View Printable Version :: Email to a Friend
Qur’ānic Imagery of Light and Darkness
Fauzia Tanveer Sheikh

The Qur’ān, the religious book of the Muslims, is very rich in imagery. Sent for the guidance of mankind, the Qur’ān deals with many subjects belonging to the super-sensory realm, such as faith in one God, Angels, Doomsday and Resurrection, Heaven and Hell. To endow its followers with deep-rooted conviction, it presents its message in a pictographic manner. This is the assertion of Qur’ānic scholars like Sayyid Qutub and Muhammad Asad. In this article, this researcher, a student of English literature, has attempted to present an overview of the Qur’ānic imagery of light and darkness.

Qur’ānic Imagery of Light and Darkness

See they not that We have made the Night for them to rest in and the Day to give them light? Verily in this are Signs for any people that believe!  (27:86)1

He is the One Who sends to His servant manifest signs that He may lead you from the depths of Darkness into the Light and verily Allah is to you most kind and Merciful. (57:9)

The above verses of the Qur’ān present a contrast between light and darkness that touches a chord deep in human psyche. Man’s first experience of life is from the darkness of the womb2 to the light of his earthly existence. The alternation of day and night regulates all activities of life for him. Our very life source is light that reaches us from the sun. Deprived of light, life itself would perish. Utter darkness would become the darkness of death.

Light is synonymous with life: literally and figuratively. Literally, as already discussed, life is dependent on the light and heat of the sun; figuratively, as it also stands for faith, guidance, hope, bliss, happiness and righteousness. In the Qur’ān, there are many verses that employ images of light and darkness. The present article attempts to present an overview of such imagery.

Qur’ānic Style: Pictographic and Contrastive

In order to appreciate the imagery of light and darkness in the Qur’ān, it needs to be kept in mind that the characteristic Qur’ānic style is pictorial3 and contrastive.

Before entering this discussion, the term imagery needs to be defined. According to B. Bernard Cohen:

The term imagery is vital to the study of poetic style and should be used to include both images and figures of speech. An image is generally a sense impression created by a direct or recognizable sense appeal in words. Such an appeal should present a description so graphic or clear that the reader can relate it to his own senses or his own experience.4

The Qur’ān gives graphic descriptions of its central concepts so that “the reader can relate it to his own senses or his own experience”. According to Sayyid Qutub, the chief characteristic of the Qur’ān – the essence of its magical impact on its audience, is its pictographic style. This means that the Qur’ān unfolds its meaning through the use of images or mental pictures. Abstract meaning is presented in a concrete form that can be perceived by the senses. Similes and metaphors are used for this purpose. Personification is also employed. Thus the meaning penetrates the depth of human psyche not just mentally but also visually.

In order to ensure righteous conduct, man must have a deep-rooted conviction that all his deeds, good or bad would be recompensed. Simply telling him so would be insufficient. According to Muhammad Asad:

Such statements would be far too general and abstract to appeal to man’s imagination and, thus, to influence his behaviour. What is needed is a more direct appeal to the intellect, resulting in a kind of “visualization” of the consequences of one’s conscious acts and omissions: and such an appeal can be effectively produced by means of metaphors, allegories and parables, each of them stressing, on the one hand, the absolute dissimilarity of all that man will experience after resurrection from whatever he did or could experience in this world; and, on the other hand, establishing means of comparison between these two categories of experience.5

What Asad says about the use of symbolism in the Qur’ān is in accordance with the approach adopted by Sayyid Qutub. The Qur’ān uses images or mental pictures to present its message in a persuasive form. Light and darkness constitute visual images. Abstract concepts such as faith and disbelief, goodness and evil, virtue and vice are presented using the imagery of light and darkness. Man can instinctively relate such imagery to his experience as, by nature, he is attracted to light and is fearful of darkness. Such behaviour is primordial, primeval, and instinctive.

