By the late medieval period, the study and explication of the Qur’an in Muslim communities across the world had given rise to a vast range of approaches and texts. Some exegetes examined individual surahs; the Fatiha, the opening surah of the Qur’an, and Surah Yusuf, the longest single sustained narrative in the Qur’an, were particularly popular in this regard. Other writers examined the entire Qur’an from particular perspectives, be it legal, grammatical/philological, or with an eye to moral development. Some such specialized commentaries were comprehensive, verse by verse, while others dealt only with those portions deemed relevant to the particular concern of the commentary. Among ‘specialized’ commentaries were those produced by Sufis, either incorporating ‘mystical,’ Sufic interpretations as part of a larger more ‘conventional’ commentary, or focusing exclusively on interpretations and concerns especially salient to Sufi thought and practice. Of these latter, specialized commentaries, one of the more widely reproduced and read was a tafsīr known by the name (among other names) of al-Ta’wilāt al-Najmiyya, which was possibly composed by the famous Sufi master Najm al-Dīn al-Kubrā (1145-1220), or, more likely, by his close disciples and successors, including Najm al-Dīn al-Rāzī Dāya (1177-1256). At any rate, the tafsīr is reflective of the developed Sufism of al-Kubrā and his ‘school,’ itself a culmination of centuries of Sufi practice and thought. I have excerpted and translated a short excerpt from this commentary below.

The commentary is distinctive for its highly cohesive style: while it unfolds verse-by-verse, the author (or authors) maintains consistent analytical and narrative threads through the examined passages, consistently treating the material from a ‘mystical,’ indeed allegorical, perspective. To use the author’s own term, his interest is in the ‘inner’ meaning of the Qu’ran, a concern shared by previous esoteric-minded exegetes. He is careful, early on in the commentary, to point out that his exclusive treatment of the ‘inner meaning’ of scripture is not meant to deny the ‘outer meaning,’ or what a contemporary medieval Christian exegete would have probably called the ‘historical’ or ‘literal’ sense of scripture. A quick perusal of the commentary reveals why a more exoteric-minded critic might believe the author was denying the literal sense: the contents of the admonitions, the stories, the theological pronouncements are all shifted and resignified, sometimes subtly, sometimes rather dramatically. As in the passage below, historical events are removed from the finality of historical time and instead become universal, recurring spiritual ‘events.’ Moses, for instance, is not a historical figure—or rather, is not merely a historical figure—but is the human heart, arrayed in struggle against the passions of the lower world. The story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt becomes the cyclical story of the heart’s exodus from the oppression of the lower self and the snares of the world, crossing the sea of passions to the meeting with God.

This is not to say that our author wishes to negate the ‘outer’ significance of the words, however; Sufis very rarely rejected the ‘literal’ or exoteric, and were often in fact particularly rigorous in their adherence to the ‘external’ religious law and rites. Indeed, for him—and for many, many other medieval exegetes, Muslim and Christian—scripture was not mere ‘allegory,’ in the modern sense, whereby the text really means something else than it appears on the surface, making the surface meaning superfluous. For these exegetes, scripture—and indeed history as a whole, especially as recorded in scripture and sacred tradition—was capable of simultaneous significances, equally important and ‘real,’ and mutually interdependent. To use a metaphor popular with Sufis, scripture is a sea, with many ‘submerged’ meanings, but all part of one single sea. Hence different exegetes might come to different conclusions when searching for the ‘inner’ meaning of a given passage—a perfectly acceptable outcome, given the boundless nature of the text. Similarly, for medieval Christian exegetes, the ‘mystical’ valences of scripture, be they typological, allegorical, or moral, were manifold, with different people in different spiritual states finding different meanings and spiritual nourishment in them, though all participating in both the shared ‘external’ meaning and the shared language and practices of in the ‘internal’ path. On the whole, this sort of interpretation tended to make the sacred text more intimate, more personal, as it was now reflective, not just of some universal salvation history, but also of the individual spiritual journey to God. Such a focus on the individual spiritual journey was not meant to negate or detract from the ‘historical,’ universal story, but rather to illuminate its ‘inner’ aspects, and bring it to the level of the individual seeker, the daily struggle against the passions, and the personal experience of God’s grace and illumination. Nor was such a focus meant to exist in isolation, or as mere individual discovery, but rather as part of a larger, older tradition of spiritual masters and seekers, speaking a shared language and sharing common symbols.


