14 June 2013

God's Glory in the Qur'an

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Moses on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments Moses on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments http://hookedonthebook.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/image023.jpg

Here I begin a three-part comparative look at the theme of God’s glory in the Qur’an and the Bible. I haven’t seen this done before, but the idea came to me recently as I was meditating on II Corinthians 5. God as light is a central concept in both traditions and extending this metaphor to God’s glory will enable us to tease out some fascinating convergences and contrasts.


The divine light in the Qur’an

The Qur’an never states “God is light,” but two verses speak of his light illuminating the heavens and the earth. The lesser-known of the two verses describes the Last Day. I’ll quote the whole passage to give you a feel for the wider theme of God’s glory – a combination of ultimate power, righteousness and justice:

“These people have no grasp of God’s true measure.

On the Day of Resurrection, the whole earth will be in His grip.

The heavens will be rolled up in His right hand – Glory be to Him!

He is far above the partners they ascribe to Him! –

The trumpet will be sounded, and everyone in the heavens and earth will fall down senseless except those God spares.

It will be sounded once again and they will be on their feet, looking on.

The earth will shine with the light of its Lord; the Record of Deeds will be laid open; the  prophets and witnesses will be brought in.

Fair judgment will be given between them; they will not be wronged and every soul will be repaid in full for what it has done.

He knows best what they do” (Q. 39:67-70).

God’s absolute sovereignty is underlined through the images of the earth being in his hand (“in his grip,” heavens “rolled up in His right hand”); his loftiness (“high above the partners they ascribe to Him”); people knocked down senseless by the first sound of God’s Trumpet; the second blowing of the Trumpet brings them to their feet; the radiance of God’s light illuminating the earth. Notice too the expression, “Glory be to Him!” (subḥānahu). The noun subḥān is one of the words for glory, though it is more in the sense of “praise ascribed to God.” That expression is found 41 times in the Qur’an, and the verb “to praise,” or “glorify” God (sabbaḥa ) occurs 38 times.

[There are two other words in Arabic often translated as “glory” in the Qur’an. The first is ʿizza (but it leans more toward the idea of power). Four times you find the expression, “Glory altogether belongs to God!” (Q. 4:139; 10:65; 35:10; 63:8). And once you find this title for God: “Your Lord, the Lord of Glory, is far above what they attribute to Him” (37:180). The word most used for “glory” in the Arabic Bible (majd), however, doesn’t appear in the Qur’an – just its derivative, the adjective majīd : twice used for God, the All-glorious (Q. 11:73; 85:15); and twice used for the Qur’an: “the glorious Qur’an” (Q. 50:1; 85:21)].

Now the second verse, by far the most famous one on this topic – and undeniably one of the most beautiful verses in the Qur’an – is the “Light verse” (Q. 24:75), giving its title to that sura (chapter), “Light” (nūr) Here it is in the most common English translation for at least two generations, that by Yusuf Ali:

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.”

Volumes have been written on this one verse, partly because of its poetic beauty and evocative imagery. That said, it is also open to many possible interpretations. God is beyond all human description; he is “transcendent,” since he is infinitely greater than anything he creates, including humankind, the pinnacle of his creation and his earthly trustees. Hence, you don’t read “God is light” (though this verse is the source for nūr  – Light – as one of the Beautiful Names of God). Instead, he is “the Light of the heavens and the earth.” Put otherwise, his luminous brilliance infuses all his creation.

Then follows the parable of the recess in the medieval wall of a house (the niche) wherein an olive oil lamp was placed to light up the house. The lamp in turn is encased in beautifully chiseled glass, which allows the glow of the flame to be refracted in multiple gleams. Hence the image of a “brilliant star”; then also the flame’s source, olive oil, leads to the picture of the olive tree, perhaps even the original tree in the Garden of creation, the Tree of Life. So light allows the earthly pilgrim to travel on the straight path that leads to life, and thus avoiding the side paths marked for destruction. So many images and symbols all wrapped together in such a short passage!

Referring to the context of this verse, Yusuf Ali comments, “Embedded within certain directions concerning a refined domestic and social life, comes this glorious parable of Light, which contains layer upon layer of allegorical truth about spiritual mysteries. No notes can do adequate justice to its full meaning.”