The characteristic Qur’ānic style is not just pictographic but also comparative and contrastive. Isrār Ahmed Khān takes “comparison” as a part of Qur’ānic methodology. He divides Qur’ānic comparisons into two: demonstrated and implied. In the case of implied comparisons, just one aspect e.g. qualities of believers in (23:1-9) are mentioned. On the other hand, in demonstrated comparisons opposites are explicitly mentioned. According to him, such comparisons have been used in approximately fourteen different places in the Qur’ān.

In the Qur’ān, the believers and the disbelievers, the righteous and the wrong-doers, the knowledgeable and the ignorant, the seeing and the blind, the living and the dead, heaven and hell – all are compared. Light and darkness are amongst the contrasts employed in Qur’ānic verses to present its message in an effective form as in the following “demonstrated comparisons”:

The blind and the seeing are not alike; Nor are the depths of darkness and the light; Nor are the [chilly] shade and the [genial] heat of the sun: Nor are alike those that are living and those that are dead. Allah can make any that He wills to hear; but you can not make those to hear who are [buried] in graves. (35:19-22)

Say: “Who is the Lord and Sustainer of the heavens and the earth?” Say: “[It is] Allah.” Say: “Do you then take [for worship] protectors other than Him, such as have no power either for good or for harm to themselves?” Say: “Are the blind equal with those who see? Or the depths of darkness equal with light?” Or do they assign to Allah partners who have created [anything] as He has created, so that the creation seemed to them similar? Say: “Allah is the Creator of all things: He is the One, the Supreme and Irresistible.” (13:16)

In the above verse, many rhetorical questions hinging on two contrasting states [blind new and the seeing, light and darkness] are mentioned to make man believe in the sole sovereignty of Allah.

Images of Light and Darkness in the Qur’ān

What are the different images of light and darkness in the Qur’ān? The word most frequently employed for light in Qur’ān is “nūr” (generally translated as “light”). For darkness, generally “zulumāt” is used (translated as “darkness/darknesses”) which is the plural of “zulmat”. Its root is “z-l-m” which is also that for “zulm” i.e. “wrong-doing”6 and “injustice”. The Qur’ān always uses the plural for darkness i.e. “zulumāt” and singular for light i.e. “nūr”. According to some interpretations it is because “the source of light is only one but the source of falsehood and the means to go astray are countless”7. Moreover, even a ray of light can pierce layers of darkness.

The Encyclopaedic Index of the Qur’ān defines “zulumāt” i.e. darkness as (1) Opposite of light (2) Opposite of Guidance.

The Qur’ān refers to light and darkness as amongst the first things to be created:

Praise be to Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth, and made the darkness and the light. Yet those who reject faith hold [others] as equal, with their Guardian-Lord. (6:1)

It is interesting to note that darkness is defined chiefly as the absence of light in most languages8. In the Qur’ān, darkness is either due to the absence of light or guidance. Mention has been made of the darkness of the womb9 as well as darkness of the earth10. The faces of disbelievers on the Day of Judgement would be dark11. They would be deprived of the light of Allah’s mercy12.

Sun, Moon and Stars

Light images in the Qur’ān pertain to different sources. Firstly, there are the heavenly bodies i.e. the sun, moon and the stars that provide light to the earth. There are many references in the Qur’ān to day and night, the sun and the moon with or without the explicit mention of light and darkness:

Blessed is He who made constellations in the skies, and placed therein a lamp and a moon giving light. (25:61)

Lamp in this verse has been used as a metaphor13 for the sun. There are references to the darkness of the night in the Qur’ān:

And a sign for them is the night: We withdraw there-from the Day, and behold! they are plunged in darkness. (36:37)

This darkness is beneficial as it ensures rest and sleep for man:

See they not that We have made the night for them to rest in and the day to give them light? Verily in this are signs for any people that believe! (27:86)

