Esoteric Interpretations of the Qur’an: The Foundations of Shia Ismaili Ta’wil

The discourse of the Qur’an-e-Sharif, rich in parable and allegory, metaphor and symbol, has been an inexhaustible well-spring of inspiration, lending itself to a wide spectrum of interpretations.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

You see, my mission is situated on three levels. Firstly, religious: it concerns a symbolic exegesis of the Qur’an…Our religion is esoteric, you understand. It is a perpetual initiation.

Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

The global Muslim population of some 1.6 billion people revere the words of the Qur’an as God’s revelation to humankind. When the Prophet Muhammad was alive and guiding his community, he alone was the interpreter and teacher of the Qur’an, which did not yet exist as a text. The Qur’an is primarily a recitation (as the word qur’an means) and it was recited by the Prophet Muhammad to his community of believers as and when he saw fit in response to specific situations and events. When the Prophet was alive as the divinely-authorized guide there was no official “text” or “scripture” of the Qur’an (like today) that people had their own copies of. There was no special class of ‘ulama’ or clerics who interpreted the Qur’an in vastly divergent ways based on their own opinions and scholarly learning.

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 is followed by a discussion about the legitimate sources of the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of the Qur’an and then an overview of the method and framework of ta’wil in the Shi‘a Ismaili tradition of Islam.

A. Introduction
B. Ten Arguments for the Necessity of Ta’wil
C. The Legitimate Sources of Ta’wil
D. Shi‘a Ismaili Ta’wil in Practice
E. Shi‘a Ismaili Ta’wil in the Present Day

A. Introduction: The Prophet Muhammad – The Living Speaking Qur’an

The 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 Muhammad. 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.”

Explication of the divine intention of the revelation was among the functions that the Qur’an assigned to the Prophet. The Prophet functioned as the projection of the divine message embodied in the Qur’an. He was the living commentary of the Qur’an, inextricably related to the revelatory text. Without the Prophet the Qur’an was incomprehensible, just as without the Qur’an the Prophet was no prophet at all.

Abdul Aziz Sachedina, (“Scriptural Reasoning in Islam”, Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, 5/1 (2005); cited in Adis Duderija, The Hermeneutical Importance of Qur’anic Assumptions in the Development of a Values Based and Purpose Oriented Qur’an Sunna Hermeneutic)

There is little evidence that the Prophet intended for the Qur’an to become a canonized text with multiple copies distributed among his community so they could interpret the Qur’anic text for themselves. In fact, the Qur’an [17:106] says that the Prophet recited only portions of the Qur’an to people at specific times with God’s permission and sanction. This is what Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, the eleventh century Ismaili Muslim philosopher, explains below:

If they reply that the Book of God, may He be exalted, guides the people, we would tell them that the Book cannot speak without a speaker. If they claim that the Book is sufficient without an expounder, they belie the speech of God, may He be exalted, Who says: “We have sent down to you [O Muhammad!] the Remembrance (the Qur’an), so that you may explain clearly to people whatever We have sent down for them – perhaps they may reflect upon it” (16:44). Thus, we say that God commanded people to reflect so that they would know that just as the Prophet, peace be upon him, was the expounder of the Book in his time, in the same way, there has to be an expounder of the Book today. Further, God, may He be exalted, commanded the Prophet to recite the Book to the people at intervals, that is, according to the time, and not to give the Book to them so that they may read it. He has said: “And a Qur’an, which We have divided (into parts) in order that you may recite it to people at intervals” (17:106).

Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (The Face of Religion, Discourse 2)

The third Caliph, Uthman, published an official copy of the Qur’an based on the variant versions circulating among some of the companions. However, two prominent scribes of the Qur’an whom the Prophet Muhammad had trusted – Ibn Ma‘sud and Ubayy ibn Ka‘b – opposed Uthman’s codification project. Ever since, Muslims have disagreed over the meaning and interpretation of the Qur’an in numerous respects. The most popular genre of Qur’an commentary is called tafsir which consists of legal, ethical, historical, contextual and religious explanations of the outward and literal meanings of the Qur’an. 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.

Prophet Muhammad
(Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam, 168)

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.

