Mulla  sadra Shirazi on the Hermeneutic of the Qur'an: His Philosophical Meditation


Latimah Parvin Peerwani

The scholars of the Qur'an in the past fifty years have done a great deal of research on the commentaries upon the Qur'an of the genre of narrative, legal, textual, and rhetorical. But very little attention has been paid to the philosophical-gnostic commentaries on the Qur'an.

In this paper I will be briefly looking at  sadr al-Din al-Shirazi's hermeneutic of the Qur'an. By hermeneutic I mean a general body of methodological principles which underlie interpretation as well as the epistemological assumptions of understanding.  sadra has synthesized several genres of tafsir in his commentary on the Qur'an. Known as Mulla  sadra in Iran, in the Shi'ite world, he has been the dominant intellectual figure of the past four and a half centuries.

He is considered to be one of the major expositors of Islamic intellectual doctrines in the Shi'ite world, and the founder of a school of Islamic philosophy known as the "sublime or transcendent wisdom" (hikmat al-muta'aliyah). This school of thought is an integration of Hellenistic philosophy, Avicennism, Sufism, especially Ibn al-'Arabi's theosophy of wahdat al-wujed (the unity of Being), Shihab al-Din Suhrwardi's hikmat al-ishraq (wisdom of illumination), Kalam, the Qur'an, the Traditions of the Prophet and the Shi'ite Imams, various areas of intellectual and spiritual currents of  sadra's time and his mystical and philosophical insights.

 sadra's hermeneutic of the Qur'an yields much interesting material, but for the purpose of the present paper our aim is to look briefly into the following areas:

(a)  the principles of his Tafsir;

(b) requisite conditions for the hermeneutic of the Qur'an;

(c)  requisite conditions for the reciter of the Qur'an;

(d) description of some features of Mulla  sadra's Tafsir,

(e)  an example of his hermeneutic of the Qur'an.

A brief sketch of Mulla  sadra's biography and his works on the commentary upon the Qur'an

Mulla  sadra was born in Shiraz (Iran) in 979/1571 in a Twelver Shi'ite family. His father Ibrahim Shirazi, a member of the famous Qawam family of Shiraz, held the post of vizier and was a powerful political and social figure in his native city. He spared no care in the education of his only son. The young  sadr al-Din was given the best possible early Islamic education in Shiraz. After that he was sent to Isfahan to continue his studies.

In this epoch Isfahan was not only the political capital of the Safavid monarchy but was also the center of the scientific life of Iran. There existed, fully active, some of the greatest masters of learning whose teaching extended to a wide field of knowledge.

At Isfahan  Sadr al-Din has as masters principally three persons, who are famous in the history of Islamic thought and spirituality in Iran. In the first place was Shaykh Baha' al-Din Amili (d. 1030/1621), with whom  Sadra studied the traditional Islamic transmitted sciences, i.e., the Qur'an and its science ,hadith of the Prophet and the Shi'ite Imams and its science, Shi'i jurisprudence and its principles. He studied intellectual sciences with Mir Damad (d. 1041/1631) and with Mir Findiriski (d. 1050/1640).

Not satisfied with simply formal learning, and also persecuted by many legal Shi'a scholars for his adherence to philosophy (hikmah) and gnosis ('irfan) Mulla Sadra left worldly life in general and retired to a small market-town of Kahak situated some thirty kilometers to southwest of Qum in North - West Iran where he is said to have stayed for as long as seven years, or according to another report fifteen years. There he contemplated deeply and sincerely, as he claims in his introduction to his al-Asfar1, the fundamental problems relating to the knowledge of God, existence, human destiny, creation, etc.

This intense contemplation was accompanied by strenuous religious exercises and discipline based on the Islamic Laws and the teachings of the Prophet and Shi'ite Imams until, as he claims,2 he became flooded with insights about the above issues. Not only he rediscovered what he had previously learned through rational proofs in a fresh, direct, and intuitive way, but many new truths about the problems he was contemplating upon also dawned upon him. He once again returned to the civilization after his seven or fifteen odd years of seclusion.

Meanwhile, Allahwirdi Khan, the governor of Shiraz had built a large madrasah (college) in Shiraz and he invited Mulla  Sadra to return to Shiraz and serve in that college as the head teacher.  Sadra accepted the offer and made the madrasah of Khan the major center of intellectual sciences in Persia and taught there for many years.

He led his life according to Islamic Shari'ah accompanied by spiritual practices, wrote works on metaphysics, metaphysical commentary on several verses and Chapters of the Qur'an which number almost three thousand printed pages, and on the Traditions of the Prophet and Shi'ite Imams. All his works are in Arabic except for one (Si asl) which is Persian, his mother tongue. He trained many students two of whom were his son-in-laws, Mulla 'Abdul Razzaq Lahiji, and Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani who are also famous as philosophers in the Shi'ite milieu. He died in Basra (Iraq) while returning from his seventh pilgrimage to Mecca in 1050/1640 and was buried there.3

Mulla  sadra has written four works on the commentary on the Qur'an:

(1) Mutashabihal al-Qur'an ("The Metaphorical or Equivocal Verses of the Qur'an"). This is a short epistle which deals some ambiguous verses of the Qur'an and his methodology in dealing with such verses.

