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.

It has been some time since I have presented a translation of my own of a Syriac source here. To be honest, I had allowed my command of Syriac to become rusty through neglect, something I have begun trying to rectify. As part of this effort, I present here a translation of a Syriac scholia, or short selective commentary, on a passage from the book of Genesis. The author is Mar Jacob of Edessa, a prominent and productive Syriac Christian bishop and writer of the seventh century (A.D.). This text, while explicating a passage about Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, is really an examination of freedom of will and the mechanics of human wrong-doing, with the verse in question acting as a jumping-off place, and supporting evidence, for the centrality of human freedom in moral action.


 Behold! If you do good, I will accept you (Gen. 4:7a): And also, I am accepting of you if you do good. These are an evident indication that God wills the repentance of man, and receives his repentance. And He is longsuffering with him, and gives him also means that call him to this, because He wills his salvation.

But, if you do not do good—upon the door sin is crouching. You are turned towards it and it has mastery over you (Gen. 4:7b): These [words] point out that mastery of the house[1] and freedom of will belong to humans, and that one wills by his own will. One calls to sin that it come upon him and have mastery over his soul. If he does not will it, sin is not able to draw near to him. That is, it crouches upon the door of your mind, like a fierce animal outside of the gate of a house. If you turn towards this by your own will, and open up to it, it enters and has mastery upon you. And if you do not will, it is not able to enter against you.

By means of these you are clearly taught that Satan is not the sower of sin able to compel, or govern with force the rule of the house of the human mind, and sin is not the seed itself of evil. For this Cain was condemned, for he did not come to repentance of these things, though he opened the door to sin by his own will, and it entered and took mastery over him, as God said to him, and he murdered his transgression-less brother, from envy alone.

Mar Jacob of Edessa, Scholia on the Old Testament

[1] That is, mastery of the human body, or perhaps the soul: the exact meaning of the phrase, here literally translated, is a bit ambiguous.

I have featured on this blog a number examples of several different modes of scriptural exegesis in the medieval world (and a couple relating to the ‘early-modern’ era). The following represents yet another ‘mode’ of exegesis, here hailing from the Islamic theological tradition known as Mu’tazilism specifically, from the philosophical-theological tradition of kalam more generally. To make a quite long story short, kalam– literally, ‘speech,’ or perhaps more aptly, ‘talking’- is ‘dialectical theology,’ developed in the Arabic milieu of late formative Islam, but adopted by Christian and Jewish theologians as well. It seems to have initially developed as a way of dealing with theological and politico-theological issues in the early Muslim communities, eventually solidifying into distinct ‘schools’ of theological thought and practice, all more or less committed to a clarification of and defense of Muslim orthodoxy (the definition of which of course varied depending on who you asked) through the use of rational, discursive inquiry and methods. The Mu’tazila represented (or rather, represent, as there are some representatives of the tradition still about) what is sometimes incorrectly regarded as a more ‘liberal’ view of orthodox theology, a view that seems to have arisen among contemporary Western commentators due to the Mu’tazila insistence upon free will, on the one hand, and the createdness of the Qur’an, on the other. While both positions were indeed held by the Mu’tazila, it was not out of some commitment to ‘liberalism,’ a meaningless term in this case. Rather, the Mu’tazila saw themselves as upholders of both proper orthodoxy and of a deeply rational system of thought and doctrine; many of their doctrines, such as the status of the grave sinner, would no doubt strike many contemporary Western observers as ‘harsh.’

