Shedding some light

As much as I have sworn off discussing Islam, and religion more generally, in public, I am reminded daily of just how much thoughtful and open dialogue on the place of religion in society needs to take place. The following is an excerpt (pp. 55–57) from my book Reading the Qur’an in English (2009).

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God is the light of the heavens and earth. (24:35)

This brief statement begins one of the best-known and most evocative verses in the Qur’an. Unlike the passages we have examined so far, which employ relatively straightforward language to convey fundamental aspects of Islamic beliefs and practices, the “Light verse” makes use of imagery and metaphor to provide insight into the more mystical and spiritual dimensions of Islam.

At the same time, through this use of light as a means of expressing God’s glory, the Qur’an is demonstrating its coherence and consistency with the scripture of the Jews and Christians.

In the Torah, God’s first communication with Moses is through a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). At a later point, after Moses has spent forty days on the mountain receiving the Law form God, his face radiates ( Exodus 34:29), such that the people are afraid to approach him.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is often described in terms of light, as in 1:3–4, where we read: “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Elsewhere (John 9:5), Jesus says to his disciples: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

In all three traditions, light and the process of illumination are used as a means to convey the dispelling of ignorance and the refreshment of the human spirit that can only come about as a result of being exposed, and being open to, the radiance of God (Murata and Chittick 1994: 87–89).

Similarly, in all three religions, but especially in Islam, as many passages from the Qur’an illustrate (e.g., 13:16, 33:43, 133:1), God’s relationship to humanity and the rest of the created order is often described in terms of a contrast between light and dark. To the extent that people and all aspects of creation reflect the light of God, they in a sense come to resemble God or represent God — they are enlightened, and like God, they can share that light with others who are open to it (Mulla Sadra 2004). By contrast, darkness represents difference (otherness) and incomparability to God.

In reading the “Light verse,” it is evident that, even in translation, the words of the Qur’an can be beautiful and elegant, stirring in the reader a genuine sense of wonder and awe at what has been preserved for us in the scripture. It is far too easy, when so much effort is being expended on dissecting and analyzing the text, to lose sight of the fact that the Qur’an is first and foremost a divine guidebook.

Whether Muslim or not, it is my conviction that, to the extent that the reader approaches the text from this perspective, the greater the level of understanding he or she will gain from their efforts.

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For those who may never have had, or taken, the opportunity to read an English version of the Qur’an, here is the complete “Light verse,” from the translation of Abdel Haleem, published by Oxford (2005).

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fuelled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it — light upon light — God guides whoever He will to his Light; God draws such comparisons for people; God has full knowledge of everything… (24:35)

Thank you for reading this. Please share it with others. I look forward to your comments.

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