God is in control.  Let there be no doubt.  That is the message in today’s reading.  The Islamic view of providence is very high.  Allah is in control of all things.  Of course that opens up Muslim theology to a great number of questions about free will, control, justice, love and evil.  Those would all be interesting topics to explore within the context of divine power, however none of these are touched on directly in this passage.  Today’s reading focuses again on God’s control over all people’s destiny and their ability to respond to the knowledge of Allah.

Within this passage are two beautiful images, the first of which gives this surah its name.

God is the Light of the heavens and earth.  His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fueled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it — light upon light — God guides whoever He will to his Light. (24:35)

The second is the opposite image.  Disbelievers are:

Like shadows in a deep sea covered by waves upon waves, with clouds above — layer upon layer of darkness — if he holds out his hand, he is scarcely able to see it.  The one to whom God gives no light has no light at all. (24:40)

These are vivid, rich images of light and darkness.

Translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali sheds further light on the “light upon light” passage.  A niche was a shallow alcove or depression in a Middle Eastern house of that time placed high on a wall.  This allowed the light placed there to give light to the whole room. 

These two passages are also considered parables and, as Ali says, volumes have been written unpacking its deep symbolism.  God is the true light, the One from whom all other light derives.  Just as all natural light we know on this planet comes from some other object (i.e., the sun, fire, electricity), all goodness comes from God.  We are the lamp, given light from God, used to light our world.  We shine that light in many “glittering” ways but they are always imperfect and diffused, like light that passes through glass.  Nonetheless, those who are called by God to be light and who are willing to receive that calling, are in fact sources of goodness and light in the world.

On the other hand, those who are not called are so separated from God and the light or goodness than comes from Him that it is like they are drowning in a dark, tempestuous sea, deep in the regions of the oceans where sea creatures don’t even have eyes because light is not present.  This sea is further shrouded by thick clouds.  There is no light at all.  A life without God is the deepest darkness.   

Strong images!