Science today distinguishes between the light of the sun and the moon. The Qur’ān also makes this distinction. For the light of the moon, “nūr” is used which is said to signify “reflected light”. In contrast, with reference to the sun which has its own light, the word “diyā’” has been used in the Qur’ān:14

It is He who made the sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light [of beauty], and measured out stages for her; that you might know the number of years and the count [of time]. Nowise did Allah create this but in truth and righteousness. [Thus] He explains His signs in detail for those who understand. (10:5)

Stars are also a source of light:

[It is] the star of piercing brightness. (86:3)15

The light of the stars provides guidance to travellers:

It is He Who makes the stars [as beacons] for you that you may guide yourselves, with their help, through the dark spaces of land and sea: We detail our signs for people who know. (6:97)

Sun, moon, and stars – sources of light – all have a concrete physical reality. In literature, a symbol is something that extends meaning beyond its physical presence. Thus, the sun, moon and stars – sources of light – indicate the presence of their Creator and are all symbols. In fact, they are called “āyāt” or the signs of Allah in the Qur’ān.

Every verse of the Qur’ān is, in fact, a sign of Allah.16 The Qur’ān says:

It is He who made the sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light [of beauty], and measured out stages for her; that ye might know the number of years and the count [of time]. Nowise did Allah create this but in truth and righteousness. [Thus] He explains His signs in detail for those who understand. (10:5)

Light as Guidance

“Nūr” is also used in the Qur’ān as a metaphor for revelation, faith, guidance, goodness, hope, bliss, contentment. It is the source of all that is good since its origin is from Allah:

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. (24:35)17

According to The Encyclopaedic Index of the Qur’ān, the word “nūr” occurs in the Qur’ān 43 times, for the Qur’ān, the Torah, the Gospel, the light of moon, faith, guidance, light of believers, opposite of darkness etc.” Qāmūs al-Alfāz Qur’ān al-Karīm lists five different usages of “nūr” in the Qur’ān. These are:

(1) the form of radiant energy which stimulates organs of the sight

(2) faith, belief, inner satisfaction opp. darknesses

(3) wisdom, divine knowledge, clear signs that remove doubt and lead to faith

(4) the divine book – the source of guidance

(5) Prophet’s mission

The first of these i.e. “the form of radiant energy which stimulates organs of the sight” refers to physical light as discussed in the previous section.

Spiritual life and the light of guidance go hand in hand. According to the Qur’ān, only those receive guidance who are alive:

We have not instructed the [Prophet] in poetry, nor is it meet for him: this is no less than a Message and a Qur’ān making things clear: That it may give admonition to any [who are] alive, and that the charge may be proved against those who reject [Truth]. (36:69-70)

This is also borne out by (6:122).

From the above verses, it is evident that the Qur’ān links light with life itself. Just as physical earthly existence is dependent on the light of the sun, similarly, spiritual life depends on the light of faith. Thus, Qur’ān – the source of guidance – has been called “nūr”. Allah addresses the Prophet (sws) thus:

Alif, Lām, Rā. A Book which We have revealed unto thee, in order that you might lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light – by the leave of their Lord – to the way of [Him] the Exalted in power, worthy of all praise! (14:1)

The earlier revelations of Allah – all have been termed “nūr” i.e. light. The people of the Book are told:

We sent Moses with our signs [and the command]. “Bring out your people from the depths of darkness into light, and teach them to remember the days of Allah.” Verily in this there are signs for such as are firmly patient and constant – grateful and appreciative. (14:5)

In the past We granted to Moses and Aaron the criterion [for judgment], and a light and a message for those who would do right. (21:48)

Allah’s light is the ultimate truth. It is bound to prevail over all forces of darkness. A promise is made in the Book of Allah:

Fain would they extinguish Allah’s light with their mouths, but Allah will not allow but that his light should be perfected, even though the unbelievers may detest [it]. (9:32)

The Prophet (sws) is told:

