The Theory of Quranic Interiors (Butun al-Quran): A Study and Analysis (Part 2)

By Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh and transcribed by Muḥammad Ṭarrāf

Translated by Muhammad Jaffer[1]

II. The Proposed Postulates for Understanding the Quranic Interior

If we submit that the Qurān does have interior dimensions, taking our springboard the aforementioned ḥadīth or any of the other prior arguments discussed (aside from the claim that the Qurān contains all knowledge), does this necessarily imply what is suggested that the internal dimension completely subverts the apparent, such that it is not even derivable from it and altogether independent from it? Or that the criteria for discovering the internal meanings has nothing to do with the vernacular and rational approach to the Arabic language? Is it really true that vernacular language is completely incapable of disclosing the internal dimension of the Qurān? What is the meaning of internal and external based on what has been previously espoused? Are external and internal two disparate ontological or epistemic dimensions? Let us examine amidst this plethora where the correct theory in this context may lie and try to draw some comprehensive conclusions. To adjudicate for ourselves regarding the answers to these questions, we will present several of the prominent postulates espoused to answer these questions:[2]

1) The Postulate of Circumstantial Intentions During Speech

The first postulate at this juncture which is proposed in understanding the meaning of Qurānic interiors is pioneered by Ṣāḥib al-Kifāyah, al-Muḥaqqiq Muḥammad Kāẓim al-Khurasānī (d. 1328 AH). He suggests that the interior means a series of commands that God intended without it being the direct import of His words. For example, when God states “Establish prayer,” it is proposed that while God was indeed instructing us to preserve the prayer in the lexical meaning, there are also several associated imports that have no apparent connection with the command itself.  For instance, the compulsory nature of fasting is presumed as an interior meaning of the verse here, even though it is not explicitly mentioned, because it was intended at the same time as this command to obediently observe the prayer. Therefore, while the apparent meaning is to establish the prayer, the mandate of establishing the fast is an interior aspect. Since God can imply thousands of things at the same time of stating a specific sentence, all these meanings become interior dimensions, and this opens the floodgates to an infinite set of imports in accordance with God’s unlimited nature.

Even if this explanation of the Qurānic interior is possible, there is no evidence to truly suggest it is correct. The textual proofs and intellectual arguments espoused earlier do not support or substantiate it, except if we want to employ very contrived arguments.

Furthermore, this proposal invalidates itself, because there is essentially no question here about external and internal dimensions of the Qurān in the first place. In fact, the internal aspect is supposed to be God’s intentions, entirely unrelated to the actual Qurān. Since the actual import of the Qurānic utterance is still singular per this theory, how can it be surmised that it essentially constitutes an internal aspect of the Qurān?

In addition, we have the astute observation of Mirzā al-Īrwānī as well as Sayyid al-Khu’ī, who note that the narrations about the internal and external aspects of the Qurān seem to be trying to substantiate a merit for it out of this premise. But how does this hypothesis indicate any virtue, when it supposes that the Qurān is built only upon a single import, no different from any other written or uttered language? The only difference is that we are presupposing that the speaker intended other concepts and meanings at the same time he had been speaking, but this can be the case with any speaker at all. How is there anything special? Therefore, this view has no real value and in fact seems to go against some of the riwāyāt on the topic.

2) The Postulate of Multiple Actualized Instantiations (al-Maṣādīq)

The second proposition made by some scholars is that the meaning of internal may be the multiple real-world instantiations for a single utterance; since some of these instantiations are more clear than others, one may separate them into internal and external on this premise. This is what is perhaps meant by saying that only the Prophets and their heirs can truly understand all these instantiations, because their intellects are able to parse out how to subtly apply the verses in the real-world; otherwise, however, the meaning is singular conceptually.

It has been gleaned that ‘Abdullāh ibn Mas’ūd was perhaps one of the proponents of this view,[3] and the narrations from Ḥumrān ibn A’yan and al-Fuḍayl ibn Yasār also lend credence to it. In accordance to this interpretation, the meaning of internal dimension is the instantiation of the verse, because applying them to real-life situations is often not simple to do. It is like what the exegetes and jurists do in trying to find ways to apply the verses of the Qurān on modern and novel phenomena. Indeed, this is one of the meanings proposed for the Qurānic word ta’wīl in understanding its verses.

