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"The Spirit and the Letter: Approaches to the Esoteric Interpretation of the Qur’an by Keeler A., Rizvi S.H. -Eds.-(June 2016)

"The Spirit and the Letter: Approaches to the Esoteric Interpretation (…)

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This volume is the first to focus specifically on esoteric interpretation as a phenomenon in the field of Qur’anic exegesis and to show the plurality of ways it has been manifested in different Muslim traditions. Concern with the inner, spiritual implications of the Qur’an has usually been associated with mystical and Sufi trends in Islam. However, there have also been exegetes among the Shi’a, as well as among philosophers, who sought to supplement their understanding of the Qur’an’s apparent meaning by eliciting deeper significations through contemplation of the verses.

The Spirit and the Letter examines the multiplicity of these esoteric approaches, covering a period that extends from the third/ninth century to the present. It includes chapters on philosophical and Shi‘i exegetes, such as Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037) and Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1045/1635-6), in addition to studies of a range of Sufi perspectives, from al-Sulamī (d. 412/1021) and al-Qushayrī (d. 465/1072) to Rūzbihān Baqlī (d. 606/1209), as well as representatives of the Ibn ʿArabī and Kubrāwī schools. Considered together, the range of studies in this volume enable us to see what these approaches have in common and how they differ, and how the hermeneutics and content of exegesis are affected by doctrinal and ideological perspectives of various traditions and periods. Furthermore, they deepen our understanding of what actually constitutes esoteric interpretation and the need to look beyond the letter to the spirit of the Qur’anic word.

Editors and contributors

Edited by Annabel Keeler, Affiliated Researcher, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, and Sajjad H. Rizvi, Associate Professor of Islamic Intellectual History and Director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

Annabel Keeler is an Affiliated Researcher at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and a Research Associate of Wolfson College, both at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include Sufi exegesis, early to ’classical’ Islamic mysticism, Persian literature and prophetology. She is the author of Sufi Hermeneutics: the Qur’an Commentary of Rashīd al-Dīn Maybudī (London, 2006) and co-translator of the commentary of Sahl al-Tustarī, under the title, Tafsīr al-Tustarī (Kentucky, 2011). She is currently working on a monograph on the third/ninth century mystic Abū Yazī al-Bisṭāmī and continuing her comparative study of Sufi commentaries on Sūrat Yūsuf.

Sajjad Rizvi is Associate Professor of Islamic Intellectual History at the University of Exeter. A specialist of Islamic thought in the Islamic East, he has published two books on Mullā Ṣadrā and is currently completing his third book on the noetics of the same thinker. His future projects include a history of apophatic discourses in Islamic thought, and an intellectual history of Islamic philosophical traditions in India from 1500 to 1900.


  • Sara Sviri
  • Gerhard Böwering
  • Annabel Keeler
  • Kristin Zahra Sands
  • Meir M. Bar-Asher
  • Peter Heath
  • Martin Nguyen
  • Richard Todd
  • Pierre Lory
  • Paul Ballanfat
  • Yanis Esots
  • Bakri Aladdin
  • Mahmut Ay
  • Amin Ehteshami and Sajjad Rizvi


Notes on Contributors
Introduction Annabel Keeler and Sajjad Rizvi

Part I: Comparative Hermeneutics

  • 1: Sara Sviri: The Countless Faces of Understanding: On Istinbāṭ, Mystical Listening and Sufi Exegesis
  • 2: Gerhard Böwering: The Interpretation of the Arabic Letters in Early Sufism: Sulamī s Sharḥmaʿānī al-ḥurūf
  • 3: Annabel Keeler: Towards a Prophetology of Love: The Figure of Jacob in Sufi Commentaries on Sūrat Yūsuf
  • 4: Kristin Zahra Sands: Making it Plain: Sufi Commentaries in English in the Twentieth Century

Part II: Commentators and Texts in Focus

  • 5: Meir M. Bar-Asher: Outlines of Early Ismaili-Fatimid Qur an Exegesis
  • 6: Peter Heath: Ibn Sīnāʾs Qurʾanic Hermeneutics
  • 7: Martin Nguyen: Qushayrīʾs Exegetical Encounter with the Miʿrāj
  • 8: Shahrastānīʾs Mafātīḥ al-Asrār: A Medieval Ismaili System of Hermeneuticsa
  • 9: Richard Todd: Qūnawīʾs Scriptural Hermeneutics
  • 10: Pierre Lory: Eschatology and Hermeneutics in Kāshānīʾs Taʾwīlāt al-Qurʾān
  • 11: Paul Ballanfat: Simnānī and Hermeneutics
  • 12: Yanis Esots: Speech, Book, and Healing Knowledge: The Qur anic Hermeneutics of Mullā Ṣadrā
  • 13: Bakri Aladdin: Aspects of Mystical Hermeneutics and the Theory of the Oneness of Being (waḥdat al-wujūd) in the work of ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (d. 1143/1731)
  • 14: Mahmut Ay: The Sufi Hermeneutics of Ibn ʿAjība (d. 1224/1809): A Study of Some Eschatological Verses of the Qur an
  • 15: Amin Ehteshami and Sajjad Rizvi: Beyond the Letter: Explanation (tafsīr) versus Adaptation (taṭbīq) in Ṭabāṭabāʾī s al-Mīzān

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