July 17, 2010
Posted by Jonathan under Culture
, East & West
| Tags: Jean Leclercq
, Latin Christianity
, Monastic Culture
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In secular usage, meditari means, in a general way, to think, to reflect, as does cogitare or considerare; but, more than these, it often implies an affinity with the practical or even moral order. It implies thinking of a thing with the intent to do it; in other words, to prepare oneself for it, to prefigure it in the mind, to desire it, in a way, to do it in advance- briefly, to practice it… To practice a thing by thinking of it, is to fix it in the memory, to learn it. All of these shades of meaning are encountered in the language of the Christians; but they generally use the word in referring to a text. The reality it describes is used on a text, and this, the text par excellence, the Scripture par excellence, is the Bible and its commentaries. Indeed, it is mainly through the intermediary of ancient biblical versions and through the Vulgate that the word (meditation) has been introduced into the Christian vocabulary, particularly into monastic tradition, where it was to continue to retain the new shade of meaning given it by the Bible. There, it is used generally to translate the Hebrew hāgā, and like the latter it means, fundamentally, to learn the Torah and the words of the Sages, while pronouncing them usually in a low tone, in reciting them to oneself, in murmuring them with the mouth. This is what we call “learning by heart,” what ought rather to be called, according to the ancients, “learning by mouth” since the mouth “meditates wisdom”: Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. In certain texts, that will mean only a “murmur” reduced to the minimum, an inner murmur, purely spiritual. But always the original meaning is at least intended: to pronounce the sacred words in order to retain them; both the audible reading and the exercise of memory and reflection which it precedes are involved. To speak, to think, to remember, are the three necessary phases of the same activity.
To express what one is thinking and to repeat it enables one to imprint it on one’s mind. In Christian as well as rabbinical tradition, one cannot meditate anything else but a text, and since this text is the word of God, meditation is the necessary complement, almost the equivalent, of lectio divina… For ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it “by heart” in the fullest sense of this expression, this is, with one’s whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.
Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, pp. 16-17
July 13, 2010
In the case of the person who has been held worthy to taste of divine love, that person customarily forgets everything else by reason of its sweetness, for it is something at whose taste all visible things seems despicable: such a person’s soul gladly draws near to a luminous love of humanity, without distinguishing between good and bad; he is never overcome by the weaknesses to be found in people, nor is he perturbed. He is just as the blessed Apostles were as well: people who in the midst of all the bad things they endured from others, were nonetheless utterly incapable of hating them or of being fed up with showing love for them. This was manifested in actual deed, for after all the other things they even accepted death in order that these people might be retrieved. These were men who only a little previously had begged Christ that fire might descend from heaven upon the Samaritans just because they had not received them into their village! But once they had received the gift and tasted the love of God, they were made perfect even in love for wicked men: enduring all kinds of evils in order to retreive them, they could not possibly hate them.
St. Isaac the Syrian, from ‘The Second Part,’ trans. Sebastian Brock, p. 50.
July 12, 2010
The tafsīr of the Moroccan Sufi Ahmad ibn ‘Ajība (b. 1747/8) is the most recent of the commentaries I am examing in this series, and because of that it is a good summation of the many centuries of exegetical tradition that preceded it, both in ‘mainstream’ Sunni tafsir and in Sufi mystical intepretation. At first glance, there is little to distinguish ibn ‘Ajība from his predecesors. He seems to be drawing heavily upon al-Baydawī (or al-Baydawī’s source, al-Zamakhsharī), with some expansions. However, there are some rather significant changes. For instance, we see that al-Sulamī’s story about Muhammad’s discontent has been included as part of the ‘exoteric’ commentary, and has been modified slightly. Ibn ‘Ajība includes brief grammatical explanations, taking care not to overburden the reader; he also includes an occasion of revelation story that we have not come across before, as well as brief speculation on the liturgical proscriptions inherent in this surah. He thus draws upon the wide variety of exegesis that had developed, paring it down and presenting the various elements in rapid succession.
