The Theory of Quranic Interiors (Butun al-Quran): A Study and Analysis (Part 1)

By Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh and transcribed by Muḥammad Ṭarrāf

Translated by Muhammad Jaffer[1]

In the previous two articles, we discussed the various views on vernacular and transcendental language of the Qurān. We discussed that in general, there are three major camps: a group that believes that the Qurānic diction is purely vernacular, a group that believes it is purely transcendental, and a group that believes there is a combination of the two. In the below discussion, we will discuss one of the most important theories leveraged to support the existence of transcendental language in the Qurān: namely, the theory of Qurānic interiors (naẓariyyah buṭūn al-qurān).[2] We will particularly aim to identify to what extent the supposition of transcendental Qurānic language may legitimately find credence in this theory.

The theory of Qurānic interiors has enjoyed a great deal of historical importance in Islamic thought because it has long been regarded as the basis for hypothesizing a non-vernacular, suprarational Qurānic diction. This theory has exerted a great impact on envisioning the relationship between the Qurān and the ḥadīth, especially because there are many exegetical narrations that suggest an interpretation or reading of the Qurān which is wholly incompatible with the conventions of language.[3] As such, the extent to which the terms “al-baṭn” or “al-buṭūn” are understood plays a significant role in one’s stance towards these aḥādīth. To understand this theory, we must first discuss its primary source materials and whether they truly substantiate an interior dimension of the Qurān. Secondly, assuming this interior dimension exists, we will analyze the major proposed postulates regarding the import of the word “interior.”

I. The Sources of Evidence for the Theory of Qurānic Interiors

The evidence utilized to support this theory is based on both rational argumentation and the ḥadīth corpus. We will quickly survey the major rational arguments and then devote the bulk of the discussion to the traditionist sources utilized to support this theory.

A. The Rational Arguments for the Theory of Qurānic Interiors

a. The Argument from Qurānic Inimitability (al-I’jāz)

The inimitability of the Qurān is often leveraged as a springboard for proposing Qurānic buṭūn. The argument goes that if the Qurān is inimitable in its exposition, this implies that it must contain a great deal of knowledge compressed into the brevity of its expression. It is irreplicably simple (al-sahl al-mumtani’) because it precisely fuses this deluge of data within the confines of its compact and well-structured phrases.[4] As such, this group maintains that the inimitability of the Qurān is impossible if we propose that it simply discusses the apparent mundane or ordinary matters; rather it must contain realities within it that people are only able to unpack in a gradated fashion.

It is on this basis that the orientalists often contend that Muslims aggrandize the Qurān and the ḥadīth, all the while they only contain a collection of clearly defined concepts of theology, ethics, law, and spirituality. They claim that the Qurān only contains guiding moral and ethical principles, while Muslims seek to render the religious texts as the ultimate arbiter of everything related to their life. Therefore, Muslims are naturally forced to hypothesize that the scriptural text must subsume everything relevant to our lives within it.

It is proposed by the advocates of this theory that it is only from this vantage point that Qurānic inimitability is established: it must contain an unfathomable amount of information within the parameters of its brevity. The text itself must be open to several imports, and this is why some have proposed Qurānic inimitability as the basis by which the theory of the Qurānic interiors is substantiated. In other words, they proposed that an inimitable text can only be such when it bears immeasurably more import than natural works of literature. Therefore, the inimitability of the Qurān necessitates that the text must bear some sort of interior dimension, because it is impossible for its apparent meanings to subsume this level of multiplicity in import.

However, this view seems quite presumptuous, because textual inimitability does not necessarily require multiplicity of meaning, such that we must demand the text should have an apparent and hidden dimension. Rather, it is perfectly possible for a verbal formulation to be exceedingly exceptional, despite its meaning being limited and apparent. There is no counterargument presented here to discount this premise, and therefore this argument does not seem to hold water. Of course, this is assuming we even accept the hypothesis that Qurānic inimitability is latent in the words of the Qurān themselves.[5]

b. The Argument from Phenomenology (al-tajribah al-bashariyyah): The Perpetuality of Deduction from the Qurān

The second proof leveled on this frontier is that of the breadth of deduction from the Qurān: it is claimed that despite the passing of centuries, the Qurān continues to be replete in meaning, with each generation finding within it a wealth of fresh deductions and applications. Every time an exegete or scholar reads it, they gain more knowledge from it, as though it were an inexhaustible spring. It is not possible to explain this phenomenon except if we propose it has an interior dimension that is capable of bearing this perpetually renewable level of meaning.

