A man asked Imam Ali: How have you seen Allah?
“Eyes do not see Him face-to-face, but hearts perceive Him through the realities of belief. He is near to things but not (physically) contiguous. He is far from them but not (physically) separate. He speaks but not with reflection. He intends, but not with preparation. He molds, but not with (the assistance of) limbs. He is subtle but cannot be said as being concealed. He is great but cannot be said to be haughty. He sees but the faculty of vision cannot be attributed to Him. He is Merciful, but this cannot be attributed to a weakness of heart…” [The Path of Eloquence]
Allah’s ultimate essence is unknowable.
We can stretch our intellect as far as we can, we still won’t be able to understand who He is.
But it doesn’t mean we are incapable of knowing anything about Him.
To facilitate our understanding, Allah describes Himself with attributes and divine names.
Although they provide us with limited knowledge, they are enough to bring us close to Him.
The parable of the light fulfills this function.
It’s visual enough that anyone can understand it.
But at the same time, it’s not evident.
That’s why we find so many interpretations of the light verse.
Some are literal; others are more esoteric. I even found scientific explanations from the realm of quantum physics.
I’ll stick in this article to the most common explanations.
The Verse of Light—Ayat An-Nur
Here’s the verse that will dive in:
“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. His light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp; the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star – fueled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it – light upon light. Allah guides whoever He wills to His Light; Allah draws such comparisons for the people; and Allah has full knowledge of everything.” [Quran 24:35]
Light and Its Symbols
When Archimedes exclaimed “Eureka! Eureka!”, he just had a light bulb moment.
Here the light is synonymous with newly acquired knowledge.
When we say “light at the end of the tunnel”, we mean hope.
Light is a powerful and universal symbol.
It’s a symbol of life, knowledge, hope, purity, guidance, or truth.
All these meanings are derived from the functions of the physical light.
Without light, life on earth will go extinct. Also, light is what makes things visible.
Making the invisible visible is what the Holy Quran does.
In this sense, it’s also “light”.
It helps us learn about God, the universe, the reality of life, and our inner self.
“So believe in God, in His Messenger, and in the light We have sent down: God is fully aware of what you do.” [Quran 64:8]
The Prophet Muhammad is also described as “light”.
“Prophet, We have sent you as a witness, as a bearer of good news and warning, as one who calls people to God by His leave, as a light-giving lamp.” [Quran 33:45-46]
In return for believing, people are rewarded with a spiritual kind of light.
It revives them and helps them see things clearly.
“Is a dead person brought back to life by Us, and given light with which to walk among people, comparable to someone trapped in deep darkness who cannot escape?” [Quran 6:122]
Allah Is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth
From the 99 names we know about Allah, He chose this one.
He could say: Allah is the mercy of the Heavens and the Earth.
But He didn’t.
There’s something particular about light that we needed to understand.
Here are some explanations of this passage:
1- Allah creates the physical light, the same way He created the sun and the moon.
2- He’s the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. The light brought the creation from inexistent to existent.
3- Allah enlightens the spiritual world and revives the hearts of believers.
4- Allah is light in a way that He only can understand. Just like we don’t understand how He can see and hear everything, we can’t fully grasp the meaning of light.
All these interpretations are related to the meaning of light and its different symbols.
But the explanation I prefer is the one of Ibn Abbas. It fits with the end of the verse.
He said Allah is the Guider of the Heavens and the Earth.
Allah shows the truth to whomever He wills and inspires people to follow it.
His light helps see clear and distinguish the true from the false.
A Lamp, a Glass, and a Blessed Tree
I always found this example strange.
We’re moving from a scene where Allah lightens the universe to a simple lamp!
This is how the best teachers do. They take abstract concepts and explain them with simple examples.
And it will all make sense in the end.
To make it easy to understand, I’ll break the verse of the light into 3 parts:
1- The Light of the Lamp
2- The Light of the Tree
3- Light Upon Light
The Light of the Lamp
“His light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp; the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star.”
Imagine there’s a crevice in a wall. Inside the crevice, there’s a flame surrounded by glass.
