Question: What is the meaning of Allah (awj) being the light of the heavens and of the earth? Is He light in the physical sense? If not, what is intended?
Without doubt, the “light” mentioned in the verse of Light (Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth...) is not a physical and sensible light. For, sensible light pertains to the accidental characteristics and qualities of material existents. Hence, the arguments that negate Allah’s (awj) corporeality preclude perceiving Allah (awj) as sensible and material light. Moreover, there are numerous Qur`anic verses that deny the possibility of a visual perception of Allah (awj), disaffirming any similarity between Him and His creatures.
Therefore, when Allah (awj) is referred to as “the light of the heavens and the earth” certainly sensible light is not meant.
Light by definition is that which is essentially manifest and makes other things manifest and visible as well; it is clear and it makes [other things] clear; it is apparent and it makes [other things] apparent. This definition applies both to sensory light—such as the light of the sun, the stars and of a lamp—and to super-sensory light—such as knowledge and faith. Of course, what comes to mind on hearing the word light initially is sensory light. But by analyzing the definition of light (i.e. what is essentially manifest and makes other things manifest), one finds it permissible to apply the word to spiritual matters, for they illuminate the spirit, the inward, and such application is also encountered in the Qur`an where it refers to faith as a light bestowed on the believer. In addition, gnostics employ the word to signify “love.”
As the Divine Essence is bright and manifest and is also the cause that brightens and makes other things manifest—for, He is the creator and existence-granter — employing the word light to denote Allah (awj) is correct. Rather, as the cause for a thing’s appearance to others is its existence, it must be concluded that the most fundamental instance of light is existence itself. Hence, Allah (awj), is the most perfect instance of light. He is the sole real essentially manifest being who makes other things manifest. Thus, it must be proclaimed that He is the light who illuminates the heavens and the earth.
Furthermore, it must be noted that “the heavens and the earth” is an allusion to the entirety of the world of being, to all the celestial and terrestrial creatures, to the hidden and apparent worlds, not merely the sky above us or the Earth we inhabit. Hence, the meaning of, “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,” is that Allah (awj) is the light of the whole universe.
The reason why the word light is employed in lieu of creator is to point to the fact that just as light is manifest and as such does not need anything else to shed light on it, Allah (awj) is also manifest and obvious and there is no need for a mediating agent to illuminate Allah (awj). Hence, gnostics following the teachings of the prophets and Imams (ع), have expressed that all creatures must be understood in the light of Allah (awj); we should not try to identify Allah (awj) through His creatures and effects [taken on their own level]. For the friends of Allah (awj), everything is manifest in the light of Allah (awj), and other than His light, nothing is to be seen. If not for the Divine light, everything would sink into the darkness of non-existence.
Therefore, the main point that is understood from this verse is that Allah (awj) is known to all His creatures, for the appearance of all things derives from His manifestness and illumination. Allah (awj) is not absent so as to be revealed through His creatures. He is manifest in all His Essence, and so His obscurity in the eyes of the intellectually impaired is due to the intensity of His light; “O You Who are obscured by the intensity of Your light, You Who are manifest but hidden in Your manifestness.”
Another point that is derived from this verse is the fact that Allah (awj) [in Islam] is referred to as “Light” not “the Greatest Light.” The Manichaean belief that Allah (awj) is the “Greatest Light” (i.e. a physical light similar to other lights but greater and more elevated) is not a correct belief. According to the Qur`an, Allah (awj) is “pure light” and is super-sensory. He is the sole light of the world of existence, and all else is “darkness.” In the words of some supplications, He is “the Light of Lights.” That is, He is the real light, and if there is any light at all, it is thanks to His existence and light.
Regarding the exposition, the reality underlying this verse, and its application there are numerous views and narrations that can be sought by referring to books of exegesis and the corpus of narrations.
