Monday, June 21, 2010

Tafsir or Ta'wil??

You know when I was thinking about and pondering a spiritual interpretation of the Qu'ran, I forgot about the Islamic mystics...the Sufi. They have been interpreting the Qu'ran spiritually for centuries.  The following excerpt from an article I read discussing the spiritual or esoteric interpretation of the Qu'ran....

An esoteric interpretation of the Qur'an is an interpretation of the Qur’an which includes attribution of esoteric or mystic meanings to the text by the interpreter. In this respect, its method is different from the conventional exegesis of the Qur’an, called tafsir. Esoteric interpretations do not usually contradict the conventional (in this context called exoteric) interpretations; instead, they discuss the inner levels of meaning of the Qur'an. A hadith from Prophet Muhammad which states that the Qur’an has an inner meaning, and that this inner meaning conceals a yet deeper inner meaning, and so on (up to seven levels of meaning), has sometimes been used in support of this view. Some Islamic sects impose strict limitations on esoteric interpretations.

Yeah' well, there are many Christian sects that impose strict limitations on esoteric interpretation, too.

The video by John Dominic Crossan that I mentioned in my last post talked about the difference between literalism and fundamentalism.  Literalism is taking everything that can possibly be taken literally...literally. The Islamic equivalent is called Tafsir...and does not allow for esoteric or mystical (spiritual) interpretations of the text.  It is akin to "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." 

It is a surface view symbolism (or very little) and it is what it is.  This is the interpretation method of choice for radical Muslims....those who spur on the islamic nut cases who fly planes into towers and hide bombs in their tighty whities.  It is not the literal interpretation by itself that causes violence, but rather when it slips into fundamentalism. Fundamentalism (in Islam or in Christianity...or any religion for that matter) says that not only do I believe that a literal interpretation is the ONLY possible way to interpret scripture but that that I have the ONLY possible correct interpretation...and (this is when it slips into fundamentalism) YOU have to believe it too.  And I will do anything in my power to convince you to see it that way using a vast array of methods, employing varying degrees of violence. (all the way from shunning to bombings)   

Yet not all Muslims (contrary to popular opinion) take the Qu'ran at an entry level interpretation.

In Arabic, batin refers to the inner or esoteric meaning of a sacred text, and zahir to the apparent or exoteric meaning. Batin is defined as the interior or hidden meaning of the Quran. This is in contrast to the Quran's exterior or apparent meaning (the Zahir). Some Muslim groups believe that the Batin can only be fully understood and interpreted by a figure with esoteric knowledge, who for Shi'a Muslims is the Imam of the Time.

So then "Tafsir" is the Arabic word for exegesis or commentary, usually of the Qur'an. It does not include esoteric or mystical interpretations.  And the word for the esoteric, metaphysical, spiritual, mystical interpretation?  Ta'wil

Esoteric and mystical interpretations are often referred to as ta' wil. They rely on distinguishing between the surface meaning (zahir) and the deeper sense (batin)

Some have held ta'wil to mean the finding of a second meaning for the text which is called its inward or esoteric sense (batn) as opposed to its apparent and literal meaning (zahr).The Qur'an itself speaks about the necessity of ta'wil and so have the Imams, the Companions and Qur'anic scholars of later eras.

More on this in my next post. 


Jinnandtonic said...

FYI: I've written several articles on how esoteric Islam tends to be moderate Islam:

Cindi said...

Thanks for the links...
I read both of the articles. Very informative. You really know your stuff don't you....and you blogger the play on words!! In an interview that I listened to this weekend (and that I plan to eventually write about) they discussed reformed muslims and moderate Muslims..and what they thought the differences were. What do you think of reformed Muslims? Same thing as moderate?


jinnandtonic said...

Well, I suffered through a doctoral program in Islamic history (Ohio State), so I'd better know my stuff.
Not sure reformed=moderate. What was the debate you listened to, and who was involved?
My website is

Cindi said...

I just happened upon it...a link via a link via a link. It is on appears to be a great website with all kinds of videos of eclectic subjects. I listened to the Rene' Girard interview there and then started to explore the site. The discussion was between Irshad Manji and Dalia Mogahed.

I didn't watch the entire debate...but Irshad considers herself a reformed muslim...and she feels the violent verses in the Qu'ran need to be reinterpreted. Dalia's opinion is that radical Islam has already reinterpreted those verses because they were not meant to be violent to begin with. The parts I watched (which was about 3/4 of it) were very interesting and the women were very considerate of each other. I've never really pondered it that deeply...nor do I know that much about Islam and the Qu'ran. And no plans to convert to Islam...but I don't think Muslim's really get a fair shake from most Americans...and many, many Christians....


Anonymous said...

