Ten Arguments for the Necessity of the Esoteric Interpretation of the Qur’an

Given the prevalence and popularity of overly literal and outward interpretations of the Qur’an in today’s climate, the present article offers ten arguments demonstrating that the Qur’an contains esoteric (batini) meanings and requires an esoteric interpretation – called ta’wil.This article offers a series of ten arguments to demonstrate that the Qur’an, by its own admission, must have hidden, spiritual and inward meanings disclosed by esoteric interpretation or ta’wil in order to be coherent from a rational and logical point of view.

1.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

Muslims have read the above verse in two different ways:

1) In one reading, the last part reads as: “No one knows its ta’wil except God [full stop]. And those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, all is from our Lord.” The first reading ends the sentence after “except God” and then begins a new sentence. This reading means that the ta’wil of the Qur’an is known by God alone and no one else – was historically favoured by a minority of Muslims known as the literalists but seems to be common in modern English translations.

2) In another equally valid reading, the last part says: “No one knows it’s ta’wil except God and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge, saying: We believe in it, all is from our Lord.” The second reading, according to which the ta’wil of the Qur’an is known both by God and a group of people called “the firmly rooted in knowledge” (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm) is followed by numerous groups of Muslims among the Sunni and the Shi‘a – the theologians (mutakallimun), the Philosophers (falasifah), the Sufis, the Twelver Shi‘a, and the Ismaili Shi‘a.

This second reading is supported by and consistent with the rules of Arabic grammar in which the second verb (yaquluna = “they say, they are saying”) describes the state (hal) of the subject as follows: “No one knows its ta’wil except those firmly rooted in knowledge (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm) saying (yaquluna): We believe in it. All is from our Lord.” This is similar to other Arabic phrases like la ya’tika ‘Abdullahi wa-zaydun yaqulu: ana masrurun bi-ziyaratika = “Nobody comes except ‘Abdullah and Zayd saying: I am happy visiting you.”

The first reading, which restricts the knowledge of ta’wil to God alone, contradicts other parts of the Qur’an and leads to logical absurdities. The second reading, which implies that the ta’wil of the Qur’an is known by God and those firmly rooted in knowledge, is logically supported by other verses of the Qur’an that clearly say certain people know the ta’wil of the Qur’an in addition to God Himself:

  • The Prophet’s role was to teach, instruct, explain and clarify the Qur’an to the believers and doing so would require him to know the ta’wil of what the Qur’an says. The term “wisdom” (hikmah) below also refers to the inward meaning of the Qur’an contained in the ta’wil:

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

  • God taught Hazrat Yusuf (Joseph) the ta’wil of dreams and visions, experienced by himself and others:

And thus will your Lord choose you and teach you the ta’wil of narratives and complete His favour upon you and upon the family of Jacob, as He completed it upon your fathers, Ibrahim and Ishaq. Indeed your Lord is Knowing and Wise.

– Holy Qur’an 12:6

And thus, We established Yusuf in the land that We might teach him the ta’wil of events.

– Holy Qur’an 12:21

My Lord, You have given me [something] of sovereignty and taught me of the ta’wil of dreams.

– Holy Qur’an 12:101

  • 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.

2. The Qur’an describes itself as signs (ayat), parables or symbols (amthal) and every sign (ayah) or symbol (mathal), by definition, represents a symbolized meaning (mamthul) – this being known as ta’wil.

God guides to His Light whom He wills and God sets forth parables (amthal) for mankind.

– Holy Qur’an 24:35

Verily, We have struck for humankind in this Qur’an every kind of parable (mathal).

– Holy Qur’an 30:58

And those parables (amthal) We strike for humankind so that they may reflect.

– Holy Qur’an 59:21

Similitudes (amthal) require the things that are represented by them and the things that are represented are designated by esoteric interpretation (ta’wil). Thus, for what the Messenger brought and summoned to in the revelation and law, there is an esoteric interpretation (ta’wil). Hence, the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) is necessary.

Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, (Master of the Age, tr. Paul Walker, 67)

3. The Qur’an and other revelations of God first exist as an immaterial Spirit or Light before the Prophet expresses them into human language. Esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) is the only means for human intellects to “return” to the spiritual reality of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an clearly says that it originally exists in the heart and soul of the Prophet Muhammad in the form of the Holy Spirit:

And that We have inspired you [Muhammad] with a Spirit (ruh) from Our Command. You did not know what was the Book (kitab) and what was the Faith. But We have made it a Light (nur) by which We guide such of our Servants as We will. And verily, you guide to a Straight Path.”

– Holy Qur’an 42:52)

To understand “kitab” on the level of Book or Scripture is to distort and seriously reduce its potential meaning as used in the Qur’an. It is to impair the transparent quality of the word kitab. According to the Qur’an, neither Muhammad nor any of the preceding prophets was preoccupied with Scripture, something that is written and read;
There is a meaning to “kitab” which is prior to the idea of Scripture…If by “kitab” the Qur’an means the dynamic word of God – the old Semitic notion of Word – we can better understand why there was no Qur’an (a compiled book) as we presently know it upon the death of the Prophet.