But all of that is beside the point of this post, which is rather to highlight the rational-theological commitments and techniques of the Mu’tazila in particular, and of the mutikallimun (dialectical theologians) in general. These commitments are very much on display in the exegesis generated by the dialectical theologians; the theologian I have selected for translation here, ʻAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Asadābādi (935-1025), was one of the most productive and astute theologians the Mu’tazila produced. Coming towards the end of the so-called ‘classical period’ of Mu’tazila thought, ʻAbd al-Jabbār both recapitulated previous doctrinal and philosophical developments and formulations in addition to his own creative additions to the tradition. Among his contributions were exegetical works that reflect the concerns and methods of both the tafsir tradition and that of kalam in general. The following excerpt comes his work the Tanzīh Al-Qurʼān ʻan Al-Maṭāʻin, in which ʻAbd al-Jabbār selects particular passages from the Qur’an due to problematic, theologically productive, or ambiguous nature in terms of grammar, arrangement, or vocabulary. For instance, in the following excerpt, dealing with verses from Surah Ta-Ha, ʻAbd al-Jabbār examines a verse that might seem at first to support an anthropomorphist reading of the Qur’an; he presents an interpretation in accordance with Mu’tazila theology. The other passages have to do with difficulties and ambiguities of other sorts; all are solved by ʻAbd al-Jabbār using rational, discursive methods, reflective of the methodological commitments of the Mu’tazila in general.

Finally, for a more in-depth analysis of mutikallimun tafsir, including that of ʻAbd al-Jabbār, the following paper of mine and the bibliographical references contained therein might prove useful: Kalām at the Interstices of Tafsīr: Theology, Contestation, and Exegesis in the Qur’an Commentaries of al-Maturidī and ‘Abd al-Jabbār.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, A revelation from Him Who created the earth and exalted heavens (Q. 20.4)—what is the purpose of His saying after this, The Merciful rises (istiwā) over the throne (Q. 20.5)?

We answer: God magnified the prestige of the Qur’an in that it is a revelation from Him Who created the earth and heavens, then He followed this with His being more magnified than that, saying: The Merciful rises over the throne. The intended meaning is possession and power over it because the throne is among the most magnificent things He created. He makes it clear that He is powerful over it with His magnificence and over the heavens and over the earth, and He rules what is the heavens, the earth, what is between them, and what is under the surface of the earth. So people know the magnificence of the place of the Qur’an through His description of it, and hold fast to its rules of behavior and judgments, for that was sent is from God regarding the overseeing office of the Qur’an.

And we have made clear beforehand the nullity of the doctrine of the anthropomorphists regarding God’s rising over the throne.[1] We said that from accepting that [doctrine] as sound, God is made to be a sensory object, possessing shape. And from this condition it follows that He is temporally originated and dependent upon being in a shape. So, rather, the intended meaning [of istiwā] is possession and power, as we have mentioned.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, If you speak publicly—then behold, He [also] knows the secret and what is more hidden (Q. 20.7): What is the meaning of His saying the more hidden, as there is nothing more hidden that the secret?

We answer: What alights upon the heart and arises in a one’s soul is even more hidden than the secret, so He points out the glory of His rank and knowledge of that, then says: God—no god but He; His are the beautiful names. So He points out by that what is incumbent upon one who remembers His names which inform about the magnificence of His rank, in accordance with His preceding words: A revelation from Him Who created the earth. And there is no avail in remembering the names of God except that one have in mind what they inform about Him—in regards to what His magnificence and glory require.

Question: Perhaps it is said, what is the meaning of His words, Verily, I am your Lord, so take off your sandals (Q.20.12): if it was permissible that he continue wearing the rest of his clothes, why was he forbidden from wearing his sandals while in the Holy Valley?

We answer: Sandals are not worn within the same parameters as other types of clothing. For one does not wear them inside his house, as he wears them [outside] in order to repel injury in places filthy refuse and other things accumulate. It is because of this purpose that in customary usage, when one wishes to honor a place, he takes off his sandals. God wanted to make clear to Moses the magnificence of the site of the Holy Valley, and He desired that the grace (baraka) of that valley adhere to Moses, so Moses touched the valley with his bare feet. God wished for Moses to know the magnificence of his location through that deed. It has also been related about his sandals that they were made from the skin of a donkey not killed in accordance with ritual purity. If that was the case, then it has precedent [as an explanation] in regards to the taking off [of the sandals]; if not, then what we previously discussed is a sound point of view.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, No god except Me—so serve Me and attend rightly to ritual prayer for My remembrance (Q.20.14). What is the meaning of His words for My remembrance, as ritual prayer is not properly carried out unless it is for His remembrance?

