Friday, September 12, 2014

On the Nature of Miracles

There is a story in Quran that could be considered to be the story of a miracle.  I could not decide if I could believe it or not, so I decided to look at it more closely and give it some thought. 

Almost half of the stories in the surahs of Quran that were revealed to the Prophet in Mecca are related to the prophets.  However, some of the stories revealed in Mecca are not related to any prophets.  The purpose of some of these stories was for the Muslims in Mecca to learn something about their faith, and to learn that nations before them went through experiences similar to theirs.  Some other stories are intriguing and seem to have historical significance.  One of these later, a very interesting story, is mentioned in Surah #18, Al-Kahf (The Cave).

This story is about the people of the cave. According Ibn Ishaq, this story was revealed after the Arabs in Mecca sent two representatives to Medinah to ask the Jewish rabbis about Prophet Mohammed, to see if he could be considered a legitimate prophet.  They instructed the two men to ask the Prophet to answer three questions, one of which was “Who were the men in the cave?”  The Prophet told them he would let them know.  Two weeks later, this surah was revealed.

Surah Al Kahf #18, Ayat 9-26. 

[And since the life of this world is but a test], doest thou [really] think that [the parable of] the Men of the Cave and of [their devotion to] the scriptures could be deemed more wondrous than any [other] of Our messages? (9)

When those youths took refuge in the cave, they prayed:  “O Our Sustainer!  Bestow on us grace from Thyself, and endow us, whatever our [outward] condition, with consciousness of what is right!” (10)
And thereupon We veiled their ears in the cave for many a year, and then We awakened them:  [and We did all this] so that We might mark out [to the world] which of the two points of view showed a better comprehension of the time-span during which they had remained in this state. (12)
[And now] We shall truly relate to thee their story:
Behold, they were young men who had attained to faith in their Sustainer: and [so] We deepened their consciousness of the right way (13) and endowed their hearts with strength, so that they stood up and said [to one another]:  “Our Sustainer is the Sustainer of the heaven and the earth.  Never shall we invoke any deity other than Him:  [if we did], we should indeed have uttered an enormity! (14)  These people of ours have taken to worshipping [other] deities instead of Him, without being able to adduce any reasonable evidence in support of their beliefs; and who could be more wicked than he who invents a lie about God? (15)  Hence, now that you have withdrawn from them and from all that they worship instead of God, take refuge in that cave:  God will spread His grace over you, and will endow you – whatever your [outward] condition – with all that your souls may need!” (16)
And [for many a year] thou might have seen the sun, on its rising, incline away from their cave on the right, and, on its setting, turn aside from them on the left, while they lived on in that spacious chamber, [bearing witness to] this of God’s messages:  He whom God guides, he alone has found the right way; whereas for him whom He lets go astray thou canst never find any protector who would point out the right way. (17)
And thou wouldst have thought that they were awake, whereas they lay asleep.  And We caused them to turn over repeatedly, now to the right, now to the left; and their dog [lay] on the threshold, its forepaws outstretched.  Hadst thou come upon them [unprepared], thou wouldst surely have turned away from them in flight, and wouldst surely have been filled with awe of them. (18)

We see many details here that do not necessarily have any purpose other than to give an accurate description of what happened to these young men… what happened when the sun rose, what happened when the sun set, turning from side to side on the floor of the cave, and the location of their dog.  The story goes on to describe the conversation they had among themselves when they woke up over three hundred years later. 

