The Quran has sparked a huge body of commentary and explication (tafsir), aimed at explaining the "meanings of the Quranic verses, clarifying their import and finding out their significance".
Tafsir is one of the earliest academic activities of Muslims. According to the Quran, Muhammad was the first person who described the meanings of verses for early Muslims. Other early exegetes included a few Companions of Muhammad, like ʻAli ibn Abi Talib, ʻAbdullah ibn Abbas, ʻAbdullah ibn Umar and Ubayy ibn Kaʻb. Exegesis in those days was confined to the explanation of literary aspects of the verse, the background of its revelation and, occasionally, interpretation of one verse with the help of the other. If the verse was about a historical event, then sometimes a few traditions (hadith) of Muhammad were narrated to make its meaning clear.
Because the Quran is spoken in classical Arabic, many of the later converts to Islam (mostly non-Arabs) did not always understand the Quranic Arabic, they did not catch allusions that were clear to early Muslims fluent in Arabic and they were concerned with reconciling apparent conflict of themes in the Quran. Commentators erudite in Arabic explained the allusions, and perhaps most importantly, explained which Quranic verses had been revealed early in Muhammad's prophetic career, as being appropriate to the very earliest Muslim community, and which had been revealed later, canceling out or "abrogating" (nāsikh) the earlier text (mansūkh). Other scholars, however, maintain that no abrogation has taken place in the Quran. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has published a ten-volume Urdu commentary on the Quran, with the name Tafseer e Kabir.
Esoteric or Sufi interpretation attempts to unveil the inner meanings of the Quran. Sufism moves beyond the apparent (zahir) point of the verses and instead relates Quranic verses to the inner or esoteric (batin) and metaphysical dimensions of consciousness and existence. According to Sands, esoteric interpretations are more suggestive than declarative, they are allusions (isharat) rather than explanations (tafsir). They indicate possibilities as much as they demonstrate the insights of each writer.
Sufi interpretation, according to Annabel Keeler, also exemplifies the use of the theme of love, as for instance can be seen in Qushayri's interpretation of the Quran. Quran 7:143 says:
when Moses came at the time we appointed, and his Lord spoke to him, he said, 'My Lord, show yourself to me! Let me see you!' He said, 'you shall not see me but look at that mountain, if it remains standing firm you will see me.' When his Lord revealed Himself to the mountain, He made it crumble. Moses fell down unconscious. When he recovered, he said, 'Glory be to you! I repent to you! I am the first to believe!'
Moses, in 7:143, comes the way of those who are in love, he asks for a vision but his desire is denied, he is made to suffer by being commanded to look at other than the Beloved while the mountain is able to see God. The mountain crumbles and Moses faints at the sight of God's manifestation upon the mountain. In Qushayri's words, Moses came like thousands of men who traveled great distances, and there was nothing left to Moses of Moses. In that state of annihilation from himself, Moses was granted the unveiling of the realities. From the Sufi point of view, God is the always the beloved and the wayfarer's longing and suffering lead to realization of the truths.
Muhammad Husayn Tabatabaei says that according to the popular explanation among the later exegetes, ta'wil indicates the particular meaning a verse is directed towards. The meaning of revelation (tanzil), as opposed to ta'wil, is clear in its accordance to the obvious meaning of the words as they were revealed. But this explanation has become so widespread that, at present, it has become the primary meaning of ta'wil, which originally meant "to return" or "the returning place". In Tabatabaei's view, what has been rightly called ta'wil, or hermeneutic interpretation of the Quran, is not concerned simply with the denotation of words. Rather, it is concerned with certain truths and realities that transcend the comprehension of the common run of men; yet it is from these truths and realities that the principles of doctrine and the practical injunctions of the Quran issue forth. Interpretation is not the meaning of the verse—rather it transpires through that meaning, in a special sort of transpiration. There is a spiritual reality—which is the main objective of ordaining a law, or the basic aim in describing a divine attribute—and then there is an actual significance that a Quranic story refers to.
According to Shia beliefs, those who are firmly rooted in knowledge like Muhammad and the imams know the secrets of the Quran. According to Tabatabaei, the statement "none knows its interpretation except God" remains valid, without any opposing or qualifying clause. Therefore, so far as this verse is concerned, the knowledge of the Quran's interpretation is reserved for God. But Tabatabaei uses other verses and concludes that those who are purified by God know the interpretation of the Quran to a certain extent.
