Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues

Mystic interpretation of the Verse of Light


So below is the typed up Appendix 8 of the Abdullah Yusuf Ali English translation of the Quran. In his translation Yusuf Ali would write introductions before every Surah to give a summary of what the Surah will cover and also wrote appendices which could be history or further explanation of a verse or story. As I said in my previous article I’m not qualified to explain the Verse of Light (as I have a limited understanding of the verse and all I could give is a summary at best), so I want to give you the benefit of Yusuf Ali’s wisdom who himself is summarising Imam Ghazali’s wisdom (known as Algazel in the Western world). The passage I have typed is all in italics to make it clear.


Among the beauties of the Quran, not least is that which sends its mystic interpreters into ecstasies of spiritual delight. While its plain meaning contains noble precepts of ordinary conduct, its mystic passages reveal spiritual mysteries which can only be expressed in the phrase “Light upon Light!” (xxiv 35). It is an endless chain of illumination in which ordinary knowledge dissolves as if it were ignorance.

The highest place among the mystic interpreters should be assigned to Imam Gazali, whose Mishkat-ul Anwar deals with the verse of Light (xxiv 35), the contrasted verse of Darkness (xxiv 40), and the saying of the holy Prophet quoted by him from Hadith: “God has Seventy Thousand Veils of Light and Darkness: were He to withdraw their curtain, then would the splendours of His Aspect (or Countenance, or Face, Wajh) surely consume everyone who apprehended Him with his sight.” In the Mishkat Sharif (Bab-ul-Masjid, end of section 2) Jibril says: “Kana baini and bainahu sab’ina alfa hijaban min nurin: Between me and Him are seventy thousand veils of Light.”

English readers will thank me for drawing their attention to a meritorious English translationof Gazali’s interpretation of these sublime passages. It is in the Asiatic Society Monographs series, vol. xix: “Al-Ghazali’s Mishkat-ul-Anwar, a Translation with Introduction, by W.H.T. Gairdner, published by the Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1924”. They are asked to study this carefully, and better still (if they can), to study the original, and see for themselves how much spiritual wisdom is enshrined in just two verses of the holy Quran, when interpreted by a learned Imam. And there are over 6000 verses in the Quran. In my Summary of Gazali’s argument I have used Gairdner’s Translation throughout this Appendix.

Gazali died in A.H. 505 (=1111 A.D.). He lived in an age when Greek philosophy and other philosophies had been studied by Muslims, many new arts and sciences had been added by them to the world’s stock of knowledge, but the quest of the Timeless and Universal was still urging thirsty enquirers on. It was his mission to expose the hollow pretensions of some superficial thinkers who pursued mirages. He turned Muslim thought in the direction of the subtler Realities of spiritual life. Within a century and a half of his death the Muslim world was engulfed in a mighty cataclysm which well-nigh wiped out its channels of culture and civilisation.

Now for Gazali’s argument.

If we take physical light as ordinarily understood, it is a phenomenon or appearance, and is therefore liable to pass away. For its illuminative power it has to depend upon the perceiving faculty or the perceiving instrument, the Eye. But the Eye has many defects. It is only the perceiving faculty or intelligence which is properly entitled to the name of Light considered as a source of enlightenment.

The verses of the Quran, in relation to Intelligence, have the value of sunlight in the relation to eyesight. The Quran is therefore spoken of as the Light: “For We have sent unto you a light (that is) manifest”: iv. 174.

Thus the physical eye sees by the sun; the spiritual eye sees by Revelation (the Quran). There is a world invisible, with a Light of its own, quite different from the world visible, with its own physical light. The former, the spiritual world, is far above the physical world: not in space, for there is no question of space, but in grade. Yet the World of Sense is a type of the World of the Realm Celestial. All the Prophets are Lamps, and so are the Learned: but the difference between them is incalculable. If the Prophet of God is a Lamp Illuminant, that from which the Lamp is itself lit may fitly be symbolised by Fire. It is the Spirits Celestial, the angels, considered as the kindling-source of the Lamps Terrestrial, that can be compared alone with Fire: xxviii. 29-30. These Lamps Celestial have their own grades and orders, and the highest is the one nearest to the Ultimate Light.