In gist, this argument relies on human experience in how we conceive of religious scripture. Historical experience has demonstrated over thousands of years that credal texts (al-nuṣūṣ) are always amenable to further interpretation and are much like an onion, as some hermeneuticists analogize: each time you peel away a layer, another layer comes to the fore, ad infinitum. Each time humanity uncovers more about the world, they can appreciate new glimmerings within the religious text. This is precisely how humankind has been able to extract meanings and concepts from religious texts, in accordance with how much they have discovered about the universe. This confirms that holy scriptures contain a plethora of meaning within themselves, and this should therefore be the basis for the theory of interior dimensions to the Qurān in the Islamic tradition.

This argument is not devoid of ambiguity, for the ability of a text to perpetually provide new meanings and remain fresh may be tied to myriad circumstances, not simply the assumption that it has an interior dimension. For instance, it may also be argued that a multiplicity of interpretations for religious scriptures exist because its adherents project upon it their presumptions to meet their exigencies. For just as one may argue that history reveals the existence of various textual interpretations across the spectrum of time, one also need not neglect that sometimes multiple interpretations can be simultaneous with one another. Therefore, just as some of these coincident interpretations might be fallacious, interpretations spread across time may just as well be erroneous. In other words, historical experience does not at all indicate the veridicality of multiple interpretations; it only substantiates the existence of multiple interpretations.[6]

Of course, we are speaking based on an objective rational perspective here, not from a phenomenological one. When the exegete of the Qurān examines the situation within the lens of his own conviction and recognizes several valid imports in his exegesis that were imperceivable without the evolution of human sciences in the field of religion, nature, and humanities, then this will affirm to him that the Qurān has an interior dimension (that is, aspects that are not apparent at first glance and require observation, excavation, and deep perception in order to come to the fore). Of course, this is also what we have observed as the impetus for the personal mystical experience that endeavors towards Qurānic exegesis. We will allude to this point further on in the discussion.

c. The Argument from the Nature of Qurānic Rhetoric

Unlike more technical and conventional writing, the Qurānic diction is built on metaphors, allusions, analogies, parables, and figurative language. Since these are interpretable, this particular form of speech is amenable to perpetually renewable imports; in turn, this is what we term “Qurānic interiors.”

This argument certainly lays the groundwork for proposing Qurānic buṭūn, however not in the traditional esoteric sense of the word as described by many of the groups that propose the Qurān employs suprarational discourse. Rather, this argument affirms that the meaning of Qurānic interiors should be conceptualized within a vernacular and rational understanding of the Arabic language. This point will be further elucidated later in the discussion.

d. The Argument from the Dichotomy of Decisive and Equivocal (al-Muḥkam wa al-Mutashābih)

The difference between equivocal and decisive verses in the Qurān might be cited to support its interior dimension, especially because the existence of equivocal verses in the Qurān is indisputably derived from the Qurān itself.[7] As such, one may postulate that the “equivocal” implies a text is open to multiple imports. However, the response to this argument is clear: the word equivocal lexically does not imply that a verse actually has multiple intended meanings, but rather that it has multiple unintended meanings while actually bearing only a single intended meaning. Perhaps the reason for this confusion is that some have assumed that if equivocal implies carrying multiple imports, some must be apparent and some must be less apparent. While the word “equivocal” might subsume this idea, it does not affirm the legitimacy of interior dimensions of the Qurān.

B. The Traditional Sources Used to Substantiate the Theory of Qurānic Interiors

Underneath this umbrella, we have some proofs that are issued from the Qurān itself and others that are advanced from the ḥadīth tradition:

a. Intratextual Evidence for Qurānic Interiors: The Argument from Encompassing Exposition

The most important piece of evidence presented within this domain is that the Qurān is a “clarifier of everything,” and this has been mentioned in several verses and traditions.[8] It is proposed that it is impossible to understand this complete exposition of everything, except if we propose that the Qurānic text contains a limitless interior dimension, in every sense of what the word “everything” implies.

Therefore, to cross this chasm between the fact that the Qurān identifies itself as expositing everything while its apparent lexical exegesis does not afford this, one takes refuge in this theory of buṭūn. In other words, it is supposed that the Qurān must have imports that subsume all things, and the way in which one must extract them therefore cannot be merely vernacular or rational, since these are limiting by their very nature. Therefore, the Qurān must transcend the merely vernacular and this implies that a bāṭin dimension must exist for it. However, we cannot discover these truths easily; it is as the verse says, “there is not a thing except that it glorifies Him, however you cannot understand their glorification.”[9] In other words, the Qurān indeed contains everything, but we are unable to understand it because we only have language as our tool. Given that language is incapable of affording us such a comprehensive import, this must mean that language is not the only intermediary by which we can comprehend the Qurān. Therefore, we must take resort to the theory of buṭūn al-Qurān.

