This is the first major study in a Western language of Rashid al-Din Maybudi’s Persian commentary on the Noble Qur’an, Kashf al-asrar wa ‘uddat al-abrar (Unveiling of Mysteries and Provision of the Righteous). The book explores how hermeneutics and doctrine interact in the writing of a Sufi commentary on the Qur’an and introduces an important Persian tafsir to new audiences.
Previously little known outside the Persian-speaking world, Maybudi’s Kashf al-asrar is today recognised as a work of considerable significance not only for an understanding of the development of Sufi hermeneutics, but also as a treasury of Sufi lore; the extensive esoteric sections of the commentary, which cover over a thousand pages, contain countless sayings and anecdotes of important figures in Islamic mysticism as well as detailed expositions of the doctrines of Sufism. Commenced in 520/1126 CE during one of the most exciting periods in Sufism’s history, the Kashf al-asrar is based on, and probably embodies, the only surviving text of an earlier Qur’an commentary by the famous Hanbali mystic, ‘Abd Allah al-Ansari (d. 481/1089 CE). Extant in over fifty manuscripts, the Kashf al-asrar may be counted among the most popular Persian tafsirs. Moreover, the emerging doctrines and poetic language of love-mysticism manifested in the text were to become essential elements in later Persian Sufi literature, influencing the style and content of Kamal al-Din Wa‘iz Kashifi’s (d. 910/1504 CE) Mawahib ‘Aliyya in Persian and Isma‘il Haqqi Burusawi’s (d. 1137/1724 CE) Ruh al-bayan in Arabic.
In her detailed analysis of the Kashf al-asrar, Annabel Keeler explores the way in which hermeneutics and doctrine interact in a Sufi commentary on the Qur’an. Like earlier works in the field of Sufi exegesis, such as those by Louis Massignon, Henri Corbin, Paul Nwyia, Gerhard Böwering and Pierre Lory, her study pays close attention to the relationship between Qur’anic word, mystical experience and the language of interpretation. It views language with regard not only to the evolving terminologies for the exposition of mystical experience, but also to the context of an emerging literary language which, in the early twelfth century, was becoming indispensable to the expression of the doctrines of mystical love. Thus, the study considers the way in which Sufi exegesis may reflect a particular spiritual ‘ethos’ as well as the mystical experience of the commentator.
The study begins with a general introduction to the Kashf al-asrar, its author and the intellectual climate out of which it emerged (chapter one). The main body of the book is divided into three parts. The first part (chapters two and three) offers an analysis of the hermeneutics of the Kashf al-asrar, taking hermeneutics to mean the theory, criteria, aims and method of Qur’an interpretation. Chapter two examines the overall hermeneutics of the Kashf al-asrar, on the basis of Maybudi’s own statements and the text itself, and considers in particular his reasons for combining exoteric and esoteric interpretations in one work and writing his commentary in Persian. Chapter three explores the mystical hermeneutics of the Kashf al-asrar, beginning with a discussion of theories of levels of meaning in the Qur’an and their possible connection to other traditions of scriptural interpretation. It takes advantage of Maybudi’s juxtaposition of exoteric and esoteric interpretations in the Kashf al-asrar, and, by contrasting his Nawbat II and Nawbat III commentaries on a particular passage of the Qur’an, attempts to define more precisely the hermeneutics of mystical interpretation. The chapter ends with an examination of the method and procedure of mystical interpretation, drawing examples from Qushayri’s Lata’if al-isharat as well as from the Kashf al-asrar itself.
The second part of the study (chapters four to seven) examines the mystical doctrines in the Kashf al-asrar. Chapter four provides a general background to Sufism in Maybudi’s time, focusing in particular on the development of love-mysticism. It then presents an overview of the principal mystical teachings of the Kashf al-asrar and discusses their relationship with the doctrines of ‘Abd Allah al-Ansari. Chapter five looks at what might be called Maybudi’s ontology and cosmology, i.e., his discussion of God and creation, the Muhammadan Light, the creation of Adam, his ‘fall’ and the Covenant of Alast. Chapter six explores various aspects of spiritual guidance presented in the Kashf al-asrar, including Maybudi’s ‘spiritual psychology’, his teachings on the inner constitution of the human being, spiritual states and stations, spiritual hierarchies and different approaches to the mystical path. Chapter seven looks more closely at the mystical theology of the Kashf al-asrar and its integration with the doctrines of the mystical way of love.
The third part of the study (chapters eight to ten) shows how Maybudi conveys these teachings through his mystical interpretations of the stories of the prophets Abraham, Moses and Joseph, whose stories have always held particular interest for Sufis. These examples enable the reader to see how Maybudi portrays the prophets as prototypes of the spiritual wayfarer and interprets events in their lives as states and stations on the Sufi path.
Throughout the book, the subtleties and complexities of Sufi hermeneutics and doctrine are clearly explained with reference to other relevant Sufi literature and illustrated with appropriate material from the Kashf al-asrar. With the numerous passages selected and translated from Maybudi’s vast commentary for the first time, readers can not only become acquainted with the spirit of this important work of Sufi exegesis, they can also gain a deeper insight into the doctrines and language of later Sufi literature.