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Light 1

اللَّهُ نُورُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ

"The Mysteries of the Light Verse (Q. 24:35) in Islamic and Bābī-Bahā'ī literatures.

Part 1.

Stephen Lambden 1998.


The "Light Verse" ( āyat al-nūr), is the thirty-fifth verse of the twenty-fourth Medinan Sūrat al-nūr ("Sūra of Light"). In his Early Islamic Mysticism.. Michael Sells has beautifully translated the "Light Verse" as follows;  I have added the Arabic text and transliteration:

"God is the light (al-nūr) of the heavens and earth. The light like (mathal nūrihi)  the light of a lamp in a niche (ka-mishkat) The lamp (miṣbāḥ) enclosed in a cover of glass (fī zujājah) The glass like a glittering star  (kawkab al-durrī) Kindled from the oil of  a blessed tree (shajarat mubārakah),  An olive (zaytūnat) not of the East not of the West  Its oil (zait) glows forth nearly  without the touch of Fire (nār)  Light on light (nūr `alā nūr)  God guides to his light whomever he wills Allah strikes symbols (al-amthāl)  for humankind Allah in all things is most knowing"  (Sells (ed), 1996 (EIM):91-2)

Sells refers to the way in which this "the supremely lyrical depiction of divine light" expresses "a continual movement from simile to simile" being "framed by a more theoretical discourse on the nature of symbols, signs, and likeness" (ibid, 91).

An  older English translation of Arthur  J. Arberry (d. 1969) reads as follows:

"God (Allāh) is the Light (al-nūr)  of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of His light  (mathal nūrihi)  is as a Niche (ka-mishkat)  wherein is a lamp (miṣbāḥ)  the lamp (miṣbāḥ)  in a glass (fī zujāja),  the glass (al-zujāja)  as it were a glittering star  (kawkab al-durrī)  kindled from a Blessed Tree (shajarat mubāraka), an olive (zaytūnat) that is neither of  the East nor of the West. whose oil (zayt) wellnigh would shine,  even if no fire (nār) touched it; Light upon Light  (nūr a`lā nūr); (God guides to his Light whom He will.) (And God strikes similitudes (al-amthāl) for men, and God has knowledge of everything)."

The "Light verse" and key expressions within it were subject to subtle non-literal, allegorical, mystical and esoteric interpretations amongst Sufis and others. Both the Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh specifically commented upon it in their numerous Arabic and Persian writings. The divine, ethereal "Light" of the "Light Verse" was often associated with the Logos-like nūr-i Muhammadiyya, the "Muhammadan Light". As Schimmel expresses it:

"Nūr Muhammad ("Light of Muhammad") or Nūr Muhammadī ("Muhammadan Light")is a term central to later Sufi and Shī`ī speculations. Although the Qur'ān repeatedly states that Muhammad is only human, a messenger entrusted with guidance of the people (see surahs 6:50, 25:8, 25:22), later currents in Islam transformed him increasingly into a spiritual, luminous being. The historical Muhammad was thus metamorphosed into a transcendent light, like the sun, around which everything created revolves. This idea had colored later mystical Islam on both the elite and folk levels." (Enc. Rel. 11:23)

    Numerous, probably thousands of Islamic mufarrsirrūn (qur'ān-exegetes), philosophers, mystics and worthies have commented upon the esoteric, aesthetical, mystical, cosmological and other dimensions of the "Light Verse". Of the many important commentaries is that written by Mullā Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī (c.979/1572-1050/1640). For his Tafsīr āyat al-nūr ("Commentary on the Light verse") see Muhammad Khwājawī (ed.), Tafsīr al-Qur'ān al-karīm ta'līf Muhammadadr al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (Qumm, 1987).

    Āqā Buzurg al-Tihrānī in that section of his massive al-Dharī`a listing Shī`ī commentaries upon the "Light Verse" entitled Tafsīr āyat al-nūr mentions nine or more commentaries including one in Persian by Muhammad Baqir Majlisī (d.1111/1699-1700) and others in Arabic including, for example, one by Muhammad Sādiq al-Ardistānī (d. 1143/1730-31) as well as another by Sayyid Muhammad Bāqir ibn Murtaḍa al-Yazdī al-Hā'irī (d. 1298/1881) (Tehrānī, al-Dharī`a, 4:333-4).

