Call for Papers: Esotericism and the Qur’an

Esotericism and the Qur’an / L’ésoterisme et le Coran
Unversity of Lausanne & University of Geneva
Lausanne, May 5–7, 2022

Background and Objectives

The Qur’an proclaims itself a message to all humankind (e.g. Q 14:52, This is a proclamation for all mankind . . .). This does not mean, however, that the verses of the Revelation are easy to grasp and comprehend. The Islamic scholarly tradition developed its science of interpretation or commentary on the text, one which emphasizes two areas in particular: (i) language and (ii) the context of the Prophet’s life in which the various verses were revealed. Early commentators sometimes noted that certain aspects were better understood by Arabic-speakers, or that the Companions of the Prophet possessed a superior understand of the message because they were present at its revelation, but by and large the science of interpretation is open to anyone with the necessary intellectual capacity.

There came to be, however, separate from this scholastic science of interpretation, certain communities which associated true understanding of the Qur’an with particular individuals and with certain methods that are not available to all. Esoteric interpretation of the Muslim scripture is best known in various Sufi and Shiite traditions. In these traditions, the ever-present concept of taʾwīl (in the sense of a hermeneutics aimed at a hidden meaning) and the ẓāhir/bāṭin (exterior/interior sense) dichotomy both imply, inescapably, that the Qur’an remains, in a sense, incomplete without the wisdom and experience of certain privileged interpreters.

Methods and doctrines vary considerably among the learned Shiites and the Sufi masters on how to reach or grasp the bāṭin, the hidden inner meaning. There are numerous variations of the Sufi tendency to the immanence of personal meditation, and the Shi’i teaching of the living Imam expressing the hidden sense’s transcendence to a handful of initiates. Certain communities, such as the Ḥurūfīs or the Bektashīs, fruitfully combined these Shi’i and Sufi practices. Early Shiism established a doctrine that was both dual and dualist, according to which the external, apparent form (al-ẓāhir) of the revelation contains a hidden aspect (al-bāṭin), destined only for a handful of the initiated who are able to embrace and protect it. In its dualist conception, this doctrine can go so far as to create an opposition between the people of knowledge and those of ignorance, even assigning to certain historical figures the role of adversary (ḍidd), actively working against the precepts of the community.

The majority of scholarship has tended to treat such groups and tendencies as representing the outer limits, if not the Twilight Zone, of scriptural hermeneutics in Islam. They represent, nonetheless, the practices of a wide range of groups and communities who produced and preserved a substantial corpus of sources spanning at least twelve centuries.

The objective of this conference is to take stock of these esoteric uses of the Qur’an and to examine how they relate to each other and to non-esoteric traditions and methods, to set them in the broader context of Muslim uses and interpretations of the Qur’an.

We invite proposals for conference papers in the following areas: a) the status and role of the Qur’an in intellectual esoterism, be it exegetical, theological, or juridical; b) the hermeneutic of taʾwīl (methods, sources, ijtihād) mobilised by Sufi and Shiite authors in order to comment on certain Qur’anic verses and, from there, the establishment and legitimation of their doctrines, be they of a theological nature (e.g. al-tawḥīd) or juridical (e.g. the status of women); c) the social status of religious figures who are authorized to comment on the Qur’anic text and their role in the perpetuation or renewal of anterior spiritual or legal traditions; d) the correlation between the development of the science of taʾwīl and the intellectual milieu of the authors concerned.

We are particularly interested in contributions that will make the link between these esoteric traditions and those disciplines that are usually considered separately, viz., jurisprudence, theology, and qur’anic interpretation.

Every effort will be made to fund participants’ travel and accommodation costs. 

We are planning to produce a peer-reviewed collection of essays in 2023 (in both English and French). 

Please send an abstract of 200-300 words, in the body of the email message, to the organizers at the addresses below. Deadline for abstracts: 25 June, 2021


Prof. Bruce Fudge
Department of Mediterranean, Slavic and Oriental Languages and Literature
University of Geneva, Switzerland

Prof. Wissam Halawi
Institute of History and Anthropology of Religions
University of Lausanne, Switzerland 

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2021. All rights reserved.