The Sufis have commented on the Qur’an in different ways. Let’s explore some of these esoteric commentaries.
Shaykh al-Qashani is according to me one of the most interesting Sufi commentators on the Qur’an. It so happened that I’ve seen his commentary in a second-hand bookshop and I almost bought it, although I cannot read Arabic. This commentary is wrongly being attributed to shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi. Shaykh al-Qashani however belonged to the school of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi.
Shaykh al-Qashani makes use of the method of tatbiq. His method of interpretation of the Qur’an consists of making correspondences. These correspondences connect the macrocosm with the microcosm. The shaykh explains the Qur’anic verses in terms of spiritual psychology and stages of our individual spiritual path. He does not explain every verse of the Qur’an, but pays attention to parts thereof. It is fascinating to see how he brings about correspondences between certain terms in the Qur’an and inward faculties. External or physical objects, which are mentioned in the Qur’an, like mountains, rivers and stars, are explained as corresponding to inner spiritual elements within you and me.
You’ll be familiar with the Light verse of the Qur’an. It tells us: God is the light of the heavens and the earth (Allahu nurus-samawati wa’l-ard)
Here are some examples of the method of correspondences by shaykh al-Qashani:
Niche = Body (jasad)
Glass = Heart (qalb)
Lamp = Spirit (ruh)
Tree = Holy soul (nafs qudsiyya)
Oil = Preparedness (isti’daad)
Fire = Active intellect (‘aql fa’’aal).
Shaykh al-Qashani tells this about himself in the introduction to his Sufi commentary: “For a long time I was in the habit of reciting the Qur?an, pondering its meanings with the power of faith. Despite the observance of my litanies, my breast remained constricted, my inner heart anxious, and my heart never [quite] expanding by [the meanings of] these [verses]. Yet, still my Lord would not turn me away from them, until [eventually] when I became intimate with them and [grew] fond of them, I tasted the sweetness of their cup and I drank [from] it. Through these [meanings] I then became a spirited soul, my breast split open, a patient mind with a joyous heart, a secret broadened, my days and states made good, my spirit rejoicing in that triumph seemingly continuous, [like a drink taken] by night and day”.
2. THE LIGHT VERSE
In the commentary on the Light verse by imam Ja’far b. Muhammad the first series of lights pertain either to God in His relationship with the soul (protection, generosity, compassion, grace, etc.) or to states of the soul that open the soul to the divine influx (fear, hope, shame, surrender).
The second series deal with the pure divine lights: the qualities pertaining to God in Himself, of which the other lights are extensions.
Ja’far b. Muhammad said: ‘The lights are varied: the first of them is the light of the protection of the heart; then there is the light of fear; then the light of hope; then the light of recollection; then there is perception through the light of knowledge; then the light of shame; then there is the light of the sweetness of faith; then the light of surrender; then the light of goodness; then there is the light of blessing; then the light of grace; then the light of favours; then the light of generosity; then the light of compassion; then the light of the heart; then there is the light of encompassment; then the light of awe; then there is the light of bewilderment; then the light of life; then the light of intimacy; then the light of integrity; then there is the light of quiescence; then there is the light of tranquility’.
This commentary continues with the second series of lights:
Then there is the light of sublimity; then the light of majesty; then the light of power; then the light of strength; then there is the light of Godhood; then the light of the Divine onliness; then there is the light of the Divine singularity; then there is the light of (God’s) eternal future; then the light of beginningless and endless eternity; then the light of permanence; then the light of eternal subsistence; then the light of (God’s) eternal past; then the light of eternal subsistence; then there is the light of the Ipseity.
Each one of these lights has its people; it has its state and its locus. All (the light) are from the lights of the Truth, which God, the Elevated, has mentioned in his words: God is the light of the heavens and the earth. Each one of His slaves has a drinking place at one of these lights; and it might be that you have an apportioned lot from two lights or three. […].
[It is also related] from Ja’far b. Muhammad as-Sadiq, concerning this verse that he said:
‘God has illumined the heavens with the light of the stars and the sun and the moon; and He has illumined the earths with the light of the plants: the red ones, the white, the yellow, and others; and He has illumined the paths (turuq) to God with the light of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali. It is for this reason that the Prophet said:
My companions are like the stars; whomsoever of them you choose to follow, you shall be rightly-guided.
[The imam] also said, concerning this verse: ‘God illumined the heavens through four: Gabriel, Michael, Seraphiel and Azrael; and He illuminated the earth through Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali’.
3. ALLUSIVE INTERPRETATION
The method of correspondences is one of the three ways in which allusive interpretation (ishaarah) of the Qur’an can take place. Jafr is a second form of allusive interpretation. It pertains to the esoteric significance of letters. This involves the taking of individual letters of a Qur’anic word and interpreting them as indicators of whole concepts. Jafr as a science of deep inward knowledge is said to have originated with Hazrat ‘Ali, who was taught it by the Prophet himself.
