What is a Miracle
The Quran is Allah’s speech revealed to His chosen Prophet Muhammad as a challenge to man and jinn.1 This challenge was not extended to the angels, as Allah did not grant them free will. They are committed to obey His commands willingly and submissively. The Quran is, therefore, a challenge to those who have freedom of choice, as well as the mental capacity to distinguish between right and wrong.
A miracle is a divine act which defies and transcends universal norms and laws, which Allah grants to his messengers and apostles in order to convince people of the truth of their message. With this heavenly support mundane laws and natural phenomena are caused to yield in such an overwhelming way that all attempts at rational explanation are defeated.
Knowing that His messengers would inevitably be challenged to perform such miracles, Allah bestowed upon them this power. Thus was Abraham able to withstand burning by the fire; Jesus restored sight to the blind and raised the dead; and Moses parted the Red Sea. The miracle of Muhammad (s) was the Quran itself.
The difference between the miracles of Allah and other supernatural [events] artifices is in the challenge these miracles presented to the strengths of the people to whom a particular messenger has sent.
A true miracle defies all natural laws established by Allah, which could not be violated or suspended, except by His Will. The exact object of each Messenger’s miracle was a challenge to particular traits of each of the groups of people to whom they were sent.
A miracle would be futile if it did not achieve its desired effect on its witnesses. For it to have full impact, it should relate to an area of knowledge in which its intended audience are well versed. For example, if the people for whom a Messenger has been sent excel in medicine, sorcery or philology, the miracle should also concern these fields.
Only in this way can a miracle fulfil its purpose. This rule has been observed in all the divine miracles performed by the Messengers and Prophets of Allah.
Divine miracles are not limited to challenges they present to the people before whom they occur, but are also designed to provide them with the capacity to perceive them as signs of His power over all things in the Universe.
This was illustrated by the miracles in which Allah protected Abraham from the burning fire, and caused Moses the infant to be rescued from drowning in the Nile. In both these miracles, the laws of nature were suspended, through the will of Allah and their physical properties neutralised.
Abraham’s miracle was designed to challenge the idolators who by burning him alive sought revenge against him after he had insulted their idols. This punishment, besides being a challenge to Abraham’s God, and a demonstration of the power of their idols was meant to serve as a warning to anyone tempted to defy the idols.
One may ask, why would Allah leave His servant Abraham to go through this horrifying experience? Why did He not inspire him to flee his tormentors? Had Allah helped Abraham to escape this the idolators would have had reason to continue believing in the superiority of their idols, over the power of Allah. At the same time, they would have persisted in believing that Abraham was incapable of escaping their idols’ wrath. Abraham’s ordeal by fire was necessary for this miracle to take place in order to demonstrate to the idolators the falsity of their idols. Any heavenly assistance to Abraham before actually being forced into the fire would have deprived the miracle of its full impact. The idolators would have them been able to attribute their idols’ inability to destroy Abraham, to such an intervention. But Allah wanted the whole act to be carried out in order that the full impact of the miracle be comprehended. Thus, when Abraham was hurled into the fire Allah caused its nature to burn to be suspended, enabling Abraham to stand within the flames unharmed as a challenge to the idolators.
The purpose behind this miracle was not to save Abraham from his fate per se. If this had been Allah’s wish, He would not have enabled the idolators to capture him. He actually wanted them to watch Abraham standing in the burning fire unscathed, in defiance of their idols. This proved that the idols were incapable of inflicting harm on the apostle who had insulted them. Only in this way could the idolators be convinced of the falsehood of their idols and of the truth of Abraham’s God. Of this miracle Allah says: [in the Quran:]
“We said: O fire, be coolness and peace for Abraham.”
There is great similarity between Abraham’s miracle and that of the rescue of Moses from the Nile. In this miracle, Moses mother was inspired by Allah to abandon him on the river so that he would be spared certain death by the Pharaoh. To abandon a helpless infant to a turbulent river prey to all its hazards was the last thing a mother could possibly conceive of doing.
