Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Chapter 2, Verse 17
Their example is that of one who kindled a fire, but when it illuminated what was around him, Allah took away their light and left them in darkness so they could not see. (2:17)
Here God presents an example to clarify for us the hypocrites’ character dichotomy. Examples work by highlighting a familiar situation from everyday life to help explain the meaning and wisdom of something unfamiliar. When you present something tangible and well understood, you can approximate the meaning of something unfamiliar to your audience.
It is said, for example, that a broken heart is like broken glass. We are all familiar that broken glass can be repaired but can never go back to its original pure state. And through this well known fact, we now understand an unseen matter such as the hurt and broken hearts between two people.
And indeed We have illustrated all kinds of examples in the Qur’an for mankind - yet most men did not accept, and insisted on disbelief. (17:89)
In the Quran, God presents the example of His light which is unseen to us. He gives examples relative to the hypocrites and the disbelievers so we may become aware of their condition. He illustrates through examples the effects of being ungrateful and transgressing the right of others. All these, and many more, bring forth something tangible from our daily life so you and I can understand the difficult issues that are unseen to us. Why so many examples in the Quran –you may ask-? Allah, the most merciful, wants to help each one of us increase the strength of his or her faith. He wants to shower you with mercy and bring your heart and mind closer to Him. Sadly, many people reject these teaching with condescending and cavalier attitudes.
In order to appreciate how God uses examples to explain difficult issues, let’s examine some of what He presented in the Noble Quran. God Almighty says:
Allah gives you an example: There is a man who deals with several disputing supervisors compared to a man who deals with only one consistent supervisor. Are these two equal as regards their condition? All Praise is due to Allah, though most of them know not (39:29)
Through the example in this verse, God illustrates to us the summit of faith which states ‘there is no deity worthy of worship except God’. He explains the situation of a person who solely worships God and a polytheist who ascribes many partners with God. Let's look at the example presented: Here is a working man who has to answer to many bosses. Moreover, these bosses are not united; rather they are in constant discord. And here is another working man who has one honest boss. Which one of the two is working in a productive comfortable environment? Obviously the person who has to answer to one boss, one order, and one prohibition. This is a sharp contrast to the other employee who works for many bosses; one boss may ask him to come, while the other orders him to go. If he pleases one, he angers the other. When you read this verse, you can almost live in the moment and feel the stress of that poor employee.
In the last example, God presented the issue of monotheism from the employee’s point of view; the next example is presented from a boss’s perspective. Allah says:
God presents another illustration: two men, one of them dumb, unable to do anything, a burden to his carer- whatever task he directs him to, he achieves nothing good- can he be considered equal to one who commands justice and is on the straight path? (16:76)
Here again, Allah wants to bring us closer to the concept of Divinity and highlight the profound difference between the worshiper of a false God, and the follower of God Almighty.
Idol worshippers are burdened by their chosen God. They bear responsibility, and gain no benefit. The worshipper needs to lay the idol in its place and carry it from one room to another. He or she needs to attend to it, and repair it from any damage. Contrast that with the worship of God Almighty who showers you with bounties and mercy, who enjoins justice, and who guides His servants to the straight path that leads to paradise.
The next example, is that of God’s light. The divine light that shines and illuminates the believing heart. In order for us to comprehend it, God compares his light to a tangible object. He says:
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His Light is like a niche wherein is a lamp; the lamp is in a crystal, and the crystal shining as if a pearl-like radiant star, lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west. The oil would almost give light of itself though no fire touches it: light upon light. God guides to His Light whom He wills. God strikes parables for people. God has full knowledge of all things. (24:35)
Close your eyes and imagine a shallow recess in the wall of a country home. Normally, we place a lantern in this niche making this small space the brightest area of the room. This lantern is placed in a crystal protecting it from the wind. But this is not an ordinary crystal; rather it is pure, perfectly crafted, and shining in star-like brilliance. It reflects the rays of the lantern enhancing the light even more. The fuel for this light is pure oil extracted from a blessed tree neither eastern nor western in origin. The oil is clear and reflective as if it is producing its own light. Hence, the lantern, the crystal, and the oil are light upon pure light. And when this pure, most beautiful light shines in the smallest of spaces, it fills it with beauty and leaves no darkness behind. Keep in mind that this is not meant to be a description of God’s light; rather it is an example to approximate its beauty to our minds. It is as though God’s light illuminates every corner and every nook and does not leave any place in darkness. Hence, He is light upon light.
How can you compare God’s light to that of a lantern? The answer comes from an entertaining story of the Caliph Al Mutasim. One evening, during a gathering at the palace, a poet called Abu Tammam wanted to praise the caliph. In those days poets were accustomed to comparing the rulers to famous people who had noble character.
Abu Tammam said in praise:
He has the courage of Amr, wrapped in the generosity of Hatim
the patience of Ahnaf, crowned by the intelligence of Iyaas
All of these were men of eminence and great character. After hearing the poem, one of the attendees said in criticism: That is inappropriate.....Our leader is a greater than all those you have compared him to.
The poet Abu Tammam replied immediately:
Don’t criticize me for presenting a metaphor using those who are less than him. God has presented for His sacred light the metaphor of a lantern in a recess.
The caliph was pleased by Abu Tammam’s wit and cleverness and commanded that his reward be doubled.