The word “allegorical” is intentional. Ali adds all manner of detail which I cannot reproduce here. So is the word “mysteries” – in fact, it’s the mystical side of Islam, the seekers of hidden knowledge (gnosis) in the Sufi tradition who have made the most of this verse. Arguably the greatest Sunni scholar of all, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), was able to bring together in his own person and writings three hitherto incompatible currents – mainstream Sunni theology and law, the mystical tradition of Sufism, and Islamic philosophy (though significantly trimmed down). Ghazali wrote a famous book on this verse, Mishkat al-anwār (“The Niche of Lights”), using Neo-Platonic philosophy in a Sufi vein and a hadith about God saying to Moses that he speaks to him through 70,000 veils. If you peel through the layers of his esoteric mysticism, you encounter a man who through years of ascetic practices and spiritual disciplines is hungry to know God intimately. The Sufi saint (walī) is indeed the person who has achieved a high degree of union with God.

The Shi’i branch of Islam, as opposed to the majority Sunnis, has consistently kept open the doors of philosophy and rationalism. It is mostly in that vein that the Shi’i scholars have kept alive the Sufi tradition. By far the largest segment of Shia are Twelvers – think of Iran and Iraq. But the next branch is that of the Seveners, or the Ismailis, who are led by the Aga Khan, the Harvard-trained scholar and philanthropist extraordinaire. When it comes to the Qur’an, the Ismailis are known for their esoteric interpretations – that is, digging to find the secret meanings beneath the more obvious surface ones.

Here is an excerpt from the Aga Khan’s interpretation of the “Light verse.” Notice his style, an interesting combination of rationalism and mysticism. For him the niche is the human body, “whose function is to transmit to the human mind through its five sensory mediums, the external world. The Lamp is the entire life-force or the living spirit, whose first layer is the Glass or the mind, which is subtler than the body.” This leads him to see the olive tree as the heart, because it “manufactures” the oil. It is the reasoning spirit, but also “the seat of human emotions and feelings.” As such, the heart places man as a participant in two worlds – the physical world and the elevated spheres of the spiritual world. The oil it produces is “the essential fuel to ignite and enkindle the light of divine illumination in man.” So the human being is the lantern, which remains dormant until set alight by the divine spark:

“That moment is a moment of awakening, when man sees himself as Himself. That moment is a moment of rebirths, for man is reborn a superman, a prophet. That is his true birth, the birth of an ever living spirit, the dawn of Cosmic Consciousness, in which his past, present, future all become one. In that moment man achieves his ultimate Destiny – the Spiritual union with God.”


Other glimpses of God’s light in the Qur’an

As we learned above, God’s light can only be perceived by humans as it is reflected in creation. But this idea makes it very suitable for describing divine revelation. Ten verses use the metaphor of light to refer to the Qur’an itself. It is “an illuminating book” (munīr) (Q. 3:184; 22:8; 35:25). Then seven other verses use the word nūr, light (Q. 4:174; 5:15; 7:157; 9:32; 42:52; 61:8; 64:8). One example: “People, convincing proof has come to you from your Lord and We have sent a clear light down to you” (Q. 4:174 Abdel Haleem).

Notice that revelation in the Qur’an is always a “sending down” (nazzala). Part of that idea is due to the ancient near-eastern idea of eternal tablets in heaven that are then brought down to humans. Another reason relates to the symbol of light – just as the sun’s rays illumine and bring life to the earth, so God’s revelation brings down his blessing and salvation to humanity.

Notice too that the Qur’an uses the word “light” to describe the Torah (5:44; 6:91) and the Gospel (5:46). But we have to look elsewhere to find the idea of God’s glory.


God’s glory in the Qur’an

As you might have guessed, light is related to glory in both Qur’an and Bible. One of the most common Qur’anic words is aya (pl. ayāt), meaning either a verse in the Qur’an or a sign of God in Creation. In this respect, there is one interesting story that deals with the theme of glory – Moses called by God to climb Mount Sinai in order to receive the law. One detail in the Qur’an is conflated with an event in the Bible that happens later, when the people are just about to embark on their trek to the Promised Land. In both cases, Moses asks God to show himself to him – but in the Exodus narrative Moses specifically asks to see God’s glory.

Here I will follow an unlikely guide into this topic – the Shi’i scholar who ignited and then led the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini. I invite you to read the article in its entirety, taken from a Shi’i digital library based in Pakistan.

