October 19, 2009

Review: Al-Ghazali's "Niche of Lights"

Title: The Niche of Lights: A parallel English-Arabic text translated, introduced, and annotated
Author: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali
Translator: David Buchman
Publisher: Brigham Young University Press
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Year: 1998
Pages: 80
Binding: Cloth
ISBN: 0842523537
Price: 24.95

For many westerners, Islam remains hidden behind a veil simply waiting to be discovered and uncovered.1  Brigham Young University in cooperation with scholars throughout the world has taken significant steps toward unveiling the history and thought of this global religion for the west. Since the late 1990s, BYU's Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts have sponsored the Islamic Translation Series (ITS) to better integrate Islamic studies into western academia. According to Daniel C. Peterson, ITS’s managing editor:
Islamic civilization represents nearly fourteen centuries of intense intellectual activity, and believers in Islam number in the hundreds of millions. The texts that will appear in the ITS are among the treasures of this great culture. But they are more than that. They are properly the inheritance of all the peoples of the world (Peterson, “Forward to the Series,” The Niche of Lights, p. x).
Following the command to “seek…out of the best books words of wisdom,”  Latter-day Saints will enjoy The Niche of Lights by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 C.E.), one of Islam’s most respected scholars and interpreters. Despite some theological differences, Latter-day Saints share al-Ghazali’s ultimate goal of knowing and returning to God.2

Al-Ghazali mastered law, theology, and philosophy in order to draw closer to God. Despite becoming more proficient in these areas than perhaps any previous Muslim, he nevertheless recognized something important was missing. Through his study of an Islamic movement called Sufism, he discovered “there is a knowledge of God that goes beyond the rational ability to know Him and is ‘unveiled’ (kashf) by God in the heart” (xx). Al-Ghazali played a key role in legitimizing elements of Sufism including the Islamic ideal that religion transcends both doing (by following the law) and knowing (by use of theology and philosophy)—its core consists of being and becoming. By understanding proper theories and adhering to proper practices humans can purify their hearts until God unveils Himself to them.

Toward the end of his life, a-Ghazali wrote The Niche of Lights, which discusses the nature of God as “light,” and explains how humans can be shielded from—or led to—His presence. Niche was written in response to a friend’s question. Al-Ghazali’s introduces the book by appearing to sandwich the answer directly into the question itself:
You asked me, O noble brother—may God lead you to search for the greatest felicity, train you to ascend to the highest summit, anoint your insight with the light of Reality, and cleanse all other than the Real from your inmost center—that I unfold for you the mysteries of the divine lights, along with an interpretation of the apparent meanings of those recited verses and narrated reports that allude to His divine lights (1).
The “recited verses” to which he refers are the so-called “Light Verses” of the Qur’an, which describe God as "the light of the heavens and the earth” (1). The “narrated reports” are called hadith, or the reported sayings of the prophet Muhammad which are generally as important to Muslims as the Qur'an itself. Al-Ghazali explores the verses and sayings throughout three chapters.

In the first chapter he begins his interpretation of the Qur’an by outlining a metaphysics of light, concluding that the “real light is God and that the name ‘light’ for everything else is sheer metaphor” (3). Extending from the First light is a hierarchy of lights ranging from least to greatest. Al-Ghazali includes a simple and beautiful metaphor to simplify this hierarchy of light. He compares it to the light from the moon passing through a window, reflects from a mirror onto an opposite wall, and reflects from there to shine on the floor. In each of these stages the light differs in brightness depending on its proximity to the original source of the light—the sun reflecting onto the moon. In this way he describes how the light of God is passed from Him to his creations through various intermediaries. This chapter is perhaps the most difficult of the three and al-Ghazali concludes it with a section called “Some encouragement.” If the discussion has been too difficult, he advises, “take for yourself words that are nearer to your understanding and more suitable to your weakness” for now. But don’t stop there: “Know that you can come to know…” (22).

In the second chapter al-Ghazali explains that the goal of human existence is to get nearer to God through an inner transformation. He outlines a hierarchy of beings ranging from humans, to angels, to God, and compares their respective likenesses to that of the stars, moon, and sun. On the pathway back to God the traveler passes through these stages or degrees of glory (p. 27-28). However, unbelievers will have difficulty recognizing revelation and light from God. The Qur’an compares the unbelievers to a man “in a fathomless ocean covered by a wave above which is another wave above which are clouds, darkness piled one upon the other.” Al-Ghazali interprets these to be the waves of appetites, sensory pleasures, hatred and arrogance and the clouds of “loathsome beliefs, lying opinions, and corrupt imaginings.” These separate unbelievers from the light and true knowledge of God (42).

The third chapter continues the discussion of being separated from God. Al-Ghazali provides his  interpretation of the Veils hadith. This saying of Muhammad describes God as being separated from humans by “seventy veils of light and darkness.” According to al-Ghazali the veils come in three main kinds: veils of darkness, veils of light, and veils of darkness mixed with light (44). Veils of darkness cover the “atheists…who do not have faith in God and the last day” (45). Veils of darkness mixed with light represent those who believe in both true and false principles (47). Veils of light cover those who are drawing ever closer to God, but are difficult to penetrate (50). Individuals who pass through these veils are said to have finally “arrived” at the presence of God where further grades of experience are possible. This ultimate destination seems beyond al-Ghazali’s ability to describe and the book ends without a summary. “My request to the [original] questioner,” he concludes, “is that he ask God to forgive wherever my pen has transgressed and my foot has slipped, because delving into the flood of the divine mysteries is dangerous, and seeking to penetrate the divine lights from behind human veils is arduous, not easy” (53).

Niche is a fascinating book of questions and answers that will resonate with and challenge believers of many faith traditions. David Buchman’s careful translation is printed beside the Arabic script through Niche's fifty-three pages of metaphor, thick scriptural exegesis, and philosophy. A basic understanding of Islam will allow readers to better appreciate the book. Buchman’s introduction provides a serviceable background to twelfth century Islamic thought and the life of al-Ghazali. ITS is performing a tremendous service to religious studies. Those involved in the translation and publication project deserve much praise for making significant works like Niche and other “best books” accessible, affordable, and available to scholars, students, and the general public.

My own inadequate understanding of Islam compounded the difficulty of this review. Or in other words, I'm overwhelmed! (but happily). A useful introduction is John L. Esposito's Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford University Press (2005, revised third edition).

Doctrine & Covenants 88:118.