The Parable of Light, A Tafseer by a NASA Scientist

The Parable of Light – A Tafseer by a NASA Scientist

Submitted by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim

In the Name of Allah, the Source of Grace, Disposer of Mercy

اللَّهُ نُورُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ مَثَلُ نُورِهِ كَمِشْكَاةٍ فِيهَا مِصْبَاحٌ الْمِصْبَاحُ فِي زُجَاجَةٍ الزُّجَاجَةُ كَأَنَّهَا كَوْكَبٌ دُرِّيٌّ يُوقَدُ مِنْ شَجَرَةٍ مُبَارَكَةٍ زَيْتُونِةٍ لاَ شَرْقِيَّةٍ وَلاَ غَرْبِيَّةٍ يَكَادُ زَيْتُهَا يُضِيءُ وَلَوْ لَمْ تَمْسَسْهُ نَارٌ نُورٌ عَلَى نُورٍ يَهْدِي اللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَنْ يَشَاءُ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ وَاللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ  :
(Surah al Noor, Ayah 35)

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The similitude of His Light is as if there is a niche,
In it there is a lamp,
The lamp is in a glass,
The glass as if it is a shining star,
Illuminated from a blessed olive tree—
Not of the East and not of the West—
The oil whereof is luminescent,
Even if it is not touched by fire;
Light upon Light,
Allah does guide to His Light whom He will,
And He brings forth parables for humankind;

Lo! Allah is the Knower of all things.

Summarily, Surah Al Noor presents a succinct narration of the spiritual history of humankind. Al Nur is one of the 99 exalted Asma ul Husna, the Most Beautiful Names of Allah. Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. His is the Light of existence. Light emanates from Him and returns to Him.

The first emanation from His Light was the Prophetic Light, the Light of Muhammed. Allah, the Most Gracious, taught the Qur’an to the Light of Muhammed “even while Adam was between clay and water”. The Light of Muhammed was revealed, time and again, through the prophets, who graced the splendorous planet earth, located in a protected niche in the solar system in the physical universe.

The Light of Muhammed illuminates the earth and makes it shine like a distant star. Each prophet brought more light with him and each was a personification of the light revealed through him. Prophet Muhammed was the embodiment and personification of the light of all prophets. He is Light upon Light, the revelation of the Light of Muhammed and the completion of Allah’s favors upon humankind.

The houses where the Name of Allah is remembered and extolled day and night are illuminated by the Light of Muhammed and are blessed by Divine Grace. Men and women who remember Him are guided by the Light on the path to Divine Presence and rewarded with spiritual treasures without limit.

The Context

Surah al Noor belongs to the Madinite period. While the Meccan period sowed the seeds of Tawhid, the Madinite period saw its growth into a beautiful tree and its fruition. The Surah starts with guidance on relationships between men and women, builds it up into a crescendo with the Parable of Light, and uses the occasion to reinforce faith with Signs from nature.

The Approach

Like the crown jewel on a diamond studded canvas, the Ayah on the Parable of Light, adorns Surah al Noor. It reflects the light of many shades and changes its brilliance with the angle of incidence. Its subtlety has elicited tafseers (commentaries) from some of the most renowned Islamic scholars. The commentary, Mishkat ul Anwar, by Imam al Gazzali, written in the early twelfth century, is well known.

It is possible to approach this sublime Ayah from many perspectives, each valid within its own context. In this brief Tafseer, as a space scientist, I will use the physical perspective of a scientist and integrate it with a spiritual approach from tasawwuf.

For a rational mind, trained to look for logic and context, the first question that appears after reading Surah al Noor is this: What is the Divine wisdom behind the appearance of this transcendent Parable in the midst of specific and worldly guidance on relationships between men and women?

The answer is to be sought in the Divine origin of all knowledge. Allahu Haq. Allah is the Truth. The Qur’an, as the Divine Word, is the embodiment of that Truth. Every word of the Qur’an has significance both of context and meaning. Al Haq is a Name of Allah. It is one of the 99 Most Beautiful Divine Names revealed in the Qur’an.

The Qur’an must be read as an integrated whole; it is closely-knit web of self-luminescent lightning strands. Oftentimes, an Ayah in a specific Surah elicits recollection of another Ayah from a different Surah.