The title is “The Relationship between Allah and His Creation” and at the heart of his meditation is the long passage about Moses in Sura 7 (“The Heights,” al-Aʿrāf). Recall my earlier statement that a hadith mentions 70,000 veils standing between Moses and God. Yet Moses is the only prophet who spoke directly with God, his title being the kalīm Allāh. Though Khomeini mentions this at one stage, his aim here is to explain the relationship between Creator and the created. It is nothing like father and son, or like the sun and its rays, or a person and her mental states. Rather, an infinite chasm separate the two; nevertheless, in this encounter between God and Moses for forty days on Mount Sinai, God replies to Moses’ request in the following manner:

“‘You will never see Me, but look at that mountain: if it remains standing firm, you will see Me,’ and when his Lord revealed Himself (lit. “was transfigured,” or “glorified”) to the mountain, He made it crumble: Moses fell down unconscious. When he recovered, he said, ‘Glory be to You! To You I turn in repentance! I am the first to believe!’” (Q. 7:143 Abdel Haleem).

As we will discover in the next blog, this is very close to the notion of God’s glory in Bible – except for the details of when and how this took place. In both cases, though, God is infinitely greater than humanity or any other element of the created order. There is therefore a powerful radiance to his presence when he appears in any form. In a similar expression to the one used in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, when God displays his glory to the mountain, it disintegrates and Moses is knocked out. Still, this is a unique episode in the Qur’an.

What strikes Khomeini is the prophet Moses’ mystical experience. Leading up to this, he writes about the names of God, best exemplified in the besmallah (the formula that precedes all 114 suras but one): “In the name of the Raḥmān and the Raḥīm.” He puts it this way:

“The glory of Allah's Exalted Name is revealed in everything. Allah's name Raḥmān (Beneficent) is the reflection of His beneficence in the state of action and His name Raḥīm (Merciful) is the reflection of His mercy in the state of action.”

Now follow his Sufi meditation on these names. For him they represent stages, steps that climb upwards, as each stage of spiritual initiation is successfully completed. This points to a “higher philosophy,” one that only the Sufi saints, “the friends of Allah, can grasp and put to use. Hence his own mystical interpretation of this verse:

“As for the Prophets the Qur'an says at one place: And when his Lord revealed His glory to the mountain, He sent it crashing down. And Moses fell down senseless (Surah al-Aʿrāf, 7:143). When Allah imparted special spiritual training to Moses he said to Allah: 'My lord, let me see you.' Obviously an eminent Prophet cannot ask for seeing Allah with his physical eyes. Therefore his request must have been for a kind of seeing appropriate to the seer and the object to be seen. But even this kind of seeing was not possible, Moses said to Allah: 'My Lord! Let me see you.' The answer was: 'you will not see Me.' Allah further said: 'But gaze upon the mountain.’

What is meant by the mountain here? Does it signify Mount Sinai? Was it that the glory that could not be revealed to Moses, could be revealed to this mountain? If some other people had been present at the Mount Sinai at that time, could they also see the revelation of Allah's glory? The sentence, 'Gaze upon the mountain' implies a promise. Allah said: 'You cannot see Me. But gaze upon the mountain. If it stands still in its place, then you will see Me.' (Surah al-A'raf, 7:143) There is a possibility that the mountain here might have meant the remnant of egoism still left in Moses. As the result of the revelation of glory the mountain was smashed. In other words the egoism of Moses was completely done away with. 'And Moses fell down senseless.' That means that Moses reached the stage of completely passing away of his human attributes [sic].”


Final thought

Such a short article cannot do justice to the topic. I hope, however, to have uncovered for you at least the main idea of God’s light in the Qur’an – how it emanates from his person as rays from the sun and turns all of Creation into signs (ayāt) of his glory. Again, it is so appropriate that in Arabic ayāt refers both to God’s Signs embedded in Creation and the verses of the Book which he sent down to humankind.

The other point I have stressed is the persistent mystical strain in the Islamic tradition. Sufism is much more central to the Islamic experience historically than even many Muslims realize today. The Light Verse sits at the heart of it, and the prophet Moses represents the archetype of the person who leaves everything behind in order to climb up the arduous steps of spiritual purification and training, aiming to reach one day the glorious goal – union with God. That said, the Prophet Muhammad, as the Seal of the Prophets, is even greater. In his Night Journey he was taken up to the very presence of God above the seven heavens (though it’s not by chance that Moses was on the top level and that he is the one who prods him to bargain with God from 50 required prayers a day down to 5!).

Nevertheless, the idea of God’s glory in Creation also reveals the biggest contrast between Qur’an and Bible. Whereas the created order is indeed a collection of signs pointing to God’s glory (Psalm 19, Romans 1:20), and whereas the Bible sees itself as God’s inspired word, in the person of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, God enters creation as the Eternal Word. John in the Prologue of his gospel puts it this way:

“So the Word became human and made his home among us.

He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.

And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT).

More on this shortly.