The Spirit and the Letter

Approaches to the Esoteric Interpretation of the Qur'an

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Annabel Keeler, Sajjad H. Rizvi
Qur'anic Studies Series
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     495 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.
Review coming soon!

Review by Robert Ames forthcoming.


This volume is the first to focus specifically on esoteric interpretation as a phenomenon in the field of Qur'anic exegesis and to show the plurality of ways it has been manifested in different Muslim traditions. Concern with the inner, spiritual implications of the Qur'an has usually been associated with mystical and Sufi trends in Islam. However, there have also been exegetes among the Shi'a, as well as among philosophers, who sought to supplement their understanding of the Qur'an's apparent meaning by eliciting deeper significations through contemplation of the verses. 

The Spirit and the Letter examines the multiplicity of these esoteric approaches, covering a period that extends from the third/ninth century to the present. It includes chapters on philosophical and Shi'i exegetes, such as Ibn Sina (d. 428/1037) and Mulla Sadra (d. 1045/1635-6), in addition to studies of a range of Sufi perspectives, from al-Sulami (d. 412/1021) and al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072) to Ruzbihan Baqli (d. 606/1209), as well as representatives of the Ibn 'Arabi and Kubrawi schools. Considered together, the range of studies in this volume enable us to see what these approaches have in common and how they differ, and how the hermeneutics and content of exegesis are affected by doctrinal and ideological perspectives of various traditions and periods. Furthermore, they deepen our understanding of what actually constitutes esoteric interpretation and the need to look beyond the letter to the spirit of the Qur'anic word.

About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Annabel Keeler is affiliated researcher at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and research associate of Wolfson College, both at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include Sufi exegesis, early to 'classical' Islamic mysticism, Persian literature and prophetology. She is the author of Sufi Hermeneutics: the Qur'an Commentary of Rashid al-Din Maybudi (London, 2006) and co-translator of the commentary of Sahl al-Tustari, under the title, Tafsir al-Tustari (Kentucky, 2011). She is currently working on a monograph on the third/ninth century mystic Abu Yazid al-Bistami and continuing her comparative study of Sufi commentaries on Surat Yusuf.

Sajjad Rizvi is associate professor of Islamic Intellectual History at the University of Exeter. Trained as a historian at Oxford and Cambridge, he has previously taught at the universities of Cambridge and Bristol. A specialist of Islamic thought in the Persianate East, he is the author of Mulla Sadra Shirazi (Oxford, 2007) and Mulla Sadra and Metaphysics (London, 2009), and is currently working on a study of the same thinker's noetics. His future projects include a comparative history of philosophy in the Persianate eighteenth century, and an intellectual history of Islamic philosophical traditions in India from 1500 to 1900.

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