    The early exegete Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d.c.150/ 767?) interpreted the Q. 24:35 in terms of the Prophet Muhammad whom he thought to be the "Lamp" (miṣbāḥ) for, in the words of Anniemarie Schimmel who has summed up his interpretation,

"through him the divine light shines upon the world, and through him humanity is guided to the origin of this light. The formula "neither of the East nor of the West" could then be taken as a reference to Muhammad's comprehensive nature, which is not restricted to one specific people or race and which transcends the boundaries of time and space" (Schimmel, ibid.24)

    Qur'ān 24:35 is one of the most beloved verses of the Qur'ān. It is a key pericope within Sufi mysticism. Many exegetical tracts and mystical treatises were devoted to the explication of its secrets. It is in many respects foundational for Islamic light and related forms of mysticism. Centrally important imamological and other interpretations of it are to be found in the many traditions attributed to the [twelver] Shi`i  Imams; notably the fourth Imam Muhammad al-Bāqir (d. c. 126/743), the sixth Imam Ja`far al-Ṣādiq (d. c. 148/765) as well as the eigth Imam `Alī Riḍā' (203/818).

Early Shī`ī interpretations of the "Light Verse"

 Early traditions interpreting the "Light Verse" attributed to the Twelver Imams are contained in the early Shī`ī Qur`ān Tafsīr of the exegete `Alī ibn Ibrāhīm al-Qummī (d. /939). He opens his comments on the first phrase of the "Light Verse" by recording an imamologically oriented exegetical tradition from the 6th Imam, Ja`far al-Muhammadādiq (d. 145/765). This Imam is reported to have identified the "Niche" (mishkat) with Fāṭima (-11/605-XX/632-3),  the illustrious daughter of the Prophet Muhammad . The phrase "wherein is a lamp (miṣbāḥ), the lamp (miṣbāḥ)" (24:35a) refers to her two sons, the second and third Im āms, al-asan ibn `Alī (c. 3/624-5-c.49/669-70) and al-Ḥusayn ibn `Alī (4/626-61/680) -- sons of Fāṭima and `Alī the first Imam. The phrase "in a glass (fī zujāja), the glass (al-zujāja) as it were a glittering star (kawkab al-durrī)" is again a reference to Fāṭima who is a "glittering star amongst the female citizens of the earth" (kawkab al-durrī bayn nisā' ahl al-arḍ). "Kindled from a Blessed Tree" (shajarah mubārakah) indicates her relationship with or descent from Abraham. When it is said to be "neither of the East nor of the West" the implication is that Fāṭima is neither a Jew nor a Christian. It is "the knowledge" (al-`ilm) which well nigh gushes forth from her that is indicated in the phrase "whose oil (zayt) well nigh would shine, even if no fire (nār) touched it". That from her (womb) "Imam would follow Imam" is indicated in the words "even if no fire (nār) touched it Light upon Light (nūr a`lā nūr)" (al-Qummī, Tafsīr, II:78-79). Further imamological interpretations are registered by al-Qummī though  full details cannot be gone into here.

    In his The Qur'ān and its Exegesis Gatje (1976:245) translates Qummī's recording of a tradition of the sixth Imam related the interpretation of his father Muhammad al-Bāqir,

"God is the light of the heavens and the earth: Al-Baqir says that God begins with his own light. His light, that is, his guidance in the hearts of the believers, is to be likened to a niche wherein is a lamp: The niche is the inside of the body of the believer, the light glass (qindīl) is his heart, and the lamp is the light that God has placed therein. Kindled (with oil) from a blessed tree, al-Baqir says: The tree is the believer. An olive (tree) that is neither of the east nor of the west, al-Baqir says: (What is meant is an olive tree that stands) on the ridge of a mountain. `Neither of the east' means that the tree has no sunrise side, and `nor of the west' means that it has no sunset side. When the sun rises, it rises over the tree, and when it sets, it sets over it. Whose oil wellnigh would shine: (The tree is a believer) in which the light that God has placed in his heart wellnigh shines even though he had not spoken. Light upon light: command upon command and precept upon precept (sunna). God guides to His light whom He will, al-Baqir says: God guides whom he will to himself according to his command and precept. And God coins similes for men, al-Baqir says: This is a simile that God has coined for the believer. The believer walks in five kinds of light: His entrance (into the world) is a light, his exit is a light, his knowledge is a light, his word (kalam) is a light, and his entrance into paradise on the day of resurrection is a light.... (Gatje, 1976:245; Kāshānī, Tafsīr Sāfī, XXXX + text in al-Qummī, Tafsīr  II:79).