I will check out that discussion, when I get a chance. I have great respect for Irshad Manji; Dalia Moghahed, not as much. Anyone who tries to maintain with a straight face that the many violent verses in the Qur'an "were not meant to be violent to begin with" either is totally ignorant of the Qur'an, Muhammad's life and Islamic history OR is a bald-faced liar. You decide.
My problem with Manji is much the same as the one I outlined with Zuhdi Jasser--their view is sanctioned by no intellectual tradition in Islam for over a millennium. But at least they're more honest than Moghahed.

Cindi said...

I read some of your writings yesterday...and today I followed a lot of the links from your main website....very impressive and informative. I don't know enough about Islamic history and the Qu'ran to disagree....or agree. I was probably leaning more toward the leftist view....poor Muslims.... which is probably a reaction to the rabid right wing "the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim" line of thinking. As you pointed out in one article....neither of those two views is very helpful or productive. One thing you mentioned in one of the articles....

Islam is where Christianity was before the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and then the Enlightenment led the West to divorce religion and state, thereby removing (mostly) the threat of religious-based warfare. As a fellow monotheist with Muslims, I pray that the moderate strands within Islam win out over the more fundamentalist ones, allowing that civilization to follow suit

My cyberbud Martha mentioned something along those lines the other day on EU. Islam is a younger religion than Christianity...and perhaps not as evolved? Although when I listen to some of the things the right leaning, hellfire breathing fundamentalist Christians have to say I wonder just how evolved they are....

I have two questions for you.....
What do you think of Mark Siljander and his writings and views?
and an unrelated question.....
How did you happen upon my blog? Did I come up in a search engine or something?


jinnandtonic said...

I don't know Mark Siljander, but I'll try to look his stuff up when I have a bit of time.
I found your site courtesy of Google search alerts, for which I'm signed up to get alerts on Mahdism, Islamic sects, etc.
Here's the thing about "rabid, right-wing Christians:" they may say that Muslims need to convert, and are going to hell after they die--but they don't fly airplanes into buildings and try to SEND them there. "Rabid" Muslims, on the other hand, DO try (and often succeed) in sending Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, secularists and even other Muslims to the afterlife. That is a huge difference. And one that folks who dislike fundamentalist Christians often fail to make.
Ask yourself a simple question: would you rather live in a socierty run by Pat Robertson, or by the Taliban?
If you're intellectually honest (and I think you are), the answer is obvious.
I am a conservative, but not fundamentalist, Christian--so the "evangelical Right" irritates me. But lumping them in with jihadists is just ridiculous.

Cindi said...'re right....I would pick Pat Robertson over the Taliban any day. Now if the choice was between the Taliban and Ann Coulter....well....that would be a tougher decision to make. And I do get what you are saying. From a purely natural human kind of perspective it is better to silently loathe another than it is to actually do physical harm to them. But this is the thing....and I really don't like it much because I am as guilty of this as the next guy. Jesus said if you hate your brother you are guilty of I see the spirit in those rabid Christians to be pretty much the same spirit that dwells in those rabid muslims. Under a lot more restraint for sure....which is good....but still pretty far under the bar Jesus set. Ann Coulter seems to epitomize this with some of her nasty remarks.

"The fact of Islamo-Fascism is indisputable. I find it tedious to detail the savagery of the enemy . . . I want to kill them. Why don't Democrats?"

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.

She happens to be a particular pet peeve of mine. I'm pretty sure a lot of this is just loud mouthed bravado to sell books and stay in the spotlight but I just get this eerie feeling she truly means it. And if I take the words of Jesus seriously, then she is guilty of murder (and so I am for this ill will I bear toward her)

Seems far fetched I know...and I really only half believe it....but there it the red letters no less.

But to get away from the airy fairy turn this conversation has taken...Mark Siljander is the US Congressman who wrote the book A Deadly Misunderstanding - a Congressman's Quest to bridge the Muslim-Christian divide. He was...and evangelical Christian. There was a money laundering (or something like that) controversy a while back but I think he has been cleared of those charges.

Thanks for the conversation.


jinnandtonic said...

Well, again, Coulter's harsh language is often intended exactly to infuriate the Left--and, frankly, she doesn't do anything that the Left doesn't do to here. She's operating more in the realm of political discourse than religious, however. And as a Lutheran I understand your exasperation over her expressing violent contempt toward anyone, even jihadist Muslims. Several thoughts: 1) She's brutally honest, at least--which I prefer to folks who wring their hands and think we should go into war with sorrow and one hand tied behind our backs (as we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, frankly); 2) the more pacifist view you express is one that I, and many Christians, believe is mandated for individuals, not the state; remember Romans 13:1ff, where St. Paul says "the ruler...does not bear the sword in vain, for he is God's minister, an avenger on those who practice evil." And St. Paul was talking abotu the pagan ROMAN state, not the modern U.S. government.
I find Coulter abrasive, but also often quite funny and frankly I enjoy her baiting of (mindless) liberals. Frankly, too many on the Left, and FAR too many Muslims, have no sense of humor.
It's too tedious to communicate in this medium. Feel free to email me at