Qur’an does indeed have hidden (batini) spiritual meanings and esoteric interpretations (ta’wil). Only the literalists, Salafists and the Hanbalis disagreed with this. Today, however, many interpretations of the Qur’an, including those of the fundamentalists, literalists and even mainstream translations are impoverished because they remain at the literal and surface meaning of the Qur’an.
Prophet Muhammad himself was the “speaking Qur’an” and the ultimate authority over the meaning and practical application of whatever he recited as qur’an (recitation) was always in his hands.
When the Prophet lived, the Qur’an was not a “read text”; it was a prophetic “recitation” only directly accessible through him. This is why the Qur’an itself (verses 2:151, also 62:2, 3:164), when seen as a witness to history, declares that Prophet Muhammad “recites to you Our Signs, purifies you (yuzakkikum), teaches you (yu‘allimukum) the Book (al-kitab) and Wisdom (al-hikmah), and teaches you that which you do not know.
One area of disagreement for Muslim interpreters and exegetes of the Qur’an is whether the Qur’an has an esoteric, hidden or spiritual meaning that goes beyond the literal and surface meaning of the Arabic words. In pre-modern times, most Qur’anic exegetes from the Mu‘tazilis, Ash‘aris, Twelver Shi‘as, Sufis, Philosophers and Isma‘ili Shi‘as maintained that the Qur’an does indeed have hidden (batini) spiritual meanings and esoteric interpretations (ta’wil).
Only the literalists and the Hanbalis disagreed with this. Today, however, many interpretations of the Qur’an, including those of the fundamentalists, literalists and even mainstream translations are impoverished because they remain at the literal and surface meaning of the Qur’an.
Such a state of affairs was predicted by the Prophet Muhammad himself when he said:
There will come a time for my people when there will remain nothing of the Qur’an except its outward form and nothing of Islam except its name and they will call themselves by this name even though they are the people furthest from it. Their mosques will be full of people but they will be empty of right guidance.
.The Qur’an confirms that it has an esoteric and spiritual interpretation called “ta’wil”:
It is He who has sent down to you [O’ Muhammad] the Book; in it are clear (muhkamat) verses — they are the mother of the Book. And others are ambiguous (mutashabihat). As for those in whose hearts is deviation, they follow what is ambiguous from it, seeking discord and seeking its ta’wil (esoteric interpretation). But no one knows its ta’wil except God and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm), saying (yaquluna): ‘We believe in it. All is from our Lord.’ And no one will be reminded except the possessors of inner understanding (ulu’l-albab).
– Holy Qur’an 3:7
Certainly did God confer a great favour upon the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from themselves, reciting His Signs, and purifying them, and teaching them the Book and the Wisdom, although they had been before in manifest error.
– Holy Qur’an 3:164 (see also 62:2, 2:129, 2:151)
And We have sent down unto you (also) the Reminder; that you may explain clearly (li-tubayyina) to mankind what was sent down for them, and that they reflect.
– Holy Qur’an 16:44 (see also 16:64, 14:4)
The believers are told to refer any questions and disagreements to God and His Messenger in order to obtain the ta’wil:
And if you disagree over anything, then refer it to God and the Messenger if you should believe in God and the Last Day. That is best and most beautiful for ta’wil.
– Holy Qur’an 4:59
On the Day of Judgment, the ta’wil of all of God’s messages revealed through the Prophets will be shown to the people, including disbelievers, and they will all recognize this ta’wil and realize the inner truth of God’s revelations:
Do they await anything except for its ta’wil? The Day its ta’wil comes those who had ignored it before will say: “The Messengers of our Lord had come with the truth (bi’l-haqq), so are there now any intercessors to intercede for us or could we be sent back to do other than what we used to do?” They will have lost themselves, and lost from them is what they used to invent.
– Holy Qur’an 7:53
Hazrat Khidr performed a number of ambiguous actions before Prophet Moses — actions which have ta’wil (esoteric meaning) which Khidr explained to Moses before they parted:
[Al-Khidr] said, “This is parting between me and you. I will inform you of the ta’wil of that about which you could not have patience… And I did it not of my own accord. That is the ta’wil of that about which you could not have patience.
– Holy Qur’an 18:78–82
All of the above verses testify that the ta’wil of the Qur’an exists and Prophets and servants of God in the past were aware of the ta’wil — including the Prophet Yusuf, Hazrat Khidr, and Prophet Muhammad — and that in the present time, a special group called rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm are the possessors of the ta’wil of the Qur’an.
The Qur’an contains verses with words and expressions such that a deeper esoteric meaning (ta’wil) is required for the message in the verse to be true.
According to the Qur’an, God is both the outward (al-zahir) and the inward (al-batin) and His favours are given in both zahir and batin; thus, the Qur’an, as God’s revelation and His supreme favour, likewise has a batin (hidden) meaning revealed through esoteric interpretation (ta’wil).
