LIGHT (noor in Arabic) is one of those fascinating symbols that is pervasive across world religions, traditions, cultures and societies. It represents a universal symbol of sacredness and sublimity that tends to captivate both the ancient and modern mind. Since time immemorial, the phenomenon of light has been a source of solace, guidance and enlightenment.
Even other creatures, such as moths, are attracted towards light. Lights are lit on both sacred and secular occasions and places, such as mosques, other places of religious gatherings, such as darbars, dargahs, mazars, mausoleums and public buildings.
Lights are lit in homes as well as on buildings on various religious occasions such as Shab-i-Mairaj, Shab-i-Barat, Lailatul Qadr, and on the occasion of urs of the Sufi saints. Faith groups such as the Manicheans and Zoroastrians are particularly known for celebrating light. In addition, other religions also celebrate light, such as the Jews celebrating Hanukkah, Christians celebrating Christmas, Hindus celebrating Diwali, and the Buddhists celebrating Vesak to express their veneration of light.
Light is also used on ceremonial occasions, such as the marriage of a family member, during celebrations of an event of historical importance such as independence day, significant national and community days, such as the anniversary of victory in war, or even while commemorating a tragic day in the past. Lighting on both happy days and sad provides happiness, solace, peace, serenity and comfort.
Prophets, sages and mystics are often called ‘lights’.
An oil lamp, or a candle, or a bonfire, for example, creates an amazing aura of tranquillity and mystique. In some cultures, there are fire rituals that embody literal or symbolic events, such as in the Shingon School of Japanese Buddhism that practises the esoteric Goma fire ritual. Thus, there is much evidence of how light and fire are used in a symbolic sense across the world.
Not long ago, chiraghaan was done with traditional oil lamps and candles but now, instead, multicolour electric bulbs are used to create a more pervasive effect. Public places, such as mosques, buildings, residential areas, and homes are often decorated with electric lights to show happiness, glory, and sublimity. Nowadays public functions use multicoloured floodlights to enhance the effect of the experience of what is going on. Architects would be particularly mindful of using light in significant public buildings.
Coming from the macrocosm to the microcosm, all great prophets, sages, mystics and enlightened personalities are often called ‘lights’ or the ‘Tower of Light’. In the case of Islam, the Holy Quran, for example, considers the Prophet (PBUH) as the ‘luminous lamp’ and ‘noor’ (5:15). The Quran also testifies that there is as well light and guidance in the Torah and the Bible.
The most fascinating verse regarding noor that has mystified both Sufis and intellectuals alike in all times of Muslim history is the ‘Verse of Light’ (24:35) that starts by saying, “Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth. ...” The rich symbolism described in the entire verse, intertwining both immanence and transcendence, has always challenged Muslims to fathom it. The richness of it can be gauged by the fact that no matter how much we explain it, one feels something is still missing from our explanation.
Despite so many exegetes, mystics, and thinkers explaining the verse both in terms of tanzeel and ta’wil (such as Sahl al-Tustari, Imam Al-Ghazali, Mulla Sadra) the human quest for meaning still remains insatiated. Sahl al-Tustari beautifully explains the noor in terms of ‘Noor-i-Muhammadi’ — the primordial light created in eternity.
It is no wonder then that Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah advised all readers of the Quran, Muslim or otherwise, “… not to allow … their material critical outlook to break in with literal, verbal explanations of (the Light Verse) something that is symbolic and allegorical”. In any case, what can we understand literally when the Quran tells us that “Allah is the Noor of the Heavens and the Earth?”
The purpose of writing these lines is to demonstrate that world faiths and cultures have in common so many beliefs with regard to so many things, such as light. If we wish to engender a sustained dialogue among faiths and cultures within and outside our own tradition, we need to go beyond our apparent differences, and try to understand the hidden structures of symbols that bind us together.
Light is a powerful symbol through which we can see both the similarities and differences in human societies as to how each tradition looks at it, thus enriching and deepening our understanding of light, its mystique and its mysteries. It is a universal capital that all cultures can own.
The writer is an educationist with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.
Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2019