The Light & Colors of Sufism

The Light & Colors of Sufism

“The first thing God created was my light.”

“I am made of God’s light 
and all created beings are made of my light.”

  Two Hadiths: The Prophet Muhammad

I am like the sun drowned within the light
                    I know not how to distinguish myself from light


Henry Corbin (1903-1978) :  
The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism 

Henry Corbin’s book The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism is about the mystic’s journey on the spiritual path.  In Corbin’s words:  “It is the ascent out of cartographical dimensions; the discovery of the inner world, which secretes its own light, which is the world of light . . . an innerness of light as opposed to the spatiality of the outer world.”  

In Corbin’s world of metaphor we enter into the light of angels; we enter into another kind of Darkness called by the mystics the “Night of light,” the “luminous Blackness” or the “black light.”  This other-worldly light is the light of the soul, the light of consciousness rising over the Darkness of the subconscious in which the divine Cloud of Unknowing gives birth to an interior burst of initiatic light -- the light of the “Midnight sun.”  

Corbin comes to the realization that each mystic, in fact each one of us, is accompanied on our journey by an “invisible Guide,” the “heavenly Partner,” “the Figure of light.”

Each stage of the journey to “Paradise,” the “Earth of light,” the Terra lucida, the “heavenly Earth,” is marked by a sequence of signs, signs in the form of colored light, concluding in the outburst of green light, the sign of completed growth of the seeker through a conjunction of the seeker’s soul with it’s angel of light.

Corbin writes:  “Every account of the attainment of Perfect Nature represents an actual performance of the drama of initiation, whether enacted in the dream state or in the waking state.  It is attained at the center, that is, in a place filled with Darkness which comes to be illuminated by a pure inner Light.” 
Following, Corbin gives us one such account: 

When I wished to bring to light the science of the mystery of Creation, I came upon a subterranean vault filled with darkness and winds.  I saw nothing because of the darkness and the violence of the winds.  Then a person of great beauty appeared to me.  He said take a lamp, place it under glass to shield it from the winds; then it will give thee light in spite of them.  Then go into the underground chamber; dig in its center and from there bring forth a certain God-made image, designed according to the rules of Art.  As soon as you have drawn out this image, the winds will cease to blow through the underground chamber.  Then dig in its four corners and you will bring to light the knowledge of the mysteries of Creation, the causes of Nature, the origins of things.  I said “Who art thou?”  He answered” “I am they Perfect Nature.”

The Emerald Tablet; The Green Light
In a related tale to the one above the initiate sees in the inner chamber a Shaykh, who is Hermes, who is his own image, sitting on a throne and holding an emerald tablet.  Corbin says Perfect Nature is the one who gives birth and the one who is born.  He says this image of bi-unity is therefore a form of “light upon light” a well known saying from the Qur’an: 

 . . . a lamp burning with the oil of an 

olive tree which is neither of the East 

nor of the West, bursting into flame 

even though fire touch it not . . . 

And it is light upon light.  (24: 35)

And with this initiatic experience there is the feeling of individual transcendence that prevails against all the coercion and collectivization of the person.  

The great Islamic sage, Najm Kobra writes: 

The object of the search is God, and the subject who seeks is a light that comes from Him . . . and aspires to free itself, to rise again to its origin. . .  A flame comes down from the Heavens to meet the flame leaping up from the Earth, and at their fiery meeting-point Najm discerns or foresees the presence of the “heavenly Witness,”  the “suprasensory Guide,” . . .  This intimates the condition which must precede all such experiencers: men must separate themselves from the veil that blinds them.

There are lights which ascend and lights which descend.  The ascending lights are the lights of the heart; the descending lights are those of the Throne.  Creatural being is the veil between the Throne and the heart.  When this veil is rent and a door to the Throne opens in the heart, like springs toward like. Light rises toward light, and light comes down upon light, ‘and it is light upon light’ (Qur’an 24:35). . . 

