The Light - Islam
The Sufi tradition of Islam makes
frequent reference to the vision of a Divine Light. As a mystical
tradition, Sufism is that form of Islam that emphasizes the need for
a direct experience with God.
“God Almighty (Brahman) resides within all humans as Light, a fact that is supported by all scriptures. Thus we can meditate on Him within and that long search for the Creator is at last over, ending within ourselves. That is why Jesus kept telling the ignorant masses two millennia ago that the Kingdom of God is within.
A few months ago i asked my daughter Lalita what is that Light above Shri Mataji in her Sahasrara (Kingdom of God). She replied 'God!'
i remained silent for a long time to absorb the immensity of that single word answer.”
The Supreme Radiance
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, received instruction from a revelation that occurred around the beginning of the turn of the seventh century CE. A voice came to him and said,” Read!"Muhammad, being illiterate, responded to the voice that he could not read. The voice said that“It is the Lord Most Bountiful who teacheth by the pen, [who] teacheth man that which he knew not" (Qur'n, Surah XCVI, 1-5). Then the voice said, on two separate occasions,” O Muhammad, thou art God's messenger, and I am Gabriel.”The vision accompanying this voice was exceptionally bright, so much so that Muhammad had to turn away his face"from the brightness of the vision....”1
The Qur'n is quite specific about who would be the source of this kind of Light:
Allah is the Light
of the Heavens and the Earth...
Light upon Light,
Allah guideth unto His light
whom he will....(Qur'n Sur. XXIV, 35).
Often quoting this passage, the Sufi tradition of Islam makes frequent reference to the vision of a Divine Light. As a mystical tradition, Sufism is that form of Islam that emphasizes the need for a direct experience with God. Sufis routinely describe an experience with a Light once a devotee reaches a certain level of contemplation, usually accompanied by intense feelings of joy, even ecstasy. As with the Qur'n, the poetry in this tradition is an exquisite expression of the Divine presence that the Sufi encounters. A few introductory examples will help illustrate:
The Essence of the First Absolute Light,
God gives constant illumination,
whereby it is manifested and it
brings all things into existence,
giving light to them by its rays.
Everything in the World
is derived from the Light of His Essence
and all beauty and perfection
are the gift of His bounty,
and to attain fully to this illumination
within a Magian tavern
the Light of God I see;
In such a place, O wonder!
Shines out such radiancy...3
I take refuge in the Light
of Thy glorious Countenance
which illuminates the heavens.4
Thou art the Light of Light
and Lord of Lords accompanying all things.
Glory to Him whom nothing resembles,
the All-Hearer, all-Seer.5
O God. Thou art hidden from us,
though the heavens are filled
With Thy light which is brighter
than the sun and the moon...6
There is naught in the Universe
save one Light!
It appears in a variety of manifestations.
God is the Light;
its manifestations, the Universe...7
Sufis frequently dwell on the identification of God (Allah) with the Light. For the 13th century Sufi Muhyiddin ibn 'rabi,” God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.”8 God is“The embodiment of light, and the source of all illuminations.”9 The Divine Light is not like any other light, however. It is unlike anything ordinary people see from day to day. Ibn 'rabi tells us that“His light is brilliant.”10 Even more than that though, the phenomenon is really beyond description. Like so many other Sufis, ibn 'rabi has recourse to poetry to describe the indescribable:
Ocean's a drop from my pervading Sea,
Light but a flash of my vast Brilliancy...11
When one perceives the Divine Light fully, everything else disappears. The person then realizes that this is really"'the very light of the Absolute [God] as such...'"11 The 13th century Indian Sufi Maneri tells us that God's"very brilliance blinds me to whatever descends.”12 This Light is“A thousand times more luminous than that of the sun,” Maneri says.13 Nuri, a 10th century Persian Sufi, explains that the"light of God... is the first thing to appear when God wants to guide a person on the mystical path....”14 For Sufis, it is abundantly clear that the Divine Light, however difficult to describe to those who have never seen it, is both beautiful and perfect:
In Thy perfect light,
Loverhood I learn.
To Thy beauty bright
Line and Rhyme to turn...
Ne'er from my nostrils went
Thy sweet and familiar scent
Ne'er vanished from my sight
Thine image bright....15
To see God, to see the Light, is one of the primary goals of Sufism. The 18th century Naqshbandi Sufi Nasir Muhammad Andalib said that one should"strive to bring himself towards this light....”16 Once again, though, the most exquisite sense of being drawn to the Light is provided in poetic form. Mansur al-Hallaj lets us know that once one becomes aware of the presence of God and His Light, there is no turning back:
You understand our God is a consuming fire.