(J.W. Fiegenbaum, Prophethood from the perspective of the Qur’an, PhD Dissertation 1973, McGill University, 153; 184-85)

The process of returning to the original spiritual and luminous reality of the Qur’an is called esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) since the very word “ta’wil” comes from the word awwal, meaning “first” or “origin.” Thus Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw says:

To engage in ta’wil means to bring the word back to its point of origin.

Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Between Reason and Revelation, 112).

4. The literal meaning of numerous Qur’anic verses actually contradicts human reason and this implies that these verses require an esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) to be in accordance with the intellect.

The Qur’an mentions the verb ‘aqala (to intellect, to reason) nearly 50 times, telling people to reflect, intellect, and rationally engage with its verses – this means that the Qur’an’s true meaning must always be consistent with reason and intellect. But numerous verses have a literal or outward meaning that is contrary to reason. These include verses that speak of humans existing and swearing oaths in the form of atoms (7:172); inanimate objects like heaven and earth listening and speaking to God (41:11); human beings or Adam created from moulded clay (38:71-72); the creation of the heavens and the earth in six days (7:54, 10:3, 11:7, and 25:59), etc. Such contradictory statements in the Qur’an can only be resolved if there exists an inner meaning or ta’wil of these verses. For example, the verse 41:11 states: “Then turned He to the heaven when it was smoke, and said unto it and unto the earth: Come both of you, willingly or noth. They said: We come, obedient.” Sayyidna Kirmani concludes from this that:

God is All-knowing and All-wise, and the heaven and the earth are inanimate, lacking a mind and having no tool for speech. Hence, in view of the absurdity of any wise person addressing the inanimate, it is necessary that there is, to His commanding the heavens and the earth and their answering Him, a meaning that makes the statement of God true and which is rationally acceptable as wisdom. That meaning is what we call the esoteric interpretation. Hence, the esoteric interpretation is necessary.

Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, (Master of the Age, tr. Paul Walker, 65)

5. 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.

For example, the Qur’an literally says that God removes the “stain of Satan” from human beings and reassures their hearts by making human beings drowsy and pouring rainwater from the skies upon them:

When He overwhelmed you with drowsiness [giving] security from Him and sent down upon you from the sky, rain by which to purify you and remove from you the evil of Satan and to make steadfast your hearts and plant firmly thereby your feet.

– Holy Qur’an 8:11

Sayyidna Kirmani explains that the only way this sort of Qur’an verse makes sense rationally is when terms like “drowsiness”, “rainwater”, and “stain of Satan” have an esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) different from the literal surface meaning:

Given that the defilement of Satan is in hearts and minds, it cannot be supposed that water, which comes down from the sky and is felt and drunk, can purify them, because it is impossible that the matter is like this. And if the water that is mentioned here is natural water, everyone becomes pure, both the believer and the unbeliever. Hence, it is necessary that for this water there is a meaning which, if not for it, an absurdity would have come from God in His saying something that is contrary to it. That meaning we call an esoteric interpretation (ta’wil), an explanation, elucidation and an inner sense.

Sayyidna Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, (Master of the Age, tr. Paul Walker, 65)

6. The Qur’an’s many verses that speak of God having anthropomorphic qualities (Face, Hands, Eyes, Side) must have an hidden meaning and esoteric interpretation – otherwise God actually resembles human beings.

The Qur’an literally says that God has a Face (wajh) which endures forever and is in every direction one turns (55:27, 2:215, 76:9, 2:272, 30:39); He has Hands (yad; ayd) that possess the dominion of all things and are the source of mercy and bounty (48:10, 67:1, 36:83, 4:64); He has Eyes (‘ayn; ‘uyun) under which Noah built the Ark and Moses was raised (11:37, 20:39, 23:27); He has a Side (janb) which some souls have neglected (39:56). The Qur’an further states that God comes with His angels in rows (89:22) and also comes with His angels within a canopy of clouds (2:210) on the Day of Judgment. Since God is not a physical human being and the Creator cannot possess the qualities, features or attributes of His creatures, it follows that all anthropomorphic descriptions of God found in the Qur’an must necessarily possess a hidden meaning beyond the literal meaning of these words. For example, the Qur’an says:

And to God belongs the East and the West. So whatever direction you turn there is the Face of God (wajh Allah). Indeed God is the Encompassing, the Knowing.

