When Aisha asked the Prophet about his vision of his Lord, the Prophet replied ‘He is light- how should I see him?’

With this brilliant answer the Prophet -peace be upon him- resisted all limitations of description of his Lord. He could as well have been asked who his lord was, and replied that he is being. Indeed, this is what he did say, when asked about the lineage of his Lord, as discussed in the first entry in this blog.

قل هوالله احد

Say: He is God, The Unique

The emphasis being not on ‘he’ as opposed to ‘she’ but unknowable identity/ipseity, the Being per se, in itself; that is, essential being, the source of being-which-is-none-other-than-itself,  unlocatable in a geographic centre or point in time,  for this would mean that there was distancing in reality and limitation.

This is the most important principle, it is stated: a word we might understand to refer to some abstract intellectual notion but rather indicates universal reality, transcendent of all limitation, in relation to which ‘we’ are the abstract intellectual notions. That there is, essentially, not a relation of one to another, in reality, but only apparent relations, not fundamentally solid ‘things’ but actually relations of the one to itself, a number of variations through mirroring, the extent of which is known only by the whole at a truly fundamental level, in and as itself: a whole reality which takes on the most infinitesimal detail and apparently infinite vastness. From a limited perspective, all is relativity; the focus shifts from and compares between one and another, and defines by relatively established scale. Yet the whole, which though it has an intimate relationship with this focus,  the very basis of consciousness, one could say, and must encompass it since it is the whole, is not limited to a particular focus or definition. ‘It’ is not a thing; one of Ibn ‘Arabi’s favourite and most frequently cited hadith is the Prophet’s answer to the question what was in the beginning of the universe, “God was, and there was not with Him a thing’. To this ‘Ali added, ‘and it is now as it was.’    There are no things besides God, which are not His expression, which have a permanent reality; the relative world is basically non existent, consisting of signs referring to other signs, all returning to the one reality who is the ultimate signified. This no-thingness, however, is a single reality; thus, we might call it either zero, or one, in the sense of wholeness. This wholeness, this principle, is also found at all levels of existence, indeed is found to have established levels. This is how we can bear witness and make such observations. The perfect way in this is to recognise this state of affairs, and return it to Him; that is, not to be self-serving, to act as an independent entity with ones own separate reality and as remain with our limitations as if they had permanent existence. But rather to surrender the limiting focus, which seeks to define; to allow it, that is, the perspective, to shift- to expand and be released, as none other than a manifestation of the whole, from limitation. This occurs without force, for it is in the nature of the whole that it is essentially transcendent of all limits. Just so, light flows around the universe, illuminating what appears to it, and without this, appearing not to be present. It is everything that we can know; it flows through this very computer screen, and in all areas and arenas and avenues of life.It is a continuum; it has degrees. We may experience light at all these degrees, as light beings; as Coleman Barks says (something along the lines of, quite possibly inspired by Rumi verses)- we are full of it, and when we give praise, we return it to the mystery from whence it came.

Soraya Syed : ‘Nur ala nur’ (‘Light upon light’)  from the chapter of Light (al-Nur, Qur’an 24:35):

‘Light upon light, God guides whom He will to his light.’

This continuum allows for relativity so that it may be known; that there may be an unknown which becomes known, a known which becomes unknown.  Ibn ‘Arabi sees this as a cause for celebration: for it is because of this that the Real comes to be known with true subtlety and appreciation.

‘The excellence of true Light lies in its primacy and principiality: it causes every hidden thing to become unveiled. The excellence of darkness lies in the fact that its becoming connected with True Light brings about the perception of that Light, which was impossible before the connection. And the excellence of brightness lies in the fact that in its very essence it combines the two sides and thus possesses both excellences…’

In this description ‘true Light’ is described as bringing about the unveiling of ‘every hidden thing’, thus allowing for relativity, that it may be known.  Through this, as we mentioned, wonderful subtle variations become possible; yet the Shaykh also discusses light in its relative sense in another way. For as one of the Divine Names, lines of force which go in two directions, unlike the Absolute, to which nothing can be compared, light has relative existence, and may thus be described in a negative sense, as here, in the Word of Adam:

‘God describes himself with reference to veils of darkness, which are the natural bodies, and veils of light, which are the subtle spirits, for the world is made up of the gross and the subtle; it is its own veil over itself. Its perception of itself does not comprehend the real. It shall ever be within a veil that shall remain unlifted, even with its knowledge that it is distinguished from its Existentiator by reason of its needfulness. Indeed, it has no share in that necessity of the essence which belongs to the existence of the real. It will never perceive God, and because of this reality, God remains unknown both to the knowledge through taste and that of witnessing, because what comes to be has no place in this.’

Yet though light is one of His Names, belonging to relativity – witness the recent possible discovery of subatomic particles which move faster than the speed of light-

[‘The scientific world stopped and gaped in September when the OPERA team announced it had seen neutrinos moving just a hint faster than light.”If it’s correct, it’s phenomenal,” said Rob Plunkett, a scientist at Fermilab, the Department of Energy physics laboratory in Illinois, in September. “We’d be looking at a whole new set of rules” for how the universe works.’]

there is a sense in which ‘true Light’ describes the Absolute, though essentially It is indescribable and incomparable. For this reason the enlightenment experience is considered the highest degree of realisation for human beings and mentioned in many places and times. Through light, literally or metaphorically, but either way with real effects, may come knowledge of reality, perfect clarity of being. Dom Sylvester Houedard (or is it Ibn ‘Arabi, quoted by him..) brilliantly describes this in a rollercoaster essay entitled ‘The Rainbow Crystal’ in an early Ibn ‘Arabi Society journal.