Under normal circumstances it would have been wiser to hide the child or to flee with him out of Egypt. Instead, Moses mother was inspired to choose this option despite the obvious hazards.
Within her decision however, was a purpose. For Allah wanted the young infant to be surrounded by these dangers in order to demonstrate His providence and His power. By obstructing the natural course of such an action, believers an non-believers alike were shown that in the grip of danger and death safety and life could be found if Allah so willed.
The Prostration of the Magicians
Each messenger brought to his people a miracle commensurate with the kind of knowledge they most excelled in. Thus, because the people to whom Moses was sent excelled in magic, the form of the miracle, which he challenged them with was of a magical nature. The magicians who observed Moses performing his miracle were among the first to believe in him and in Allah. Being in a better position than others to judge that the miracle was the supernatural work of a divine power and not the result of a magical skill, they were overwhelmed by what they witnessed. In recognition of the true faith that Moses was commanded to convey to them they fell on their knees in prostration. The Quran says:
“And the magicians fell down prostrate, crying: We believe in the Lord of the worlds, the Lord of Moses and Aaron.” (al-Araf 7:120-2)
Being better acquainted with the art of magic, the magicians could distinguish between what was artifice and what was a divine miracle. And so they were the first to declare their faith in the God of Aaron and Moses. Overwhelmed by the new revelation, the magicians forgot the Pharaoh’s promise of gold and silver, as well as the torture that awaited them for their failure to defeat Moses. Pharaoh’s might and oppression paled before the power of this true God and His faith. This was the greatness of the divine miracle and its holding power on people’s minds and souls. Through such miracles, the vehement antagonists were instantaneously converted into faithful believers, ready to relinquish all mundane wealth and power.
Similarly, the challenging miracles of Jesus focussed on medical phenomena because his people were well advanced in medicine. He restored sight to the blind, cured lepers, revived the dead and demonstrated powers beyond human knowledge.
Because the Arabs at the time of Muhammad were masters in philology and unsurpassed in elocution and the miracle therefore came in the form to challenge their understanding from the vantage of their linguistic skills.
The Quran with its literary inimitability was all the more astonishing because Muhammad himself was illiterate when the Quran was revealed to him. When the Arabs failed to match the language of the Quran, they accused Muhammad of sorcery and even of being insane.
The miraculous features of the Quran are not confined to its linguistic inimitability. Indeed, it is filled with miraculous signs that will remain a challenge to mankind for eternity. One of the miraculous features of the Quran lies in the ever-expanding nature of the meanings contained in its verses and their inexhaustible capacity to accommodate even the most recent scientific discoveries.
A miracle can transcend the laws of nature or defy the characteristics of natural phenomena without posing a specific challenge to man. In this kind of miracle, Allah does not seek to challenge mankind, but to show His domination over the universe and man’s incapacity to understand such occurrences in terms of cause and effects. Consequently, a true believer should always be prepared to attribute those happenings which he cannot find an accountable cause to the will of Allah.
The Omnipotence of Allah
The miracle of the virgin concept of Mary, as depicted in the Quran, is a clear example of Allah’s Absolute Power and His domination over the happenings of the universe. The immense significance of this miracle is that it involved a physiological phenomenon taking place which could not have occurred under the normal working of the laws of nature.
By discarding the natural process whereby male and female unite to produce an offspring Allah demonstrated His absolute power and domination. This was to convince mankind that creation need not necessarily follow the rules of cause and effect or be subjected to it. For Allah has the capacity to ordain a thing to be and produce effects without prerequisite engendering causes.
Here, Allah is involved with four different processes of creation to demonstrate that the reproduction and perpetuation of the human species can be fulfilled without the necessity of physical contact between male and female or their participation, if He so ordains.
These four processes are namely: the creation of Adam from dust; the creation of Eve from Adam (or female from male); the creation of mankind through the union of male and female and lastly the birth of Jesus from a female without being touched by a male. Thus has Allah accomplished the four kinds of creation of the human race.
