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Miracles in the Quran: The Lahore Ahmadiyya view

by Dr Zahid Aziz

(This is based on an article I wrote in The Light & Islamic Review: Vol. 80, No. 3, July-September 2003, p. 9–13. Here it is reproduced with some small revisions, and a separate addition at the end.)

An e-mail was received at our website, with the subject: Give honour to the Quran. It stated:

“The major problem I found with the Ahmadiyya movement is that they deny the miracles in the Quran by explaining them off scientifically, this is quite stupid, I do wonder who they are trying to please!

That the movement has tried in bringing people to Islam is not in doubt, in fact the first Quran I picked up was the one translated by the Ahmadis to English which led me to Islam, but I rejected your effort at demeaning the Quran by explaining off scientifically the miracles of the almighty Allah therein.

You people should do honour to the Quran, you can still repent it is clear now that the Quran throws light for science and not vice-versa as you people are doing.”

Our reply

Thank you for writing to us. I am sure you have misunderstood our position regarding the Holy Quran. We in fact regard the Quran itself as a miracle, containing knowledge that no human being could have known, but only Allah could know.

What you might be referring to are the baseless stories added by many commentators of the Quran; one example is that they say (in explanation of 34:14) that when Solomon died, Allah kept his body in the same upright posture, supported by his royal rod, for one year so that the Jinn who were working under his charge would not know that he had died, and would thus continue their toil. However, a worm of the earth gradually ate away inside his rod, till eventually the rod became hollow and Solomon’s body fell on the ground. There are numerous other examples like this. These are just people’s own additions to the original words in the Quran. We don’t believe in these because Allah or the Holy Prophet have never mentioned them, but only commentators of the Quran do.

Here is what we believe. We believe that an angel called Jibreel, which we believe has a real existence, brought revelation to the Holy Prophet, which is something no one can explain scientifically, yet you say that we deny miracles!

We believe that there is a Being called Allah Who created the world, Who cannot be seen, but is everywhere. We believe that there is a soul inside human bodies, which after death continues to exist and then receives reward or punishment, and yet you say we deny miracles. None of this can be established scientifically, and is not recognised by science as true, but we believe in it as our basic beliefs and proclaim it openly. And you say we deny miracles.

Response by the enquirer

“Thanks for your reply.

I want you to further let me know the following:

1) What is your view about the ant that spoke to Solomon

2) The parting of the red sea by Moses

3) The fire Allah says should be a means of coolness for Abraham.”

Our reply

I am sorry for the length of my reply but it was also necessary to make some general points while answering your specific questions.

When Maulana Muhammad completed his Urdu translation of the Holy Quran in 1923 (six years after his English translation of the Holy Quran had been published), he wrote in an announcement as follows:

“… today, after the completion of this task, if on the one hand I am happy because of Allah’s blessings bestowed upon me in the form of the service to the Quran, at the same time I am afraid in case any errors I may have made, due to human fallibility or because of lacking knowledge, may cause others to stumble. Every single word of the Quran is a guiding light and a conclusive argument for every Muslim. In my translation and commentary I have tried, according to the best of my understanding, to subject my views to the word of God, the hadith of the Holy Prophet, and rules of the Arabic language. But still it is my interpretation and not binding upon anyone else unless it conforms with the word of God and the authentic hadith reports of the Messenger of Allah. My attempt is only to make people study the knowledge contained in the Quran and to turn their minds to its service.” (Lahore Ahmadiyya Urdu organ Paigham Sulh, 7 April 1923)

We do not consider our interpretations to be the last and final word. Someone could indeed come up with a better interpretation of a verse, and we would have to accept it.

Marmaduke Pickthall was an orthodox Muslim. When he reviewed Maulana Muhammad Ali’s book The Religion of Islam in 1936 (which covers metaphysical subjects, including miracles), he wrote in his review:

“Probably no man living has done longer or more valuable service for the cause of Islamic revival than Maulana Muhammad Ali of Lahore. … Such a book is greatly needed at the present day when in many Muslim countries we see persons eager for the reformation and revival of Islam making mistakes through lack of just this knowledge.”

Then he wrote, approvingly, that certain chapters in this book should be studied:

“to observe the difference between the rational views of a devout traditionist and the views of so-called rationalists”.