(2) al-Asrar al-ayat ("Mysteries of the Qur'anic Signs").5 In this work  Sadra gives the mysteries or esoteric meanings of those verses of the Qur'an which deal with the genesis of the creation and its purpose, man and his ultimate destiny

(3) Mafatih al-ghayb ("Keys to the Invisible World").6 This is his introduction to his commentary on the Qur'an in which he discusses the method and principles for the commentary on the Qur'an, requisite conditions for the commentary on the Qur'an, and the content and message of the Qur'an which is ethical, philosophical and mystical in nature

(4)Tafsir al-Qur'an al-Karim7, also known as al-Tafsir al-kabir ("The Great Commentary") on the Qur'an. It consists of his commentary on al-Fatihah ("The Opening", Chapter one of the Qur'an), al-Baqarah ("The Cow", Chapter 2:1-65), ayat al-kursi ("The Throne Sign", Chapter 2:255), ayat al-ner ("The Light Sign", Chapter 24:35), al-Sajdah ("Prostration", Chapter 32), al-Yasin ("YS", Chapter 36), al-Waqi'ah ("The Event", Chapter 56), al-Hadid ("Iron", Chapter 57), al-jumu'ah ("The Congregation", Chapter 62), al-Tariq ("The Morning Star", Chapter 86), al-A'la ("The Most High", Chapter 87) and al-Zilzal ("The Earthquake", Chapter 99).

He also quotes many verses of the Qur'an and comments upon them in his philosophical works. In a sense, the whole of the corpus of Mulla  Sadra is related to Qur'anic commentary, while all of his Qur'anic commentaries are replete with theological, philosophical and theosophical discussion and his mystical insights (mukashifat). They mark the meeting point of four different traditions of the Qur'anic commentary before him, the Shi'ite, the Sunni theological, the philosophical, and the Sufi-gnostic.

Principles of  Sadra's hermeneutic of the Qur'an

The principles of  sadra's commentary do not differ much from the Shi'ite tafsir. We observed the following three broad principles8.

(1)  The Qur'an has exoteric and esoteric levels. The Qur'an, according to  Sadra is like `being' or existence' which has three basic levels: the intellective, the imaginative, and the sensory.  Sadra bases this theory on his interpretation of the famous verse of the Qur'an [8:5] concerning the three modes of receiving the divine Revelation: "it is not up to a human that God should speak to him [directly] but through inspiration [i.e., at the intellective level as  Sadra would say], or behind a veil [i. e., in symbols for  Sadra], or that He sends a messenger who inspires him by God's permission [i.e., at the external, literal level, as  Sadra would have it]".9

In other words, the Scripture according to  Sadra has three principle hermeneutic levels: cognitive, symbolic and literal. In another place he says, "Most of the words in the divine Book convey the external, literal meaning which imply the inner and hidden meaning, which in turn imply another inner and hidden meaning".10 In the same context he says in his al-Asfar11, "The Qur'an like a man has inner and outer aspects. Each of them has manifest and hidden meanings. The hidden has another hidden meaning, and so forth till the ultimate limit which is known only to God, `for ta'wil (lit. to take a thing back to its origin, or the original meaning) of its ultimate meaning is known to God alone' [Holy Qur'an 3:7]". Then he quotes a tradition attributed to the Prophet, "The Qur'an has inner and outer meanings, the inner further has another meaning, and so forth till seven other meanings which are encoded in each meaning".

In another place he quotes a tradition of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib who is reported to have said: "There is no verse of the Qur'an which does not possess exoteric (zahir), esoteric (batin), limit (hadd), divine plan (mattala')". The exoteric is understood to be the literal meaning, the esoteric is inner  understanding, the limit consists of what is permissible and what is forbidden, and the divine plan is that which God realizes within the heart of contemplative man by means of each verse.

What we find in  Sadra's theory of Scriptural language, which is basically the Shi'ite theory, is an anticipation of what P. Ricoeur says in the context of Scriptural language which according to him is symbolic in nature. By symbol, Ricoeur means any structure of meaning in which a direct, primary, literal sense designates in addition another sense which is indirect, secondary, which can be apprehended only through the first. So the hermeneutic task consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.12

Considering the Qur'an to have multiple levels of meaning, Mulla  Sadra observes that most of the commentaries on the Qur'an do not give its multiple levels of meanings. From the commentaries available he observes four different methods of approach to the commentary on the Qur'an.

 (a) Methodology adopted by philologists, jurists, traditionalists, and Hanbalites. Sadra's critique to this methodology is, that the commentators adhere to the lexical and literal meaning of the words and verses in the Qur'an, even if such a meaning defies rational principles. Such an approach to the Qur'an according to him shows the intellectual weakness and limitation of those who adhere to it.

 (b) Methodology adopted by rationalist thinkers. According to  Sadra they interpret the Qur'anic verses and words agreeable to their reason and correspond with their principles of inquiry and reflective premises and after having done that they invalidate the literal meaning.