Each of the elements of the man of light which is in you brings you a mystical state or vision in the Heaven corresponding to it . . . Each time light rises from you, a light comes down toward you . . . If their energies are equal, they meet half-way (between Heaven and Earth) . . . But when the substance of light has grown in you, then this becomes a Whole in relation to what is of the same nature in Heaven: then it is the substance of light in Heaven which yearns for you and is attracted by your light, and it descends toward you.  This is the secret of the mystical approach.

On the mystic journey there is a well corresponding to each act of the seven acts of Being . . . When you have risen up through the seven wells of existence, the Heaven of the sovereign condition and its power are revealed to you.  Its atmosphere is a green light whose greenness is that of a vital light through which flow waves eternally in movement towards one another. . .  And on the surface of this heaven are to be seen points more intensely red than fire . . . which appear lined up in groups of five.  On seeing them, the mystic experiences nostalgia and a burning desire; he aspires to unite with them.

Before you, before your face, there is another Face of light irradiating lights; while behind its diaphanous veil a sun becomes visible, seemingly animated by a movement to and fro.  In reality this face is your own face and this sun is the sun of the Spirit that goes to and fro in your body.

When the flame of the dhikr [remembering, repeating the name of God] and of ardent desire have consumed this barrier or veil with fire, then the pure jewel is freed from its ore,  then it becomes a person wholly of light.

Corbin writes: “Here, once the garment [veil] of darkness has been burned and consumed, the person of light becomes visible.  The celestial Witness is a person of light and is visible only for and by your person of light (like can be seen only by like). . . he contemplates you with the same look with which you contemplate him.  Every mystic has attempted to formulate this subtle reciprocity of roles. . . it means that God is contemplating Himself in him. . .  The bi-unitary structure . . . is the structure that postulates a dimension of individual personal transcendence  . . .  It was your own shadow (personal unconscious) which was projecting and interposing a veil that the flame of the dhikr [remembering, repeating the name of God] finally set on fire and consumed.  The shadow was the only thing making your heavenly counterpart invisible.”

The Black Light
In the Sufi mystic’s experience, the black light precedes the green light which is the ultimate theophany, the highest spiritual stage.

Corbin writes:  “The black light . . . a light without matter . . . is the light of the divine Self-in-itself. . . the hidden Treasure that aspires to reveal itself. . .  The black light is the light of revelation, which makes one see.  Precisely what makes one see, that is to say, light as absolute subject, can in nowise become a visible object.  It is in this sense that the Light of lights, that by which all visible lights are made visible, is both light and darkness, that is, visible because it brings about vision, but in itself invisible. . . The black light is the source of the epiphanies of light.” 

There is a Sufi tradition that says: 

God has 70,000 veils of light and of darkness; 
if He removed them the brilliance of His Face 
would burn up all that met His look.

The Pole
The Pole, the “Orient of the North” is the column of space, the invisible black light of God, from which all being and all visible creation originates.  
The “well” spoken of in many mystic accounts symbolizes the Pole, and throughout his journey to the Self the Sufi mystic passes through many stages of transformation symbolized by different colored lights.  When in the mystic’s journey he sees the green light at the top of the well with the suprasenory organ, he knows he is close to the end of his journey.  The “Traveler” is about to return Home to his place of Origin, the Divine Being, thus finally becoming united again with the Creator.

Corbin writes: “The black light is that which cannot itself be seen because it is the cause of seeing; it cannot be object, since it is absolute Subject.  It dazzles, as the light of superconsciousness dazzles.  Only a knowledge which is a theophanic experience can be knowledge of the divine Being.  . . . This knowledge is a not-knowing, because knowledge presupposes a subject and an object, the seer and the seen, whereas divine Ipseity [Selfhood], black light, excludes this correlation.”

Many Sufi mystics write of seeing the sun becoming red against a black sky; the “Traveler’s” penetration into the black light is a kind of death (fana, dissolution of the ego).  Corbin writes: “Either the mystic is about to become swallowed up in dementia or he will rise again from it, initiated in the meaning of the theophanies and revelations.  This resurgence is translated [by some mystics] as an exaltation from black light to green light. 

