The heart and core of Islam was and will always be the revealed word of God, the Qur'an. It is remarkable that Muslims would ever lose touch with the living word of God among them; the constant, eternal revelation that speaks to them both individually and collectively as beings that came into this world in a state of struggle, seeking to find their way. Collectivities form into communal entities, attempting to do what God has placed them on this earth to do, and that is to act as God's representatives on earth, to become the inheritors of God on this earth.
Every human being, whether they acknowledge it or not, whether they are a Muslim or not, are in a de facto state of vicegerency. They bear a trust, and that trust is the way that they inherit what is upon this earth and everything that relates to this earth, as well as the way that they inherit their individual selves with their individual physical entities. It is a most honored state, but it is a heavy responsibility, because that inheritance is not a freehold. It is not a trust given without ultimate accountability for the way that we perform on this earth.
God, throughout the Qur'an, reminds us of core messages. In the midst of narratives about the living experience of the Prophet, in the midst of all the narratives about past nations and history, and in the midst of the Qur’anic narratives about laws and commandments of do’s and don't’s, is a central theme that is the foundation for all of us. It is the beating heart of all of this. If we lose sight of it, we lose sight of everything. That central theme is deceptively simple, that the core and heart of the Islamic message is to take people from darkness to light, and that God is the light of the heavens and the earth. This is stated throughout the Qur’an, but it is articulated with particular power in Surah An-Nur. In it, God reminds us that God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of God's light is as if a niche. In this niche is a lamp. The lamp itself is in a glass. The glass is as if a brilliant star, lit from a blessed olive tree, neither of East nor West. The olive oil that is neither of East nor West glows as if not touched by fire, it independently glows, not started by any agent. God guides to God's light whomever God wills. God sets parables to humankind, for God knows everything.
When we recite these verses, how often do we pause to reflect upon what it means to say that God is the Light of the heavens and the earth? If God is the Light of the heavens and earth, what is the nature of creation without God? Is creation itself in darkness, but for God's light? Does light in creation only emanate from God? What is the niche that the lamp within the glass is placed in? Layers of light. The lamp itself is lit by an oil that is neither East nor West, meaning that it is perfectly balanced oil. It is an oil so pure that it glows without an external agent. The lamp, the glass and the oils form layers of light, and therefore the image of light upon light.
The ayat that follows is no less compelling. It is what brings the picture that should guide our life closer. In it, God tells us that there are structures. In these structures, God has ordered and empowered that God's name be mentioned fervently in the day and in the evening.
What are these structures? And what is the relation between these structures and the preceding verse that tells us that God is the Light of the heavens and earth, and that God is light upon light, and that there is a particular nature to that light that transcends our laws of physics and causation? First, the oil that glows by itself, that empowers a lamp within a glass. The oil glows, the lamp glows, and the glass glows. Already, we are speaking of a reality that is unfamiliar to us, it does not follow our laws of rational causation. In our physical world, oil does not internally glow. In our laws of physics, glowing is the result of a chemical reaction and is the discharge of energy. But the Divine has properties that are not dependent on any other. In our world, light does not layer upon light, but with the Divine, there are levels of illumination that are difficult for humans to even conceive.
What is that niche where light upon light resides? A niche is simply an enclave in the wall, where in premodern times, people used to put the lamp, which they would light at night. All homes were built with these niches. But in the Qur'anic reference, what is that niche? And why a reference to a niche? We get a better understanding of this in prophetic traditions, where the Prophet tells us that the light of God can be only be attained by the heart of a believing Muslim. The niche, in fact, is the heart of a believer. God's light in this world can only be physically reproduced by the creation that God has made. It is in the same way that there is light in the heavens and earth, but they are not represented if there is no one to represent them. This is why, in a hadith Kudsi, it is reported that God says, "I was a hidden treasure, and I wanted it to be known, so I created creation." It is as if that light wanted to be manifested on the physical earth, and the niche that can manifest this light is, first and foremost, the heart of the believer.
But once you commit to attaining the light of the Divine, understand that this light is layered with levels of illumination. What does that mean, to say that the believer is the container of the Divine light? What does that mean, in a concrete way? When God tells us of “bayt”, it means your home. That home could be a house, it could be a partner, it could be a love, it could be your own heart, it could be a mosque. That bayt, that home, which is built upon the remembrance of God, becomes the niche that contains light upon light.
Let us turn from the realm of generalities to an actual realm of application. As the inheritors of this earth, we are charged with a trust. How does that translate? At the most basic level, if you are in a relationship in which God is not a third partner, in which you do not make the effort to integrate God, it is a relationship without light. If you have a heart that is constantly distracted by the physical affairs of this world and does not deliberately seek the remembrance of God, that heart is not a niche for light upon light. It becomes a niche that could be occupied either by darkness or by light. If you are in a home that is busy with mundane affairs, such as paying the bills or doing your job, but there is no affirmative task of remembrance and bringing in the light upon light of the Divine, then your home is not a niche that bears light. And, a niche without light will bear darkness.
The same goes for a mosque. If a mosque only remains open for the five daily prayers, and is otherwise shut, people do not feel peace and security, people are not free to explore light upon light in the various levels of illumination, and the mosque itself could cease to be a niche for the Divine light upon light. It takes an affirmative process to introduce the light. If you do not invite the light in, you cannot glow eternally without an application of energy. Atrophy for human beings, unlike the Divine, equals darkness. The Divine, put simply, is independently and eternally glowing. The way that human beings discharge their inheritance upon this earth is to apply affirmative energy that brings in the light of the Divine, light upon light. To bring it in within their hearts, within their relationships, within their communities, and within their structures.
