SYMBOL OF DIVINE LIGHT: The Lamp in Islamic Culture and Other Traditions

The Lamp in Islamic Culture and Other Traditions
Nicholas Stone. World Wisdom ( 2018. PP. 192. $22.95. PAPER
Reviewed by Samuel Bendeck Sotillos

God guideth to His light whom He will and God citeth symbols for men, and God is the Knower of all things.
—The Koran

As the contemporary mind becomes a mirror of the present-day crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes, it has become in many ways impervious to the sacred and what is beyond the sensorial or physical world. Having become opaque and enclosed upon itself, it is unable to grasp the higher levels of reality that were once known in the traditional or premodern world. With this world escalating into ever more complex forms of chaos, it is imperative that these higher levels of reality become known once again in order to slow down if not halt the impending predicament that is before us. From this perspective, metaphysical knowledge is essential in order to cleanse the darkness that is descending upon this era in order to restore the collective vision of the Divine Light.

From darkness to Light, the seeker and the faithful are in need of guidance to be pulled out of the obscurity to be led back to the Divine. Various ḥadīth of the Prophet Muhammad express his role in providing that guidance:

“The first thing God created was
my light.”

“I am [made] of God’s light and all created beings [are made] of my light.”

“God created His creation in darkness, then on the same day He sent His Light upon them. Whoever was touched by His Light on that day will be guided and whoever was missed will be led astray.”

Symbol of Divine Light provides an in-depth survey of the history and significance of the mosque lamp within the Islamic tradition and explores the numerous variants relating to the different historical periods. It explains the symbolism of the lamp with reference to the famous “Verse of Light” or āyat al-Nūr found in the Koran. A cross-cultural examination is also made by probing the depths of other traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism; also provided is an analysis by preeminent exponents of the perennial philosophy. The work contains more than two hundred stunning color and black-and-white illustrations, making it a definitive guide to the mosque lamp. The author, Nicholas Stone, combines rare qualifications, being an architect by profession with firsthand knowledge of Islamic art and architecture, coupled with an understanding of traditional metaphysics and symbolism.

The explanation given in the book of the deeper significance of the lamp relies on an understanding of symbolism: that everything in the manifest world that is perceived by the five senses is a representation of a higher reality. Nothing therefore is excluded from this approach as everything has an intrinsic meaning beyond its appearance. The metaphysical foundation of symbolism within the Islamic tradition is found within the often quoted prophetic tradition in which God declares, “I was a hidden treasure and I wanted to be known, therefore I created the world.” The Presence of God is found in all directions of space and likewise in all appearances: “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.” (2:115) Al-Ghazālī’s famous commentary on the Verse of Light makes this point very clear: “there is not a single thing in this world of sense that is not a symbol of something in yonder one.” As the Verse of Light is symbolic in nature, an understanding of symbolism is required to grasp its essence. The book quotes the French metaphysician René Guénon, who writes:

[E]very real symbol bears its multiple meanings within itself, and this is so from its very origin; for it is not constituted as such in virtue of human convention but in virtue of the law of correspondence which links all the worlds together. If some see these meanings while others do not, or see them only partially, they are none the less really there: it is the “intellectual horizon” of each person that makes all the difference. Symbolism is an exact science and not a daydream in which individual fantasies can have a free run.

As each human being consists of a tripartite structure—Spirit/Intellect, soul and body—containing a noetic faculty within him or her that when it is awakened can access the innermost truths within all phenomenona, it is this immanent faculty of the Spirit/Intellect that can read the universal language of symbolism. Guénon writes:

First of all, symbolism seems to us to be quite specially adapted to the needs of human nature, which is not exclusively intellectual but which needs a sensory basis from which to rise to higher levels…. [S]ymbolism in the strict sense is essentially synthetic and thereby as it were intuitive, which makes it more apt than language to serve as a support for intellectual intuition which is above reason…. It is thus that the highest truths, which would not be communicable or transmissible by any other means, can be communicated up to a certain point when they are, so to speak, incorporated in symbols which will hide them from many, no doubt, but which will manifest them in all their splendor to the eyes of those who can see.

Regarding the symbolism of certain verses, the Koran itself makes a distinction between verses that contain dogmatic meanings (āyāt muḥkamāt) and verses that contain allegorical meanings (āyāt mutashābihāt). An approach that balances the outer or exoteric interpretation (tafsīr) with the inner or esoteric commentary (ta’wīl) of the Koran is crucial, for neither is truer than the other, but each speaks to a different level of understanding regarding the same truth. Several Koranic verses emphasize the use of symbols to convey these subtle meanings:

“Verily we have coined for mankind in this Koran all kinds of similitudes.” (30:58)

“And God coineth similitudes for men that they may remember” (14:25)

“As for these similitudes, we coin them for mankind, but none will grasp their meaning save the wise.” (29:43)

The symbolism of Light is central to the discussion of the significance of the Lamp. In Islam, the Divine is not only known by the name of Allāh, as there are ninety-nine such names in the Koran, regarded as the Beautiful Names (asmā’ al-husnā). The Koran says “and to God belong the Beautiful Names, so invoke Him by them.” (7:180) One of the Beautiful Names used to denote the Divine is Light or al-Nūr. The Verse of Light expresses this, and the key importance of the Lamp as a symbol of that Light:

God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The symbol of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp is in a glass, and this glass is as it were a radiant star), kindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would all be glow though fire touch it not; Light upon light. God guideth to His light whom He will and God citeth symbols for men, and God is the Knower of all things. (24:35)

According to Al-Ghazālī: “Allah alone is the Real, the True Light, and beside Him there is no light at all.” Similarly Titus Burckhardt writes “There is no more perfect symbol of the Divine Unity than light.” Guénon also held this view: “Light is the traditional symbol of the very nature of the Spirit.” Frithjof Schuon discusses the metaphysical or esoteric symbolism of veiling and unveiling: “Esoterism or gnosis, being the science of Light, is thereby the science of veilings and unveilings, and necessarily so since on the one hand discursive thought and the language that expresses it constitute a veil, while on the other hand the purpose of this veil is the Light.”

