“Light upon Light”
Nûr ‘alâ Nûr
اللَّهُ نُورُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ
“Allâh is the (Extensive) Light of the heavens and the earth” (24:35)
Nûr نُور (Light) is Allâh’s Attribute of incomparability (24:35; 39:69) generated from His essence. The word for ordinary light, like the light of the sun is dziâ. Were it not for Allâh’s Light (Nûr نُور), no body and no form would become manifest. It pierces through every object in the cosmos, living or non-living. There is no shadow behind the object when this Light falls on it. It envelops all objects and all other lights in the entire cosmos, and nothing remains deprived of His Light. Every light—whether manifest or hidden, whether visible on the intellectual heights or buried deep in the seas of ignorance, whether in illuminated souls or in spiritual bodies, whether in the spoken words or in thoughts—is the bounty of this Grace. This Light is the very source of all other lights. The perception of beauty comes only when a light falls on an object. Ibn al-‘Arabî, referring to Qur’ânic verse 41:11 (“Again, He directed Himself towards the space. Behold! It was (like) a mass of dust”), said, “Allâh manifested Himself in Theophany through His Light to that dust, which contained the entire cosmos in potentiality and readiness. Each potential object inside the dust received from His Light in accordance with its preparedness (- isti’dâd). By bringing the two together, Allâh blended the One into the other.” Hâfiz, the great mystic from Shirâz in Iran, put it in these beautiful words: “Beloved Lord, let us know what lights said when they first discovered Your Light.” Allâh describes His relationship to His worshipping servant with a lovely metaphor:
اللَّهُ نُورُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۚ مَثَلُ نُورِهِ كَمِشْكَاةٍ فِيهَا مِصْبَاحٌ ۖ الْمِصْبَاحُ فِي زُجَاجَةٍ ۖ الزُّجَاجَةُ كَأَنَّهَا كَوْكَبٌ دُرِّيٌّ يُوقَدُ مِن شَجَرَةٍ مُّبَارَكَةٍ زَيْتُونَةٍ لَّا شَرْقِيَّةٍ وَلَا غَرْبِيَّةٍ يَكَادُ زَيْتُهَا يُضِيءُ وَلَوْ لَمْ تَمْسَسْهُ نَارٌ ۚ نُّورٌ عَلَىٰ نُورٍ ۗ يَهْدِي اللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ ۗ
“Allâh is the Extensive Light of the heavens and the earth. His light can be compared to a (lustrous) pillar on which is a lamp. The lamp is inside a crystal globe. The globe of glass is as if it were a glittering star. It (the lamp) is lit by (the oil of) a blessed olive tree, which belongs neither to the east nor to the west (rather welds the whole world in its fold). Its oil is likely to glow forth of itself even if no fire touches it. This (lamp) is a combination of many lights over and over. Allâh guides towards His light whoever desires (to be enlightened). And Allâh sets forth excellent parables for the people.” (24:35)
Here, Allâh compares His Light نُور to a “lustrous pillar” مِشْكَاةٍ , on which rests a “lamp” مِصْبَاحٌ. Metaphorically, the “lamp” is the servant of Allâh raised in dignity by the “lustrous pillar.” Each servant can be of the following: His Prophets and His friends (auliyâʾ), the Saints appointed by Him (ma‘mûr min Allâh), those with whom He spoke (muhaddathîn), His appointed reformers, who were tasked to remove the corruption that had crept into His Faith (mujuddadîn), and many others who came close to Him and whom He favoured with His sweet Converse. The “lamp” is inside a crystal globe الْمِصْبَاحُ فِي زُجَاجَةٍ, which protects the lamp from being extinguished. Divine Providence protects the servant of Allâh in the same way that a crystal globe protects a weak flame from a puff of wind. In this case, that wind refers to misguiding sermons and words of the faithless. Then He likens the crystal globe to a glittering star, الزُّجَاجَةُ كَأَنَّهَا كَوْكَبٌ. Allâh compares each of His beloved special servants to a star, and just as the stars are numberless, so are His servants.
The “lustrous pillar” can also refer to the chests of the pious, the “globe of glass” to their heart, which is a glittering star. The “olive tree” is the Faith, which welds the whole world within its fold, its Grace and blessing not being confined to any one place or age or direction, but rather being everlasting. The “blessed tree” belongs “neither to the east nor to the west”—that is, it is not limited to just one people or to just one nation.
