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Miracles & Metaphors

Updated: Sep 21, 2019

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Ever Merciful [3:49] “And will make him (Jesus a.s.) a Messenger to the children of Israel (to say): ‘I come to you with a Sign from your Lord, which is, that I will fashion out for you a creation out of clay after the manner of a bird, then I will breathe into it a new spirit and it will become a soaring being by the command of Allah; and I will heal the night-blind and the leprous, and I will quicken the dead, by the command of Allah; and I will announce to you what you will eat and what you will store up in your houses. Surely, therein is a Sign for you, if you be believers.

These are the words of a prophecy about Jesus a.s. given to his mother Mary r.a. before his birth. Most people count the miracles mentioned in this verse as being 4 (or 5). However, the verse starts off by saying that it is one single sign, and ends with the same statement, that it is surely a single sign for you, if you be believers. Most people struggle with understanding why the verse starts off and finishes with the mention of it being a single sign, whereas they count about 4 signs or miracles mentioned in the verse. The only satisfactory way of resolving this apparent contradiction is to understand this prophecy as containing allegorical miracles. The word ayah appears 82 times in the Qur'an in the singular form (aayah), and 300 times in the plural form (aayaat). But [3:49] is the only place where this apparent contradiction exists. It is for those who take the verse literally to resolve the apparent contradiction in their understanding of the verse.

The Qur'an [3:7] itself states that it contains both literal or clear and decisive verses, as well as allegorical verses, or those susceptible to different interpretations, and those possessing knowledge believe in the entire book; in other words, they interpret the verses to be harmonious with other verses of the same Book, as all is revealed by their One Lord. Even if such a verse did not exist in the Qur'an, specifically stating that it contains allegorical verses, the fact is that allegories are used in language, and the listener has to decide whether a statement is to be taken literally or metaphorically, depending on the context of the statement, and the other related statements made by the same person or book.

For example, we see in Sura Yusuf that the dreams of Yusuf a.s. [12:4] and the King of Egypt [12:43], and of the two companions in the prison, are not clearly mentioned as being dreams which require interpretation (though translators tend to add that it was a dream), yet the listeners have the insight to realise that these scenes could not have been seen in real life, as such things do not occur in real life, and therefore they obviously must be dreams. We can establish a principle from this example, that if the apparent meaning of any verse contradicts a well established law of nature, or a clear and decisive verse, then that statement would have to be understood in a metaphorical rather than literal manner.

Applying this principle of the verse mentioned above, we see that it is Allah who is the creator, and no human being has the power of creation, as declared in the verse below:

[7:191] Do they associate with Him as partners those who create nothing, and are themselves created?

Thus, to take the creation of birds by Jesus a.s. as being literal would involve a person in shirrk, or the association of partners with Allah. Nor do we know of any species of literal birds that came into existence 2 millenia ago. However, we do know of the transformation in the beliefs and practices of the disciples of Jesus a.s. that took place after him. The mission of Jesus a.s. was for the children of Israel only, as stated in this verse of the Qur'an, as well as in verses of the four gospels, so he did not convey anything to the gentiles. It was the disciples who conveyed the message to the gentiles, and as a result of their preaching, we see billions of the followers of Jesus a.s. spread around the world today, albeit the vast majority having deviated from his true teachings, and largely misinterpreting his actual message, and most of them being disobedient and rebellious in some ways. Had Jesus a.s. been sent to the gentiles as well, it is highly likely that he would have guided them more effectively than the disciples were able to do, after arguing much amongst themselves with regards to how and what to convey to the gentiles.