So it is with the Parable of Light which may also be called the Parable of the Niche, the Lamp and the Light. Surah al Nur starts with guidance on the honor of women. This guidance comes from Allah as He is the Source through whom the human seeks his rights and responsibilities:          تَتَسَاءَلُونَ بِهِ وَالأَرْحَامَ “Tasa’aloona bihi wal arham” (4:1). This Ayah may be understood as: You seek them (your rights and responsibilities through Him); and (be aware of) the wombs that bore you. An alternate translation is: You seek them (your rights and responsibilities) and Grace, Mercy and Bounty (through Him). The guidance about women, as well as the etiquette of behavior between men and women, is from Allah, as is the Parable of Light, which invites the soul to heights of transcendence. The source of guidance regarding community behavior, as well as the Parable of Light, is identical: It is Tawhid. Hence the Qur’an must not be dissected from perspectives of sociology, science and philosophy.  Each perspective must be understood as a different approach to Tawhid (Unity) that pervades all creation and all relationships. It is this integrative approach I have taken, as a space scientist, in attempting a tafseer on the Parable of Light.

The word Nur appears four times in Ayah 24:35. The first Nur is the Light of existence that emanates from Asma ul Husna (the Most Beautiful Names of Allah). The second time Nur appears in the Ayah, it is the Light of Muhammed. The third time it is the light of the Quran, and the fourth (light upon light) is the integrated culmination of all light revealed since the creation of Adam, which is personified by Prophet Muhammed (peace and blessings be upon him).

The reference to niche is the location of our planet earth in our universe. The glass is a reference to protective layers around our planet. The lamp is the Light of Muhammed which is illuminated by Divine light and reaches out to the farthest corners of the cosmos “like a distant star”. The tree is a reference to the magnificent tree of knowledge (infused into Adam) and zaitun (olive) is at once a simile to its seed and its fruit, whose oil is luminescent “though fire scarce touched it”.

It is an approach that integrates deep insights from tasawwuf with our current understanding of science.

The Perspective

“I was a hidden treasure. I willed that I be known. I created”.  Hadith e Qudsi

According to Ibn al Arabi, Allah created the Light of Muhammed as His mirror so that He may reflect His Beautiful Names (asma al husna) and attributes (sifat) in the mirror. Every object in the universe is a mirror which comes into existence by Divine grace and reflects Divine light in accordance with its own inherent nature (dhat). Man, as the khalifa (representative) on earth, receives Divine Grace (rahma) from the illumination of the Qur’an as well as the Light of Muhammed.  Each messenger was the personification of the light he brought. Muhammed (pbuh) was the compendium of the lights of all the messengers.

These transcendental truths cannot be expressed in mundane language. Attempts to express the infinite majesty of Allah through words is like attempting to capture the sky in the palm of your hand. When the tongue is silent and the pen helpless, the infinite rahma (Grace) of Allah comes to man’s rescue; it reveals itself through parables.

What distinguishes this brief tafseer from earlier scholarly works is that it integrates the physical and the spiritual.  The Light of Allah, which is the light of existence, is manifest in physical creation as well as in the human soul. Science, philosophy and tasawwuf each offer rich insights into the Parable of Light. Drawing its support from other Ayahs in the Qur’an, this tafseer attempts to combine all three and offer a unique, integrated perspective that may satiate the Sufi as well as the scientist.

The Vocabulary  

The Qur’an is an ocean of oceans. Each word is a gem that reflect a different color from a different angle. The same word is used to communicate different meanings. The specific meaning depends on the context. The Qur’an uses the word “light” to convey light from Allah, light of Muhammed (pbuh), light as knowledge, light as insight, light as wisdom, light as sight and light as a physical phenomenon.

Allah is al Nur (Light)

اللَّهُ نُورُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ God is the Light of the heavens and the earth (The Qur’an, 24:34)

The well-known Hadees e Qudsi states: “I was a hidden treasure. I willed that I be known. Therefore, I created.”  Allah is known by His Names, the Asama ul Husna (the most beautiful Names) of which 99 are mentioned in the Qur’an. Al Nur is one of the 99 Names.

The word “Ism” (name) in Arabic connotes a noun (al ism), an adjective (al sifat) or an adverb. As the sifat (attributes) of Allah are numerous, the sages have said that Allah’s Names are numerous. His essence (dhat) is unknown and unknowable; no vision can grasp it; it is known only to Himself.