And thus have We, by our command, sent inspiration to you: you knew not [before] what was revelation, and what was faith; but We have made [the Qur’ān] a light, wherewith We guide such of our servants as We will; and verily you guide [men] to the straight way. (42:52)

Though generally it is “nūr” which is used as a metaphor for guidance, in one verse, “diyā” has been used:

In the past We granted to Moses and Aaron the criterion [for judgment], and a light and a message for those who would do right. (21:48)

Fire and Lightning

Fire is an oft-occurring image in the Qur’ān. It generally denotes hell-fire, the abode of evil-doers and a place of torment. However, mention has been made of the fire that acts as a source of illumination. The very first parable in Sūrah Baqarah (2:17-20) presents the kindling of the fire as an allegory for faith. Mention is also made of lightening in this parable. However, the disbelievers choose to remain in the darkness:

Their similitude is that of a man who kindled a fire; when it lighted all around him, Allah took away their light and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see. Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return [to the path]. Or [another similitude] is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky: In it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning: They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death. But Allah is ever round the rejecters of Faith! The lightning all but snatches away their sight; every time the light [helps] them, they walk therein, and when the darkness grows on them, they stand still. And if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing and seeing; for Allah has power over all things (2:17-20)

Lightening also evokes a light image.

The vivid flash of his lightning well-nigh blinds the sight. (24:43)

References to lightning also occur in (13:12) and (30:24).

A burning or blazing fire also produces light. Qāmūs al-Alfāz Qur’ān al-Karīm defines “nār” i.e. fire as “the evolution of heat and light by combustion.” Some descriptions of hell-fire evoke a light image as in the following verses:

Except such as snatch away something by stealth, and they are pursued by a flaming fire, of piercing brightness. (37:10)

Burnt soon will he be in a fire of blazing flame! (111:3)

A blazing fire is also mentioned in (8:50) and (25:11).

Flaming fire is also referred to in the context of shooting stars in the Qur’ān:

We have indeed decked the lower heaven with beauty [in] the stars…Except such as snatch away something by stealth, and they are pursued by a flaming fire of piercing brightness. (37:6-10)

The verse (15:18) also mentions “flaming fire” in the same context.

Mankind – in Light and Darkness

The Qur’ān divides mankind into two broad categories: those willing to receive guidance and those who choose to go astray. Those willing to receive guidance are said to be in the light – they are the believers. Those who are evil-doers follow darkness – they are the “kuffār” i.e. the rejecters of faith.

Allah directs man from darkness to light. It is said:

Wherewith Allah guides all who seek His good pleasure to ways of peace and safety, and leads them out of darkness, by His will, unto the light – guides them to a path that is straight. (5:16)

From the above verse, it is clear that Allah gives guidance to those who are willing to receive it.

He it is who sends blessings on you, as do His angels that He may bring you out from the depths of darkness into light: and He is full of mercy to the believers. Allah is the protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith, the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein [forever]. (2:257)

The movement from darkness to light is also repeated in (5:16), (14:1), (14:5), (57:9), (33:43) and (65:11).

The contrast between believers and the non-believers is made clear by means of an analogy:

Can he who was dead, to whom We gave life, and a light whereby he can walk amongst men, be like him who is in the depths of darkness, from which he can never come out? Thus to those without faith their own deeds seem pleasing. (6:122)

The People of the Book are told:

Those who follow the apostle, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own [scriptures] – in the law and the Gospel – for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good [and pure] and prohibits them from what is bad [and impure]; He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. So it is those who believe in him, honour him, help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him – it is they who will prosper. (7:157)

The Day of Judgement and the Hereafter

Lack of light is death – physical as well as spiritual. Doomsday would occur when sources of light would be destroyed. In (81:2) it is said:

When the sun [with its spacious light] is folded up; when the stars fall, losing their lustre. (81:1-2)

After Doomsday, there would be resurrection and Judgement:

And the earth will shine with the glory of its Lord: the record [of deeds] will be placed [open]; the prophets and the witnesses will be brought forward and a just decision pronounced between them; and they will not be wronged [in the least]. (39:69)

Faces of Believers and Disbelievers

The contrastive imagery of light and darkness is sustained not just for this world but for the Hereafter as well. On the Day of Judgement, the two categories of believers and disbelievers would be distinguishable by whether their faces are light or dark:

You wilt recognise in their faces the beaming brightness of Bliss. (83:24)

On the day when some faces will be [lit up with] white, and some faces will be [in the gloom of] black: To those whose faces will be black, [will be said]: “Did you reject faith after accepting it? Taste then the penalty for rejecting faith.” But those whose faces will be [lit with] white – they will be in [the Light of] Allah’s mercy: therein to dwell [forever]. (3:106-107)

In the translation of the above verse, instead of “white”, ‘Abdul Halīm employs the expression “those with brightened faces”.

The condition of the non-believers is made manifest by means of a simile in this verse:

But those who have earned evil will have a reward of like evil: ignominy will cover their [faces]: No defender will they have from [the wrath of] Allah: Their faces will be covered, as it were, with pieces from the depth of the darkness of night: they are companions of the fire: they will abide therein [for aye]! (10:27)

And other faces that day will be dust-stained, blackness will cover them. (80:40-41)

Heaven and Hell

After the Judgement, the greatest misfortune of the disbelievers would be their deprivation from the light of Allah. Heaven and Hell are places of light and darkness. The dwellers of Hell would yearn for a ray of light:

One day will the hypocrites – men and women – say to the believers: “Wait for us! Let us borrow [a light] from your light!” It will be said: “Turn you back to your rear! then seek a light [where you can]!” So a wall will be put up betwixt them, with a gate therein. Within it will be mercy throughout, and without it, all alongside, will be [wrath and] punishment! (57:13)

The believers, on the other hand, would be in a state of total bliss. Their prayer in this condition would be:

O you who believe! Turn to Allah with sincere repentance: In the hope that your Lord will remove from you your ills and admit you to gardens beneath which rivers flow – the day that Allah will not permit to be humiliated the Prophet and those who believe with him. Their light will run forward before them and by their right hands, while they say, “Our Lord! perfect our light for us, and grant us forgiveness: for You have power over all things.” (66:8)

But Allah will deliver them from the evil of that day, and will shed over them a light of beauty and a [blissful] joy. (76:11)


The most significant aspects of the Qur’ān are linked with light. Thus (31:20) talks about light-giving revelation, (33:46) and (3:184) about light-giving beacon, (27:13) about light-giving messages, (17:12) about light-giving symbol of day. The great significance of light and darkness can be determined from the oaths used in the Qur’ān. Oaths form an important part of Qur’ānic style. On the authority of Zarkashī, Isrār Ahmed Khān defines an oath as “a phrase whereby an information is confirmed and emphasized”18. According to him, Allah swears in the Qur’ān by “His own existence” as well as by that of His acts and creation:

By the night as it conceals [the light]; by the day as it appears in glory… (92:1-2)

The following oaths also embody the contrast of day and night, light and darkness:

By the sun and its [glorious] splendour; by the moon as it follows [the sun]; by the day as it shows up [the sun’s] glory; by the night as it conceals it… (91:1-4)

Man with his finite knowledge cannot conceive the omniscience of Allah. To give him some idea of Allah’s knowledge, the image of darkness is employed:

With Him are the keys of the unseen, the treasures that none knows but He. He knows whatever there is on the earth and in the sea. Not a leaf does fall but with His knowledge: there is not a grain in the darkness [or depths] of the earth, nor anything fresh or dry but is [inscribed] in a record clear [to those who can read]. (6:59)

Darkness, in the Qur’ān, is used as a visual image signifying lack of light as well as a metaphor for evil. Sūrah Falaq is a good example of how the literal and figurative meanings blend where protection is sought of the Almighty Allah from the evil inherent in the darkness of the night:

Say: “I seek refuge with the Lord of the dawn. From the mischief of created things; from the mischief of darkness as it overspreads. (113:1-3)

The above verses embody a contrast between light and darkness. The protection is sought from “the Lord of the dawn” from “the mischief of darkness as it overspreads.”