The answer to this line of argumentation has been fleshed out in detail in our discussions about the probativity of the Sunnah when we discuss the theory of the Qurān being sufficient, however we will allude only briefly to it here. We must understand that the word “everything” must be contextually understood in reference to the type of book that the Qurān is. It is a book of religious guidance and instruction; therefore it does not necessarily follow that the Qurān is speaking categorically here.[10] However, in gist there is major controversy in understanding what the Qurān means when it says it “clarifies everything.” One group has taken this phrase at face value, seriously believing that the Qurān exposits “all things” without finding any need to interpret this contextually. Another group says that the meaning here is what is pertinent for guidance.[11] When you read the Qurān, you quickly perceive that its objective is guidance and redirecting man back towards God and pristine morality. Therefore, the meaning of “everything” should be understood in this light, and not categorically.

b. Traditionist Evidence for the Theory of the Qurānic Interiors

After discounting all the other evidence as above aside from the third argument, we find that the evidence from the ḥadīth remains the cornerstone in rendering credence to this theory of the Qurānic interiors. We find that we can classify the aḥādīth regarding this topic into two groups:

i. The copious narrations that seem to do exegesis of verses in a manner that is not compatible with the dictates of vernacular language or rational hermeneutics. These narrations can provide testament to the theory of buṭūn al-Qurān even if they do not directly by themselves discuss the dichotomy between exterior and interior. For how could we possibly accept them without implicitly admitting that an esoteric dimension of the Qurān exists? A complete exposition of these narrations is extremely difficult, especially owing to their sheer number, variety, and sources in the Muslim corpus. However, this group of narrations only serve to substantiate the principle, because the exegesis found in these narrations can be explained by a variety of sub-theories that clarify our the understanding of “interior” without subverting the importance of vernacular language and the bases of rational thought in understanding scripture.

ii. The traditions that speak directly about the dichotomy between the exterior and interior Qurān. We will examine the most important narrations under this header as below:

1) In a letter from Imām al-Ṣādiq addressed to one of his companions we find the following lines:

فإنّ الله لا يدرك شيء من الخير عنده إلا بطاعته واجتناب محارمه التي حرّم الله في ظاهر القرآن وباطنه، فإنّ الله تبارك وتعالى قال في كتابه وقوله الحقّ: ﴿وَذَرُواْ ظَاهِرَ الإِثْمِ وَبَاطِنَهُ﴾

“Indeed no goodness is retained (for you) with God except by obedience to him and abstaining from the prohibitions which God has prohibited in the outward Qurān and the inward one. For God has said in his book, and His Word is truth: “Eschew the outer sin and the inner one.”[12]

This report indicates that the Qurān has an outward and inward dimension. It seems that what is being said here is that the explicit Qurān discloses the open sin while the implicit Qurān discloses the hidden sin. This may be gleaned from the parallelism inherent in this report between the outward and interior dimensions of the Qurān and sin. It would therefore seem that this riwāyah supports deriving some jurisprudential edicts from the interior Qurān as well, not just mystical or philosophical ideas. As such, the theory of the Qurānic interiors is substantiated.

However, this narration only substantiates that the Qurān has both an outward and inward dimension. It does not suggest anything about various simultaneous esoteric dimensions or that there is any comprehensiveness within them. For just as interior could mean unfathomable and esoteric comprehensiveness, it could also carry the import of simply not being immediately apparent to all. This may simply imply that one must ponder, compare texts, and thoroughly analyze to derive the Qurānic meaning; this is the most that can be said based on the linguistic import of this word. Therefore, this much can be substantiated about exterior and interior dimensions of the Qurān, and we will benefit further from this dichotomy later God-willing.

2) The narration from Ḥumrān ibn A’yan where he is reported to have said:

سألت أبا جعفر عن ظهر القرآن وبطنه، فقال: «ظهره الذين نزل فيهم القرآن، وبطنه الذين عملوا بمثل أعمالهم، يجري فيهم ما نزل في أولئك

“I asked Abū Ja’far about the outward Qurān and its inward aspect, so he said “Its outward aspect is those about whom the Qurān was revealed, while its inward aspect is those who act in accordance to their behaviors; the same shall apply in their circumstance as to those about whom it was (originally) revealed.”[13]

This narration substantiates the existence of an exterior and interior Qurān, but it substantiates that the exterior is those about whom the Qurān was revealed while the interior aspect are those instantiations (al-maṣādīq) which can be derived from the import of the Qurān. Therefore, for instance, Abū Lahab is in the outward aspect the historical personality himself who was the uncle of the Prophet (saw), however in its interior aspect, anyone who is inimical to religion and hurts or mocks the believers until the Day of Judgement should be subsumed within this title.

The interpretation which is offered by this riwāyah is completely different from what is proposed regarding esoteric imports of the Qurān, because it is completely compatible with accepting that the Qurān was revealed in the vernacular. It does not substantiate a non-vernacular language or hidden imports of the Qurān, as held by those who espouse the transcendental view.