The Qur’an as Light

قَدْ جَاءَكُمْ مِنْ اللَّهِ نُورٌ وَكِتَابٌ مُبِينٌ “Behold! There has come to you a Light from Allah and a conspicuous Book” (The Qur’an, 5:17).

The Qur’an, as the Light from Allah, illuminates the consciousness of humankind and makes things manifest. It clarifies his condition, provides him guidance and the criterion for right and wrong. Without this Light, humankind would be lost, stumbling in circles of ignorance and disbelief.

The Qur’an, teaches the Names of Allah.  To fulfill His Divine Writ that He be known, Allah taught the Qur’an: الرَّحْمَنُ  عَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ “The Most Gracious, taught the Qur’an…”. (The Qur’an, 55:1-2).  Since Adam was not yet conceived, who did Al Rahman teach the Qur’an to? The answer is clear: He taught it to the Light of Muhammed. Hence the sahih hadith of the Prophet (sas): “I was a Prophet when Adam was still between clay and water”. The Light of Muhammed is the light of knowledge. It emanated from the Light of Allah even before Adam was created, indeed, before anything else was created.

Light as Divine Guidance

اللَّهُ وَلِيُّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا يُخْرِجُهُمْ مِنْ الظُّلُمَاتِ إِلَى النُّورِ Allah is the protector of those who have the conviction of faith; He leads them from darkness to light. (The Qur’an, 2:257)

It follows from the aforesaid discussion that the Qur’an is the Light that guides humankind towards the right way. It answers the questions: why am I here? (“I created not the human and the jinn except to serve Me” The Qur’an, 51:56). It explains the purpose of a community (“You are the most noble spiritual community, enjoining what is good, forbidding what is evil and believing in Allah, The Qur’an, 3:110). It highlights what Allah loves (Allah loves those who are just, The Qur’an, 60:8) and what Allah does not love (Allah does not love those who are extreme, The Qur’an, 5:90). It provides guidance on how to build a strong family, a strong community and a thriving civilization. Most importantly, it emphasizes individual responsibility before Allah and the certainty of ultimate judgment.

The Light of Muhammed

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ قَدْ جَاءَكُمْ بُرْهَانٌ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ وَأَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكُمْ نُورًا مُبِين. “O humankind!
Verily, there has come to you an illuminated Proof from your Rabb
And We have sent down to you a manifest Light.” (The Qur’an, 4:174)

To make His Light known, Allah, (al Rahman), sent a ray of light from His Light as the Light of Muhammed (Noor e Muhammadi). Whereas the Noor of Allah is the light of existence, the Light of Muhammed is awareness and knowledge of the Light of Allah.

There is no Light but Allah (La ilaha il Allah). Noor e Muhammadi is His rahma (mercy) and a reflection of His Light. Hence, the Ayat: “We have sent you not (O Muhammed) except as mercy to all the universes” (The Qur’an, 21:107).

The Light of Muhammed was infused into Adam and he acquired the capacity to know the Names.  وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا “And I taught Adam the Names, all of them” (The Qur’an, 2: 31). A knowledge of the Names of Allah was inherent in the DNA of Adam and hence of his children. This knowledge burst forth at the command of Allah through the Prophets time and again. Hence, the earlier revelations, the Torah and the Injil are also referred to as Light.

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَا التَّوْرَاةَ فِيهَا هُدًى وَنُورٌ “Lo! We sent down the Torah in which was Guidance and the Light”. (The Qur’an, 5:47)

وَآتَيْنَاهُ الإِنجِيلَ فِيهِ هُدًى وَنُورٌ “And We sent down the Gospel in which was Guidance and the Light”, (The Qur’an, 5:49)

فَإِنْ كَذَّبُوكَ فَقَدْ كُذِّبَ رُسُلٌ مِنْ قَبْلِكَ جَاءُوا بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ وَالزُّبُرِ وَالْكِتَابِ الْمُنِيرِ “So, if they reject you, then they did indeed reject the Messengers before you, who came with clear Signs and Ancient Scriptures and the Book reflecting Light”. (The Qur’an, 3:184)

The Light that shone through all the Prophets, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the others, is the same as all revealed books reflect the Light of Allah, Who is Al Haq, the Truth. لاَ نُفَرِّقُ بَيْنَ أَحَدٍ مِنْ رُسُلِهِ “And We make no distinction between any of them” (The Qur’an, 2: 286). The Qur’an is the completion of Allah’s favors upon humankind. It is the Light from the Mother of All Books (ummul kitab) that is preserved in the Tablet in the presence of Allah.

