On Light

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

The language of light is compelling. The suggestions of light at daybreak are vastly different from twilight or starlight, the light of a firefly is not the same as that of embers or cat eyes, and light through a sapphire ring or a stained glass window is not the same as light through the red siren of an emergency vehicle or through rice-paper lanterns at a festival. It matters to writers if the image they are crafting of light is flickering or glowing, glaring or fading, shimmering or dappled. A writer friend once commented on light as a recurring motif in my poetry, and told me that I’d enjoy her son’s work as a light-artist for theater. The thought struck me that light in a theater has a great hypnotic, silent power; it commands and manipulates not only where the audience’s attention must be held or shifted, how much of the scene is to be revealed or concealed, but also negotiates the many emotive subtleties and changes of mood. The same goes for cinema, photography, and other visual arts. Light almost always accompanies meaning.

So much of human perception relies on vision, that the ancients associated light with awareness, safety, and discovery. The scriptures draw a connection between light and clarity, truth, wisdom and understanding; light represents the divine itself. In popular imagination, lightning in the sky symbolizes cosmic wrath, a rainbow, hope, a candle flame, promise, beams of a lighthouse, rescue. If we are hostages of light in its uncountable natural and crafted forms, have we found the language that adequately describes its complex and varied nature? The answer may be different for different languages but poets traffic in images and coin language when they hit upon something missing from the thesaurus. I find the study of gemstones to be helpful in understanding the variety of ways we perceive light. Stones cut as cabochons present light differently as the ones faceted, and each style of faceting brings out a different light, color, and “fire;” Categories of luster give a whole new catalog of qualities of light. Turquoise has a “waxy” luster, while pearl has a “silky” luster; amber, which is derived from tree bark, has a “resinous luster” while a labradorite has iridescence. Stones such as Hematite present a metallic luster; some of the harder, more precious stones such as rubies have a vitreous or glasslike luster.

One way to explore how conceptualization turns into words to create images with, is to investigate other languages. I often turn to Urdu, my mother tongue, for inspiration. While writing a poem set by the river Ravi, I came across the word “Roshanai Darwaza” or the “Gate of Lights,” which is one of imperial Lahore’s thirteen gates— so named for being brightly lit as it served the special purpose of being the city’s entrance for the royalty and nobility. The word “roshnai” in Urdu means both “ink” and “lit up”— a delicious oxymoron for an image. Ink both darkens the page and illuminates it; writing is reflection, just as light is reflected. I hear in the two syllables in “Roshan” (“bright/lit up”) the delicate, magical swiftness of the act of lighting.

As with mystics of many traditions, the Sufis take illumination as a spiritual metaphor. Rumi speaks of “polishing the mirror of the self” in order to gain closeness to God, or “seeing God,” by which he means that accessing the divine requires a cleansing of the ego, a full immersion in love, a humble submission which is really a state of supreme spiritual elevation in disguise. Mirrors were often made of metal in Rumi’s times and required polishing to reflect well; a lifelong engagement with the rigors of reflection by subduing the false self, he says, is a return to our true celestial origins.

Rumi, Al Ghazali, Ibn Arabi and numerous other Sufi poets wrote interpretations of the beautiful “verse of light” in the Quran.

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.
Surah An Nur 24:35

The analogy is at once transparent and opaque. The brief verse begins with the call to pay attention to layers of similitude, engaging us at the level of metaphor while giving an exact succession of images, a narrative in miniature which may open infinitely to reveal and “illuminate” more and more— a mirror to the cosmic continuum. The light of the moon, the sun and stars, the periodic phases and motion of heavenly bodies are mentioned in many places in the Quran but this most discussed Quranic verse concerning light unfolds its sequence of images with a dark niche. The niche could be anywhere in the cosmos, in time or space, but I like to think of the niche as the human heart, the seat of intimate divine awareness. The lamp is likened to divine light which is both revealed and concealed; its supreme brilliance contained and filtered through glass, its source itself, an oil of timeless glow. The opacity of the verse points to the hidden, and even personalized nature of knowledge of the divine, the transparency, brightness and eternal glow represent ever-present nearness. “Light upon light” teaches us to look at light in an infinitude of varying perceptible intensities, binding the physical with the transcendent.