B. Ten Arguments for the Necessity of the Esoteric Interpretation (Ta’wil) of the Qur’an

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

    C. The Legitimate Sources of Esoteric Interpretation (Ta’wil):

    In current usage, ta’wil is said, and rightly, to be a spiritual exegesis that is inner, symbolic, esoteric, etc. Beneath the idea of exegesis appears that of a Guide (the exegete), and beneath the idea of exegesis we glimpse that of an exodus, of a “departure from Egypt,”, which is an exodus from metaphor and the slavery of the letter.

    Henry Corbin, (Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, 29)

    The above ten arguments conclusively prove that the Qur’an has ta’wil – hidden inner (batin) meanings and esoteric interpretations beyond the surface (zahir) meanings – knowledge of which is necessary to grasp the Qur’ans true meaning. Once again, this is agreed to by the Sunni theologians among the Mu’tazilis and Ash’aris, the Philosophers, the Sufis, the Twelver Shi‘a, and the Ismaili Shi‘a. Yet all these groups differ over the content of the ta’wil of the Qur’an and the legitimate source of ta’wil. The core issue is this: who knows the ta’wil of the Qur’an after the Prophet Muhammad?

    It surely cannot be the case that every individual Muslim already knows the ta’wil or can somehow reach the ta’wil by themselves, since the ta’wil is by definition the hidden meaning (batin) not available to everyone. Thus, the only source for accessing the ta’wil of the Qur’an is a legitimate teacher and guide who already possesses the ta’wil. That teacher and guide was obviously the Prophet Muhammad in his own lifetime, who was responsible for both the revelation (tanzil) of the Qur’an and its ta’wil. The function of tanzil was completed over the Prophet’s 23 year mission, but the function of ta’wil must continue because knowledge of the ta’wil is necessary for truly understanding the Qur’an. Therefore, the Prophet must have appointed someone in his place to continue teaching the ta’wil.

    In fact, Prophet Muhammad declared Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor and the Master (Mawla) of the believers (mu’minin) on several occasions, as testified throughout Sunni and Shi‘a historical and traditional literature. The same Prophet has also said that: ‘Ali is with the Qur’an and the Qur’an is with ‘Ali. They shall never separate (al-Hakim al-Naysaburi, Al-Mustadrak ‘ala’l-Sahihayn, Beirut 2002, 927, No. 4685); this means that Imam ‘Ali, like the Prophet in his own lifetime, was the living and speaking Qur’an. It logically follows that Imam ‘Ali is the teacher of the ta’wil after the Prophet Muhammad. This is even confirmed by a hadith found in many Sunni Muslim sources:

    The Prophet said: ‘There is one amongst you who will fight for the ta’wil [esoteric interpretation] of the Qurʾan as I have fought for its tanzil [literal revelation].’ Abu Bakr asked, ‘Is it I?’. The Prophet said, ‘No’. ‘Umar asked, ‘Is it I?’. The Prophet said, ‘No, it is the one who is mending the sandal.’ The Prophet had given ʿAli his sandal to mend.

    (Sunni Hadith Reference: al-Ḥākim al-Nīsābūrī, al-Mustadrak ʿala’l-ṣaḥīḥayn (Beirut, 2002), p. 929, no. 4694; Aḥmad b. Shuʿayb al-Nasāʾī, Khaṣāʼiṣ Amīr al-muʾminīn ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (Tehran, 1419/1998), p. 104)

    The purely literal interpretation of the Qur’an leads to mass contradiction both in the Qur’an and with the human intellect. Ta’wil is the only means to resolve all these outward contradictions in the Qur’an and, in fact, serves as the “confirmation” (tasdiq) of the Qur’an’s status as divine revelation. The prior verse quoted in the first argument mentioned that when people see the ta’wil on the Day of Judgment they will testify that “the Messengers brought the truth from their Lord”, meaning, they are able to realize and verify directly how the revelations of the Prophets were actually true. This means that the ta’wil of the Qur’an provides the verification (tasdiq, tahqiq) of the Qur’an.