Prophets as Points of Light

جَاءَتْهُمْ رُسُلُهُمْ بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ وَبِالزُّبُرِ وَبِالْكِتَابِ الْمُنِيرِ There came for them Messengers with manifest Signs,
and Scriptures and Books radiating Light. (The Quran, 35:25)

The Qur’an was revealed through Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), the Torah was revealed through Moses (pbuh) and the Injil through Jesus (pbuh). Ahadith confirm that Prophet Muhammed was a personification of the Qur’an. Similarly, Moses was a personification of the Torah and Jesus was a personification of the Injil. Each was a point of Light for his times. The Prophet Muhammed was the Light of Lights, the composite light. With him the favor of Allah upon humankind was completed; he was the seal of the prophets and mercy to all creation.

The Light that shone through the Prophets did not disappear with their passing but continued to reflect through their companions. In the following centuries, men and women of knowledge emerged, serving as lamps for their age.  These were the Awliya (friends of Allah) and the mujahidin (those who strove with their intellect to apply Divine guidance to the affairs of humankind).

Summarily, Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The prophets and those who follow them are reflectors of the Light, and in the process of reflecting the Light, become light themselves. As the Qur’an reveals

وُجُوهٌ يَوْمَئِذٍ مُسْفِرَةٌ “That Day many a face will be reflecting light”  (The Quran, 80:38).

Light as knowledge

هُوَ الَّذِي يُصَلِّي عَلَيْكُمْ وَمَلاَئِكَتُهُ لِيُخْرِجَكُمْ مِنْ الظُّلُمَاتِ إِلَى النُّورِ He it is Who sends (His Grace) upon you,
And upon the angels, so that He can take you from layers of darkness into light. (The Qur’an, 33:43)

Knowledge is the light that dispels the darkness of ignorance. It is a gift from Allah. He gives it to whom He pleases. It cannot be inherited like property, or destroyed in an earthquake. The Light from Allah illuminates the minds and hearts of those whom He favors. No human is denied this privilege.

Knowledge is the light that makes one see. As the Qur’an posits: هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الأَعْمَى وَالْبَصِيرُ Is one who is endowed with vision the equal of one who is blind?

The tree of knowledge has many branches. Allah declares in the Quran:                                            سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنْفُسِهِمْ حَتَّى يَتَبَيَّنَ لَهُمْ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ

Soon I shall show them my Sings on the horizon and within themselves until it is clear to them that it is the Truth. (41:53). A scientist sees the Signs of Allah in nature. A believer sees them in his own heart. People of intellect see the Signs far and near, reflect upon them and gain insights into the wisdom that underlies Allah’s creation.

The human has a propensity to learn and to know because he is surrounded by the Spirit that is infused into him by Allah: فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِنْ رُوحِي  When I have molded him and breathed into him of My Ruh, The Quran (15:29). Adam had that Spirit within him and had the capacity to learn the Names. The angels did not have the same privilege; their knowledge was limited to what they were taught.

Knowledge is light that does not discriminate one person from another. All human beings on earth, irrespective of their race, gender, color, creed or nationality have a capacity to acquire knowledge. It is a Divine gift.

Physical light

وَجَعَلْنا اللَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ آيَتَيْنِ فَمَحَوْنَا آيَةَ اللَّيْلِ وَجَعَلْنَا آيَةَ النَّهَارِ مُبْصِرَةً لِتَبْتَغُوا فَضْلاً مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ وَلِتَعْلَمُوا عَدَدَ السِّنِينَ وَالْحِسَابَ وَكُلَّ شَيْءٍ فَصَّلْنَاهُ تَفْصِيلاً

“And We provided the night and the day as two Signs.
Then, We removed the Sign of the night,
And We made the Sign of the day as the provider of visible light,
So that you search for the bounties of Allah,
And you learn to count the number of years and compute.
Lo! We have explained all Our gifts in detail”. (The Qur’an, 17:12)

 

Physical light is electromagnetic radiation. The ability to receive that light, process it and become a witness to the phenomenon made visible by light is an attribute of the soul. The act of seeing is neither in the light nor in the eyeball; it is in the soul.