When you look at the glass from a distance, it’s like a brilliant start glowing on its own.
So, what’s the point?
The niche refers to the chest of the believer or the rib cage.
The glass is the heart.
And inside the heart, there is a lamp, which is the pure creature that Allah blew into us—Ruh (spirit).
The heart protects the ruh as the glass protects the flame.
But what happens when the glass gets dirty?
The more the glass is dirty, the less you can see the light.
It’s the same for our hearts.
Bad deeds mark our hearts with stains until it gets black.
The light inside us then chokes to death.
For this reason, our hearts need constant cleansing.
The Light of the Tree
“Fueled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it.”
Now the scene moved from the inside (lamp) to the outside (tree).
The idea is that something outside us fuels our lamp.
So what’s so special about this tree?
It’s a blessed olive tree.
This tree has barakah in it — it keeps giving beyond expectations.
It’s neither from the east nor from the west.
Some explained it as the olive tree is not from this world.
Others said this tree is centered. Its good exposure allows it to take full advantage of the sun.
It’s this kind of tree that gives the best of oils.
The oil is so pure that almost doesn’t need a match to lit up.
Have you guessed what the tree and oil symbolize?
They symbolize the Quran and all the benefits that you can get out of it.
Light Upon Light
“Light upon light. Allah guides whoever He wills to His Light; Allah draws such comparisons for the people; and Allah has full knowledge of everything.”
When we say “adding fuel to the fire”, we mean making things worse.
Here is the exact opposite.
When the light inside our hearts meets the light of revelation, we get light on the top of light.
They add to each other. They complete each other.
When the meeting happens, we are rewarded with a particular type of sight.
In the physical world, the light of the sun is of no benefit when the light of the eyes is missing.
Similarly, in the spiritual world, the light of revelation is of no benefit when the light of the heart is missing.
And to be able to see things as they are, we need the light inside us to meet the one outside us.
It’s true for both the physical and spiritual world.
Otherwise, we turn blind.
Allah guides all the way to His light whomever He wants.
The Story of a Blind Person
I came across the strange and beautiful story of Jacques Lusseyran.
He shared the story in his memoir And There Was Light.
Born in Paris in 1924, Lusseyran was blinded in a school accident at the age of eight.
Lusseyran was exceptional, both for his accomplishments and the way he described his inner world:
“I could no longer afford to be jealous or unfriendly, because, as soon as I was, a bandage came down over my eyes, and I was bound hand and foot and cast aside. All at once a black hole opened, and I was helpless inside it. But when I was happy and serene, approached people with confidence and thought well of them, I was rewarded with light… Armed with such a tool, why should I need a moral code? For me this tool took the place of red and green lights.”
As he also wrote: “being blind seemed to give me nothing but advantages.”
He could perceive the changes in his inner light depending on his intentions and actions.
But not only that.
He developed the ability to read others despite, (or more accurately) because, of his blindness.
This ability will come in handy when Germany invaded France.
At that time, Lusseyran was seventeen. He formed a resistance group with fifty-two other boys.
He was put in charge of recruitment and grew the group to over six hundred.
Who is reliable? Who could be a spy? He could tell all that.
Only once he hesitated before admitting a person. And this is how he got betrayed.
Lusseyran wrote: “Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.”
He could perceive his light and the one emanating from the outside world.
It made me think: maybe the light inside us is not just symbolic.
As Allah said in Surah Al-Hadid:
“On the Day when you [Prophet] see the believers, both men and women, with their light streaming out ahead of them and to their right, [they will be told], ‘The good news for you today is that there are Gardens graced with flowing streams where you will stay: that is truly the supreme triumph!’ [Quran 57:12]
And we won’t be able to see it until the day the veil is removed from our eyes.
May Allah gives us light and helps us grow the one we have inside us.
In these dark times, we are in desperate need of more light.
And I leave you with this dua of the Prophet (PBUH):
“O Allah, place light in my heart and light on my tongue. Place light in my hearing and light in my seeing. Place light behind me and light in front of me. Place light above me and light below me. O Allah, grant me light!” [Bukhari-Muslim]
Article posted: 11 October 2021
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