    The word sadaqah is derived from sidq, which means “to tell the truth”, that is, to believe in the truthfulness of the lord of ta’wil so that their souls may be purified from doubt and suspicion. Ta’wil verifies the truth of the shari‘at. Do you not see that God, may He be exalted, says in the story of Moses and Aaron: “So send him (Aaron) with me as a helper to verify me” (Qur’an 28:34). That is, Moses asked God, may He be exalted, to send Aaron with him so that he may verify his truth, i.e. he may explain the ta’wil of the shari‘at so that people may know its reality. The Prophet, God’s blessings and peace be upon him and his progeny, said to the Commander of the true believers, ‘Ali, peace be upon him: “You are the greatest verifier (musaddiq) of the truth.” That is, it was ‘Ali who through ta’wil, verified his truth to the wise.

    Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (The Face of Religion, Discourse 28)

    When ta’wil is understood to be the “verification” (tasdiq) of the Qur’an, the below verses shows how God promised the major Prophets that He would also send a person after them to verify their revelations by giving their ta’wil and made them swear a covenant to support and believe in such a person:

    And remember We took from the Prophets their Covenant as (We did) from thee (Muhammad):from Noah Abraham Moses and Jesus the son of Mary: We took from them a solemn Covenant.

    – Holy Qur’an 33:7

    And remember the time when God took a covenant of the Prophets, saying, ‘Whatever I give you of the Book and Wisdom, then there comes to you a messenger, verifying (musaddiqun) that which is with you, you shall believe in him and help him.’ And He said, ‘Do you agree, and do you accept the responsibility which I lay upon you in this matter?’ They said, ‘We agree.’ He said, ‘Then bear witness and I am with you among the witnesses.’

    – Holy Qur’an 3:81

    The above verse means that each Speaker-Prophet (Natiq) was accompanied by an Imam who “verified” their revelation by providing its ta’wil. Such a person was called the Asas (Foundation) and Wasi (Executor), who provided the ta’wil of the exoteric revelation (tanzil) in his Prophet’s lifetime to show the wise how the exoteric form of the revelation is true through its esoteric meaning: Seth was the Asas of Adam, Shem was the Asas of Noah, Isma‘il was the Asas of Abraham; James was the Asas of Jesus, and ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib was the Asas of Muhammad. The knowledge of Imam ‘Ali is inherited by all of the designated Imams among his descendants:

    Verily, the knowledge which was sent down with Adam did not return back [to God]. The knowledge is inherited and ‘Ali was the Knower of this community. Verily, no Knower among us dies unless someone of his family knows the like of his knowledge or what God wills of it.

    Imam Muhammad al-Baqir,
    (Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Hujjah, Chapter 32, Hadith No. 2)

    Verily, God never leaves the earth without a Knower (‘Alim). If it were so, the truth would never be known from falsehood.

    Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq,
    (Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Hujjah, Chapter 5, Hadith No. 5)

    The Qur’an also indicates that there must always be persons in the world, called rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm (the firmly rooted in knowledge), who always know ta’wil of the Qur’an. The Shi‘i Imams have given commentaries (tafsir) on these verses as follows:

    And no one knows it’s ta’wil except God and those firmly rooted in knowledge (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm), saying: We believe in it, all is from our Lord.

    – Holy Qur’an 3:7

    We are the ones who are firmly rooted in knowledge (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm) and we know its ta’wil.

    Those who are firmly rooted in knowledge (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm) are the Commander of the Faithful (‘Ali ibn Abi Talib) and the Imams after him.

    Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq,
    (Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Hujjah, Chapter 22, Hadith No. 1 & 3)

    Similarly, the Qur’an states that the Knowers (‘alimun; ‘ulama), that is the Imams, are aware of the deeper meanings of its various symbols and parables (amthal):

    And these examples We present to the people, but none will understand them except the Knowers (‘alimun).

    – Holy Qur’an 29:43

    And of His signs (ayat) is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs (ayat) for the Knowers (‘alimun).

    – Holy Qur’an 30:22

    People are of three types: the Knower (‘alim), the seeker of knowledge (muta‘allim), and the froth carried off the by wave. We are the Knowers (‘ulama’), our Shi‘a are the seekers of knowledge and the rest are the froth carried off the wave.

    Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq,
    (Usul al-Kafi, Kitab Fada’il al-‘Ilm, Chapter 3, Hadith No. 4)

    In two other verses, the Qur’an singles out a group of special human beings called the People of the Remembrance (ahl al-dhikr). The Qur’an specifically tells the believers to ask their questions to the People of Remembrance. The word dhikr is a title of the Qur’an and a title of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, these Ahl al-Dhikr who must be asked questions are both the Family (ahl) of Prophet Muhammad and the People of the Qur’an (ahl al-qur’an): the Imams from the Family of the Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt).

    The Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, about the verse “Ask the Ahl al-Dhikr if you do not know” (Qur’an 16:43, 21:7), said that: ‘The Prophet said: I am the Remembrance and the Imams are the Ahl al-Dhikr (People of Remembrance).’ About the words of God (43:33), “He is a Remembrance for you and for your people and you all will be asked questions”, the Imam Muhammad al-Baqir said: ‘We are his people and we will be questioned.’

    (Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Hujjah, Chapter 20, Hadith No. 1)

    The Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq said: ‘The Remembrance (dhikr) is Muhammad and we are his Family (ahl) who must be questioned.’ About the words of God (43:33), “He is a Remembrance for you and for your people and you all will be asked questions”, the Imam said: ‘And we are the People of Remembrance (ahl al-dhikr) and we are the ones who will be questioned.’

    (Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Hujjah, Chapter 20, Hadith No. 2)

    Finally, the Qur’an describes how the Revelation of God exists in the form of signs (ayat) within the hearts of certain people who have been given knowledge and they are the Imams:

    Imam Muhammad al-Baqir recited this verse (29:49): “Nay, rather it [the Qur’an] is Clear Signs (ayat) in the breasts of those who are given knowledge (alladhi utu al-‘ilm).” Then he said: ‘Take note…He [God] does not say [the Qur’an is] “between the two covers of the written text (mushaf)].” He said: “in the breasts of those who are given knowledge.” Who can they be apart from us? They are specifically the Imams.’

    (Usul al-Kafi, Kitab al-Hujjah, Chapter 23, Hadith No. 23-4)

    The Shi‘i Imams therefore possess the spiritual meaning (batin al-Qur’an) and the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil al-Qur’an) in their hearts in the form of pure knowledge (al-‘ilm al-mahd) and not in the form of bookish erudition that ordinary people require to be learned. This is the meaning of the prophetic hadith that says: “‘Ali is with the Qur’an and the Qur’an is with ‘Ali. They shall never separate until they return to me in Paradise.” The spiritual reality of the Qur’an, in the form of the Holy Spirit (ruh al-quds) always exists in the heart of the Imam just as it dwelled in the heart of the Prophet Muhammad. By virtue of divine inspiration (taʾyīd) through the Holy Spirit, the hereditary Imam is the pre-eminent Knower (‘alim) and Exegete (mu’awwil) of the ta’wil of the Qur’an. This type of inspired knowledge is different from scholarly knowledge as Sijistani explains:

    That is the outpouring of [the light of] divine inspiration (taʾyīd) upon the hearts of God’s chosen ones and His servants. This is the Pure Knowledge which belongs exclusively to the Prophets, the Legatees and the Imams…This Knowledge is not contaminated with anything like seeking proofs, which is, of course, the [ordinary] scientific method; it is not the kind of knowledge arrived at by the scholars of this world through one [or another] among the proofs.

    Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani, (Unveiling the Hidden, tr. Landholt, Anthology of Philosophy of Persia Volume 2, ed. Nasr and Aminrazavi, 94)

    Since, knowing the ta’wil of the Qur’an is absolutely necessary to comprehend God’s revelation in a holistic and intellectual manner, humankind must seek the ta’wil from the Imams. The legitimate lineage of the Shi‘i Imamat continues through Imam Isma‘il ibn Ja‘far al-Sadiq [the historically designated successor of his father Imam Ja‘far] and his lineal descendants up to the present living Imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV. It is no surprise, then, that the Ismaili tradition of Islam, with the continuous presence of a living Imam, emphasizes the ta’wil and batin of the Qur’an above all other schools of thought:

    Ta’wil postulates the principle of the Imam as guardian of its secret; his person is at the origin of the entire esoteric hierarchy which constitutes the “Ismaili Order”, each level of which corresponds to a rank in the celestial hierarchies.

