Ta'wil as Exegesis of the Soul

~Henry Corbin

We should like to devote an extensive investigation to the mental operation constituting the tall, but its boundaries are seen to grow constantly wider, for it was practiced in Islam by Spirituals of every profession; it finally appears as the mainspring of every spirituality, in the measure to which it pre-eminently furnishes the means of going beyond all conformisms, all servitudes to the letter, all opinions accepted ready-made. Doubtless it is in Ismailian theosophy that it appears from the beginning as a fundamental procedure, with an exemplary flexibility and fertility. It is here too that thinkers were led to reflect upon the operation itself and its implications, and here that we can be most speedily informed concerning a procedure that engages the entire soul because it brings into play the soul's most secret sources of energy.

Ta'wil usually forms with tanzil a pair of terms and notions that are at once complementary and contrasting. Tanzil properly designates positive religion, the letter of the Revelation dictated to the Prophet by the Angel. It is to cause the descent of this Revelation from the higher world. Ta'wil is, etymologically and inversely, to cause to return, to lead back, to restore to one's origin and to the place where one comes home, consequently to return to the true and original meaning of a text. It is "to bring something to its origin. . . . Thus he who practices the ta'wil is the one who turns his speech from the external (exoteric) form [zahir] towards the inner reality [haqiqat].
This must never be forgotten when, in current usage, ta'wil is said, and rightly, to be a spiritual exegesis that is inner, symbolic, esoteric, etc. Beneath the idea of exegesis appears that of a Guide (the exegete), and beneath the idea of exegesis we glimpse that of an exodus, of a "departure from Egypt," which is an exodus from metaphor and the slavery of the letter, from exile and the Occident of exoteric appearance to the Orient of the original and hidden Idea.

Now, what does this exegesis or ta'wil lead back, and to what does it lead back? The question implies another: whom does it lead back and to whom does it lead back? These are precisely the two fundamental aspects that the contexture of our visionary recitals presents to investigation: the first aspect concerns the ta'wil of texts, the second aspect concerns ta'wil as ta'wil of the soul. Their synchronism and codependence here accurately define the "hermeneutic circle" in which a symbolic vision flowers, and through which every true interpretation of its symbols must pass. Other pairs of terms form the key words of the vocabulary. Majaz is figure, metaphor, while haqiqat is the truth that is real, the reality that is true, the essence, the Idea. Majaz contains the idea of outpassing, of passing beyond on the way to, whence meta-phor. But let us note well that the spiritual meaning to be disengaged from the letter is not to be thought of as constituting a metaphorical meaning; it is the letter itself that is the metaphor, it is the statement that is a trans-gression of the ineffable Idea. Here, then, we have the opposite of the patencies of ordinary consciousness, for which it would be the appeal to true realities, to spiritual beings, which would constitute a transgression of the letter. The ta'wil causes lie letter to regress to its true and original meaning (haqiqat), "with which" the figures of the exoteric letter symbolize. We mentioned before how this relationship majaz-haqiqat, movement of transgression and regression, determined coming into this world and the exodus that liberates from this world.


The same is true of the pair of terms zahir and batin. Zahir is the exoteric, the apparent, the patency of the letter, the Law, the text of the Koran. Zahir holds the same relationship to Batin (the hidden, the inner, the esoteric) as does Majaz to Haqiqat; the Ta'wil must "lead it back" to the hidden Reality, to the esoteric truth, with which it symbolizes. "The positive religion [shari'at] is the exoteric aspect [zahir] of the Idea [haqiqat]; the Idea is the esoteric aspect [batin] of the positive religion. The exoteric is an indication of the esoteric. The positive religion is the symbol [mithal], the Idea is the symbolized [mamthul]." In short, in the three pairs of terms mentioned, Majaz stands to Haqiqat, Zahir to Batin, Tanzil to Ta'wil in the relation of symbol to symbolized. And it is precisely this strict correspondence that will save us from the most serious error, that of confounding symbol with allegory, either here or elsewhere.

The symbol is not an artificially constructed sign; it flowers in the soul spontaneously to announce something that cannot be expressed otherwise; it is the unique expression of the thing symbolized as of a reality that thus becomes transparent to the soul, but which in itself transcends all expression. Allegory is a more or less artificial figuration of generalities or abstractions that are perfectly cognizable or expressible in other ways. To penetrate the meaning of a symbol is in no sense equivalent to making it superfluous or abolishing it, for it always remains the sole expression of the signified thing with which it symbolizes. One can never claim to have gone beyond it once and for all, save precisely at the cost of degrading it into allegory, of putting rational, general, and abstract equivalents in its place. The exegete should beware lest he thus close to himself the road of the symbol, which leads out of this world. Mithaly then, is symbol and not allegory. The schemata formed on the same root are to be defined in the same sense. Tamthil is not an "allegorization," but the typification, the privileged exemplification of an archetype. Tamaththul is the state of the sensible or imaginable thing that possesses this investiture of the archetype, and this investiture, making it symbolize with the archetype, exalts it to its maximum meaning. The exaltation can in certain cases cause it to be understood as a hypostasis.

The strict connection between symbol and symbolized perfectly distinguishes symbol from allegory, for it is impossible to break this connection, to extend and disperse it into an infinite network of significations, by a mere substitution in which, on the same level of being and on the same spiritual plane, what has already been expressed is only replaced by something that could always be expressed otherwise. Transmutation of the sensible and imaginable into symbol, return of the symbol to the situation that brought it to flower—these two movements open and close the hermeneutic circle. This is why, if the exegesis of symbols opens a perspective in height and depth that is perhaps limitless, there is no regressio ad injinitum on the same plane of being, as a rational understanding might object. The objection would betray a profound failure to recognize what differentiates the particularity of a symbol from the generality of an allegory, the flowering of a symbolic vision from the crystallization of a thought in a dogma. It is not a matter of replacing the symbol by a rational explanation, nor of formulating a dogmatic statement to contain the rational patency thus obtained by reduction. It is a matter of arriving at the experience of the Soul to which a soul has attained, of sensing the goal—not of causally deducing the source—of the Event termed wiladat-e ruhani, spiritual birth.

In other words, the truth of the ta'wil rests upon the simultaneous reality of the mental operation in which it consists and of the psychic Event that gives rise to it. The ta'wil of texts supposes the ta'wil of the soul: the soul cannot restore, return the text to its truth, unless it too returns to its truth (Haqiqat), which implies for it passing beyond imposed patencies, emerging from the world of appearances and metaphors, from exile and the "Occident." Reciprocally, the soul takes its departure, accomplishes the ta'wil of its true being, by basing itself on a text—text of a book or cosmic text—which its effort will carry to a transmutation, raise to the rank of a real, but inner and psychic, Event. This is what we meant above when we indicated that the twofold question of discovering what and to what the ta'wil leads back implied the further question: whom and to whom. It is because they imply this twofold aspect of a twofold question that our visionary recitals are situative of their cosmos, and that the latter becomes situatable for us. (1) The text of the recital is itself a ta'wil of the psychic Event; it is the way in which that Event was understood by the soul that experienced it, the way in which the soul understood the sensible or imaginable context of the Event by transmuting it into symbols; it shows who was led back to his origin, and thereby to whom he was led back. (2) To understand this text in its turn is to perform a ta'wil that leads its expressions back to what they signify; is to valorize its symbols by raising them to the height of the Event that caused them to flower, and not by making them fall back, to the level of the rational data that preceded them (this, as we shall more than once have occasion to point out, is the principal defect of the commentaries that certain well-meaning authors have left us on these recitals).

[From: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital]