In the previous verses, mentioned there was the demand of ever new miracles by disbelievers as proof of their sheer obstinacy as they had already witnessed the open miracle of the Qur'an itself. After that, the Qur'an argued that the miracles already before their eyes should have been enough to lead them to the true path, only if these people themselves would have been genuinely seeking truth. Then, came the description of these miracles.
The present verse employs a similitude to focus on two life-styles in a tight frame. On one side is the state of those who believe in the Qur'an and in the Prophet of Islam, may he be blessed and protected by Allah Ta` ala. Then, on the other side, there is the state of those who refuse to believe in them. Also stated through it is the good or bad end of both, as well as, the reality of what a believer or disbeliever stands for, and what belief and disbelief actually are. A believer is like one alive and the disbeliever is like one who is dead. Belief or 'Iman is like light - and Disbelief or Kufr is like darkness. These are Qur'anic similitude. They are no poetry. They are a statement of reality.
Believer is Alive; Disbeliever, dead.
In this similitude, a Mu'min, a true believer has been identified as alive while a Kafir, a disbeliever, has been pointed to as dead. The reason is that kinds and forms of life in human beings, animals and vege-tation differ, but this much no sensible person can deny that every life form is there for a specific purpose. And nature has endowed it with full ability to achieve this purpose. This is what the Qur'an is saying in: أَعْطَىٰ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ خَلْقَهُ ثُمَّ هَدَىٰ (Our Lord gave everything its creation, then guided it - 20:50), that is: Allah Jalla Sha'nuhu created everything in the universe and gave it full instructions to achieve the purpose for which it was created. It is under this arrangement that all created beings are pursuing the mission assigned to them. In this eco-system, land, water, air and fire, and the moon, the sun and the stars are all aware of their duties and are fulfilling it. And this act of fulfilling their duties is a proof of life in all those things. And when one of these, whatever the condition or time, stops fulfilling its duties, then, it is no more alive; it is dead. If water stops its function of quenching thirst and removing impurities, it will not remain water anymore. If fire stops igniting and burning, it will not be the fire it was anymore. Trees and vegetation, once they stop growing and bearing flowers and fruits, will not be the trees and vegetation as they are - because they have abandoned the purpose of their life, as a result of which, they became lifeless, like the dead.
After looking at the universe around him bit by bit, anyone with the least fund of reason and understanding with him is bound to ponder about questions such as: What is the purpose of human life? What is one supposed to do as duty? Now, if one is fulfilling the purpose of one's life, one is entitled to be taken as alive - and whoever is not fulfilling the purpose of one's life, he or she is no better than a dead body.
What is the purpose of human life and what are the duties human beings have to fulfill? The question needs thought and - an answer. Ac-cording to the principle 'stated above, it has already been determined that one who is fulfilling the purpose of his or her life is alive, otherwise, is dead. Now there are sightless tyrants among human beings who would take their species as self-rising vegetation or some kind of smart animal, with whom there is no distinction between a human being and a donkey or dog. According to them, the sole purpose of life is to fulfill the desire of one's self, to eat, drink, sleep, wake up, and then die. So, reasonable people anywhere in the world would not take them as their addressees. People of reason and understanding, no matter what their religion, community or school of thought, have all along the lanes of time been in agreement that human beings are the superior most in creation and that the universe has been made and put into their service. It is obvious that what is most superior has to have a purpose of life which is matchingly superior. Every discerning person knows that there is no difference between human beings and animals as far as eating, drinking, sleeping and waking, finding and holding a shelter, dressing and wearing is concerned - in fact, many animals eat better and eat more than them, are even dressed better in standard natural attires. They even live in better surroundings with lots of fresh air. As for knowing their gain and loss, there too, every animal, even every tree, has awareness to limits suited to it. They have the ability to acquire the beneficial and stay away from the harmful. Similarly, when it comes to being beneficial to others, all animals and the vegetation seem to be obviously way ahead of human beings in that their flesh, skin, bone, ligaments, and of trees, including all they have in between their roots to the tiniest leaves, almost everything is harnessed into the service of man, yielding countless benefits to produce things needed in life. It is interesting that quite contrary to this, there is man whose flesh is of no use to anyone, nor is his skin, or hair, or bone or ligaments.
