Reflecting on Light Upon Light and Surah Al Nur

Dear Friends,


Greetings of Peace! I pray you are safe, healthy, well and fully engaged with the light!


First of all, it was truly wonderful to have the blessing of two halaqa sessions this past week, especially that we have been deep diving into the most incredible Surah 24: Al Nur (The Light). It has been three halaqa sessions dedicated to Surah Al Nur so far, and we have just entered an engagement with Verse 35 on the Parable of the Light. To say what we have been learning about Surah Al Nur is mind-blowing would be a serious understatement. As we get deeper and deeper into The Light, the concept of "light upon light" gets more sophisticated, nuanced, beautiful and transformative. What God is calling for and directing us to - as individuals, as a community, and as a human society - is elevating, enlightening and truly illuminating. It is fully transformative at every level.


I often try to engage with people about what we are doing at Usuli, and I try to explain why it is different than what I believe people imagine when they hear the words "Qur'anic commentary," or "tafsir," or "Qur'anic exegesis." I get the sense that they think we are doing what most people doing tafsirs do - something quite boring, painful and tedious that involves dissecting the Qur'an verse by verse or word by word, often reiterating meanings and understandings that are already commonplace in the understandings of Muslims. I have often heard these kinds of tafsirs so I get it. The descriptors, "exciting," "thrilling," "enthralling," or "totally relevant to our lives today" are not exactly the first that come to mind. So when I use those descriptors to describe Project Illumine, either people don't believe me or just think I am doing my job as a marketer. They simply cannot imagine based on their own experiences that any engagement with the Qur'an, especially in English, would yield anything of real value to the modern challenges we face. How could it? Isn't the Qur'an a medieval book? Isn't the underlying premise that we are supposed to, "as good Muslims" somehow return to this medieval construct, which by definition, removes us from the realities of our modern day? In other words, isn't the Qur'an irrelevant for our modern times? Many people get put off by seeing the length of our halaqa videos - 2, 3, 4 hours?! (I can hear in my mind, "Do you really expect us to watch 124 three-hour halaqas??!")


For the uninitiated, let me begin by saying that there are no other commentaries on the Qur'an in our tradition that have approached the Qur'an thematically chapter by chapter. So explicitly, for Surah Al Nur, no one has approached or understood this chapter as a thematic whole. None. No other scholars have made this argument or discovery. Most have primarily focused on Ayat Al Nur, Verse 35, the verse that begins, "God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth..." or approached other parts of the surah that addressed issues such as modesty, hijab, etc. But as with every other surah, understanding the thematic unity of the whole chapter and even taking the title of the surah as the clue to its moral message are part and parcel to Dr. Abou El Fadl's methodology.


With every surah of the Qur'an, Dr. Abou El Fadl sets the stage for understanding what is happening by walking us through the history, the events, the players, the emotions, the attitudes of the community, and prevailing cultural norms of the time and place where the action is - he is explaining the epistemology of the Prophet Muhammad's context in which the Prophet (pbuh) is receiving the message of God. For us to understand the moral message being delivered, clearly we need to understand how the Prophet and the early Muslims received the message. Then, from that methodology, an awareness emerges as to the moral principle or lesson being elicited and how it was applied in that context. Fast forward 1400+ years, and our job is to take that timeless moral principle or lesson and apply it to our own time and place - the epistemology of our age. The approach and concept is not difficult, but the effort and due diligence required to master the epistemologies of two ages is immense, and Dr. Abou El Fadl has already done the heavy lifting. We simply receive, and what a priceless gift. 


In the first three days of engaging with Surah Al Nur, Dr. Abou El Fadl has situated us as bystanders in the unfolding human story of the Prophet's time. We have learned the players, the competing tensions, the backdrop of war and its financial, political and emotional implications; the drama of the story of Aisha, the tensions it prompted in the community and upon the Prophet (pbuh) and how God ultimately vindicated Aisha - and the moral principles that were emphasized as a result; the pressures on the early Muslims, the prejudices and discrimination and the inevitable stresses that affected this young community of believers, and how it prompted them to feel and act. As humans, we understand the impacts of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty on our psyches and how it makes people react. We learned what concepts were unfamiliar at the time, which we now often take for granted - the right to dignity, the right to privacy, the rights of women, the disempowered, and the accused, as well as the accountability of the accusers, slanderers, and gossipers. We learn that it is not enough to know what is truth and good, but that there is a process in serving the truth and the good. The ends cannot justify the means, but rather good means leads to good ends; and good ends require good means. We learn that words matter, principles matter, and how people deal with each other matters. We are given lesson after lesson about what creates light in an individual, in a community, and in a society - and what results in darkness. We are uncovering layer by layer, light upon light, the deeper meanings of a surah that in my 28 years as a convert, I have only heard discussed as disparate parts of a whole - the verses on light; the verses on modesty; and the verses on hijab. I have never heard references to what it means to be or act as light upon light as an individual, as a community, of as a society, in the ways we have discussed on Surah Al Nur, and we are not even barely halfway through! We have not even finished discussing Verse 35 and there is still yet so much more to come. What we have received so far is already a goldmine...


I truly believe that everything we need as Muslims and as humanity is here in this tafsir. Yes, there are a lot of halaqas. Yes, they seem scary in the sheer number of hours involved. But if discovering the exciting, thrilling, and enthralling reasons why the Qur'an is totally relevant to our lives today is important to you, then there is nothing better than to invest in this learning. As a friend recently shared with me, once they began watching the halaqas, they found that time just flew by. And every time they finished watching a halaqa, they couldn't wait to call family members to tell them what they learned. Alhamdulillah! I cannot wait for Day 4 of Surah Al Nur!


Looking forward to seeing you online for our khutbah today and tomorrow night at 6 pm ET for the continuation of Surah Al Nur! Please keep all of us in your prayers!! May God keep you and your loved ones safe and protected and on the most beautiful path always! Hope to see you online soon insha'Allah!


In Peace and Hope,


Grace Song

Executive Director

The Usuli Institute


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