Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education

The Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (NFIE) is a non-profit, tax exempt, religious and educational organization dedicated to serve Islam with a special focus on Tasawwuf(Sufism),

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"God is Light of Heaven and Earth" Part 1 of 3-Dr. Marcia Hermansen

God is Light of Heaven and Earth Quran 24:35,A Sufi Commentary. A lecture by Dr.Marcia Hermansen,Professor of Theology,Director World Islamic Studies Program,Loyola University,delivered at International Mawlid un Nabi Conference 1997,UIC, Chicago,Sponsored by Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education ( )

VIDEO LECTURE: Part 1 of 3

TRANSCRIPT: Part 1 of 3


Allâh is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is a niche within which there is a lamp--the lamp is in a glass, the glass as if it were a shining star--kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive tree neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would shine forth even if no fire touched it; Light upon Light. Allah guides to his Light whomever He wills, and He coins similitudes for people, and He has knowledge of all things.

This study will point out some elements of mystical commentaries on the "Light Verse" over the centuries with particular reference to their interpretations of the role of the Prophet Muhammad within the teachings of Islam.
Let me make the introductory point that the phrase, "light upon light"--"nûr ‘alâ nûr", in this verse has been taken by some commentators to point to the Prophet's role of interpreting and embodying the teachings of the Qur'ân. (5:15) "There has come to you from Allâh a light and a clear Book".[2]

The science of tafsîr begins from the time of the Prophet (pbuh), since there are chapters in hadith collections such as Muslim and Bukhârî which collect the statements of Muhammad explaining various âyât of the Qur'ân. Among the Companions of the Prophet there were Sahâba who focused on elements of the transmission and early sciences of the Qur'ân. For example, the Huffâz and the Qussâs were Companions who dedicated themselves to memorizing the Qur'ân and to gathering any information that they could about its interpretation and the accounts of the earlier Prophets recounted in the scripture. Companions especially noted for tafsîr of the Qur'ân are among the most prominent transmitters of ahâdîth as well, such as ‘Abd Allâh ibn Mas‘ûd, ‘Ikrima, and Ibn ‘Abbâs.
Just as there developed regional schools of hadith and legal madhâhib, there developed transmissions of tafsîr focused around the cities and regions of Mecca, Medina, Iraq, and Khurasan.

Categories of interpretation:

The Qur'anic commentaries vary in scope with some commentators, including many Sufis, going through the entire Qur'ân verse by verse to write a "continuous" commentary. Other studies may be done of only one or a few chapters, often the Fâtiha, or the shorter chapters at the end of the Qur'ân. Still other interpretations involve only a few verses, interspersed within other discussions or cited to illuminate relevant points.
General discussions of tafsîr broadly categorize approaches under the divisions of:[3]

1) Tafsîr bi-l riwâya or bi l-ma'thûr. That is, using the hadith of the Prophet and the reports of the Companions about certain verses, as well as comparisons to other Qur'ânic verses in order to shed light on certain terminology and topics.

2) Tafsîr bi-l dirâya or "bi'l ra'i" or "tafsîr using ijtihâd". This is where a Companion or a later commentator used reason to judge among the existing reports or to derive interpretations of verses based on the text.

3) Tafsîr bi-l ishâra, literally, the interpretation of the subtle allusions, which is also known as tafsîr faidî or kashfî, that which uses mystical experience or disclosure. This approach is particularly found among the mystics or Sufis who draw on traditional sources but also used spiritual experiences.[4]
There are a number of principles of tafsîr ishârî. In addition to presenting exoteric aspects of the text's meanings, methods for exploring the further implications include the principle of "tarâduf" or "al-nazâ'ir", synonyms and parallels, that is, looking for the subtle meanings or aspects of meaning (wujûh)[5] by comparing appearances of the same term at various places in the text of the Qur'ân. Muqâtil Ibn Sulaymân, for example, did this at an early period,[6] and then later was followed in this method by al-Hâkim al-Tirmidhî (c. 900).[7]

The History of Esoteric Qur'ân Commentary

Within the interpretive tradition of the mystics there are further dimensions of tafsîr. It is reported that Ja‘far al-Sâdiq said at the beginning of his tafsîr that the Qur'ân has been revealed at four levels of meaning:

The book of God contains four elements: in it there is expression (‘ibâra), then allusion (ishâra), then the subtle meanings (latâ'if), and then the realities (haqâ'iq). ‘Ibâra is for the common person, allusion (ishâra) for the elect, the subtleties are for the saints, and the realities for the Prophets"[8]

The concept of Ishâra (allusion) does not mean exclusively the symbolic or allegorical but also refers to the attempt to communicate some of the ineffable realities or dimensions of mystical insight.