One Sufi mystic comments on such visionary experiences:  “The summum of knowledge is unknowingness . . . In reality, there is no knowledge of God by another than God, for another than God is not.  This  is the stage of absorbtion in God, fana, where being is returned (ta’wil) to being.”

The Law of Correspondence
Corbin writes: “The law of correspondences that governs these hermeneutics, and which is none other than the law governing all spiritual interpretation, can be stated as follows: there is homology between the events taking place in the outer world and the inner events of the soul; there is homology between what has been called “the time horizons” or “horizontal time,” namely, the physical time of historical computation governed by the movement of the visible stars, and the psychic time, the time of the world of the soul, of the pole, governing the inner Heavens.  This is exactly why each outer fact can be “led back” (the original meaning of the word ta’wil) to the inner “region” corresponding to it.  Each of these regions is marked by a colored light which the mystic is able to visualize in a state of contemplation and to which he has to learn to be attentive because it informs him as to his own spiritual state.”

The Seven mystical Veils
The man of light progresses through seven mystical centers, or veils.  In his book The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism,  Henry Corbin says the black light cannot itself be seen because it is the cause of seeingThe Traveler’s penetration into the black light is a kind of death, a dissolution of the ego.  Corbin writes: “Either the mystic is about to become swallowed up in dementia or he will rise again from it, initiated in the meaning of the theophanies and revelations.  This resurgence is translated [by some mystics] as an exaltation from black light to green light.” 

The great Sufi mystic saint Semnani (1280-1386) says that the final mystical station is marked not by black light but by green light.  Following are the colors he associates with each of the seven mystical veils:

1  Darkness, the stage of the subtle body at the level of its birth, still very close to the physical organism; a blackness sometimes turning to smoke-grey
2  Blue light = soul
3  Red light = heart
4  White light = superconsciousness
5  Yellow light = spirit
6  Luminous Black = arcanum.  The black light; the Luminous Night
Green light = the divine center.  

“I am the eye through which He sees . . .”
The great mystic Sufis say: I am God’s secret  because the divine Being cannot exist without me, nor I exist without Him.  Corbin writes:  “The mystic has to be ‘carried away’ to the higher spiritual Abode (from the black light to the green light), so that the nature of his True Ego may be revealed to him, not as an ego with the godhead as its predicate, so to say, but as being the organ and place of theophany; this means that he will have become fit to be invested in His light, to be the perfect mirror, the organ of the theophany.  This is the state of the “friend of God,” of whom the divine Being can say, according to the inspired hadith, so oft-repeated by the Sufis: I am the eye through which he sees, the ear through which he hears, the hand by which he touches . . .” 

Sufi Light & Aesthetics
In the medieval Islamic tradition the Prophet Mani (216-276 A.D.) has been regarded as the initiator of painting and the greatest master of that art.  Corbin writes: “Everyone knows that the purpose of his painting was essentially didactic; it was intended to lead vision beyond the sensory: to incite love and admiration of the “Sons of Light,” horror of the “Sons of Darkness.”  The liturgical illumination so highly developed by the Manicheans was, essentially, a scenography of the “liberation of light.” With this aim in view, the Manicheans were let to represent light in their miniatures by precious metals.”  

Corbin quotes here the great Islamic scholar, Louis Massignon (1883-1962):  The art of Persian miniatures, without atmosphere, without perspective, without shadows, and without modeling, in the metallic splendor of its polychromy, peculiar to itself, bears witness to the fact that its originators were undertaking a kind of alchemic sublimation of the particles of divine light imprisoned in the “mass” of the picture.  Precious metals, gold and silver, come to the surface of the fringes and crowns, of the offering and cups, to escape from the matrix of the colors.  