The visual bandwidth of the human eye is extremely limited. It lies approximately between 0.375 micrometers and 0.77 micrometers. Shorter waves such as X rays and UV are harmful to the eye. Longer wavelengths such as infrared cannot be seen by the naked eye and require the use of specialized, cooled sensors.

Light sustains plant life and with water, it supports life on earth.

The visible spectrum lights up the vast panorama of Allah’s creation so that the human can see, be a witness to His magnificence and His majesty and cultivate certainty of faith. “I will show them My signs on the horizon and within themselves until it is clear to them that it is the Truth” (42:53)

A Brief Tafseer

Having defined our approach and elaborated on our understanding of the vocabulary, we offer a brief tafseer of this sublime Ayah.

اللَّهُ نُورُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ (Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth).

Al Noor is one of the Asma ul Husna, the Most Beautiful Names of Allah. Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth, meaning, He is the light of existence. Nothing exists but from His Light. Conversely, all that exists is from His Light.

What is existence? We do not know the inner essence of existence (the thing in itself).  We know only that some of the attributes of existence are life, knowledge and power. Existence belongs only to Allah. He alone is the owner of life, knowledge and power. He manifests these attributes as He wills and through what and whom He wills. His will is the command (al amr) of existence.

The cosmos “exists” in His Will ( يَشَاءُ ) independent of space-time, then manifests itself in space-time by His command. The existence in His will is beyond notions of space and time. The existence in space-time is contingent and is subject to annihilation. Were the Light from Allah to be withdrawn but for a moment, all cosmos would cease to be.

The contingent existence of the cosmos is not without purpose. It is created so that through it, Allah may reflect His attributes and show His signs.  The attributes so revealed become Signs for His Name which was otherwise “a hidden treasure”. In other words, the cosmos was created to confirm and reveal the Truth.

In this cosmology, space-time become tools for knowing Him and the cosmos an open book to learn from. Hence, the acquisition of knowledge, physical, emotive and spiritual, is incumbent upon the human who is created “as His mirror” so that in its perfection, it reflects some of His attributes. Such was the case with our Prophet Muhammed who was the embodiment of the Qur’an and was “the Light” sent from Allah as a mercy to all creation.

مَثَلُ نُورِهِ (The parable of His Light)

Allahu Ahad (Allah is One, beyond compare). Allahu Samad (Allah is Self Sufficient). There can be no “mithal” (analogy) to Allah. Therefore, the reference in this Ayah, “Mathalu Noorehi” (the parable of His Light) is not to Allah but to His Noor as manifest through Noor e Muhammadi (the light of Muhammed).

What is Noor e Muhammadi? We do not know its essence; we know only of its attributes. In Sufi cosmology, it is the light of recognition and knowledge, the first emanation from Noor e Ilahi, the Light from Allah. It is the Light from which the heavens and the earth emerged and became known.

Noor e Muhammadi is the mirror through which Allah reveals His Name. “I was a hidden treasure. I willed that I be known. Therefore, I created”. The act of creation referred to in this Hadith is Noor e Muhammdi.

Transcendent truths cannot be expressed in discursive language. An attempt to do so is like carrying water in a sieve. Therefore, the sages who were masters of irfan (inner knowledge) transmit these truths through parables. The method is didactic and explanatory. It must be taken as allegorical.

In the allegory about Noor e Muhammdi, it is said in Sufi circles that Allah created the Pen and commanded it to write. The pen submitted: “What should I write?”.

Write: “la ilaha il Allah”, came the command from Allah. The pen wrote “la ilaha il Allah” for eons. Then, it was tired (it perspired) and paused.

“Write again”, commanded the Divine voice. “What should I write, ya Rabbi?”, asked the Pen. Write “Muhammad Rasool Allah”. The Pen was bewildered. “Ya Rabbi, you are my Creator and Sustainer. I know the name Allah, but who is Muhammed?”. “Were it not for him, I would not have created you”, answered the Divine voice.