And thus it is, that by the very nature of the experience, the language of ishâra tends, on the one hand, to become an esoteric language not understood by the uninitiated or deliberately made incomprehensible to them, and on the other hand, tends to destroy itself as inadequate and as a veil between the Sufi and the object of his experience; God. The novice, remarked Junayd, must find God at the same time as his allusion, but he who has attained the highest of mystical states (ahwâl) must find God in the abolition of the allusion.[9]

The early Sufi commentator, Sahl al-Tustarî (860)
cited a hadith "that every Qur'ân verse has four dimensions: Zâhir, bâtin, hadd, and muttala’, which he glossed as respectively: wording, meaning, regulation, and intuition of the true import of the verse."[10]
The Light Verse has occasioned extensive mystical commentary and several treatises have been written on it alone, for example, Mishkât al-Anwâr[11] of al-Ghazâli and Tafsîr Âya Nûr[12] of Mullâ Sadr al-Dîn Shîrâzî.
The Sufis would not see their commentaries as distinct from the basic science of tafsîr, or as diverging from it. One of the earliest extant tafsîrs, that of Muqâtil (767) contains many of the interpretations found continued through the tradition of tafsîr, both ma'thûrî and ishârî, until today.[13] Thus, the idea that Qur'ânic commentary of the Sufis is a later creation or innovation is patently false.
Still, it would be accurate to say that there is a specific tradition of ishârî or mystical commentary of which the first representative may have been Ja‘far al-Sâdiq. Fragments of a tafsîr attributed to him have been cited in the later works, in particular, that of al-Sulamî,[14] and he is also associated with the branch of mystical tafsîr specializing in the science of the single letters cited primarily at the opening of certain verses, the Muqatta‘ât.
In terms of extant continuous tafsîrs, that is, the ones which treat the entire text of the Qur'ân, the first one which we have is that of Sahl al-Tustarî 796-245/860.[15] Bøwering observes that, "Despite its rigid framework as a running commentary, the Tafsîr fails to form a unified and neatly structured text. As a whole, it rather conveys the image of patchwork and disjointedness."[16] Following that, after some span of time over which Sufi thought became increasingly developed, is the tafsîr of Abû ‘Abd al-Rahmân al-Sulamî (d. 1021), entitled Haqâ'iq al-Tafsîr[17] which quotes heavily from the intervening masters of Sufism.
In attempting to get some broad grasp of esoteric or ishârî commentaries, one can speak both of the broad historical periods of their composition as well as the incorporation of intellectual tendencies emerging within the articulation of the Islamic tradition over time.
For example, an article by Abdurrahman Habil[18] speaks of an early phase represented by the tafsîrs cited above; then a phase corresponding to that of the Sufi manual writers such as al-Sarrâj (988), al-Kalâbâdhî (995), Abû Tâlib al-Makkî (996), and al-Qushayrî, or if you will, marked by a more sober "Junaydian" tendency. This is succeeded by a more philosophical or "wujûdî" phase following Ibn Sînâ's philosophy and reflecting the increasing absorption of the concepts of Ibn ‘Arabî's system[19] of mystical thought. al-Dhahabî describes a strain of "nazarî" or theoretical philosophical interpretation gradually incorporated by the mystics and philosophers in to their interpretive discourse.[20]
One aspect not given special mention in Habil's framework is what may be termed the influence of ecstatic love and longing for union with God which is also reflected in Qur'ân commentaries. The two brothers, Muhammad Ghazâlî and Ahmad Ghazâli, may be taken to portray these divergent trends in Sufi thought. In the case of the former, a more sober and intellectual approach, and in the latter, the more ecstatic and poetic tone such as that taken by al-Hallâj, ‘Ayn al-Qudât Hamadânî, Rûzbehân Baqlî, etc. In addition, one may speak of tafsîr as reflecting sectarian perspectives such as Mu’tazilî, Shi’î, or Ismâ’îlî. Thus Dhahabî, in his work, al-tafsîr wa-l mufassirûn, (Qur'ân Commentary and the Commentators) uses broader categories such as nazarî/philosophical and ishârî/mystical, as well as the names of sectarian groups, in order to classify tafsîrs.
In later periods, the Naqshbandî Sufis made an especially great contribution to tafsîr in both South Asia and other parts of the Islamic world. Among their representatives I may cite Shâh Walî Allâh (1762),[21] Thanâ'ullâh Panipatî (d. 1810),[22] and Mahmûd al-Alûsî (1854).[23]
Many Chishtî tafsîrs are still in manuscript including those of Shaykh Muhammad Chishtî of Gujerat (1575) and the "tarjumat-al-Qur'ân" of Muhibbullâh Allâhabâdî (1648).[24] In 1713 the Chishtî, Shâh Kalîmullâh Jahânabâdî, composed a brief Arabic tafsîr Qur'ân al-Qur'ân bi-l-Bayân in order to facilitate the understanding of the holy book.[25]
In order to counter the idea that tafsîrs composed by mystics are solely esoteric in intent, it should be noted that Sufis such as Shâh Walî Allâh[26] in the eighteenth century and Khwâja Hasan Nizâmî Dihlavî (1957)[27] in recent decades, made efforts in the field of translating the Qur'ân into language comprehensible by the ordinary Muslim.
While one often thinks of contemporary tendencies in tafsîr as being modernist or de-mythologizing, such as those of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khân or the Manâr of Rashîd Ridâ in Egypt, the Sufi tradition continues as well.[28]

