The Soul’s Comfort

Islam cautions its adherents from falling into the trap. God’s revelation, expressed ‘in words’ (the Qur’an), or in ‘sense and meaning’ (the Sunnah), is complete. They can be expanded and elaborated upon, but cannot be added on. And, the expansion or elaboration of all matters involving the moral and spiritual of Islam, have to come from within and not from without, writes SYED IQBAL ZAHEER. 


The true path is one: clear, straightforward, and meets the demands of reason. The deviating paths are several: involved, curvy, and hobbled together with illogical sophistry.

The deviant among the people are many: those who wish to break away from the boundaries set on both sides of the straight path. They look for a chance – a hole, a crack – to break free intoone of the deviating paths. If they cannot find any, they will jump over. They will jump over the Qur’an, they will jump over the Hadith; but escape they must. There isn’t a way to prevent them from breaking away because Allah has willed that they should exercise their will and make independent choices in lives.

Pretentious Sufis too grab every chance that can conceal their chicanery. They realize that their core problem is their ignorance of the Revelation. They must find a way to remove the stigma and win credibility. They find a good chance to grab when they learn from the orthodox scholars that, with reference to the Qur’an in particular, there are two kinds of knowledge: the Zahir (apparent) and the Batin (hidden).

The Zahir of the Qur’an and Sunnah has been elaborated upon, and codified by the Fuqaha’, resulting in the development of the Shari`ah. It was no minor task though. It too required digging out the Batini meanings hidden in the texts and other sources. But, the Fuqaha’ were no minor people either. They were people of remarkable qualities. Their product is still considered Zahiri because of its contingent nature meant to organize the material life of the community. The Batini, on the other hand, is for organizing the intellectual and spiritual life. It is considered the core and kernel of Islam. Hasan al-Basri said, “Knowledge of the Qur’an is masculine. None but the masculine will achieve it.” (That is, it is for the lion-hearted, resolute and gritty persons: male or female). Understandably, Batini meaning is so vast that `Ali ibn abiTalib remarked, “If I wished, I could fill a camel’s back with the explanation of Surah al-Fatiah.”

The Tariqah of the true Sufis remains within the Shari`ah and relies much on the Batini.

Because of the demand of high level of knowledge of the Revelations unmet by the people in our contemporary world, and because of the demand by the illiterate to be explained the Qur’an in “down to earth” language, with particular reference to their situation vis-a-vis the modern life, scholars endowed with Batini knowledge have generally penned them as footnotes of their commentaries. Thanwi’s Masa’il al-Suluk as footnotes to Bayan al-Qur’an, though not strictly of this genre, is one example. Mawlana Tayyib mentioned them sparingly in his writings, as did Mawlana Manazir Ahsan Geelani in his books, more often, but so elaborate as to make English translation quite a challenge.

It might be noted that what commentators such as Mawlana Mawdudi, Mawlana Abul Kalam Azad, Muhammad Asad, or others of the modern times who penned down elaborately, picking up issues – formal or philosophical – and discussing them in detail, are not of the Batini class. They endeavor to explain the simple outward or subtle meanings. Examples follow of the Batini meaning which was best handled by the scholars of old. One may look into Zarkashi’s Al-Burhan fi `Ulum al-Qur’an, to familiarize himself with the scholars and their excellent works on this subject.

The pretentious godly men take it upon themselves to define the Zahir and Batin. They define the Zahir as that class of knowledge which comes from the study of the sources – the Qur’an and the Sunnah. They are right. Actually, they borrow this definition from orthodox Islam.

But, for defining the Batin, they cut the true scholars out, and assume the task themselves. They define the Batini knowledge as that which comes from God, as His own direct bestowal to some (chosen) men. Alternatively, they refer to it as `Ilm al-Laduni.