“Man of Light” Summary & Colors According to Goethe
Corbin ends his book by reminding us of some of Najm Kobra’s principal themes, then ends with a brief reminder Goethe’s work with colors:

The search is the divine Light 
The seeker is himself a particle of this light
The seeker’s method is the method of alchemy
Like aspires to its like
Like can be seen and known only by its like  

“The eye [writes Goethe] owes its existence to light. . . light has called forth, produced for itself, an organ like unto itself; thus the eye was formed by light, of light and for light, so that the inner light might come in contact with the outer light.  At this point we are reminded of the ancient Ionian School, which never ceased to repeat that like is only known by like.”

Corbin continues to elaborate on Goethe’s ideas: “The perception of color is an action and reaction of the soul itself which is communicated to the whole being; an energy is then emitted through the eyes, a spiritual energy that cannot be weighed or measured quantitatively. . .  the eye at this point produces another color, its own color.  The eye searches at the side of a given colored space for a free space where it can produce the color called for by itself.” 

“Is this not a similar phenomenon of totality in the reunion of the two fiery lights issuing the one from Heaven, the other from the earthly person, which Najm Kobra perceived as the theophanic form of his “witness in Heaven”, that is to say, of the heavenly counterpart conditioning the whole of his being?”

“Color is not a passive impression, but the language of the soul to itself.”

Again, Corbin quotes Goethe:  If the polarity of yellow and blue has truly been grasped, if in particular their intensification into red has been well noted and it has become clear how these opposites tend toward one another and reunite in a third color, then it cannot be doubted that the intuition of a profound secret is beginning to dawn in us, a foretaste of the possibility that a spiritual meaning might be attributed to these two separate and mutually opposed entities.  When they are seen to produce green below and red above, one can hardly refrain from thinking that one is contemplating here the earthly creatures and there the heavenly creatures of the Elohim.

Corbin sees in Goethe’s words regarding light and color a convergence with the Iranian Sufi mystics and their preoccupations with color and light.  Corbin concludes: “The aim is the super-existence of the higher personal individuality, attained by the reunion with the individual’s own dimension of Light, his “face of light,” that gives the individuality its total dimension.  For this reunion to be possible the inclination toward the “polar dimension” must have opened in the terrestrial being, the inclination heralded by fugitive flashes of superconsciousness . . .  Najm Kobra admits having meditated for a long time before he understood who was this light that flamed in the sky of his soul while the flame of his own being was rising to meet it.  What is sought is the divine Light, the seeker is himself a particle of the light.”  



Tom Cheetham:  All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings

A primary characteristic of the visionary and Creative Imagination is that it is fluid, flashing, and ever-changing. . .  If we imagine that the world was produced by a cosmic Imagination, and if Imagination is the central faculty of human beings, and if imaginal reality is fluid and changeable, then no literal interpretation we can ever give the world will do it justice.  There is no complete Truth that is viable to everyone.  The cosmos cries out for interpretation because it is infinite everywhere and always, from the tiniest grain of sand to the greatest cluster of galaxies, from the tiniest living cell to the infant sleeping in its mother's arms. . .  There can be no master narrative.    We want instead a Theory of Nothing, a poetics of the dark.  Only that releases us and the world toward an infinite series of meanings. . . Henry Corbin writes of the Darkness at the approach to the pole that threatens the mystical journey with catastrophe.  The Unknown God is the fountain of all being--His Light so overpowering it seems like the Blackest Night. 

Annemarie Schimmel:  Mystical Dimensions of Islam

The Sufis have spoken of the experience of the Black Light--the light of bewilderment: when the divine light fully appears in the mystic's consciousness, all things disappear instead of remaining visible.  Such is the experience of fana--a blackout of everything until the mystic perceives that this blackness is "in reality the very light of the Absolute-as-such," for existence in its purity is invisible and appears as nothing.  To discover the clarity of this black light is to find the green water of life, which, according to the legends, is hidden in the deepest darkness.  Baqa, [eternal] persistence in God, is concealed in the very center of fana.   

Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Islamic Art and Spirituality:
Whenever and wherever the veil of matter is removed, the Divine Light of Unity shines through. . .  Hence "Whithersoever ye turn, there is the Face of God" (Qur'an, 11:115).    