This interpretation is very possible and likely, and in fact does not engender any reservation about using rational and vernacular means to understand the Qurān. It does not propose any alternative nexus of how to understand the Qurānic scripture, but rather simply regards understanding the text a prerequisite before discovering its instantiations, which has its own parameters. In other words, exegesis of the text is rendered a separate operation from the process of ascertaining its instantiations.

3) The Postulate of Entailed Implications (al-dilālāt al-iltizāmiyyah)

The third postulate proposed is that the external dimension of the Qurān is its congruent import (al-madlūl al-muṭābaqī) of the speech while the esoteric corresponds to the entailed import upon which the utterance is predicated (al-madlūl al-iltizāmī).[4] In accordance with how subtle these entailed implications are, we can term these “interior” and “the interior of the interior,” etc.

As per this thesis, the Qurānic text does not escape the purview of a vernacular and rational understanding, because normal human speech also carries with it entailed implications. These often follow in parallel with congruent imports and the very clear relationship between these imports prevents the presupposition of internal dimensions from interpreting the text rationally.

It is similar to if one should say, “Zayd has a lot of ash on him,” whereby the implication is therefore that he is engaged in igniting a fire, which in turn implies that he is trying to light a grill, which in turn implies that he is expecting guests, which in turn implies that he is a hospitable host. How did we surmise that Zayd is hospitable? It is because of these series of entailed implications, following from one another as premises. Some of these premises may be obvious to people, while other higher-level ones are subtle and not easily ascertainable, such as premise 3 or 4. This could thus be surmised as “the bāṭin of the bāṭin,” such that we have multiple layers of implied entailed meanings, each more subtle than its predecessor, stacked within each other. These higher-level implications may only be perceivable to an elect group of people who have this profound understanding of the Qurān. It is similar to when I might tell you “give me a glass of water,” and you understand from it that I am thirsty.

Of course, one can contend that this idea of having entailed implications ad infinitum is not rationally tenable, since normal vernacular speech is unable to encompass an endless array of entailed propositions. This is of course true, however it should be said that the non-existence of this situation among rational people is not because language prevents its occurrence. Rather it is because the human intellect is incapable of producing thought so profound that it can subsume an endless chain of entailed propositions.

In gist, it is completely possible—rationally and linguistically—to propose that entailed propositions comprise the internal dimensions of the Qurān since they are themselves hidden. Therefore, we do not understand why Al-Sayyid Burūjerdī rejected this view, as he proposed no reason for doing so; we also do not understand al-Fayrūzābādī’s contention that this interpretation goes against the riwāyāt.

4) The Postulate of Understanding Qurānic Import in Accordance with the Intellect

Al-Sayyid Ḥusayn al-Burūjerdī has mentioned that the meaning of the interior dimensions of the Qurān is that the imports of its words have various levels that are apprehended in accordance with the human rational capacity. Each time a human’s capacity to understand increases, the human can appreciate a level of meaning that is more sublime and subtle.

Al-Sayyid Burūjerdī gives an example by pointing out that the word “Sun” (al-shams) is understood by the ordinary human being as denoting nothing but the celestial body we all recognize; however, refined intellects can strip the connotation away from the substance and understand the word “Sun” as connoting “a means of light and radiation.” Of course, this capacity to withdraw the abstract meaning differs in accordance with the intellect of the receiver. Therefore, when we term the Imām, the Prophet, the mystic, or the jurist as “the Sun,” we mean in an abstract sense in accordance with their capacity to illuminate and guide. Therefore, it may be said that the primary indication of the noun “the Sun” is the celestial body, however the spirit of the meaning is illumination, and this is by extension the meaning of the interior Qurān. Therefore, someone may thus extrapolate and say that the Sun and Moon are Imām ‘Ali and Lady Fāṭimah, because they have abstracted these two heavenly entities from their physicality and understood them as connoting illumination and light. From there, Imām ‘Alī and Lady Fāṭimah become spiritual sources of illumination, and so on.

