The Prophet and the other prophetic figures in the mystical interpretation of the Quran. The case of Abraham

Pierre LORY (EPHE)

Paper presented at the workshop « Between God and Man. The Representations of the Prophet in the Construction of Islamic Knowledge » (Paris, 5-6 July 2017)


BNF, Supplément turc 1614, fol. 18v, Abraham saved from the flames

Our starting point is a specific literature, that of the mystical commentaries on the Quran, especially the oldest ones: Tustarî, Sulamî, Qushayrî, Rûzbehân… A mystical tafsîr is not a treatise on piety, nor is it a genuine exegesis. It is the appropriation of the Quranic verses according to a living experience which does not have its source in any sort of exegesis. This type of Quranic commentary is paradoxical. It is individual in that it expresses the welling up of an intimate experience, one that is strictly and profoundly individual, but it also belongs to a way of thinking, to a group. In fact, these exegeses of the Quran exist in a mystical tradition that attaches great importance to the transmission of the experiences of the great figures of past spirituality. A phrase from Tustarî might appear in his Tafsîr, as an expression of his individual experience. Yet one also finds this citation in the work of Sulamî, along with others – Wâsitî and, Hallâj, for example. This literary environment will then modify the meaning of these words of Tustarî’s. Later, Rûzbehân will, in turn, cite the phrase, as a codicil and support for his own ideas and the same quotation will again acquire new connotations. The notion of the imitation of the ancients seems an evident interpretation: an ever-enriching and developing imitation, pre-supposing a powerful mimetic impulse in the hermeneutic process.

Clearly, this imitation is based on the prophetic model, by which I mean the model of Muhammad himself, as well as that of other Quranic prophets. I am basing this notion on the hypothesis that each prophetic figure in the Quran refers back to the experiences of Muhammad and to his relationships with his contemporaries. The point is not to produce a historical document, but rather an exemplar, aimed at believers. This is why I’ve chosen passages here that refer back to Abraham.

BNF, Arabe 1489, fol. 156v, Abraham distroying the idoles

The point being upheld here is the following: the prophets are exemplars of faith in God and of perseverance in their missions. Even so, there may be moments or passages where one can see the prophets hesitating. Abraham arrives at faith only after having rid himself of astral divination – he needs to set his heart at rest concerning resurrection. Moses hesitates to go back to the Pharaoh, and there are similar hesitations even in the life of Muhammad himself. [1] We want to look at the ways in which the hesitation of a prophet can become a locus of imitation. We will observe that the records of these hesitant moments attracted an interpretation as marks of spiritual perfection. To be precise, the example set by these prophets is of leaving conceptual arguments behind to arrive at a pure revelation and mystical union.


Abraham and the celestial bodies (Qur’an VI 75-79)

We will examine two specific passages: the first is that of Abraham, Surah VI, verse  75-79. Here the exegesis is not at all that of speculation and reasoning, unlike what appears in the developments of Philon of Alexandria. Sufi exegetes perceive these verses as a description of the experience of the fanâ’:

75. So We were showing Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and earth, that he might be of those having sure faith. 

وَكَذَلِكَ نُرِيۤ إِبْرَاهِيمَ مَلَكُوتَ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلأَرْضِ وَلِيَكُونَ مِنَ ٱلْمُوقِنِينَ

76. When night outspread over him he saw a star and said, ’This is my Lord.’ But when it set he said, ’I love not the setters.’

فَلَمَّا جَنَّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلْلَّيْلُ رَأَى كَوْكَباً قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي فَلَمَّآ أَفَلَ قَالَ لاۤ أُحِبُّ ٱلآفِلِينَ

77. When he saw the moon rising, he said, ’This is my Lord.’ But when it set he said, ’If my Lord does not guide me I shall surely be of the people gone astray.’

فَلَمَّآ رَأَى ٱلْقَمَرَ بَازِغاً قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي فَلَمَّآ أَفَلَ قَالَ لَئِن لَّمْ يَهْدِنِي رَبِّي لأَكُونَنَّ مِنَ ٱلْقَوْمِ ٱلضَّالِّينَ

78. When he saw the sun rising, he said, ’This is my Lord; this is greater!’ But when it set he said, ’O my people, surely I am quit of that you associate.