    The philosophically and mystically minded Sufi-influenced Shī`ī exegete Muhammad ibn Murtaḍā al-Kāshānī (= Mullā Muḥsin Fayḍ al-Kashānī (c. 1006/1597-8 -> 1090/1679-80) records some interesting imamologically oriented interpretations of the "Light Verse" in his important al- Safī fī tafsīr kalām Allāh al-wāfī ("The Pure in the interpretation of the Qur'ān"). He registers various interpretations of the Twelver Imams including those the 6th Imam, Ja`far al-Sādiq (d. 145/765) and the eighth Imam `Alī al-Riḍā' (d. 202/818) as recorded in the Tawḥīd of Abū Ja`far Muhammad Ibn Bābūya (d. c. 991 CE).

    After mentioning various interpretations of Imam Riḍā he records an interpretation attributed to Ja`far al-Sadiq in which it is held that the "Light" (al-nūr) indicates (the Prophet) Muhammad. While the "Niche" (mishkat) is his "bosom", "heart" or "breast" (ṣadr Muhammad) the "Lamp" (miṣbāḥ) is indicative of that which is the repository of his knowledge (fihi nūr al-`ilm) which is the power of "prophet--hood". That the miṣbāḥ ("Lamp")  is in a "glass" (fī zujāja) is indicative of the transmission of the  "knowledge" (`ilm) of the Prophet of God (rasul Allāh) from his "breast" unto the "heart" of `Alī (ṣadr ilā qalb `Alī). Whenīit is said that "..the glass [al-zujāja] as it were a glittering star [kawkab al-durrī] ) kindled from a Blessed Tree (shajarat mubāraka), an olive (zaytūna[t]) that is neither of the East nor of the West.." the interpretation is "the Commander of the Faithful, `Alī ibn Abī  Ṭālib [= "Tree"] who was neither a Jew ["of the East"] nor a Christian ["of the West"]." The words "whose oil (zayt) well nigh would shine, even if no fire (nār) touched it" signifies that "knowledge" would virtually be transmitted from the "mouth of the Learned One" (fam al-`ālam) -- of the Imam of the family of Muhammad -- before it had it had even been articulated. "Light upon Light" (nūr a`lā nūr) indicates "Imam reporting Imam" (al-Imam fīāthr Imam) (Kashānī, Tafsīr al-āfī, II:434-5; cf. Gatje, 1976:244-5). 3

        Fayḍ al-Kashānī also records a tradition contained in the early Shī`ī ḥadīth collection Usūl min al-Kāfī  of Kulaynī  from the 5th Imam Muhammad al-Bāqir:

"Regarding the meaning of the simile, there are further accounts. Thus, it is said in the Kāfī (of al-Tabarsī) from (the Imam) al-Bāqir in a Tradition, (God's words God is the light of the heavens and the earth) mean: I am the (rightly guiding) director [al-hādī] of the heavens and the earth. The knowledge [al-`ilm] that I have given, namely, my light [nūrī] through which the guidance results, is to be likened to a niche [mishkat] wherein is a lamp [mibā] : The niche [mishkat] is the heart [qalb] of Muhammad, and the lamp is his light (al-mibāh nūrihi], wherein lies knowledge [al-`ilm]. God's words: The lamp in a glass mean: I want to lay hold of you and what is with you, thus setting forth the executor (waī) 7 (of your mission) (that is, `Alī), like the lamp stands in the glass [al-miṣbāḥ fi'l-zajāja]. As it were a glittering star: Then will I give to men news of the excellence of the executor [faḍl al-waṣī]. Kindled (with oil) from a blessed tree: The root of the blessed tree is Abraham. This is mentioned in God's words: `The mercy of God and His blessings be upon you, O people of the House! Surely he (that is, Abraham) [245] is worthy of praise and glory' (Sure 11:73/76),8 as well as: `God chose Adam and Noah and the House of Abraham and the House of `Imrān above all beings (al-`ālamūn), the descendants of (the patriarchs all being of the same race and thus interrelated with) one another. God hears and knows' (Sure 3:33f./30). That is neither of the east nor of the west means: You are neither Jews, so that you would perform the prayer facing towards the west, nor Christians, so that you would face towards the east.l0 Rather, you follow the creed of Abraham, of whom God has said: `No, in truth Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a Hanīf who was surrendered to God (hanīfan musliman). 11 Certainly he was never one of the idolaters' (Sure 3 :67/60). God's words whose oil wellnigh would shine mean: Your children who will be begotten of you are like oil which is pressed from olives. They wellnigh speak already in prophecy, even though an angel has not yet come down to them." (Kāshānī, Tafsīr Sāfī II:435-6; trans. Gatje. 1976:244-5).

Some Sufi interpretations of the "Light Verse".

