Where lies the balance between the esoteric and exoteric life?

If the esoteric is special knowledge granted to a select few, and the exoteric is general knowledge available to all, then the balance between them is the realization that they both come from God and cannot contradict His Revelation. I prefer to call esoteric knowledge esoteric understanding. I’ll explain shortly.

Seekers of spiritual wisdom throughout the ages have thought at some point or another in their quest that they finally got it; the meaning of it all. But the Quran tells us that “the Truth is from your Lord” (18:29). The truth is not granted to a select few, it is granted to those who commit to God’s teachings as He revealed them in His scriptures.

He tells us, “And those who struggle in Us – We certainly will guide them to Our paths. Verily, God is with benefactors.” (29:69). That verse is quoted a lot by Sufis, but often misinterpreted as allowing esoteric knowledge. It merely explains that deeper understanding of the same exoteric knowledge is available to anyone who tries to obtain it.

Another verse often quoted and misinterpreted in this context is, “He grants wisdom to whomever He wills, and he who is granted wisdom has been given much good.” (2:269) Who are those? They are the ones who adhere to the Quran and live by its teachings, not the ones who are on a hunger strike thinking it will lead them to enlightenment.

Why was Sage Al-Khadr privy to knowledge that Moses didn’t have, peace be upon them? Al-Khadr was not a prophet, yet God granted him special understanding, because he was eligible for it, that’s why. Recall that he kept reminding Moses that he will not bear his decisions, will lose patience and keep asking questions too early? That’s why that understanding had to be given to somebody else. Moses knew that God has wisdom in everything He does, even if that wisdom isn’t obvious to us, but He did not have the same understanding of that exoteric knowledge as Al-Khadr had. Moses could not learn it on his own.

The belief that there is some prized esoteric knowledge out there is what leads many Sufis to deviation, and to beliefs such as communion with God (Wahdat-ul-Wujood) and Dissolution in God (Al-Fanaa’), both contrary to the Quran.

The balance you’re asking about is the Quran, which God describes this way, “It surely is a decisive statement. It is not a jest.” (86:13-14)

2 Responses to “Where lies the balance between the esoteric and exoteric life?”

  1. Aapa says:

    Thoughts and questions:

    The ecstatic state of Al-Fanaa is within the realm of desire. It is the seeker desiring the state as permanent. The moth extinguishing itself in the light.
    That is not a purpose of this life. We have to be alive and live through our circumstances with sabr and salat. Thus action becomes ours.

    Is salat a state of al-fanaa?

    Am I wrong in understanding that the ayats of the Holy Quran are both esoteric and exoteric? Those with implicit meanings and those that we have to contemplate and try like crazy to comprehend.

    Are esoteric and exoteric understandings the masculine and feminine archetypes of the role of man and woman in Islam.

    • noclash says:

      Al-Fanaa’ (dissolution in God) is akin to communion. The Quran rejects the notion and tells us repeatedly that we “shall be returned to God” (2:28), not end up in Him. Furthermore, that return to God can only happen in the Hereafter.

      Salah is not fanaa’, it’s a connection with God, a rapport with Him, a meeting where we ask and He gives.

      The notion that there is esoteric meanings in Quranic verses is what gave rise to much of the Sufi tangential beliefs, as well deviant sects, such as Baatinyya. No, there is no esoteric meaning hidden in the Quran, but there is insight that God would grant to people who sincerely want to have it and do the work that entitles them to get it.

      Verse 3:7 talks about Ta’weel (ultimate meaning), but that is not the same as esoteric meaning. It means the decisive meaning from a number of possible meanings. That knowledge is reserved for God. What we are required to do is to believe in all the legitimate, apparent meanings of each verse in the Quran and not try to extract some mysterious, far-fetched meaning.

      The role of men and women in Islam has been clearly defined as “allies to one another.” (9:71) There is no distinction between men and women in their understanding of verses.

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