We answer: His words for My remembrance are directly related to the ritual prayer and to service to God together. It is as if He had said: Serve Me for My remembrance and attend rightly to the ritual prayer for My remembrance. Neither are sound unless one remembers God and confesses His oneness, because the one heedless of that is not prepared for what he is doing. It is in view of this that one struggles (yajtihad) to be on guard against distracted inattentiveness. So one who remembers God is on the straight path in his performance of his service towards God. God specifies [here] ritual prayer with remembrance, but it applies to all acts of worship, being emphatically important for them.

ʻAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Asadābādī. Tanzīh Al-Qurʼān ʻan Al-Maṭāʻin. Al-Ṭabʻah 1. Dirāsāt Ḥawla al-Qurʼān 2. (al-Jīzah: Maktabat al-Nāfidhah, 2006), 278-9.

[1] ‘Anthropomorphists’ interpreted the term istiwā in its most literal fashion, as reference to God corporeally rising above the material throne. At least, such a literalist, rather crude position is attributed to certain opponents by ‘Abd al-Jabbar; whether it was actually held in such a literal fashion by anyone, or more than a few, is another question.

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.

The excerpt below is from a Western Christian exegete, Alan of Lille (1128?-1203), a scholar and teacher who composed a number of works of Scripture commentary. While there are many similarities between this Latin commentary and that of Gregory of Narek’s Armenian commentary—they are both coming from a broad tradition of Song of Songs interpretation—there are also some marked differences. Alan’s allegorical reading moves along a different track: whereas Gregory read the Song as referring to the relationship between Christ and the soul, Alan here informs us of at least two possible readings. One is that of the Song being about Christ and the Church, a fairly common interpretation in the Latin West. However, such a correspondence is not Alan’s intention here. Rather, as he notes at the beginning of his commentary, he is going to read the Song as being about Christ and His Mother, the Virgin Mary. To a modern reader, even one sympathetic to allegorical and multi-valenced readings of Scripture, this is neither an obvious nor perhaps particularly tasteful interpretation. However, Alan develops it in depth and on multiple levels, as evidenced here. His interpretation is subtle and deliberately multi-valenced, developing a range of correspondences and meanings, some on a ‘literal’ level, others at a deeper allegorical or ‘mystical’ level. Finally, alongside the allegorical or mystical sense, Alan also wishes to develop a didactic or pedagogical meaning within the text. All of these levels are visible in this fairly brief excerpt, evidence of a fairly sophisticated and involved reading of one of the most treasured and commented-upon of all Scriptural texts in the Latin West.


 2. … And so, although the song of love, Solomon’s wedding song, refers particularly and according to its spiritual sense to the Church, in its most particular and spiritual reference it signifies the most glorious Virgin: this, with divine help, we will explain as far as will be within our power.

3. So it is that in her eagerness for the presence of the Bridegroom, longing for that glorious conception of which she was told by the angel and out of her desire for the divine incarnation, the glorious Virgin speaks thus:

4. May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: This is but to say what is elsewhere said in these words: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word. For she had listened to the Archangel Gabriel who was sent to her as a heavenly proxy for her Bridegroom; and he honours the Virgin, filled as she is with extraordinary and spiritual blessing, and speaks a special and unheard of greeting: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. And when she heard that the Son of God would be born of her, she found no cause for self-congratualation in this news, she did not allow herself to be carried away by this word, nor did she take pride in herself because of her child; rather did she humble herself in and through all things before God; and, never doubting the prophetic word, she replied: Behold the handmaid of the Lord.

5. Which is the same as saying: be it done unto me according to your word, that is, at your word I will conceive the Word of God. And this is what is meant here by: May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth….

