Of the many narratives and discourses of the Qur'an that one repeatedly revisits – pondering, reflecting, analyzing in light of what we experience as human beings in life, is of course, the parable of light in Surah An-Nur, the chapter titled, “Light” in the Qur'an. If you will recall, we are told in Surah An-Nur that Allah is the light of the heavens and Earth.
“God is the light of the heavens and Earth. The parable of God's light is that of a niche containing a lamp.” The niche is an indentation in the wall - a feature of all homes, particularly Mediterranean homes, before the invention of electricity. The existence of a niche was where one would safely place a lamp. Of course, this was the only way one could have constant, stable positions for light in pre-modern homes.
“And the parable of God is that of a niche containing a lamp…” By “lamp,” here, we mean the actual part which catches fire in order to generate light. The lamp is in a glass and the glass shines like a radiant star. And this lamp is lit by oil, as if from an olive tree. The oil of this olive tree comes neither from the East nor the West, but the oil of the olive tree is so pure that it, in itself, shines as if it - the oil - is light, even without fire. God describes this as light upon light, the light of the lamp within a radiant glass - so radiant that it shines, fed by oil that is so pure, and the oil itself is so radiant, that it shines even without having been lit.
Of course, this parable has inspired numerous discourses and narratives, especially in Islamic mysticism. So much that has been written on it, either from a mystical Sufi perspective or even from philosophical perspectives, analyzes the nature of this parable: the niche, the lamp, the radiant glass, and the radiant oil that neither is from the East nor West; and it is very hard to summarize, or even come close to summarizing, what has been written on it.
So many have suggested that the niche is a metaphor for the human heart, that the human heart is where the divine light resides. Many of these scholars theorized that if the human heart - which can contain the lamp [and the lamp is like God's revelation, God's guidance] - and God's revelation is placed within the correct niche, ie. the correct human heart, then it radiates like a luminous star. The combination of revelation in the right heart radiates. And the radiant glass, many have theorized, is like the instrumentality of reason; that when revelation comes to the right heart, and this revelation and heart shines through human reason, it is capable of making human reason like a radiant star, shining goodness and guidance onto existence.
Olive trees, if they grow in the right place in the Mediterranean - which is quite literally neither due west nor due east, but precisely in the right place - they produce the best possible olive oil known to humankind. When God describes this oil as if it radiates without fire, that entire olive tree symbolizes the root of Abrahamic revelation. The niche: the human heart; the lamp, which many scholars have said is like the Qur'an; and the radiant glass: human reason; fed by this olive tree that symbolizes the continuing natural truth, the continuing rooted truth throughout human history; the truth of God's message that is never wavering, is never different; it is the same message that human truth is rooted in, and that in turn God's light is rooted in -- that is the tree of the Abrahamic truth: the truth of God's revelation from the Prophet Abraham onwards, to the Prophet Muhammad, of course, and the Qur'an.
As I said, we can spend hours talking about the various debates and constructions. If you are even interested in coming close to being exposed to the nuance and complexity and richness of Islamic discussions on the metaphor of the light, in Surah An-Nur, we can look at the tafsir (commentaries of) Shirazi, and the density of his discussion just on this metaphor, which he dedicates a considerable amount of time to. In fact, this metaphor becomes quite critical for the entire Illuminist philosophical school in Islamic theology.
We can all agree that if we want to simplify the metaphor and get to the truth of things, it is that the niche is a physical place that is capable of holding light. In other words, it is a convenient, appropriate, rightful place where light can be placed and shine from. In the same way that if the niche exists, if this indentation in the wall exists but there is no light to place there, it then loses its meaning. In fact, it could become a repository of all types of things. As a niche, it is created to accommodate, to be a rightful place for shining light. But if light is not placed in there, that niche can collect dust and become a place where cobwebs grow. It can be a place where you stack up a bunch of papers or stick some figurine in.