Duality of Aspects

There are dual aspects of the images of light and darkness in the Qur’ān. All light images are not positive e.g. the blazing fire of Hell does evoke a light image though it is not positive. The following image of torment for the rejecters of truth evokes a terrifyingly beautiful light image:

Depart you to a shadow [of smoke ascending] in three columns, [which yields] no shade of coolness, and is of no use against the fierce blaze. Indeed it throws about sparks [huge] as forts, as if there were [a string of] yellow camels [marching swiftly]. (77:30-33)

However, all light images linked with “nūr” are positive as Allah himself has been called the “nūr” of the heavens and the earth in (24:35).

All images of darkness are not negative. For example, Allah has made night for man to rest in. Therefore, its darkness is beneficial. The expression used  in this context is “that  you  may  rest  therein”  in  (10:67)  as  well as in (27:86) and (40:61). Similarly, the dark mantle of night enables believers to meditate as testified in Sūrah Muzzammil about the Prophet (sws):

O you folded in garments! Stand [to prayer] by night, but not all night – half of it – or a little less, or a little more; and recite the Qur’ān in slow, measured rhythmic tones. (73:1-4)


According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, a parable is “(esp. in the Bible) story told to illustrate a moral or spiritual truth”. The Qur’ān also employs a number of parables to drive home its lessons. Zamakhsharī comments that the “parables bring out the hidden imports, and lift up veils from the realities to the extent that the envisioned appears real, the imagination turns positively certain, and the non-existent exists.”19

The most profound amongst the parables in the Qur’ān employ images of light and darkness. The foremost amongst these might be the one known as the light verse:

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is as if there were a niche and within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass; the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon light! Allah does guide whom He will to his light: Allah does set forth parables for men: and Allah does know all things. (24:34)

The above verse employs a beautiful metaphor with reference to Allah’s light. In fact, Allah himself is “the light of the heavens and the earth”. All light is from Him as is all guidance. He guides “whom He will to his light”. The prayer of the believers in afterlife would be “Our Lord! Perfect our light for us, and grant us forgiveness: for You have power over all things.” (66:8)

The profundity of the light verse could be realized from the fact that volumes have been written to discuss it, the chief-most being Mishkāt al-Anwār by Ghazālī.

Asad comments:

The particle ka (“as if” or “as it were”) prefixed to a noun is called kāf-i tashbīh (the letter kāf pointing to a resemblance of one thing to another or indicating a metaphor). In the above context it alludes to the impossibility of defining God even by means of a metaphor or a parable, since “there is nothing like unto Him” (42:11), there is also “nothing that could be compared with Him” (112:4). Hence, the parable of “the light of God” is not meant to express His reality – which is inconceivable to any created being and, therefore, inexpressible in any human language – but only to allude to the illumination which He, who is the ultimate truth, bestows upon the mind and the feelings of all who are willing to be guided. Tabari, Baghāwī and Ibn Kathīr quote Ibn ‘Abbās and Ibn Mas‘ūd as saying in this context: “It is the parable of His light in the heart of a believer.”20

Bennabi, while calling the above verse “one of the most beautiful metaphors of the Qur’ān” goes on to add that “it is one of the most remarkable coincidences of the Qur’ānic notions with scientific facts”. “Borrowing some adequate equivalents of its symbolic terms from modern technology”, he makes the following substitutions “suggested by the very terms of the verse”:


Niche = Projector = Reflector

Flame = Incandescent Luminous Object = Filament

Glass = Bulb


Bennabi, thus, interprets this verse as follows:

“Even without the contact of fire, the light flashes out of a projector, in which there is a filament in a bulb, which is lit up by the essence of a blessed tree, which is neither from the east nor from the west.” We should notice here one of the most astounding coincidences of revealed notions with subsequent scientific facts21.