Now worth finding out is how does Monseigneur Humane (Mr. Man, the homo sapiens), under these circumstances, stand to deserve being the served one in this universe and being the cream of creation as much heralded? This brings us closer to the destination of truth. A little reflection will reveal that the reach of reason and consciousness given to all these units of creation is limited to the transitory and acci-dental gain or loss - and it is in this life, it appears beneficial for others. What was there before the life on this earth and what will be coming after is a field in which the reason and consciousness of nothing organic or inorganic, not even that of the smartest of animals, would work, nor can anything there serve as functional or beneficial in this particular field. So, this is the field in which human beings have to work, human beings for whom the universe has been commissioned to serve, and human beings who are the most superior of all creation. Only this will bring out the difference between the distinct status of human beings as compared with other elements of creation clearly and conclusively.
What we now know is that the purpose of human beings on this earth is to keep in sight the beginning and the end of this universe, to assess what it entails as a result, to determine what is collectively beneficial or harmful, then use the insight so gained to acquire the beneficial and abstain from the harmful, and also invite others towards the beneficial and take measures to shield them from the harmful - so that the dream of a life of lasting peace and tranquility can be fulfilled. Now that it is settled that the purpose of human life is to ac-quire this standard benefit issuing forth from human perfection indi-vidually and collectively, enriching one's own self and at the same time enriching others. This realization helps us see the similitude of the Holy Qur'an we have been talking about in the form of a reality - that alive is one who puts his or her faith in Allah Ta` ala and in His Rasul ﷺ and in between his or her view of the beginning and end of life, recognizes his collective gain and loss in the light of Divine Rev-elation, because human reason alone has never triumphed over this field, nor it can. And when we know that, in terms of the fulfillment of the purpose of life, the person alive is the person who follows the Divine Revelation and is a believer, then we also come to the definite conclusion that whoever does not do that deserves to be called dead. Maulana Rumi has put it so delightfully:
زندگی از بہر طاعت بندگی است بےعبادت زندگی شرمندگی ست
آدمت لحم و شحم و پوست نیست آدمیت جز رضایے دوست نیست
Life is to obey and serve Life without devotion is a shame
Man's reality is not flesh; fat and skin Man's reality is but the pleasure of the Friend!
This was the first similitude of the Qur'an, that of a believer and a disbeliever, where believers have been likened to the living and the disbelievers to the 'dead. The second similitude is that of 'lman (faith) and Kufr (disbelief) which have been placed in juxtaposition to light and darkness.
Faith is Light and Disbelief, Darkness
In this verse, 'Iman (faith) has been called Nur (light) and Kufr (disbelief) has been equated with Zulmah (darkness). A little thought will show that this similitude is not imaginary. It is a statement of fact. As we looked for the real purpose of things earlier, we can do the same here by finding out the justification for the existence of light and darkness. The purpose of light is to be able to see things far and near with its help, as a result of which, one has the advantage of staying away from the harmful and the opportunity of acquiring what is beneficial.
Let us now look at ` Iman. This is a light which surrounds everything in the heavens and the earth. It is this light alone which can show the end of the universal system as well as the correct consequences of everything done. Whoever has this light by his side, he can not only save himself from the consequences of everything harmful and injurious, but can also help others to stay safe from them. But, one who does not have access to this light remains in the dark. He has no panoramic view. He cannot see life as a whole, neither beginning, nor end. He cannot distinguish between what is beneficial and what is not. At best what he can do is to grope around and use his sense of touch to figure out what they are, at least to some extent. The life of this world as we know it is just about the environment most of us usually live in and around. The disbeliever thus does find out the life around him and the benefit and loss it has to offer within that limited framework. But, he has no idea or awareness of what lies ahead in the eternal life to come later, nor can he comprehend how beneficial or harmful it can be for him. This subject has been further explained by the Qur'an in Surah Ar-Rum:
يَعْلَمُونَ ظَاهِرًا مِّنَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَهُمْ عَنِ الْآخِرَةِ هُمْ غَافِلُونَ ﴿7﴾
They know the obvious from the present life of the world while, about the life-to-come ('Akhirah), they are (totally) heedless - 30:7).