Al-Sayyid Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm and other scholars have also attempted to espouse a similar hypothesis and it appears that they are all in gist one theory. Al-Ḥakīm proposes that the Qurān in the words it uses is targeting a universal exposition, however what we suppose as the apparent meaning is simply one aspect of its import based on our limited exegetical understanding. For example, when it comes to the word “scale” (al-mīzān), he states that we should understand it as everything that is used to measure, regardless of its precise dimensions or accidental properties. However, since in our mortal life we understand the word “scale” as denoting two plates balancing against a fulcrum, we have understood the verse in this context. However, the meaning is completely general and universal; therefore it becomes possible to interpret it as the intellect, the Imām, religion, etc. These layers of meaning constitute the interior meaning and this has no contradiction with how natural speech is understood.

In accordance to this understanding, we believe that this postulate very much approximates its prior two predecessors, and we believe that it is possible to merge all of them under a single heading.

We deem this hypothesis adequate in general in the sense that it is possible, and it is possible to advance it yet further by proposing the theory of abstraction of credal texts (tajrīd al-nuṣūṣ)—that is stripping them from the literal and spatiotemporal constraints in a way that is allowed by linguistic context and vernacular understanding. Thus, for example, we derive from the statement, “So let man consider his food”[5] that the meaning of “food” is not just material sustenance, but rather can also subsume non-material nourishment such as knowledge. As such we find that some riwāyāt have mentioned that the meaning is “knowledge.”

In this context, we can also interpret the Qurān as addressing certain groups of individuals by way of representation; therefore, when the Qurān speaks to the wives of the Prophet, we understand that it is referencing those who have a prominent position in society; as such, we interpret their righteous deeds also to carry two rewards and their evil actions to engender double the repercussions in accordance with the verses of Surah Aḥzāb: verses 30-32. We also are able to derive lessons from the stories and parables of the Qurān and we can more fully appreciate their imports. All of this is in accordance with developments in human perceptual consciousness; therefore this postulate, in principle, is possible and perhaps we can also add it side-by-side to the postulate of multiple instantiations as advanced by al-Muḥaqqiq al-‘Irāqī as among the most sound theories in understanding the interior aspect of the Qurān while still remaining compatible with the vernacular understanding of exegesis. This is because this process of abstraction must observe the constraints of rationality in passing from the literal, to the figurative, to the connotation of what is being intended between the lines of the text. To the same extent, we can understand the entailed implications on this same frontier, insofar as they don’t transgress the parameters of normal human comprehension; this postulate also would remain totally in line with the proposition of the Qurān being a vernacular text.

5) The Postulate of Internal Dimensions in Accordance with The Number of Revelations

The fifth postulate as espoused by some scholars is that the Qurān was revealed multiple times, in concordance with the number of its interior dimensions, alongside its connected revelation in the apparent arrangement of the Qurān. Therefore, if a verse has seventy interior dimensions, this means the verse was revealed seventy one times; if it has one interior dimension, this means it was revealed twice. Therefore, it is presumed that perhaps some verses have been revealed multiple times in comparison to others; when it is said that this verse’s interior dimension is x, the meaning is in accordance to the latter time it was revealed. It has been thus narrated that some verses and chapters were revealed more than once, such as what is said regarding Sūrah al-Ḥamd. Each time the verse is revealed, a different meaning is intended; therefore, the number of buṭūn is parallel to the number of times the verse was revealed.

However, this postulate suffers from some issues; firstly, there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate it. If we suppose that the Qurān was revealed to the Muslims multiple times, the books of history and Qurānic sciences would have mentioned it and it would have been a well-recognized phenomenon in the Qurānic sciences. However, there is no trace of this at all, except in very limited circumstances such as in the case of Sūrah Fātiḥah having been revealed in both Makkah and Madīnah, which indicates that this was the exception and not the rule. Therefore, history refutes this hypothesis, except if the seven qirā’āt are resorted to as proof. Nonetheless, substantiating that the Qurān was revealed seven times or that they were issued by the Prophet in seven formats is not tenable, and details about this can be sought in the earlier sections.

Secondly, if each revelation had an apparent intent, why are not all the imports deemed apparent then? Why have the ḥadīth referred to this dichotomy of apparent and interior? Except if one should surmise that when the verse was revealed the second time, its interior meaning was intended, even if others had assumed its meaning was the first apparent one. However, this is also extremely contrived, in addition to the fact that it does not clarify the nature of the relationship between the scripture and the interior meaning that is intended from the second instance of revelation.