Without doubt, by referring to Allah (awj) as light,
“Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,”1
the Qur`an does not intend to identify Him as a physical light. The sensible light is a creature among the creatures of Allah (awj), as is expressly stated in the first verse of Surat al-An’am,
“All praise belongs to Allah who created the heavens and the earth and made the darkness and the light.”2
Muslim philosophers, theologians, and Qur`anic exegetes have all provided strong proofs in negating a corporeal aspect for Allah (awj).3 Hence, using the word light in reference to Allah (awj) does not denote sensory light, which is either a physical substance or a characteristic of matter.
Among the exegete-theologians, Fakhr Razi has probably treated this topic more thoroughly than any other. In his exposition of the Verse of Light, he has formulated six rational arguments why Allah (awj) cannot have a body and so consequently the light mentioned in the verse cannot be signifying sensible and material light.4
More importantly, there are numerous verses in the Qur`an that negate the coming-into-being (huduth) and corporeality of Allah (awj).
Moreover, the verse, “There is nothing like Him,” that recurs several times in the Qur`an denies the possibility of any likeness and resemblance of Allah (awj) to other existents. Hence, Allah’s (awj) being light cannot be of the nature of the sensible light, for the latter has many instances [while Allah (awj) in no way resembles physical phenomena].
In analyzing the meaning of the word light, ’Allamah Tabataba`i explains: “The word light carries a popular meaning, and that is, the thing that lightens dark bodies so that we can see them, and so light is the thing by which all things become apparent and visible. Of course, light itself is essentially manifest and visible; there is nothing else that lightens it. Hence, light can be defined as that which is essentially manifest and makes other things manifest as well. This is the first meaning to which the word light was initially designated. Subsequently, the word was employed, by way of allegory or secondary designation (waz’ thanawi), to indicate whatever made sensible things visible. In a later stage, the word was also applied to super sensible realities. It is in this sense that intellect is defined as a light which reveals the intelligibles. All these various usages have stemmed from analyzing the initial meaning of light: “that which is essentially manifest and makes other things manifest as well.”5
Thus, what is initially understood by light is the sensible light that emanates from illuminant objects—such as, the sun, the stars, and man-made lamps—without which the world would be shrouded in darkness. Of course, the essence and definition of light from the standpoint of the physicists is a whole different issue. They might consider the reality of light as yet unravelled and they might have disagreements regarding it, but what is for certain is that in the material world there does exist something referred to as light that is radiated from illuminate objects, technically referred to as “sources of light.” The application of the word light, however, is not limited to sensible light. It can be applied to whatever is “manifest and makes manifest” or, put differently, to whatever is “apparent and makes apparent.” For instance, we often refer to knowledge as light, for it is in its essence clear and also sheds light on other realities.6
Regarding the believer, the Qur`an states,
“He who was lifeless, then We gave him life and provided him with a light by which he walks among the people…”7
So in the Qur`anic terminology, faith is “light.” And as faith illuminates the heart of the believer, shows him the destination, and guides him to felicity, this application of light is correct. This is similar to the gnostics’ reference to love as “light.” Rumi says:
Love is victorious and I, conquered;
As the moon, I am illuminated with the light of Love.8
Using the word light in reference to Allah (awj) is correct, for such usage has occurred in the Qur`an and the narrations.9 But we must be careful to note in saying “Allah is light” that we do not intend material and sensible light; rather, that the Divine Essence is manifest and manifestant10. The manifestness and clearness of everything is due to the emanation of His Essence. However, nothing illuminates Him. Thus, we can correctly say, Allah is light.
