Friday, 25 December 2015

Is the Qur'an really the "strongest" miracle?

The purpose of a miracle is to serve as a Divine signature- to serve as a proof that indeed a particular claim of revelation is genuine. This is why miracles need to be supernatural i.e. beyond the laws of nature, otherwise everyone could imitate them. As such, people would expect Divine miracles to be very grand in scale. They would have to violate the laws of nature so blatantly that all onlookers would be humbled and fall to their knees in worship. This basic intuition translates into an expectation people often have from truly Divine miracles- they would be large-scale, obvious, blatant, an enormity in the face of our everyday experience.

Now to an extent, that is certainly true. I wouldn't be very convinced of a religion if all the evidence it had going for it was the face of its prophet appearing on a potato chip. Even if that's a violation or suspension of the laws of nature, it hardly inspires awe. At a minimum, the miracle should be of such a scale so as to leave no room for doubt that it is a clear violation of the laws of nature.

At the same time though, is a display of power really the only criterion for judging whether a law-violating event is Divine? Let's think about it this way. If we expect the Creator and Lord of all living beings to give us a sign of His existence, how would it look? Clearly, it would have to be powerful, in that causing it would require bending of laws of nature. But I bet people will also have other expectations from this sign- it would have to be something beautiful, something deep, something truly meaningful, beneficial, and so on. So display of power is only one aspect of a good miracle, things like beauty, depth, meaning are also important. If God put up a lightshow in the desert sky as a sign, it would be awe-inspiring, sure, but I wonder how much depth and meaning it would possess.

There is something fascinating about the miracle of the Qur'an, in that it is God's revelation and miracle packed in one. Straight off the bat, we can sense that the miracle would be just as deep as the Divine message itself. The Qur'an is God's timeless counsel to all humanity, containing detailed spiritual, ethical, metaphysical, and legal knowledge that would be required for our life and optimal well-being. These Divine commands are expressed in a language that is not only beautiful and profound and subtle, but also law-defying and miraculous. So the miracle here mixes with the message- and at some points, it gets difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Is the revelation a receptacle for the miracle? Or is the miracle a receptacle for the revelation? That question is not easy to answer.

And yet, it goes deeper. According to theology, the word of the Qur'an is the very language of God. We often fail to realize how profound that is. As His final message, God- the Necessary, Ultimate reality of all else that exists- has chosen to speak in a human language, so we could hear and recite His own words verbatim. Every word of the Qur'an that we read is an expression of the intimate connection between the Creator and His creatures, every prayer of ours is, quite literally, a communion with God in the language of God. Mormon scholar Daniel Peterson in his article The Language of God: Understanding the Qur'an observes:

In Islam, by contrast, the "Word" is the Qur'an, the pure utterance of God himself, which human beings may themselves read and recite and of which, thereby, they may become co-articulators. Though few if any contemporary Muslims would agree to this, it is difficult to escape the sense that the reciter of the Qur'an, in a limited but important way, is unified with God in the utterance of God's own words. It is a kind of deification through speech.

I cannot conceive of a higher view of language.

Muslims, of course, would take exception to the sort of language the author uses, but the point about the intimacy between the reciter and the Creator is obvious. Perhaps another way of appreciating a miracle would be its effect on hearts and minds. Clearly, events happened in the history of time surrounding the Qur'an that are unparalleled in all of history. How it transformed and united the people of an entire peninsula, how it's memorized and recited by millions of people, how it has been preserved with no change for a millennium and a half- no book's impact was anywhere near that of the Qur'an. Perhaps these are not independent evidences of its Divinity, but these are things we would expect from a Divine miracle.

This is what is meant, I think, when it is said that the Qur'an is truly the strongest of all miracles. The strength of the miracle isn't to be gauged only by the number of laws it violates, and how spectacularly it does so, but also what that violation comes to signify. With the Qur'an where the message of God is the miracle, emanating directly in speech form from the Ultimate Reality, it is indeed the strongest expression of a Divine sign.