Thirdly, if it is surmised that the Qurān was revealed once in public and then the other times privately to the Prophet solely without him transmitting it to the people, then the question arises of what the benefit of such a proposition even is. What is the point of revealing the Qurān multiple times instead of simply once, while telling the Prophet all the imports at once? As is obvious, the postulate is therefore extremely tenuous.

6) The Postulate of Exhortation as The Interior Dimension of the Qurān

The sixth proposal is what may be gleaned from the writings of Abū Ja’far al-Ṭūsī (d. 460 AH), as narrated from Imāms Baqir and Ṣādiq (as) and also ascribed to Abū ‘Ubaydah in the writings of al-Zarkashī. In gist, the view advances that the external meaning is the actual accounts of the destruction of previous nations, while the warnings derived from these accounts is the interior meaning.

This hypothesis also does not at all contradict the vernacular and rational understanding of language, because the derivation of exhortation from the accounts of the past does not transgress the customary imports of language. Rather, it is quite normal to utilize stories for moral instruction, as the Qurān itself attests.[6] All this implies that the theory of Qurānic interiors under this postulate does not insert any subversive meaning into the system of Qurānic imports.

This postulate is also possible, because the lesson extrapolated from the story is not immediately apparent within its narration; rather it is relatively more hidden. However, despite being logical, this proposal does suffer from a flaw in that some riwāyāt indicate that every verse has an external and internal dimension, while this view seems to restrict the domain of this dichotomy to simply Qurānic stories. It does not explain the purported comprehensiveness of the Qurānic interior, and therefore we must relegate it as far-fetched or at least somewhat limited in scope.

7) The Postulate of General Summativeness (al-ijmāl) in Acknowledging Qurānic Interiors

Al-Sayyid Abū al-Ḥasan al-Iṣfahānī admitted that there is some equivocality in understanding the meaning of ẓāhir and bāṭin mentioned in the credal texts, and perhaps this is because he realized there are several possible competing interpretations for what these terms mean and that it is difficult to adopt simply one. Therefore, the scholar must accept this dichotomy in a general way without seeking detail; for example, considers the issue of God ascending the throne (al-istiwā’). We cannot know precisely how, but we must accept that this is the case.

In commentating upon this postulate, we may say that ignorance about the precise and exact meaning of this concept does not necessarily completely render it inoperable such that we cannot benefit from what it suggests. This postulate combines the premise that the superficial meanings derived from a preliminary common-sense understanding of a verse may be correct, with the fact that the Qurān requires deep reflection that employs a rational understanding of speech to disclose further expanses of meaning that were initially hidden. It is as though the riwāyāt intend to open a new horizon in comparing and extrapolating, consolidating, and analyzing in revealing new imports. This is the meaning of interior—that is, the hidden aspect—and this to an extent is what is meant by the multiple facets of the Qurān as per the words of Shaykh Makārim al-Shirāzī and al-‘Allāmah Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍlullāh; we will discuss this in more depth shortly, God-willing.

8) The Postulate of One Single Utterance Subsuming Multiple Simultaneous Imports

The eighth postulate is that the Qurān intends to use its words with multiple meanings at the exact same time, such that some meanings are relatively more proximate to the intellect while others are more distant. For example, the word “food” (ṭa’ām) is used to mean physical nourishment as well as knowledge. However, the former is closer to the vernacular while the latter is not, and therefore the first is termed “ẓāhir” and the second is “bāṭin.”

This postulate is also possible, except if we should accept what some of the scholars of uṣūl al-fiqh have said that it is impossible for a single utterance to mean more than one thing.[7] On this premise, the whole idea of Qurānic interior itself becomes impossible. However, if we should suppose that a Qurānic utterance can bear more than one meaning, we must also admit that this is an extremely rare phenomenon in ordinary human vernacular speech. The riwāyāt about interior dimensions of the Qurān appear to proclaim that the Qurān came with a system that was not well-known in normal rational speech. This therefore automatically implies that the Qurānic language is vernacular and transcendent at the same time.

