A distinction is drawn early on in the Islamic tradition between two types of Qur’anic exegesis: interpretation based on what has been handed down from authoritative sources (tafsir bi al ma’thur) and interpretation based on reason and considered opinion (tafsir bi al-ra’y). The former type of interpretation (sometimes just referred to as tafsir) privileges the apparent or literal meaning of the text and is typically favored by traditionalists, who were mistrustful of the promptings of individual human reason (e.g. the Hanbalites and their progeny, although the most extreme school in this respect was the Zahirites). The latter type of interpretation (sometimes just referred to as ta’wil) often points in the direction of a more figurative, esoteric or spiritual understanding, and is generally favored by more rationalistoriented theologians, philosophers and mystics. The Mu‘tazilites and Greek-influenced philosophers, for instance, diverged in varying degrees from the apparent meaning of the Qur’an when it contradicted the conclusions of reason (e.g. anthropomorphic descriptions of the divine, God’s free creation of the world ex nihilo, etc.). The Isma‘ilis similarly distinguished between the outer (zahir) and inner (batin) dimension of the Qur’an (hence their nickname, the batiniyya). For them ta’wil had to do with elucidating the esoteric meaning of the text, which could only be provided by the imams, who were believed to possess special, authoritative knowledge in such matters. For the Sufis, ta’wil involved a more profound, spiritual realization of the Qur’an’s message, which might be illuminated or unveiled by first-hand experience, made possible through the practices established by Sufi masters.

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.


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