Main Ideas in Sufi Interpretations of the Light Verse (Âya Nûr)

Having given this brief introduction to the subject, let me proceed by citing some examples of the Sufi interpretations of Âya Nûr.
I have concluded, after studying quite a number of mystical approaches to the understanding of this verse, whether in continuous or partial tafsîrs, that one way to consider their themes is to present them under three aspects.

1) Sufi approaches to the individual symbols and allegories of this verse.

2) Sufi approaches to the structures organizing these symbols as explaining stages of spiritual development or existential understanding.

3) The practical consequences of the Sufi interpretation of this verse.

An early example of mystical interpretation of this verse, is one attributed to Ja‛far al-Sadiq:[29]

(Allâh is the light of the heavens and the earth) There are different lights, the first is the light of protecting the heart, then the light of fear, then the light of hope, then the light of recollection (tadhakkur), then seeing with the light of knowledge, then the light of modesty, then the light of the sweetness of faith, then the light of Islam, then the light of ihsân, then the light of blessing, then the light of grace, then the light of favor, the light of munificence (âla'), then the light of generosity (karam), then the light of affection, then the light of the heart, then the light of comprehensiveness, then the light of awe (haiba), then the light of perplexity, then the light of life, then the light of intimacy, then the light of honesty, then the light of resignation, then the light of contentment, then the light of glory, then the light of majesty, then the light of power, then the light of divinity, then the light of oneness, then the light of uniqueness, then the light of pre-existence, then the light of eternity, then the light of continuity, then the light of the aftertime, then the light of subsistence (baqâ'), then the light of universality, then the light of divine selfhood (huwiyya).[30]
[1] A version of this paper, "Sufi Interpretations of the Light Verse (Qur'an 24:35)" was published in Islamic Quarterly, 1998 pt. 1, (XL11 #2), 144-155, pt. 2 (XL11#3), 218-227.
[2]Interpretation of "Light upon Light," Alûsî, Rûh al-Ma‘ânî XVIII (Cairo: Idâra al-tabâ‘a al-munîriyya, 1927), 169. "qad ja'akum min Allâhi nûr wa kitâb mubîn".
[3]This terminology is presented, for example, in Badmas 'Lanre Yusuf, "Evolution and Development of Tafsîr", Islamic Quarterly XXXVIII (1, 1994):34-47, pp. 36-38.
[4]In al-Futûhât al-Makkiyya Ibn ‘Arabî discusses the methodology of tafsîr ishârî. Cited in Muhammad Husayn Dhahabî, al-tafsîr wa-l mufassirûn II (Cairo: Dâr al-kutub al-hadîtha, 1976), 372 ff. Dhahabî also refers to this method as "tafsîr faidî", 352 ff.
[5]Paul Nwyia, Exegese Coranique et Langage Mystique: Nouvel Essai sur le Lexique Technique des Mystiques Musulmans (Beirut: Dar al-Machreq, 1991), 117-56.
[6]Muqâtil's work, al-asbâh wa-l-nazâ'ir fî-l Qur'ân al-karîm (Cairo: al-hai'a al-misriyya al-‘âma l-il-kitâb, 1975) treats many Qur'ânic concepts by tracing their aspects (wujûh) in various citations. "Nûr" is one of the terms which he researched, finding ten different implications of its use. pp. 303-305.
[7]See Nwyia, 117 ff.
[8]Sulamî at the beginning of "Haqâ'iq al-tafsîr". Cited in Paul Nwyia, 167, 175.
[9]Paul Nwyia, "Ishâra" Encyclopedia of Islam IV, 114. The Junayd citation is from al-Sarrâj, Kitâb al-Luma' 224.