Of note, al-Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍlullāh has commented on this postulate when he states, “Multiple imports while using a single utterance is not common in normal speech because it is not congruent with the capacity to be understood, even when we consider ambiguous words. Just because a word carries several possible imports does not mean that they are intended; rather each of these imports must have a circumstantial or textual indicator that supports it. Therefore, when people speak of the general import (al-mujmal), they mean that there is a sense of summativeness in understanding the intended meaning, while considering it possible that other meanings are also possible. Therefore, the issue is not one of possibility or impossibility in itself; rather it is about the artistic conduit by which words were used for understanding among the Arabs. If the meaning of multiplicity in meaning is this, then it would be extremely removed from the customary style of speech, as it would result in non-clarity in meaning. This would imply that the Qurān would not meet the level of eloquence that is demanded of inimitability, which requires that the Qurān ascend to the highest levels of artistic eloquence.”

9) The Postulate of Alluding to Qurānic Profundity

The ninth postulate is what is espoused by al-Mirzā al-Īrwānī, as he himself reports verbally from al-Ākhūnd al-Khurāsānī that these narrations do not mean the Qurān has multiple meanings, some apparent and some interior. It is simply a figure of speech to mean that Qurānic imports are precise and cannot be understood by cursory perusals. It requires a specialist who is keen and capable of reflection, or a group of specific individuals who are highly skilled to apprehend these imports. Therefore, instead of simply saying that the Qurānic imports are detailed and not understood by superficial analyses, the word “buṭūn” has been employed. This is in a metaphorical sense, since the impenetrability of its meanings for the layperson has been likened to a veil, or an internalized dimension which is hidden from its onlookers.

This postulate is also reasonable, and perhaps the fact that narrations exist which endorse seven or seventy layers of esoteric import are alluding to precisely this by way of hyperbole. Therefore, perhaps we are being summoned not to take the Qurānic imports lightly and to seriously reflect on its text; or to reserve the right to its interpretation and understanding to specific persons, such as the Ahl al-Bayt.

10) The Postulate of Ontological Interior Dimensions of the Qurān

This is what is adopted by many of the Ṣufīs and mystics; they propose that the Qurānic interior is an actual separate ontological reality which can only be disclosed by existentially experiencing it. Since the Qurān as a text has simply descended through various ontological realms, it cannot be confined into the merely concrete text on which it exists. In their view, we must understand the intent of God, which can only be appreciated by spiritual wayfaring and Divine union; it is through this conduit that we come to correctly understand the imports of the Qurān. They posit that when we reach Divine proximity, we are able to hear the Qurān directly from God in its true form, not through the conduit of the Messenger.

Therefore, the mystical interpretation does not usher from the premise of the rational, but rather the suprarational. I do not wish to explore this perspective and critique it in depth, as I have already epistemologically critiqued it in the past.[8] I will suffice to narrate here a statement of al-Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr in analyzing the writings of some Ṣūfīs regarding volition in philosophy: “What the mystics and the philosophers as well as the Ṣūfīs have exposited is predicated upon some mystical conceptions that we cannot understand.”

11) The Postulate of Interior Dimensions as Extrapolation (al-‘Ubūr) and Inference (al-Istīḥā’)

The eleventh postulate is proposed by al-‘Allāmah al-Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍlullāh; he discusses this view in the context of appraising some of the previously surveyed postulates, such as that of multiple instantiations and entailed indications. He accepts these theories in gist after a prerequisite analysis of the terms ẓāhir and bāṭin, when he states:

“We cannot understand the issue of ẓāhir and bāṭin in a substantive manner that would render two separate levels of meaning for an utterance, as we would presume for a physical object in having a backside and a frontside, each of them having different elements and attributes. This is because an utterance consists of some simple articulations that represent a corresponding concept in the idiom of the Arabic language; therefore, we must seek to understand this expression based on a single intended import that is understood in different manners in accordance with human custom.”