        The Iraqi Sufi exegete Muhammad Sahl ibn `Abdullāh al-Tustarī (d. Basra 283/986; via his pupil Muhammad ibn Salim, d 297/909) spoke about a pre-existent, eternally transparent column [`amūd] of divine [Muhammadan] light like "crystal glass" (zujāj). Like many later mystics and exegetes he was greatly influenced by the mystical implications of the "Light Verse".

"When God willed to create Muhammad, He made appear a light from His light (aẓhara min nūrihi nār an). When it reached the veil of the Majesty (ḥijāb al-`azamah) it bowed in prostration before God. God created from its prostration (sajdah) a mighty column (`amūd) like crystal glass (zujaj) of light that is outwardly (ẓāhir) and inwardly (baīṭn) translucent".3 (Bowering, 1980:149 translit. altered).

Michael Sells writes,

"Tustarī's views on the "light of Muhammad" are of particular interest for their lyrical beauty and the sweep of the mystical conception. Although we might expect such "light mysticism " to emerge from a commentary on the famous "light verse" of the Qur'an, and though that verse is clearly behind much of Tustarī's discussion, the articulation of his light mysticism occurs in the context of other Qur'anic citations, especially the commentary on the "vision " episodes (53:1-18). Yet it is the light verse that is the unspoken foundation of this majestic commentary, as it was to become the matrix of the long tradition of light mysticism within Islam.." (Sells [ed], 1996 [EIM]:91)

Tafsīr al-Qur'ān al-`azīm

(Cairo: Muṣafā Bābī al-Halabī, nd. p. 67)

p. 68f "God is the Light of the heavens and the earth" indicates the Ornamentor-Illuminator [Ornamentation] (muzayya/in) of the heavens and the earth through His Lights (bi'l-anwār). "The likeness of His Light" = "The likeness of the Light of Muhammad -pbuh. Hasan al-Baṣrī said, "Methinks that indicates the heart of the believer (qalb al-mu'mīn) and the Radiance of the Divine Unity (ḍiyā' al-tawḥīd) for hearts of the Prophets (qalūb al-anbyā') --pbuh -- are lights which are depictive [descriptive] of the likeness of these [divine] Lights." And he [also] said, "The Light is the likeness of the Light of the Qur'ān. "A lamp (miṣbāḥ)" is the lamp (miṣbāḥ) of His Lantern of Gnosis (sirājah al-ma`rifa?)..." 

Qaḍī `Iyād b. Mūsā (d. 544/1149)

"An independent source, the Kitab al-Shifā' of the Qaḍī `Iyād b. Mūsā (d. 544/1149), has preserved a fragmentary reference that attests to the intrinsical unity between Tustarī's conception of nūr Muhammad and his notion of qalb Muhammad. Furthermore, this fragment demonstrates that both themes, in their original setting, derive from the context of Tustarī's commentary on the light verse of the Qur`ān (24,35). The light nature of Muhammad (nūr Muhammad), constituted as the luminous reflection of divine light in pre-existence permeates the total, living reality of Muhammad (qalb Muhammad), transforming its physical and spiritual nature into a receptacle of the divine irridescence of light. According to `Iyād b. Mūsā, Tustarī interprets the vocabulary of the light verse in the following manner:

"The likeness of his light (mathalu nūrihi) (refers to) the likeness of the light of Muhammad (nūr Muhammad), since it is deposited (mustauda'an) in the loins (alāb) like (in) a niche (mishkat), the attribute (ṣifah) of which is . . . By the lamp (miṣbāḥ)  He meant his heart (qalb) and by the glass (zujajah) his breast (adr). It is as if it were a glittering star (kaukab durrīy) because of the faith (iman) and wisdom (ḥikmah) that is included in it. It is kindled from a blessed tree (shajarah mubārakah), that is to say from the light of Abraham (nūr Ibrahim). Its oil (zait) wellnigh would shine, that is to say the prophethood of Muhammad (nubuwwah Muhammad) wellnigh would elucidate mankind prior to his (actual utterance of) speech (kalam) like this oil." 31 = 4 (Bowering, 1980:157).

Manṣūr al-Hallāj (d. 922)

Sahl's high-soaring speculations were elaborated more poetically by his disciple al-Hallaj (d. 922), who devoted the first chapter of his Kitāb al-Ṭāwasīn to Muhammad, calling it Ṭāsīn al-sirāj (The Ṭāsīn of the Lamp, alluding to the Arabic letters  ṭā and sin found at the head of surah 27):

He was a lamp from the light of the invisible . . . a moon radiating among the moons, whole mansion is in the sphere of mysteries .... The lights of prophethood -- from his light did they spring forth, and their lights appeared from his light, and there is no light among the lights more luminous and more visible and previous to preexistence than the light of this noble one.

