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The principles of Shi'i tafsir

- The exoteric and esoteric aspects of the Qur'an

Among the principles of the Shi'i tafsir is that the Qur'an has an outer dimension (zahir) and an inner dimension (batin) and the simple surface text of a verse unfolds multiple meanings and exemplifies a feature to be found throughout the Qur'an. 1 Indeed the Qur'an is meant for men and women of any level of intellect and from any social background, and "since the expounding of subtle knowledge is not without danger of misinterpretation, the Qur'an directs its teachings primarily at the level of the common man. The Qur'an reveals itself in a way suitable for different levels of comprehension so that each benefits according to his own capacity." Also certain verses contain metaphors which indicate divine gnosis far beyond the common man's understanding but which nevertheless become comprehensible through their metaphorical form. 2

These exoteric and esoteric aspects of the Qur'an have also been identified with the principles of tafsir and ta 'wil respectively, Tafsir being the explanation of the external aspect and the literal exegesis of the Qur'an using different fields like Arabic grammar, poetry, linguistic, jurisprudence or history as references to elucidate the difficulties of the literal text, and Ta 'w II signifying "to take back or reconduct something to its origin and archetype (asl)" . 3 The basis in any case remains the corpus of teachings and hadith of the Imams who expounded the rules of the plurality of meanings in the Qur'an. 4 In other words, Ta 'wil or symbolic and hermeneutic interpretation enables penetration into the inner meaning of the Sacred Text, which in fact entails a reaching back to its Origin. The idea of penetrating into the inner meaning of things can be seen everywhere in Islam. But it is particularly in the case of the Qur'an that ta'wil is applied, especially by the Sufis and the Shi'as 5. 6

There is considerable disagreement as to the meaning of ta'wil, and it is possible to count more than ten different views. Tabatabai explains that ta'wil is not in opposition to the actual text but is used to extend the idea expressed to include a further meaning. 7 Also, sufficient deliberation upon the Qur'anic verses and the hadith of the Imams will show that the Qur'an never uses enigmatic methods of explanation. "What has been rightly called ta'wil or hermeneutic interpretation of the Holy Qur'an is not concerned with certain truths and realities that transcend the comprehension of the common run of men". In fact, "the whole of the Qur'an possesses the sense of ta'wil, of esoteric meaning, which cannot be comprehended directly through human thought alone." Only the Prophet and the pure among the saints can contemplate these meanings in this world. "On the Day of Resurrection, the ta'wil of the Qur'an will be revealed to everyone." 8

- The abrogating (nasikh) and the abrogated (mansukh) verses

Abrogating verses are those which are applicable and relevant at all times and abrogated verses are not relevant and have already been fulfilled. 9

- The explicit (muhkam) and the implicit (mutashabih) verses

The verse 7 in the sura 3 of the Qur'an divides the Qur'an into two parts: the explicit and the implicit, the clear and the allegorical, or the muhkam and the mutashabih. The verses, which are explicit and immediate in their message, are incapable of being misinterpreted. The implicit verses are not of this nature, but seem to express a meaning containing a further truer meaning whose interpretation is known only to God. This view is accepted by both the Sunnite and the Shi'ite scholars; however, the Shi'ites believe that the Prophet and the Imams of his family also understood the hidden meanings and maintain that the ordinary man must seek knowledge of the implicit verses from them (the Prophet and his family). 10 Tabatabai relates from the Imams that each verse, even if its meaning is not apparent or., explicit, can be explained by reference to other verses. Thus, the real meaning of the implicit verses can be found in relation to the explicit verses and the assertion that no means exist for understanding the implicit verses is fallacious. He also reports a prophetic hadith (reported by al-`Amili, in al-burr al-Manthur, vol.2, p.8): "In truth, the Qur'an was not revealed so that one part may contradict the other, but rather was revealed so that one part may verify the other. You understand what you can of it, then, act accordingly; and that which is unclear for you, simply believe in it." 11

1 Tabataba'i, The Qur'an in Islam, p.29.

2 Ibid, p.31-32

3 H. Corbin, En Islam Iranien, vol.1, p.212.

4 H. Corbin, En Islam Iranien, vol.1, p.214.

5 H. Nasr, Ideals and Realities in Islam, p.58-59

6 In the fafsir of the Qur'an, the Sunni have mainly depended on the apparent meaning of the Qur'anic verses, whereas the Shia have depended on the apparent meaning and the inner meaning of the verses understood from other verses (for the Qur'anic verses explain each other) and from the traditions of the Prophet (s.a) and the infallible Imams (a.·) that explained the qur'an. But as for the Sufis, they have depended on their personal understanding of the Qur'an, and therefore, most of their tafsirs (interpretations) are not accepted by other Muslims, especially the Shia.

7 Tabataba'i, The Qur'an in Islam, p.41

8 Tabataba'i in H. Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality, p.24

9 M. Ayoub, "The speaking Qur'an and the Silent Qur'an", p.189.

10 Tabataba'i, The Qur'an in Islam, p. 33-34

11 Ibid, P.36.

Adapted from the book: "Mahdi in the Qur'an" by: "N. Vasram and A. Toussi"

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