Surah 24: The Light, Part 3

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it,”

Gospel according to John 1:5

I imagine light is an obvious metaphor for religions to employ. Maybe it isn’t, maybe my world is just too inundated with Christianity and Star Wars for me to not assume that everyone gets “light” as a symbol for goodness, awareness, and hope. In Islam, light is also a big symbol, and one we haven’t yet stopped to examine. The name of this surah is an-nuur, “The Light,” and within its content it gives a little sermon that visualizes God as a light and light-giver. For a religion that has stayed so successfully aniconic as Islam, it is almost radical to have a sermon that visualizes God as anything. So today close out this surah’s material by examining its sermon about God as a light, and what life is like without that light, with closing words about some final material concerning the peoples’ obligations towards Muhammad.

Nuur ʕalaa Nuur: Light upon Light,” by ElMahdy

Light

The sermon on light starts in ayah 35. The ayah opens by declaring that God is the light of the heavens and the earth. There is no question that the ayah is speaking metaphorically here, not intending to represent God as a celestial body, though Moon-o-theists I’m sure may hay out of this. It continues on to depict God’s light as a lamp in a niche, with a star-like glowing cover, burning from the oil of a mystical olive tree. This mystical oil is described as almost glowing of its own power. I wonder why the ayah only commits to “almost”? There are a number of curious choices about this metaphor, such as why an olive tree? Why the starry glass shade? I think the point of these details is communicating purity and beauty rather than specific meaning. This is summarized in the phrase “light upon light.”

Though not literally faithful to the material, this is about what I envision.

So in looking up a lamp that could potentially visualize the purity and beauty the ayah is trying to represent, I remembered again how strange it is that the Quran should be suggesting a visual metaphor for God. To call God the light of the heavens and earth is not so big a deal. Light is so useful as a metaphor because we as humans can perceive it, yet it is also intangible and hard to conceptualize. So to call God light is little threat to the intention to never depict God with an image. Yet then to describe a physical lamp as a metaphor for God does threaten that aniconism, even if the lamp is described mystically. Mosques do build niches into their architecture that indicate the direction in which Muslims are to face when they pray, and I wonder if such niches are related to this ayah. But! I could not find pictures of niches that featured lamps. Perhaps one could interpret this as an avoidance of lamps, even, given that in combination with this ayah there is the potential that someone would perceive the lamp as representing God in some way, and thus it sets people up for shirk.

Also, there may be artistic representations of this ayah out somewhere, but my image searches kept pulling up resale lamps.

The surah goes on to say ….in houses of worship…etc. Ayah 36 is really difficult to understand, since it is a run-on clause with no subject that does not have any clear connections to its surrounding ayat. A lot of translators interpret the ayah as a followup to the lamp metaphor, which is an interesting choice since it threatens to move the lamp from metaphorical description to literal prescription, like saying, “God is like a mystical lamp, which looks like this…[found] in the houses of His worship that he commanded to be built.” I’m mystified that so many good translators make this choice, and that they do speaks to me of the disjointed grammar of the section. One translator kept the light as the subject but in his interpretive additions made sure to keep the light avoided shifting the imagery to literal description by playing loose with the preposition “in.” Another translator forwent trying to make sense of the grammar altogether and just let the sentence run on in fragmented clauses.

I’m on the side of those translators who connect ayah 36 to the surrounding descriptions of the believers. Ayah 35 ended by saying that God guides predestined people to His light, and mentions that He provides examples/metaphors for this purpose. So ayah 35 could continue that these guided people, or these instructive metaphors, are in houses of worship that are devoted to remembering and praising God. This connects also to ayah 37 in which the people are described by their pure focus and devotion to remembering God, giving purifiers, etc. A translation like this would be much more functional and reflect the nature of this ordinance-filled surah. Build mosques, fill them with people, use them to teach, worship, pray, and do charity. God is represented orally as a mystical lamp in a niche that provides guidance, but neither lamp or niche are related to mosque design choices.

…and Darkness

In describing the believers, the surah naturally mentions their fear of the Day of Judgement, a fear that will be rewarded as each believer’s good deeds are measured to him in good things from God. This brings the attention of the surah from themes of light and guidance to a focus on deeds, and through that the focus transitions to the judgement of disbelievers.

The deeds of those who kafaruu, “denied/disbelieved,” are said to be like a mirage that the disbelievers are clamoring towards in thirst. I find this interesting because it indicates the targeted disbelievers do believe in an afterlife and think that their deeds are setting up a good one. Refuting disbelievers for their confidence in earning a good afterlife is not new material for us to notice, but it was only recently that we were reading refutations aimed at disbelievers who denied the resurrection. This shows us that the Quran’s refutations are not solely aimed against a specific faction of disbelievers. Historians are confident that there was a great amount of diversity in the Arabian peninsula’s native religion, and of course in Medina there was a considerable population of Jews too. This surah takes place well into Muhammad’s Medinian ministry, and his opposition has since grown considerably wider and more diverse than his original opponents in Mecca. Also at this point Muhammad is becoming more preoccupied with hypocrites, which will come up later in this surah, and these hypocrites probably believed they were still good enough in their religious devotion to earn a good afterlife.

There follows also a metaphorical image of a deep and dangerous sea enshrouded in darkness. In contrast to the “light upon light” of God’s description, the description here is layers of waves upon waves, water upon water, clouds of darkness upon clouds of darkness. The metaphor is a little confused because grammatically it should be an alternate image to represent the deeds of the disbelievers, but this metaphor is rather describing the spiritual reality of the disbelievers, who cannot even see their own hands in the darkness. Ayat 37 coldly closes with a statement that God has not granted these people light, and light will thus never reach them.