3) The report from ‘Abdullah ibn Sinān from Dharīḥ al-Muḥāribī where he says:

قال: قلت لأبي عبد الله: إنّ الله أمرني في كتابه بأمر فأحبّ أن أعمله، قال: «وما ذاك؟»، قلت: قول الله عز وجل: ﴿ثُمَّ لْيَقْضُوا تَفَثَهُمْ وَلْيُوفُوا نُذُورَهُمْ﴾، قال: «ليقضوا تفثهم لقاء الإمام، وليوفوا نذورهم تلك المناسك»، قال عبد الله بن سنان: فأتيت أبا عبد الله، فقلت: جعلت فداك، قول الله عز وجل: ﴿ثُمَّ لْيَقْضُوا تَفَثَهُمْ وَلْيُوفُوا نُذُورَهُمْ﴾، قال: «أخذ الشارب وقصّ الأظفار وما أشبه ذلك»، قال: قلت: جعلت فداك، إنّ ذريح المحاربي حدّثني عنك بأنك قلت له: ﴿لْيَقْضُوا تَفَثَهُمْ﴾ لقاء الإمام، ﴿وَلْيُوفُوا نُذُورَهُمْ﴾ تلك المناسك، فقال: «صدق ذريح وصدقت، إنّ للقرآن ظاهراً وباطناً، ومن يحتمل ما يحتمل ذريح؟

“I said to Abū ‘Abdillāh: God has commanded us to do something in the Qurān and I would love to be able to perform it. He asked, “And what is that?” I answered, God says in the verse of the Qurān, “Then let them complete their rites and perform their vows” (Sūrah al-Ḥajj verse 29). He answered, “Completing their rites means meeting the Imām and performing their vows refers to the rituals (of Ḥajj).” ‘Abdullāh ibn Sinān says, “So I went to Abū ‘Abdillāh and I said, “May I be your ransom! What is the meaning of this verse?” He answered, “Trimming the mustache, cutting the nails, and other such acts.” I replied, “May I be your ransom, Dharīḥ al-Muḥāribī has said that you told him this means meeting the Imām and doing the rites of Ḥajj.” The Imām answered, “You have spoken the truth as well as Dharīh. The Qurān has an external and an internal import; and who else is capable of withstanding the same import as Dharīḥ can?”[14]

This report also indicates that the Qurān has an external and internal aspect. It makes it clear that the meaning of internal here are non-apparent imports because the apparent meaning of completing the rights and performing the vows is what the Imām has told Ibn Sinān in preparing oneself for consecration (al-iḥrām). However, what he has told al-Dharīḥ is built upon a hidden allusion.

4) The narration of Abū Isḥāq al-Laythī where he states:

…ثمّ قال الباقر: «اقرأ يا أبا إبراهيم هذه الآية»، قلت: يا ابن رسول الله، أيّة آية؟ قال: «قوله تعالى: ﴿قَالَ مَعَاذَ اللهِ أَن نَّأْخُذَ إِلا مَن وَجَدْنَا مَتَاعَنَا عِندَهُ إِنَّآ إِذاً لَّظَالِمُونَ﴾، هو في الظاهر ما تفهمونه، هو والله في الباطن هذا بعينه [يقصد خبر الطينة وأنّه يؤخذ ما عند الناصب من خير فيعطى للشيعي]، يا إبراهيم، إنّ للقرآن ظاهراً وباطناً ومحكماً ومتشابهاً وناسخاً ومنسوخاً

…then Imam al-Bāqir said, “Oh Abū Ibrāhīm read this verse.” I asked, “Oh son of the Apostle of God, which verse?” He said, “The verse, “I seek refuge with God that you should seize anyone except he with whom our provisions are found; otherwise we shall indeed be wrongdoers” (Sūrah Yūsuf verse 79). In its apparent aspect, it is as you understand. However, in its inward aspect, by God, it is this self-same reality (i.e., the doctrine of al-ṭīnah, or that good deeds of the nawāṣib are taken from them on Day of Judgement and given to the Shī’ah). Oh Abū Ibrāhīm: the Qurān has an external and internal dimension; it has decisive and equivocal; it has abrogating verses and abrogated ones.”[15]

This report is also clear in suggesting a clandestine import, as it seeks to substantiate the idea of al-ṭīnah through this verse, although on a prima facie glance, no matter how much we stretch it, the verse is contextually speaking about something entirely different. This is unless one approaches the verse tangentially in trying to find a similitude within the Qurān that supports a credal dogma without looking at its contextual import. Of course, this narration is very weak because of Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Sayyārī.

