call to God from among the prophets and the messengers, as indicated by His words: O Prophet, We sent you as a witness, a herald, a warning, and a caller to God by His permission (Q. 33.45). And you that seek forgiveness of your Lord: from what causes you to slip during the days of your lives into seeking other than God and the abandonment of seeking Him, and the occurrence of veiling [from God] and the vanities of people’s natural dispositions—for the seeking of of forgiveness is purification for your souls and cleansing for your hearts. Then turn to Him: return by preceding along the practice of wayfaring to God, so that repentance be a ornamentation for you after the purification of seeking forgiveness, per His words: He gives you enjoyable provision: the raising in stations from the low to the high, and from the high to the presence of the Exalted, the Great. To an appointed time: the termination of the stations of wayfaring (sulūk) and the beginning of the degrees of union. And there comes to every possessor of grace: possessor of truthfulness and struggle in the seeking. His grace: in the degrees of union; the witnessings are in accordance with the measure of the struggles. And if you turn back: to turn away from the seeking and the journey to God. Then (fa-): Say: I fear for you punishment of a great Day: the punishment of the Day of the cutting off from God, the Great—He is the greatest of the great, and His punishment is the hardest of strikings. To God you return: voluntarily or with detestation. If voluntarily, He will draw near to you with the utmost of attractions, as He said [in a ḥadīth qudsī: Whoever draws near to Me an inch, I will draw near to him a cubit. If with detestation, you deserve to be in the fire upon your faces. And He is over every thing: in both kindness and victorious might: powerful.

Ismāʿīl Ḥaqqī, Rūḥ al-bayān, Volume 4, 93-94.

[1] Ta’wīlāt is a somewhat ambiguous word: it can mean simply ‘commentary’ or ‘intepretation’; it can mean ‘commentary by personal opinion,’ with a negative sense attached to it; or it can stand for ‘mystical’ interpretation. Here it would seem to entail aspects of all three meanings, though without any negative sense attached to it.

Vice and Virtue

The following translation is another excerpt from the philosophical-mystical Qur’an commentary of ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashanī (d. 730/1329), previously discussed here. In this excerpt, which is ostensibly related to a large chunk of verses from Sura al-Nur (Q. 24), most of which have to do with ‘legal’ matters. Our commentator, however, takes these verses as an opportunity to expound upon the nature of vice and virtue and proper moral behavior and nature. In the Western Latin exegetical tradition, similar material might fall under the label of ‘tropological’ exegesis. In the tropological mode, a commetator seeks to locate the moral meaning or message behind a particular passage, usually for the purpose of presenting a lesson or example for good behavior. In this case, al-Kashanī is interested, first of all, in expounding on the ‘ontology’ of good and evil acts, reflective of his general philosophical-mystical purpose. Secondarily, his ontological exposition serves to draw out a moral message and a warning against the cultivation of vice.

Readers familiar with Western Latin moral philosophy and theology from the same period in which al-Kashanī is writing will probably recognize some common themes and concepts. This is, of course, not accidental: al-Kashanī is drawing upon many shared elements, particularly those often labeled ‘neo-Platonic.’ Of course, the paths taken by al-Kashanī on the one hand and Western philosophers and theologians on the other were quite different in many ways, and the systems and final forms which they created and used varied considerably. In al-Kashanī’s case, his philosophical commitments are filtered through and transformed by his engagement with the mystical theology of Ibn ‘Arabi. In this passage, however, the Great Master’s influence is not especially evident; philosophical language and concepts, creatively interpenetrated with the Qur’anic text and concepts, are front and center.

[From] Those who come with a lie to His words, Theirs is forgiveness and noble sustenance: verily, the magnitude of the matter of falsehood, and the harshness of the threat (al-wa’īd) attached to it—in that no other matter of disobedience is so harshly dealt with, and the seriousness of the punishment for it, in that neither adultery nor murder are treated so seriously: this is because of the magnitude of the vileness, and the weight of the disobedience. It is in relation to the potency (al-quwa)[1] that is its origin (maṣdaruhā). And the condition of the vices, in veiling their practitioner, diverts away from the divine presence and the holy lights, and is involvement in physical destruction, a darkened gulf in view of the disharmony with its locus of manifestation. For the more that the potency that is [a vice’s] origin and its initiatory source is exalted, the vice that derives from it is all the worse through opposition. For vice is what stands opposite virtue, and when the virtue is especially exalted, what stands opposite it as vice is especially base. Lying is the vice of the potency of speech, which is the most exalted of human potencies. Adultery is the vice of the desiring potency, murder is the vice of the irascible potency. On account of the exaltation of the first [the potency of speech] over the other two [lying] increases the baseness of its vileness.