That Ultimate Light is the final Fountain-head, Who is Light in and by Himself, not a light kindled from other lights. The term “light” as applied to any other than this primary Light is purely metaphorical. But these metaphorical lights have various gradations. So are there gradations in their opposites. There is no darkness so intense as the darkness of Not-being. A dark thing is called “dark” simply because it cannot appear to anyone’s vision; it never comes to exist for sight, though it may exist in itself. But that which has no existence for others nor for itself is assuredly the very extreme of darkness. In contrast with it is Being, which is therefore Light. Thus God Most High is the only Reality, as He is the only Light.

In the physical world Light is itself visible and makes other things visible. It lies behind all colour, and is apprehended with colour. Through its intense union with the colours, it may appear (under refraction) as colours and not as light at all. Its very intensity may cause its invisibility. So God is with all things, but some visions perceive Him not on account of His very brightness. (The absorption of some colours through the media through which they pass may result in the appearance of other colours. Some may consider it as a merit of the media. But it detracts from the appearance of the perfect colourless Light, which is the type for the perfection of God’s Light.)

From the material world, the World of Sense, we rise through the world of Intelligence to the spiritual world, or world of the Realm Supernal (or Celestial). This world of the Realm Supernal contains Light-substances, high and lofty, called “Angels”, from which substances the various lights are effused upon the various mortal spirits.

The human soul has five faculties or spirits: 1) the sensory spirit which takes in the senses brought in by the senses; 2) the imaginative spirit, which records the information conveyed by the senses and presents it to the Intelligential spirit above it, when required; 3) the Intelligential spirit, which apprehends ideas beyond the spheres of sense and imagination; these ideas are of universal application, and are symbolised by the particular things known by the senses; 4) the discursive or (ratiocinative) spirit, which takes the data of pure reason, combines them, and deduces from them abstract knowledge; 5) the transcendental prophetic spirit, which is possessed by prophets and some saints; by it the unseen tables and statutes of the Law are revealed form the other world, together with several of the sciences of the Realms Celestial and Terrestrial, and pre-eminently Theology, the science of Deity, which the intelligential and discursive spirits cannot compass. All of these are Lights, for it is through them that every kind of existing thing is manifested, including objects of sense or imagination.

These five faculties or spirits are symbolised by the Niche, Glass, Lamp, Tree, and Oil in the verse of Light. The Niche is the sensory spirit, whose lights come through the eyes, ears, nostrils etc. The Glass is the Imagination; for it is made out of opaque substances (like sand, soda, potash, etc.), but it is clarified and refined till it becomes transparent to the light of a lamp, and it also keeps the lamp from being put out by a draught or violent jerking. So Imagination, though its origins are from the ideas of grosser substances, becomes clarified and transparent to ideas of intelligence and to the light from them, as well as serves to hold knowledge together and prevents it from being disturbed, unsettled, and dissipated. The lamp is the intelligential spirit, which gives cognisance of divine ideas. The Tree is the ratiocinative spirit, which begins with a proposition, then branches into two, which becomes four, and so on. It leads to conclusions which in their turn become germs producing like conclusions, these latter being also susceptible to continuation, each with each. The Tree in the symbol is the Olive, which gives oil producing the most radiant illumination. So the ratiocinative spirit multiplies, establishes, and fixes all knowledge. Illumination can be infinitely multiplied; therefore a tree like the olive, whose oil can multiply light infinitely is entitled to be called “blessed” above other trees like fruit trees, whose fruit is consumed in use. Again, the ramifications of pure intelligential propositions do not admit of relation to direction or distance, and therefore the symbolical Tree may well be said to be “neither of the East nor of the West”.

Finally, the Oil is the type of the transcendental prophetic spirit, which is absolutely luminous and clear. The thought-spirit is divided into that which needs to be instructed, advised, and supplied from without, if the acquisition of knowledge is to be continuous; while a portion of it is absolutely clear, as though it were self-luminous, and had no external source of supply. There are Saints whose light shines so bright that it is well-nigh independent of what the Angels supply. For the human soul there is a graded succession of Lights, and this explains the phrase “Light upon Light.”