In a verse of Surah Al-` Ankabut, after the description of past communities given to denial and disbelief, the Qur'an says: وَكَانُوا مُسْتَبْصِرِينَ (though they were men of sight - 29-38). It means that these people who had dismissed this matter of 'Akhirah demonstrating rank heedless-ness and seeming lack of foresight were really not that dense when it came to their matters in worldly life. In fact, they were "mustabsirin" - keen-sighted, enlightened people. But, this enlightenment of theirs was outwardly oriented, of the surface, of the mundane, which could only serve them well to enrich what revolved round their transitory life in this world. However, for the eternal life of 'Akhirah, the life-to come, this was not to work.
After hearing these details, please recite the present verse of the Qur'an once again: أَوَمَن كَانَ مَيْتًا فَأَحْيَيْنَاهُ وَجَعَلْنَا لَهُ نُورًا يَمْشِي بِهِ فِي النَّاسِ كَمَن مَّثَلُهُ فِي الظُّلُمَاتِ لَيْسَ بِخَارِجٍ مِّنْهَا . It means that one who was dead earlier, that is, was a disbeliever, then, Allah raised him back to life, that is, gave him the taufiq to become a Muslim - and then, He gave him a light, that is, ` Iman or faith, with which he moves about among people. Now can this person be equal to one who is surrounded by all sorts of darkness, out of which, he cannot get out, that is, is groping in the darkness of disbelief, does not himself know what is good or bad for him, and there is no way he can ward off his destruction. If so, how can he bring any benefit to others?
The Light of Faith Brings Benefits for Others Too
In this verse, by saying: نُورًا يَمْشِي بِهِ فِي النَّاسِ (light with which he walks among men), the instruction given was that the light of faith is not restricted to a mosque (masjid), spiritual seminary (khanqah) or a modest roomette secluded for reflection and remembrance (hujrah). Whoever is blessed with this light by Allah Ta` ala, he carries it with him everywhere he goes through the lives of people on the streets and in the homes. Everywhere he is, he himself benefits from the light and lets others too benefit by it. Light is light and cannot be suppressed by any darkness. Even a tiny flickering lamp does not easily give up under the weight of surrounding darkness, though the light it emits does not go very far. When light is strong, it spreads over a larger area. When light is dim, it lightens a smaller area. But light is light. It sub-dues darkness after all - darkness does not subdue light. Light is not light if it surrenders to darkness. Similarly, an 'Iman which surrenders to Kufr, or is scared by it, is no 'Iman. This light of' Iman, this light of faith is there with its bearer in all walks of life, under all conditions and in every age.
In this similitude, there is yet another hint that light is after all universally beneficial. Every human being and every animal benefits by it, intentionally, or without intention, more or less. Let us suppose that a person who has the light but does not wish to let the other person benefit from it, nor the other person has come out to seek the benefit of his light, but the very fact that someone is walking with light by his side is bound to spread out its benefit to others naturally, rather compulsively. This is what happens with the 'Iman of a true Muslim. It does make its benefit shower on others too, in some degree, whether or not the receivers realize it. At the end of the verse, it was said: كَذَٰلِكَ زُيِّنَ لِلْكَافِرِينَ مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ (This is how their deeds appear beautified to the disbelievers). It means that the disbelievers and deniers of truth who do not accept proofs which are open and clear do so because everyone has a craze of his own which keeps him pleased with himself. There is the ever-present Sahytan, and no less is the retinue of one's desires, whims and fancies which present before the eyes of such people a mosaic of their evil deeds which they start seeing as nice and beautiful. Calling it a deception is an understatement. May Allah keep all of us protected from it.