Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

Lexically, darkness is defined as “the absence of light” (ʿadam al-nūr) (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Rāghib, Mufradāt); it is mentioned in the Qurʾān literally as well as metaphorically.

Definitions and Usage

The most frequent word used to denote darkness is the plural noun ẓulumāt, from the triliteral root ẓ-l-m, which appears twenty-three times. In addition, two other conjugations refer to darkness: Form IV intransitive verb (aẓlama, “to become dark; or “it darkens”) in Q:2:20; the active participle of Form IV verb (muẓlim, “those in darkness”) used twice, once (Q 10:27) in the singular accusative form (muẓliman) and once (Q 36:37) in the indefinite masculine plural form (muẓlimūna). The root itself occurs 315 times in 12 derived forms, not all of which refer to darkness (ʿAbd al-Bāqī, Muʿjam, sub ẓ-l-m). When used metaphorically, darkness connotes disbelief (kufr), ignorance (jahl), polytheism (shirk), corruption (fisq), and falsehood (Fayrūzābādī, Baṣāʾir; Fayyūmī, Miṣbāḥ). Various conjugations of the noun (ẓulma, ẓuluma, ẓalmāʾ, ẓalām; pl. ẓulumāt) all refer to the disappearance of light (dhahāb al-nūr). The active participle of the fourth verbal form (aẓlama/yuẓlimu/iẓlāman) appears once in the singular accusative (muẓliman) (Q 10:27) and once in the masculine plural (muẓlimūn) (Q 36:37).

Darkness always appears in the plural and light in the singular due to the former’s multiple causes and occasions (li-kathrat asbābihā), that is, the many aspects of straying (ḍalāl). In contrast, light is a figure for guidance (hudā), which is not multiple but singular (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 6:1). Muḥammad b. ʿUmar Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) explains why darkness is mentioned in the plural in both its metaphorical and literal usages: "For the one who understands darkness to mean disbelief and light to mean belief, the reason is self-evident; truth is one and falsehood aplenty. For the one who takes them to mean perceptible qualities (al-kayfiyyat al-maḥsūsa), the answer is that light is a perfect and strong quality; it slowly accepts decreases (taqbalu l-tanāquṣ qalīlan qalīlan) which are multiple gradations [of darkness]; for this reason, darkness is used in the plural." (Tafsīr) The reformist exegete Rashid Rida (d. 1935) comments at length:

The wisdom behind mentioning light in the singular and darkness in the plural is that light is a single entity (shayʾun wāḥid), even though its sources may be different and it may be strong or weak, whereas darkness is veiling of light by bodies which do not have their own light (ghayr al-nayyira), and these are numerous. Likewise, spiritual light (al-nūr al-maʿnawī) is a single entity in all its forms, manifestations, and particulars. Both kinds of light can encounter numerous manifestations of darkness. Truth is singular and does not increase in number (lā yataʿaddad), while its opposite, falsehood, is multiple. Guidance is one and the misguidance that confronts it is of numerous kinds—an example of this is the unicity (tawḥīd) of Allah, opposed to the divesting of divine attributes (taʿṭīl), various types of association (shirk) with ontological divinity (al-ulūhiyya), as well as various types of association with divine lordship (al-rubūbiyya); in addition, there is the excellence of justice, which is opposed by various kinds of inequity. (Riḍā, Manār, sub Q 6:1)

Creation of Darkness

The opening verse of Q 6 (Praise be to Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth, and made darknesses and light. Yet those who do not believe ascribe equals to their Lord) indicates the sequence of creation (Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs; Khāzin, Lubāb; Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr), where darkness and light refer to night and day, according to early commentators such as al-Suddī (d. 127/744) and Qatāda (d. 118/736). Qatāda said, “He created the heavens before the earth, darkness before light, and Paradise before Hellfire” (Ṭabarī and Qurṭubī, Tafsīrs). This is supported by the hadith of ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbd b. al-ʿĀṣ (d. ca.63/682), who said, “I heard the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, say, ‘Verily, Allah, the Exalted, the Majestic, created His creation in darkness, then He cast upon them light from His Light; the one who receives from that Light will be rightly guided and the one who misses that light will go astray’” (Tirmidhī, Sunan, īmān, mā jāʾa fī-man yamūtu wa huwa yashhadu an lā ilāha illā-Llāhu; ḥadīth graded ḥasan).

Physical Darkness

to be completed

Figurative Darkness

to be completed

Darkness of Disbelief

The most often metaphorical usage of darkness is for disbelief (kufr) as in the following examples.