The three creative processes in which the male/female role has been eliminated are divine miracles accomplished by Allah Alone in isolation from cause and effect.
Although birth and reproduction have been ordained to occur in accordance with the principle of cause and effect, or union between male and female, the fruitfulness of any such union rests with Allah’s Will and providence. About this Divine Will, the Quran says:
“Unto Allah belongs the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. He creates what He will. He bestows female (offspring) upon whom He will, and bestows male (offspring) upon whom He will. Or He mingles them males and females, and He makes barren whom He will . . . “ (al-Shura 42: 49-50)
The issue emphasised here is not the presence or absence of causes, but rather the deciding and governing will of Allah Who has the power to make causes and effects fruitful or to impede them form achieving their natural end or purpose.
Allah tells believers not to succumb to despair or confusion if they fail to account for causes or effects, because ultimately it is He alone that determines all causes and their effects as He wills, regardless of laws or norms. With this knowledge at hand, the believer is better prepared to confront the upheavals of daily life with greater confidence in Allah’s providence and omniscience. This faith rekindles his heart and soul with renewed hope. The thought of unaccountable happenings occurring is no longer disturbing or frightening. Once this faith takes root in the believer’s heart, the true believer firmly holds the conviction that Allah is capable of ordaining happenings and events in isolation of their due causes.
This unwarranted despair is referred to in the Surah of the Family of Imran (Al-'Imran), wherein Allah says:
“(Remember) when the wife of ‘Imran said: My Lord! I have vowed unto You that which is in my womb as a consecrated (offering). Accept it from me. Lo! (You, only You) are the Hearer, the Knower. And when she was delivered she said, My Lord! Lo! I am delivered of a female…” (Al-'Imran 3:35-6)
The sentence “I am delivered of a female”, spoken by ‘Imran’s wife, an indication ofher disappointment that the child born was not a male, illustrates the kind of despair which we are cautioned not to let infiltrate our faith in Allah and His wisdom.
‘Imran’s wife had pledged to offer her unborn child to the service of Allah and had, therefore, felt certain that He would give her a son who, in her reckoning, would be better able to serve Him. This was an unfounded belief to which God replies:
“(Allah knew best of what she was delivered). The male is not as the female.” (Al ‘Imran 3:36)
In this verse, Allah again cautions us not to judge His decrees and plans in terms of our imperfect knowledge and logic. In all divine acts is a purpose that might not be obvious at the time of their actual manifestation. This verse also corrects the misconception that males are superior to females in the service of Allah or in fulfilling His purpose. Hence came the reminder that ‘The male in not as the female.’ In other words, the daughter ‘Imran’s wife had given birth to was much more worthy than any son she could have wished for. Allah alone knew what the great significance of the birth of this female child to mankind would be.
Following the death of Mary’s father, Zakariyyah was appointed her guardian, which entailed providing for her. But whenever he visited her in the sanctuary where she worshipped, he noticed that she was never short of food. When he asked her where it came from, she replied:
“It is from Allah. Allah gives without stint to whom He will.” (Al ‘Imran 3:37)
So, even at this early age, Mary understood that Allah is not bound by any law or rule and that He gives as He wills, to whom He wills.
In preparing Mary for her predestined role, Allah planned that she should be offered by her mother to His service in the temple, and that her guardian Zakariyyah should be one of His Apostles. Her spiritual education began by being instilled with faith in Allah’s power to make things happen independent of their natural or established causes. She was given evidence of this when He provided her with food that was unlike any found on earth and with fruit out of season. When Zakariyyah beheld this divine miracle he praised Allah and begged Him for a boy.