8. For your breasts are more delightful than wine: Which is as much as to say, ‘You desire my kisses and I your breasts, for your breasts are more delightful than wine.’ I can read this literally as referring to the Virgin’s natural breasts, for the Gospel speaks of them in these terms: Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you have sucked. Which breasts are more delightful, which better, than those which gave milk to Christ, milk drawn not by the foulness of lust, but from the rich store of virginity? Christ longed for those breasts, he longed to draw milk from them, so as to experience not the deceitful taste of the flesh, but rather the antidote of her virginity. Those breasts were to Christ sweeter than wine, sweeter than the most pleasing of all drinks. For wine is the drink of drinks; it is what we mean we speak of ‘having a good drink.’

9. More fragrant than the finest ointments, that is, they may be compared to fragrance to the very best oils; for what oils emit by way of fragrance, the virginal breasts bestow in integrity. Because as the one attracts by its fragrance, the others nourish Christ on their auroma.

Alan of Lille, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Denys Turner in Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs.

The following is an excerpt from a commentary on the Song of Songs by the tenth century Armenian scholar Gregory of Narek (945?-1003). Like many medieval Christian exegetes in both Eastern and Western traditions, Gregory’s exegesis tends to be allegorical: he interprets the text through a system of correspondences between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ meanings. Like many medieval exegetes, for Gregory this ‘allegorical’ method operates alongside a view of Scripture and Scriptural truth that allows for and even demands multiple perspectives, valuations, and interpretations of the same text. As he notes in this brief excerpt, ‘full understanding of the sacred Scriptures’ is ultimately unattainable, given their divine inspiration: just as God is ultimately uncircumscribable and undefinable, the Scriptures He has revealed ultimately elude a final pinning down. Their truth unfolds continuously through the process of reading, meditation, practice, and exegesis.

This does not mean, for Gregory or any other exegetes, that commentary should simply proceed as the exegete wishes (though allegorical interpretations can sometimes seem as such). Rather, Gregory and others operated within particular traditions and tendencies of interpretation, building upon the work and meditation of others, often reproducing or expanding upon previously established sets of correspondences and interpretations. For instance, in this excerpt and throughout his commentary on the Song of Songs, Gregory makes use of the Patristic-era theologian and exegete Gregory of Nyssa. He is also drawing upon an old, and exceedingly broad, tradition of allegorically and typologically reading the Song of Songs. In Gregory of Narek’s reading, the Beloved is the human soul, while the Lover (in the Armenian translation of the Scriptures, the Nephew) is Christ. It is from this basic correspondence—one of several possible allegorical or typological correspondences commonly encountered in medieval exegetes—that the rest of his interpretions proceed.


5.6 I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word: See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of His knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that which I had received when I opened.

For that reason she says, My Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen than He at once withdrew, swift as the lightning. And my soul went out with his word; that is, ‘having obtained a small glimmering of His words my soul left me and pursued His words.’ To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had obtained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain. By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person yearns after the maning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.

Gregory of Narek, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007), 148-9.

Few thinkers of any sort in medieval Islam have had as much influence in later Islamic traditions—Sunni and Shi’i and all the permutations within those categories—as the great Andalusian mystic, philosopher, and prolific author Ibn ‘Arabī. Like so many seminal philosophical and mystical thinkers, his later followers and interpreters would vary greatly in their defense, appropriation, and creative expansion of the master’s work and thought. This is perhaps especially the case for Ibn ‘Arabī, an especially dense and difficult author. Already a figure of controversy in his lifetime, Ibn ‘Arabī’s value and legacy continue to be contested points, both within the field of Islamic thought and practice and within the field of historical enquiry. The passage translated below was written by one of Ibn ‘Arabī’s many later followers. Like many others, ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashanī (d. 730/1329) drew upon the writings of the ‘Greatest Master’ in a creative fashion; he did not simply reproduce Ibn ‘Arabī’s ideas or methods—an improbable task, anyway. Rather, as we see in this example of al-Kashanī’s tafsīr, he drew upon Ibn ‘Arabī’s language, concepts, and tendencies to craft his own system of mystical-philosophical theology and hermeneutic. Having studied Avicennian philosophy before embracing Sufism via Ibn ‘Arabī, al-Kashanī’s mystical-philosophical ‘system’ draws upon both traditions. His writings—several of which are commentaries upon the work of Ibn ‘Arabī—tend to have a highly pedagogical edge to them, both in intention and in format and composition. Suffice to say, al-Kashanī is a much easier writer to read than Ibn ‘Arabī. This is not to say his ideas or language are simple, however; they are not. But they are deliberately more accessible and systematic than Ibn ‘Arabi’s works.

