Batinites

(batiniyya)
   A term applied to those who emphasize the inner (batin) meaning of a text over its external or apparent (zahir) sense. It is sometimes loosely applied to thinkers who opt for a figurative interpretation (ta’wil) in order to avoid absurd or superficially literal readings of scripture, e.g. the Mu‘tazilites, the falasifa or the Sufis. However, it is primarily reserved for the Isma‘ilis, for whom the distinction between the apparent and esoteric or hidden meaning of revelation is paramount. The Isma‘ilis went beyond the metaphorical approach to Qur’anic exegesis preferred by rationalist theologians, philosophers and mystics, insisting on elaborate symbolic and allegorical readings of even seemingly straightforward passages. Finding meaning in numbers and letters, they disclosed through their interpretations an elaborate, mythologized Neoplatonic cosmology, along with a cyclical but eschatological conception of history. For the Isma‘ilis, interpretation was absolutely essential to the attainment of truth, rivalling even revelation (tanzil) itself in importance. Like revelation, it was seen as imminently rational, albeit not discoverable by universally distributed, unaided human reason. Proper understanding required divine assistance of sorts: the true import of scripture could only be discerned and passed on in the form of an authoritative teaching (ta‘lim) by divinely guided imams descended from the family of the Prophet Muhammad himself, who were invested with knowledge by the first originated being, the intellect. However, the esoteric truths of the imams and their missionaries were deliberately concealed from common believers (‘amm), who, in their ignorance, might misunderstand or abuse them. Indeed, they were jealously guarded and only revealed, in a decidedly secretive, exclusionary, hierarchical and gradual manner, to the elite (khass). The Isma‘ilis extended the Shi‘ite idea of precautionary dissimulation (taqiyya), interpreting it as an obligation not to disclose the batin, rather than simply as a means of escaping religious and political persecution. Even the observation of Islamic law in its zahir form could be understood as a kind of dissimulation. While the Isma‘ilis’ radical hermeneutics introduced a system of great richness and sophistication into the Qur’anic worldview, it also understandably intensified Sunni traditionalists’ wariness towards what they saw as over-interpretation, and reinforced their penchant for a more sober and conservative, if not entirely literalist, approach to scriptural exegesis.
   Further reading: Corbin 1993; Daftary 1990

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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