Titus Burckhardt:  Sacred Art in East and West (1958/1967/2001)
The Arcades of a court of the Alhambra [a Palace in Granada, Spain] for example, repose in perfect calm; at the same time they seem to be woven of luminous vibrations.  They are like light made crystalline; their innermost substance, one might say, is not stone but the Divine Light, the Creative Intelligence that resides mysteriously in all things.

According to a saying of the Prophet, God hides Himself behind seventy thousand curtains of light and of darkness; "if they were taken away, all that His sight reaches would be consumed by the lightnings of His Countenance."  The curtains are made of light in that they hide the Divine "obscurity," and of darkness in that they veil the Divine Light.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr: The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition

Go die, O man of honor, before you die,
So that you will not suffer the pangs of death, 
Die in such a way as to enter the abode of light,
Not the death that places you in the grave.


Who am I? I am the I that, having traversed all the stages of limited existence from the physical to the mental to the noumenal, has realized its own “nonexistence” and by virtue of this annihilation of the false self has returned to its roots in the Divine Reality and has become a star proximate to the Supernal Sun, which is ultimately the only I.  

The heart, having been discovered and its hardened shell melted through spiritual practice,  emanates a light that shines upon the mind, which then, rather than jumping aimlessly from one concept to another, becomes an illuminated instrument of the intellect, able to discern true knowledge and distinguish between truth and falsehood . . .the Absolute and the relative.

The word ta’wil means to take something back to its origin. . .  The greatest gift of God to us is His Word or revelation, which enables us to return to Him.

God asserts through the mouth of the Prophet, “I was a Hidden Treasure; I desired to be known.  Therefore I created the world so that I would be known.”  This famous hadith has many meanings, the most evident of which is that knowing God is the purpose of creation.  

To become someone spiritually means ultimately to become no one.  It is in the end to transcend all particularities and realize the Self within all selves. . .  To return to the symbol of the sun, it is also to pierce with the light of the intellect all veils of duality and otherness to return to the Sun of the Self, which is the origin of all selves and the source of the intellect shining within those who have realized the state of perfect servanthood.  It is in light of return to the Self that many Sufis have spoken, often in ecstatic language, of having gone beyond name . . . to become no one . . .

Many Sufis claim that on the highest level of understanding there is in fact only the one and absolute Being.  Viewed from within the sun, there is nothing but the sun. . .  Everything in the universe is a mirror in which is reflected determinations of the One essence, the Absolute Being and Reality. . .  To realize this  truth fully is to be able to see God everywhere.  It is to realize the supreme goal of human life by returning  to our pre-existential reality  in the Divine.

A veil not only veils but also reveals something through the very act of veiling. . .  A colored glass limits the light of the sun but also allows enough to go through to constitute the next order of luminosity.  While every level of being is veiled from the one above, it also symbolizes what is above it . . .  The goal of the spiritual life is to be able to lift up the veil of outwardness so as to behold the inward and subsequently come to know the outward in light of the inward.  It makes possible the journey from outward form to inner meaning, what in Islam is called ta’wil in such a manner that the veil itself becomes transparent, revealing the reality within and beyond it.  But that is only possible if we are able to penetrate into our own center and to lift the veils within, to become interiorized, to gain inner vision.  

The sufis speak of creation not only as an act in the past but also as a continuous process.  This is what is called the renewal of creation at every instant.  At every moment the universe is absorbed into the Principle and recreated.  The relation of the world with God is therefore not based solely on a temporal event called creation “at the beginning.”  That “beginning” is also the ever=renewed present moment.  Although from one point of view creation is old, from another it is fresh and new.  God’s act of existentiation is ever present, and in fact existence is not so much a state as an act, as the existentiating command of God, “Be!”  This doctrine is of great significance not only for cosmology but also for the spiritual life.  In the same way that each breath we take rejuvenates and makes possible the continuation of our life, the Divine Breath is renewed at every moment, making possible our and the cosmos’s continuous existence in what appears to us as duration.  This duration is, however, nothing but the repetition of the “now” within which creation is renewed.  In a deeper sense, every tree that we observe in the garden comes freshly from God’s creative act.

