Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Sign vs. Miracle

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

والصلاة والسلام على خاتم النبيين

وعلى اهل بيته الطيبين الطاهرين المظلومين

والعاقبة للمتقين

The words mu’jiza and karama do not figure in the vocabulary of the Quran al-Karim or even the Ahadith. These are terms that were devised later on by the Ulama. Mu’jiza refers to a miracle that occurs at the hand of a prophet, and linguistically connotes something that humbles the human intellect. Karama is the term used to refer to a miracle that occurs at the hand of a saint. Traditionalist Ulama generally hold the view that the mu’jizat and karamat of the prophets and saints are necessarily supernatural, meaning, they defy the natural or physical laws. With regard to physical laws, there are two significant positions among the Muslims. The first one, which I also subscribe to, is the idea that Allah Most High has instituted certain laws which regulate the cosmos and only He is able to break them. The second view, popularized by Ghazali, is that there are no actual physical laws that govern the cosmos, rather, everything that occurs is being done directly by Allah according to His will. For instance, fire does not burn by its nature or because of any specific natural law that has been put in place, it only burns because at that moment Allah has made it such that it will burn, and when Abraham was put in the fire, Allah at that moment made the fire such that it would be cool rather than burn:

قُلْنَا يَا نَارُ كُونِي بَرْدًا وَسَلَامًا عَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ۞

We said: “O fire be cool and safe for Abraham”

(Sura 21:69)

I reject this philosophy of occasionalism which denies secondary causation because it has no basis in the Quran al-Karim. Our holy text actually speaks of the institution of physical laws and affirms the reality of secondary causation. This is not the deny that Allah Most High is the Creator of all things and nothing is independent of Him. He controls everything, but has Himself instituted a range of physical laws to govern the cosmos according to His will. Returning to the subject of “miracles”, the term used in the Qur’an al-Karim is ayah (sign). Muslims should in fact avoid the term “miracle” and prefer the term “sign”. And a sign is not necessarily something supernatural or even extraordinary, but there are examples of divine signs which are absolutely ordinary or natural:

هُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَ الشَّمْسَ ضِيَاءً وَالْقَمَرَ نُورًا وَقَدَّرَهُ مَنَازِلَ لِتَعْلَمُوا عَدَدَ السِّنِينَ وَالْحِسَابَ ۚ مَا خَلَقَ اللَّـهُ ذَٰلِكَ إِلَّا بِالْحَقِّ ۚ يُفَصِّلُ الْآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ۞

He is the One Who made the sun a shining light and the moon a derived light and determined for it phases that you may know the number of years and calculation. Allah has not created this except in truth. He details the Signs for a people who know.

(Sura 10:5)

None of the “signs” detailed in this verse are supernatural. Allah says that He has determined for the moon phases, a reference to the effect of the physical laws which govern our perception of the moon here from planet Earth. The point I would like to make is that there isn’t a single instance in the Quran al-Karim where Allah says that He breaks the physical laws which He Himself created and instituted to govern this cosmos in order to bring about a miracle or sign. That is something that has been presumed by the traditionalist theologians and Ulama. When Allah told the fire to become cool for Abraham, traditionalists assume that at that moment He suspended the physical laws which govern the effect of fire. Rather than admitting that the human intellect cannot fathom all of the physical laws and all the potential effects that can be brought about given different factors and interplay between them, they instead presume that the physical laws must have been momentarily suspended in order for something they would describe as a “miracle” to occur. Here I am not discounting the possibility of the supernatural, meaning the suspension of physical laws, but only questioning the human intellect’s ability to determine what exactly is an example of something that is supernatural. The inherent limitation of the human intellect has to be admitted. A mu’jiza does indeed baffle and humble the human intellect, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is something supernatural. The Quran al-Karim mentions some of the physical laws which Allah has instituted. One of them is the fact that the deceased cannot return to the world once the decree of death has been pronounced upon any soul:

وَحَرَامٌ عَلَىٰ قَرْيَةٍ أَهْلَكْنَاهَا أَنَّهُمْ لَا يَرْجِعُونَ۞

And it is forbidden for a township We destroyed that they should ever return

(Sura 21:95)

The use of the word haram (forbidden) in this Verse clearly indicates that this is an example of a permanent physical law that can never be suspended or discontinued until the end of this world. In other words, it is impossible for the deceased to return to this world, once the decree of death has been determined for them (Sura 39:42). There is no reason to assume that all the amazing things mentioned in the Quran al-Karim, such as the fire becoming cool for Abraham or the prophet Jonas surviving in the belly of the whale, are examples of the supernatural. In fact there is indication that the latter event in particular was not supernatural. The Quran al-Karim mentions that after prophet Jonas was vomited out of the whale’s belly and was cast ashore, he was naturally sick:

فَنَبَذْنَاهُ بِالْعَرَاءِ وَهُوَ سَقِيمٌ۞

So We threw him onto the open shore while he was ill.

(Sura 37:145)

Had the survival of prophet Jonas in the belly of the whale been something supernatural, defying the physical and natural laws, we would expect prophet Jonas to have emerged from the whale perfectly alright. The fact that he was sick and perhaps close to death indicates that his “miraculous” survival may have been “miraculous” but certainly not supernatural or otherwise impossible. Incidentally, the Bible mentions the duration of time in which prophet Jonas was in the belly of the “great fish”, but the Quran al-Karim does not. Science may discount the supernatural, but it doesn’t discount the extraordinary. By the terms “extraordinary” and “unusual”, I mean something that is rare, including singularities, but not impossible. The Arabic term is khawariq al-adah. The virgin birth of the Messiah son of Mary was surely something extraordinary and unusual, but not supernatural. Biologists themselves are just beginning to scratch the surface on discovering how it may be possible for a birth to occur without the male agency. What makes the birth of the Messiah a “sign” from our point of view is the fact that the virgin Mary was given news of this birth prior to becoming pregnant. The extremely high improbability of something that is technically possible, especially when one factors in its occurrence having been predicted, is what makes something a compelling sign. If one predicts that the sun will rise tomorrow, that can hardly be compared to predicting the exact time and place of an earthquake days in advance. Both are possibilities, but the fulfilment of the latter prediction is a “sign”.

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