Book Review: The Immense Ocean

The Immense Ocean

Title: The Immense Ocean (Al-Bahr Al-Madid): A Thirteenth Century Quranic Commentary on the Chapters of The All-Merciful, The Event and Iron
Author: Shaykh Ahmad Ibn Ajiba
Translated and Annotated by: Mohamed Fouad Aresmouk and Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald
Publisher: Fons Vitae (2009)

Shaykh Ibn Ajiba was born in northern Morocco in 1747 or 1748, into a family that descended from Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He was a spiritual master in the Shadhiliyya-Darqawiyya tradition. Shaykh Ibn Ajiba has written an autobiography that has been translated, also by Fons Vitae, which can be found here. In regards to the book at hand, Shaykh Ahmad Ibn Ajiba writes in his own introduction:

I have been requested by my Shaykh, Sidi Muhammad al Buzidi al-Hasani, as well as his Shaykh, Qutb Mulay al’Arabi al-Darqawi al-Hasani, to set down in writing a commentary that would combine both exoteric explanation and esoteric allusion, and I have responded to their request…in hopes that this work will benefit many and be a joy to the heart as well to the ear.

This book is a translation of just a portion of Shaykh Ahmad Ibn Ajiba’s full Qur’anic commentary, titled Al-Bahr Al-Madid (The Immense Ocean). Qur’anic commentary has always been a fundamental science in the Islamic tradition. The introduction of the book mentions the origins of Qur’anic commentary being from the Divine, the very source of the revelation:

From the perspective of traditional Islam, the first commentary (tafsir) of the Qur’an is to be found in the Qur’an itself, and so the first commentator (mufassir) is the One who revealed it. God’s tafsir may be direct: one verse may explain another, or a given incident may be told and then retold in a different context.

The commentary includes a main commentary, followed by a section on spiritual allusion which is separated by a heading, in order to indicate the end and commencement of each type of commentary. In regards to the position of spiritual allusion in the context of Qur’anic commentary, Shaykh Ibn Ajiba writes:

For the immense Qur’an has an outward dimension for the people of the outward and an inward dimension for the people of the inward, and the commentary by these latter cannot be [fully] understood or experienced except by people of the inward, nor is its mention even permissible except after having affirmed [the Qur’an’s] literal and outward meaning. Only then [is it permissible] to indicate the esoteric by means of subtle references and allusions.

In further explanation of the concept of spiritual allusion in the context of Qur’anic Commentary, Shaykh Ibn Ajiba presents a hadith:

The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) saying, ‘Every verse has an outer aspect and an inner, a limit and a vantage point’ this means that the outward is for those such as the grammarians, the experts in language and declension. The inward is for those concerned with the meanings of words, the commandments and prohibitions, parables and narratives, the affirmation of God’s oneness, and other like teachings of the Qur’an, such being the domain of the exegetes. The limit is for the juridical scholars (al-fuqaha) who are concerned with the derivation of rules from the verses, who come to a verse and then carry its arguments as far as possible but without addition. The vantage point (al-muttala’u) is for the people of spiritual truths among the greatest of the Sufis where, from the outward meaning of a verse, they look down, as it were, into its inward meaning. They are unveiled to them, through reflection upon the verse, its mysteries, teachings and mystic sense.

The book contains none of the Qur’anic Arabic script, rather has the translations of the verses, followed by its commentary and then its spiritual allusions. A few excerpts of the book follows, providing the potential reader an impression of its contents and form.

The Event; Verses 71-73:

71. Do you not see the Fire which you kindle?
72. Is it you who grew its tree, or are We the Growers?
73. We have made it a reminder, and a use for the nomads in the wilderness

Section of Spiritual Allusion (excerpt):

Do you see the Fire of human desires and appetites which you kindle within yourselves? Is it you who grew its tree, which is the natural self, or are We the Grower? We have made it a reminder, that is, a means of awakening to stir you towards seeking your Guardian Lord, even as it is said in the Hikam. ‘He stirred your soul against you so that your drawing near to Him would be permanent.

And He made [the lower self] a use for those who are traveling the path to God, for by striving against it, they actualize their journey; by purifying it, they actualize the virtues; and by passing away from it, they reach God. Thus, when someone would complain about his lower self to the Shaykh of our Shaykh, he would say, ‘As for me, I say: May God reward it with goodness! Without it, I could have never progressed in the Way!’.

The Event, Verses 83-87:

83. Why, then, when it reaches the throat
84. And you, the while, are looking on
85. And We are nearer to him than you, and yet you do not see
86. Why, if you are free from all constraints, do you not
87. Call back the soul, if you are truthful?

Section of Commentary (excerpt):

Beginning with We created you…[verse 57], the words of God reproach His servants for their denial [of the Resurrection], remind them that their food, drink and other means of survival are subject to His control, and that in the face of death they are helpless: Why, then, at the moment of death, when the soul reaches the throat and you are present with the dying man and looking on as life ebbs away…At that moment God is nearer to him through His knowledge, strength, and understanding than you. All you know of death are the final tribulations that you witness, but you remain unaware of its true nature, of how it comes to pass, and of its [real] causes, nor can you repel yourselves the least particle of it. God controls its every stage and yet you do not see this nor comprehend it in your ignorance of His role. If you are free from all constraint, if you are truly subject to nothing and no one, why, then, do you not return the soul to the body after it has reached the throat?

So now [at the moment of death], since you believe you are absolutely free of God’s control, and you deny that God is the One Who Gives Life and Who Gives Death, and the One Who Originates and Begins Creation Anew, how is it that you cannot return the soul of this dying man to his body?

Iron; Verse 16:

16. Is it not time for the hearts of those who believe to grow humble at the Remembrance of God and to the truth which is revealed, that they do not become as those who received the scripture of old but the term was prolonged for them and so their hearts were hardened, and many of them are corrupt.

Section of Spiritual Allusion (excerpt):

Thus do their hearts grow hard, until they totally abandon the path. Said al-Qushayri:

Hardness of the heart comes about from the pursuit of one’s lusts, for lusts and purity cannot exist together. Hence the cause of this hardness is the heart being turned away from vigilance. It is also said that the first cause is a passing notion which, if not rectified, becomes a deeper thought which, if not rectified, becomes a resolution which, if not rectified becomes a violation which, if not redressed, becomes hardness of heart, its second-nature and its religion.

Iron; Verse 28:

28. O you who believe! Be mindful of your duty to God and believe in His Messenger. He will give you twofold of His mercy and will make for you a light wherein you shall walk, and will forgive you. And God is Forgiving and Merciful.

Section of Commentary (excerpt):

That these verses are addressing the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] is supported by a hadith in which the Messenger of God (peace be upon him) said [that among those given two-fold reward] ‘is a man from the People of the Book who believed in his Prophet and believed in me.’

This book is an enjoyable read benefiting those all interested in Qur’anic commentaries, these beautiful, oft-recited, chapters of the Quran and spiritual insights into the verses contained within them. It leads one to greater reflection and association with the depth of the Quran and its commentaries. May Allah increase all those who assisted in making this book available and bless the readers with increased awe and faith in His book. Ameen.

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