Samer Akkach: Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam - An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas  (2005).   
Earlier, I referred to al-Hamawi’s metaphor of God’s Eye that never sleeps. In Arabic insan, “humankind,” is also translated as “pupil.” The term insan is taken to designate humankind, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, because man is to God what the pupil is to the eye, the instrument of seeing. So if God is the light whereby the Eye sees, man is the instrument of “vision” (basar) that makes “seeing” possible. Man is insan because God “sees” his creatures through him, and it is the comprehensiveness of his reality that makes such vision possible. 

The ninth-century Sufi Sahl al-Tusturi (d. 896) speaks of the differentiation of the “light of Muhammad” (nur Muhammad) from the divine light in spatial terms. When God intended to create Muhammad, he says, he projected from his own light a distinct light (azhara min nurihi nuran). “When it reached the veil of the Majesty (hijab al-’azama) it bowed in prostration before God. God created from its prostration (sajda) a mighty column (‘amud) like crystal glass (zujaj) of light that is outwardly (zahir) and inwardly (batin) translucent.” It is from this Muhammadan light, al-Tusturi adds, that the human race originated. Adam was the first to be manifested in this way: “God created Adam from the light of Muhammad.” 

Islamic mythology provides many interesting narratives on the creation of the alif (the divine Pen). The “Jawahir” says that God first created the Pen from a green emerald and the Tablet from white light and then ordered the Pen to inscribe onto the Tablet the destiny, or his knowledge, of the created world. Upon this divine order a “drop” (nuqta, “point”) fell from the nib of the Pen. It overflowed inscribing a line standing upright. When God saw this he decided to make it the first letter of his exalted name Allah. The alif thus became the origin of all the letters just as God’s generosity was the source of all existents.153 Al-’Alawi overlays the same narrative with a poetic imagery: “Indeed the Alif is none other than the Point itself which is an eye that wept or a drop that gushed forth and which in its downpour was named Alif.”

Breathing involves a repetitive act of inhalation and exhalation. Sufis use this metaphor in their concept of perpetual ‘renewal of creation’ (tajdid al- khalq). They say that by the inhalation and exhalation of the divine Breath all cosmic forms contained in the Breath are constantly manifested and reabsorbed, ceaselessly renewing the creation at every moment. The concept of the ‘divine Breath’ also forms the foundation for alphabetical symbolism, already dis- cussed. Al-Qashani says that as God attributes to himself the Breath, it is neces- sary to attribute to him also all of what the Breath involves, like breathing forth (tanfis) and articulating the forms of the letters and words that, in this case, are the cosmic words (al-kalimat al-kawniyya).  Through the Breath meanings and letters, as spirits and forms, become fused together. The forms of the world re- ceive the animating spirit from the Breath of the Compassionate in the same way letters receive meanings the moment they are pronounced.

Ibn ‘Arabi asks those seeking to understand the nature of the divine Breath to consider the world. All is contained in the divine Breath like the day in the morning’s dawn, he says, meaning that the world actualizes the forms potentially disseminated in the Breath, in the same way the day brings about all the events already ordained in its first moment, the dawn.  In philosophical terms, the divine Breath is the original medium through which potential beings were externalized, bursting out from the inwardness of formless potentiality into the outwardness of formal actuality. It is the “substance of the world” (jawhar al-’alam), wherein are latent all the possibilities of formal manifestation.  The Breath equates the prime matter (al-hayula al-’ula), which englobes all the forms of the world, representing, in the Ikhwan’s terms, the transcendent substance of all divine artifacts.  The Breath is to the world what the intelligible point is to geometry and what theCosmic Order “ink” is to al-Ghazali’s archetypal exemplar: the source wherein all possibilities are fused together as a nondifferentiated totality. It is to God what the whiteness of a blank sheet is to the architect: the unformed materia that is susceptible of receiving all kinds of forms. The divine Breath is at once the creative medium and the necessary substantial support for all creations.

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