CRUCIBLE: Light, Spirit, and Ramadan

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/08 July) – We are now on the Holy Month of Ramadan, a yearly but rare and unique period of time where “convergence” happens particularly the phenomenon of nuzu l-qur’an (revelation of the Qur’an), and at certain special night, the tanazzalu l-malaikah wa l-ruh (the descending of the Angels and the Spirit), and finally, the purging, if you may, of the self so that a saim (one who fasts) would become a muqarrab, one who is near to Allah (SWT).

The Ramadan, as it is part of the Hijriyyah Calendar, comes once a month every year. Our khuttab (those who give sermons) usually talk similar topics on fasting during this month. We value such tradition since we need to be reminded with the virtue and significance of fasting in the Holy Month of Ramadan.

In our case, we have to move farther and take off or expand from what we had previously articulated.

There were two khutbah (discourses) we delivered before where we highlighted the notion of “convergence;” or, for lack of better term, we also used the concept “alignment” or “reflection.” All these are used to highlight the importance of the Month of Ramadan not only as month in proscribing ourselves from eating and drinking but to develop in ourselves a rare insight about fasting in the Month of Ramadan.

“Niche of Lights”

One of these insights is the way we utilized one of the works of Imamu l-Ghazali, “Mishkatu l-anwar” (The Niche of Lights). That great alim (scholar) posited that there are actually two worlds – the physical world; and, the Celestial or Spiritual World. Whereas the physical world is observable as it is capable of being sensed and experienced by the five senses, the Celestial World belongs to the alamu l-ghayb (The World Unseen). It is a mark of believers to believe in the unseen. “To those who fear God,” the Qur’an says: “Who believe in the Unseen (Baqarah: 3).”

We said many times in the past that one feature or act of creation is, it is in perpetual movement – the most obvious of which is rotation of planets. If the Sun were taken as the point of center, then the rotation of earth would imply time and the movement of the earth around the Sun could accumulate around 365 days, wherein 30 days of which constitute as the Month of Ramadan.

We had supposed that the Month of Ramadan is so special that it was the period when the Holy Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW), although that process started and stopped after 23 years during the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). But the other aspect in Ramadan’s significance is, at certain point, there is that phenomenon what we call the tanazzalu l-malaikah wa l-ruh (the descending of the Angels and the Spirit). We said it was not only descending as one-way process; there is also an act of the Angels and the Spirit to ascend. In Suratu l-ma’arij, the Qur’an says: “The Angels and the Spirit ascend unto Him in a day the measure whereof is fifty thousand years (4).” It is not clear if this ascending happens in the Month of Ramadan. But if we refer to Suratu l-qadr then the descending usually happens in Laylatu l-qadr (Night of Power), which is a special night in the Holy Month of Ramadan. It follows from the foregoing that anyone that descends must inevitably ascends or vice-versa.


Because there is a “convergence” of the physical world and the Spiritual World, which is a domain in the alamu l-ghayb, we could only talk on something that is known. Thus, we use the term “convergence” or “alignment” to impress the idea that, possibly at certain point, creation or the cosmos or the physical world “moves” or “reaches” certain point where it is able to “coincide” or “connect” with the Spiritual World as the latter displays “light” more vividly. Hence, if you remember in one of our khutabah (discourses) we posited that the revelation of previous Books or kitab to previous Prophets and Messengers must also had happened during the Month of Ramadan. That time, if you can remember, too, we didn’t have the Hadith (Prophetic tradition) to provide us basis in our claim. It was only later when we came to know that there was actually a Hadith that said that the revelation of previous Kitab (scriptures) to previous Prophets and Messengers also happened in the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Our discourse then would go beyond the traditional way of approaching the subject, as we view fasting simply as an instrument into which man is able to lighten his spirit so that he or she is effectively able to become part of the “alignment” or “convergence.” In another way of saying, so that the light (nur) would be able to penetrate the spirit (nafs) as it reaches certain degree of subtlety and thus could transcend beyond the veil (hijab) or particular limitation.

If you could also remember we identified three types of fasting (sawm) as articulated by the Great Shaykh Abdulqadir Ghailani to mean that there are higher stages where man should aim when engaging in fasting – not only restraining from thirst and hunger. For instance, there is Hadith (saying) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW): “many one has no good for his fasting except hunger and thirst.”

In “Kashfu l-mahjub,” a classic text written by Al-Hujwiri, he wrote:

“Hunger sharpens intelligence and improves the mind and health. The Prophet (SAW): “Make your bellies hungry and your livers thirsty and your bodies naked that perchance you see God in this world.” Although hunger is an affliction to the body, it illuminates the heart and purifies the soul and leads the spirit into the presence of God (p. 324).”

Therefore, fasting in terms of restraining oneself from hunger and thirst is simply method for a higher purpose. Also, Al-Hujwiri notes:

“Everything that comes to be known by human beings passes through these five doors (or senses) except intuitive knowledge and Divine Inspiration. In each sense, there is purity and an impurity for just as they are opened to knowledge, reason, and spirit so that they are opened to imagination and passion being organs, which partake of piety and sin and of felicity and misery. Therefore it behooves him who is keeping a fast to imprison all the senses in order that they may return from disobedience to obedience. To abstain only from food and drink is a child’s play (p. 322).”

This is somehow the point that we had raised two years ago regarding the perspective how to look at the significance of fasting including the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Light and symbols

Because we are short of terms on how to characterize the “convergence” or the “alignment” that we mentioned and that our basis in this discourse is Imamu l-Ghazali’s “Mishkatu l-anwar” or the Niche of Light, incidentally, that work which is a tafsir (exegesis) of verse 35 in Suratu n-nur which is one of the most sublime verses in the Holy Qur’an, could probably give us a more enriching insight why there is such a “convergence” as explained by the “Verse of Light.” It reads:

“God is the Light of the heaven and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: The Lamp enclosed in Glass: The glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil is well-nigh luminous through fire scarce touched it: Light upon light! God doth guide whom He will to His Light: God doth set forth parables for men: and God doth know all things (Nur: 35).”

Although there are a number of mufassir (interpreters) who tried to belabor on this subject, “Mishkatu l-anwar” stands as exceptional in the body of works on tafsir (exegesis). Probably, the closest is the work of Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi, “Philosophy of Illumination” as he is considered the “Master of Illumination.” Suhrawardi is also inspired by this sublime verse in Suratu n-nur, although the content and direction of Suhrawardi’s exposition varies immensely from that of Imamu l-Ghazali’s.

Going back to the Mishkat’s view of the world as having two aspects, this connects to the general theory in Islamic thought regarding the concept of alam kabir (macrocosm) and alam saghir (microcosm). The former embraces the cosmos; the latter would be that of man. For Imamu l-Ghazali, the macrocosm has two aspects: spiritual and physical; and, the microcosm (i.e., man), is also composed of two aspects – body and spirit.

In this regard, fasting is a way into which the body is purged, if we may use the term, for the spirit to lighten or to be enlivened so that it becomes ready to receive the “light.” And that a rare kind of “lights” would happen especially during the “convergence” particularly in the Holy Month of Ramadan. Thus, the significance of this view is that, while restraining ourselves from thirst and hunger is important as it is the requisite of fasting, the question is: have we lighten our spirit so that we are able to receive the “light” and thus would elevate us spiritually?

“Mishkatu l-anwar” is quite difficult to understand given the depth and mystery of the subject, “Verse of Light.” Therefore, we need some assistants or other works to be able to explain this sublime verse.

Yusuf Ali who is supposedly an independent thinker and hardly follows a bandwagon in certain orthodox school (madhab) has no recourse but to accept almost in toto Imamu l-Ghazali’s exposition on the “Verse of Light.” Anyone who would like to understand the sublime meaning of this verse would have to read the translation and commentary including the additional Appendix that Yusuf Ali provided.

The verse is punctuated with parables that come with symbolism namely: mishkat (niche); mishbah (lamp); (judjaja (glass); kawkab (star); and, zaitun (olive). Light has been classified by Imamu l-Ghazali into different grades like physical, spiritual, and ultimate lights and others. All of these are important. The physical light however, while significant, has certain limitations. It is because physical light is dependent on certain external source. It is also a passing phenomenon as it depends on space and time.

It means one has to appreciate or understand the so-called Spiritual Light as it pierces through varying grades of symbolism that we mentioned (e.g., niche, lamp, glass). The Niche is symbolized by the highest form of spiritual light contained in the Revelation like the Qur’an. The Lamp, the core of spiritual truth, represents the “Lamp Illuminant” or Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The Glass is the transparent medium through which the light passes like human knowledge, human intelligence, and so on.

Whereas these symbols exist in macro level, they also have their correspondence in micro dimension of human being through the five faculties or spirits, namely: (1) the sensory spirit, the information that a person usually gets (corresponding to the mishkat); (2) imaginative spirit, it is where a person records knowledge or information (corresponding to mishbah); (3) intelligential spirit, knowledge as being interpreted and is made known (corresponding to Judjaj); (4) discursive spirit or ratiocinative spirit, it is where reason is utilized (kawkab); (5) transcendental prophetic spirit, possessed by prophets and some saints, where higher wisdom of things and law is revealed (corresponding to zaitun).

All these partake accordingly the spirit of a person just as lights are symbolized with various entities in the macro world. What Imamu l-Ghazali is saying is that, just as the macro world contains both physical and spiritual lights, as any person possesses too physical and spiritual lights; therefore, man should thus value his or her self. S/he has the entities that would allow him “to connect” to the “light” and would allow him to receive the “light” accordingly. Thus, this view would imbue an understanding that the Month of Ramadan is not only to restrain from hunger and thirst; more fundamentally, it is to make the spirit emerge in its true and real sense.