Our views are the “rational views of devout traditionists”, not of “rationalists”, as Pickthall has so aptly put it. Rationalists are those Muslims who place the laws of nature and science above the Quran. People have mistakenly considered us to be rationalists. But Ahmadis are, as Pickthall says, “devout traditionists”, that is, those who respect and honour the traditional sources of Islam, but they apply rational thinking in understanding those sources.

Now I answer your three questions.

1. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, whose English translation is the most widely accepted translation among Muslims, writes in his footnote on the verse about Solomon and the ant:

“This verse and the next, read together, suggest the symbolical meaning as predominant.” (Note 3258 on 27:18)

He considers the ant as representing “the humblest people in the world”, and writes that Solomon in his prayer means that “he may not even unwittingly tread on humble beings in his preoccupations with the great things of the world” (footnote 3259).

So even Yusuf Ali does not accept it as necessarily a literal miracle.

We Ahmadis give this incident various interpretations. The miracle is supposed to be that Solomon could understand what the ant was saying (to other ants). But this implies that ants have an understanding of human affairs and communicate among themselves about those matters (as the ant here says: “O ants, go into your houses, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you” — 27:18). Solomon being able to understand the ant could be a miracle, but how did that ant and all the other ants adressed by it have the capacity of knowing who Solomon was? If those ants had this level of understanding then ants throughout history, even now, would have the same capacity of knowledge. There is no authority in the Quran for believing that such creatures have human-like knowledge of current affairs.

So one of our Ahmadi views is that it is the action of the ants on the approach of Solomon that is referred to here, as if the ant said it in words. Solomon was the ruler of a great, highly organized state with its disciplined and trained armed forces. Ants are a highly organized, socially cohesive community, and those who study their behaviour are absolutely amazed that an insect without intelligence can exhibit such communal behaviour. This is what was shown to Solomon, that no matter how advanced and organised a human state may be, of which its people are proud, yet lowly creatures like ants have been naturally gifted with that kind of civilization, in fact a more perfect one, by Allah.

Ants show the social organisation taught to them through instinct by Allah. Human beings devise their own ways of organising society. But Allah’s work is superior to human efforts, and human beings can learn from Allah’s work.

So this is what Ahmadis believe: that Allah’s work is perfect and superior, and human beings can learn a lesson from it. Even today human beings can go on studying creatures like ants, and learn lessons from them about community-minded and public-spirited behaviour.

Another Ahmadi interpretation is, of course, what is given by Maulana Muhammad Ali, that the word naml here is the name of a tribe or people, and does not refer to an ant, and no ants are involved in this incident.

2. Regarding both Abraham and Moses, we believe that Allah saves his prophets and righteous ones from the plans and designs of their opponents. To the world it appears that the opponents are about to succeed in destroying the believers, but Allah saves them when there is absolutely no chance, by human reckoning, that they would be saved. The way in which Allah saves them may even be by a common, everyday occurrence. Our Holy Prophet Muhammad while hiding in the cave of Thaur was saved because of a spider weaving its web across the entrance of the cave, an everyday occurrence but made miraculous because of when and where it happened.

Regarding Abraham and the fire (21:68-71), Yusuf Ali again is unsure whether it was a real, burning fire or a symbolic one. He writes:

“Through all the fire of persecution and hatred Abraham remained unhurt. The fire became cool, and a means of safety for Abraham.” (footnote 2724, on the word ‘fire’ in verse: “We said: O fire …”)

“Perhaps some years passed before the incident of his being thrown into the Fire took place, or the incident may only be allegorical.” (footnote 2725)

Our interpretation is that the Quran does not say that Abraham was actually cast into the fire, only that his opponents planned to put him into fire and Allah saved him by cooling the fire and making it safe for him. How that happened we don’t know, and various stories about it have been discredited by some classical commentators themselves. Perhaps he escaped from being put in it by migration, as may be deduced from the verse 21:71, just as the Holy Prophet Muhammad escaped being murdered by the Quraish by migration. Perhaps a storm or rain put out the fire. The miracle is that his opponents, despite all their resources, could not kill him. As Yusuf Ali writes, the “fire” might even mean the fire of opposition to which Abraham was subjected, and may only be symbolic, not literal.

I have quoted Yusuf Ali a few times to show that there are other Muslim scholars also, who are orthodox, and who allow that these miracles may not be physical occurrences, as commonly thought.