    Henry Corbin, (Temple and Contemplation, 136)

    D. Ismaili Ta’wil in History and Practice

    The ta’wil, without question, is a matter of harmonic perception, of hearing an identical sound (the same verse, the same hadith, even an entire text) on several levels simultaneously.

    Henry Corbin, (Tom Cheetham, All the World an Icon, 87)

    Throughout the history of the Shi‘a Ismaili Muslims, the mission of providing the ta’wil of the Qur’an has been undertaken by the Shi‘a Ismaili Imams. Normally, the Imams assigned and delegated the task of instructing their followers in the ta’wil to their teaching representatives among the hujjats (deputy-proofs) and da‘is (missionaries). These dignitaries learned the ta’wil directly from the Imam himself or though his highest hujjats. The ta’wil of the Qur’an was historically taught in two forms or mediums – as instruction (ta‘lim) from the Imams, hujjats and da’is or as direct spiritual inspiration (ta’yid) from the luminous soul of the Imam. For example, Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw explains that the Speaker-Prophet (natiq), Foundation (asas), Imam, and Hujjah are all mu’ayyad (divinely-inspired through ta’yid) where the Hujjah receives ta’yid through the Imam of the time. He notes that “the Hujjat is the possessor of ta’yīd and the Dā‘ī is the possessor of ta’wīl” (The Face of Religion, Discourse 32). As Nasir himself was one of these hujjats, he declares at the end of this book that: “Whatever is good in this book we have shown by the ta’yīd of the lord of the time. We hope that God, may He be exalted, may reward us for that through the true lord.”

    As for the subjects of ta’wil, every single verse in the Qur’an, every aspect of the religious law (shari‘ah), and everything in the natural world has a ta’wil or esoteric meaning. Some examples are listed below:

    • the ta’wil of objects and themes in the Qur’an like the Pen, the Tablet, the Heavens and the Earth [read here], the Mountains, the Rivers, the Water, the Six Days of Creation [read here], the Sun, the Moon and the Stars [read here], the Rivers of Water, Milk, Honey and Wine, the Resurrection [read here], Paradise and Hellfire, the disconnected letters (Alif Lam Mim);
    • the ta’wil of the stories of the Prophets such as the creation of Adam, the Ark of Noah, the Sacrifice of Isma‘il by Abraham [read here], the Staff of Moses, the Virgin Birth and Crucifixion of Jesus [read here], the background and mission of Muhammad [read here];
    • the ta’wil of religious laws, theological doctrines, and ritual Pillars of worship (from Islam and pre-Islamic traditions) including the Basmalah, the Shahadah, the Ablution, the Salah [read here], the Hajj to Makkah [read here], the Fasting of Ramadan [read here], the Christian Trinity [read here], the Eucharist [watch here], the Sabbath, the Zoroastrian fire ritual, etc.

    The ta’wil of a Qur’anic verse, theme or ritual practice can either be expressed as rational discourse, as a ritual practice, or as purely spiritual knowledge. For example, the Ismaili Du‘a’ is the ta’wil of the Salah in the form of an esoteric ritual [as given here]; the schema of the Cycles of Prophecy and Imamat is the ta’wil of the Six Days of Creation in the form of rational discourse [as given here]; the gnostic recognition of God through the Universal Intellect (the Light of Imamat) is the ta’wil of the Shahadah as purely spiritual knowledge.

    One of the principles of ta’wil is that there are numerous levels of batin and ta’wil [outlined here] appropriate to each person’s spiritual capacity and knowledge. The supreme ta’wil is called the batin al-batin (the esoteric behind the esoteric) and is given only by the Imam of the Time to high ranking hujjats by means of ta’yid. But this supreme ta’wil can be expressed in and through multiple layers of intermediate ta’wil, called the batin (esoteric), tailored to each person’s intellectual capacity, spiritual rank (hadd) and cultural context. In this respect, the Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq once said: “We can speak about a word in seven ways.” When he was asked about this, “Seven, O son of the Messenger of God?”, the Imam replied: “Yes, [not only seven], but seventy.”