Among al-Kashanī’s numerous extant writings, one of the most frequently printed is his Qur’an commentary. However, despite the virtually uncontested ascription of the Ta’wīlāt al-Qur’ān to al-Kashanī, this text has been repeatedly printed by modern publishing houses under the name Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-Karīm and ascribed to Ibn ‘Arabī himself; as one scholar has suggested, this strategy is probably at least in part a marketing ploy.[1] At any rate, the tafsīr is relatively brief (for commentaries)—about a thousand pages in two volumes in the edition I am using—and very readable, particularly compared to Ibn ‘Arabī’s dense and rather convoluted style. Al-Kashanī, like many other ‘specialized’ commentators in other ‘genres’ of commentary, engages in selective commentary, rather than trying to comment on every single line. His concerns are, as might be expected from my brief synopsis above, philosophical-mystical. His exegetical method in most of the commentary might be described as ‘allegorical’ (a problematic but still useful term, I think). However, as I plan on posting excerpts from several more ‘allegorical’ minded commentators, from multiple high medieval traditions, in coming days, I will refrain from a further analysis. Rather, take note of the obvious exegetical moves al-Kashanī makes here, and the underlying philosophical, religious, and ‘mystical’ ideas and concerns he reveals in this short passage. What sorts of things does al-Kashanī presuppose about the world, things that would be accepted by most people in his society? What sorts of things might be contested in his analysis? How does his mystical ‘system’ correspond to the Qur’anic text, and is he consistent in his application?

[Text]: Q.19:22-26: So she [Mary] became pregnant with him and withdrew with him to a remote place. Then the labor pains brought her to the trunk of the palm tree; she said: O that I died before [this], forgotten, forgetting. Then he cried out to her from below her—Lest you be sadded, your Lord has placed flowing water below you. And shake towards you the trunk of the plam tree; there will fall to you ripe harvestable dates. So eat and drink and refresh yourself. And if you see anyone from among men, say: I have vowed to the Merciful a fast, so I will not speak today to anyone.

[Commentary]: And the union of the spirit of Jesus with the sperm (al-nuṭfa), however, is after the occurrence of the sperm in the womb and its repose therein, while it mixes and merges into one, becoming a nature (mizājan) fit for the reception of the spirit.[2] So she withdrew with him (bihu), that is, with him (ma’hu), to a remote place, far from the first eastern place, for it happened to her in a foreign place which is the world of physical nature (‘ālam al-ṭabī’a), the material horizon, and so He said: Then the labor pains brought her to the trunk of the palm tree, the palm tree of the soul. So he cried out to her from below her, that is, Gabriel cried out to her from the lowest [place] in relation to her place in regards to the heart, that is, from the world of physical nature, that which had saddened her with respect to it, the pregnancy which was the cause of her being pointed out and expelled. Lest you be saddened, your Lord has placed flowing water below you, that is, a small stream, from the unseen of physical-natural knowledge, and knowledge of the oneness of actions, with which God singled you out and purified you—as you saw He who generated the fetus from your sperm, uniting it together.

And shake towards you the trunk of the palm tree of your soul, which was lofty through hearing the Spirit, through your connection to the Spirit of holiness, and became verdant with true life, after its aridity from spiritual exercise and its dryness from being forbidden the water of passion and its life. And it bore fruit of gnosis (al-ma’ārif), and inner meaning; that is, Set it in motion with contemplation. There will fall to you, of the fruit of gnosis, and realities, ripe harvestable dates. So eat, that is, from above you, the dates of the realities, of divine gnosis, of knowledge of the manifestation of the [divine] attributes, of the gifts, and of the states. And drink, from below you, the water of the knowledge of physical nature, of the wonders of creation, of the mysteries of the divine actions, of knowledge of tawakkul, of the manifestation of the actions, of the virtues, of the acquisitions, as God says: They would have eaten from above them and from below their feet (Q. 5.66b).