3. Similar is the case of Moses going across the water. Whether that water was the Red Sea or the Nile or some other stretch of water no one knows. What we know is that a most powerful monarch with a huge army could not stop Moses and his followers from crossing this water, and themselves drowned in it. The idea that Moses parted the water by hitting the ground with his staff is not borne out by the words of the Holy Quran. Since Allah informed Moses of when to travel and which way to go, it is possible that Allah made them reach the water at a time when it would start receding (maybe due to tides or wind). Only Allah could know the time and place when there would be a dry path, which would close shortly afterwards.

Even today these miracles happen in the sense that, not necessarily an individual, but the cause of truth is always rescued by Allah from destruction by its opponents.

Finally, I will give an example of how not interpreting an event as a miracle makes it more of a miracle of the Quran. In 19:24-25 it is related that when Mary was suffering the pains of childbirth a voice told her to shake the trunk of the palm-tree under which she was resting and “it will drop on you fresh ripe dates”. Many Muslims consider it a miracle that dates on that tree ripened immediately for Mary, out of season. But the Quran does not say that the dates ripened out of season. Now if we simply consider that dates were ripe on the tree because it was the season for ripe dates, then this discloses that Jesus was born in July or August. This disclosure is indeed a miracle. In the last 100 or 150 years researchers, both Christian and others, have been trying to determine the month of the birth of Jesus, especially after they concluded that it could not have been any time in December or even winter. The Quran solved this for them. If we take the verse 19:25 as relating a natural occurrence, instead of miraculous ripening, then the mention of this occurrence becomes a miracle, because it solves the modern puzzle of which time of the year Jesus was born.

The very mission of our Movement is based on belief in miraculous help from God. At the time when Maulana Muhammad Ali published his English translation of the Quran, most people (Muslims or non-Muslims) considered that to try to propagate Islam to the West by these means was an utterly futile venture doomed to complete failure. But our Movement took up this mission because of its firm belief that, no matter how impossible it may look to human thinking, Allah has ordained that Islam will spread in the West and be accepted by the very people who today denigrate, abuse and detest it. The man whom you consider as denying miracles in his translation of the Quran, and as dishonouring the Quran, taught us that we should continue this work of propagation of Islam no matter how bleak the chances of success appear to be, because what appears impossible to man is possible for God. And that is exactly what a miracle is: that what appears impossible to man is possible for God.

An addition

My 2003 article ended at this point. I add below some excerpts from a book, Izalah Auham, published in 1891 by the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement:

“Know that the clear miracle of the Holy Quran which can be displayed to a person of any nation, speaking any language, and by which we can silence a man of any country, whether he is an Indian, Persian, European, American, or of any other country, is that the knowledge and the truths contained in the Quran are unlimited, and are disclosed in every age according to the needs of that age. They stand like armed soldiers to combat the philosophies of every age. If the Holy Quran had been a limited thing in terms of the truths contained in it, it could not possibly be a perfect miracle. Eloquence of language by itself is not a quality whose miraculous nature can be appreciated by everyone, whether learned or uneducated. …

Whatever doubts arise in any new age, with the new conditions in it, and whatever excellent knowledge any new age may claim to have discovered, the Holy Quran contains a complete refutation and criticism of it and can compete with it fully. No person of any religion or follower of any philosophy can show a spiritual truth which is not contained in the Quran. The wonders of the Holy Quran can never come to an end, just as the wonders of nature did not come to an end in some previous age, but ever newer ones are constantly appearing. The same is true of this holy scripture. …

Since it is possible that in the present day a property may be discovered in some plant, or such like, which was not known to people of the past, why is it not possible that some wonderful truths may now be found from the Quran which were not known in the past because at that time there was no need of them? Of course, the essentials of faith relating to religious law, which are obligatory in order to be a Muslim, are set down openly in the Holy Quran for the information of everyone. But those points and truths which increase understanding are always being disclosed according to need, and at the time of ever newer evils, new meanings full of wisdom make their appearance.” (Izalah Auham, pages 305–311)

Thus, it is our fundamental belief, which underlies the work of our Movement, that the Holy Quran has always been a miracle and will continue to be a miracle, and the world will forever benefit form the miraculous nature of the Quran.