Given that the surah has just described these people as being predestined to thrash in spiritual darkness, it is ironic that the next verses challenge them to see the spiritual reality in the physical world around them. Ayat 41-46 consist of the usual divine flexing, but I did appreciate that the referenced items of nature coordinated with this surah’s established metaphors of light, darkness, and water.

Obeying Muhammad

From here the surah starts to wind down with anger and rebukes towards the hypocrites, with a revisiting of the topics of domestic privacy that I covered in the second post on this surah. These hypocrites are targeted here not for their beliefs –though the strength of their beliefs does get questioned– but rather because they do not seem to show enough respect for Muhammad in his political capacity.

The hypocrites are defined as those who claim belief in God and Muhammad and promise to obey, then do not follow through with their actions. All the actions in questions are matters of obeying Muhammad’s temporal authority. An example of this is when they fail to answer Muhammad’s summons to a hearing in his court. It is unclear what kinds of legal proceedings they are being called to face, or who is calling them to the proceedings, but the main point is that the hypocrites only come if they think the results will be in their favor. Ayah 50 therefore questions what disease is in their hearts, or what doubt in God and Muhammad’s sense of justice they are fostering. Another way the hypocrites show disrespect is by leaving assemblies with Muhammad early and without permission. They are treating Muhammad’s calls of assembly casually, like those of any ordinary person, and collude to sneak out early. The surah warns people that obedience is a thing of actions and not words. For every failure of the hypocrites, the surah lays the proper responses it expects believers to demonstrate. Believers come to court and submit to Muhammad’s judgments. They obey with actions, not words. They ask permission by submitting a legitimate excuse before leaving a meeting. The point is intended to cause introspection in the Quran’s listeners so that they ask themselves whether they resemble the fearless, submissive believers or the doubting, self-interested, recalcitrant hypocrites.

The surah takes the positive steps to assuage the fears of both hypocrites and believers that God will not fulfill his promises to them. It is promised that the disbelievers will fail and enter hell, while those who have distinguished themselves through belief and deeds will be given succession to the earth. (The word “to give them succession” is one of the longest words in the Quran and builds on the roots that are used for the political title of Caliph.) God promises to establish the believers’ religion and replace their fear with security. Once that promise has been fulfilled, then anyone who disbelieves can be labeled as defiantly disobedient. While the surah comes down hard on doubt, it does at least seem to give some slack to these people living in wartime for feeling fear. It is withholding conclusive judgments about their doubts until the time of the fulfilled promise. This carrot is not without a stick, however. The penultimate ayah of the surah does warn that trial and punishment will come upon people who oppose an order of Muhammad’s; the how, when, and at whose hands is left open for any interpretation.

I do need to speak to the fact that Muhammad and God are linked in these ayat about obedience and belief. They treat as axiomatic that a totalitarian government run by Muhammad is a totalitarian government run by God, and thus that any government action or meeting can only be good. While the ayat speak of requiring belief and obedience to God and His Messenger, perfect obedience to Muhammad is the topic at hand. In the cases here, Muhammad is wielding political authority and there is no question as to whether he can be fallible. If there is no redeeming value for doubt, say as a check for otherwise unregulated power, then Muhammad’s infallibility must be the assumed status quo. That he is standing in for God in these meetings can be taken from the fact that when Muhammad accepts someone’s proper excuse for leaving a meeting early, he must ask God for their forgiveness. Taking early leave of a meeting called by the Messenger, even if done through due process and approved of by Muhammad, is still an offense that Muhammad must ask God to forgive. Perhaps this is because leaving Muhammad while he is operating in his infallible political capacity is like letting yourself be distracted from communication with God. If you accept the Quran’s authority, then you have no reason to feel disturbed when it calls people to submit undoubtingly to Muhammad, since you believe that Muhammad would or could never use his divinely bequested authority wrongly. Because I do not consider Muhammad to be an infallible person, I’m naturally disturbed by the absolute obedience demanded of the people.

I’m also somewhat curious that the Quran never imagines a future world without Muhammad. The oddest oversight I see in the Quran is that it does not plan for a future society in which Muhammad is not the one leading expeditions, making judgments at court, or holding meetings. The Quran rather instead focuses on consolidating perfect power upon Muhammad, which is part of why I hold the Quran suspect. These passages lost a significant portion of their meaning and function once Muhammad died, and it was not clear how political authority, obedience, and doubt were to be handled in his absence. There are not even hints at how authority is to be distributed and regulated upon anyone who is not Muhammad. This is one of the examples of short-sightedness that keeps me from trusting the Quran’s claims to being the communication of a universal, omnipotent, and timeless God.

Conclusion

Surah an-Nuur has been an interesting study for me. One thing that I want to know most from the Quran is what it envisions the ideal society would look like. When we find passages encouraging integrity, charity, humility, and prayer, these are all very good things and I’m glad that they are at the center of Islam’s ethical core, but they do not explain the nuts and bolts of application. What is the place and responsibility of government? What economical choices are encouraged? Who gets charity and how is it distributed? How are men and women to be understood and arranged in society? What kinds of laws will not only avenge injustice but prevent it? I relate my fascination with the Quran to the way that my contemporaries are often interested in fictional world-building. In some quantity, I feel exasperated that a lot of people are taking more interest in the politics and conlangs of Westeros than they do the real cultures of our fellow humans. But then again, is it really to my credit that I’m engaging in critical voyeurism of another religion’s foundational scripture and culture? Maybe not.

But I do enjoy it. And I think there’s a value in knowing this thing that is so important to a fifth of the world and my neighbors. And if Westeros or Marvel is more important to your neighbors, then I guess I won’t hold you against taking more interest in that instead.

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