And that is because man is man on account of the first [potency of speech], as it raises him to the higher world, and it turns him to the divine side, and is his attainment for mystical knowledge and miraculous wonders, and is his acquisition for good deeds and happiness. He is by it, so if is corrupted by the overcoming of satanic influence upon it, and is veiled from the Light by the overwhelming of darkness, it becomes a great unhappiness, and incurs the punishment of the Fire. For it is the stainer and the total veil: Nay, rather, it stains their hearts, what they have acquired; they will be on that day veiled from their Lord. (Q. 83.14-15) And for this the eternity of the punishment is necessary, and the persistence of the torment is by the corruption of belief apart from corruption of deeds, as God does not forgive that one associate another with Him, though He forgives all other than that to whomever He wills.

As for the other [potencies], as each of them traces back in its external manifestation to the reigning potency of speech, then perhaps [the vice] is effaced by its [the potency’s] reassertion, and it subjects it to itself through the stilling of its agitation and the calming effect of its sovereignty through the overwhelming of the strength of the light. It exercises sovereignty over [the vice] naturally, like the state of the censuring soul during repentance and contrition. Or, perhaps [the vice] persists through obduracy, and the abandonment of seeking forgiveness. In these two states the vices of the two [potencies] do not overcome the station of the mystical secret, nor the locus of [divine] presence, or intimate conversation with the Lord, nor do they overstep the bounds of the heart, nor bring about the veiling of primal human nature from reality, inverting through variance with these, except that you see the satanic temptation towards humanity, making him further from the divine presence than the predatory and the beastly, and further from his own natural capacity. For man, by the rootedness of the vice of the potency of speech becomes satanic; rootedness in the vices of the other two cause him to become animalistic, like a predator or beast—and every creature is morally sounder and closer to joy than Satan.[2] And for this reason God said: Shall I reveal to you upon whom the satans descend? They descend upon every lying, evil one (Q. 26.222).

And He forbids here from following the footsteps of Satan, for verily the perpetration of the like of these vile deeds is only through following after him and obeying him. And [Satan’s] companion is part of his army and his following, but is even baser and lower than him; he is cut off from the grace of God which is the light of right guidance; veiled from His mercy which is the overflowing of perfect grace and happiness. He is accursed in this world and the next, odious towards God and the angels. His limbs bear witness against him; he changes their forms, their outward manifestation is made unseemly by the wickedness of inner essence and soul, entangled in filth. Verily, the like of this wickedness does not originate save from the wicked, as God said: Wicked women belong to wicked men. As for the good who are free of the vices, their originates from them good and virtue—Theirs is forgiveness, through the veiling of their attributes by the divine lights, and noble sustenance, from the mystical meanings and the mystical knowledge found in their hearts.

[1] This word might also be translated as ‘faculty’ or ‘capacity.’

[2] Translating al-shayṭān as ‘Satan’ is problematic, as the term can mean both the individual, singular Satan familiar to Western religious discourse, as well as ‘satans,’ or evil spirits of the sort usually referred to in English as ‘devils’ or ‘demons’ (the latter word being especially apropos, as one often encounters, especially in Sufi writings, the idea of ‘personal’ satans, malevolent daemons as it were). I have tried to preserve the ambiguity by translating al-shayṭān as ‘Satan’ when the singular individual is referred to; ‘satans’ when the evil spirits are meant. See Andrew Rippin, ‘S̲h̲ayṭān.’ Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.

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.

The Genres of Tafsir

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the 18th century Moroccan Sufi Ahmad ibn ‘Ajiba’s mystical commentary on the Qur’an. He provides in this excerpt an excellent summary of the ‘genres’ of tafsir from the perspective of a scholar who was both trained in the full range of traditional Islamic exegesis and who embraced the particularly Sufi mode of interpretation later in life.


The Prophet’s saying, ‘Every verse has an outer aspect and an inner, a limit and a vantage point’ thus means that the outward is for those such as the grammarians, the experts in language and declension. The inward is for those concerned with the meanings of words, the commandments and prohibitions, parables and narratives, the affirmation of God’s oneness, and other like teachings of the Qur’an, such being the domain of the exegetes. The limit is for the juridical scholars (al-fuqaha) who are concerned with the derivation of rules from the verses, who come to a verse and then carry its arguments as far as possible but without addition. The vantage point (al-muttala’u) is for the people of spiritual truths among the greatest of the Sufis, where, from the outward meaning of a verse, they look down, as it were, into its inward meaning. Then are unveiled to them, through reflection upon the verse, its mysteries, teachings, and mystic sense.

Literally, muttala’u means any place from which one may look down upon something from its highest to lowest point and this word is mentioned in a sound hadith referring to the ‘terror of the vantage point’ by which is meant a place of approach from which one will look down upon the events of the Last Day. Thus too can it be said [in Arabic], ‘Where is the vantage point of this question?’ meaning its point of approach, which is literally an elevated point from which something may be seen from its highest to lowest limits. In a like manner do the people of spiritual truth look down from the outward meaning of a verse into the mysteries of its inward dimension and then plunge into the depths of the ocean. And God Most High knows better.

Ahmad ibn ‘Ajiba, Al-Barh al-Madid (The Immense Ocean), trans. Mohamed Fouad Aresmouk and Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2009), 3-4.