On Nov. 13, 2012, people around the world will celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights. Although the holiday is mainly observed by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, I believe that Muslims can also experience personal growth during Diwali by reflecting on its spiritual significance. Light is Diwali's central symbol, and Muslims can therefore open new channels of interfaith dialogue by examining the importance of light within Islam.
In Islam light can be a mark of God's presence. One of Allah's 99 Beautiful Names is An-Nur, meaning "The Light," and many prophets such as Musa (PBUH) and Muhammad (PBUH) reported seeing blinding lights while communicating with Allah. Light also symbolizes goodness; the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) reported that the angels, wholly good beings created by God for a multitude of purposes (including cataloging mankind's deeds and asking Allah to bless the virtuous, among others) are made from light. Finally, light represents Allah's gifts of divine guidance and human intellect to all people, not just Muslims. Indeed, the Qur'an specifically mentions that the Jewish and Christian scriptures were each "a light and guidance" unto the people (Qur'an 5:44-46), and that every community in world history received messengers who provided "clear [guiding] light" and "convincing proof" encouraging them to serve God and forbid evil (Qur'an 4:174 and 16:36).
Islam's conceptions of light are by no means unique; many other religions have similar constructions of light representing God's presence, goodness, or Divine revelation. So how is Diwali relevant to Muslim spiritual growth? The answer lies in one of the most enigmatic mentions of light in the Qur'an which involves a surprising parallel to Diwali practices.
Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word deepavali, which means "row of lamps," and one of the festival's signature events involves the lighting of many small lamps to signify the triumph of good (represented by light) over evil (represented by darkness). The mystical Qur'anic verse known as Ayat-an-Nur (the verse of light) explains the light of God through an extended metaphor about the lighting of a lamp. The verse can be translated as:
"Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp -- the lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star -- lit from a blessed olive tree, neither eastern nor western, whose oil almost lights up, though fire should not touch it. Light upon light! Allah guides to His Light whomever He wishes. Allah draws parables for mankind, and Allah has knowledge of all things." (Quran 24:35)
Qur'an scholars have debated the meaning of this verse since the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The multitude of symbols -- the window, the lamp, the glass, the star, the tree, the oil -- allow for a plethora of interpretations of the extended metaphor. Interestingly, one of the only areas of consensus is that the lamp imagery is a reference to the practices of other faith traditions (Bowering 2001). Although the verse's meaning is elusive, it describes a picture that is possible to visualize. If one has ever experienced Diwali, it's even possible that the picture of a shining lamp in one's mind's eye based on this verse would look similar to the festival's celebration!
In my opinion, this could mean that Allah enjoins Muslims to see God's light in all things, including the possibility of gaining knowledge from other religions. The olive tree is usually a symbol of peace, and its description as "neither eastern nor western" implies that peace is a universal goal for all of mankind. Every time Muslims use God's gift of reason to increase our own understanding of truth, we are casting out the darkness of ignorance in favor of the light of knowledge. Also, every time we use existing knowledge as a foundation for increased learning and contemplation, we can compound "light upon light." We may already understand our own faith, but as long as we have hearts that contain "a lamp" -- a burning passion for more knowledge -- we should strive to gather knowledge from anywhere, including from other religious traditions.
For Muslims, Diwali can be a time to reflect on complex spiritual and theological questions. We should view the festival not only as a chance to learn more about Islam, but also as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of other faiths' practices and religious imagery. The common symbolism of light is therefore an excellent platform for interfaith dialogue and deep philosophical discussion.
The darks of ignorance, bigotry, and religious intolerance may be present in our society, so it is our duty to counter these with the lights of truth, reason, and inter-religious understanding. The Qur'an also states, "Virtue and evil are not equal. If you repel evil deeds with virtuous ones, you will certainly find that your enemies will become your intimate friends." (Qur'an 41:34). As we build positive relationships with one another through celebrations like Diwali, we can also continue to repel evil by making light upon light.
Bowering, Gerhard. "The Light Verse: Qur'anic Text and Sufi Interpretation." Oriens. 36. (2001): 113-144 (accessed November 8, 2012).