But its essential function – to be a place where light is placed, so that it can light whatever physical structure it exists in – is missed if a lamp is not placed in that niche. So whether the niche is the human heart, the human body or, as some have suggested, the physical world, we know that it in all cases, we know it is there by design. It was created so that it can play an appropriate proper function – and that is to shine light. But it can just as easily be denied that role if no lamp is placed in this niche.
The niche can be our physical world. The niche can be our physical bodies. The niche can be the human heart. Whatever it is, it is a place that can accommodate the divine light. Part of the metaphor of light upon light is that while we see and understand God through God's handiwork and God’s attributes, we do not and cannot know the truth of what is God. In the same way, light performs a function - it interacts with our eyes and we are familiar with it; light is familiar to us. We are aware of light because we experience light. But what is the true nature of light? What is the truth of light? It is beyond comprehension. We can experience and note, as a phenomenon, what happens when there is no light. But what is the truth of light? It is like other things in our existence that we experience but that we cannot define, like fire, like gravity. We can only describe, but we cannot define.
The light is not dependent on the niche. In fact, the light has the ability to exist entirely independently of the niche. It is just that when the light is placed in its proper place, i.e. when the light comes to the niche, the niche performs its rightful, righteous function. When the light comes to the niche, the room lights up. We all experience the impact of that light. The light is also separate and apart from the radiant glass. The glass could be transparent and clear, but it also could be foggy and obstructionist, full of blemishes and scratches.
We experience the light through the glass, but the light and the glass are separate, in the same way that we experience the truth of God through the radiance and illuminations of reason. But we know that if this light impacts the intellect in the appropriate and correct way, the intellect can shine goodness and wellbeing onto existence. But if the intellect does not know how to benefit from the light, if the intellect resists the light, if the glass is foggy, if the glass is obscure, then in fact, the very purpose of the niche fails.
Although the niche was built to accommodate the lamp, the quality or the lack of quality of the glass can either make the entire thing work fantastically well or be an abysmal failure. The oil, which I tend to think is in fact a metaphor for the nature of God's speech to human beings – we understand that the Qur'an describes this oil as the purest of kinds – is so pure, that it is as if it radiates without even fire. But if you take the oil, regardless of how pure or radiant it is, and you place it in the niche and there is no fire, then the entire enterprise fails. Yes, you will have shiny, bright, luminous oil in the niche, but you will not have light. The room will not be lit up.
In order for the room to light up, you need the niche, the lamp, the correct luminous glass, and this most fantastical oil; this oil that can make the light of God shine as if light upon light. In my view, the niche is like creation itself. Whether the human body or the human heart, it is ready, made to receive God's light. If you put revelation, i.e. the luminous oil, in the niche but without the instrumentalities of the transparent glass - reason; and the truth of divine illumination - the fire itself, you will not get a lit room. It will not work.
If you have the light of God but you do not have the radiant glass, or you have a flawed glass, or you have a fogged up glass, again, the truth of God is there, but the room is not lit up. You pause for a second. We can all look at the niche and say, "Wow, this place; this house has a niche. The niche was structurally created for light.” But in our modern condition, we human beings look at the niche and we say, "What is this for?"
We know that the nature of things point to God. The very existence of things is like the niche – it was created to accommodate the light of God. You look at birds in the sky, the meticulous rise of the sun, the intricate movement between night and day, the sunrise and sundown, the movement of the seas, the movement of the rivers, the movement of trees, the movement of creation, and it is all like the niche, saying, we have been created to reflect the light of God. This is what we were structurally created for. But the human condition in modernity is that we look at the niche and say, "How interesting that the house we find ourselves born in [ie. we were literally dropped in this house; we had no hand in creating ourselves in this house] has niches." We look at the niche and say, "How interesting that this house has niches! It must be just a coincidence, the very existence of the niche!”
It is the house calling upon the light of God, saying, “I was created with this niche as proof of accommodation, as proof that this is where God's light belongs.” But we look at the niche and we say, "No, we do not know what to place there. We are not sure that a lamp - the divine lamp - should go there. We will use the niche for other things. Maybe we will use it for extra storage. Maybe we will put a stack of papers there. We will do whatever with the niche."