Finally, of most significance is the final paragraph of the commentary, the ‘spiritual allusions.’ Here we see another form of Sufi exegesis, but in a very different order from al-Sulamī’s. Instead of the usual process of dividing the surah into lemmas (individual lines or units) and presenting various exegetical authorities and opinions, line by line, our author interprets the surah through a process of interpolation, flowing from phrase to phrase. He expands the verse using Sufi doctrines and concepts, uniting the scriptural words seamlessly with mystical language and experience.
The Truth [God], His strength is mighty, said: ‘Verily, we gave to you al-kawthar.’ That is: abundance of goodness, the one [Muhammad] whom universal prophethood exalts possesses the good of both worlds, universal headship, and the happiness of this world and the next. [The word al-kawthar is of the form] faw’al from [the word] al-kathira. And it is said: it is a river in the Garden, sweeter than honey, whiter than milk, colder than snow, softer than foam. Its two brims are of pearls and chrysolite, and its [drinking] vessels are of silver, the number of the stars of heaven, and the one who drinks of it will never be thirsty, and the one coming to drink it returns. Two of the Immigrants recited, [they are of] dirty clothes, unkempt hair, those who are not wedded to the graces [of God?], and He does not open to them the gates of intensity [?]- that is: the gates of the kings- due to their weakness. One of them dies, and his necessity stammers inside his chest- if he swore by God, let him fulfill it. [These last couple of sentences remain opaque to me. There seems to be some reference to something which I am missing…]
And ibn ‘Abbās interpreted it as abundance of good, and it was said to him: verily people say: it is a river in Paradise. So he said: The river is part of that good. And it is said: it is abudance of his children and descendents, or the ‘ulamā’ of his community, or the Qur’ān providing the good of this world and the next.
And it is related: That the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, said: ‘O Lord, You took Ibrahim as a friend, and Musa as a spokesman- so how am I special?’ So [this verse] descended: ‘Did He not find you an orphan then give [you] shelter?’ But he was not satisfied with that, so there descended: ‘We gave you al-kawthar.’ But he was not satisfied with that, for it was due him lest he be satisfied, for contement from God is deprivation, and reliance upon [one spiritual] state cuts off the highest [spiritual state]. So Jibrīl descended, and said to the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him: ‘God- blessed and exalted is He- greets you with peace, and says to you: “If I took Ibrahim as a friend, and Musa as spokesman, then I have taken you as a beloved one (habīban), and My counsel and my Strength are for the preference of My beloved over and beyond My friend and My spokesman.”’ So [Muhammad], peace and prayer be upon him, was content.
The [particle] fa’ in His saying ‘So pray (fa-sall) to your Lord and sacrifice’ is for the organization of what is after it in relation to what is before it, in that God, exalted is He, gave [Muhammad]- peace and prayer be upon him- what was mentioned of the gift which was not given to any one [else] in the world, deserving to the one commissioned by Him, that is, one deserving. That is: continue in prayer to your Lord- He who has poured out upon you this glorious grace, to which no [other] grace compares- purely devoted to His face, differing from the heedless hypocrites, so stand in the reality of gratitude for it, for verily the canonical prayer is a uniting of the various parts of gratitude. ‘And sacrifice’: the torso (al-badn), which is the choice part of the goods of the Bedouin, and give alms to the needy, differing from him who repells them [the needy] and forbids them, forbidding from them small kindnesses. And on the authority of ‘Attīa: it is the canonical prayer of dawn in a gathering, and the sacrifice is in Mina, and it is said: [it is] the prayer of the festival and of the sacrifical animal. It is said: it is the kind of prayer, and ‘the sacrifice’ is the placing of the right [hand] upon the left, under his sacrifice. It is said: it is that one raise his hands during the ‘God is great’, towards his sacrifice. And according to ibn ‘Abbās: face the qibla with your sacrifice, that is, during the ritual prayer. Al-Fara’ and al-Kalbī [also] say this.