‘Each Divine Name…is but one dimension of an infinitude of possible divine self manifestations (tajalli), a coloured ray of clear white light…like the rays of the sun (they) cannot be separated from their source, which is their being and nature.’

Left: modern style Kufic painting of ‘Nur ‘ala Nur’, by Kamal Boullata. ‘Throughout the 1980s’, Boullata has written, ‘I have been alternatively using verses from Christian as well as Muslim sources where the word “light” occurs. Having been raised in a Jerusalem Christian Arab family I felt free to borrow words from the Holy Qur’an or from the Sufis as well as from the Gospel of St John and from Church liturgy where the word appears. Light has been central to my work and it still is.’

Ibn ‘Arabi explains this ‘relation’-  in the chapter ‘Ringstone of the Wisdom of Light in the Word of Joseph’, in which he goes deeply into the metaphysics of light, and imagin(ation)al reality.

‘So know what your identity is, who you are, what your selfhood is, and what your relationship to the Real is, as well as that by which you are the Real and that by which you are ‘the world’, ‘other’, ‘unlike’, and other similar terms. In this, the men of knowledge are ranked in excellence: those who know, and those who know more. In relation to some particular shadow, the Real is small or large, pure or purer. It is like a light in relation to a glass that veils it from an onlooker, and whose colour it takes on. In reality it has no colour. Yet it is in this way that you see Him, in a similitude of your reality in relation to your Lord. If you were to say that the light is green due to the greenness of the glass, you would be speaking truthfully and sensory perception would bear you witness. If you were to say that it is neither green nor any other colour, in accord with what a proof might grant you, you would also be speaking truthfully, and sound intellectual reasoning would bear you witness. This light extends from the shadow which the glass itself is; it is a shadow that is luminous due to its purity. Such is the case for those among us who realise the Real: in them the Real’s Image is more manifest than it is in others…’

Ibn ‘Arabi discusses a profound mystery here; the way that from pure light come all the colours of the spectrum, become shadows, become apparent objects. The shadow is ambiguous by nature; for ‘with respect to the unity of its being a shadow it is the Real, for He is the Unique, the One, while with respect to the multiplicity of forms it is the world.’ The standpoint of Ibn ‘Arabi is that this world is real in a sense, yet also a dream, which needs interpreting. Just as we can observe shadows and how they differ we may come to know the world, and it has a certain reality; but these shadows have no lasting substance. So ‘with respect to the unity of its being a shadow it is the Real, for He is the Unique, the One, while with respect to the multiplicity of forms it is the world.’

It thus depends from what perspective we are looking, or with what (whose) eyes. What is required for the moment? Though it is ideal to always be in remembrance of unity, we also need to differentiate; to know the Divine Names, though recognising we cannot know the ultimate Source, and remaining facing this and recognising its Presence. We may then distinguish between different symbols and understand their particular character, whilst also tracing them ‘back’ to the Source, the Real Signified. In the above quote from Ibn ‘Arabi the colour green, it seems, has no particular relevance, and is used to make a point about colouring, and how one can be mistaken in attribution of identity, for the reasons he describes. One might, however, in another context, mention, and understand, the colour green with particular symbolic significance. For as the colour at the middle of the colour scale, it especially refers to the middle way; at the same time, it is the colour of the living, what has been vivified (as in another hadith: “Three things of this world are worthy of the gaze – water, green things and a beautiful face”…)  Interestingly, in this vein,  Dom Sylvester refers, in the aforementioned paper, to  ‘a green shadow cast by clear light’, which he relates to this special symbolic significance of the colour green, and Beatrices eyes- Dantes beloved, who first leads him on the journey to paradise, and who he comes to realise is both an expression and an indication of the beauty of the real Beloved, which is God. For Ibn ‘Arabi the colour is most associated with Khidr, the ‘green one’, who has drunk of the water of life- a bringer of knowledge of hidden things, opener of the way beyond the known. But that is the subject of another post…

The Poet expatiates further on the glorious vision described in the last Canto. On looking round for Beatrice, he finds that she has left him, and that an old man is at his side. This proves to be St. Bernard, who shows him that Beatrice has returned to her throne, and then points out to him the blessedness of the Virgin Mother.

Through the universe, wherever merited, celestial light

Glides freely, and no obstacle prevents.

All there, who reign in safety and in bliss,

Ages long past or new, on one sole mark

Their love and vision fix’d. (stanza 20)

Green flashes and green rays are rare optical phenomena that occur shortly after sunset or before sunrise, when a green spot is visible for a short period of time above the sun, or a green ray shoots up from the sunset point. It is usually observed from a low altitude where there is an unobstructed view of the horizon, such as on the ocean.- Wikipedia

Top of the page: a piece by Julien Breton, calligrapher/graffiti artist using light, which appears to read ‘Nur’