Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (A.D. 1058–1111) is a pivotal figure in the history of Islamic thought, whether his work is seen as having a negative impact or, as is far more common, a positive one. He was famous in his time as a master of Islamic jurisprudence (which defined correct practice) and doctrine (which defined orthodox belief). But his own spiritual quest convinced him that salvation was not to be obtained merely by slavish adherence to a code of conduct or intellectual assent to a creed but rather in the firsthand experience of the divine, toward which the beliefs and practices of Islam were oriented but often went unrealized. Al-Ghazali’s quest for a fully actualized spiritual life led him to the disciplines of meditation on the divine essence and reflection upon the inner meanings of the Islamic revelations as contained in both the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The Niche of Lights, written in the latter part of his career, is a luminous example of al-Ghazali’s personal effort to understand certain of those revelations in their richest sense.
The focus of attention in the first two chapters of The Niche of Lights is a Qur’anic passage widely known as the Light Verse:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp, the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star kindled from a blessed tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil well-high would shine, even if no fire touched it; light upon light; God guides to His light whom He will. And God strikes similitudes for men, and God has knowledge of everything.1
In the first chapters, al-Ghazali develops “a metaphysics of light” (xxxii) founded upon the cardinal doctrine of Islam that God is one. Along the way, al-Ghazali discusses the process by which one achieves nearness to God—and thereby, greater comprehension of His essence as the one true light. It is a process that involves inner purification and “meditating on the qualities of things in the visible world” (xxxiii) as a means to comprehend the nature of unseen realms. A methodology for interpreting the imagery or “similitudes” of the Qur’an is thus elaborated, with specific images and vignettes from that book serving as examples. In the third and final chapter, al-Ghazali explains the so-called Veils Hadith, a saying by the Prophet Muhammad that employs both the imagery of light to describe God and the imagery of veils to indicate the various levels of insight required to comprehend God fully.
The Niche of Lights is a relatively short book that can be read in one or two sittings (the translation itself is just 53 pages). It is an excellent example of a text in the Islamic Sufi (or mystical) tradition and will be read with interest by those who wish to learn more about this aspect of Islamic faith and practice. Professor Buchman has produced a translation that is not wooden yet is literal and employs technical terms consistently. Thus, the translation, paired with the Arabic text on facing pages, provides an opportunity for students of Arabic to hone their reading skills while exploring an engaging text from medieval Islam. Finally, The Niche of Lights affords an opportunity to view a Muslim spiritual master at work—not merely expounding a theory of worship informed by imagination and oriented toward “becoming,” but actually carrying it out in the very act of writing these meditations.