 (c) Methodology which is a mixture of the above two methodologies adopted by most of the Mu'tazilites among them al-Zamakhshari, (d.538/1144), and Shi'ite and Sunni Mutakallimen (dialectical theologians). They interpret the verses of the Qur'an which pertain to the origin of the Creation in rational way and adhere to the surface or literal meaning of the verses dealing with the Resurrection and Return.

 (d) Methodology adopted by those who are "well-grounded in knowledge", i.e., the Prophet and the Shi'ite Imams. But besides them there are those "whom God chooses for the unveiling of the truths, spiritual meanings, divine mysteries and indications in the Revelation and the secrets of ta'wil (lit. taking a thing back to its origin, or its deeper meaning), and when they unveil a particular meaning or divine indication, or truth, they establish that meaning without invalidating its external meaning, without destroying the basis of inner meaning, without the meaning being contrary to the external or literal meaning. Because these are the conditions and signs of unveiling (mukashifah) of the esoteric meaning"13.  Sadra includes in this category Sufis and gnostics including himself.

The last method, according to  Sadra, is the only complete method to perceive and experience the inner divine mysteries of the Qur'an which cannot be learned by the lexical rules of Arabic grammar and philology. If that was possible, he states, then all the Arabic scholars would have been able to decipher the whole of the Qur'an. Nor can one arrive at the inner truth of the Scripture through the rules of logic and rational inquiry alone.14

(2)   The Qur'an having exoteric and esoteric levels leads us to the second principle of Sadra: that some verses of the Qur'an are abrogating (nasikh) and some abrogated (mansekh), some verses firm or explicit (muhkam) and some are equivocal (mutashabih).  Sadra mentions in passing that the Qur'an contains those verses, but he does not dwell upon them, declaring them to be the domain of jurists, whereas his domain was the sciences of mystical unveilings (al-'ulem al-mukashifa). This consist, of according to him, the mysteries of divine Unity, the angels and the angelic realm, the mysteries of the divine Scriptures, God's messengers, human soul, the Return (ma'ad), the resurrection of body and soul.  So we come to the equivocal verses of the Qur'an, which is the domain of  Sadra. Equivocally normally implies uncertainty, indetermination and ambiguousness in the use of a word, and that the word in its basic structure has a number of different meanings. If, for instance, the Arabic word 'ayn' is used without any clarifying context it could mean many divergent things as `spring', `eye', `source', `essence' `prominent leader', etc. In this kind of polysemy the different meanings are given to the word 'ayn' and the meanings stand in one and the same dimension. This is what Izutsu calls `horizontal polysemy'15.  Sadra uses this type of polysemy but he also uses `vertical polysemy' again to use Izutsu's terminology. That is to say, one and the same word, or expression is used multi-dimensionally, and significantly at different levels.

According to  Sadra's philosophy, everything in the empirical world is an apparition, or shadow of that which is higher than it, and that in turn is the shadow of that which is higher than it, and so forth until one reaches the Real (or God), and the Light of lights. For instance, the word `throne' in the ayat (25:59, etc.), according to  Sadra signifies externally the heart of man, its inner meaning or inner throne is his vital spirit, the inner of the inner meaning is his spiritual heart and rational soul which is the substratum or throne for the establishment of his spirit. This spirit is a higher luminous substance.16 Here the same word is used at different levels, and all these meanings are authentic for  Sadra's, because they are perceived at different levels of human consciousness. So semantically what occurs is the human consciousness qualitatively changes at different level. This is the crux of philosophy that human - consciousness has three basic levels: sensory-empirical, imaginative-rational, and spiritual-intellectual. All human beings do not operate intensively on all these levels. Some are at the sensory level, some at imaginative, some at both, some at all three levels, and besides weakness and intensity in these levels for them also varies, so accordingly they perceive the world. This applies to the Word of God as well. Hence he is critical of those who adhere only the commentaries on the Qur'an given by Ibn 'Abbas (d. 68/87), Qatadah (d. 118/736), Mujahid ibn Jabr (d.104/722), Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 150/767) etc. and frown upon the rest of the commentaries on the Qur'an, especially the mystical and gnostic commentaries to be `commentary according to one's opinion' (tafsir bi'l-ra'y).

According to  Sadra the tradition of the Prophet which states: "whoever makes the commentary upon the Qur'an according to his own opinion prepares for himself a place in the Fire" is sound. But it signifies the interpretation of the Qur'an according to one's caprice (hawa), having little knowledge of the Arabic language of the Qur'an, and the science of the Qur'an, and having no knowledge of the mystical unveilings, and insight into the Qur'an. He quotes 'Ali bin Abi-Talib who is reported to have said: "If the meaning of the Qur'an was limited to the external, linguistic meaning, there would not have occurred differences of opinion (among the scholars regarding the meaning of content of the Qur'an). This difference can only be removed if a person is given the deeper understanding of the meaning of the Qur'an".17

 (3) The harmony between the intellect ('aql) and the divine Revelation in the hermeneutic of the Qur'an. The former is the internal proof (hujjah) of God in man, and the latter is the external proof of God for man. This is also one of the principles of Shi'ite commentaries on the Qur'an.  sadra defines the role of intellect in the following manner: `The Qur'anic Revelation is the light that causes one to see. Intellect in the eye which sees and which contemplates this light. In order for the phenomenon of vision to be produced, there must be light, but it is necessary to have eyes to look. If you suppress this light, your eyes will not see anything; if you obstinately close your eyes, as do the literalists and jurists, you will not see anything either. In both cases there is a triumph of darkness, and the case of him who opens only one eye, the case of one-eyed man, is not better. By contrast, to enjoin the intellect and divine Revelation is to have "light upon light" as the Light Verse of the Qur'an (24:35) says".18 Sadra follows this principle in all his works.

