Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Light Verse of Surah An-Nur

The Light Verse of Surah An-Nur

Dr. Mustansir Mir

The 35th verse of the 24th surah of the Qur’an, an-Nur, is known as the Light Verse (ayat an-nur). The verse is so called because of the remarkable parable of light---Divine Light--it contains. Here is a translation of the verse, followed by commentary, which is based mainly on the interpretation of Amin Ahsan Islahi in his "Tadabbur-i-Qur’an" (8 vols.; Lahore, 1973-80), 4:538 ff.


Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth! His light, in terms of a similitude, is like a niche in which there is a lamp--the lamp is in a glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star--that is being kindled by [the oil of] a blessed olive tree that is neither [of the] eastern nor [of the] western [side]: its oil would all but light up, even though no fire touched it. Light upon light! Allah guides to His light whomever He wishes. And Allah strikes similitudes for people. And Allah has knowledge of everything.


1. The parable is made up of five elements: niche, lamp, glass, oil, and fire. Of these, the lamp oil, and fire are basic to the parable, the niche and glass are--important--ancillaries. A lamp is a device for lighting an area; oil is the material needed for combustion; and fire lights the lamp. The niche, a recess at a certain height in the wall, is meant to diffuse the light of the lamp widely in the house. The glass encasement, besides helping in the diffusion, makes the light bearable. Already, we can see that such a lamp must give bright light. It is to such light that the light of Allah is likened to.

2. Another detail needs to be considered. The tree from which the oil comes is said to be one that is neither of the eastern nor of the western side, and also one whose oil would, it seems, start burning even if no fire touched it. This is a description of the purity of the oil. To the Arabs, the best trees in a garden were those which stood in the middle of the garden and, unlike the trees on the outer sides--east, west, north, or south--were not exposed to excessive heat and were safe from flood water, receiving just the right amounts of sun and rain. Such trees were prized for the high quality of their yield. In the parable, accordingly, the oil of the tree, it is implied, has such a high degree of purity that it would catch fire even when fire is at some distance from it and has not made contact with it.

3. We have, as the verse says, a parable before us. The parable is not meant to be a static picture so that the verse does nothing more than establish a likeness. The notion of ‘guidance’ becomes important here: ‘Allah guides to His light whomever He wishes.’ The parable, in other words, makes a point about guidance, and this must now be explained. To begin with, let us look at the opening statement, which serves as a topic sentence: ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.’ The meaning of this statement becomes clear when the closing statement is kept in mind: ‘Allah has knowledge of everything.’ ‘Light’ and ‘Knowledge’ are the two keywords we get from these two statements. The verse is saying that Allah is the source of all true knowledge, and that it is knowledge drawn from this fount that lights up the heavens and the earth, dispelling the darkness of ignorance, and doubt. Conversely, the verse is saying that without Allah the world does not make sense and remains a dark enigma.

4. In this context of guidance, the ‘brilliant star’ may mean one of the bright stars that guide travellers on their way, or it may refer, if indirectly, to the North Star (which also guides). The epithet ‘blessed’ also acquires the twin meanings of ‘useful’ in a straightforward material sense (oil of the blessed tree lights the lamp) and ‘beneficial’ in a spiritual sense.

5. In such a context, again, to belong to an eastern or a western side would mean to be attached to partial truth. It should be remembered that, to the Christians, the eastern side of the Temple of Jerusalem was sacred because Mary took up residence in that part of the Temple (see Qur’an 19:16), whereas the Jews, in opposition to the Christians, came to regard the western side of the Temple as sacred. As such, the tree that is in the middle may be equated with Islam, for, the verse would be suggesting, Islam does not suffer from any imbalance or lopsidedness.

6. What does the phrase ‘Light upon light!’ mean? It might mean ‘layers of light,’ in the sense that the light of Allah is so intense that it can only be conceived of as two or more layers of light, one on top of another. But it might also mean ‘one kind of light upon another,’ in which case we shall be dealing with two kinds of light, one of which would be the light of Allah. But what would be the other light? Again, bear in mind that the context of the verse is that of guidance --- Allah providing guidance to humans. If so, then the other light must belong to humans, and must refer to that innate sense of the right path with which, according to the Qur’an, Allah endows all humans, and which has been called fitrah in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. This innate sense of the right path constitutes, then, man’s ‘internal’ light of guidance, as opposed to the ‘external’ light of guidance that comes to him from Allah. The preposition ‘on’ would thus imply reinforcement: a person who has preserved his inner flame of guidance and saved it from being extinguished is further confirmed in his guidance of Allah through His light.

7. Now we are in a position to state the essential thesis of the verse: Those who guard the light of their fitrah, come to possess an internal light which is reinforced or argumented by the external light of revelation, the result being light upon light.

8. But this is an important thesis of the Islamic philosophy of religion. To borrow a scientific image, we can say that, according to Islam, revelation that comes from Allah is like a positive current that comes into contact with the negative current of the pure human heart and thus produces the electricity of faith, or, to revert to the terms of the parable, the flame of faith. Since the lamp is enclosed in glass, the flame is steady and is not moved or put out by the wind, which is to say that the good man is always content, possessing as he does the nafs-i-mutma’innah, the ‘steady soul’, and is not swayed by difficult or trying circumstances, but remains patient and grateful under all kinds of circumstances. The glass, moreover, is clear and shiny, and thus helps to spread the light in all its abundance, which is to say that the true faith of a good man becomes a source of guidance to others, enabling them to share in its light. The oil which feeds the lamp is said to be extracted from an olive tree that was planted not at the edge of the garden --- ‘neither of the east nor of the west’ --- but right in the middle of it, so that, being source against the fury of the elements, it has yielded the purest kind of oil. The tree, or its oil, represents the uncorrupted human fitrah, and such fitrah, because of its purity, is quick to catch the fire when it is presented with the divine message. And so when the oil --- that is to say, the inner goodness of a man’s heart-does come into contact with fire --- that is to say, with divine guidance --- the result is ‘light upon light.’ Possessing this ‘double light,’ one sees the heavens and the earth lit up, acquiring the master key to all knowledge and understanding, for, as the opening part of the verse says: ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.’

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