But by not using the niche for what it was, in fact, created for, we choose to live in darkness. And in darkness, we feel the loss and the lack of purpose. We look around and say, “Wow, why don’t I understand anything? Why is it that I can’t see anything? Why is it that I don’t understand what I am here for? I don’t understand what tomorrow is about. I don’t understand what growing old is about. I don’t understand what death is about. I don’t understand why people I love die. I don’t understand why people that I don’t know are born and what they become attached to. I do not understand anything about anything.” But in order to understand, you have to clean up the niche, put the lamp there with the right oil and allow God's light to shine.
But no, that is the modern fallacy. Yes, in the darkness, I see injustice. I see unfairness. I see abuse. I see loss. I see abuse of substances. I see suicide. I see mental illness. I see spiritual illness. I see psychological illness. I see everything that is wrong, but I don’t want the light in the niche. The second step are those people who indeed use the niche for its proper purpose, and light the light in the niche. They have the right oil and the right lamp.
But once the light of God is allowed to exist, the glass surrounding the niche is not like God describes it, “a radiant planet.” No, the glass surrounding the niche is dull, it could even be blackened out with sin, or dull and foggy with ignorance. The glass that surrounds the niche does not live up to the luminosity of the oil and the flame. The glass, the intellect. Yes, you have put the light in the proper place, in the niche. But the intellect that is ready to receive that flame and to reflect the light, in fact, distorts it. Why? It distorts it because light is demanding.
The thing about light is that, yes, it can allow us to see our ways through things. It can help us to avoid bumping into things. It can help us tell the difference between the chair and the table. It can help us tell the difference between a sofa and a bed. But the light also allows us to see whether we exist in beauty or in ugliness. The thing about light is that it has this truthful quality; it confronts us with the truth of what is. And if you put the light in the niche, and you have the right glass, and the light shines, and you discover that what you exist in is ugliness, then the temptation is enormous – even if you do not have the guts to turn off the light altogether, the temptation is extremely powerful to fog up the glass that surrounds the light.
There are countries and people, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, that can’t afford the light – or can’t afford the truth of the light – so they try to turn off the light altogether. But what is far more common, as we see in places like Iran or many other societies, is that you fog up the glass so you don’t see your own ugliness and you don’t see what the truth of the divine reveals to yourself about yourself.
The pure, unadulterated, luminous oil, the oil that is neither East nor West. Does it really take a genius to figure out that God is telling us that the oil of revelation - in my view the Qur'an - needs to combine with the flame of God to feed into a translucent intellect placed in the proper niche that can truly shine truth? But once that truth shines, you better be ready to receive it because the worst thing about when the truth shines and you don’t like what you see is that you obfuscate it and try to bury it. Does it really take a genius to realize that this oil is described as neither East nor West, to tell you not to dare give a physical identity to that truth of revelation? To tell you not to dare make the revelation about East or West, or make the revelation about the culture, a nationality, a race, a tribe?
The truth of the oil, the luminous oil of revelation, is like natural law itself. It is not anchored in any sociological reality, but transcends all. The metaphor of light upon light. What is most painful is that we human beings generally, but Muslims specifically, have allowed the lights in our niches to go out, and even when we have allowed the light in the niche to exist, we still have made sure to obfuscate, corrupt and otherwise sully and distort the glass through which the divine light shines.
Even the oil. When it comes to the divine light, we have attempted to cheat the oil, to replace it with an oil of nationalism, of ethnic identity, of some form of tribalism. This is the condition that we are in. May we wake up.
Among the stories that caught my attention is an article that appeared in Muslim Matters. As far as I understand, the article was authored by a group of people that used to belong to the Sufi order of Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, but left the order because of allegations of abuse, especially abuse of children in school. Other abuses that the article complains about occurred against married couples and the like. The article basically calls upon Muslims to end the culture of complacency. Generally, the article complains of a culture of despotism, authoritarianism, and a culture in which strict obedience is mandated by the Shaykh, and apparently his wife and his representatives.