The rose opens to the light,
the Narcissus leans to the shade...
But at some point His Light
penetrates our eyes, destroying our shades...
If we are roses we are drawn to light.
We do not think about the end.
There is none.17
Or, as other Sufis would express it:
Lord, plunge me into the sea
of the Light of Thy majesty
that I might come forth with
the shining of that majesty upon my face...
I as Thee by Thy Name of Light
and by Thy Countenance that is Light,
O Light of Light...
to veil me in the Light of Thy name...
for Thou art the Light of all
with Thy Light.18
O Light of Light
who dost illumine
the obscurity of non-being
with the effulgence of Thy Light,
make Thy Light of... each part of me,
till I shall be only Light,
and flooded with the Light
of Thy Unity.19
Just before his death, the 18th century Indian mystic Mir Dard prayed for the following:
O God, give me
light in my heart
and light in my tongue
and light in my hearing
and light in my sight
and light in my feeling
and light in all my body
and light before me
and light behind me.
Give me, I pray thee,
light on my right hand
and light on my left hand
and light above me
and light beneath me.
O Lord, increase light within me
and give me light
and illuminate me.20
There is more to the Sufi path than the experience with light alone. Sufis often describe the feelings that go along with the Vision as"joyful,” "loving,” “Blissful“And"ecstatic.”The thirteenth century Persian Sufi Fakhruddin 'Iraqi described the state of this relationship as"perfect joy.”21 Ibn 'rabi says that"rapture and ecstasy is the intensity of love, and the quality of ecstasy and rapture first became manifest in the high and rapturous and ecstatic spirits to whom the high God revealed Himself from His Beautiful Awesomeness, [becoming] enraptured and ecstatic in the lights of God....”22 When Sufis see the“All-beautiful, all-loving"God and His Light, they reach a state of ecstatic trance.23 Again Sufi expressions on this matter are best said poetically:
...all the earth's joys
are dust beneath the feet
Of those entrancing memories of Thee.
In a state of separation
I felt sad and distressful,
In union I felt my self-consciousness
and my self-hood had bereft me.
Joy came to dwell in my soul
And now do I keep my body and soul
in a state of bliss.24
Alas, that He
Should ever be perceived in ecstasy...
Ecstasy touches but the forms,
which flee before His radiant Divinity...
It were more meet that He
Who with such bounty brought me ecstasy
Should of His boundless grace
Sweep clean my spirit of its every trace.
When first He came to me,
When first He
stirred my soul to ecstasy,
I knew that He would bring
Gifts far beyond the mind's imagining.25
And so shall Attar shattered be
And rapt in sudden ecstasy
Soar to Godly vision, even
beyond the veils of earth and heaven.26
The power and beauty of the verses is stunning—and no wonder. R.A. Nicholson explains that"ecstasy affords the only means by which the soul can directly communicate and become united with God.”27 Maneri explains that one will know that the light a mystic sees is from God if it is accompanied by bliss: “A sense of inner bliss arises within him so that in that very bliss a person knows that what he is seeing is from God Almighty and not from any other source.”28 So, says one Sufi, Truth itself is known in ecstasy.29
This blissful, joyous, ecstatic state is part of the intense love that the Sufi and God share. Khwaju of Kirman explained this relationship poetically, as a kind of love that is without bounds:
In ocean waves of love Divine
The lover's soul is not aware
of tranquil shores
And those who watch the ocean waves
from tranquil points of distant shores
Are not aware of shoreless love.30
Nuri explained the mystic love of God this way:
So passionate my love is,
I do yearn
To keep His memory
constantly in mind;
But O, the ecstasy with which
Sears out my thoughts,
and strikes my memory blind!
And, marvel upon marvel,
ecstasy Itself is swept away:
now far, now near
My Lover stands,
and all the faculty
Of memory is swept up
in hope and fear.31
...And I adore thee, Light Divine
Lest lesser lights
should make me blind.32
The ninth century Persian poet Yahya b. Mu'dh says of Divine Love that
The lover joys to dwell
In love with Love;
Yet some, as strange I tell,
Do love reprove
About God's Love I hover
While I have the breath,
To be His perfect lover
Until my death.33
This ecstatic joy, the love of and for God, and the vision of the Divine Light was not without its difficulties, however. Such an intensely desirable experience compelled the mystic to get closer and closer to God. In the end, some became so close that they could no longer tell the difference between God, His Light, and themselves. Nuri says that“I looked one day at the Light and I did not cease looking at it until I became the Light.”34 This happens when the Sufi"contemplates all the time on the light of God and forgets everything, even his own self.”35 Rumi put it this way:
What is to know of the Unity of God?
