The combustion propagation mechanism of homogeneous charge compression ignition combustion was investigated using planar laser Rayleigh scattering thermometry, and was compared to that of spark-ignition combustion. Ethylene and dimethyl ether were chosen as the fuels for SI and HCCI experiments and have nearly constant Rayleigh scattering cross-sections through the combustion process. Beam steering at the entrance window limited the load range for HCCI conditions and confined the quantitative interpretation of the results to local regions over which an effective beam steering correction could be applied. The SI conditions showed a clear bimodal temperature behavior with a well-defined interface between reactants and products. The HCCI results showed large regions that were partially combusted, i.e., at a temperature above the reactants but below the adiabatic flame temperature. Dual-imaging experiments confirm that the burned region was progressing towards the fully burned state. This suggests that combustion is a distributed (spatially) ignition process. There were, however, a significant number of regions of the HCCI temperature field that had relatively steep temperature gradients, which could signify the presence of a local laminar flame structure. Thus, it appears that both combustion modes are contributing to the combustion propagation mechanism for HCCI combustion.