Miracles and science

  • Is religion unscientific?


One reservation about the Quran on the part of science enthusiasts– and this includes more and more young, sincere Muslims now– is the occurrence of ‘unscientific’ miracles in the Quran. Things such as parting of the sea, the staff turning into a serpent, the virgin birth, a man resurrected after being dead a hundred years, are too fantastic, they argue. An evasion sometimes heard in response is this: since the age of prophets is long gone, it doesn’t make any difference to today’s reader any way. This leaves much to be desired. That’s because the Quran is an integral whole; and since it forms the backbone of all religion as far as the Muslim is concerned, nothing in it can be brushed under the carpet by arguing that it doesn’t concern the contemporary man.

Nor is this a recent problem by any stretch of the imagination. Ghulam Ahmed Perwez had faced the same difficulty and had sought to ‘solve’ it by explaining away all verses associated with miracles, jinn and angels as metaphorical, claiming that none of it could be taken literally; another lazy cop-out. The Quran does employ metaphors and other figures of speech; but like other books, whether something is meant literally or figuratively must be decided by the context, and not by caprice or convenience. That’s where Perwez’s solution is demonstrably untenable.

Before Perwez, Syed Ahmed Khan too had found it hard to accept what he referred to as the ‘supernatural’ in Quranic verses. His proposed solution was similar too. In the ninth principle of his tafsir, he writes: ‘There could be nothing in the Quran that is against the principles on which nature works… as far as the supernatural is concerned, I state it clearly that they are impossible, just like it is impossible for the Word of God to be false… I know that some of my brothers would be angry [to read this] and they would present verses of the Quran that mention miracles and supernatural events but we will listen to them without annoyance and ask: could there not be another meaning of these verses that is consonant with Arabic idiom and the Quranic usage? And if they could prove that it is not possible, then we will accept that our principle is wrong… but until they do so, we will insist that God does not do anything that is against the principles of nature that He has Himself established.’

Surrounded by technology that has revolutionised modern life, it’s rather easy to lose sight of the fact that science, in its realm is not all-encompassing. This is by no means a criticism of science, but simply a description of how things are

The obvious inconsistency here is that while Khan and Perwez have obvious trouble reconciling miracles with their scientific outlook, they don’t find anything problematic about the greatest supernatural event of all: The Day of Judgment, followed by life of the next world– fundamental Muslim beliefs. When a reordering of the world (as we know it) will take place [14:48]. But on a more fundamental note (and even if for the sake for argument one confines one’s attention to this-worldly, physical events), the problem with Khan’s ninth principle is that it seeks to render God, who is the Creator of the universe and the laws governing it, subject to His own laws. God, as far as the Quran is concerned, is the Absolute [112:2]. In other words, He never finds Himself constrained by anything. It’s true that God has prescribed for Himself mercy [6:12; 6:54]; but that places absolutely no constraint on His infinite powers. The Quran repeatedly declares that having power over all things, He never lacks the means to do what He pleases.

Common practice divides reality into the natural and the supernatural. Occasionally God is thought to reach down from the supernatural, interfering with the natural order; which is referred to as a miracle. Parting of the sea or the virgin-birth are without doubt extraordinary occurrences that a Muslim is ready to believe in. However, because He also believes God’s Will to be equivalent to the natural laws governing the universe, as far as he is concerned these extraordinary things are accomplished not by a suspension of the natural laws but by an unusual application of those laws.

Surrounded by technology that has revolutionised modern life, it’s rather easy to lose sight of the fact that science, in its realm is not all-encompassing. This is by no means a criticism of science, but simply a description of how things are. Science studies the universe and seeks to formulate laws explaining its working. God is the creator of the universe, so what are called natural laws are nothing more and nothing less than the Will of God. There is no reason whatever for an Absolute God to be constrained by His own laws. Moreover, unlike some religious systems, God (according to the Quran) has by no means retired after constraining the universe to follow His laws. He is very much active [55:29]. His permission (‘Be’) is needed for anything to happen, at every step of the way, whether the act or event in question is categorised by humans as natural or supernatural.