– Holy Qur’an 2:115

Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw explains how the literal interpretation of the above verse is utterly incoherent because it implies that God’s face is a physical container of vast space surrounding the Universe. Those who uphold the literal meaning of this and similar verses are in violation of the absolute unity of God and guilty of anthropomorphism:

To take the exoteric (zahir) interpretation of this verse, this world must be within God’s face, and that is vaster than the heavens, which form the uppermost sphere, and the entirety of the world is within His vast space; this must be God’s face, such that whichever way we turn our faces, the face of God must be there… Like the literalists, they profess adherence to the outer sense of the Book, for there is no ta’wil of the Book in their doctrine. Therefore, according to what they do teach, God possesses a right hand and a left hand, a face, an eye, and a side. And God moves from one place to another, as He says, ‘And your Lord and the angels come rank on rank.’ Nevertheless, these are all attributes proper to created beings. But this verse makes them not proclaimers of God’s oneness but rather, anthropomorphists.

Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Between Reason and Revelation, tr. Eric Ormsby, 48-50)

7. Esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) is the only way to prevent some parts of the Qur’an from directly contradicting other parts, particularly concerning the absolute transcendence of God beyond the attributes of His creatures.

The Qur’an states clearly that God does not resemble anything at all among His creatures (42:11, 112:1). But numerous verses in the Qur’an, when interpreted in their outward meanings, ascribe qualities to God that are shared by His creatures, such as life, knowledge, power, anger, pleasure, wisdom, vengeance, plotting, etc. When interpreted conventionally these verses all contradict the absolute oneness of God. Thus, the only way to avoid this contradiction is if all the verses which describe God with creaturely qualities have a hidden meaning or ta’wil beyond their literal meaning. (Those interested can read about the esoteric meaning or ta’wil of the Qur’an’s discourse about God’s Names and Attributes in this article).

Only through esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) can the differences of opinion as well as the ambiguities which are in the Book be reconciled. Certainly it is true that the outer form of the words may vary and yet, it is not true that God’s word can ever be contradictory, such that in one place it is said that apart from God nothing is, that is to say, “There is nothing like Him” , and in another place He says, ‘I am the speaker who says, “Say, ‘He is God, One.”’ You too say these words since, like me, you too are a ‘speaker’, you are ‘seeing and hearing’, and I too am ‘speaking and hearing’. Elsewhere He says, “God is the creator of everything (13:16).” In still another place He says, “Blessed be God, the fairest of creators (23:14).” And elsewhere, “It is God who has created you and then given you sustenance (30:40).” In still another place He says, “God is the best of providers (62:11).” He also says that the unbelievers mock the believers; God too mocks the unbelievers, as in this verse: “and deride them – God derides them, and they will have a painful torment (9:79).” He says too of Pharaoh and his people, “When they had angered Us, We took vengeance on them and drowned them all (43:55).” So, when one man angers another, seized by fury he strikes or murders or insults him. If a group so angers God that He avenges Himself by drowning them, what greater resemblance could there be between the Creator and the creature than this?

Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Between Reason and Revelation, tr. Eric Ormsby, 64)

If we were to add up such passages which appear to impair the oneness of God, the book would grow long. Those we have mentioned may serve as guidance to the intelligent in the quest for esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) so that their doubts may be removed thereby.

Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Between Reason and Revelation, tr. Eric Ormsby, 64)

8. The ritual practices commanded in the Qur’an – such as prayer gestures (bowing, prostrating, standing), ablutions, and pilgrimage rites – have no meaning or significance in and of themselves and are therefore symbols representing an esoteric meaning (ta’wil).

One finds in the outward sense that the Prophet summoned to God and to the worship of Him by certain acts that, if a man were not to perform them in the place he was commanded to do, it would be said that he is mad, playing the jester, or forgetful. The actions of the pilgrimage and its wondrous rites are an example. The external features of these acts, such as addressing the stone, running on the tips of the feet, which is to advance in haste, holding off trimming the nails, cutting the hair of the head and the throwing of pebbles, are not associated with wisdom. Thus, for the Prophet to be summoning by means of wisdom, requires that that to which he summons by these actions has an esoteric meaning (ta’wil) that is consistent with wisdom and by the understanding.

Sayyidna Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, (Master of the Age, tr. Paul Walker, 64)

9. The Qur’anic descriptions of the Hereafter (Afterlife), consisting of sensual imagery, must be symbols for an esoteric meaning (ta’wil) since the Hereafter is wholly different from the physical world.

In Paradise there are gardens (9:72), rivers (2:25), thrones (52:20), cups, carpets, cushions (88:10-16), etc. In Hell there are chains, shackles, fire (76:4), fuel (2:24), stones (66:6), and scalding water (22:19). But the Prophet Muhammad has said in numerous tradition about the hereafter and the afterlife that:

There will be bounties which no eye has seen, no ear has heard and no human heart has ever perceived.

Prophet Muhammad,
(Sahih Bukhari, Book 20, Hadith 1891)

Therefore, Paradise and Hell must be completely different from the physical world and these sensual expressions and images found in the Qur’an are allusions to and representations of spiritual meanings. These spiritual meanings signified by the sensual descriptions of Paradise and Hell are among the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of the Qur’an.

10. 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

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