He is the First and the Last, the Zahir (outward) and the Batin (inward), and He is, of all things, Knowing
– Holy Qur’an 57:3
Are you not aware that God has made subservient to you whatever is in the heaven and whatever is in the earth, and has bestowed His favours upon you both in zahir and in batin.
– Holy Qur’an 31:20
There are also valuable works of ta’wil in the Sufi traditions of Islam. The various Sufi mystics and saints (awliya’) have produced works that disclose the ta’wil of the Qur’an in Sufi metaphysical frameworks and poetry. The Sufis have been responsible for transmitting some of the esoteric teachings that go back to the Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq.
In Sufi terminology, the esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an [what Ismailis call ta’wil] is often called ta’bir (literally: “to cross over”), isharat (allusions) and rumuz (secrets). Some examples of Sufi esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an are found in the
- Tafsir of Sahl al-Tustari
- Lata’if al-Isharat of Abu’l-Qasim al-Qushayri
- the Meccan Openings (Futuhat al-Makkiyyah)
- Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikam) of Ibn al-‘Arabi
- the Mathnavi of Jalal al-Din Rumi
- Divan of Hafiz al-Shirazi.
One branch of Sufi’s interested in deciphering Quranic secrets was Harufi; students of kabbalah and Greek philosophy used numbers to divine the meaning of every Quranic surat. They believed Allah had revealed the Maktoob in numbers through Quran. Many eminent Islamic philosophers and mathematicians like Omar Khayyam and AlBeiruni were adherents.
Why, it was asked, were letters of the alphabet written beneath the headings of some surahs (scriptures), in a half-opened manner, like senseless scribbles.
Eminent Islamic scholars who were engaged with “hurufi”, such as Mansur Al Hallaj (858–922), Ibn Al Nadim, Ibn Arabi (1165–1240), Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) were always at the forefront to provide an exegesis of “Holy Texts”. Hallaj Mansur was the first Islamic lettrist to discuss the secret content of letters and numbers in his tract “Kitab al-Tavasin” and his divan.
The ‘science of letters’had nothing to do with divination or magic; it is merely a path to the discovery of the truths hidden behind the symbols.
Muhyiddin Ibn-i Arabi demonstrated (point by point), vast numbers of lettrist abstractions in his seminal text “El Fütuhat El Mekkiye” (The Meccan Illuminations)
In his work Kitab khawass al-huruf (Book of the Characteristics of Letters), Ibn Masarra appears as an esoteric (batini) philosopher investigating the esoteric meanings of the nuraniya, the fourteen separate letters which introduce certain surahs of the Qur’an, basically following the tradition of Islamic gnosis. The mysterious letters, according to the Batini school, represented the universe so that its entirety is a book whose letters are God’s words. n this he was inspired by the work of Sahl al-Tustari (d. ah 283/ad 896), the author of a similar work on the science of letters.
According to these sufi’s — — Reflection (i’tibar) allows us to decipher the principles of all beings. The basic idea is to show that the different degrees that constitute beings, in general, correspond to the surah’s fawatih (opening letters) as well as to the order of being. The letters are twenty-eight in number, equal to the length of the lunar phases.
Fourteen are exoteric and the remaining fourteen are esoteric. These are used by God to manifest his knowledge: their secret meanings have been bestowed upon the Prophet Muhammad as expressed in the Qur’an, and consequently, the Qur’an is the source of all knowledge, old and new. The steps leading to paradise and salvation are equal in number to the Qur’anic verses and to the number of God’s beautiful names, excepting the great name of Allah.
If for example, the names of the five letters constituting the name “Allāh” in Arabic script are written out in full, the total is fourteen, as is the case with the five letters that make up the name “Moḥammad;” the two names together thus have a numerical value of twenty-eight. Since these two names are pivotal to the creed (šahāda), it will be appropriate to add to them the four letters constituting ašhadu (“I bear witness”), leading to a grand total of thirty-two.
This knowledge then started being used to write powerful verses to curse people and divining the future ( violating a clear law in Quran against the use of its verses for the purposes of magick) In these hexes, the curse is matched to the numerological properties of the subject; this was a very destructive use of sacred knowledge and the IlmUlHaruf started disappearing from mainstream discourse because of its misuse.
However, the numerological tafsir of Quran can be found in many Sufi Tafsir and demands re-engagement; it opens up the brain to think in ways about the universe that a literal tafsir does not; any true seeker would find these readings invigorating.
Quran contains great mysteries of the message of peace and mercy within it and yet — — there are those who use its words to justify the murder of innocents and enslavement of women in sexual slavery ( ISIS).
Sufi’s have always believed that the filter which lets us see the true meaning of Quran lies within us, therefore, the emphasis to purify the ego of greed and envy.
Ultimately, it’s the self which views the words and then subverts those words to fit its needs. Sufi Tafsirs can only counter the subversion of Quranic verses for political gains to create death cults of child soldiers and child brides.
May Allah grant us the clarity to read Quran and absorb its true meaning without succumbing to the whispers of the Ego!