The definition is wrong. The concept of God bestowing special knowledge to special people, or letting them “know His Will,” or “work His Will through them,” comes from religions other than Islam. What Mujaddid Alf-Thani, Shah Waliyullah, or others of their class said as inspirations they received, was, simply, inspirations. An important characteristic of these acceptable inspirations is that they can be checked for correctness against the Qur’an, Sunnah and unanimous opinions of the scholars.The inspired meaning was there in the texts anyway; Allah’s light sparkled it for them.

The scholars of religions other than Islam have, (and, for every pretentious scholar in Islam, they have ten), invented other terms to express similar meaning, i.e., special knowledge that is not available for critical evaluation: the sacred, the esoteric, the mystical, etc.

Islam has little use for these newly invented, obscurantist terms. The Zahir and Batin of the Qur’an are not equivalent of the exoteric and esoteric terms popularized by the Orientalists, who, despite their long sentences and longer listed books, have never been able to precisely define the terms of their own invention.

People who do not know the Qur’an, not even through its translations, nor the word meanings of Zahiri and Batini believe that there are divinely-guided people, who, although never schooled, know the hidden meanings of the Qur’an, by which they have access to the mysteries of heaven and earth. False.

Islam cautions its adherents from falling into the trap. God’s revelation, expressed “in words” (the Qur’an), or in “sense and meaning” (the Sunnah), is complete. They can be expanded and elaborated upon, but cannot be added on. And, the expansion or elaboration of all matters involving the moral and spiritual of Islam, have to come from within and not from without.

To chase away ambiguity, Batini knowledge is that which is concealed or hidden within the two revelations: the Qur’an and Sunnah. Consequently, any Batini meaning that is claimed to have been brought out of the two revelations, cannot contradict their Zahiri meaning. It also goes without saying that a man will not obtain the Batini meaning before he has mastered the Zahiri. Dhunnun al-Masri said, “Allah will never open the hidden meanings of the Qur’an unto fiendish hearts.”

Doors to all deviant avenues are closed.

With reference to the Qur’an, its Zahir is clear. We can discuss its Batin.

A common example of the Batini meaning could be cited in Surah Nasr (Qur’an, Ch. 110) which says,

When Allah’s help comes, and victory,
And you see people entering Allah’s religion in throngs,
Then glorify the name of your Lord with praises and seek His forgiveness, for He is Oft-turning.

The chapter’s Zahir (apparent) meaning is that the Prophet was being instructed to glorify Allah and seek His forgiveness when Allah’s help and victory came.

But there is a Batini (hidden) meaning to the Surah which is not apparent to the common eye, viz. ‘Since, O Muhammad, throngs of people have begun to enter Islam, your mission is accomplished.’ And, to those who had sharp spiritual intellect, the verses implied that the Prophet’s life-term was over. Abu Bakr, whose wit was especially sharp for Revelation, wept when he learnt of the coming down of this chapter.

In a second example, we may quote the following. Allah said in Surah 3, Ayah 43:

Worship your Lord, O Maryam, prostrate yourself and bow with those who bow.

The Zahiri meaning is that Maryam (asws) is being persuaded to worship, along with, and in the like manner of, others who worship.

But scholars who looked at the Batini meaning have noted that the use of the words “prostrate yourself” and “bow with those who bow” have different connotations. Both must be given due regard during explanation. The words “prostrate yourself,” refer to the Prayers performed at home, which place should not be neglected by the devotees, as Ahadith have emphasized, while the words “bow with those…” refer to Prayers with the congregation in the mosque. Thus, she was asked to observe two different kinds of Prayers: one at home and the second with the congregation. This explains why Zakariyyah (asws) always found her in the Mihrab.

To give another example, Allah said in Surah al-Mulk, v. 30:

Say, ‘Have you considered: if your water were to recede deep down, who will then bring you flowing water?’

