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.


The editors of this volume, Annabel Keeler and Sajjad Rizvi, have accomplished something quite uncommon in bringing together such a diverse collection of essays under a single heading without sacrificing either coherence or clarity. The essays contained in The Spirit and the Letter discuss primary sources ranging from ninth-century Isma‘ili texts to twentieth-century American Sufi Qur’an commentaries. As this book’s subtitle explains, however, all the essays in the collection study texts that offer “esoteric interpretations of the Qur’an” of one sort or another.

It would be easy, in a volume dedicated to esoterica, to sacrifice clarity upon the altar of arcane terminology. In light of that danger, I especially appreciate the clarity and simplicity of the editors’ definitions of “esoteric” and “hermeneutics.” That they can define each of these central terms broadly enough to encompass the wide variety of texts studied in the volume’s twelve chapters without sacrificing internal coherence is no mean feat. They define this volume’s Qur’an commentaries as esoteric in that they discuss “inner meanings” of the Qur’an that “would probably not be apparent, accessible, or even of interest” to its ordinary readership, and their path to these inner meanings “involves, and is the product of inspiration and experience on the part of the commentator,” which in turn derives from “guidance, and often initiation into certain spiritual and hermeneutical disciplines” (2). Their definition of hermeneutics is, in turn, as clear as it is encompassing. Hermeneutics is, for Keeler and Rizvi, “the aims, criteria, and method of interpretation,” and, additionally, in some cases, “the theory of interpretation,” that guides the aforementioned aims, criteria, and method of interpretation (5). This definition is particularly helpful for those of us who, as religious studies educators, often find ourselves defining hermeneutics as interpretation without any further clarification, which can lead to confusion between hermeneutics and exegesis on the part of beginning students. Pre-empting this confusion, Keeler and Rizvi very helpfully cite Jane Dammen McAuliffe when terming exegesis the practice of interpretation in contrast to hermeneutics (defined above as the theory, rather than the practice, of interpretation).

Alongside the above terminological contributions, the essays collected in this volume can contribute to Islamic studies by helping to untangle Sufism (the field most readily associated with esoteric dimensions of Islam) and esotericism. A number of essays in the volume do discuss Sufism, but others discuss Avicennism, Isma’ilism, and Ithna-‘ashari Shi’ism. This illustrates that a wide variety of approaches to the Qur’an can fit the editors’ definition of esotericism, despite the fact that Sufism, “Islamic mysticism,” and “esoteric Islam” are often used interchangeably. Amin Ehteshami and Sajjad Rizvi, for example, read the Shi’i cleric ‘Allamah Tabataba’i’s hermeneutics in his Tafsir al-Mizan as presenting a brand of esotericism despite his rejection of the more readily esoteric interpretations of Sufis and philosophers (443-44).

This contribution aside, various authors within this volume do seem to make some assumptions about the terms they translate into English and use their choices as translators to give these terms more esoteric valences than is readily apparent in the original language. For example, Pierre Lory terms Kashani’s method “spiritual correspondence,” but the Arabic noun (tatbiq) he calls “spiritual correspondence” seems to have no adjective comparable to “spiritual” in the original. (324). Similarly, when discussing Mulla Sadra’s hermeneutics, Janis Esots identifies the English “mysticism” with the Arabic and Persian ‘irfan (375). Although Mulla Sadra is certainly recognized as one the thinkers who made ‘irfan what it is in Iran today, this application of the term is largely retrospective. As Ata Anzali notes in “Mysticism” in Iran: the Safavid Roots of a Modern Concept (University of South Carolina Press, 2017), ‘irfan does not appear regularly within Sadra’s corpus, and did not really come to designate a whole school of thought (as “mysticism” seems to) rather than a particular variety of experience until relatively recently (and long after Sadra’s death in 1641).

This volume has many virtues, but, at points, it suffers for them. For example, the very clarity and specificity of the volume’s definition of its terms that I praised earlier limits the extent to which those definitions can contribute to the ongoing critical examinations of terms like “esoteric,” “mysticism,” and “hermeneutics” in religious studies more broadly. It bears pointing out, though, that Keeler and Rizvi do not lack self-awareness regarding these limits. Indeed, the introduction acknowledges the ongoing debate within the wider field of esoteric studies regarding the applicability of “esoteric” and other related terms to various phenomena, but, beyond mentioning the work of Wouter Hanegraaff and Antoine Faivre, avoids participating in the wider debate about the term’s uses (2).

Despite these limits, though, Keeler, Rizvi, and their authors have undoubtedly made a major achievement in bringing such a wide variety of sources together in The Spirit and the Letter. Aside from the fact that the articles they’ve collected span enough traditions and periods to appeal to Islamic studies scholars of a variety of different stripes, their ability to find terms that can coherently render such a variety comprehensible is in its own right a major contribution to the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Landau Ames is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2018
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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