Dr. Abou El Fadl begins with a reminder that the quintessential truth of being a Muslim is to walk in the path of light in order to attain light, live in light, die in light, and be resurrected in light. So much of the Quran warns us about the darkness within us and that human beings are capable of creating.
Darkness is not a philosophical category, but often an intuitive category with physical manifestations, such as poverty, cruelty or a lack of empathy, mercy or compassion. It is characteristic of the absence of God or the corruption of the divine. We experience and encounter it. The Quran portrays to us the difference between the path of light and the path of darkness in two powerful parables.
In Surah Al-Baqarah (2:16), one of the most powerful parables of the Quran calls us to ourselves: “Those who purchased error at the price of guidance” tells of those who start out with an aspiration toward guidance, but become distracted, confused and lost. The Quran explains, “Their parable is like that of a person who lit or kindled a fire; and when that fire lit up what is around them, God took away their light and left them in darkness, unseeing.” (2:17) A person may have the intention or intuitive desire for light. Yet, the fire they light in fact results in blindness. The fire one lights could be that of religious rhetoric, material wealth, law, public adoration, or prestige. Human beings often forget that true light comes from inner light, and true guidance only comes from one’s intimacy and relationship to God. God does not take away one’s light unless they are responsible for it. God tells us that God is closer to us than ourselves, but we don’t know.
Allah comments on people who fail to build an intimate relationship with God. Despite this fire they lit to give them the blessing of light, they exist in darkness as if deaf, dumb and blind (2:18). Because they relied on the physical world and their physical senses as their sensors for truth, it remained a physical phenomenon. True insight only comes from the touch of the Divine.
“Or a cloudburst from the sky in which there is darkness, thunder and lightning. They put their fingers in their ears against the thunder, fearing death and God encompasses the disbelievers” (2:19). “The lightning all but snatches away their sight. Whenever it shines for them, they walk; and where darkness comes over them, they stop. Had God willed it, God would have taken away their hearing and their sight. Truly God is powerful over all things.” (2:20)
Human beings exist in a persistent state of anxiety and constant questioning. For every trial and tribulation in their life, they are gripped by anxiety and metaphorically put their fingers in their ears, exactly like a person who loses sight of Allah.
However, no human being is left without grace and the possibility of light. Allah sends signs of Allah’s blessings on a person’s path. Every time there is lightning, one can see for a bit and might start walking towards the divine. For example, when presented with a hardship like the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or divorce, one may respond by getting closer to Allah through more prayer, or reading Quran, etc. However, if one’s inner light is not developed where they see through the heart rather than through the physical senses, they may walk in the light and be close to God for a short while only to fall back into the darkness and old habits when the hardship wears off.
Why be a Muslim? Because Muslims are the people of light, and a true Muslim emits light. This light manifests itself in everything that is characteristic of the Divine. If a Muslim doesn't manifest the attributes of the Divine, then they are like the person who lit the fire, but exists in darkness.
To be a truly guided Muslim, the inner light should emanate from us, and characteristics of the Divine should be visible in our behavior. We should leave on the world an imprint of mercy, kindness, beauty, justice and equity.
In another powerful parable in Surah al-Nur, Allah tells us, “Those who do not find God, those who are astray from the path, their deeds are like a mirage upon a desert, upon a desert plain which a thirsty man supposes is water. When that man comes upon it, he does not find it to be anything, but only finds God there. God will then pay this man his reckoning in full, and God is swift in reckoning.” (24:39) “Or like the darkness of a fathomless sea, covered by waves, with waves above waves. And above the waves, clouds, above the clouds, darkness, one above the other. When one puts out one's hand, one can hardly see it. For it is the case for whom God has not appointed any light, they do not have light.” (24:40)
We live in existence, oblivious to the inevitability that we will die, and that the only truth that will remain after the death of generations to come, is God. It is as if God is telling us, believe whatever you want. All of it is like a mirage in the desert; it has no inner truth to it. When all is said and done, God will be there. God will receive you, whether you believe or not, whether you are going to Heaven or hell, God will be there.
Those who do not want to think about death, who distract themselves, and who ignore the truth exist within layers of false perception, ie. the rain, the clouds, the sky, to the point that in a confusing and layered path, one gets to the point that one doubts their own reality so when they put out their hands, they can’t even see their hands in the darkness.
The only way out of the darkness is to be touched by Allah's hand so that the light grows within, and you are no longer troubled by the darkness, anxiety or distractions of the material world, rather your heart is with Allah. Seek the light, not the mirage. Don't light the fire and then become blind because you are distracted, resentful, hopeless or angry. The fire itself could be a deception because you though the light would come from the fire and not from Allah.