    The below diagram visually depicts the three hierarchical domains of the meaning of the Qur’an:
    1) the zahir (exoteric) or tanzil (literal words), which informs Qur’anic tafsir (exoteric commentary) and the Shari‘ah (religious law);
    2) the batin (esoteric) or intermediate ta’wil, which constitutes the Tariqah (spiritual path);
    3) the batin al-batin (esoteric of the esoteric) or supreme ta’wil, which is the level of the Haqiqah (spiritual reality) – also called the eternal Religion of Truth (din al-Haqq, din al-Qayyum, din Allah), Primordial Tradition or Sophia Perennis.

    Each point or arc of points on the Circumference of the Circle represent the zahir (exoteric) and literal words (tanzil) of the Qur'an. Every radius represents an expression of the esoteric (batin) and intermediate levels of ta'wil of the Qur'an. The Centre represents the esoteric of the esoteric (batin al-batin) and the supreme ta'wil of the Qur'an.
    Each point or arc of points on the Circumference of the Circle represent the zahir (exoteric) and literal words (tanzil) of the Qur’an. Every radius represents an expression of the esoteric (batin) and intermediate levels of ta’wil of the Qur’an. The Centre represents the esoteric of the esoteric (batin al-batin) and the supreme ta’wil of the Qur’an.

    This is why Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, the hujjah of Iraq during the time of Imam al-Hakim explains that:

    It is possible for one ta’wil to be clearer and more evident than another depending on the purity of the nature of the mu’awwil (the performer of ta’wil) and his power in knowledge and deduction. The words in conveying the meanings of ta’wil are different, but their meanings, despite the differences in words, are in agreement. Every ta’wil is adequate and satisfactory so long as it does not raise a rank (hadd) above its rank or lower another below its rank.

    Sayyidna Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani,
    (Faquir Muhammad Hunzai, ‘The Concept of Knowledge according to al-Kirmani’, in Todd Lawson, Reason and Inspiration and Islam, 136)

    The ta’wil, without question, is a matter of harmonic perception, of hearing an identical sound (the same verse, the same hadith, even an entire text) on several levels simultaneously.

    Henry Corbin, (Tom Cheetham, All the World an Icon, 87)

    There are numerous texts and writings by these Ismaili luminaries that provide the ta’wil of the Qur’an, including:

    • The Esoteric Interpretation of the Pillars of Islam (Ta’wil al-Da‘a’im al-Islam) by Abu Hanifah al-Nu’man;
    • The Foundation of Esoteric Interpretation (Asas al-Ta’wil) by Abu Hanifah al-Nu’man;
    • The Book of the Esoteric Interpretation of the Religious Law (Kitab Ta’wil al-Shari‘ah) by Abu Hanifah al-Nu‘man and the Imam al-Mu‘izz;
    • The Secrets and Mysteries of the Speaker-Prophets (Sara’ir wa Asrar al-Nutuqa) by Ja‘far ibn Mansur al-Yaman;
    • The Book of the Boast (Kitab al-Iftikhar) by Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani;
    • The Lectures of al-Mu’ayyad al-Din Shirazi (Majalis al-Mu’ayyadiyyah);
    • The Face of Religion (Wajh-i Din) of Nasir-i Khusraw;
    • The Paradise of Submission (Rawda-yi Taslim) of Nasir al-Din Tusi,

    The special circumstances of the modern period, which is the Cycle of Resurrection [described here], have allowed the above works of Ismaili ta’wil to be edited, published, translated and studied through academic scholarship. More than any other time in the past, Ismaili ta’wil works are available to the public in an unprecedented way through the efforts of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and other academic institutions. This is a remarkable opportunity for Ismaili Muslims and others to learn Ismaili ta’wil directly from primary sources – something the recent Ismaili Imams have encouraged people to do.

    If you want to learn the Qur’an, become students of those who know its real meaning. In this way you will learn its real meaning. You are unaware of the many books of our Faith (din). Therefore you have not studied most of them. If you study such books you will understand and no defect will remain within you. Your intellect (‘aql) will guarantee you that your Faith (din) is true if you read such works. This you will come to know.

    Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
    (Zanzibar, July 5, 1899, quoted in The Wise Qur’an and the World of Humanity Vol. 1, 98)

    Another important source of the ta’wil of the Qur’an in the Ismaili tradition is found within the Ginans composed by the Ismaili Pirs. The Ginans are the devotional literature of the Ismailis of South Asia and express Ismaili Qur’anic ta’wil in the Indic languages, often using ideas and terminology from Ismaili, Sufi, Vaishnavite, Sant, and Tantric traditions. The authorship of the Ginans is attributed to high ranking hujjats of the Imam, called Pirs, who were sent to India beginning around the thirteenth century. These Pirs included Pir Satgur Nur, Pir Shams, Pir Nasir al-Din, Pir Sahib al-Din, Pir Sadr al-Din, Pir Hasan Kabir al-Din, and Pir Taj al-Din. The Ginans are, in the words of Shafique Virani, a “symphony of Gnosis” and they contain the inner meaning of the Qur’an. The 48th Ismaili Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III has emphasized the interrelationship between the Ginanic literature and the

    The Ginans that Pir Sadr al-Din has bestowed upon you are the quintessence of the Qur’an-i Sharif in the Indian language.

    Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
    (Zanzibar, July 5, 1899, in Rashida Noormohamed-Hunzai, The Holy Qur’an in the Ginanic Literature)

    Pir Sadardin composed Ginans from the exegesis of the Qur’an-i Sharif for you…Were there among you such faithful people who had studied the Qur’an-i Sharif and who were also familiar with the Ginans, I would have shown them each verse of the Ginans in the Qur’an, which they could reiterate to you, but there is no such person!

    Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
    (Zanzibar, July 13, 1899, in Rashida Noormohamed-Hunzai, The Holy Qur’an in the Ginanic Literature)

    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 and while Sufi ta’wil lacks the authoritative weight of Ismaili ta’wil, it can be very useful in one’s personal intellectual search. 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) and Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikam) of Ibn al-‘Arabi; the Mathnavi of Jalal al-Din Rumi; and the Divan of Hafiz al-Shirazi. For example, Rumi proclaims that the Mathnavi contains the esoteric kernel of the Qur’an:

    Ma zi Qur’an barguzidim maghz-ra Ustukhwan pish-i sagan andakhtin
    We have extracted the kernel or essence of the Qur’an We have thrown the bones to the dogs

    Hazrat Jalal al-Din Rumi,
    (Quoted in Rashida Noormohamed-Hunzai, The Holy Qur’an in the Ginanic Literature)

    Once again, academic scholarship has made these works available in the public sphere for all to learn from. The Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah has encouraged his murids to learn and compare the Ginans of Pir Sadr al-Din with the Mathnavi of Jalal al-Din Rumi:

    Just as there are the teachings of Pir Sadardin, in the same way there are the meanings of the Mathnawi, but it is in Farsi, therefore you should learn the meanings.

    Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
    (Ahmedabad, October 13, 1903, in Rashida Noormohamed-Hunzai, The Holy Qur’an in the Ginanic Literature)

    E. Ismaili Ta’wil in the Present Day

    Today, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayn Aga Khan IV is the present-living (hadir wa mawjud) and forty-ninth hereditary Imam of the Shi‘a Ismaili Muslims in direct descent from Prophet Muhammad. During the Imamat of his predecessor, the formal da‘wah ranks of the hujjats and da‘is were abolished. Thus, the function and role of providing the ta’wil of the Qur’an is now undertaken by the Imam of the Time, as he explains in his own words:

    You see, my mission is situated on three levels. Firstly, religious: it concerns a symbolic exegesis of the Qur’an: interpreting the Divine Word, the adapting the needs of each community to the time; refashioning the law, constantly and relentlessly…Our religion is esoteric, you understand. It is a perpetual initiation.

    Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
    (Jeune Afrique Interview (Translation), 15 October 1967)

    The Ismaili Imam today teaches the ta’wil of the Qur’an to his murids and to the entire world in at least six different ways – in his public speeches, in his farmans, in the Tariqah rituals he prescribes and authorizes, through his institutional activities including the Institute of Ismaili Studies publications, through Islamic architecture, and through the spiritual inspiration called ta’yid which reaches certain elevated souls. Read more about how Mawlana Hazar Imam’s teaches the ta’wil of the Qur’an here.