Al-Sayyid Faḍlullāh has therefore refused to understand this dichotomy of internal and external based on multiple meanings of the Qurān. The meaning of interior is not what the mystics or allegorists surmise that there is an entirely different system of Qurānic import aside from the Arabic idiom as understood by the Arabs. Instead, the meaning of interior is predicated upon two other separate concepts:

i) Extrapolation (al-‘ubūr) from the Specific to the General and from the Physical to the Figurative

This means that the Qurān specifically discusses certain circumstances but seeks to establish general principles. In telling us stories of previous Prophets and the early experiences of the Muslims in certain battles as well as the hypocrites, it is intended for us to be able to extrapolate the principles of the Qurān into a universal framework that can be applied outside of the spatiotemporal bounds in which it was revealed.

As such, Faḍlullāh intersects with the postulate of multiple instantiations by abstracting from the concrete to the abstract. For instance, it is on this basis that we can understand reviving a soul as reviving everyone in the spiritual sense, as mentioned in some riwāyāt. It is as though Faḍlullāh seeks to consolidate the theories of abstraction and instantiation on this frontier.

This same idea actually shares roots with the mystical trends, as ‘Allāmah al-Ṭabāṭabā’ī has discussed in his treatment of the interior dimensions of the Qurān. He has also noted that the Qurān utilizes parables to make the metaphysical more palpable for a human mind that has grown accustomed to the concrete.

ii) Inferential Reasoning or Seeking Inspiration from the Text (al-istīḥā’)

This means that the reflector upon the Qurān sees within it allusions, subtleties, and dynamic imports from which he can deduce conceptions that are in accordance with the Arabic language. Therefore, he can derive from the story of the Queen of Sheba that the Qurān seeks to emphasize the conception of the woman being capable of political sovereignty, and in turn the jurist can benefit from this deduction. Likewise, the jurists may deduce that the enjoinment of good and forbidding of evil is just as important in Islam as fasting, prayer, obedience to the Prophet, and belief in God, given that they all occur within a list of the major credal commandments. It is true that there is no specific injunction to enjoin good and forbid evil, but the context helps him deduce that this are mandatory responsibilities for the believer.

The meaning of inference here is transcending the literal bounds of the text, despite still subjecting it to the scrutiny of language, and allowing it to be freed from the merely lexical parameters of the dictionary. All of what we are able to achieve by allowing the particularities of the Qurān to be extrapolated and the concrete to be abstracted is what we would term “interior” because it does not suggest itself at first glance and it must be gleaned through a careful hermeneutic approach.

At this juncture, Faḍlullāh connects between the idea of buṭūn, ta’wīl, and istīḥā’: “Interpretation is nothing but the operation of inference of meaning through seeing how verses intersect within the text as far as the Qurānic objectives and conceptions which are being identified for the audience.”

Therefore, Faḍlullāh seeks to build the notion of inference sometimes based on intratextuality and comparison within the Qurānic text, and sometimes based on connecting the meanings and concepts derived from the Qurān. Yet other times, he bases this on the exegetical intuition (al-dhawq al-tafsīrī) that the exegete has procured based on his expertise in understanding the Qurānic text; just as the jurist may possess a judicial intuition, if you may. Therefore, Faḍlullāh inclines towards interpreting the meaning of interior Qurānic meaning within the confines of the system of rational customary language.

I believe that Faḍlullāh proposed the idea of inference to build an exegetical modus operandi which is flexible and allows one to use the Qurānic text and its imports dynamically to apply them to new life situations as they emerge.

This type of hypothesis in understanding the esoteric is also very possible and does not violate the Arabic language. It appears that Sayyid Faḍlullāh was seriously keen on preserving the integrity of the Arabic language as a source for understanding the Qurān; he was not at all accepting interpretations that flouted or collided with a customary understanding of language. Therefore, at the end of his discussion, he states:

“We do not have to transgress the bounds of what is usual within the rules of the Arabic language in doing exegesis of the Qurān, nor must we distance it from a commonplace understanding for the sake of clarifying certain truths or legal precepts. This is because the general lines of reasoning and dynamic allusions employed within it afford us the opportunity to infer what we intend anyway in the realm of proof and argument.”

This is what we have already elucidated that Faḍlullāh wanted to preserve the epistemic integrity of the Arabic language while also emphasizing that the Qurān is a perpetually fluid text that does not need to be bridled to express a limited number of facts/realities. It is in this context that we see Faḍlullāh deeming some theories far-fetched and others more plausible.