5) The narration from ‘Abd al-A’lā ibn A’yan that he said:

قال: سمعت أبا عبد الله، يقول: «إنّي لأعلم ما في السماء، وأعلم ما في الأرض، وأعلم ما في الجنّة، وأعلم ما في النار، وأعلم ما كان، وأعلم ما يكون، علمت ذلك من كتاب الله، إنّ الله تعالى يقول: ﴿وَنَزَّلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الكِتَابَ تِبْيَاناً لِّكُلِّ شَيْءٍ﴾

He said: “I heard Abu ‘Abdillāh say, “I indeed know what is in the heavens, what is in the Earth, what is in Heaven, what is in Hell, what was, and what will be; I have come to know these through the Book of God, for the Almighty surely states, “We revealed upon you the Book as an explanation for all things.”[16]

If this report is taken in a categorical sense, it must mean that the Qurān contains within it infinite knowledge. Therefore, it must imply that the Qurān has multiple esoteric dimensions that we cannot understand through the limitation of vernacular and customary rational discourse; therefore, it renders support to this theory of the Qurān containing everything within itself.

6) A similar narration is also reported on the authority of Ḥammād al-Laḥḥām.[17]

7) Yet another narration is also reported from al-Khath’amī and al-Ḥarth ibn Mughīrah.[18]

8) The report of Jābir that he said on the authority of Imām al-Bāqir: ما يستطيع أحد أن يدّعي أنّه جمع القرآن كلّه ظاهره وباطنه غير الأوصياء

No one can claim that he has consolidated the whole Qurān, its apparent and interior, except the successors of the Prophet.[19]

The narration emphasizes that the Qurān has an internal aspect, however this narration does not necessarily condone the idea of esoteric levels of meaning that subvert the bounds of the vernacular. In apprehending a religious text, rational people may differ between themselves in the profundity of their observations in what the speaker intends, thereby resulting in some discovering what may remain hidden to others. This can be understood as bāṭin since it is veiled, such as if one understands an entailed implication or is able to garner something through comparison of multiple verses. The narration is of course weak due to Muḥammad ibn Sinān and al-Munakhkhal ibn Jamīl, the latter of whom was declared weak and extremist-leaning by al-Najāshī.

9) The narration of Abū Lubayd al-Baḥrānī that he stated:

فقال لي أبو جعفر: «هذا تفسيرها في ظهر القرآن، أفلا أخبرك بتفسيرها في بطن القرآن؟» قلت: وللقرآن بطنٌ وظهر؟ فقال: «نعم؛ إنّ لكتاب الله ظاهراً وباطناً

“…then Abū Ja’far said to me, “This is the interpretation in the manifest Qurān; should I inform you about what it means in the interior Qurān?” I said, “Does the Qurān have an apparent and an interior?” He said, “Yes, the book of God has an apparent and interior.””[20]

10) The narration from Jābir ibn Yaẓid al-Ju’fi that he said:

ـ خبر جابر بن يزيد الجعفي، قال: سألت أبا جعفر عن شيءٍ من التفسير، فأجابني، ثمّ سألته عنه ثانيةً فأجابني بجواب آخر، فقلت: جعلت فداك، كنت أجبتني في هذه المسألة بجواب غير هذا اليوم، فقال: «يا جابر، إنّ للقرآن بطناً، وللبطن بطناً، وله ظهر، وللظهر ظهر. يا جابر، ليس شيء أبعد من عقول الرجال من تفسير القرآن، إنّ الآية يكون أوّلها في شيء وآخرها في شيء، وهو كلام متصل منصرف (متصرّف) على وجوه

I asked Abū Ja’far regarding something about exegesis and he answered me. Then I asked him a second time and he answered me with a different answer. Thereupon I told him, “May I be your ransom, you answered me about this before with a different answer than today.” He responded, “Oh Jābir, the Qurān has an internal dimension, and that internal dimension has another internal dimension; it also has an external dimension which itself has another external dimension. Oh Jābir, there is nothing further from the intellects of the people than the exegesis of the Qurān. A given verse may have its beginning about something and its end about something else entirely, all while it is connected speech amenable to multi-faceted imports.””[21]

This narration is quite explicit about there being gradations of apparent meaning as it gives the external Qurān an external dimension of its own. The same applies to gradations of interior meaning, as it does the same in this regard. Then it emphasizes how the Qurān is difficult for people to interpret; the narration therefore emphasizes that the Qurān has clandestine imports within it.

This narration of course comes from Jābir al-Ju’fī who is well-known for his mystical and esoteric leanings; we also find in its chain Muḥammad ibn al-Fuḍayl who has been weakened by Shaykh al-Ṭusī, being as he is accused of extremism. If we presume that ibn al-Fuḍayl is not al-Azdī, then of course he is an unknown narrator. Further to this point, Shurays al-Wābishī in the chain is also unknown.

