One of the most sublime passages of the Quran is the 35th ayah (verse) of Surah Nur which describes the Light of Allah in all its splendor. The ayah holds a lot of inner meaning as it evokes the most perfect imagery based on an elaborate example. The ayah is as follows.
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things. (24:35)
This glorious passage, however, may not be easy to understand and interpret. Let us, therefore, break it down into portions and seek to understand its meaning based on some of the most authoritative Tafasir (commentaries) of the Quran, encompassing both the classical and modern interpretations.
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth…
Allah is the Light (Nur) of the entire universe. What does this mean? Is Allah physically composed of Light or is this just a metaphor to explain His reality to us? There are two broad interpretations of this sentence.
The first interpretation is that Allah is the only true Light that exists. Thus, the physical light emitted by the sun, the stars, certain organisms, the fire, and other objects is a mere reflection of His divine Light. The Light of Allah is perfect and unique – it is not just bright in itself but also illuminates whatever it shines upon. However, His Light is not in the form of a beam, ray, or glow that we can see or behold; rather, the exact nature of His Light is beyond human comprehension. While the light emanated by worldly objects has its limitations – it is dependent on space and time, being a mere passing phenomenon – the Light of Allah is free of any defect, restriction, or worldly limitation.
According to the second interpretation, the Light of Allah refers to His guidance and knowledge that He grants to His servants. This includes His revelations conveyed through the prophets throughout history, including the Quran granted to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This Light is a criterion for humans to distinguish between right and wrong – it is the source of their enlightenment. His Light further includes the wisdom and contentment that He grants to those who seek Him. In this metaphorical sense, the Light of Allah is inwardly attained by absorbing it into one’s heart.
Both the above interpretations could be simultaneously correct. According to some scholars, the Light of Allah is both outward and inward Light – something that is not only the source of all brightness in the universe but which also penetrates the hearts of the believers in the form of knowledge and wisdom. Let us now proceed to the next portion of the ayah.
The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass…
There are three symbols being introduced to describe the perfection of Allah’s Light: a niche (Mishkaat), a lamp (Misbah), and glass (Zujajah). The lamp is within a glass covering, and both these objects are placed inside a niche. What are these symbols meant to portray? Again, there are various interpretations.
According to Ibn Kathir, Ubayy bin Kaab – a companion of the Prophet ﷺ – believed that the lamp refers to true faith in Allah and the knowledge of the Quran, while the glass is the heart of the believer. Hence, the hearts of the believers are filled with the guidance bestowed upon them by Allah. Just as a powerful lamp emits light, the hearts of the believers shine forth with this guidance which is manifested through their deeds. The niche symbolizes faith in Allah and in His divine revelations.
We can also think of the niche differently. In ancient homes, as described by Yusuf Ali, the niche used to be a “little shallow recess in the wall” where a light would be placed in the evenings. This recess would be fairly high from the ground, close to the ceiling. If this interpretation is favored, then the lamp within the glass covering is placed inside a lofted recess from where it can light up the entire room – just as the Light of Allah shines from high above to lighten up the worlds.
According to Maududi, Allah compares Himself to the lamp, and the universe, to the niche. The glass covering signifies a veil between Allah and the universe, so that Allah cannot be physically beheld by any of His creatures. Yet, this is not a physical veil for concealment, but one caused by the intensity of Allah’s Light which the human vision cannot comprehend. Hence, the Light of Allah is shining through the glass to reach far and wide, but its essence is hidden from the creation through the veil – the glass covering.
…The glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree…
The glass is shining from the radiance of the lamp contained within it. The glass appears “pearly” due to the brilliance of the light – as if it were a star made of pearls. This is a reference to the unparalleled beauty of Allah. The glass is illuminating its surroundings, yet, everyone cannot grasp this light. In the same way, the guidance of Allah is there for everyone to benefit from – shining like a pearly star in contrast to the darkness of ignorance and disbelief. However, not everyone chooses to benefit from this guidance; some people neglect the guidance bestowed by Allah, and instead, choose to wander in darkness, either relying on their own whims or lifting others to the status of divinity.
Now there is an abrupt change in imagery – from the lamp and the glass to the olive tree that provides the oil to kindle the lamp! This olive tree is “blessed”. In general, any olive tree could be described as being “blessed” because it possesses many benefits for the people, such as providing olives and olive oil. However, the specific tree being referred to in the ayah is particularly blessed for reasons revealed in the following part of the ayah.
Another noteworthy point here is that while the lamp ultimately derives its light from the olive tree, the Light of Allah is not derived from any external source. Rather, His Light is derived from His very essence, and the guidance He bestows upon people stems from His divine wisdom.
…Neither of the east nor of the west whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire.
The discussion continues on the olive tree that provides the oil to kindle the brilliant lamp. This tree is located neither in the east nor in the west. What does this mean? A tree situated in the eastern part of the land gets very little sunlight in the latter part of the day, as the sun sets in the west. Hence, deprived of sunlight, such a tree yields inferior olives whose oil is thick, producing weak light when used for kindling. Similarly, a tree situated in the western part of the land is deprived of sunlight early in the day, when the sun is rising from the east, thus providing olives having thick oil once more.
On the other hand, a tree “neither of the East, nor of the West” implies that such a tree is situated in an open plane or upon a hill which receives sunlight all day long. According to Ibn Abbas – a companion of the Prophet ﷺ – as quoted by Ibn Kathir, this is a tree out in the open desert; it is shaded neither by a mountain nor by other trees. Hence, such a tree receives sunlight all day long, as a result of which, it produces thin olive oil which gives bright light when used for kindling. This explains why such a tree is especially blessed.
Oil needs to be mixed with fire in order to glow. However, the oil coming from this tree is so fine that it almost shines by itself even if fire does not touch it. This again emphasizes the sheer quality of this oil – just like the Light of Allah is unmatched in its glory, and His guidance requires no intermediaries or complicated doctrines to benefit people.
Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills.
So, what is the consequence of this olive tree producing fine oil? That the lamp (inside the glass covering) which is lit from this oil emanates “light upon light” in all its magnificence! Hence, we now revert to the lamp and its brilliantly shining light. It is not restricted in any way nor does its brightness decline overtime. In the same way, the divine Light of Allah is intense and eternal. Al-Saadi notes that it is the intensity of Allah’s Light that lights up His Throne, His Chair, the Paradise, the sun, and other objects. Some scholars also interpret “light upon light” as the combined light of faith and the Quran in the heart of the believer.
It is further emphasized that it is by the will of Allah that a person attains the Light of Allah, implying His guidance. However, this does not mean that a person does not have a say in this. It is the practice of Allah to guide those who strive for His guidance. Those who endeavor to attain knowledge, wisdom, and peace are the ones who acquire these blessings by the will of Allah. On the other hand, those who stay aloof from Allah and what He has revealed are likely to remain deprived unless they make a conscious effort to change.
And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.
Lastly, the fact that the ayah presented an example or illustration is reinforced. It is important to remember that the niche, lamp, and glass are mere symbols employed to explain Allah’s perfection and guidance. Allah has used dozens of examples in the Quran to explain various points, so this illustration of the lamp and the olive tree is very much consistent with the stylistic conventions of the Quran.
The example presented in this passage beautifully describes the perfection of divine Light, and how Allah’s guidance settles in the hearts of His true servants and shines therefrom. The various examples presented in the Quran effectively reinforce its message, inviting the people to reflect on its teachings, which helps strengthen their faith in Him. Reciting the Quran without understanding deprives a person of such benefits. On the other hand, the one who frequently contemplates the message of the Quran, and strives to act upon it, is guided towards the Light of Allah and rewarded for it.