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-Rahman Mahmud bin al-Hussayn bin Mūsā al-Azdī al-Sulamī, Haqā’iq al-Tafsīr, Vol. 1 (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Almīa, 2001), 344.