Muhammad Iqbāl, in expounding the light verse says:

No doubt, the opening sentence of the verse gives the impression of an escape from an individualistic conception of God. But when we follow the metaphor of light in the rest of the verse, it gives just the opposite impression. The development of metaphor is meant rather to exclude the suggestion of a formless cosmic element by centralizing the light in a flame which is further individualized by its encasement in a glass likened unto a well-defined star. [. . .] in the world of change, light is the nearest approach to the Absolute. The metaphor of light as applied to God, therefore, must, in view of modern knowledge, be taken to suggest the Absoluteness of God and not His Omnipresence which easily lends itself to a pantheistic interpretation.22

The light verse is linked with faith. After a few verses, the opposing state of the unbeliever is presented. A picture of absolute darkness is painted which fact is borne out by modern science today.23 Just as for the believer, there is light upon light, for the unbeliever, there are depths of darkness, one above another:

Or [the unbelievers’ state] is like the depths of darkness in a vast deep ocean, overwhelmed with billow topped by billow, topped by [dark] clouds: depths of darkness, one above another: if a man stretches out his hands, he can hardly see it! for any to whom Allah gives not light, there is no light! (24:40)

The very first parables in the Qur’ān in Sūrah Baqarah (2:17-20) employ images of light and darkness as metaphors for faith and disbelief, goodness and evil. The light images are due to fire and lightning as mentioned earlier. Many interpretations, some widely different, have been given of these verses. True light is from Allah. The disbelievers wilfully choose to remain in darkness. In spite of having eyes, they have been termed blind as they shut their eyes from the light of true faith.

Darkness and Light – Archetypal Images – Present in Human Nature as well as World Literature

The question can arise in one’s mind as to why the Qur’ān employs imagery of light and darkness. The answer might be that both light and darkness are linked with the sense of sight. They are amongst the most basic of visual images. The ability to see in human beings is directly linked with light. Thus, light is revealing and illuminating.

Light and darkness is the central contrast that shapes all activities of life in the form of alternation of day and night. Dawn for man has always been synonymous with hope. Maybe it is part of the Collective Unconscious – those archetypal images – that act like instincts to human psyche, which are universal and primordial.

According to the Bible also the first thing to be created by God was light and darkness:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. (Genesis: 1-4)

The imagery of light and darkness appears in all literatures of the world. They appear to be universal symbols embedded deep in human psyche. Paradoxically both good and evil are present in human nature i.e. man contains within himself both darkness and light. According to Jung, the Collective Unconscious is the deepest layer of the unconscious and is “universal, supra-personal and non-individual”.24 The contents of the collective unconscious are called “archetypes” and their particular symbolic manifestations, “archetypal images”. Archetypes are perceived and experienced subjectively through certain universal, typical, recurring mythological motifs and images which symbolically elaborated in various ways are the basic contents of religions, mythologies, legends and fairy tales of all ages.25

Darkness and light are amongst these archetypal images. Jungian psychology relates archetype images of the great mother i.e. the earth and the spiritual father i.e. the sun, to darkness and light.26

Jungian interpretation of these archetypal images is different from the one in the Qur’ān. The Qur’ān does not link all images of darkness with earth and light with the sun. However, it does treat light and darkness as universal symbols of faith and disbelief, virtue and vice, good and evil, hope and despair. Similar images are found in all scriptures27 as well as literature. Lady Macbeth, lost due to the despair of guilt, says “Hell is murky”28. The Hell portrayed by Milton is a dark place where in spite of the flames there is no light:


A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,

As one great furnace flam’d; yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible.29


In Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth most evil deeds are committed under cover of the darkness of the night, e.g. the murders of King Duncan and Banquo. Such verses also recall the epic simile of Leviathan – the sea-monster in Milton’s Paradise Lost.30


No aspect of the Qur’ān can ever be delved to its full depth. The present article aimed at presenting simply an overview of the imagery of light and darkness in the Qur’ān. It was found that light images pertain to different sources such as the heavenly bodies like the sun, moon and stars. Light is used as a metaphor for guidance. When the word “nūr” appears, such a light image is always positive as it is an attribute of Allah Himself. Light would also appear on the faces of the believers on the Day of Judgement.