As preceding preexistence, Muhammad is seen as absolutely eternal, mentioned "before the Before and after the After" (Schimmel, ERel. 11:24).

Abū  Ḥamīd al-Ghazālī

Such was the case with Abū Hamīd al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) author of the famous Mishkat al-anwār ("The Niche for Lights"). Not only is the "Light Verse" an important relative to al-Ghazzalī's Mishkat al-anwār ("The Niche of Lights") but it is the centre of his brief commentary thereon (see Hasan `āiā, 1983:84-88).

"God (Allāh) is the Light (al-nūr) of the heavens and the earth" = "All of the people of heavens and of the earth" ; ".. the heavens and the earth" indicates the selves [souls] of the two"; nay rather, all possibilities relative to existent beings (kull mumkin min al-makināt al-mawjudāt)..."

 Shihab al-Dīn Yayā Suhrawardī (d. /1191)

The Shaykh al-Ishrāq ("Master of Illumination) developed a Light Mysticism in which God was regarded as the (nūr al-anwār) "Light of Lights". Al-Suhrawardī moved from the traditional peripatetic mode of discourse to an altogether different register.13 The key to Suhrawardian theology is that it deals not simply with a symbolism of light but an ontology of light. 14 As we have already noted, ishrāq, thought saw existence itself as light.15 Al-Suhrawardī's whole thought or vision may be described as driven by an internal dynamism (contrasting strongly with more static typologies like that of the twelfth century mystic `Ayn al-Qudat Hamadhānī, born in AD 1098 and executed in AD 1131/2) according to which the soul moved inevitably towards the Orient of Lights. 16 The starting point, then, in any study of such thought must logically be God Himself, since He is the origin and fount of all existence and light.  God is `The Light of Lights' (Nur al-Anwar) 17 and, indeed, bears a host of other titles as well, all rooted ontologically rather than symbolically in light: He is:

["] the Circumambient Light, the Self-subsistent Light, the Sacred Light, the Greatest Highest Light; and He is the [257->] Almighty Light and the Utterly Self-sufficient since there is nothing else behind him. (Al-Nūr al-Muī wa'l-Nūr al-Qayyūm wa 'l-Nūr al-Muqaddas wa 'l-Nūr al-A'am al-A`lā wa Huwa al-Nūr al-Qahhār wa Huwa al-Ghānī, al-Mulāq idh laysa ward'hu shay'ākhar). 18.

Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn al-`Arabī (d. 683/1240)

The Great Shaykh was a major Islamic architect of theosophical Light mysticism (see Schimmel, 197?: xx). In the Tafsīr  attributed to him (but which most likely stemming from his disciple), the Ibn al-`Arabī-Kashānī commentary on Q. 24:35 = vol II:139-141 see Appendix XXX).

"The Light" (al-nūr) is that by virtue of which He [God] was made manifest in His Essence (bi-dhātihi); [Existing] things [realities] were manifested in [through] Him. It is absolutely a Name among the Names of God.." (II:139). .. When [things found existence through His existence and were manifested through His Manifestation it was [through] the "Light of the Heavens and of the earth"; that is to say, the manifestation of the heavens of the spirits (samāwāt al-arwāḥ) and the earth of the bodies (arḍ al-ajsād). Such is absolute existence (al-wujūd al-muṭlaq). That which is found is by virtue of Him [It]; whatsover that is of existing things (min al-mawjūdāt) including [and] the Brilliance (al-adhā'at?).

"The likeness of His Light" (mithal nūrihi) is an Attribute of His Existence (ifat wujūdihi). Its manifestation [theophany] in the worlds is by virtue of its manifestation [theophany] in Him (uhūrihi fī al-`ālamīn bi-uhūrihā bihi).

"The light like [mathal nūrihi] the light of a lamp in a niche (ka-mishkat)". This is an allusion unto the body (ishāra ilā al-jasad) for His darkness is in His Self (li-ulmatihi fī nafsihi) and it is illumined through [with] the Light of the Spirit (bi-nūr al-rū) which is alluded to by the Lamp (bi'l-misbā)....

"The glass" (al-zujājah) alludeth unto the heart which is illuminated through the Spirit (al-qalb al-mutanawwir bi'l-rū)...

"The Tree (al-shajarah) is ignited thereby, this "Glass" (zujajah) is the sanctified Spirit (al-nafs al-qudsiyya).