Introduction by Juan Cole
From H-Baha'i Translations of Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Texts, vol. 1, no. 12 (December, 1997)
In both medieval Europe and medieval Islam, two important types of scriptural exegesis were practiced. One was exegesis, the attempt to understand the outward meaning of the text through linguistic and philological analysis, reference to historical events surrounding the verse's revelation, and comparing it with similar verses of scripture. The other was eisegesis, or figurative, esoteric and allegorical interpretation. As most of you know, High Medieval Catholic scripture commentary was only thought perfect if it contained both elements, both literal and allegorical interpretation.
In Islamic thought, ... over time exegesis came to be known as 'tafsir' and eisegesis was referred to as 'ta'wil'. In his Commentary on the Surah of the Sun, Baha'u'llah urges commentators on scripture to engage in both literal and figurative interpretation, and warns about losing the balance between the two. The Western Baha'i tradition of popular Baha'i culture has been insufficiently aware of what a strong denunciation this is of scriptural literalism of the sort that came to be known after about 1905 as "fundamentalism."
Baha'u'llah does not forbid ta'wil in general. In the Most Holy Book, he forbids the ta'wil of legal texts.[para 105] There is a simple reason for this. A figurative interpretation of a verse of scripture that concerns law raises the question of practice, and Islamic tradition is orthoprax. Thus, from Baha'u'llah's point of view it would be wrong to interpret the command to perform ablutions before prayer in such a way as to not in fact require that one perform ablutions. The advent of the next manifestation is also a legal and institutional event, and therefore it would be wrong to interpret the thousand-year interval figuratively.
In [Figurative Interpretation of Scripture], Baha'u'llah explicitly explains what he means by ta'wil or figurative interpretation, and when he thinks it legitimate. He says ta'wil should only be practiced if it does not result in depriving one of the exoteric or outward meaning of the verse. Thus, if God commands one to wash one's face, one may not interpret that as a command to cleanse one's inner countenance, and then go about grimy-faced.
Nevertheless, he says, "some of the divine words may be interpreted esoterically (ba`d-i kalimat-i ilahi ra mitavan ta'wil namud)." Such figurative interpretation or ta'wil must not become a source of idle fancies. To show a legitimate exercise in ta'wil, Baha'u'llah considers the Qur'an verse that those who are given "wisdom" (hikmah) are given great good. He points out that some commentators have identified "wisdom" with the divine Law. Others have suggested it means "medical knowledge" (hikmah bears that meaning in Arabic, as well). Others have said it means knowledge of the realities of things; still others have identified it with metaphysics. Baha'u'llah settles on the "fear of God" as the best figurative interpretation or "ta'wil" of "wisdom." Baha'u'llah concludes... with incisive criticisms of Sufis who use ta'wil to confuse the difference between merely praying (du'a) and saying obligatory prayers (salat). (That is, the Sufis sat around praying and never got to their obligatory prayers, but said that was all right because they were, by the lights of ta'wil, the same thing). Baha'u'llah says such a person is deprived of the outward meaning of the verse, how much more of its inner meaning.
In short, it is not true that Baha'u'llah forbade either the interpretation of scripture generally or ta'wil as a technique in particular. He only forbade figurative or personalistic theology if it caused one to betray the outward meaning of the verse, or if concerned legal matters.
I present a more extended discussion of these issues in Baha'i Studies Review, Volume 5.1 (1995), Invited Commentary: "Interpretation in the Baha'i Faith".