An example of jafr is given by a Chishti pir, who comments on Ta Ha: “The twentieth chapter of the Qur’an starts with this name (according to him it is a name of the Prophet), which consists of two letters from the Arabic alphabet. These letters belong to the so-called muqatta’aat” (the detached letters).
Shaykh al-Qashani spends about 5 pages commenting solely on Ta Ha, which are some of the mysterious letters opening some of the chapters of the Qur’an.
The Chishti pir continues by stating that Ta Ha is seen by some as a title to address the Prophet. Some say that it means ‘the purified’ (from Tahir), while others point to ‘the guide’ (Haadi or Haad).
There are again others who explain Ta Ha as implying a light, which is as ‘clear as the full moon’. This is because the value of the letter Ta is 9 and the value of Ha is 5. The total of Ta Ha of 14 corresponds to the number of days of the moon cycle, pointing to the full moon. The light of the Prophet is thus compared to the light of the full moon, because it causes to disappear the darkness of ignorance and unbelief.
Some others state that Ta Ha means ‘the perfect human being’ or ‘the leader of humankind’.
4. PLAY ON WORDS
Ta’wil (interpretation, unfolding of events, bringing back) is the third style of allusive interpretation (ishaarah) of the Qur’an. The literal aspect of the Qur’an is used as a springboard for disclosing a deeper meaning of a word. It is a form of paronomasia, a ‘play on words’, whereby the commentator arrives at a deeper, inward interpretation based on the associated verbal meanings. They Sufis are enabled to interpret the Qur’an in this way. Their methodology is Sufi practice. They are the divers in the sea of gnosis.
Shaykh al-Qushairi tells this: “Those who have been confirmed with the lights of insight are illuminated by the rays of the sun of understanding.”
He adds this: “If they have been asked to maintain the veil and conceal the secret, they feign dumbness. If they have been commanded to reveal and proclaim, they freely release the elucidation of the Truth and speak from knowledge received from the Unseen”.
An example of ta’wil:
Qur’an 2:158 states: “Verily, Safaa and Marwah are among the rites of God”.
Safaa gets interpreted as the spirit (ruh) and Marwah as the chivalrous soul (nafs). Why? Safaa is related to the word for purity safaa’ as both are being derived from the verbal root s-f-w, meaning ‘to be pure’. Thus safaa is interpreted as the spirit, because of its being pure of the dirt of opposition to God.
Marwah is the soul (nafs) because of its use of chivalrous virtues in the performance of service for God. This word, containing the letters m-r-w is related to muruwah (heroic virtues; chivalry although muruwah is derived from the verbal root m-r-‘, which means ‘to be healthy’. ‘manly’).
The deeper meaning points to the spiritual life: with the ruh (spirit) being a pure continuity of the flow of the divine spirit and the soul (nafs) being chivalrous in striving to ensure the pure radiance of the light of the spirit shining upon it may continue to extend through the soul.
5. AN UNUSUAL GIFT
Now something else, but related to the above: Hazrat Nawab Sahib made it clear to a Chishti pir that he had given him sura al-Kawthar (Abundance). Kawthar is the name of the supreme river in paradise, source of all the rivers of paradise. We may wonder what is the meaning of this gift. It may be helpful to turn to an esoteric Qur’an commentary of imam Ja’far as-Sadiq, which has been part of shaykh Sulami’s “Haqaa’eq at-Tafsir”:
We have surely given you abundance (kawthar).
The commentary gives this explanation: “That is a light in your heart which leads you to Me and cuts you off from what is other than Me”.
This is then added, again interpreting the word kawthar (abundance) that it is “intercession for your community”. Now you’ll understand what a great gift it is to ‘receive’ sura al-Kawthar.
6. A GOOD TREE
Let’s turn to trees! You may know of the Qur’anic saying of a good word is as a good tree. The Sufis have cherished the idea that a human being is the fruit of the tree ‘world’, for as the tree is created for the sake of the fruit human beings are the goal and the end of creation.
A poet has said:
You may think, clever man,
This world’s a lovely tree
Whose tasty, fragrant fruits
Are the intelligent.
But God, the Gardener, plants
Wise men, and there are too
The stupid, ignorant
Like thorns and useless straw!
This lovely garden that was laid out by the Gardener, God, with doors that are the wise people of course also contains the fig and the olive tree.
The fruits of these trees are the fig and the olive. Shaykh al-Qashani in his esoteric commentary on the Qur’an refers to the fig or the fig tree when dealing with sura 105:
“By the fig”, that is to say by the Universal Ideas, which are different from the Particular Ideas, and which constitute the objects of perception of the heart. Because of the fact that these Ideas are immaterial, purely intelligible, and that they envelop the Particular Ideas, and because they fortify the soul and give it beauty, God has compared them to figs, because the fig has no kernel, it consists contrary to that entirely of pulp, and because it has all kinds of seeds, just like the Universal Ideas enclose the Particular Ideas, and because it fattens the body, being very nourishing and nice to eat.