We also find a similar sentiment—i.e., the epistemic authority of the Arabic language—in the words of al-Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr, for in his comments about the riwāyah of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Kathīr which seeks to do exegesis of the verse in Āl ‘Imrān about muḥkam and mutashābih:

في سياق تفسير آية: ﴿هُوَ الَّذِيَ أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الكِتَابِ﴾، قال الإمام الصادق: «أمير المؤمنين والأئمّة ﴿وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ﴾ قال: فلان وفلان ﴿فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ في قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ﴾ أصحابهم وأهل ولايتهم ﴿فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلا اللهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي العِلْمِ﴾ أمير المؤمنين والأئمّة

In the context of interpreting the verse, “It is He who has revealed to you the Book, in it are decisive verses and they are the source of the book,” Imām al-Ṣādiq (as) reportedly said: Amīr al-Mu’minīn and the Imāms are the source of the Book and “those who are ambiguous” are fulān and fulān (i.e., Abū Bakr and ‘Umar). And those in whose hearts is deviance are those who incline to fulān and fulān, while those firmly entrenched in knowledge are Amīr al-Mu’minīn and the Imāms.[9]

In response to this narration, we find that al-Ṣadr states the following:

Riwāyāt such as these should not be implemented based on our methodology, because they go against the Book of God. As for going against the Book of God, it is because of what we will discuss in the investigations regarding indicators of preponderance (al-tarājīḥ) that every riwāyah that goes against the Book of God is vain falsehood and did not issue from the Imāms. For what is more grave in violating the Book of God than this type of esoteric exegesis, that is absolutely and categorically untenable as an application of God’s Words!

Of course, this riwāyah has no problem in the view of the popular iterations of the theory of Qurānic interiors. However, the fact that Sayyid al-Ṣadr rejects them means that he deemed that our conventional and vernacular understanding of the Qurān and its contexts requires us to reject such narrations without trying to justify them. Therefore, it seems that per al-Ṣadr, the idea of the Qurānic buṭūn should also fit the criterion of matching conventional understanding.[10]

III. Concluding Remarks

Some of the proposed postulates either are already in harmony or have the potential to be in harmony with the proposition of vernacular Qurānic language. Yet others demand a transcendental language. Meanwhile, some are silent on the matter entirely such as the theories of general summativeness.

On the other hand, we observe that the proposed postulates for Qurānic buṭūn can be classified within the following two frameworks:

1) The Ontological-Epistemological Framework: we have seen that most of the postulates propose the dichotomy between external and internal dimensions of the Qurān is epistemic, since they presume that ẓāhir and bāṭin are reflective of levels of understanding. Therefore, when we propose the theory of entailed meanings, we mean that the interior is an understanding that is not evident at first glance, but rather requires the human capacity to pass through a primary understanding that is external/apparent in order to reach this deeper meaning. This is different from the view of the mystics, who believed that the internal and external dimensions of the Qurān are ontologically separate and not epistemic gradations. Thus, the bāṭin Qurān is a more subtle ontological reality than its ẓāhir counterpart. Therefore, we can separate the strains of Islāmic thought on this issue into two types: an epistemological current and an ontological current.

2) The Vernacular-Transcendental Framework: we have discovered from the preceding discussion that some of the theories postulated are in line with a rational understanding of language whereas others presuppose a language that transcends rational speech or what may be termed “suprarational”—rather some of these theories consider this a cornerstone in understanding the difference between the ẓāhir and bāṭin.

Based on the preceding, what becomes clear to us is that we are confronted with two possibilities in the face of these many possible postulates with their concomitant stances and arguments:

1) We adopt the view of summative validity of all these viewpoints, such that we consider all these possibilities equally probable. In this case, we must recognize that this theory of the Qurānic interiors does not truly afford us anything with which to substantiate a transcendental non-vernacular language in the Qurān. This is because all the possibilities are deemed equally likely, and this means that there is no preponderance of evidence regarding whether the Qurān’s language is transcendent or vernacular. Therefore, since the investigator is not confident regarding the precise import of the word buṭūn, he must assent to the common denominator amidst all these theories: that there is certainly a vernacular and rational language present and that the Qurān conforms to it. This is the one point that we can be sure about amidst all doubt.