Conditions for the hermeneutic of the Qur'an

 Sadra gives the following conditions for the one who wishes to indulge into the commentary on the Qur'an:

 (1) The first step is to practice the religious discipline and ethical code in order to purify the soul and refine its innermost consciousness (sirr) in order to understand the divine revelation. This entails: detachment from the possession of riches except what is necessary so that the heart does not get preoccupied with it; detachment from worldly ambitions and aspirations; renouncement of blind literalism and purely juridical conception of the religion (taqlid), repentance for the sins committed and determination for not doing them again.19

 (2) To have a sound understanding of the surface meaning of the Qur'an, for that guarantees a sound understanding of the apparent meaning (zahir) of the Qur'anic language. The outward meaning of the text should be established according to the accepted rules of linguistic and literary usages. It is a prerequisite for any attempt to arrive at a deeper level of the Scripture.

 (3) To have the knowledge of the existing commentaries on the Qur'an.

Conditions or etiquett (adab) for the understanding of the divine message in the Qur'an

In order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the divine Revelation,  sadra known as the divine sage (mut'allih) in the Shi'ite philosophic circle, gives the following helping guidance.20

 (1) Purification of the "heart" from malicious sins and corrupted beliefs, as God says: "only the pure ones can touch it" [Qur'an, 56:79]

 (2) Presence of "heart" and refraining from the inner chattering of the ego (nafs) while reciting the Qur'an. This quality is born when the "heart" is purified from the goals (aghrad) of ones ego (nafs). He who is able to remove from his heart the love of something futile then there grows in his heart the love for the Real (al-Ċaqq).

(3) Reflection on what one is reading (in the Qur'an). This is other than having the presence of heart. It is quite possible that a person may not occupy his heart to something else whilst reading the Qur'an, but may limit himself to the listening of the Qur'an recited by himself without reflecting on what he is reciting. Whereas the real purpose of the recitation of the Qur'an is reflection on it which in fact is the spirit of every worship.

It is reported that Amir al-mu'minin ('Ali bin Abi-Talib), said: "there is no good in any worship if there is no insight into the intention behind it (fiqh), and no good in the recitation of the Qur'an without reflection on it". It is reported about the Prophet that once he recited "in the name of God the Merciful, Compassionate" and repeated it twenty times in order to reflect on it. And when the ayat [3:180] "in the changing of day to night there are signs for those who reflect" was revealed, he said: "woe to he who recites the Qur'an but does not reflect upon it".

(4) Deduction (istinbai): it is seeking the clarification from every divine ayat what is appropriate to it, for there is not a single domain of knowledge whose principle and its derivative, its origin and end are not given in the Qur'an. The highest science of the Qur'an is the knowledge of divine Names, His attributes, His Acts and the knowledge of the Other-world.

As for the divine Acts, they are the heavens and the earth and what is in between them. A reflective person (muddabir) perceives the truths behind them, that is, their natures, which is Natural Sciences and the Science of creation; their modes, positions, beautiful order and organization which is Mathematical science and the science of Destiny; and their principles and goals, and this is the science of immaterial beings, the science of Decree and celestial kingdom.

The reflection on the divine Acts leads one to the divine Attributes and Names, and this is the knowledge of divine Unity. For the act indicates the Agent and His greatness. He who knows from the act only the motion and measure, only knows the Agent as Mover and giver of Forms. But the contemplation on the divine Act, that is, penetrating through the mysteries of the divine Acts, leads one to witness in the divine Act the Agent and not just the His act. And he who knows the Real, sees Him in every thing and everywhere.

For everything is from Him, is returning to Him, is by Him and for Him. He is the totality in His unity according to the spiritual investigation. He who does not see Him in all has not seen Him. It is reported that Amir al-mu'minin ('Ali bin Abi-Talib) said: "I do not see anything but God in it, he who knows Him knows that anything devoid of Him is futile, and everything is evanescing except His Face". That is to say, everything is evanescing if considered from the point of being existent by itself and not from the point of its existent by God and by His power. This is one of the keys of the knowledge of spiritual unveiling (kashf).

(5)               Removal of the obstacles to understanding (the meaning of the Qur'an). It is other than purifying the heart from the filthy sins, and wicked, blameworthy attributes. There are many obstacles to the understanding of the meanings of the Qur'an which are other than what has been mentioned. The heart for the perception of truths of things is like mirror for the apparition of the forms which are the objects of sight. Just as some of the veils of mirror are internal such as the (lowly) nature (or quality of the mirror), rust, and the mirror not being polished, and some are external such as the existence of obstacle (in front of it), lack of focus of the surface of the mirror towards the object intended to be seen in it.