‘Verily, he who hates you’: that is, the one who despises you, whoever he may be, ‘he is cut off’: he who has no descendent, when there does not subsist for him lineage, no glorification of remembrance- but as for you [Muhammad], your progeny remains, your fame is glorified, and your virtue praised, up to the day of the Resurrection. Because all who are begotten of the Muslims are your sons and your descendants, your remembrance is lifted up in the minbars, and is upon the tongue of every scholar and mystic, to the end of the age. One begins with the remembrance of God, and one gives praise through your remembrance. You possess in the next world what is not described in the Qur’an, and one cut off does not speak of even your likeness, rather, the one cut off, he who hates you, is forgotten in this world and the next.
It is said: [the verse] descended regarding al-‘As ibn Wā’al, who used to call the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, ‘cut off,’ after [Muhammad’s] son, ‘Abd Allāh, died. He stopped [to speak] with the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, and it was said to him: ‘With whom did you stop to speak?’ He said: ‘With that cut-off one.’ So Quraysh called him cut-off and one solitary without descendants. And when Ka’ab ibn al-Ashra- God curse him!- preceded to Mekka, and Quraysh agitated against [Muhammad], peace and prayer be upon him, saying to [Ka’ab]: ‘We are the people of al-Saqāya and al-Sadāna, and you are the master of the people of al-Medīna- so are we better, or is that cut-off solitary one without descendants of your people [better]?’ He answered: ‘You are better,’ so [the following verse] descended regarding Ka’ab: ‘Have you not looked to those to whom half of the Book was given, who believe in al-Jibat and al-Tāghūt…?’ (al-Nisa’, 51) And [the following verse] descended regarding them, ‘Verily, he who hates you, he is cut off.’
Spiritual allusions: it is said to the successor (khalīfa) of the Messenger, he who is molded after [Muhammad’s] innate characterstics and follows after him: ‘We gave you al-kawthar,’ abundance of good, because whoever obtains gnosis of God has gained the entire good. ‘He who has found You, what is he deprived of?’ [Ibn ‘Attā Allāh, Kitāb al-Hikam, Munājāt 26] ‘So pray to your Lord’ the prayer of the heart, ‘and sacrifice’ yourself and your passions. ‘Verily he who hates you’ and despises you, ‘he is cut off,’ and as for you, your remembrance continues, and your life is not cut off, because the death of the people of piety is life without annihilation afterwards. And Junayd said: ‘“He who hates you, he is cut off”: that is, cut off from attaining hope in You.’
May God pray for our master Muhammad and his house!
July 11, 2010
Posted by Jonathan under Poetry  Comments
He will set your fields on fire. He will
Tie the first fire on the tails
Of the little foxes we have caught-
Yet even that vineyard must go.
Only when all the fuel is spent,
In all the spaces of the heart’s creases,
Will the Flame have done its work,
And the distances all obliterated.
Only when your bones have passed
Into the unform of the flaming ether
When His fire has consumed
The very moment of consumption,
And your ash is burned up,
Your weeds and your wheat,
The stubble and the harvest:
Then there remains the single flame in
The vast fields of your heart,
The rows declining to this one point:
Your flesh is
Become His field, and
His flesh is yours
And you are your Beloved’s, and He
Is yours. But the burning comes first.
July 9, 2010
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-Sādiq 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-Sādiq] 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 ‘Attā’ said: [al-kawthar is] the message and prophethood. And ibn ‘Attā’ 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-hāl) 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 (habīban) 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.
July 8, 2010
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-Baydawī, 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 antīnāka- ‘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 [Muhammad], 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.’
July 7, 2010
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 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.
‘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 ‘Atta’, ‘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 (tatanāhir),’ 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 Hamād ibn ‘Uthmān: he said: ‘I asked Abū ‘Abd Allāh, “What is ‘the sacrifice’ (al-nahr)?” 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-Asbagh 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-Wāhid relate this in their commentaries.
‘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 Muhammad (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 [Muhammad] 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.
July 1, 2010
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.