Light upon light

Week 2: Calligraphy and “Light Upon Light” 

In Islam, light is viewed as an important metaphor for the Divine. One of the most beloved Ayats (verses) of the Qur’an is Ayat al-Nur, which identifies Allah as the “Light of the heavens and the earth.” Throughout this ayat, Allah is described as the embodiment of some of the key properties of light. Allah guides through the darkness – much like light does. Allah is infinite – much like light is.

It is by no means fair to draw a direct comparison between Allah and light, but the imagery within this connection is powerful – especially as we pause to think of the ways our lives are enhanced and enriched by the presence of light.

In order to engage with the topics addressed during Week 2, I decided to take photographs of myself “light painting,” with a glow stick, the phrase nur ala nur (i.e “light upon light”) featured in Ayat al-Nur. “Light painting” is a practice usually documented through photography, wherein the camera captures the trail of light rendered by a moving light source. Inspired by our studies around Islamic calligraphy, I wanted to write “light upon light” in the air in a way that it would be perceived as a form of script. In the photographs featured above, the trail of light is captured by lengthening the camera’s exposure.

I found using the medium of “light painting” incredibly fitting to engage with the content from Week 2. The Divine is all-knowing. However, in Islam, there is an acknowledgement of humans’ inability and powerlessness to deeply understand the Divine. As the montage of photographs indicates, it was challenging to capture the entirety of the script in one click. It really made me reflect on the question: How does one capture light? and are we ever able to capture or articulate Divine light?

At its foundation, Islam is a deeply embodied faith experience with rituals and practices that require a certain level of physicality. Light painting, as a process, was deeply embodied. As such, it reminded me of the physical nature of producing and meditating on Islamic calligraphy – particularly when it is seen as a form of worship to the Divine.

Surat An-Nur 24:35 reads 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.

(Translation by Sahih International)