This allegory throws further light on the hadith, “I was a hidden treasure. I willed that I be known. Therefore, I created”. The purpose of creation is to reveal the Names. In this narration, the human becomes the focus of creation. Allah created Adam, infused into him the Ruh and made him the khalifa (representative) on earth. The angels protested: قَالُوا أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَنْ يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاءَ “Will you create therein one who will create rancor and cause bloodshed? Allah taught the Names to Adam, who had the capability to learn the Names as he was infused with the ruh and illuminated with Noor e Muhammadi. Then Allah turned to the angels, and asked:                          أَنْبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَؤُلاَء “Tell Me those Names (if you know them)”. The angels were helpless. “We know only what you have taught us”, they replied.  Came the affirmation from Allah:                                            أَلَمْ أَقُلْ لَكُمْ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ غَيْبَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ “Did I not tell you that I do indeed know what is concealed in the heavens and the earth?” The Qur’an (2:33).

The hadith about Allah as the hidden treasure found its fulfillment in the Meraj of Prophet Muhammed, when he ascended to the Throne and stood in Divine presence at a distance of      قَابَ قَوْسَيْنِ أَوْ أَدْنَى “qaba qawsain wa adna” (two bows length or less). The two bows, joined and rotated along two perpendicular axes, form a sphere. The Ayah affirms that Muhammed (pbuh) was like an atom at the center of a sphere receiving Light from Divine presence from every direction. He formed a singularity in cubic space so that the energy he received was infinite, beyond description.

It follows that all descendants of Adam carry with them the light of existence and the light of Muhammad (the light of recognition and knowledge and hence the propensity for knowing the Names of Allah). Man is a knower by Divine writ. All knowledge is already known to human but he forgets and has to rediscover it through toil and struggle. This is what makes us human.

In summary: “Mathalu Noorehi” (the parable of His light) refers to Noor e Muhammedi, the first emanation from the Light of Allah. It was to Noor e Muhammadi that Allah taught the Qur’an even before the heavens and the earth were created and Adam was “between clay and water”. This is the inner meaning of الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ “Arrahmanu ‘Allamal Qur’an” (The Most Gracious taught the Qur’an, Surah Ar Rahman, Ayah 1-2).

كَمِشْكَاةٍ فِيهَا مِصْبَاحٌ الْمِصْبَاحُ فِي زُجَاجَةٍ الزُّجَاجَةُ كَأَنَّهَا كَوْكَبٌ دُرِّيٌّ يُوقَدُ (As if there is a niche and in it a lamp, the lamp enclosed in glass, the glass as were a distant star)

The resplendent planet earth is the abode of humankind and it finds an exalted place in Allah’s plans. The Parable of Light alludes to a niche and a lamp which shines as if it is a distant star. What is the niche and what is the lamp?

In this tafseer we integrate the narratives in Surah al Baqra with Surah al Rahman and Surah al Hijr and offer some insights that suggest that the niche is the protected location of earth in the universe and the lamp is the Spirit (ruh) infused into Adam (And when your Rabb said to the angels: “Indeed, I am the Creator of the human (molded) from a dark, mucous, animated clay. When I have shaped him in due proportion, and breathed into him of My Spirit, Then, fall down and prostrate before him.” (The Qur’an, 15:28-29).

The Spirit is the primal locus of all knowledge and knows the Names of Allah (And We taught Adam the Names, all of them, The Qur’an, 2: 31). The Spirit radiates the Light of Muhammed (the Light of Knowledge) to the heart, the mind and the body. The radiance of this knowledge through the heart carries humankind to the throne of Allah (tasawwuf). The same radiance empowers the mind to penetrate the farthest reaches of the universe and enables the body to conquer the physical world (empirical science).

In a powerful narrative in Surah al Baqra, Ayahs 30-39, the Qur’an reveals that Adam was created, infused with the Spirit and was taught the Names. Allah offered the Trust (the knowledge of His Names and the mandate to use that knowledge to serve and worship Him) to the heavens, mountains and the earth but they declined as they did not possess the capacity to carry it. Humankind stepped up to the offer, capable as it was by the Spirit infused into him. So exalted was the station of Adam that the angels bowed down to him, except Iblis. Adam dwelt with his spouse, Eve, in heaven, enjoying the sublime privileges that come from the presence of Allah.  Eons went by. Enticed by Iblis, Adam and Eve erred, incurred the wrath of Allah, became aware of their nakedness and found themselves on earth:

وَقُلْنَا اهْبِطُوا بَعْضُكُمْ لِبَعْضٍ عَدُوٌّ وَلَكُمْ فِي الأَرْضِ مُسْتَقَرٌّ وَمَتَاعٌ إِلَى حِينٍ

(And We said: Descend from here with enmity between one another! And on earth shall be your abode, for a time ordained. The Qur’an, 2:36). However, Allah’s mercy is never far away. Allah taught Adam and Eve words of repentance, turned to them in forgiveness with the admonition that from time to time His guidance will be sent down to them. If they followed the guidance, they would prosper. If they did not, they would suffer.