Then He related concerning the various sorts of His benefaction and the types of His grace with them, through His words: And when We delivered you from the house of Pharaoh (Q.2.49). The subtle indication (al-ishāra) in this [verse] is that the delivery from the house of Pharaoh, [who is] the lower self (al-nafs) commanding to evil,[1] while they [the house of Pharaoh] are its blameworthy attributes and rebellious characteristics, on the day of They treated you unjustly with evil torment, slaughtering your sons and shaming your women. [That is], the spirit and the heart,[2] by the slaughtering of the sons of the spiritual praiseworthy attributes, and the shaming of the women of one of the attributes of the heart, due to their making use of them for bestial, base deeds—[the aforementioned salvation] exists only through the deliverance of God, as Muhammad said [in the following ḥadīth]: ‘Not one of you is saved by his deeds! It was said: Not even you, O Prophet of God? He said: Not even me, except God cover me in His grace and mercy!’

And in your abasement: that is: in the overpowering domain of the attributes of the lower self over the spirit and the heart. A great trial from your Lord, in good and ill, for the one whom God guides and keeps safe and sound, He tries him, until he returns to God in seeking deliverance—so God saves him and destroys his enemies. The one whom He leads astray abides forever in the earth below and follows after his fleshly desires in excess, so God rejects him and allows his enemies to overwhelm him.

Then He related concerning His great benefaction on a succeeding occasion, with His words: And when we parted the sea for you: the subtle indication in this verse is that the sea is this world below—its waters are the desires and the pleasures of the world. Moses is the heart, and his people the attributes of the heart. Pharaoh is the lower self commanding [to evil], and his people are the attributes of the lower self, and they are the enemies of Moses and his people, seeking them in order to slay them, while they [Moses and his people] are traveling towards God away from their enemies who are following after them. Now: the sea of this world is before them, and they must certainly cross over the sea in their journey to God. If they heedlessly plunge into the sea without the striking of the staff of No god but God[3] in the hand of Moses, the heart—for he possess a beneficient hand in this matter—then they would drown, as Pharaoh and his people drowned. But, if this staff had been in the hand of Pharaoh, the commanding lower self, it would not have possessed the confirmatory miracle[4] of the cleaving of the sea. And when Moses, the heart, struck with the staff of remembrance [of God], through God’s permission, first the sea of this world below split with the negation of No god, then the water of its desires separated apart to the left and the right. Then God sent the wind of divine providence and the sun of divine guidance over the bottom of the sea of this world below, and it became dry of the waters of the desires. The Moses, the heart and its attributes, plunged in, crossed over, and the divine providence of but God delivered them to the shore of The utmost limit belongs to your Lord (Q. 53.42). It was said to Pharoah, the lower self: Drown, and enter the Fire! (Q. 71.25). So astutely understand—‘Verily, the Qur’an possesses an outer and inner [aspect].’[5]

[1] The ‘lower self (al-nafs)’ or ‘soul’ commanding to evil is a term, Qu’ranic in derivation, that describes the lower, sinfully inclined portion of the human person, that in its corrupted state acts contrary to the human person’s original, exalted nature; it is generally irrational and inclined towards the passions and desires.

[2] The spirit (al-rūḥ) and the heart (al-qalb) are two ‘locii’ of the human person, the spiritual centers through which both the external and internal spiritual senses and locutions are processed. Sometimes the two are presented in a gradated fashion, with the heart being subordinate to the spirit; here, that hierarchy is less in evidence.

[3] This is of course the first half of the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. In Sufi practice and theory, this phrase is often used in dhikr (prayerful inner and outer remembrance of God), and has also accumulated an immense body of analysis and significances, of which this passage is but one brief instance.

[4] My somewhat clunky translation is an attempt to render the significance of the term mu’jiz, which is a particular sort of miracle, usually considered to be exclusive to prophets, as signs confirming their prophethood. The miracles of saints are, according to most theologians and mystical thinkers, of a different order and significance.

[5] A partial citation of a hadith much quoted, in one form or another, by Sufi exegetes.