The great Sûfî saint ‘Abdul Qâdir Jilânî says that the “blessed olive tree” is the Tree of Unity (Ahadîyyat), that it is neither of the east nor of the west—in other words, that it has neither a beginning nor an end, and, unlike the sun, this Source of the Light has no rising or setting. It was always there and will remain forever. The “oil of a blessed olive tree,” which fuels the “lamp” of Revelation, suffers neither from excess nor from deficiency. It has been made in the best mold of the fine, bright, and high moral qualities, nourished by the clear fountain of perfect human nature and reason. The Divine Light in the form of Revelation always descends in accordance with the requirement of time and the capacities (- isti’dâd) and preparedness of the person to whom it is vouchsafed. This person is already prepared to receive the Light; it is like “oil that is likely to glow forth of itself even if no fire touches it”—that is, it needs no ignition, because this oil is radiating by itself from the Divine Light.
Light upon light, “over and over” (Nûr ‘alâ Nûr, نُّورٌ عَلَىٰ نُورٍ) refers to Divine Light when it falls on the Gnostic and the Prophets (see 5:15). It also refers to other lights on which the Divine Light falls. One is the light of knowledge (iyân) when it shines on the path of wisdom, and the other is the light of guidance (hadâya), which shines upon the path that leads to His proximity.
Imagine asking for directions in the darkness of the night. One person may reply, “I do not know.” Another offers inexact directions, and yet another may misguide you. How can you be sure to reach your destination unless someone comes with a light and accompanies you there? A servant of Allâh has a yearning for his Lord to reach Him. In his daily formal Prayers, five times a day, he is asking for His Light of guidance [hadâya]: “Lead us [ihdinâإهدنا ] on the exact right path till we reach the goal!” (1:6) he repeats several times a day. When the Creator of the worlds (Rabb al-‘Âlamînربٌ العالمين ), out of His special Mercy (Rahîmîyyat), shows His servant the right path, He does it by illuminating that path with His Light. This is hadâya, the Light of guidance. The Guide then remains close to him and accompanies him.
The righteous human hearts of Prophets, Gnostics, or His servants (‘Âbidعابد ) perceive Allâh’s Light when they reach the exalted level of true servanthood (‘abûdiyyatعبوديت ). Allâh then manifests Himself through His Light to such people (20:10); they themselves become illuminated, and then they carry with them the Divine Light. It is now Light upon light (Nûr ‘alâ Nûr نُّورٌ عَلَىٰ نُورٍ; 24:35). Their light is not perceived by the “people of the veil”—that is, by people whose knowledge is founded solely on reading books, intellect, and reasoning without Faith. Just as light causes you to see with your own eyes, and as the witnessing by one’s eyes is the “testimony of an eyewitness,” constituting absolute certainty, so the servant of Allâh who receives His Light is an “eyewitness” (shâhidشاهد ; see 39:69). The light by which he perceives His Lord is the “Light of Certainty”. When the “Light of Divine Knowledge” and the Light of Wisdom are combined, they illuminate the path of guidance that leads to Allâh’s proximity. The two combined are then “Nûr ‘alâ Nûr نُّورٌ عَلَىٰ نُورٍ , Light upon Light.” This combined Light makes visible to Allâh’s servant the unseen angelic realms in the heavens and the earth.
Neither the moon nor the earth has its own light. The sun shines upon the moon, making it visible to you. When you see the light of the moon, it is as if you had seen the sun (91:1–2). The Prophets of Allâh and His Saints are like moons, who receive their light from the Real Sun and scatter it on the earth for the benefit of humankind (91:1–2). This is Nûr ‘alâ Nûr, Light upon Light “over and over.” Then Allâh says (24:35): “Allâh guides towards His light whoever desires (to be enlightened),” يَهْدِي اللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَن يَشَاءُ. Thus, His Light is the source of guidance for all people who desire that they be guided with Divine Light; it is not reserved only for the Prophets or His special servants. No eyesight can see this Light (6:103). It can be perceived only through Faith (imân). Confession alone is not sufficient. When you learn how to kindle this Light with Faith, it is then lit for you.
فِي بُيُوتٍ أَذِنَ اللَّهُ أَن تُرْفَعَ وَيُذْكَرَ فِيهَا اسْمُهُ يُسَبِّحُ لَهُ فِيهَا بِالْغُدُوِّ وَالْآصَالِ رِجَالٌ لَّا تُلْهِيهِمْ تِجَارَةٌ وَلَا بَيْعٌ عَن ذِكْرِ اللَّهِ وَإِقَامِ الصَّلَاةِ وَإِيتَاءِ الزَّكَاةِ ۙ يَخَافُونَ يَوْمًا تَتَقَلَّبُ فِيهِ الْقُلُوبُ وَالْأَبْصَارُ
“(This Light is lit) in houses (of the servants), which Allâh has ordained to be exalted and His name be commemorated in them. Therein (are such as) glorify Him in the mornings and the evenings, Men whom neither trade nor sale distracts from exalting (the name of) Allâh and from the observance of Prayer and from presenting Zakât [purifying dues] regularly. They dread the day when the hearts and the eyes will be in a state of agitation and anguish.” (24:36–37)