An early account referencing the traditional use of mosque lamps both in their functional use and also in their symbolic meaning is recorded in the following ḥadīth:

Two persons, Tamīm al-Dārī and his servant Abu’l-Barrad, brought from Syria lamps with oil and chains. On Thursday night the lamps were hung in the mosque of Medina and water, oil, and wicks were put in them by Abu’l-Barrad. On Friday when the prophet entered the mosque, he was so astounded by the brilliance of the lamps that he addressed Tamīm and said: “you have illuminated Islam, as Allah enlightened your path.”

Within traditional Islamic art and architecture the practical converges with the spiritual to serve a higher purpose. Nicholas Stone expands on this point by illustrating both the practical and spiritual facets of how the tradition of the mosque lamp began:

The Prophet praised Tamīm al-Dārī for bringing lamps to provide illumination in the mosque, but this was not just the fulfillment of a practical requirement. The lamp was evocative of illumination of a different order, as indicated by the words of the Prophet to Tamīm: “you have illuminated Islam, may Allah enlighten your path.” So, as is characteristic of every symbol, the outer form expresses an inner reality which simultaneously reverberates on different levels.

Guénon explains that symbolism is not limited to a single point of view, but has myriad meanings which do not contradict one another, but complement each other: “the harmonious multiplicity of meanings which are included in all symbolism.” For this reason, he continues: “We have often said, and we cannot repeat it too often: every real symbol bears its multiple meanings within itself….”

Within Sufism (taṣawwuf), known as the mystical dimension of Islam, there is the concept of a prophetic light called the “Muhammadan Light” (Nūr Muḥammadiyyah), also referred to as the “Muhammadan Reality” (al-ḥaqīqat al-Muḥammadiyyah), which originates from the Prophet Muhammad and continues to be transmitted to later saints until the end of the temporal cycle.

Schuon makes the important connection between spiritual practice and the symbolism of the Divine Light: “To be man is to invoke God. One has to remember here the Verse of Light: to offer the soul to the divine Name as the oil offers itself to the flame of the lamp. The lamp is the Heart-sanctuary, the flame is the Invocation, the light is the Name.” According to a ḥadīth:

The Messenger of Allah said: “Hearts are of four kinds: the heart that is clear like a shining lamp; the heart that is covered and tied up; the heart that is upside-down; and the heart that is clad in armor. As for the clear heart, it is the heart of the believer in which is a lamp filled with light.”

The Divine symbolized by Light is again not unique to Islam; it can also be found across the traditions, such as Judaism and Christianity in the Old and New Testaments. It features promin-ently in the account of Creation, in which the first divine command was: “Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1:3) and other passages, such as: “For the commandment [is] a lamp; and the law [is] light.” (Proverbs 6:23) Likewise in the Christian context: “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12.)

The book cites parallels in the Hindu tradition, where we find the following reference to Light in the Brahmarahasya Upanishad:

Brahma is the Light of Lights. He is Self-luminous. He is supreme Light (Param Jyoti). He is infinite Light (Anata Jyoti). He is an embodiment of Light (Jyotih-Svaroopa). By His Light all these shine.

Light is also equated with the Self or Ātmā: “The heart and mind can find peace and harmony by contemplating the transcendental nature of the true self as supreme effulgent light.”

The book also cites a traditional chant within the Buddhist tradition that refers to the symbol of Light that eradicates the darkness: “With this lamp lit with camphor that dispels all darkness, I worship the Perfectly Enlightened One who is a lamp unto the three worlds and is the dispeller of darkness.” It is interesting to note that within the Pure Land school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Amitābha, a celestial Buddha, means “Infinite Light.”

Regarding the diverse modes of expression of the one Truth, Burckhardt writes, “Light is, in fact, itself indivisible; its nature is not altered by its refraction into colors nor diminished by its gradation into clarity and darkness.” Rather than contradicting the nature of light, he adds: “Colors reveal the interior richness of light.” The source of the uncolored light is the Divine Unity itself; the uncolored light exists before it refracts and takes on the appearance of color and is also source of all things including the diverse religions and human beings. Maḥmūd Shabistarī confirms this point, “The one Light shines with many rays through the lattices of various personalities.”

It is my hope that this book will inspire works of architecture and sacred art that are informed by the transcendent principles found within each tradition. The manner in which tradition can guide the creative process is underscored here: “When the full power of a human imagination is backed by the weight of a living tradition, the resulting work of art is far greater than any that an artist can achieve when he has no tradition to work in or when he willfully abandons his tradition.”

Symbol of Divine Light concludes its comprehensive survey maintaining that the deepest significance of the mosque lamp is its symbolic reminder or pointer to the Koranic Verse of Light. This emphasizes the importance of symbolism as a key to understanding metaphysics, not only within the Islamic tradition, but in all of the world’s religions. This is an unusual and striking work that enlightens Islamic sacred art in its multiplicity of meaning. Along with being a definitive text on the mosque lamp and its symbolism, this work also supports building bridges across the faith traditions which will increase spiritual literacy in its universality. We recall the traditional phrase from the Koran used to denote the Divine beauty, guidance and illumination that is already here and awaits the seeker to discover its outward and veiled reality: “Light upon Light” (Nūrun ‘alā Nūr). ♦

1 Hassan Fathy, “Tradition’s Role,” in Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 25.

From Parabola Volume 43, No. 2, “The Miraculous,” Summer 2018. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing