Religion News Service: In-depth. Impartial. Engaged.

Blogs » Omid Safi - What Would Muhammad Do?

What Would Muhammad Do? has moved: Click here to read the latest posts

God as the Light, and mystical reading of scripture

For all the conversation about scripture in general, and the Qur’an more specifically, we have only a very vague sense of how Muslims classically read the scripture.   

One way to gain entry into this subtle world is through the genre of mystical commentary.

I was recently reading one such short book that gives one the opportunity:   Bilal Kuspinar’s The Lamp of Mysteries, which is a masterful translation and edition of Isma’il Anqarawi’s Misbah al-Asrar.     Anqarawi represents a zenith of the 17th century Ottoman tradition of Islamic mysticism, one that combines the depths of the Akbarian tradition traced to Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240) with the heights of poetic and mystical soaring of the Mevlevi tradition of Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273).      Combining the existing traditions in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman, Anqarawi represented a synthesis of many existing traditions.  

It was not only the existing linguistic traditions that Anqarawi combined, it was also discursive traditions.   As was common with Ottoman scholars, he combined in his own person mastery of the Qur’an and Qur’anic commentary, hadith tradition, law, and of course, Sufism.   He studied under the learned Mevlevi master Bostan Celebi I, who appointed him as the postneshin over the famed Galata Melevihane in Istanbul in 1610.    In other words, Anqarawi represented not only theoretical command over the Sufi tradition, but also its practical elements.    

This is particularly important in our own age when the study of Sufism is at times presented as distinct from, or even antithetical to, the other foundational discourses of law and the Qur’an.  

This Lamp of Mysteries is a short mediation on the verse of the light of the Qur’an [Q 24:35], which had been a favorite of Sufis through the centuries.  In fact, Anqarawi himself acknowledges his own debt to Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali’s Mishkat al-anwar “Niche of Lights” in the introduction to his own Misbah al-asrar.  

The light verse of the Qur’an reads:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil well nigh would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light;
(God guides to His Light whom He will.)
Quran 24:35, Arberry's translation

The Misbah al-asrar moves methodically through the various elements mentioned in the verse of the light.  So Anqarawi’s commentary is laid out in four succinct chapters: the first chapter is a mediation on the light; the second on the lamp, the niche and the glass; the third on the blessed olive tree; and the fourth deals with the issue of guidance. 

The interpretation is classical Sufi.  Anqarawi begins by acknowledge that according to “literalists,” light (nur) “stands for the quality which is effused from the sun, the moon and the fire…and can in no way be a god, nor can it even be used to refer to God.”    However, Anqarawi states that according to those who realize God at the end of the mystical path (the “ahl al-tahqiq”), “the real light is nothing other than the Divine Essence for it is one of the Essential Names.”   (p. 45)

Anqarawi goes on to offer similarly mystical interpretation for each element mentioned in the “verse of light.”

Commentaries like this serve as a reminder of the range of meanings of scripture that are available in each and every tradition, including the Islamic tradition.  And not surprisingly, the more mystical interpretations of these traditions do bear striking similarities and parallelisms.  

In reading the mystical concept of God as light, one is reminded of Christ’s proclamation in John 8:12 as “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world.”

Tags: christ, god, interpretation, light, mystical, qur'an, rumi, scripture, sufism, turkish


  1. Thank you (again) for a substantive piece…and a great book recommendation. I wonder what your thoughts are on the Traditionalist School of comparative religion.

  2. dear Anselm, great question.  I owe a lot to the Traditionalist school.  I find that they are wonderful for opening up the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of different traditions.  On the other hand, it tends to downplay a few elements that are also important to me:  the legal tradition, the history, and the institutions.    A colleague of mind has a useful evaluation of the school on this site:  All the best, omid

  3. Thank you for the reply and further recommendation.

  4. It should be noted that the Traditionalist school does not in fact downplay the legal tradition. Most of the traditionalist scholars acknowledge that they are not experts in this field and thus leave the work of the legal tradition to those who are experts in this field. In this sense they are very traditional, along the lines of Sarraj, who in his Kitab al-Luma’, says that the Sufis recognize those who are experts in legal studies and rather than investing themselves in these studies consult the legal experts when necessary. As for downplaying history and institutions, the most widely acclaimed biography of the Prophet Muhammad, grounded in the earliest sources, was by a traditionalist, Martin Lings. History is certainly not where they focus their scholarship, but they do not seek to downplay it.

Sign In

Forgot Password?

You also can sign in with Facebook or Twitter if you've connected your account to them.

Sign In Using Facebook

Sign In Using Twitter