Light and veil

Whereas the phenomenon of “nuzulu l-qur’an” (revelation of the Qur’an) has been stopped when the Prophet (SAW) received the final revelation as he himself is the “Seal of the Prophets” (khatamu l-anbiya); yet, the Qur’an, the fact that it is called Qur’an, is known as the “Book of Reading.” It means, even if the actual process of revelation has already stopped, but as the “structure” of Celestial-physical “convergence” of the world remains, those who read the Qur’an would be engaging in a “rehearsal” or a kind of re-processing of the whole revelation. Thus, the ending of the revelation is simply historical or formal; at least, there was a cut-off in terms of the time of revelation. But the “structural” process of revelation continues as the Qur’an is continuously read or rehearsed by the believers. That is why, those who read the Holy Qur’an in the Month of Ramadan are believed to receive multifold blessing.

But, the “tanazzalu l-malaikat wa l-ruh,” the descending and even ascending of the Angels and the Ruh (Spirit) is a continuing process. That process happens immensely in the Month of Ramadan. Incidentally, in Suratu l-ma’arij, like in Suratu l-qadr, the notion of “malaikah wa l-ruh” is emphasized. This means that while many orthodox mufassir (interpreters) usually defined that the Malaikah (Angels) is also the Ruh (Spirit), the fact that they are mentioned differently, they must be distinct. This is the claim of Yusuf Ali. It means the Angels are different and the Ruh is different. Therefore, there is descending and ascending of the Angels and the Ruh during the Month of Ramadan.

What is significant with this verse is that, isn’t it that there are many verses in Qur’an that says: “I breathe unto him My spirit (Sajda: 9)?” In another verse, it reads: “When I have fashioned him in due proportion and breathe unto him of My spirit (Hajar: 29).” This means that there is in human being a spirit; so that this spirit, in our view, if it is able to unveil itself, for lack of better term, then the “convergence” would happen in the micro dimension as the descending and the ascending of the Angels and the Ruh would “coincide” with the purification of the self and thus the “lightening” of the spirit in human being. Thus, real vouchsafing of “light” (nur) could happen. If the body is dense, that is if it is not subject to thirst and hunger, the spirit could not emerge; it would forever live in state of potentiality. It will not actualize itself. Thus, restraining ourselves from hunger and thirst is simply a way; by doing so, the spirit within us would be able to fully participate in a rare event of “convergence” so blessed in the Month of Ramadan. Thus, if a person fails to perform fasting, s/he misses what has been prescribed and practiced before and across generations. The Qur’an says: “as it was prescribed to those before you (Baqarah: 183).” And physically, one misses the health, medical, and therapeutic benefits of fasting.

There is a Hadith quds that says that of all acts of worship it is only fasting that has been personalized by no less than Allah (SWT). He said: ”Fasting is with Me and I am the One who rewards it.” That is how sublime the act of fasting in the Month of Ramadan especially for those who are able to understand the real meaning of this form of ibadah (worship).

The other dimension is that, the light, which the Qur’an refers to in parable form while universal, is subject not by space but by grades according to Yusuf Ali. Thus, even Jibreel (AS) said: “Between me and Him are 70,000 veils of light.” And there is a Hadith (saying) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW): “God has 70,000 veils of light and darkness.” These mean, if a person is not able to receive the light then he is far from the Lord both in terms of the veils of light (70,000) or the veils of darkness (70,000). Thus, it is inevitable that man takes the opportunity to receive the light as he lives so that he becomes amongst the muqarrabun.

In the verses on fasting in Suratu l-baqarah after mentioning the requirement and rudiments of fasting, there is that line that is so important that is made to intersperse verses or points about fasting. This line of the Qur’an emphasized the notion of being Muqarrabun, those who are near to Allah (SWT). The verse reads: “When My servants asked thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them) (Baqarah: 186). ” It suggests that fasting is an instrument that makes a person near to Allah (SWT). He thus would be able to unveil the different grades of light and darkness that separate him with the Lord.

In fact, the beauty of man is that while creation takes a center like the Sun and rotates around it, man is exceptional. It is creation like time that “rotates” around him as he partakes the blessing of Ramadan every year. In another way of looking, as the haj (pilgrimage) has a point of center, where pilgrims would flock to the Ka’aba and circumambulate around it, in the case of man it is Ramadan that “rotates” around him. Therefore, one must grab the opportunity and connect or be connected with the “convergence” of lights that happens in Ramadan. This is our way in appreciating a dimension of fasting or an insight about the significance of the Holy Month of Ramadan.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A slightly revised khutbah delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 4 July 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].


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