Likewise, some of the veils of the heart which prevent the understanding (of the meanings of the Qur'an) are internal and some are external. As for the internal veils, some are from the aspect of privation and imperfection such as childishness, feeble-mindedness and simple ignorance (i.e., not having knowledge); and some are existential such as, sins and vices. He who persists on sinning, or has the qualities of pride and jealousy, then it is impossible for the greatness of the Real to self-manifest (tajalli) in him. And this is the darkness of the heart and its rustiness. For whenever the passion gathers intensity, the meanings of the Qur'an become intensely veiled. So heart is like mirror, passions are like rust, the meanings of the Qur'an are like forms which are seen in it. The discipline for the heart in order to subjugate the passions is like polish for the clarity of the mirror.

As for the external veils, some pertain to privation such as the absence of reflection (on what one is reciting in the Qur'an). Reflection is the movement of the mind from the principles to the conclusions. The absence of reflection is like mirror having no focus of its surface towards the object which is the intended to be seen in it. Some veils are existential such as, common beliefs based on blind conformity, or ignorance pertaining to philosophical matters. These are like cover for the mirror, or opaque obstacle like wall or mountain (before the mirror). 

These veils are of four kinds:

(a)        spending one's entire energy (al-himmah) on the philology, grammar and syntax (of the language of the Qur'an);

(b)       blind following of the religious doctrine heard from the Shaykhs (teachers, or masters) and holding to it adamantly, and becoming fanatic in following only that which one has heard, without arriving at it by insight. Such a person whose blind belief has limited him, has halted at what he has heard, so it is impossible for him to transcend his station. The sufis say: "Knowledge is veil (to the perception of the reality of the things as they are)". Here by knowledge it is meant the beliefs on which one clings to by blind following, or the adherence to (religious) disputations conveyed by the fanatics of certain doctrines. As for the knowledge which is attained through mystical experience (or spiritual unveiling, kashf), and vision by the light of spiritual insight, it could never be a veil. For it is the very purpose and goal of the object of desire;

(c)        The third veil is the engrossment in the science of Arabic eloquence and rhetoric (of the Qur'an) and going into the minutest details about the words (in the Qur'an) and thereby spending one's life in such research. The basic purpose of the revelation of the Qur'an is to drive people to the vicinity of God by the perfection of their essences and illumination of their hearts by the light of the knowledge of God and His signs. And not spending one's time to find the beautiful (word - formation) of the divine Word, the science of rhetoric, the science of figure of speech and eloquence (in the Qur'an). These are secondary matters used for arguing with those who deny (the Qur'an as the Word of God);

(d) the fourth veil is remaining firm and adhering to commentaries on the Qur'an given by Ibn 'Abbas, Qatadah, Mujahid, Muqatil etc., and considering any other commentary besides those as `commentary according to one's own opinion (tafsir bi'l-ra'i).

(6) The reciter of the Qur'an should perceive that the Qur'an is addressed to him particularly, for the Qur'an is repeatedly revealed to the inner self of man. The descent and manifestation of the Qur'an are according to the state of his heart and level of being. About those who only memorize the words of the Qur'an without deep reflection on them the Prophet is reported to have said: "they recite the Qur'an but it does not transcend their throats", that is, it stays only on their tongues, and does not reach their hearts.

 (7) He should be affected by the recitation and deep reflection of the divine Speech whereby his states change according to the different types of messages in the Qur'an.

 (8) He should ascend to a level in recitation whereby he hears the divine Speech from God and not from himself. There are three levels of recitation of the Qur'an:

(a) and this the lowest: the person is reciting the Qur'an before God Who is seeing him and listening to him. The reciter should be in a state of humility and supplication;

(b) he witnesses by his heart as if His Lord is addressing him, showering upon him His grace. The state of the reciter is that of humbleness, veneration, attention and understanding;

(c) in the divine Speech he sees the Speaker, and his total energy (himmah) and attention are directed to the Speaker. It is as if he is immersed in the vision of the Speaker and oblivious to everything else. About this level, Ja'far al-Sadiq (the sixth Shi'ite Imam), is reported to have said: "By God! God self-manifests (or epiphanizes, tajalla) for His creation in the Speech (Qur'an), but many have no insight for that". The principles, the conditions for hermeneutic and recitation of the Qur'an given by Sadra are some of the basic tool and steps necessary for the understanding of the divine Revelation at multiple levels.

Salient features of Sadra's Tafsir

I will briefly narrate some features of  Sadra's hermeneutic of the Qur'an followed by an example from his Tafsir.