فَلَماَّ رَأَى ٱلشَّمْسَ بَازِغَةً قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي هَـٰذَآ أَكْبَرُ فَلَمَّآ أَفَلَتْ قَالَ يٰقَوْمِ إِنِّي بَرِيۤءٌ مِّمَّا تُشْرِكُونَ

79. I have turned my face to Him who originated the heavens and the earth, a man of pure faith; I am not of the idolaters.’

إِنِّي وَجَّهْتُ وَجْهِيَ لِلَّذِي فَطَرَ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلأَرْضَ حَنِيفاً وَمَآ أَنَاْ مِنَ ٱلْمُشْرِكِينَ

Tustarî does not offer any development on the subject of this passage, VI 74 s. He merely affirms that the significance of the questioning of the prophet before the celestial bodies was as a pure demonstration before his people, as a way of awakening their hearts.[2] This goes along with an interpretation that was widespread at that time, found notably in Tabarî. In fact, Tustarî’s thinking goes further. He elaborated an entire prophetology around the concept of the light of Muhammad as the first being to be created. The prophets are the first human beings to have issued from the loins of Adam; the rest of humanity derives from them and owes them its life on the material plane, as on the spiritual plane, as well as relying on them for support as far as the gates of the hereafter. They are the intermediaries through which one realises the final steps to being fully human. [3] From this point of view, it’s easier to understand why there was no requirement for any history of Abraham’s spiritual searchings, even if such a story were expected in a literal sense. As a prophet, Abraham was already, even before his own birth, the recipient of the gift of divine knowledge.

Among the mystics of the third and fourth centuries, the contemplation of celestial bodies becomes a symbolic recital of spiritual evolution. First, Abraham saw God everywhere. According to Ibn ‘Atâ’, Abraham loved his God so much that he saw Him everywhere, saying before a star, not « this is the work of my God », but « this is my God ».[4]

Al-Wâsitî comments: Abraham saw the star, and the sun and the moon in which he perceived God (al-Haqq), rising in the secrecy of his heart. He added: I do not love those who disappear – at the moment at which the supernatural perception came to an end and so, as a result, did the pleasure and the ecstasy.[5] The experience of that which is fortuitous is a preparation for the encounter with the Eternal. Nasrabâdî says: God showed him disappearance and thus brought him an ecstasy in that which knows no disappearance. An anonymous writer declared, according to Sulamî : « This is my God » , meaning, this fortuitousness points to my God, who Himself is immutable.

Qushayrî proposes a sober but profound interpretation of this passage. Abraham discovers that there is only one God, creator and ruler. That is to say, suggests Qushayrî, that he rejects all that is not God. No element of that which is not God can filter though to his spirit. For Qushayrî, the fanâ’ begins with the total abandonment of bad actions, and then moves to conceptions on God, and finally to the actual consciousness of one’s fanâ’. The meditation on the celestial bodies describes the gradual progression of Abraham’s certainty before he has arrived at the decisive experience (sabâh al-wujûd), starting from the star of the intellect (al-‘aql). He recognised God in the star by demonstration (burhân), but the light of the moon of religious science (al-‘ilm) arrived to erase this preliminary form of certainty and replace it with a second type. Then the sun of gnosis (al-‘irfân) left no more space for questions or research (talab), or for the insinuation of doubt : with this sun, the veil (of night) was lifted and vision (al-‘iyân) became possible.

For Qushayrî – as he appears in the context of all his works, and especially in his Risâla, the stimulus of the ‘aql is the love that the future Sufi feels growing in him, which is structured with the help of the demonstrative process. The second stage (the moon) corresponds to the purification of carnal influences from the heart by means of ascesis and pious acts. The third stage (the sun) leads not only to contemplation, but to the inversion of the intentions of consciousness: it is God who speaks in the heart of the mystic. How to explain the fact that Abraham then refuses to stop with the sun? Initially he had considered the traces and the aghyâr through God; and then to God, and coming from God: « Thus, in the end, beyond the light of the sun, everything was erased within God, including his own consciousness ».[6]


Abraham and the four birds (Qur’an II 260)

BNF, Supplément persan 332, fol. 3, Abraham and the birds

Another passage on Abraham can also be of interest to us. Its theme is « the questions formulates a certainty » II 260:

And when Abraham said, ’My Lord, show me how Thou wilt give life to the dead,’ He said, ’Why, dost thou not believe?’ ’Yes,’ he said, ’but that my heart may be at rest.’ Said He, ’Take four birds, and twist them to thee, then set a part of them on every hill, then summon them, and they will come to thee running. And do thou know that God is All-mighty, All-wise.’


وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ رَبِّ أَرِنِي كَيْفَ تُحْيِـي ٱلْمَوْتَىٰ قَالَ أَوَلَمْ تُؤْمِن قَالَ بَلَىٰ وَلَـكِن لِّيَطْمَئِنَّ قَلْبِي قَالَ فَخُذْ أَرْبَعَةً مِّنَ ٱلطَّيْرِ فَصُرْهُنَّ إِلَيْكَ ثُمَّ ٱجْعَلْ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ جَبَلٍ مِّنْهُنَّ جُزْءًا ثُمَّ ٱدْعُهُنَّ يَأْتِينَكَ سَعْياً وَٱعْلَمْ أَنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ


Among strictly mystical commentators, let us first name Tustarî, who takes a lot of time over this verse. He replies in the negative to the question of whether Abraham had been subject to doubt when formulating such a demand. Abraham was a believer, as demonstrated by his response to God, in the same verse.  He was simply requesting an increase in faith, kashf al-ghitâ’, with the help of concrete, material vision; this is what was designated as « bringing peacefulness » (tuma’nîna)[7]. This request for an increase in faith is also taken up by Qushayrî, who explains that the request for more faith is permitted.[8]

We’ll pass over several more distant interpretations.[9] One proposition advanced by Tustarî is that Abraham needed to assure himself of the reality of the divine khulla, of which he felt himself to be unworthy.[10] Qushayrî adds that the return to life of a dead person was the sign of having acceded to this rank. Another commentary states that the request of Abraham revealed his desire to contemplate the works of God, and carried with it no grounds for suspicion, according to Nasrâbâdî. In the same spirit, an anonymous writer says that tranquillity is not the opposite of doubt – the question lies elsewhere. This verse also suggests the theme of ‘death to oneself’, as summed up by Qushayrî: « The heart of a man who didn’t sacrifice his ego through spiritual efforts won’t be alive in God » [11]. He continues: a human being is like these flocks of birds. Broken up by the beloved (God), it re-assembles itself at his call.

Supplément turc 1088, fol. 17, Abraham et Gabriel

Rûzbehân takes up these exegeses that are a bit scattered and proposes a more synthetic reading: Abraham had been tried by God in many ways: material (thrown in the furnace, called to sacrifice his son), but also spiritual, in his search for certainty (for example, the contemplation of the celestial bodies). Like other prophets, the experience of the loss of the beloved (God) was imposed on him in order to consume any remains of human or satanic attachment. Abraham’s faith was not perturbed: he asked how God’s reign was manifested to his servants in what was created. He wanted to know the greatest secrets of divinity, for he who loves always wants to know everything about the beloved. God responded that since he (Abraham) was part of creation he could not have access to the secrets of pre-eternity. Instead, God agreed to set his heart at rest by the vision of His Beauty. Abraham’s request was greater than that of Moses, who asked God for contemplation, whereas Abraham asked for the secret of the contemplated. The four birds are: the intellect, whose throat is cut with the knife of love on the threshold of the Malakût; the heart, whose throat is cut with the knife of desire (shawq) on the threshold of the Jabarût; the soul, whose throat is cut with the knife of the ‘ishq in the plains of isolation; and the spirit, whose throat is cut with the knife of impotence in the trackless deserts of the mysteries of unicity[12].

Finally, we will mention the interpretations of this same verse, as evoked by Fakhr al-dîn al-Râzî, who said they were transmitted « according to the language of the Sufi Masters » ( ‘ala lisân ahl al-tasawwuf). The dead people in question are the hearts that are veiled in regard to the theophanies. To ask to see the resurrection amounts to aspiring to this theophanic unveiling that permits access to pure and total certainty, going beyond the simple speculations of deductive theology.[13] This statement carries weight. It proves that mystical commentary can by right be incorporated into a more general Tafsîr.



To conclude: What do these passages on the evolution of prophetic modelling bring to our interpretations of the Quran? We can observe that from the most ancient commentaries, those of Tustarî and his contemporaries, up until the most recent, with Rûzbehân, there is an evident homogeneity. The commentators place themselves in the same relationship with the Quranic text. They write in registers that are sometimes doctrinal, sometimes more ascetic, and sometimes more lyrical, using the language of love, but their exegetic universe is the same. They have the same idea of the prophetic model. Abraham here becomes a paradigmatic figure of the person following the path to God. It is in this sense that he must be followed himself, and imitated. But he is more than a simple Shaykh. As a prophet, he is gifted with a dimension that is always turned towards the divine world. His human gestures are in fact simple demonstrations, with a pedagogical character, offered to ordinary human beings. An advanced Sufi will know how to translate his words. He will know how to perceive, under the apparent doubt, the proximity of theophany. In fact, like Muhammad, Abraham is himself only in relation to God. In relation to other human beings, he is working to teach them.