In this post, I haven't really been arguing for the fact that the Qur'an is miraculous, but rather for the proposition that assuming it is miraculous, it's exactly as we should expect from God. The other question of establishing the fact of Qur'anic miracles would require separate articles, essays, and/or tomes. On short notice though, here's an excerpt on the topic from a friend:

...virtually every ayah presents a linguistic problem (i.e. riddle). It seems like from the wording of the parts of an individual ayah to the structure of the surahs and then the Qur'an as a whole, every part of it is designed almost as if to provoke the question: why is it like this? Then when after due research and contemplation, the answer finally appears, it is like the key has been given to you to a door that had prior been locked. And every ayah is like this. And every surah. And the order of the surahs of the whole Qur'an. Then I felt like: what human being could have made something like this???

If trials in this world=rewards in the next, why shouldn't we expose ourselves to trials?

I believe the Islamic concept of life being a test is one of the most powerful concepts in philosophy of religion. It has a lot of ramifications in discussions concerning purpose/value of life, the problem of evil, Divine Hiddenness, and middle knowledge. Even outside the realm of philosophy, I believe it's an incredibly empowering concept in one's spiritual life. Understanding and developing this idea with philosophical rigor can be considered a valuable project in and of itself. One way of doing that is responding to objections. That leads to refinement of any model.

So let's talk about the problem in the post title. Islam teaches three important concepts when it comes to the trials in life:

1. Trials are necessary for character building, for helping us cultivate qualities like courage, patience, maturity, etc (and alternatively, to expose bad people for what they truly are),
2. Trials also expiate sins, and the hadith examples on the topic are legion (a keyword search generated this list)
3. For whatever trials and suffering we may face in this world, our patience in the face of these trials would be compensated for in the afterlife many times over.

The question is: if trial is so important and beneficial for the spiritual life of a Muslim, why should we not try to actively seek out trials? What is stopping us from inflicting pain on ourselves, leading unnecessarily harsh lives, not taking medicine when sick, and so on? Especially given the lucrative promise of rewards in the next life, people should be praying to God for calamities to strike them, no? And yet Islam explicitly asks us not to do any of the above. The believer is asked to pray for ease, not difficulty; for felicity in both this life and the next, not only in the next in expense of the present. The Prophetic practice was always to choose the easy route among otherwise equally beneficial options.

I know the question is easy to answer, and indeed Muslim scholars have written about calamities and the appropriate attitude to have about them. In her essay in Howard-Snyder edited The Evidential Problem of Evil, Eleonore Stump gave a really intuitive and illuminating response.

The basic idea is this. We know things like working out and medicine are good for us. However, too much working out leads to physical problems. But on what basis shall we decide what amount of working out is good and beneficial, and what amount is harmful? On the basis of expert prescription. Similarly, trials are indeed good for us, but too much of it is obviously bad, since too much of it may damage our body and spirit, and make us unable to fulfill duties owed to God and the people in the long term. Who decides exactly what amount of trial is good and bad?

This is where the concept of Divine prescription of trials comes into play. According to the Divine instructions regards trials and suffering (as found in Islamic scriptures)- we shouldn't ask for trials, rather, whenever we fall into trials, or see others suffering, we should always work to alleviate it. We should always pray for ease and not suffering. That's the Divine prescription. In spite of all of this, however, trials would inevitably afflict us, and we would not be able to reduce much of it even if we tried. The Divinely prescribed amount of trials is just the amount that is unavoidable in this sense. Whatever residue of trials remain in our lives after we have tried our best to get rid of it- is just the right amount of trials for us to have. If we go looking for more than this, we may end up pulling a spiritual muscle.

In short, although trial is good for us, it's only good for us in a certain amount, to a certain extent. The way to know that Goldilocks' amount is to rely on Divine prescription, which is to try and avert as much suffering as we can, but patiently try and endure whatever amount is inevitable and irreducible.

This view of trials strike me as very empowering. On one hand, it teaches us explicitly not to suffer in silence. To help ourselves and our fellow creatures whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is in tune with our "humanitarian" values and intuitions. On the other hand, it teaches us to not lose hope in the face of inevitable suffering, for it would be entirely positive and beneficial for us in the long run.

Strive for ease as much as you can, but think positively of whatever suffering you can't escape. Take it in stride and praise God. That's the recipe for a happy life (and afterlife).