11) The authentic narration of al-Fuḍayl ibn Yasār where he states:

قال: سألت أبا جعفرعن هذه الرواية: «ما من القرآن آية إلا ولها ظهر وبطن»، فقال: «ظهره تنزيله، وبطنه تأويله، منه ما قد مضى، ومنه ما لم يكن، يجري كما يجري الشمس والقمر، كلما جاء تأويل شيء منه يكون على الأموات كما يكون على الأحياء، قال الله: ﴿وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلا اللهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي العِلْمِ﴾ (و) نحن نعلمه»]

I asked Abū Ja’far regarding this narration, “There is no verse in the Qurān except that it has an external and internal dimension.” He said, “Its external dimension is its revelatory import (al-tanzīl) whereas its internal dimension is its actualized import (al-ta’wīl). Among the latter is what has already transpired and what is yet to come. It takes place just as the passing of the sun and the moon. Each time an actualized import transpires, it applies to both the dead and the living equally. It is as God has said, “None knows its ta’wīl except God and those firmly endowed with knowledge,” and we are those who know it.[22]

This report also resembles the narration of Ḥumrān ibn A’yan (#2 above), as it makes the apparent of the Qurān those referents about whom it was revealed, while its internal aspect are the instantiations that occur later. This narration does not at all carry any implication of subversive or esoteric/suprarational Qurānic imports, as it is clear. This narration is sound in its chain.

12) The report from Ibrāhim ibn ‘Umar in which he says:

قال أبو عبد الله: «إنّ في القرآن ما مضى، وما يحدث، وما هو كائن، كانت فيه أسماء الرجال فألقيت، وإنّما الاسم الواحد منه في وجوه لا يحصى، تعرف (يعرف) ذلك الوصاة

Abū ‘Abdillāh said, “In the Qurān is that which has already transpired, what shall occur, and what is present now. It used to contain the names of specific men, however these have been removed. Even a single name within it has more imports than can be enumerated; it is only the inheritors of the Prophet that recognize them.[23]

This narration renders every name mentioned in the Qurān as though it bears unfathomable imports; it emphasizes that the Qurān contains within it all realities and events. These suggestions of course lay the foundations for building up a theory of rationally subversive and esoteric imports in the Qurān.

13) The mursal riwāyah from al-Barqī, which states as follows:

عن أبي عبد الله، في رسالة: «وأمّا ما سألت من القرآن فذلك أيضاً من خطراتك المتفاوتة؛ لأنّ القرآن ليس على ما ذكرت، وكلّ ما سمعت فمعناه غير ما ذهبت إليه، وإنما القرآن أمثال لقومٍ يعلمون دون غيرهم، ولقوم يتلونه حقّ تلاوته، وهم الذين يؤمنون به ويعرفونه، وأما غيرهم فما أشدّ إشكاله عليهم، وأبعده من مذاهب قلوبهم، ولذلك قال رسول الله‘: ليس شيء بأبعد من قلوب الرجال من تفسير القرآن، وفي ذلك تحيّر الخلائق أجمعون إلا من شاء الله، وإنما أراد الله بتعميته في ذلك أن ينتهوا إلى بابه وصراطه، وأن يعبدوه وينتهوا في قوله إلى طاعة القيّام بكتابه

On the authority of Abū ‘Abdillāh as in a letter, “As for what you have inquired regarding the Qurān, then that is also from among your disparate ideas; because the Qurān is not as you have described. Everything which you have heard of the Qurān has a different meaning than what you presume. The Qurān is nothing but parables for a people who have knowledge, not for others. It is for those who follow it as it should be followed. It is only they who believe in it and recognize it. As for others, how confounding are its imports for them and how far it is from what their hearts portend! This is why the Apostle of God has said, “Nothing is further from the hearts of men than the exegesis of the Qurān.” In this endeavor, the entire creation is indeed confounded, except those whom God wills (to understand). For God only desired to blind others (from its exegesis) in order that they resort to His door and His path—that they should worship Him and resort to the true maintainers of His Book in understanding His speech.”[24]

14) This narration establishes three important premises:

  1. that the Qurān is built on parables, and perhaps this resembles what we had previously discussed regarding the view that the Qurān is only symbolic, as we discussed earlier
  2. that the Qurān is inaccessible and cryptic, and that God has hidden its imports such that it is inscrutable and imperceivable by the people
  3. that the Qurān may only be exposited by resorting to the Ahl al-Bayt, and this premise is of course predicated on the first two premises, which are also espoused in this narration

All of this lays the groundwork for the theory of esoteric dimensions to the Qurān, because the interior is specifically identified as the portion which is secret, and the likes of this narration indicate that it is entirely impenetrable.

15) The narration that is reported from the Holy Prophet (saw) that he said:

إنّ للقرآن ظهراً وبطناً، ولبطنه بطناً إلى سبعة أبطن

Indeed, the Qurān has an internal and external; and its internal has an internal to the level of seven internal dimensions.[25]

Al-Muḥaqqiq al-Iṣfahāni has mentioned in his al-Fuṣūl al-Gharawiyyah that many narrations have alluded to the fact that the Qurān has seven or even seventy internal dimensions. Some scholars have stated that narrations exist which even mention seven hundred or as many as seventy thousand internal dimensions.