2) We can accept the shared sense which is evoked by using the words baṭn or bāṭin. This is because these words imply something which is kept hidden; when we therefore examine the Qurān we find that it therefore contains some imports that are clear and apparent to anyone who peruses it. However, this does not prevent some of its messages and imports from being non-apparent—that is, requiring excavation, analysis, intratextual comparison, leveraging contextual indicators, etc.

This is what the exegetes and scholars do, especially as it pertains to topical exegesis (al-tafsīr al-mawḍū’ī). They exert themselves intellectually to reveal these Qurānic imports, and this is of course the natural trajectory that the human experience has traversed in interpreting holy scripture. This is all under the purview of the epistemic authority of language and social custom, in all of what it entails of lexical, historical, societal, contextual, as well as inter- and intra-textual indicators. This is precisely what the exegetes, scholars of the Qurān, and theologians do: they attempt to disclose all the latent imports contained within every word. Perhaps this “bāṭin” is what al-Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr has termed “the complex apparent meaning” (al-ẓuhūr al-mu’aqqad) in contradistinction to “the simple apparent meaning” (al-ẓuhūr al-basīṭ). Nonetheless, the historical fixation within the Islamic milieu has been to tie this concept of bāṭin to Ṣūfis, Ismā’īlīs, extremists, philosophers, mystics, etc. Meanwhile, the actual concept of bāṭin in the Qurān—from a linguistic and hermeneutic perspective—does not at all require this type of esoteric implication of the word buṭūn in the first place.

This is even further buttressed by the first riwāyah in the series of narrations we presented earlier, which implied that some prohibited entities (al-muḥarramāt) are taken from the bāṭin of the Qurān.

Therefore, we conclude that the theory of the Qurānic interiors is a correct theory in the sense that we have elucidated here, even if this view does not necessarily completely conform with all the riwāyāt on this topic. It does not violate the dictates of vernacular language and it does not affirm the existence of another language that is specific to the Qurān. In summary, these hidden meanings:

  1. Are vernacular and rational, and do not indicate a separate system of Qurānic language.
  2. Can be gleaned from the intermediary of the apparent meanings of the Qurān.
  3. Allow the Qurān to remain a living and breathing scripture which retains its comprehensiveness and breadth.
  4. Require one to ponder and think about the Qurān; this is what the verses and riwāyāt that encourage us to reflect on the Qurān intend. They intend for us to be able to extract the more profound, universal, and higher-level meanings from the prima facie imports of the scripture.


[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] I say postulates here because many of these are not necessarily crystallized as entire theories; they are simply hinted to by various authors as possibilities.

[3]  TN: for instance, see al-Ṭabarī regarding 5:105, where ‘Abdullāh ibn Mas’ūd is reported to have said, “Quiet! The interpretation (ta’wīl) of this verse has not yet emerged…”

[4] TN: please see footnote 3 here for further details ( This bears a semblance to what is termed in modern linguistics/pragmatics as “implicatures.”

[5] Sūrah ‘Abasa: verse 24

[6] See the following verses for instance:

  1. “In their stories there is truly a lesson for people of reason…” (Sūrah Yūsuf, verse 111).
  2. “And We relate to you ˹O Prophet˺ the stories of the messengers to reassure your heart. And there has come to you in this ˹sûrah˺ the truth, a warning ˹to the disbelievers˺, and a reminder to the believers.” (Sūrah Hūd, verse 120).
  3. “So narrate ˹to them˺ stories ˹of the past˺, so perhaps they will reflect.” (Sūrah al-A’rāf, verse 176).

[7] TN: for a detailed discussion regarding this point, readers are advised to check out this very interesting article that summarizes the major intellectual discussions on this topic:

[8] TN: We had translated Ḥubbullāh’s piece on this topic, which can be found here:

[9] This ḥadīth may be found in al-Kāfī.

[10] Of note, it appears that Shaykh al-Mufīd also believed that the word bāṭin should be understood in the context of utilizing ijtihād to do tafsīr of the Qurān in a way that utilizes its contextual and historical indicators to augment the understanding provided by the lexical-rational understanding of the scripture. For more details, see his Mukhtaṣar al-Tadhkirah fī Uṣūl al-Fiqh al-Mawjūd fī Kitāb al-Karajukī