Sadra usually begins his commentary by philological treatment of the verse in question. He often gives a list of divergent opinions on a word or phrase of the Qur'an by the grammarians, and leaves them as they are, even citing contradictory opinions. At times he goes beyond that and tries either to reach some kind of harmonization of the variant opinions, or shows that one of the opinions could be given more credence than the others on the basis of certain rules of the Arabic grammar. He often cites variant readings (qira'at) of the Scripture mostly of the reciters belonging to Kuffan and Basran circles such as, Nakha'i (d. 94/712), Qatadah (d.118/736), al-Hasan al-Ba sri (d. 110/728), al-Kisa'i (d. between 179/795 and 192/807), etc., he narrates the occasion of revelation (asbab al-nuzel), that is, the incidents or circumstances with reference to which the revelation came to the Prophet and its esoteric meaning; he elaborates the strange and difficult words of the Qur'an (gharib al-Qur'an), and also gives its interpretation according to his insight, and mystical experience; he interprets the Qur'an by the Qur'an.

Another distinctive feature of his Tafsir is that he records the interpretation of the verse or word in question given by theologians, philosophers, the Qur'an exegests, he either accepts their interpretation, or critiques it, and gives his own interpretation. The Qur'an exegetes he quotes for the most part are the Mu'tazilite exegete al-Zamakhshari (d. 538/1144), the Shi'ite commentators al-Qummi (d. 328/939) and al-Tabarsi (d. 548/1153), and the Ash'arite theologian commentator Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1209); he records the interpretation of the Prophet and the Shi'ite Imams, sufis and gnostics ('urafa') and further gives its deeper meaning.

What strikes a reader most in his Tafsir is his philosophical meditation on the Qur'an, and his statements now and then that this or that meaning of the divine verse was unveiled to him by inspiration from the divine Throne.

He states in concise terms: "the divine Revelation is the light that causes one the see; philosophical contemplation on the divine Revelation is the eye that sees. To dispense with the first in the manner of certain Mu'tazili extremists is to wander aimlessly in the night. To ignore the second, along with the pious agnosticism of the literalists is to remain intellectually blind".21

In other words, the unveiled meaning, according to him, does not dispense with the literal meaning of the Book as the extremist Mu'tazilite have maintained rather they complement each other. Nor unveiled meaning is to be dispensed with by being rigid to the literal meaning as is done by literalists.

In another place he says: "Nothing of that which the exoteric commentators on the Qur'an, such as the al-Zamakhshari and those who emulate him, have written is the true knowledge of the Qur'an, or the gnosis of the divine Revelation in the true sense. All of that relates to philology, grammar and dialectic, and touches only the shell of the exterior revetment. The true knowledge of the Qur'an is something else".22 That something else for Sadra is the knowledge which pertains to the suprarational realm, and the knowledge of God through mystical experience. This is very obvious when one reads his vast commentary.

But besides his mystical insights and rational demonstration of his perception of the divine Revelation, he also plays the role of a spiritual guide to the divine Realm and gives discourses after discourses about the spiritual path, its ethics, and discipline.

An example of  Sadra's Tafsir

As an example of  sadra hermeneutic of the Qur'an, we will briefly give multiple esoteric interpretations of the `light verse' of the Qur'an recorded by  sadra including his own. The verse in question is the `Light verse (ayat al-ner)' (24:35) which reads as follows:

"God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is, as that of a Niche containing a Lamp; the Lamp is in the Glass, the Glass is like a radiant star, lit from a blessed tree-the olive-tree-that is neither of the east nor of the west, the oil where of would give light [of itself] although Fire had not touched it: light upon light, God guides His light to whomsoever He wills".

Textual consideration by  sadra

The word `light' in the above verse, according to  sadra, is not a subject of the `accident' which consists of bodies and many philologists and dialectical theologians maintain. Rather this `light' is one of the Names of God, and He is the illuminator of the lights.

`Light' in its unqualified sense has many meanings according the majority of scholars. Some are homonymous, or equivocal, some have literal meaning, some are metaphorical, such as: the light of the sun, the light of the moon, the light of the lamp, the light of reason, the light of faith, the light of piety, the light of ruby, the light of gold, the light of turquoise etc.

According to Illuminationist metaphysicians such as Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (d. 587/1191) and his followers light is a `simple self-manifesting reality which brings things to manifestation'. It varies in intensity and weakness, its highest level is the Light of lights.23

Sufi interpretation and  sadra's comment:

According to Mulla  Sadra some early sufi masters interpreted this verse based on the meaning given by the Prophet. It is reported, so he records, that the Prophet was asked, "What is the meaning of `light'? He replied, "[it means the divine Guidance.] When it dawns in the `heart' of a believer, it [i.e., the heart] `expands' and becomes `void'". He was asked, "What is the sign for that?" He replied, "Detachment from the worldly [aspirations], direction of ones attention to the eternal world, and readiness to accept death before it comes".