’Allamah Tabataba`i writes: “Since it is the existence of everything that is the cause of its manifestness to others, therefore the highest form of light is existence itself. Moreover, since the existence of contingent beings depends on the bestowal of existence by the Truth, the Supreme, He is the most complete instance of light. It is He Who is essentially manifest and also makes manifest all-other-than-him. All other existents become manifest and existent by virtue of Him. And this is the meaning of the verse, ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.’”11
From the aforesaid explanations the meaning of the Verse of Light becomes clear that: Allah (awj) is the creator and the illuminator of the heavens and the earth. By the expression “the heavens and the earth” what is intended is the entirety of the world of existence; all the celestial and the terrestrial existents; the apparent and the hidden worlds.12 “The heavens and the earth” does not merely signify the sky above and the Earth that we inhabit. Therefore, the meaning of the verse is that Allah (awj) is the light of the entire universe. The reason why the verse has employed this word in lieu of creator is to point to the fact that just as light is itself visible and does not need anything else to make it visible, rather it is light itself that illuminates all other things, Allah (awj), likewise has no creator and there is no other agent that could shed light on Him. He is a manifest, clear, and self-evident existent. There is no need for formulating reasoning to prove His existence. He is the creator of all the other existents of the world of being. In the words of Haji Sabzwari, “O You Who are obscured by the intensity of Your light.”13
Thus, as propounded by the gnostics in following the mystical teachings of the prophets and the Imams (ع), Allah (awj) is manifest to the highest degree; He is absolutely clear, and hence there is no need for the mediation of His creatures to reveal Him. In other words, in order to reason for the existence of Allah (awj), one should utilize the argument from cause rather than the argument from effect. We must first comprehend Allah (awj) and then through Him His creatures, not conversely.
It is to this truth that the following line from the ‘Arafah Supplication (related from Imam al-Husayn b. ‘Ali (ع)) refers: “O Allah! Being distracted by [Your] effects and creatures prevents me from seeing You.”
In Du’a Kumayl, the Commander of the Faithful, Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (ع) expresses, “By the light of Your face from which all things are alight.” If not for the light of the Divine Visage and Essence, everything would be dark. That is, nothing will exist, and all things would recede back into the darkness of non-existence.
Without the light of the Divine Essence the shadow of non-existence would envelope all things; the resulting darkness would not be like that of the night [rather it would be the darkness of non-existence].
Hence, it must be said that Allah (awj), is absolute light. In comparison to Him, there is no other light. All other lights in comparison to Him are darkness. For, the only existent Who is by His essence manifest and manifesting is Allah (awj). All other things that are manifest and that illuminate other creatures are by their essences dark. It is Allah (awj) Who has bestowed on them that feature.
It is in this light that ‘Allamah Tabataba`i has made the following inference from that verse: “Hence, it can be inferred that Allah (awj), is not obscure for any existent, for the disclosure of all things, to themselves and to other things, derives from Allah’s (awj) illuminating. If Allah (awj) had not illuminated or brought into existence anything, nothing would have existed. Thus prior to all other things, Allah (awj) is the essential manifest being … Hence it can be concluded that light in the verse, ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,’ refers to that all-embracing Divine light which is the source of the universe, the light to which all things owe their manifestness, the light which is identical with the existence of everything. This is that all-embracing Divine mercy.”14
Thus, according to the Qur`an, Allah (awj), the Supreme, is not an absent or essentially obscure God that is revealed by His creatures. Such conception is defected and elementary. Real knowledge is to comprehend the world through Allah (awj), not conversely. And this verse asserts that Allah (awj) is at the height of conspicuousness, clarity, and obviousness.
Another point that can be inferred from this verse is that we refer to Allah as light, not as “the greatest light”, which implies that there are other lights as well, some more bright and others less bright, and that Allah (awj)is the greatest. According to the Qur`an, there is only one light and that is Allah, and everything else is dark and non-existent. It is true, however, that in comparing the creatures together, some are light and some are not—for instance, knowledge, faith, intellect, etc., are light. But the latter have derived their light from Allah (awj).
Thus, in comparison to Allah (awj), there is no other light, or in other words, He is “the Light of Lights.”15 That is, He is the light of all lights rather than being the greatest light. Therefore, the belief that Allah (awj) is the greatest light, that He is of the sensory lights but the brightest and the most intense—reputedly attributed to the Manicheans—is false.
In the end, we find it suitable to relate Imam ‘Ali b. Musa al-Rida’s (ع) reply to ‘Abbas ibn Hilal who had asked the Imam regarding the meaning of the Verse of Light: “He is the guide for the inhabitants of the heaven and the inhabitants of the earth.”16