But how do we know if the light of God is present? Is there a concrete way that we can identify whether our heart responds to the light upon light; or are we, like the Qur’an describes, lost in waves of darkness in a turbulent ocean? Light does not come from law nor from mere speech. It comes from enlightenment, and enlightenment is fundamentally a state of liberation, repose, and peace. In Islamic theology, light is a state of “Ihsan” (beauty); the direct opposite of ugliness.
To put it simply, wherever you find despair, anxiety, anger or hate, the light is absent. The very nature of God's light is repose, peace and a state of happiness. Where there is love, there is that light. Where there is happiness, there is that light. Where there is suffering, there is the absence of light. Where there is depression, there is the absence of light. Where there is anxiety, there is the absence of light. Where human beings put themselves in a position where they are forced to lie, there is the absence of the light. Where human beings are angry instead of forgiving, there is the absence of light. Where human beings are jealous, there is the absence of light. Where human beings cause harm, there is the absence of light.
No amount of law, history or text can alter what a baby knows. When a baby is happy, it smiles and laughs. When a baby is not happy, it cries. Human beings are asked to be as pure as a baby. If you seek to introduce God in the niche that is your heart, home or relationship, and the immediate result is suffering, pain, or anxiety, then you know you have done it wrong. The very nature of light upon light is liberation; it is a sense of weightlessness, freedom, and empowerment, as well as an exuding sense of happiness and beauty.
Again, no amount of hadiths, laws, or texts cited can change this basic, fundamental truth. If you go to a place that calls itself Islamic and you see people unhappy within it, then know that it is not Islamic. If you go to a place and you see suffering and pain, then the light upon light is not there. The very nature of our faith is to know the liberating impact of God’s illuminosity, when it fills the niche of our hearts, homes, communities and mosques.
In so many parts of the Muslim world, Muslims go to a mosque and are anxious about who they talk to, for fear that the government has spies that may get them arrested if they say the wrong thing. That is unequivocally a blasphemy, and a contradiction to Surat An-Nur and the entire Qur’an. In so many parts of the Muslim world, people think that a nation can have people thrown in prison, tortured, molested, and treated cruelly, and still be spoken of as a Muslim nation and a Muslim community. It is an absolute contradiction, an impossibility. Any situation in which you have people rotting in prison unjustly, tortured and mistreated, is not light upon light.
So many homes are plagued by authoritarianism, despotism, tension, anger and jealousy. Regardless of how much the people in that home pray, fast or read the Qur’an, light upon light is missing. Regardless of how much one prays, fasts, gives Zakat or goes to Hajj, if their heart is not cordial towards creation and they are not in a relationship of peace, love, and beauty towards existence around them, light upon light does not exist in that niche.
Weekly, I get messages from young Muslims around the world who tell me things that make me sick, so I supplicate to God, "God, please have your light upon light fill this heart, and do not allow the darkness to invade it." One man wrote in, telling me of an instance that an imam in a recent wedding got up during the marriage contract to lecture to the people attending the wedding - more specifically the women - telling them that the Prophet said that the majority of those who will inhabit hell are women. The misogyny, anger and insecurities of the male ego are so obvious. In the heart of that imam, there is no light upon light. A speech like that chases away the light upon light. If you use God's religion to insult, degrade and shame people, that is not light upon light. Besides, that hadith is unauthentic.
Another, from just this week, wrote to me about how her parents forced her into a marriage. Unfortunately, her husband turned out to be abusive. She repeatedly went to her parents, who simply told her it is haram to have a divorce. So, regardless of the amount of abuse, she had no option but to go back to her husband. She wrote in because, if she leaves, her parents will not take her back. She has no support. The imam in her community basically told her that if she leaves her husband, she is committing a major sin and therefore the community would want nothing to do with her. What happened to the niche of light upon light? We do not need extensive discourses or copious amounts of philosophy and theology to simply understand that the nature of God's light is that it eschews and rejects suffering, oppression and injustice.
If you want to know whether God's light exists, do not ask the person inflicting the suffering. Ask the person enduring the suffering, ask them if they believe in a particular situation that God's light exists or not. Regardless of how many hadiths the abusive husband cites or how many Qur’anic verses the misogynistic parents hurl at their daughter, all I need is the single ayat in Surat An-Nur, light upon light, to know what is wrong and what is right; to know what is Islam and what is not Islam.
Law, like philosophy, often has a corrupting impact. It often makes people avoid the responsibility of dealing with the ethical issue at hand. They use law and order to escape ethical accountability and responsibility, as if citing law gets them off the hook. Read Surah An-Nur. It starts with a discourse upon law, but reminds us that all this law, if it does not lead to light upon light, is pointless. That is the heart of Islam. That is the core of our faith. Until Muslims remember that there is no part of the light that can shine where there is human suffering, that the very nature of human suffering is darkness, in the same way that the very nature of anger and the very nature of hate is darkness, the return to the purity of our faith and the power of Islam will not be possible. This is why the Qur’an is an eternal, living revelation. It speaks to us with a moral, beautiful voice, but only if we are ready to listen.