    Ta’wil continues to hold an important place in present day Ismaili praxis and intellectual, academic and literary activities. In 1967, the Ismaili Imam once reminded his murids of Bombay, on the twenty-second day of November, that the Ismaili Tariqah of Islam is “an esoteric branch of Islam” and that the esoteric meaning “is not there to everyone.” The Imam also urged his murids to learn the ta’wil of the Qur’an so that they “should be able to explain the esoteric meaning” of parts of the Qur’an. Specific Qur’anic words, the Imam explained, “must represent to you a concept. If you study the Qur’an-i Sharif, this concept will become well known to you, and through you, to the Jamat at large. This takes many years of study.” In a public interview, the Ismaili Imam stressed that understanding the esoteric nature of the Ismaili interpretations of Islam in modern times requires scholarship and expertise in the important Ismaili ta’wil texts:

    Nicholas Tomalin: Am I right that the Ismaili faith is an esoteric one, that’s to say, only real scholars and experts have read all the crucial texts that enable them to understand the inner nature of your religion?
    Aga Khan: Yes, this is so.
    (The Sunday Times Interview, Part I, Nicholas Tomalin, ‘The Ruler Without A Kingdom’, December 12, 1965)

    In light of the above guidance, there is contemporary Ismaili ta’wil literature that draws upon the classical ta’wil of the Ismaili hujjats and da‘is of the past and links it to present day Ismaili doctrine and practice. This contemporary literature is an expression of personal intellectual search and academic engagement with the Ismaili intellectual and devotional traditions of the past. This literature consists of philosophical prose, devotional poetry, and academic research, including [but not at all limited to] the works of Henry Corbin, Ali S. Asani, Azim Nanji, Shafique Virani, Arzina Lalani, Nadia Eboo Jamal, Karim Gillani, Allamah Nasir al-Din Hunzai, al-Wa‘z Faquir Muhammad Hunzai and al-Wa‘za Rashida Noormohamed Hunzai, al-Wa‘z Kamaluddin Ali and al-Wa‘za Zarina Kamaluddin, al-Wa‘z Abualy A. Aziz, al-Wa‘z Jehangir Merchant, Khalil Andani, Khayal Aly Dhanidina, Aly Sunderji, and Ikhwan Allani.

    As ta’wil is absolutely necessary in order to comprehend the real meaning of the Qur’an, it has played and continues to play an essential role in the Ismaili traditions of Islam. Similarly, other schools and communities of Islam endeavor to comprehend the meaning of the Qur’anic revelation through their own modes of interpretation. The present and living Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan, has described this “freedom of interpretation” as an expression of God’s generosity upon all those who believe His word:

    The discourse of the Qur’an-e-Sharif, rich in parable and allegory, metaphor and symbol, has been an inexhaustible well-spring of inspiration, lending itself to a wide spectrum of interpretations. This freedom of interpretation is a generosity which the Qur’an confers upon all believers, uniting them in the conviction that All-Merciful Allah will forgive them if they err in their sincere attempts to understand His word.

    Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
    (Address at IIS Qur’an Colloquium – Word of God, Art of Man, October 19, 2003)

    12 thoughts on “Esoteric Interpretations of the Qur’an: The Foundations of Shia Ismaili Ta’wil

    1. Ya Ali Madad! Barakallah🙏🏻

      Отправлено из мобильной Почты Mail.Ru

      Понедельник, 28 декабря 2015 г., 10:12 +0300 от : >Ismaili Gnostic posted: “The discourse of the Qur’an-e-Sharif, rich in parable and allegory, metaphor and symbol, has been an inexhaustible well-spring of inspiration, lending itself to a wide spectrum of interpretations. Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV

      You see, my mis” >

    2. respected sir
      iam a staunch hindu. I thought Islamic verses carry no sense. Literal study carries literal meaning. But inward study shows the true meaning. Needs to know the true inner truth.

    3. Assalamualikum brother,
      I am a sufi student from India, am interested to learn esoteric interpretation of Quran , and other esoteric side of Islam, I hope this site will be of a help to me, in quenching my thirst for knowledge.
      Thank you all.

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