And refresh yourself, by grace, by the blessed son, the existent through divine power, the gift through divine providence. And if you see anyone from among men, that is, from among the people of exotericism, those veiled from the realities by the outer appearances of the means, by the creation, by the judgements, from the wonders and from divine power—those who do not understand your word, and do not speak truthfully regarding you or your state, due to their conformity with custom, and their being veiled by intellects muddied by delusion, veiled from the light of God. Then say: I have vowed to the Merciful a fast, that is, not to talk about anything of your matter, nor to keep on talking with them about what they are not capable of receiving, as one speaks in accordance with his own state.


[Text]: Q. 20:6-13: And what is in the heavens is His, and what is on the earth, what is between the two, and what is under the ground. And if you speak publicly, He knows the secret and [the] more hidden. God—no god save He; His are the beautiful names. And has there come to you the story of Moses? When he saw a fire, he said to his people: remain; I espied a fire, perhaps I will you from it a firebrand or may find at the fire guidance. And when he came to it, it was cried out, O Moses! Verily, I am your Lord, so take off your two sandals, for you are in the holy valley Ṭuwa. And I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed.[3]

[Commentary]: And what is in the heavens is His, to and what is under the ground: evidentiary proof of the total embrace of His force and of His dominion over all, that is, everything is under His dominion, His force, His governing power, His effectual influence: you do not come-into-being, do not move, do not come-to-rest, do not change, do not subsist, save by His command. And likewise, you pass away in whole overcome by His oneness, and the obliterating power of His compulsion: you do not hear, do not see, do not strike, do not walk, except in Him and by His command.

And if you speak publicly, He knows the secret and [the] more hidden: evidentiary proof of the perfection of His kindness. That is, His knowledge is effective in all things. He knows their exteriors and interiors, the secret, and the secret of the secret. Likewise, if you act publicly, or covertly, then He knows it, public and covert.

And whereas the aforementioned attributes were the sources with which there is no attribute save under their totality, and there is no name save it is included in these aforementioned names, and the essence is not made multiple by them, so He says: God. That is the way-station (al-manzil) described by these attributes, He is God, there is no god save He, His unitary essence is not made multiple, nor is the reality of His He-ness [made multiple] by them, and He is not numerically compounded. For He is He in eternal duration, just as He was in eternity. There is no he save He, no existence other than Him in regards to His absolute unicity and His being the source of all things. Whereas He mentioned: His are the beautiful names which are His essence in regards to the particularization of the attributes.

When he [Moses] saw a fire, it is the Spirit of holiness, that which kindles from itself light in human souls; he saw it by the refreshed eye of his inner sight, by the light of guidance. He said to his people the capacities of the lower self, Remain, be at rest, and do not set out, since the course (al-sīr), rather, arrives at the holy world (al-‘ālam al-qudsī), and he is joined to it in the presence of these human capacities, from the outer and inner senses, the objects of concern for it.[4] I espied a fire, that is, I saw a fire. Perhaps I will bring you from it a firebrand, that is, a conjunctive luminescent aspect (hai’a), by which all of you (pl.) will be benefited. So [Moses] will be illumined and his essence become an excellent quality. Or I will find at the fire one who will guide me through knowledge and gnosis, the reason for divine guidance to God (al-Ḥaqq), that is, the [revealed] scriptures, by the conjunction through them to the luminescent aspect (hai’a: or, ‘form’), or the cognizant aspect.