When abuses occurred, there were investigations, but then cover ups followed. This led to a large number of people leaving the Sufi order. The article is written by the former members of the Sufi order that say the culture of complacency must end; that Muslims have a culture of covering up for tyrants, despots and abusers, and that this must end. Ha Mim Keller is a convert to Islam who belonged to the Shadhili Sufi order. The Shadhili, of course, is a very large Sufi order and has many, many chapters in different parts of the world. Once he joined the Shadhili Sufi order, he created a branch of the order in Jordan, where he created a community in which he is the head and the Shaykh of that community.
I am critical of all those who exoticize Islam, who think that in order to be Muslim, you have to turn back time and exist as if in the medieval world. That Islam is embodied in a set of symbolisms that are exotic in nature because they all come from a land far away, and that part of what Islam is about is the whole Western mythology of Oriental despotism; that in order to be a real Muslim, while you drive a car and use the internet, you try to recreate the norms of the medieval world in every other regard.
But you pause at something like the reported culture of abuse, whether with this Shaykh or other Shaykhs, especially in light of the metaphor of light upon light. So many people that have converted to Islam gave up their entire life, uprooted their families, moved to Jordan, joined the Shaykh, and joined this community. They were following a dream, and the dream can be summed up in “light upon light.” The dream is often that you imagine the Shaykh to be the embodiment of God's light. And the light of the Shaykh upon the divine light appears to be light upon light. And the attraction and the call of light upon light is like an intoxicant. It makes you think, “Finally, I can exist in a world that makes sense. I exist in a world where there is beauty because it is God's truth, and if there is God's truth, then there must be beauty.”
In God's truth and God's beauty, there is no fear and no anxiety. No worry and no consternation. There is no jealousy, no animosity, no hostility, no competition. But why do experiments like this fail? Remember that the light must shine through the luminous glass. The luminous glass is the glass of correct thinking, correct reason, correct rationality. The luminous glass can in fact play a critical role in lighting up the room when its purity matches the purity of the flame. But when you say that God's light is conditional on transmitting, accepting and blindly following a legal text from the middle ages; when a legal text written by a medieval scholar becomes the embodiment of Shari'a - the definer of the glass - and you are told there is no role for your reason when you are confronted with the transmitted reports attributed to the Prophet, and there is no role for reason when you are confronted with the will of the Shaykh, I wonder how radiant that glass can be.
The thing that so many Muslims in the modern age consistently fail to remember is that the light of God appealed to people who were reasonable, who were asked to perpetuate reasonableness, and that reasonableness meant active intellects – constantly engaged, analytical intellects. Islam was never about the exotic. Islam was never about the marginal. Islam was never about the exceptional. Islam was never a vacation from or an abstention from the affairs of humanity.
Islam was never a suspension of the intellectual processes of knowledge - collecting and analyzing and sifting through data. Islam was never about being an exception to life. Islam built a civilization because it allowed the light of God to join with the light of reason, and through the combination of both, to shine onto humanity. Islam was never about a cult. It was never a cult. Every time that Islam is spoken about in terms of exotic movements and exotic cultures, and in terms that are not accessible to human reason within the historical moment of the niche – where the niche exists at its proper historical time – I realize that the light of God is going to be obstructed and snuffed out by the glass that contains the light of God, ie. if the glass is not radiant. For the glass to be radiant, it must be at the cutting edge of intellectual probity. You cannot have a radiant glass that is dull, stupid, idiotic, ignorant, lazy, or unengaged. If that intellect can only reflect the truth of the 10th or 11th century, simply because Shaykh such-and-such wrote the text and so this becomes your radiant glass, then in fact it is darkened glass and it will kill the luminous oil and it will kill the luminous divine flame.
And the niche will not serve any purpose at all because the darkness will persist. How often does God speak to us in the most reasonable fashion? And how often do we insist on minimally listening to the reasonable and rendering it unreasonable because of our own shortcomings and inability or unwillingness to rise up to what the divine message demands of us?
God, forgive our sins. Guide us to the right path, the straight path. Enable us to be like radiant glass that reflects your truth, that shines light and luminosity upon humanity.