The Niche of Lights: A parallel English-Arabic text translated, introduced, and annotated
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, David Buchman
Blair Dee Hodges
Brigham Young University Press, 1998
For many westerners, Islam remains hidden behind a veil, simply waiting
to be discovered and uncovered. Brigham Young University, in
cooperation with scholars throughout the world, has taken significant
steps toward unveiling the history and thought of this global religion.
Since the late 1990s, BYU's Institute for the Study and Preservation of
Ancient Religious Texts has sponsored the Islamic Translation Series
(ITS) to better integrate Islamic studies into western academia.
According to Daniel C. Peterson, ITS’s managing editor:
“Islamic civilization represents nearly fourteen centuries of intense
intellectual activity, and believers in Islam number in the hundreds of
millions. The texts that will appear in the ITS are among the treasures
of this great culture. But they are more than that. They are properly
the inheritance of all the peoples of the world,” (Peterson, “Forward to
the Series,” The Niche of Lights, p. x).
Following the command to “seek…out of the best books words of wisdom,”
Latter-day Saints will enjoy The Niche of Lights by Abu Hamid
al-Ghazali (1058-1111 C.E.), one of Islam’s most respected scholars and
interpreters. Despite some theological differences, Latter-day Saints
share al-Ghazali’s ultimate goal of knowing and returning to God.
Al-Ghazali mastered law, theology, and philosophy in order to draw
closer to God. Despite becoming more proficient in these areas than
perhaps any previous Muslim, he nevertheless recognized something
important was missing. Through his study of an Islamic movement called
Sufism, he discovered “there is a knowledge of God that goes beyond the
rational ability to know Him and is ‘unveiled’ (kashf) by God in the
heart” (xx). Al-Ghazali played a key role in legitimizing elements of
Sufism including the Islamic ideal that religion transcends both doing
(by following the law) and knowing (by use of theology and philosophy) —
its core consists of being and becoming. By understanding proper
theories and adhering to proper practices, humans can purify their
hearts until God unveils Himself to them.
Al-Ghazali wrote The Niche of Lights toward the end of his life to
discuss the nature of God and explain how humans can be shielded from —
or led to — His presence. It was written in response to a friend’s
question. Al-Ghazali’s introduces the book by appearing to sandwich his
answer directly into the question itself:
“You asked me, O noble brother — may God lead you to search for the
greatest felicity, train you to ascend to the highest summit, anoint
your insight with the light of Reality, and cleanse all other than the
Real from your inmost center — that I unfold for you the mysteries of
the divine lights, along with an interpretation of the apparent meanings
of those recited verses and narrated reports that allude to His divine
The “recited verses” to which he refers are the so-called “Light Verses”
of the Qur’an, which describe God as "the light of the heavens and the
earth” (1). The “narrated reports” are called “hadith,” or the reported
sayings of the prophet Muhammad, which are generally as important to
Muslims as the Qur'an itself. Al-Ghazali explores the verses and
“hadith” in three chapters.
In the first chapter he begins his interpretation of the Qur’an by
outlining a metaphysics of light, concluding that the “real light is God
and that the name ‘light’ for everything else is sheer metaphor” (3).
Extending from the First light is a hierarchy of lights ranging from
least to greatest. Al-Ghazali includes a simple and beautiful metaphor
to simplify this hierarchy of light. He compares it to the light from
the moon passing through a window, reflects from a mirror onto an
opposite wall, and reflects from there to shine on the floor. In each of
these stages the light differs in brightness depending on its proximity
to the original source of the light — the sun reflecting onto the moon.
In this way he describes how the light of God is passed from Him to his
creations through various intermediaries. This chapter is perhaps the
most difficult of the three and al-Ghazali concludes it with a section
called “Some encouragement.” If the discussion has been too difficult,
he advises, “take for yourself words that are nearer to your
understanding and more suitable to your weakness” for now. But don’t
stop there: “Know that you can come to know...” (22).
In the second chapter al-Ghazali explains that the goal of human
existence is to get nearer to God through an inner transformation. He
outlines a hierarchy of beings ranging from humans, to angels, to God,
and compares their respective likenesses to that of the stars, moon, and
sun. On the pathway back to God the traveler passes through these stages
or degrees of glory (p. 27-28). However, unbelievers will have
difficulty recognizing revelation and light from God. The Qur’an
compares the unbelievers to a man “in a fathomless ocean covered by a
wave above which is another wave above which are clouds, darkness piled
one upon the other.” Al-Ghazali interprets these to be the waves of
appetites, sensory pleasures, hatred and arrogance and the clouds of
“loathsome beliefs, lying opinions, and corrupt imaginings.” These
separate unbelievers from the light and true knowledge of God (42).
The third chapter continues the discussion of being separated from God.
Al-Ghazali provides his interpretation of the Veils “hadith.” This
saying of Muhammad describes God as being separated from humans by
“seventy veils of light and darkness.” According to al-Ghazali the veils
come in three main kinds: veils of darkness, veils of light, and veils
of darkness mixed with light (44). Veils of darkness cover the
“atheists... who do not have faith in God and the last day” (45). Veils of
darkness mixed with light represent those who believe in both true and
false principles (47). Veils of light cover those who are drawing ever
closer to God, but are difficult to penetrate (50). Individuals who pass
through these veils are said to have finally “arrived” at the presence
of God where further grades of experience are possible. This ultimate
destination seems beyond al-Ghazali’s ability to describe and the book
ends without a summary. “My request to the [original] questioner,” he
concludes, “is that he ask God to forgive wherever my pen has
transgressed and my foot has slipped, because delving into the flood of
the divine mysteries is dangerous, and seeking to penetrate the divine
lights from behind human veils is arduous, not easy” (53).
Niche is a fascinating book of questions and answers that will
resonate with and challenge believers of many faith traditions. David
Buchman’s careful translation is printed beside the Arabic script
through Niche's fifty-three pages of metaphor, thick scriptural
exegesis, and philosophy. A basic understanding of Islam will allow
readers to better appreciate the book. Buchman’s introduction provides a
serviceable background to twelfth century Islamic thought and the life
of al-Ghazali. ITS is performing a tremendous service to religious
studies. Those involved in the translation and publication project
deserve much praise for making significant works like Niche and other
“best books” accessible, affordable, and available to scholars,
students, and the general public.
 My own inadequate understanding of Islam along with al-Ghazali’s
deep subject matter only compounded the difficulty of this review. Or in
other words, I'm overwhelmed! (but happily). A useful introduction is
John L. Esposito's Islam: The Straight Path, Oxford University Press
(2005, revised third edition).
 See the ITS website at http://meti.byu.edu/islamic.php.
 Doctrine & Covenants 88:118.