An important insight in this narrative is the affirmation that humankind inhabits the earth by Allah’s command. Surah al Rahman (The Qur’an, 54:10-12) describes the earth as an expanse with fruits of all kinds and myriad spikes (heads) of grain for human sustenance.

A juxtaposition of these narratives reveals Allah’s plan to create man, infuse into him the Spirit and plant him on earth which is well provided with the means of sustaining life. This grand scheme had a purpose and that was to create a being who would know, serve and worship him. As the Qur’an explains: “O humankind! Worship (serve) your Rabb, Who created you and those before you, so that you cultivate taqwa (become conscious of the Divine).”

This blessed earth is located in a secure niche in the cosmos, protected from the ravages of the heavens by layers of electromagnetic shields, ozone layers and clouds as if it is a lamp protected by glass from gusts of celestial winds which would extinguish the flame. The electromagnetic shield of the earth wards off the harmful EM rays from deep space. The ozone layers mitigate the effects of harmful UV and other radiation from our own sun.  The solar system is tucked away on the fringes of a mid-sized galaxy, the Milky Way, safe from the devouring black holes and giant stars that gobble up smaller ones. The atmosphere modulates the temperature of the earth so that life survives and prospers. The balance of gravitational pull and rotational centrifugal forces keeps the atmosphere attached to the earth. Water sent down from the heavens sustains life in the hostile wilderness of space where life cannot sustain itself.

This resplendent earth, orbiting around the sun, tucked away in a niche in the outer fringes of the Milky Way, protected by layers of electromagnetic shields, ozone layers and atmospheric insulation, blessed with water, flora and fauna is the abode of man who was created to carry the trust, know Him, serve Him and worship Him.

Is it not a miracle that among billions of galaxies, each galaxy with billions of stars, there is a tiny speck of dust, our planet earth, that has received the Light from Allah, making it shine like a piercing star of effulgent knowledge?

The interpretation of the first Nur as the Name of Allah and its first emanation as the Light of Muhammed helps us understand the meaning of the niche and the lamp enclosed in glass which shines like a star. The human, as well as his habitat, the earth, come into existence by the Light of Allah. Man is a witness to Allah’s cosmos and “knows” it as he is the inheritor of the Light of Muhammed and is anointed by the Spirit from Allah which brings him into existence. As the children of Adam, all men and women are “knowers” through the Light of Muhammed. This Light, the Light of Muhammed, reflected through humankind, illuminates the universe and makes man’s habitat, the earth shine “like a distant star”. So brilliant is the Light of Muhammed that even the angels are in awe of this Light.

The heart of the believer is of special significance in this schema. It is a niche within a niche. As a Hadith e Qudsi says: “The heavens and the mountains and the earth cannot contain Me. But the heart of the believer contains Me.” Allah bestows His grace on all creation. Each creation accepts the grace according to its capacity to carry it. Man is a Trustee of the Spirit of Allah which bestows upon him the ability to accept the privilege of knowing Him through His Names.

The earth, located in a protected niche, is hurling through space. It is home to millions of believers who “contain” the Name of Allah in their hearts. Through the millennia, it has been home to the prophets and the sages, each of whom was a lamp reflecting the Light through their word and deed. Thus, the earth is like a lamp with a thousand points of light. The radiance from the Name of Allah, transmitted through the Light of Muhammed illuminates all cosmos. Hence, it is appropriate to construe the entire globe as a lamp in a niche, enclosed in glass which shines like a brilliant star.

مِنْ شَجَرَةٍ مُبَارَكَةٍ زَيْتُونِةٍ لاَ شَرْقِيَّةٍ وَلاَ غَرْبِيَّةٍ يَكَادُ زَيْتُهَا يُضِيءُ وَلَوْ لَمْ تَمْسَسْهُ نَارٌ (Illuminated from a blessed olive tree, not of the east nor of the west, the oil whereof is luminescent even if it is not touched by fire.)