And when he reached it, that is, was joined to it, it was cried out, from behind the fiery veil, which is the pavilions of glory and might, the divine presence being veiled by it. O Moses! Verily, I am your Lord! Veiled by the fiery form, which is one of the veils of might manifest in it. So take off your two sandals, that is, your lower self and your body, or rather two existents, because one, if he is stripped of the two, he is stripped of two existents. That is, likewise, in your spirit and your secret you were stripped of their attributes and aspects, so that you are joined to the Spirit of holiness, and stripped in your heart and your chest from the two, the cutting off of attachment to all things, the effacement of the traces, the extinguishing of the attributes and actions. He names them two sandals, and He does not name them two articles of clothing, because if he were not stripped of wearing the two, he would not be united to the world of holiness. And the state is the state of union, so He commands him with the cutting off of all things in view of Him, as He said: Be devoted to Him entirely. So it is as if his attachment susbsisted with the two, and the attachment through the two caused his foot to slip, [the foot] being the lowest aspect of the heart, designated by ‘front’ (ṣadr). Then the two, after the the spiritual, secretual betaking towards holiness, He ordered the cutting off of the two in the station of the Spirit, and for this He justified the necessity of the taking off by His words, You are in the holy valley Ṭuwa, that is, the world of the Spirit, clear of the traces of attachment, the forms of dependencies, and the extended attachments; [it is] named Ṭuwa, due to the concealment (ṭayy) of the conditions of the domain, and of the celestial and terrestrial bodies beneath it.

He has spoken truthfully who said: ‘He commanded him to put the two [sandals] down due to their being made from the skin of a dead donkey, without tanning.’ And it is said: ‘When He cried out, Satan whispered to him: “Satan cried out to you.”’ So he said: I am discriminating! I heard from six sides with all my members—and that could not be save from the cry of the Merciful.’[5]

I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed: this He promised with the election that is after the perfect essential manifestation, that which leveled the mountain of his being  (wujūdihi) with the annihilation in it by being leveled, and his thunderstruck prostration at his recovery through Real Being, as God said: when he was restored he said: Glory to you! I turn to You, and I am the first of the believers: [God] said: ‘O Moses! I have chosen you in preference to all other people, as My messenger and My word.’ This manifestation is the manifestation of the attributes, before the manifestation of the essence. And for this He sent him, and he did not here ask Him for information concerning the revelation. And He commanded him with spiritual exercise, with being-present, with watchfulness, and He promised him the great resurrection in short time, so this election is close to the foundational choosing alluded to in His words: Then his Lord chose him; so turn to Him and be rightly-guided, a middle between him and between the electing.

[1] James Winston Morris, ‘Ibn ‘Arabi and His Interpreters:  Part II (Conclusion): Influences and Interpretations, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 107 101-119.

[2] Mizāj is derived from a root that means ‘to mix, to stir’; the term might best be translated as ‘humoral nature’ or ‘disposition,’ as the conceptions behind the term lie in Galenic theories of the humors and their particular presences and circulations in the body.

[3] Some readers will perhaps be familiar with a much earlier instance of a mystical/allegorical interpretation of the story of Moses: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. As we see here in al-Kashanī’s interpretation, Gregory reinterpreted the historically particular life of Moses along universal lines, as being the story of the human soul in its progress towards God. Likewise, al-Kashanī here finds in the story the opportunity to lay out theology and a supreme example of human experience of God. While he does not deny the historical particularity of the story, that historical particularity is not especially important here—rather, it is the universal truths al-Kashanī finds revealed, mystically and anagologically, in the story.

[4] I.e., Moses said to his lower capacities/potencies: remain here while I [viz., the higher self/spirit] go towards the fire. The sense is that the lower self cannot embark on the path to the ‘hallowed world.’ I am not entirely satisfied with my translation here, but I think the sense is clear.

[5] Al-Kashanī occasionally, as here, inserts material from ‘exoteric’ exegesis, most likely in order to demonstrate that his ‘esoteric’ reading of the text does not preclude more common, ‘established’ exoteric readings drawing upon other forms of explanation and exegetical authority. This is not unlike medieval Latin Christian exegesis, with its levels of meaning (four in many accounts, but more or fewer in other reckonings), the allegorical or the tropological not excluding the literal/historical. For al-Kashanī and other ‘esoteric’ exegetes of the Qur’an, however, the relation between the ‘literal/historical’ and the ‘allegorical/mystical’ could be somewhat more ticklish a subject than in Latin Christendom.

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