A second miracle to take place was the annunciation to Zakariyyah that his request had been granted and that his wife would give birth to a boy. Listening to this divine intimation Zakariyyah remembered his old age and the infertility of his wife and asked:
“My Lord! How can I Have a son when my wife in barren and I have reached infirm old age?” (Maryam 19:8)
Through His angel Allah replied:
“So (it will be). Your Lord says: It is easy for Me, even as I created you before, when you were naught.” (Maryam 19:9)
This prophecy was intended to consolidate Mary’s faith in Allah and in the miracle which she herself was destined to perform acting as a metal and spiritual conditioning. Despite these divine signs however, she continued to doubt the possibility of such a conception, asking Gabriel, who had come to announce to her Allah’s will:
“How can I have a son when no mortal has touched me, neither have I been unchaste?” (Maryam 19:20)
To reinforce her faith and reassure her of His almighty power, Allah said to her through Gabriel:
“So (it will be). Your Lord says: It is easy for Me. And (it will be) that We may make of him a revelation for mankind and a mercy from Us.” (Maryam 19:21)
What Allah was saying to Mary was, “Do you wonder at what is happening to you after all that you have seen of My limitless power?”
Another Ayah (3:49) tells us that Jesus was given the power to “heal him who was born blind, and the leper, and . . . raise the dead by Allah’s leave”. In other words, the true healer was Allah Himself. He was, likewise, the One who gave life and took it. The verses leave no doubt but that in all these miracles the true doer was Allah Himself even though they were performed by His Messenger.
On the other hand, we have the second class of miracles which Jesus could perform spontaneously, using the divine powers already vested in him. Unlike the former class, Allah revealed to him the secrets of these (latter) miracles and gave him access to His Knowledge regarding them. Thus, although he was given the power to revive the dead, neither he or any other prophet was given the secret of life and death.
Despite the portents and miracles that demonstrated the power of the Absolutely Powerful One, and the support He gave Jesus from the moment he was born until his death, the majority of his people rejected his message and refused to believe in him. They seemed to alienate themselves further from Allah and began to plot against him and cast doubts about his message, exactly as had been done previously to earlier prophets. Even when they seemed to have rid themselves of the attraction of the material world, their faith did not last long and they always regressed to their old ways and their attraction to the material lower world of matter, as is stated in the following verse:
“But when Jesus became conscious of their disbelief, he cried: Who will be helpers in the cause of Allah?" (Al ‘Imran 3:52)
Thus Jesus began to look for true believers and supporters when he discovered that all the miracles and evidence he brought this people could not weaken their deeply-rooted corruption and love for the material world. In seeking disciples to carry on his message after his ascension, Jesus was showing his despair that his people would never see the light of truth, that they would ever cease to fight his religion. He put all his hope in spreading his message to mankind in his disciples and the few supporters who truly believed in his God, and began to teach them the content and purpose of his divine message.
The disciples said: We will be Allah’s helpers. We believe in Allah, and bear witness that we have surrendered (unto Him) [or: are Muslims]” (Al ‘Imran 3:52)
He explained to them the commands and injunctions contained in his message and made them pledge to spread it through-out the whole world, and correct the false allegations and misinterpretation which he knew the enemies of faith would propagate to destroy the new religion.
Indeed the message of Jesus was an embodiment of the limitless power of Allah’s will, which was manifested throughout Jesus’ life. It showed itself most vividly when Allah revealed to ‘Imran’s wife that He alone knew best why she should give birth to a girl. The same divine power showed itself in providing Mary with food unlike any other. It was also shown when Allah blessed the aged Zakariyyah’s barren wife with a child. Finally the immaculate conception and birth of Jesus, his ability to speak and defend his mother when he was but a few days old gave further evidence of the Almighty will of Allah.