“By the olive”, that is to say the Particular Ideas, which are the objects of the perception of the soul. Because of the fact that they are concrete and prepare the soul to receive the Universal Ideas, He has compared them to olives, because olives have a kernel and they fortify the digestive system and increase our appetite.
A Chishti pir has written a number of commentaries, one of which deals with the parables in the Qur’an. According to him these parables offer the light of guidance, food for thought and they “have a vital connection with the art of living. Their substance and their implications are enough and adequate to give zest to life”.
He also states that definitions will not help us. About parables he is of the opinion that it is their “practical usefulness, utility and function that really matters.” He deals with the question as to what is a parable with some sense of humour: “When this question is asked, most of us will not be able to furnish a suitable and appropriate answer ti it. They will refer to what St Augustine (d. 430) once said in reference to other matters: ‘If not asked, I know; if you ask me, I know not’.”
The Chishti pir however deals in some detail with the above question. While doing so he also discusses other concepts together with examples from the Qur’an, like sign, symbol, simile, similitude, allegory, alliteration, antithesis, example, metaphor, myth, figurative speech, aphorism, oracle, epistle, edict, oath, dialogue, comparison and allusion.
8. THE METHOD OF STRIKING SIMILITUDES
The method of striking similitudes mostly deals with the analogies and parables created by God to explain things to mankind. Imam al-Ghazzali connects this method to the existence of two worlds, the spiritual world and the physical world.
The spiritual (ruhaani) world is intellectual (‘aqli) and supernal (‘ulwi). It is the world of sovereignty (malakut) and the unseen (ghaib). The physical (jismaani) world is sensory (hessi) and lower (sofli). It is the world of dominance (molk) and that which is visible (shahaada).
You can rise up from the visible world to the world of sovereignty. This ascension is possible because of the connection (ettesaal) and interrelationship (monaasaba) between the two worlds. You help you in your ascent God has made these two worlds parallel to one another. There is nothing in this world that does not have a likeness (methaal) or several likenesses in the other world and vise versa.
9. AN EXAMPLE
Have a look at Qur’an 6:122 which tells:
Is he who was lifeless and whom We then enlivened
As one the likeness of whom is in [layers of] darkness?
Farhana Mayer makes it clear that this Qur’anic sign contains a very important, implicit, subtle identification, namely to the spiritual correspondence of a person. The word likeness or “mathal” – often used when parables are given in the Qur’an – refers to your spiritual body.
This likeness is not metaphorical but actual in the spiritual world. What is inward in the physical world is outwardly visible in the spiritual realm, the substance of which is subtle, divine light. Consequently, to the extent that your soul obscures light with the dirt of its contrary acts, to that extent your spiritual body is dark. Your spiritual body, the correspondence of your soul, is then in literal darkness in the spiritual realm.
The plurality of darknesses (zulumaat) referred to in this Qur’anic sign refers to the product of different sins (hatred e.g. produces a very deep darkness and doubt is like a thick mud. When doubt fills your heart it veils you from perceiving.
Your spiritual body, which is visibly manifest in the spiritual world, is the simultaneous correspondence of your state in the physical world. The two occupy their places in the different worlds at one and the same time. Your spiritual body in the spiritual world manifests your hidden, inner state of your soul in the physical world. The transition, described in 6:122 from lifelessness to enlivenment, corresponds to the transition from the opacity of your soul to transparency.
10. ANOTHER ILLUSTRATION
Imam al-Ghazzali gives the following example in his ‘Niche of Lights’ of the viewing of the celestial bodies by the prophet Abraham:
Indeed, there are high and noble luminous substances in the world of sovereignty, that are called angels. Because lights emanate from them to human spirits, they are called ‘lords’ (arbaab) and God is the ‘Lord of lords’. They have varying degrees of luminosity that have similitudes in the visible world:
At first the traveller on the way reaches a degree that is the degree of the stars, and the radiance of [the star’s] light becomes clear to him. The fact becomes unveiled to him that the lowest world is entirely under its authority and the radiance of its light. Suddenly, from [the star’s] beauty and sublimity, it becomes clear to him, and he says (Qur’an 6:76): “This is my lord”.
Then, when what is above [this star] becomes clear to him, the degree of the moon, he sees that the former has set in relationship to the latter, so he says (Qur’an 6:76):
I do not love that which sets.
Likewise, he continues to ascend until he reaches that which has similitude in the sun, and he sees that it is greater and more sublime. Yet he sees that it also has its similitude in its interrelationship (munaasaba) t the others, and what has a relationship with something imperfect is imperfect itself and ‘sets’. From this, he says (Qur’an 6:79):
I have turned my face to the One
Who created the heavens and the earth in pure faith.
The method of striking similitudes (darb al-mithaal) thus is to find the connection between the physical and the spiritual world.
This concludes the first part. In a later part, which will be uploaded in the future, the sources for this article will be given.