According to Tabatabaei, there are acceptable and unacceptable esoteric interpretations. Acceptable ta'wil refers to the meaning of a verse beyond its literal meaning; rather the implicit meaning, which ultimately is known only to God and can't be comprehended directly through human thought alone. The verses in question here refer to the human qualities of coming, going, sitting, satisfaction, anger and sorrow, which are apparently attributed to God. Unacceptable ta'wil is where one "transfers" the apparent meaning of a verse to a different meaning by means of a proof; this method is not without obvious inconsistencies. Although this unacceptable ta'wil has gained considerable acceptance, it is incorrect and cannot be applied to the Quranic verses. The correct interpretation is that reality a verse refers to. It is found in all verses, the decisive and the ambiguous alike; it is not a sort of a meaning of the word; it is a fact that is too sublime for words. God has dressed them with words to bring them a bit nearer to our minds; in this respect they are like proverbs that are used to create a picture in the mind, and thus help the hearer to clearly grasp the intended idea.
History of Sufi commentaries
One of the notable authors of esoteric interpretation prior to the 12th century is Sulami (d. 1021) without whose work the majority of very early Sufi commentaries would not have been preserved. Sulami's major commentary is a book named haqaiq al-tafsir ("Truths of Exegesis") which is a compilation of commentaries of earlier Sufis. From the 11th century onwards several other works appear, including commentaries by Qushayri (d. 1074), Daylami (d. 1193), Shirazi (d. 1209) and Suhrawardi (d. 1234). These works include material from Sulami's books plus the author's contributions. Many works are written in Persian such as the works of Maybudi (d. 1135) kash al-asrar ("the unveiling of the secrets"). Rumi (d. 1273) wrote a vast amount of mystical poetry in his book Mathnawi. Rumi makes heavy use of the Quran in his poetry, a feature that is sometimes omitted in translations of Rumi's work. A large number of Quranic passages can be found in Mathnawi, which some consider a kind of Sufi interpretation of the Quran. Rumi's book is not exceptional for containing citations from and elaboration on the Quran, however, Rumi does mention Quran more frequently. Simnani (d. 1336) wrote two influential works of esoteric exegesis on the Quran. He reconciled notions of God's manifestation through and in the physical world with the sentiments of Sunni Islam. Comprehensive Sufi commentaries appear in the 18th century such as the work of Ismail Hakki Bursevi (d. 1725). His work ruh al-Bayan (the Spirit of Elucidation) is a voluminous exegesis. Written in Arabic, it combines the author's own ideas with those of his predecessors (notably Ibn Arabi and Ghazali), all woven together in Hafiz, a Persian poetry form.
Levels of meaning
Unlike the Salafis and Zahiri, Shias and Sufis as well as some other Muslim philosophers believe the meaning of the Quran is not restricted to the literal aspect. For them, it is an essential idea that the Quran also has inward aspects. Henry Corbin narrates a hadith that goes back to Muhammad:
The Quran possesses an external appearance and a hidden depth, an exoteric meaning and an esoteric meaning. This esoteric meaning in turn conceals an esoteric meaning (this depth possesses a depth, after the image of the celestial Spheres, which are enclosed within each other). So it goes on for seven esoteric meanings (seven depths of hidden depth).
According to this view, it has also become evident that the inner meaning of the Quran does not eradicate or invalidate its outward meaning. Rather, it is like the soul, which gives life to the body. Corbin considers the Quran to play a part in Islamic philosophy, because gnosiology itself goes hand in hand with prophetology.
Commentaries dealing with the zahir (outward aspects) of the text are called tafsir, and hermeneutic and esoteric commentaries dealing with the batin are called ta'wil ("interpretation" or "explanation"), which involves taking the text back to its beginning. Commentators with an esoteric slant believe that the ultimate meaning of the Quran is known only to God. In contrast, Quranic literalism, followed by Salafis and Zahiris, is the belief that the Quran should only be taken at its apparent meaning.
Reappropriation is the name of the hermeneutical style of some ex-Muslims who have converted to Christianity. Their style or reinterpretation is ad hoc and unsystematized and geared towards apologetics. This tradition of interpretation draws on the following practices: grammatical renegotiation, renegotiation of textual preference, retrieval, and concession.