[1] See Qur’an XI 12 (all translations by Arberry) :

« Perchance thou art leaving part of what is revealed to thee, and thy breast is straitened by it, because they say, ’Why has a treasure not been sent down upon him, or an angel not come with him?’ Thou art only a warner; and God is a Guardian over everything. »

Or, among others, these verses: (Qur’an XVII 73-76) :

73. Indeed they were near to seducing thee from that We revealed to thee, that thou mightest forge against Us another, and then they would surely have taken thee as a friend;

74. and had We not confirmed thee, surely thou wert near to inclining unto them a very little;

75. then would We have let thee taste the double of life and the double of death; and then thou wouldst have found none to help thee against Us.

[2] We note in passing that Ibn ‘Arabî commented on this passage of surah VI of the Quran in chapter 367 of the Futûhât. While telling of his own celestial ascencion, he recounts how he met Abraham in the seventh heaven and asked him why he had pronounced those idolatrous words « this is my God ». Abraham merely replied that it was a roundabout way of putting his people onto the right path, because they adored idols of wood and stone; speaking to them of celestial bodies was a way of gradually drawing them away from error and on to the right path.

[3] G. Böwering, The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam – The Qur’ânic Hermeneutics of the Sûfî Sahl At-Tustarî (d. 283/896), Berlin/New York, Walter de Gruyter, 1980, pp.148, 156. See also Keeler, Annabel et Ali (tr.) ῾Abd Allāh al-Tustarī, Tafsīr al-Tustarī. Great Commentaries on the Holy Qurʼān. (Louisville : Fons Vitae), 2009

[4] Sulamî, Haqâ’iq al-tafsîr, ed. S. ‘Imrân, Beirut, Dâr al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, 2001, I p.206.

[5] Haqâ’iq al-tafsîr I p.205; see also Rûzbehân Baqlî, ‘Arâ’is al-Bayân fî haqâ’iq al-Qur’ân, ed. A. F. Al-Mizyadi, Beirut, Dâr al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, 2008, I p.376-377.

[6]  » « Kâna yulâhiz al-ashyâ’ wa-l-aghyâr bi-Allâh, thumma kâna yarâ al-ashyâ’ li-Allâh wa-min Allâh, thumma tâla`a al-aghyâr mahwan fî Allâh » », Latâ’if al-ishârât, ed. I. Basyûnî, Cairo, al-Hay’a al-misriyya al-‘âmma li-al-kitâb, 1981, I p.484-485.

[7] Also cited by Sulamî. Haqâ’iq al-tafsîr, I p.79.

[8] Latâ’if al-ishârât, I p.202.

[9] Sulamî provides us with other opinions: Abraham’s request reveals the psychology of lovers. He addresses God to attract His blame, and the question « are you not a believer? », coming from God who knows Abraham better than he knows himself, is a reproach that brings him back to life (shared exegesis; anonymous authors). Another citation: this act is a hîla by Abraham, who is seeking to attract to himself the delectation of divine discourse. Even a reproach from God is a sign of His love, Wa-yabqâ al-wuddu mâ baqiya al-`itâbu. More prominent is the idea that what Abraham is asking for is in fact the mushâhadat al-ghayb (anonymous author). Are you not a believer, replies God, you who has interrogated the celestial bodies before asserting your certainty; you, for whom We have been the guide, the proof? See also, in the same sense, Qushayrî, Latâ’if al-ishârât, I 202.

[10] Tafsîr al-Tustarî, ed. M. B. ‘Uyûn al-sûd, Beirut, Dâr al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, 2002, p.37.

[11] « Man lam yadhbah nafsa-hu bi-al-mujâhadât lam yahya qalbu-hu bi-Allâh  » Qushayri, Latâ’if al-ishârât, I p.203.

[12] ‘Arâ’is al-Bayân, I p.106-109.

[13] Mafâtîh al-ghayb, Beirut, Dâr al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, 1990, VII p.34-35.

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