  • Q 6:122 (And is one who was dead and We gave him life and made for him light by which he can walk among the people like the one who is in darknesess, never emerging therefrom), which describes darkness as perpetual for the disbeliever, who remains bewildered, not knowing where to go or which road to take, neither seeing guidance nor knowing truth, the latter term expressed as light and standing for guidance, belief, the Qurʾān, and wisdom (ḥikma) (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī and Qurṭubī);
  • Q 10:27, which describes the denizens of Hellfire as those whose faces will be covered with the darkness of the night, in contrast to the illumined faces of the denizens of Paradise mentioned in the preceding verse (No darkness (qatarun) will cover their faces, nor humiliation). Such darkness, which covers their faces, is ignorance and going astray—for knowledge has the nature of light (tabʿ al-nūr) whereas ignorance has the nature of darkness (Rāzī, Tafsīr). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “Hellfire was stoked (ūqidat al-nār) for one thousand years and turned white (fa-byaḍḍat). Then it was stoked for another thousand years and it turned red (fa-ḥmarrat). Then it was stoked for another thousand years and it turned black (fa-swaddat). So it is black like the darkest night (kal-layl al-muẓlim)” (Ibn Mājah, Sunan, Zuhd, ṣifat al-nār);
  • Q 24:39, where the deeds of the disbelievers are said to be like a mirage upon a desert plain; in the next verse, they are likened to the darkness of a fathomless sea (see below); and
  • In numerous verses, night and day (e.g. Q 2:164, 274; 3:190; 6:13; 10:6) and darkness and light (e.g. Q 6:1; 13:16) are presented together, in the stylistic device of antithesis (taṭbīq)—like laughter and weeping (Q 53:43), death and life (Q 53:44) (Shayzarī, Badīʿ, ṭabaqāt al-taṭbīq; 1:36; cf. ʿAskarī, al-Ṣināʿatayn, bāb 9, al-faṣl al-thānī min bāb al-tāsiʿ al-miṭābaqa; 1:307).

A series of striking images elaborate symbolism of darkness:

As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage upon a desert plain which a thirsty man supposes is water, till when he comes upon it, he does not find it to be anything, but finds Allah there. He will then pay him his reckoning in full, and Allah is swift in reckoning.  Or like the darkness of a fathomless sea, covered by waves with waves above them and clouds above them—darknesses, one above the other. When one puts out one’s hand, one can hardly see it. He for whom Allah has not appointed any light has no light. (Q 24:35-40)

Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad al-Dāmaghānī (d. 478/1085) explains this series of darknesses engulfing the disbeliever to be “the darkness of his heart, darkness of his chest, and the darkness of his body” (Wujūh, sub ẓulma, p. 311). Al-Ṭabarī describes this as an apt description, for

the disbeliever’s actions are based on error, corruption, straying, and perplexity; he is not upon guidance. Such a disbeliever is engulfed in straying and perplexity, just as this fathomless sea is covered by wave upon wave, above them clouds—such is the heart of the disbeliever, and his deeds are like the darknesses; he is in total ignorance regarding Allah; so, Allah has sealed his heart; he cannot understand anything about Allah, and [He has sealed] his ears so he cannot hear Allah’s exhortation and spiritual counsels (mawāʿiẓ Allāh) and He has placed on his eyes a veil, so he cannot discern the proofs of Allah—these are the darknesses, one above the other. (Tafsīr)

Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī (d. 386/996) cites the opinion of Ibn ʿAbbās, saying that the “darknesses” are the deeds of the disbeliever and the fathomless sea his heart, meaning that his acts are based on what is in his heart, covered with ignorance, misguidance, and confusion just as the sea is waves covered with other waves, above which are the clouds; such is the heart of the disbeliever and his deeds are like the darknesses—covered by ignorance regarding Allah, Who has sealed it, so he is not cognizant of Allah, he has no hearing, so he cannot hear the admonishment of Allah; upon his sight is a veil so he cannot see the proofs of Allah. These are darknesses, one upon another. (Makkī, Hidāya)

“This is the similitude (tamthīl) for the disbelievers in their perplexity and straying; thus the darknesses are the deeds of the disbelievers, the fathomless sea is his chest (ṣadr), the waves are his ignorance, and the clouds are the veil (ghiṭā) upon his heart” (Suyūṭī, Muʿtarak 2:222). The deeds of the disbeliever are compared to various overlapping darknesses, one covering the other, and all of them separate (fī ḥaylūlatihā) the heart of the disbeliever from what can guide it (ʿUkbarī, Tibyān 2:972). The three darknesses mentioned in the verse (of the sea, waves, and clouds) are also interpreted as pertaining to the heart, vision, and hearing (Rāzī, Tafsīr).

Al-Qurṭubī cites Ubayy b. Kaʿb (d. 22/643), Allah be well-pleased with him, who said, “the disbeliever turns about (yataqallabu) five darknesses: his speech is darkness (kalāmuhu), his act (ʿamal) is darkness, his entry (madkhal) is darkness, his exit (makhraj) is darkness, and his return (maṣīr) on the Day of Resurrection is to the darknesses of Hellfire—and what a wretched return” (Tafsīr).


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See also

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