[10]John Burton, "Quranic Exegesis" in Religion, Learning, and Science in the Abbasid Period: The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 52, citing al-Dhahabî, II, 380 ff.
[11]al-Ghazâlî, Mishkât al-Anwâr ed. ‘Abd al-’Alâ Afîfî (Cairo: Dâr al-Qaumiyya, 1964). English translation W. H. T. Gairdner, The Niche for Lights (Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, 1952).
[12]Mullâ Sadrâ Shîrâzî, Tafsîr Âya Mubâraka Nûr, ed. Muhammad Khwâjuavî (Tehran: Intishârât Maulâ, 1983).
[13]On Muqâtil's somewhat controversial reputation see Claude Gilliot, "Muqâtil, Grand Exégète,Traditionaliste, et Thèologien Maudit" Journal Asiatique CCLXXIX (1991):39-92.
[14]There are some indications that these citations are partial. It is said that the portion used by Sulamî was transmitted by Ibn ‘Atâ (921), and some other fragments are cited by Khargûshî, Tadhîb al-asrâr, and Rûzbehân Baqlî in ‘Arâ'is al-Bayân. Nywia, Exégèse, 158.
[15]Tafsîr al-Qur'ân al-‘Azîm (Cairo; al-Bâbî al-Halabî, 1911). Tustarî and his commentary have been studied by Gerhard Bøwering, The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam: The Qur'anic Hermeneutics of the Sufi Sahl al-Tustarî (d. 283/896). (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1980).
[16]Bøwering, Mystical Vision, 128.
[17]The Minor Qur'ân Commentary of Abû ‘Abd al-Rahmân al-Sulamî ed. Bøwering (Beirut; Dâr al-Mashriq, 1995). Bøwering is preparing an edition and study of the full tafsîr.
[18]Abdurrahman Habil, "Esoteric Qur'ân Commentary" in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations I ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Crossroad, 1987), 24-47.
[19]Ibn ‘Arabî, Tafsîr al-shaykh al-akbar (Cairo: Mustafâ al-Bâbî al-Halabî, 1899). Probably the work of Kâshânî (1330).
[20]Muhammad Husayn Dhahabî, al-tafsîr wa-l mufassirûn II (Cairo: Dâr al-kutub al-hadîtha, 1976), 340.
[21]al-Fauz al-Kabîr fî-Usûl al-Tafsîr, (Karachi Qu'rân Mahal, 1964). Urdu translation by Maulânâ Rashîd Ahmad Ansarî (Lahore: Maktaba Burhân, 1963). English translation by G. N. Jalbani, The Principles of Qu'rân Commentary, (Islamabad: National Hijra Council, 1985). He provides a brief commentary on Âya Nûr specifically in al-Tafhîmât al-Ilâhiyya II (Hyderabad: Shâh Walî Allâh Academy, 1957), 63-65.
[22]Tafsîr-e Mazharî (Delhi: Nadwat al-musannifîn, 1971).
[23]Rûh al-Ma’ânî. On his methodology see, Mahmûd al-Sa’îd al-Tantâwî, Minhâj al-Alûsî fî Rûh al-Ma’ânî (Cairo: Majlis al-a’lâ li-l-shu'ûn al-islâmiyya, 1989).
[24]Ibid, 269.
[25]Khalîq Ahmad Nizâmî, Ta'rîkh-i Mashâ'ikh-i Chisht V (Delhi: Idâra-yi Adabiyyât-i Dillî, 1980), 100-102.
[26]Fath al-Rahmân (Karachi: Tâj Company, n. d.)
[27]Qu'rân-i Majîd ke tarjuma aur tafsîr (Delhi: Khwâja Aulâd Kutub Ghar, 1962-3).
[28]A contemporary English Sufi partial commentary including reflections of the Light Verse is Abu Bakr Siraj Ed-Din (Martin Lings) The Book of Certainty (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1970).
[29]al-tafsîr al-Sûfî l-il-Qur'ân ‘inda as-Sâdiq ( Cairo: Dâr al-Andalûs, 1979) edited by ‘Alî Zai’ûr. 175-6. Also edited by Paul Nwyia "Le tafsîr mystique attribué a Ja’far al-Sâdiq" in Mélanges de l'Université Saint Joseph Beirut XLVIII Beirut: 1968, 211-212. al-Sâdiq is partially cited in Baqlî, Arâ'is al-Bayân (Lucknow: Nawal Kishore, 18--), 84.
[30]Discussed in Nwyia, Exégèse Coranique, 172-174.


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