It is to extinguish oneself
in the presence of the One.
Shouldst thou desire to be
as bright as day...
He who loses his separate existence
The result of what he does
is always full of bliss.36
I am plunged in the Light
like the sun;
I cannot distinguish myself
from the light.37
As the stone that is entirely
turned into pure ruby...
Through oneness with the Light...
Strive that thy stony nature
may be diminished
So that thy stone may become resplendent
with the qualities of the ruby...
The qualities of self-existence
will depart from the body
The qualities of intoxication (ecstasy)
will increase in thy head.38
Fakhruddin 'Iraqi echoes Rumi's assessment:
No, I am the Light:
All things are seen
in my unveiling
and from moment to moment
my radiance is more manifest...
Look: I am the mirror
of the shining Essence.
These lights which arise
from the East of Nothingness
are myself, every one
— yet I am more....39
Mansur al-Hallaj took sentiments such as these to their logical conclusion. Hallaj declared, in Arabic,” Ana 'l-Haqq,” meaning“I am the Truth,” or“I am God.”Orthodox Muslims took this to be blasphemy of the worst kind—no man can declare himself to be God. As in Judaism and Christianity, Sufi mystics generally came close to identifying the soul with God, but most fell short of any such absolute identification.40 Still, the main point is well taken: the closer one gets to the Divine Light, the more one's self becomes One with the Divine.
The visions of light and feelings of ecstasy have broad and clear similarities with other mystical traditions and with near death experiences. However, like other traditions, Sufism is unique when it comes to interpreting what the mystic encounters. For example, Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, is seen by some Sufis as"light from God's light.”41 According to these mystics the prophet of Islam shows the searcher“The way unto his own soul where he finds the reflection of God's light and the 'light of Muhammad.'"42 Fakhruddin 'Iraqi expressed this view poetically as follows:
Praise belongs to God
Who made effulgence the face of
His Friend Muhammad
with Beauty's theophanies,
that it sparkled with light...43
The Sufi Path
Consistent with, although not unique to, the Islamic tradition is the means by which one attains the vision of God. 'Iraqi asks,” He is a Light, how shall I see Him?”44
This question is answered in a number of ways. Ibn 'rabi says that“The Beatific Vision... impregnates the elect with Divine Light, each experiencing the vision according to the knowledge of the Divine dogma, or dogmas, gained by him on earth.”45 For Maneri, pureness of heart is the key: “When the mirror of the heart is thoroughly cleansed of the rust of human nature and selfish qualities, it becomes capable of reflecting lights from the extrasensory world.... As purity of heart increases, so too do the power and frequency of these lights....”46 Conversely, the lack of such purity is an obstacle to the Sufi. As Rumi tells us,
Would you have eyes and ears
of reason clear,
Tear off the obstructing veil of greed!
The blind imitation of that Sufi
proceeded from greed;
Greed closed his mind
to the pure light....47
Above all, though, consistent with the central meaning and message of Islam, God leads to His light those whom He chooses. Sixteenth century Sufi Shah Abdul Karim expressed this sentiment poetically:
God, the best of proposers,
will unite the lover
and the loved one...
He guides us to the Fount of Light,
So to our source we all return....48
Ultimately, the last stanza tells us what might well be the destiny of us all. If that source is the same one to which the Sufis refer, then that holds a bright promise for the life after this one, to say the least.
Given the sharp parallels, it is clear that Sufi mystics have plenty in common with other mystical traditions. The encounter with the Light, and the associated feelings of love and supreme happiness are too obvious to ignore. Given this common ground, we should not be at all surprised by differences. Sufis interpret their experience according to the precepts of the religion in which they were raised. The most stunning fact is that even though the traditions under investigation are otherwise chasms apart culturally, and ages apart in time, the common experience still shines through clearly.
The Supreme Radiance
Notes 1. Mohammed M. Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (NY: New American Library, n.d.), x.