The Qur'an likens some of the Jews to an 'ass' carrying a load of books [62:5], and to other Jews who transgressed and insolently rebelled as 'apes' and 'swines' [2:65, 5:60, 7:166]. Likewise, the metaphor 'ass' is used in a bad sense, and the metaphor 'lion' is used in a good sense in the Qur'an [74:50,51]. The word 'bird' here should also be understood as being metaphorical, as a literal meaning would cause a contradiction to arise, and become a form of shirrk, as mentioned before. Bird is a metaphor for a spiritual being who has a relationship with Allah such that material inclinations do not exert a pull on that individual towards sinfulness. 'Birds' are willing  and able to sacrifice their worldly desires for the sake of their heavenly desires, and we see this happening in the case of the disciples, most of whom were martyred for their faith after some decades of Jesus a.s. leaving Palestine/Judea.

The use of the word 'birds' in the following verse may also be understood in such a metaphorical manner:

[27:16] And Solomon was heir to David. And he said, ‘O ye people, we have been taught the language of birds; and we have had everything bestowed upon us. This indeed is God’s manifest grace.’

The word 'language' here is a reference to the terminology employed by people who have a relationship with Allah, describing the nature of their relationship.

There are numerous verses of the Qur'an referring to spiritual blindness, and other verses stating that the Qur'an is itself a source of healing [17:82, 41:44]. The Qur'an also tells us that the Messenger of Allah s.a. calls to that which grants life:

[8:24] O ye who believe! respond to Allah, and the Messenger when he calls you to that which may give you life, and know that Allah comes in between a man and his heart, and that He it is unto Whom you shall be gathered.

Thus, raising the dead to life is metaphorical, or spiritual, not literal or physical. None of the instances of raising to life by Jesus a.s. or any other Biblical Prophet can be said to be cases of confirmed or actual deaths. They were assumed to be dead, or on the verge of death, and the prayers of the Prophets revived them to life, as with Jesus a.s. They are cases of metaphorical resurrections, not literal ones. Indeed, none of the 9 or so instances of 'resurrection' in the Bible are cases of 'obvious' or 'certain' death, such as decapitation. 

Thus the verse [3:49] describes the same one phenomenon of spiritual revival and resurrection in various ways, and then it refers to the moral and spiritual diet provided by Jesus a.s. which would be required for this spiritual transformation to occur, rather than to any material diet.

Most of the cases of miracles mentioned in the Scriptures can be understood in a non-literal manner. The only case which poses some difficulty for me is the case of Abraham a.s. being put in a fire.

[21:68,69] They said, `Burn him and help your gods if at all you mean to do something.' We said, `O fire, be thou a means of coolness and safety for Abraham!'

Now, it may be possible to understand the fire to be non-literal, as in the case of the verse below:

[2:17] Their case is like the case of a person who kindled a fire, and when it lighted up all around him, Allah took away their light and left them in thick darkness; they see not.

[3:103] And hold fast, all together, by the rope of Allah and be not divided; and remember the favour of Allah which He bestowed upon you when you were enemies and He united your hearts in love, so that by His grace you became as brothers; and you were on the brink of a pit of fire and He saved you from it. Thus does Allah explain to you His commandments that you may be guided.

It may be understood as the fire of persecution, as indicated by the wording of the verse below:

[85:10] Those who persecute the believing men and the believing women and then repent not, for them is surely the punishment of Hell, and for them is the punishment of burning.

However, a literal understanding may also be possible. We simply do not know how this may have happened. Postulating a timely rain as the means of 'cooling the fire' does not appear to resolve the issue, and Allah knows best. What appears more likely to me is that the wood might have refused to catch fire further and died out.

The virgin birth of Jesus a.s. can also be explained by natural laws, albeit rare, and the saving of Jonah a.s. in the belly of a fish can also be considered to be a rare possibility within the laws of nature. The parting of the sea by Moses a.s. has also been understood as being due to tidal activity, and the seeing of a splitting of the moon has also been interpreted to have been a shared vision which was shown to believers as well as disbelievers, just as the rod of Moses a.s. turning into a snake which swallowed the tricks of the magicians may also have been a shared vision, rather than an actual physical occurrence; and Allah knows best.

(this article is under development) 

[19:76] Allah increases in guidance those who follow the guidance. [20:47] Peace be upon those who follow the guidance.

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