However, despite searching extensively, I was unable to find any narration in the extant Shī’ah and Sunnī sources that claim seventy internal dimensions. As for seven, I did not find this except in one Shī’ah source ‘Awālī al-La’ālī. This narration has no value from a chain standpoint, let alone what is claimed about hypercorroboration (al-tawātur) and extensive attestation (al-istifāḍah). Of course, we have found such claims mentioned in some books of exegesis, mysticism, philosophy, and jurisprudence although with absolutely no chain. In gist, I believe this has become a famous adage without having any reliable source, and perhaps its notoriety is because of the mystics and philosophers, for they have built the entire premise of the esoteric sciences upon this pretext!

The ḥadīth regarding the Qurān having been revealed on seven letters (al-aḥruf), for some have interpreted this to mean seven internal dimensions, even within the Shī’ah world.[26][27]

There are even more scattered weak narrations in the sources of ḥadīth and Islamic history. However, we will not belabor the discussion here by presenting them all. Some of these are not even narrations but rather just the statements of a Ṣaḥābī or Tābi’ī. We have explored the probativity of these elsewhere and have reached the conclusion that they cannot be relied upon for proof.

The same applies to the credal texts (al-nuṣūṣ) that surmise that the apparent meanings of the Qurān are not probative. The latter-day Uṣūlī scholars have debated this extensively and have established that they do not substantiate that the apparent meaning of the Qurān is inoperative. We have discussed this point elsewhere as well and will not extend the discussion further here.[28]

In sum, the common denominator which can be drawn from the narrations above—if we surmise that they have generally come from the infallibles—is that there is an internal dimension to the Qurān.[29] This is the conclusion we can ascertain in the first portion of this discussion. Therefore, it is necessary to study and analyze this common denominator for us to determine whether the infamous theory of esotericism to the Qurān, which is relied upon within philosophy, mysticism, Ṣufism, and extremist sects, truly still follows from these narrations.[30] We will discuss this later in the next section, God-willing.


[1] This translation is derived from the transcribed notes of two lectures of Shaykh Ḥubbullāh delivered on this topic. The full transcription can be found here: and the corresponding Youtube lectures are here: and I have also taken the liberty to add some further detailed points on this topic from one of Shaykh Ḥubbullāh’s penned essays on the topic which you can find here: As usual, when footnotes are my own, they are marked with TN. We have avoided detailed citations to the books referenced by Ḥubullāh, as it is assumed that the advanced reader can review his article for the precise references.

[2] TN: this phrase is somewhat difficult to translate with its full import into English. The word baṭn or in its plural buṭūn in Arabic is the opposite of the word ẓahr or in its plural ẓuhūr, which implies the inward/hidden aspect of something as opposed to the outward/apparent aspect respectively. I have stuck to translating this word as “interior” as much as possible, although other English translators have rendered it as “esoteric” or “secret.” I do not believe that these are accurate translations, as they are more connotative renderings (i.e., something which is interior is not necessarily esoteric, a point that will become abundantly clear to readers of this article). However, in some places we have rendered the word as esoteric when it clearly connotes this in the context of Ḥubbullāh’s discussion. Due to the presupposition that the reader is somewhat familiar with Arabic, we may also render this term in Arabic transliteration in certain parts of the article.

[3] TN: Even a cursory glance through the plethora of riwā’ī-based tafsīrs will reveal this to the reader.

[4] “This is a Book whose verses are well perfected and then fully explained. It is from the One Who is All-Wise, All-Aware.” (11:1)

[5] TN: there is a sizeable group of Shī’ah scholars who have rejected that Qurānic inimitability is predicated upon its actual words. Rather, they believe that the true miracle of the Qurān lies in that although it is theoretically possible for humans to produce a book like the Qurān, God has diverted humankind away from being able to do so. For more details, see here:

[6] TN: in other words, variant exegeses can be found within a cross-section of time just as easily as across the spectrum of time. This should have no bearing on whether the Qurān truly conforms to the proposed interpretations.

[7] “He is the One Who has revealed to you ˹O Prophet˺ the Book, of which some verses are precise—they are the foundation of the Book—while others are elusive.” (Sūrah Āl ‘Imrān verse 7)

[8] Consider the following verses: “…a detailed explanation of all things…” (Sūrah Yūsuf verse 111) and “…We have revealed to you the Book as an explanation of all things, a guide, a mercy, and good news for those who ˹fully˺ submit.” (Sūrah al-Naḥl verse 89).

[9] Sūrah al-Isrā’ verse 44

[10] For more advanced readers, you may review the discussion of Shaykh Ḥaydar in his Arabic work Ḥujjiyah al-Sunnah pages 246-248.