Now we come to the Darkness-verse (xxiv. 40). The man who has turned away from the path of guidance (light, truth), – he is false, he is darkness; nay, he is darker than darkness. For darkness is neutral (or negative); it leads one neither one way nor the other. But the minds of the misbelievers, and the whole of their perceptions, are perverse, and support each other mutually in the actual deluding of their owners. That “vast deep ocean” is this world of mortal dangers, of evil chances, of blinding trouble. Wave upon wave of selfish passion darkens the man’s soul. And the dark clouds above are rank beliefs and corrupt imaginings, which become so many veils veiling the misbeliever from the true faith, from knowledge of the Real, and from illumination by the sunlight of the Quran and human intelligence. As all our Lights have their source in the great Primary Light, the One Reality, there can be no light unless God gives the Light.

What is the meaning of the Prophet’s saying that “God has Seventy Thousand Veils of Light and Darkness”? (Inna lillahi la-sab’ina alfa hijabin min nurin wa zulmatin). The number , 70,000, varies in different versions, and is not by way of definite enumeration, but rather to denote some indefinitely great quantity. There are three classes of men from the ineffably glorious Light of God: 1) those veiled by Pure Darkness; 2) those veiled by mixed Light and Darkness; and 3) those veiled by Pure Light. In each class there are numerous sub-divisions. (When we take account of all of these, we may well speak of 70,000 Veils.)

Those veiled by Pure Darkness are such as are atheists, or such as take something else, which is not God, for God. For example, they take Nature or Self for God. But there are numerous varieties of such men. One particularly mentioned by Gazali is the sort of men that confess with their tongues the Creed of Islam, but are probably urged to it by fear alone, or the desire to beg from Muslims, or to curry favour with them, or to get financial (or other) assistance out of them, or, by a merely fanatical zeal, to support the opinions of their fathers. If the Creed fails to impel them to good works, it will not secure their elevation from the dark sphere to light. Rather are their patron-saints devils, who lead them from the light into the darkness. But he whom the Creed so touches that evil disgusts him and good gives him pleasure, has passed from pure darkness even though he be a great sinner still.

Those veiled by mixed Light and Darkness may be: 1) those veiled by the darkness of the Senses; they are above those who worship Self, but they give God’s Attributes of Majesty and Beauty to sense-perceived bodies, or to Nature or the forces of nature; 2) those veiled by some light, mixed with the darkness of the Imagination; they have got above the senses, but they allow their Imagination to govern their ideas of God, Who is above anything that the imagination of man can conceive; and 3) those veiled by some Light divine, mixed with the darkness of Intelligence; they fall into anthropomorphism in their ideas of God (and fail to perceive that the Soul is above the Intellect).

Those veiled by Pure Light are those who have perceived spiritual truths up to a certain point, but whose eyes have been so dazzled by the Light itself that there is a veil between them and the Light. But these are only the Few of the Few whom “the splendours of the Countenance sublime consume”, and the majesty of the Divine Glory obliterates; so that they are themselves blotted out, annihilated. (That is the true meaning of the Buddha’s Nirvana.) For self-contemplation there is no more a place, because with the self they have no longer anything to do. Nothing then remain save the One, the Real: that becomes the experience of the soul. That is the true meaning of attainment or Salvation. And Gazali concludes with the words: “Hard, hard it is to essay the discovery of the Lights Supernal that are beyond the Veil.” How true, and how appropriate for all who seek to interpret the Light! May God grant that their own feeble lights may not act as a veil between them and the Light Divine!
Right, so that’s the whole of the appendix word for word. The roman numerals are the surah numbers. I write this post in hopes of showing you the depth of the Quran and Islamic spirituality.

I feel that this appendix accompanies my previous post ““Who is Allah”, my thoughts” quite well and should be read in conjunction with the previous post to give the fuller picture. I do recommend getting the Yusuf Ali translation of the Quran with commentary as the footnotes along with appendices can be extremely enlightening for you.

Leave a comment of your thoughts as I’m interested in reading them, and leave a like, if you resonated with the subject matter or enjoyed this post.

Mohammed Wilkinson, 2016

About Mohammed W.

A teacher and a student :) I love to learn new things and I'm currently studying the arabic language as I hope to master it. I love talking about Islam and the Quran, and I love to teach. Please feel free to reach out to me about anything. :)

One comment on “Mystic interpretation of the Verse of Light

  1. Pingback: “What is Allah/God”, my thoughts | Consensus44

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This entry was posted on January 18, 2016 by in Philosophy, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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