What is knowledge? What is its source? How does the human acquire the knowledge which other creatures cannot? These are profound philosophical questions that have baffled thinkers through the ages.

In seeking answers to these questions, we look for guidance from the Qur’an. In Surah al Alaq (96:1-5), the Qur’an affirms that Allah taught man that which he knew not. In Surah al Baqra (2:31), it is affirmed that Allah taught all the Names to Adam. Further on, in the same Surah (2:284) the Qur’an reveals that to every person is due what he or she earns. These Ayahs provide a foundation for a theory of knowledge. The principles of this theory are: (1) Allah is the Knower and the source of all knowledge (2) He taught the Names to the first man, Adam. Hence, the human is a “knower” in his existential potential (3) The human forgets and must struggle to rediscover what he has been taught by Divine decree.

The word “shajar”, meaning tree, is used thirty-two times in the Qur’an and the word “zaitun”, meaning olive, is used seven times. The meaning depends on the context. In this Ayah, the conjoint reference to olive and tree connotes the tree of knowledge.

The source of knowledge that illuminates the earth is beyond space-time. It is neither of the east nor of the west. It has a Divine origin.

The magnificent tree of knowledge has many branches. One branch of it is ilm ul ibara, knowledge that can be transmitted, verbally or in writing. Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Medicine, Engineering, Architecture, Law, Arts and Literature are offshoots of this branch. This is the knowledge acquired by the mind with input from the body (empirical and discursive science).

A second branch is ilm ul ishara. This is knowledge possessed by the heart. It includes love, compassion, forgiveness and mercy.  These are attributes of Asma ul Husna, the beautiful Names of Allah.

Both of these branches take off from ilm al laduni. This is revealed knowledge, which is the source of all knowledge. It includes wisdom, justice, the criterion (for right and wrong) and guidance about the origin and destiny of humankind as well the purpose of its creation.

Allah is the Knower; all knowledge is from Him. It is not from the east or the west. Knowledge is light. It illuminates. It guides. It makes things clear. It is timeless, space-less, eternal, as its source is beyond space and time. It does not require another medium, such as fire, to light it. It is light by itself.

The olive is a simile to the prophets and the sages, men and women whom Allah has favored with the light of knowledge. Just as an olive contains the oil that has a potential for light, the prophets and the sages contain knowledge that radiates light and illuminates the cosmos.

The planet earth is clothed with the Light of Muhammed. Countless sages carry this light in their hearts, which are suffuse with the Name of Allah through remembrance and prayer. Men and women of learning use the light of reason and empirical enquiry to penetrate the deepest secrets of the cosmos. The light of these sages and of the men and women of learning makes the earth shine like a distant star, lit from the oil extracted from an olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west.

نُورٌ عَلَى نُورٍ يَهْدِي اللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَنْ يَشَاءُ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ وَاللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ (Light upon Light, Allah does guide to His light whom He will. And Allah brings forth parables for humankind. Indeed, Allah is All-knowing.)

Light upon light in this Ayat refers to the Prophet Muhammed (peace and blessings be upon him). The Light from Allah was infused into the hearts of countless prophets since the advent of humankind on earth. Each prophet was an embodiment of the light that was bestowed upon him by Allah. Each one was a candle radiating Noor e Muhammadi. The Prophet Muhammed was an embodiment of the light of all of all Prophets. In him, all the heavenly attributes coalesced. He was Noor e Muhammadi himself. Allah confirmed it in the Qur’an: “Lo! There has come to you a Light from Allah and a manifest Book”. Indeed, Muhammed (pbuh) was light upon light.

There is no difference in the light that is reflected by one Prophet from the light reflected by another, as the source of all light is Allah. As the Qur’an teaches us: “We do not distinguish between one Messenger from another”. The Light of Muhammed, as revealed by Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), is the compendium, the summation and completion of all prophetic lights.

Allah is Light. Light springs from Him and returns to Him. He is the Knower. Knowledge springs forth from Him and returns to Him. He guides whom He will to His Light and favors whom he will with His knowledge. For one whom He does not guide, there is no knowledge and no light.

Allahu A’lam (Allah is the ultimate Knower)!

 

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