Then Mulla  sadra remarks that the word `light' in the ayat al-ner means the divine Guidance which dawns in the heart of the believer. Just as the `Lamp' is `enclosed in the Glass', in the same way man's vital self (nafs haywani) is enclosed in the `niche' of his heart. The `Lamp' is ignited from the `Oil', That means the wayfarer's being is enlightened by the `oil' of the intuitive states and stations. Such a state,  sadra observes, is the result of honest dealing in the world, and the worship of, and obedience to the Divine.24

Philosophic interpretation and  Sadra's comment:

Sadra records that the philosophers Avicenna (d. 429/1037) and Na sir al-Din Tesi (d. 673/1274) interpreted this ayat in the following way:

`Niche' means the material intellect [of man] which in itself is `darkness', but it is capable of receiving intellectual lights in varying degrees according to its preparedness. Glass means the intellect in habitus. [This is the next level of the rational soul in ascending order. At this level] it is transparent in itself [like the `glass'], and very receptive to the (intellectual) light like `a radiant star' receptive to the physical light. The `Olive Tree' means [the next higher level of the rational soul which is the] cogitative and contemplative faculty. This faculty [at this level] is ready to receive [the intellectual] light by itself but after exerting some effort. It is `blessed' because it is able to obtain the definition of the things, and correct demonstrative proofs. This [cogitative faculty] `is neither of the east nor of the west'. That means the cogitative power which attains universal meanings, mental notions, and intelligible propositions is not of the animal powers where the (intellectual) light is completely lost (whose symbol is `west' - the place of sunset), nor is it of the pure self-subsisting active intellect [Whose symbol is the east - the place of the sunrise]. The `Oil' means the intuitive power [of the intellect]. The `light' symbolizes the `sacred power' [of the Tenth Intellect] through which the potential intellect (of man) becomes the actual intellect. `Light upon Light' means the `acquired intellect'. This interpretation according to Mulla  Sadra shows the various levels of rational soul in its ascending order which are: material intellect, intellect in habitus, actual intellect, and acquired intellect.25

The interpretation according to the Illuminationist school of philosophy

The following interpretation according to  Sadra is given by those sufis who have experienced divine `illumination' (ishraq), and `spiritual taste'. It is based on the mystical experience of the Illuminationist philosophers.

The meaning of `light', according to  sadra is indicated in a narrative of the Prophet's nocturnal ascent (mi'raj). After his experience of the nocturnal ascent, he was asked by his companions whether he saw God, and if yes, then what was He like. He replied, "[Yes.] God is light. It is not possible (for anyone) to see Him with physical eyes".

Mulla  Sadra comments: the Prophet used the symbol `light' for God, which implies that the divine Reality is self-manifesting reality, which brings things to manifestation. The followers of the Illuminationist philosophy, he states, use the term `Light of lights' (ner al-anwar) for God. This light varies in perfection and imperfection, intensity and weakness. The most perfect light is the Light of God. After that there are higher lights divided into the lights of intellects and the lights of souls. Then follow the lower lights which are divided into the lights of the stars and the lights of the Elements.

Sadra's interpretation of the `Light Verse'.

He comments: the Light and Being or Existence (wujed) are the same reality. The symbol `Lamp' means the Light of God which is manifest on everything. `Niche' means the lower beings of this world. `Glass' is a symbol for higher beings [i.e., the intellects and souls of the other world]. `Oil' means the `breath of the Compassionate" (nafas al-rahman), which is the Absolute Being in its state of deployment extending from the Real (al-haqq) to the creation. It also means the emanation of illumination over the creation called `the most sacred emanation" (al-fayd al-aqdas). The `blessed tree' is a symbol for `being' (wujed) or `light' which emanates from the `most sacred emanation'. It effuses being or light over all the composite things in the world according to their receptivity and preparedness. Just as a tree has many branches and leaves, `the most sacred emanation' has also many dimensions. This emanation `is neither of the east nor of the west'. That means, it neither pertains to the Being in the state of sheer `Oneness', nor to the essences which are in multiplicity. `Light upon light' means, the higher Necessary Light gives emanation to the lower possible light. `God guides His light to whomsoever he pleases' means, He manifests His self-subsisting being upon whomsoever He wills. By this manifestation something comes into the light of being from the darkness of non-being.26

 Sadra's guidance to the seekers of light:

"Know O my beloved, the measure of light is not known but by the Light. Rather, each of its degrees is only known by the type of that degree. The sensible light is perceived by the sensible light, the light of the soul by the light of the soul, and the light of the intellect by the light of the intellect. That is, the light of the stars is perceived by the light of the eye, the sensible lights are perceived by the senses, etc".

"Know O wayfarer, contemplate, reflect, and meditate on what is written in these lines. Enlighten your eyes; be certain that the `straight path ( sirat al-mustaqim)' and the way to God is neither on the earth nor in the sky, neither on the land nor in the sea, neither in the world nor in the Other-world, but in the self of the wayfarer, who travels from it and in it toward his Lord".27


On the basis of the salient features of Mulla  Sadra's Tafsir given above, I would like to make some general observations. First,  sadra's Tafsir is different in approach and concerns than the major Shi'ite commentaries on the Qur'an studied by me.

The Qur'anic language according to Mulla  Sadra is `open at its highest level', to use P. Ricoeur's phrase, which can have myriads of interpretations according to the level of being of the believer. Hence it is polysemic in nature. This polysemy is of horizontal as well as of vertical nature. The subtlest of meanings, the multiple levels of meanings are all inherent in the concrete words of the word of God at the sensory level and the Speech (kalam) of God at its highest non-material, supra-rational level.