2. Shihab ud Din Suhrawardi (died 1191 CE), quoted by Hussein Nasr, Three Muslim Sages (Cambridge: University Press, 1963), 69.
3. Hafiz (d. 1389), quoted by Nasrallah S. Fatemi, Faramarz S. Fatemi and Fariborz S. Fatemi in Love, Beauty and Harmony in Sufism (NY: A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc., 1978), 203. The Magi were priests of an un-Islamic religious tradition in ancient Persia.
4. 'li Muhammad al-Qari (n.d.), quoted by Constance E. Padwick, Muslim Devotions (London: SPCK, 1961), 62.
5. 'li Zain al-'bidin (d. 710-713), quoted by Padwick, 69.
6. Kenneth Craig, compiler, The Wisdom of the Sufis (NY: New Directions, 1976), 33.
7. Dr. Mir Valiuddin, The Quranic Sufism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977), 43. Sufi author unknown.
8. Ibn 'rabi (d. 1240), in Ismail Hakki Bursevi's translation of and commentary on Fusus al-Hakkim (Oxford: Muhyiddin Ibn 'rabi Society, 1987), Vol. II, 319.
9. Ibn 'rabi, quoted by Prof. Muhammad Enamul Haq, A History of Sufism in Bengal (Dacca, Bangladesh: Asiatic Press, 1975), 399.
10. In Bursevi, Fusus al-Hikam, Vol. II, 266.
11. Ibn 'rabi, Lama't, quoted by A.J. Arberry in Sufism: An Account of the Mystics in Islam (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1968), 103.
12. Maneri, The Hundred Letters, trans. by Paul Jackson. The Classics of Western Spirituality (NY: Paulist Press, 1980), 13.
13. Maneri, 56.
14. Nuri, quoted by Annemarie Schimmel in Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 144.
15. Cragg, The Wisdom of the Sufis, 56-58.
16. Quoted by Schimmel, 421.
17. Al-Hallaj (d. 922), quoted by Herbert Mason,” Hallaj and the Baghdad School of Sufism,” in Leonard Lewishon (ed.), Classical Persian Sufism: From its Origins to Rumi (London: Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 1993), 80.
18. Ahmad al-Buni (n.d.), quoted by Schimmel, 213.
19. Ahmad al-Tijani (born 1737/38), quoted by Schimmel, 213.
20. In Schimmel, 215.
21. Fakhruddin 'Iraqi, Divine Flashes. The Classics of Western Spirituality (NY: Paulist Press, 1993), 122.
22. in Fusus al-Hikam, 161-62.
23. Haq, A History of Sufism in Bengal, 56-57.
24. Jami (d. 1492), quoted in Valiuddin, The Quranic Sufism, 78.
25. A.J. Arberry, The Doctrine of the Sufis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 107. Sufi author(s) unknown.
26. Attar being“The mentor of mystic poets and writers" (d. 1230 CE), quoted by Fatemi, Love, Beauty and Harmony in Sufism, 143.
27. Reynold A. Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1970), 59.
28. Maneri, The Hundred Letters, 56-57.
29. Arberry, The Doctrine of the Sufis, 137.
30. Mehdi Nakosteen, Sufism and Human Destiny and Sufi Thought in Persian Poetry (Boulder, Colorado: Este Es Press, 1977), 202.
31. Quoted by Arberry, The Mystics of Islam, 62-63.
32. In Arberry, The Doctrine of the Sufis, 90.
33. In Arberry, The Mystics of Islam, 61-62.
34. In R.S. Bhatnaggar, Dimensions of Classical Sufi Thought (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984), 63.
35. Haq, A History of Sufism in Bengal, 107.
36. Quoted by Dr. Mir Valiuddin, Contemplative Disciplines in Sufism (London: East-West Publications), 115.
37. Valiuddin, Contemplative Disciplines, 160.
38. Valiuddin, Contemplative Disciplines, 162-163.
39. 'Iraqi, Divine Flashes, 70.
40. Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, 150.
41. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 223.
42. Lewisohn, Classical Persian Sufism, 374.
43. 'Iraqi, Divine Flashes, 69.
44. 'Iraqi, Divine Flashes, 124.
45. 'Iraqi, Divine Flashes, 167.
46. Maneri, The Hundred Letters, 55.
47. In Fatemi, Love, Beauty and Harmony in Sufism, 52.
48. Dr. Motilal Jotivani, Sufis of Sindh (Delhi: K.S. Printers, 1986), 75-78.
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