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.