The content of his Tafsir is philosophical and esoteric-gnostic in nature. If one were to characterize the central issues that arise from the commentary, they seem moral, philosophical, esoteric and gnostic in nature. In so far as morality may be seen to have relationship to law, and the law to the state, an argument could perhaps be mounted to claim specifically the political significance for all the passages which he has taken as moral issues. Implicitly such themes do convey a message that if every individual takes the responsibility of morally and spiritually reforming himself according to his understanding of the Qur'an, then the whole society could become reformed, However, explicitly, he seldom deals with the nature of a polity or the conduct of state.

The Tafsir of this genre, according to our research, is unique in the Shi'ite religious literature. His Tafsir has had a great impact on the subsequent Shi'ite commentaries on the Qur'an including the most recent one, al-Mizan of 'Allamah tabataba'i (d. 1978).


1-  sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, al-Hkmat al-muta'aliyah fil-asfar al-arba'ah (Beirut, 1981), vol. l, p. 8.

2- Ibid.

3- See three articles on the life and doctrines of Mulla  sadra by S. H. Nasr in his Islamic Life and Thought, (London, 1981), pp. 158 - 187; and "Mulla  sadra: his teachings" Chapter 36, pp. 643-661 in History of Islamic Philosophy, part l, ed. S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman, (London, 1996).

4- This treatise is published as part of collection of Rasa'il falsafi by  Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, ed.

S. J. Ashtiyani, (Meshhad, 1292 A. H./1352 H.S.), pp. 75-121.

5- Translated in Persian by M. Khwajui, (Tehran, 1363 H. S.) The original Arabic text was not accessible to me.

6-  Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, Mafatih al-ghayb, ed. M. Khwajui (Tehran, 1363 H. S.).

7- Tafsir al-Qur'an al-Karim, 7 volumes, (Qum, 1366 H.S.).

8- For the principles of Shi'i tafsir see, 'Allamah Sayyid M. H. Ìabaìaba'i, The Qur'an in Islam, Chapter 2, pp. 25-61, (London, 1987); M. Ayoub, "The Speaking Qur'an and the Silent Qur'an: A study of the Principles and Development of Imami Shi'i Tafsir, pp. 177-198, in A. Rippin (ed), Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur'an, (Oxford, 1988).

9-  Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, al-Hikmat - op.cit, vol. 7, p. 9.

10- Ibid, p. 9.

11- Ibid; Mafatiċ, op. cit. p. 70; Tafsir al-Qur'an, op. cit., vol. 6 (Surah al-Sajdah), p. 23.

12- P. Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations, (Evanston, 1974), P. xiv.

13-  sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, Mafatiċ - op. cit. P. 87.

14- Ibid, pp. 84-86; also, Mutashabihat - , op. cit. pp. 76-77, 87.

15- I would like to acknowledge T. Izutsu's essay on "Mysticisrm and the Linguistic Problem of Equivocation in the Thought of 'Ayn a-Quèat Hamadani' in Creation and the Timeless Order of Things, by T. Izutsu, forward by W. Chittick, (Oregon, 1994).

16- Mafatiċ, op. cit., p. 88.

17- Ibid., pp. 69-72.

18-  sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, Sharh `u sel al-kafi-Kitab al-'aql wa al-jahl, ed. M. Khwaju'i, (Tehran, 1366 H. S.) introduction.

19-  Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, Kasr a snam al-jahiliyyah, ed. M. T. Daneshzhu, (Tehran, 1962), p. 133.

20- ..... Mafatih op.cit, pp. 58-69. Some of these conditions are also mentioned by Abe Hamid al-Ghazzali in his Ihya al-'ulem al-din, vol. l (Cairo, n. d.), pp. 248 ff.

21- Cited by H. Corbin in his En islam iranien, vol. 4 (paris, 1972), p. 74 (trans. is mine).

22-  sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, Si a sl, ed. S. H. Nasr, (Tehran, 1961), p.84.

23- .... "Tafsir ayat al-ner" in Tafsir al-Qur'an, op. cit., vol. 4, pp. 347-78; also S. H. Nasr, "Qur'anic Commentaries of Mulla  sadra" in Conciousness and Reality, ed. s. J. Ashtiyani, and others (Tokyo, 1998), pp. 45-57; L. Peerwani, "Quranic Hermeneutics: The Views of  sadr al-Din Shirazi" BRIMES Proceedings, 1991, pp. 468-477. As for the Illuminationist Philosophy of Suhrawardi, many works have been written about it in the last fifty years especially by H. Corbin and S. H. Nasr, and some articles by H. Landolt. The reader may also refer to, M. Aminrazavi, Suhrawardi's Theory of Knowledge, Dissertation (Temple University, 1989); H. Ziai, Knowledge and Illumination (Georgia, 1990).

24- Ibid, p. 351.

25- Ibid, p. 380; also Na sir al-Din al-Tesi, Sharh al-isharat wa al-Tanbihat, vol.2 (Tehran, 1378 A. H.), p. 357.

26- Ibid, pp. 353-355.

27- Ibid., pp. 389, 407.



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