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An Exposition of the Verse of Light (Ayat al-Nur)

By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

29 September 2016  

اللَّهُ نُورُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ مَثَلُ نُورِهِ كَمِشْكَاةٍ فِيهَا مِصْبَاحٌ الْمِصْبَاحُ فِي زُجَاجَةٍ الزُّجَاجَةُ كَأَنَّهَا كَوْكَبٌ دُرِّيٌّ يُوقَدُ مِن شَجَرَةٍ مُّبَارَكَةٍ زَيْتُونِةٍ لَّا شَرْقِيَّةٍ وَلَا غَرْبِيَّةٍ يَكَادُ زَيْتُهَا يُضِيءُ وَلَوْ لَمْ تَمْسَسْهُ نَارٌ نُّورٌ عَلَى نُورٍ يَهْدِي اللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَن يَشَاءُ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ وَاللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! – Allah guides to His light whom He pleases, and Allah sets forth parables for men, and Allah is Cognizant of all things. (al-Nur, 24/35)

One of the most beautiful and commented verses of the Qur’an is the verse of light (Ayat al-Nur), which exegetes, mystics and philosophers have all discussed, and about which they have offered opinions according to their understanding.

The method of communicating something indescribable using the insufficient vocabulary of the language is by the use of allegory, metaphor and simile; the verse above also falls under the category of allegory. However, there is another verse of the Quran which tells us what the metaphors used in the verse mean.

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth;        

Light is another word for knowledge since it illuminates the reality around us and makes it known to us.

This Ayat or verse occurs in Surah Nur or The Light which has 14 sections, and each section deals with some aspect of the law or the moral way of living. The connection of the Ayat with the moral way of living is unmistakable. Besides, the main objective of the Book is to show mankind the straight path and to complete the Deen or give the complete way of living which is the moral way of living. This is covered in more detail in my article:

Science and Religion

The following Ayat explains the meaning of the metaphors used in the Ayat al-Nur

(10:37) This Qur´an is not such as can be produced by other than Allah; on the contrary it is a confirmation of (revelations) that went before it, and a fuller explanation of the Book - wherein there is no doubt - from the Lord of the worlds.

The Deen-e Islam expounded in the Quran can be seen as both a confirmation and fuller explanation of what could arguably be the very first moral principle given by God to mankind.

 “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

It is easy to see that the very first moral principle is self-luminous and has guided mankind to transition from the stage of living like a savage to civilization. No civilization was possible without this moral principle. The self-luminous olive oil from a sacred tree is the metaphor used for it.

يَكَادُ زَيْتُهَا يُضِيءُ وَلَوْ لَمْ تَمْسَسْهُ نَارٌ

whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it

The unparalleled excellence with which the Quran teaches us the moral way of living is at several levels. The first level is the moral principle itself which is self-luminous and Allah compares it with the olive oil from a blessed tree neither of the east nor the west which clearly means that the source of the self-luminous moral principle is Divine and not from this earth either from the east or the west.

 The second level is the use of imagery created with words and using the most effective devices of the psychology of influence such as priming and through reinforcement by repeating the message but in different ways and in different contexts to make the point clear and beyond doubt. The second level of light is when the already self-luminous olive oil is lighted up and flares up throwing light on every aspect of man’s relationship with the rest of the Universe. This is the detailed exposition of the first self-luminous moral principle covered in my article:

Deen-e-Islam or the Moral Way of Living in Islam

A likeness of His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star,

Now, what could the glass that encloses and protects the flame, as mentioned in the verse, possibly denote? The function of the glass is to keep the flame steady and constant to enable seeing things clearly and without strain or distortion. It should achieve this without absorbing any light. The glass must be crystal clear without a blemish and like a shining star. This is the function played by language and refers to the linguistic excellence of the Quran. Use of language helps in communicating as well as preserving and protecting the knowledge. The linguistic excellence helps clear communication and prevents distortions. The Book has often been described as Kitabum Mubeen or a Book that makes things clear and a Book without crookedness. The third level of excellence is therefore the linguistic perfection which clothes/covers this light and is likened to the glass which itself is brilliant like the star.

 All of these are within the framework (niche) of a complete and self-sufficient system of belief in a God who is the Creator, Sustainer, Helper, Law Giver, the source of all power, the Wise, the Aware, the Knower, the Just, the Merciful, the one who Rewards, the Forgiver, the Lord of the Day of Judgment and with many more attributes. 

نُّورٌ عَلَى نُورٍ

Light upon light

 The meaning of light upon light is now crystal clear – the self- luminous moral principle made clearer by the manner in which it is elucidated in the Quran and enhanced, protected and preserved by the linguistic excellence. The Quran sheds light on many truths but specially on the complete way of living a moral life and the source of this knowledge/light is Allah Himself. The excellence is best described by the Quran itself.

Why does God not compare his light to the Sun but to a lamp? Because the light of a lamp is available only to those who seek the light and not to everyone like the light of the sun. The Light of God only illuminates the hearts of the seekers of His light. It is not for those who prefer to remain in darkness and those who shun the light of God.

The closer a person is to the source of light, the more he is able to benefit from its luminance.

(24:36) (Lit is such a Light) in houses, which Allah hath permitted to be raised to honour; for the celebration, in them, of His name: In them is He glorified in the mornings and in the evenings, (again and again),-

(37) By men whom neither traffic nor merchandise can divert from the Remembrance of Allah, nor from regular Prayer, nor from the practice of regular Charity: Their (only) fear is for the Day when hearts and eyes will be transformed (in a world wholly new),-

(38) That Allah may reward them according to the best of their deeds, and add even more for them out of His Grace: for Allah doth provide for those whom He will, without measure.

 Ayat 24:35 is the most commented because of its beauty, rich imagery and mysticism. The meaning appears to have however remained a mystery because the scholars could not see what now appears obvious after this discussion. The pre-Islamic society was also a civilization and many of the moral principles were already known and thought to be “common sense” little realizing their origin in previous revelations. Imam Ghazali has written a treatise on this ayat. He likens the niche to the rib cage and the glass to the human heart and the light to spiritual knowledge from Allah. This explanation is problematic in several ways.

The beginning of the verse, the ending of the verse and every simile/metaphor in between refer to only things that are perfect or divine and not to what is imperfect or to man at all. Words of perfection are never used to describe a human being. A human heart is not perfect transparent glass or the best protection of divine knowledge. There is no human being who is perfect and without human frailties. This analogy has not been used by the Quran even when speaking about the heart of any of the prophets let alone using it for lesser mortals. The Prophet (pbuh) himself hid in his heart what Allah made manifest (33:37). The analogy of the perfect glass for the human heart that hides nothing fails right here.

 In the Quran, the heart is made stronger by reading the Quran and not cleaner. It hides secrets which is the opposite of revealing everything. A person may bring a sound heart (Qalb in Saleem) or may have a disease (Marz) in his heart. Prophet David is advised not follow the lusts of his heart (38:26). Hearts are soft or hard like rocks but never like glass let alone perfectly clean and transparent glass.

يَهْدِي اللَّهُ لِنُورِهِ مَن يَشَاءُ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ وَاللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

Allah does guide whom He will to His Light: Allah does set forth Parables for men: and Allah does know all things. May Allah guide us all to His Light!

And Allah knows best.

Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to


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