[11] For example, if I were to say that I have a book of physics and I say to you, “Read it because it contains everything,” then you will automatically understand from this that the meaning of “everything” is tied only to the discipline of physics. You would not expect to find discussions about biology and rhetoric in it and you would not find it strange at all that I said the book “contains everything.”

[12] This ḥadīth can be found in al-Kāfī. It has a number of chains, all of which are weak: the first by Ḥafṣ al-Mu’adhdhin, the second by Muḥammad ibn Sinān, and the third by Ismā’īl ibn Mukhallad al-Sarrāj.

[13] This ḥadīth can be found in both Ma’ānī al-Akhbār as well as Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī. This narration is also weak due to Muḥammad ibn Khālid al-Ash’arī being unknown. It is also narrated mursal in Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī.

[14] This ḥadīth can be found in al-Kāfī, Ma’ānī al-Akhbār, and Man Lā Yaḥḍuruhu al-Faqīh. This narration is weak due to Sahl ibn Ziyād. It is also narrated with irsāl in Man Lā Yaḥḍuruhu al-Faqīh.

[15] This ḥadīth can be found in ‘Ilal al-Sharā’i.

[16] This ḥadīth can be found in Baṣā’ir al-Darajāt. This narration is weak because of ‘Alī ibn Ismā’īl who has no authentication except based on Kāmil al-Ziyārāt, however he is not even among the direct mashāyikh of Ibn Qawlawayh.

[17] Ibid. Of course, Ḥammād ibn al-Laḥḥām is majhūl

[18] Ibid. This narration is also weak because of Muḥammad ibn Sinān.

[19] Ibid.

[20] This ḥadīth can be found in Kitāb al-Maḥāsin. It is weak because of Abū Lubayd al-Baḥrānī, who is either muhmal or majhūl.

[21] Ibid as well as Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī

[22] See Baṣā’ir al-Darajāt, Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī, and Biḥār al-Anwār.

[23] See Baṣā’ir al-Darajāt and Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī. In addition to this narration being suggestive of taḥrīf, which is definitively unacceptable to us, there are problems with its chains. Firstly, it is narrated mursal in Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī. Secondly, the sanad of Baṣā’ir al-Darajāt mentions Muḥammad ibn Khālid al-Barqī, who is majhūl.

[24] See Kitāb al-Maḥāsin. This narration has only been reported in this book and al-Barqī reports it from his father on the authority of Imam al-Ṣādiq (as). Therefore, it is mursal even if we should posit that the father of al-Barqī is reliable.

[25] See Tafsīr al-Ṣāfī, al-Ḥikmah al-Muta’āliyah, and ‘Awāli al-La’āli

[26] See the discussions on these riwāyāt in Al-Suyūṭī’s al-Itqān, Al-Zarkashī’s al-Burhān, and al-Kāshānī’s al-Ṣāfī. For Shī’ahs who have entertained the meaning of aḥruf referring to buṭūn, see al-‘Āmilī’s Miftāh al-Karāmah, Jawāhir al-Kalām, and Miṣbāh al-Faqīh.

[27] TN: Shaykh Ḥubbullāh has an extended discussion about these riwāyāt and concludes that there are no authentic Shī’ah riwāyāt that affirm the existence of seven aḥruf. In the Sunnī literature, there is nothing to suggest that these seven aḥruf have necessarily anything to do with Quranic buṭun. Therefore, reliance on this group of narrations is very questionable.

[28] See Ḥubbullāh’s Ḥujjiyah al-Sunnah pages 349-368

[29] TN: Of course, this is if we are relying on a notion of al-tawātur al-ijmālī, because as we have seen there are only one to two ḥadīth maximum on this topic that are reliable. Furthermore, these narrations are contradictory within themselves, since some propose buṭūn means actualized instantiations (such as the ones from Ḥumrān ibn A’yan and Fuḍayl ibn Yasār), rather than an esoteric suprarational dimension of scripture.

[30] TN: It is quite interesting to observe that many of the narrations that are used to lend credence to an esoteric interior dimension of the Qurān are narrated by the very individuals accused of extremism, such as Muḥammad bin Sinān, Jābir al-Ju’fī, Sahl ibn Ziyād, al-Munakhkhal ibn Jamīl, Muḥammad ibn al-Fuḍayl, etc. We do not find any of the well-esteemed companions of the Imāms such as Muḥammad ibn Muslim, Zurārah ibn A’yan, Burayd al-‘Ijlī, Yūnus ibn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān, Abān ibn Taghlab, Abū Baṣīr, al-Faḍl ibn Shādhān, etc. This casts serious aspersions regarding the legitimacy of this idea. This interesting point has been extensively analyzed by Dr. Mohammad Hadi Gerami in a paper that we hope to publish soon.