In the Qur’ān, the imagery of light and darkness presents abstract conceptions such as faith and disbelief, goodness and evil, virtue and vice, hope and despair, bliss and torment in a visual form. It shows that the entire mankind is divided into two groups: the believers who are in the light and the disbelievers grappling aimlessly in the dark. The technique of contrast highlights their different plight.

Duality of aspects is also significant with regard to light and darkness. While all light images in the Qur’ān are not positive (e.g. the blazing fire of Hell), all images of darkness are also not negative. The darkness of the night provides repose to man. It is a time for prayer and meditation to the true believer.



1. Unless otherwise specified, English translation of the Qur’ān is that rendered by ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Alī except for changes made to conform to contemporary English style. (27:86)  refers to the 86th verse of chapter 27 of the Qur’ān.

2. He created you all from a single person: then created, of like nature, his mate; and he sent down for you eight head of cattle in pairs: He makes you, in the wombs of your mothers, in stages, one after another, in three veils of darkness. Such is Allah, your Lord and Cherisher: to Him belongs all dominion. There is no god but He: then how are you turned away from your true Centre? (39:6)

3. For a detailed discussion on this aspect, see: Qur’ānic Imagery of Doomsday and Resurrection, Fauzia Tanveer Sheikh, “Renaissance”, vol. 16, No. 10, October 2006.

4. Cohen, B. Bernard, Writing About Literature, Rev. ed. (Illinois: Scott, 1973), 51.

5. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān (Gibraltar: Dār Al-Andalas, 1984), 990.

6. ‘Abdu‘ah ‘Abbas Nadwī, Qāmūs al-Alfāz Qur’ān al-Karīm (Karachi: Maktabah Dār al-Ishā‘at, 1999), 382.

7. Ibid., 688.

8. For example, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines “the dark” as “absence of light”.

9. The Holy Qur’ān, (39:6).

10. The Holy Qur’ān, (6:59).

11. The Holy Qur’ān, (3:106).

12. The Holy Qur’ān, (57:13).

13. The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another”.

14. Maurice Bucaille discusses this aspect in his book The Bible, The Qur’ān and Science. (

15. The light image in this verse does not employ the word “nūr”.

16. Sayyad Muhammad Osāma, The Encyclopaedic Index of the Qur’ān (New Delhi: Goodword Books, 2003), 677.

17. A discussion of this verse follows in a subsequent section.

18. Isrār Ahmed Khān, Qur’ānic Studies: An Introduction (Kuala Lumpur: Zaman Islam Media, 2000), 230.

19. Ibid., 237.

20. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān (Gibraltar: Dār Al-Andalas, 1984), 541.

21. Malik Bennabi, The Qur’ānic Phenomenon: An Essay of a Theory on the Qur’ān (Kuala Lumpur:  Islamic Book Trust, 2001), 254.

22. Muhammad Iqbāl, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam 5th ed. (Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture, 2003), 51.

23. See’ānandScience/Geology_Ocean.asp

24. Please see: Edward R. Edinger, An Outline of Analytical Psychology, Quadrant, vol. 1, Spring 1968.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Please see: World Scripture, Enlightenment,

28. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth (London: Longsman, 1963), Act v, Scene i, line 33.

29. John Milton, Paradise Lost (Lahore: New Kitāb Mahal Milton), Book I, lines 61-63.

30. Ibid., Book I, lines 200-208.

For Questions on Islam, please use our