The Miracle of the birth of Jesus was not one to challenge the mistaken beliefs of a particular people. Rather, its purpose was to stand as a testimony to Allah’s Infinite Might. Another miracle, the purpose of which was not to challenge but to show Allah’s incomparable power and control over the laws of nature, was His parting of the Red Sea for Moses. The followers of Moses had been trapped between the soldiers of Pharaoh and the sea and were facing certain destruction. But at this moment, when all natural indications pointed to their inevitable doom, Moses still maintained his faith in Allah’s power to intervene. Praying for divine intervention, he then faced his followers and urged them not to despair or lose faith in Allah’s providence saying:
“Nay, verily! For lo! My Lord is with me. He will guide me.” (al-Shuara’ 26:62)
With this appeal, Moses actually surrendered the whole affair to Allah’s Supreme Will. This was at a moment when human efforts to avoid annihilation was useless. Answering his appeal, Allah inspired him to strike the water with his staff:
“Smite the sea with your staff. And it parted . . .”
This miracle defies all the known laws of physics which govern liquids. The sea’s parting by Moses’ smiting of its surface cannot be explained in terms of physics. The only possible explanation for this miracle is in terms of the absolute power of the Almighty, Who can simply “say unto a thing ‘Be’, and it is”.
In contemplating these miraculous events which are, indeed, acts of Allah, one often finds that the natural pattern that had been interrupted to allow the miracle, returns to normality. Thus the fire that was commanded to be as coolness and as peace to Abraham regained its heat following the miracle’s accomplishment. Likewise did the parted sea return to normal after Moses and his followers had safely crossed it.
The miracle of the Quran, being Allah’s Ancient Speech, draws its everlasting validity and vitality from the eternal attributes of Allah Himself.
A second remarkable feature of Allah’s miracle with which He supported His messengers, or used as portents of His supremacy over creation, is that His agents were always from among the weakest and most humble of His creatures on earth. Having selected them, He then provided them with the power to perform miracles which baffled and bewildered the minds of those who witnessed them.
Because these tangible miracles were performed only once, their impact was greatest on eye-witnesses. For those who had not seen them, they were matters of hearsay which had they not been affirmed in the Quran would have possibly been dismissed.
It is sometimes said that scientific advancements might allow man to duplicate such supernatural phenomena as miracles. This assumption is indicative of man’s conceit and sceptical nature. Divine miracles will continue to challenge mankind until the Day of Resurrection. No other mortal being could ever smite the sea with a rod and cause it to part, as Moses did.
While arrogant people may contend that modern medicine is capable of curing leprosy and restoring sight to the blind, nevertheless none could achieve these cures by simply touching the one inflicted as Jesus did. Still others may argue that nowadays one can fly to Makkah and back more than once in a day. But Muhammad (s) on his Night Journey was not transported to Jerusalem in a plane, and no one apart from him has been able to levitate unaided by mechanical means. Despite man’s tremendous advancements in space exploration, no one has yet been able to depict the first heaven, let alone that found beyond.
This power was exhibited in the miracle performed by the small birds during the attack on the Kabah by Abraha’s army with its elephant. The enormity of this miracle was so confusing and perplexing to the intellect that it engendered some doubt in the minds of some later believers who read about it in the Quran. Some scientists found it too difficult to understand and tried to account for the destruction of the elephant and Abraha’s army by hypothesising that the birds might have been carriers of infectious diseases that caused the death of the marauding army.
All this is but mere conjecture, because as we have said earlier, there were eye-witnesses on the day of the incursion, and they would certainly have ridiculed Muhammad (s) if the revelation he imparted to them had been false.
Allah bestowed the same divine power upon Moses, enabling him to part the sea. It was likewise bestowed upon Jesus enabling him to cure the leper and the blind and revive the dead.
He gave Abraham the power to revivify when He commanded him to cut a bird in pieces, put each piece on a separate hill top, them call the bird back. When it heard his call it came to him. We must, however, understand that all that Abraham did was to call the bird and that it was Allah Who permitted the miracle to happen.
What does all this imply? The analogy is true as far as all human interaction is concerned. We should not wonder when we witness an oppressor being overcome by a weak or helpless person, or when the defiant are broken down by natural causes. It is a reminder to all of us that Allah never slumbers and that His Divine Justice, though it may come late, never fails to be implemented.
1 Jinn are the beings composed of smokeless fire which inhabit the intermediary realms between earthly and angelic spheres.