The Zahiri meaning of the verse is quite easily comprehensible: If the water went down the wells further, who would bring it out? But the Batini meaning, as suggested by the earliest scholars is that the verse is speaking of Zamazam. There are three reasons:

  1. The words “your water,” (and not any water) imply that the Quraysh are being addressed, and, therefore, the immediate reference is to the water of Zamzam from which they drew most.
  2. The words, “recede down,” lead the minds to a well (and not a surface spring), and the closest was the well of Zamzam, and
  3. Use of the words “flowing water,” applies to Zamzam because, it was, and is, both a well, as well as a flowing spring.

To take up a fourth example, the Qur’an said in Surah al-Hashr, verse 7:

(Spoils of war are) for the destitute among the immigrants: those who were expelled from their homes and properties, while seeking Allah’s grace and good pleasure; and helping Allah and His Messenger.  Those, they are the truthful ones.

The above verse carries the Zahiri meaning of the manner of distribution of war spoils – as to who deserves most. But the Batini (hidden) meaning is that, Allah has given the Muhajirun preference over the Ansar. This Batini meaning was stated by Abu Bakr (ra) at the time dispute arose after the death of the Prophet over leadership. Abu Bakr said on the day of Saqifah banu Sa`idah, “We (the Muhajirun) are the Sadiqun (truthful ones). And, Allah has directed you (O Ansar) to be with us.” He was referring to the above verse when claiming that the Muhajirun were the truthful ones. And to make the latter statement, he was referring to another verse of the Qur’an, that of Surah Tawbah (v.119) which said:

Believers! Fear Allah and be among those who are truthful.

It should be obvious to the readers that one has to have a good knowledge of the Arabic language, as well as know the Qur’an well, to dig out the Batini meaning. To many, the preceding example will remain obscure, especially, when we know that Abu Bakr Siddiq did not cite evidential verses – we have done it for ease of understanding. Abu Bakr merely said the words we have given in inverted commas. He did not have to cite the verses themselves because the Ansar knew the Qur’an. They knew what Abu Bakr was referring to, and, in obedience to the Qur’an yielded to a Muhajir becoming the Khalifah, ending the dispute. It is fair to say about ourselves then, especially those ignorant of the language of the Qur’an, that “we do not know the Qur’an.”

Another example might help. Sanctioning legitimacy to the Arab practice of not referring to their free women – in their honor – by their names, but rather by their surnames (kunyah), such as Umm `Abdullah, Umm Talha, etc. – following this practice, Allah did not mention any woman in the Qur’an by her name. He referred to them by their kunyahas “Lut’s woman,” or “Abu Lahab’s woman,” etc.

However, and puzzlingly for us, the Qur’an referred to a single woman by her name: Maryam. It referred to this noble woman by her name no less than 34 times, not once by her kunyah – Umm `Isa. So, what’s the explanation?

Scholars have called attention to another practice of the Arabs. They reversed the rule when they were referring to slave-girls. They referred to them by their names and not by their kunyah. So, why did Allah refer to Maryam by her name? Was she a slave? The answer is: very much so. The Christians declared her a god. In many churches, Maryam is worshipped as a deity. The Qur’an emphasized that just as Jesus was not god, his mother too was no god. She was a devoted slave of Allah. And so, Allah’s slave was always mentioned by her name.

Examples are aplenty, but hard for the non-Arabic knowing people to appreciate. Many of the so-called Islamically educated Muslims of the non-Arab world have never entertained any doubt that the Qur’an, or its essence, can be understood without knowing Arabic language. Little do they know, because little have they been told by their mentors, that, it is the essence that they miss when they study the Qur’an studiously through translations.

At best they understand, (which too does not appear to be the case in many instances), but if they ever did, it is one – only one – aspect, and not many aspects, of the meaning communicated by the sentences, or verses of the Qur’an. They feel quite satisfied by a single aspect, unaware of the existence of many the Qur’an tries to communicate. And, if the loss is not limited to that, they have no idea that the Qur’an has several meanings hidden in every of its words. That’s one place where the Batini meanings are hidden. That’s where the soul’s comfort lies.