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Ismaili Interpretations of the Quran Research Paper


Various movements within Islam may differ in their interpretations of the Quran. In this case, much attention should be paid to the way in which they distinguish formal and semantic elements that can be used to understand the ethical messages incorporated in this book. This paper is aimed at examining the approach taken by the representatives of Ismailism. It should be mentioned that it is a very important branch of Shia Islam.

Overall, their interpretation is based on such a notion as i’jaz or inimitability of the Quaran in terms of its meaning as well as style. As a rule, they focus primarily on the content and implied meaning of this text, rather than its formal elements; in their view, meaning can appeal to every individual regardless of his/her ethnicity, language, or cultural background. Therefore, Ismaili scholars attach importance to the esoteric interpretation which is supposed to uncover the hidden messages that can be included in the Quran. Under such circumstances, the critical role is played by imams who have the authority to examine and uncover the semantic aspects of the text. This is the main thesis that should be examined more closely.

Two approaches to the interpretations of the Quran

It should be noted that Islamic scholars distinguish two important aspects of the Quran. At first, they mention such a notion as zahr or outer elements of the text, but they also distinguish batn or inner meaning of the same textual passage (Ayoub, 2013, p. 36).

Thus, some of them may prefer the exoteric interpretation which focuses on the outer elements of the text; nevertheless, other scholars may adopt esoteric approach that is supposed to uncover the main message which may not be clearly articulated. Very often, such messages are not apparent (Ayoub, 2013). Each of these methods has certain advantages and disadvantages. For instance, exoteric approach can be useful for explaining how word choices, syntax, or structure influence the meaning of the text. However, this approach can be too narrow because a person may be able to apply the text of the Quran only to specific situations. In turn, esoteric method can be useful for finding allegorical meaning. However, this method can be too subjective. The knowledge of these distinctions is important for showing of how Ismailis can interpret the messages articulated by the Prophet Muhammad.

The origins of Ismaili approach to interpretation

The debates about the interpretation of the Quran arose because it was necessary to show that this text was the divine revelation. In order to highlight this idea, some Muslims prefer to focus on such an aspect as style which includes such elements as eloquence, diction, rhyme, and so forth. Nevertheless, the representatives of Ismailism do not fully accept this approach because in this case, only the speakers of the Arabic language can appreciate the beauty of this text (Poonawala, 1988, p. 382). In turn, the translation of the Quran into any foreign language may deprive the text of its beauty. This issue became particularly important at the time, when Islam was embraced by people who could represent different ethnic and religious groups. At the same time, they lay stress on the idea that the Prophet was sent to the entire human kind (Poonawala, 1988, p. 381).

Thus, Islam cannot be regarded as some local phenomenon which can be relevant only to a certain ethnic or cultural group. One should pay more attention to the depth of revelations which are often counter-intuitive. In other words, they cannot be deduced by any human being without external assistance. These ideas are advocated by various Ismaili commentators of the Quran. Overall, these arguments imply that it is more important to focus on the meaning imbedded in the Quran. This line of reasoning implies that it is important to consider the esoteric interpretation which can throw light on the main messages that readers should consider. In order to justify this method, they often refer to the hadiths which emphasize the need for searching deeper meanings of the Quran. Thus, one should discuss this approach in greater detail.

Esoteric interpretations

Overall, Ismailism implies that one should focus on the esoteric interpretation of a text. As it has been said before, esoteric interpretation focuses on the implied meanings. It is not limited only to the literal interpretation of the Quran (Ansari, 2004, p. 381). In this case, a person assumes that certain ideas may not be explicitly stated. It should be noted that exoteric interpretation of the Quran is called tafsir. The key issue is that there are not many tafsir works in the Ismaili literature; this is one of the details that attract the attention of researchers who study this particular branch of Islam (Poonawala, 1988, p. 385).

Certainly, one should not assume that Ismailis completely overlook the importance of formal elements. This element is also important for i’jaz or inimitability of the Quran. However, they pay more attention to the meaning which may not be derived only from textual elements. In their opinion, this approach can be vital for understanding the complexity of this text. Again, this approach is based on the assumption that scholars should examine the semantic elements of the Quran. One should also bear in mind that the questions related to interpretations of the Quran are not related only to religious aspects. These issues can have profound implications for the legislative principles that may govern everyday life of people. Therefore, one should not suppose that this issue is important only from a theological viewpoint because this assumption fails to consider the important social role of Islam. This is one of the aspects that should not be overlooked by people who study the history of the Quran.

The role of imams as interpreters

This approach implies that it is necessary to single out those people who are qualified enough to interpret the Quran and identify the implicit messages imbedded in the text. In this case, much attention should be paid to the role of imams who have the authority to interpret the Quran and its hidden meanings (Nasr, 2013, p. 36). Moreover, these people are believed to have “divinely granted knowledge” (Ansari, 2004, p. 381).

Ismaili scholars argue that imams are more qualified to identify the allegorical meaning of the text (Ansari, 2004, p. 381). This is why their opinion should be considered. One should bear in mind that the role of imams is different in Sunni Islam since they are not regarded as the direct followers of the Prophet Muhammad. This is one of the differences that should be taken into account. This issue is important for understanding the differences between Shias and Sunnis. Furthermore, the role of imams is often debated by the supporters of different Islamic movements. The main problem is that exclusive role of imams can be compared to elitism which can be very exclusionary.

This is one of the drawbacks that should not be overlooked. This is why esoteric interpretations can often be questioned and debated by many people including those ones who accept the Quran as the divine revelation. However, this method certainly remains very influential; moreover, it is not necessarily adopted only by imams. In many cases, this role can be assumed by people who are not regarded as religious authorities. This is one of the aspects that can be distinguished.


This discussion shows that there are various approaches to the interpretation of the Quran. The advocates of Ismailism pay more attention to the content of the book, especially the hidden meaning of this text. This approach can be helpful for highlighting the exceptional nature of the Quran. On the whole, it is possible to agree with the assumption, according to which it is important to place emphasis on the content of the Quran, especially the messages that do not take its origins in the textual elements of this book. Admittedly, the study of formal elements should not be dismissed, but this method requires the knowledge of the Arabic language. In turn, the esoteric interpretations can be too subjective, and many people may not readily accept them. This is one of the limitations that one should take into account. On the whole, this discussion is important for showing that the meaning of the Quran can still be open to various interpretations that can often be allegorical. These are the main details that can be distinguished.

Reference List

Ansari, H. (2004). The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain Since 1800. New York, NY: Hurst & Co. Publishers. Web.

Ayoub, M. (2013).Qur’an and Its Interpreters. New York, NY: Islamic Book Trust. Web.

Nasr, S. (2013). Islamic Spirituality: Foundations. New York, NY: Routledge. Web.

Poonawala, I. (1988). Ismaili Treatise on the Ijaz Al-Quran. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 108(3), 379-385. Web.

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