And so, [in the course of time,] We awakened them; and they began to ask one another [as to what had happened to them].
One of them asked:  “How long have you remained thus?”
[The others] answered:  “We have remained thus a day, or part of a day.”
Said they [who were endowed with deeper insight]:  “Your Sustainer knows best how long you have thus remained.  Let, then, one of you go with these silver coins to the town, and let him find out what food is purest there, and bring you thereof [some] provisions.  But let him behave with great care and by no means make anyone aware of you: (19) for, behold, if they should come to know of you, they might stone you to death or force you back to their faith – in which case you would never attain to any good.” (20)
And in this way have We drawn [people’s] attention to their story, so that they might know – whenever they debate among themselves as to what happened to those [Men of the Cave] – that God’s promise [of resurrection] is true, and that there can be no doubt as to [the coming of] the Last Hour.
And so, some [people] said:  “Erect a building in their memory; their Sustainer knows best what happened to them.”  Said they whose opinion prevailed in the end:  “Indeed, we must surely raise a house of worship in their memory!” (21)
[And in times to come] some will say, “[They were] three, the fourth of them being their dog,” while others will say, “Five, with their dog as the sixth of them” – idly guessing at something of which they can have no knowledge – and [so on, until] some will say, “[They were] seven, the eighth of them being their dog.”
Say:  “My Sustainer knows best how many they were.  None but a few have any [real] knowledge of them.  Hence, do not argue about them otherwise than by way of an obvious argument, and do not ask any of those [story-tellers] to enlighten thee about them. (22)

And never say about anything, “Behold, I shall do this tomorrow,” (23) without [adding], “if God so wills.”  And if thou shouldst forget [thyself at the time, and become aware of it later], call thy Sustainer to mind and say:  “I pray that my Sustainer guide me, even closer than this, to a consciousness of what is right.” (24)

And [some people assert], “They remained in their cave three hundred years”; and some have added nine [to that number]. (25)

Ayah 25 actually counted the years based on both the solar and lunar calendars – nine years is the difference between the lunar and solar calendars over 300 years – the people of the cave lived in the Roman Empire which used the solar calendar, but the story was being told to the Arabs who used the lunar calendar.  But after being that specific, the next ayah goes on to say:

Say:  “God knows best how long they remained [there].  His [alone] is the knowledge of the hidden reality of the heavens and the earth:  how well does He see and hear!  No guardian have they apart from Him, since He allots to no one a share in His rule!” (26)

M. Asad’s commentary notes that most commentators say that this story relates to a phase in early Christian history – the persecution of the Christians by Emperor Decius in the third century.  The legend says that some of these young Christians, with their dog, withdrew to a secluded cave in order to live in accordance with their faith, and remained there, miraculously asleep, for a great length of time.  When they finally awoke, the situation had completely changed – Christianity was no longer persecuted and had become the religion of the Roman Empire, and the coins they had were no longer used, and this is how the townspeople came to know their story.

But, Asad notes, it seems that the story dates to much earlier Jewish sources, evident from several well-authenticated ahadith that say it was the Jewish rabbis of Medina who induced the Meccan opponents of Muhammed to test his veracity by asking him to explain, among other problems, the story of the Men of the Cave.  Said Ibn Kahtir, “had they been Christians, why should the Jewish rabbis have been intent on preserving their story, seeing that the Jews had cut themselves off from all friendly communion with the Christians?”  Asad goes on to speculate that the allegory of the Men of the Cave may refer to the ascetic Essene Brotherhood that played an important role in Jewish history in the centuries leading up to and during the life of Jesus (who may have been a member), and particularly to that of its branches which lived in self-imposed solitude in the vicinity of the Dead Sea and has recently, after the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, come to be know as the “Qumran” community. – “the group among the Essenes – who devoted themselves entirely to the study, the copying and preservation of the sacred scriptures.  Since they lived in complete seclusion from the rest of the world and were highly admired for their piety and moral purity, it is more than probable that their mode of life made so strong an impression on the imagination of their more worldly co-religionists that it became gradually allegorized in the story of the “men of the Cave who “slept” – that is, were cut off from the outside world – for countless years, destined to be “awakened” after their spiritual task was done.”

We could say, as Asad does, that the story “is used in the Quran in a purely parabolic sense: namely, as an illustration of the piety that induces men to abandon a wicked and frivolous world in order to keep their faith unsullied, and of God’s recognition of that faith by His bestowal of a spiritual awakening which transcends time and death.” 

But we can also look at the circumstance of its revelation – and see the story as nothing more than God giving the Prophet a story in such detail, in answer to a challenge from his opponents and questioners, that he had not known before, thus affirming to them that his revelation did indeed come from the Sustainer of them all. 

We can look into the details of the story for clues about what really happened – how many men there were, and how long they slept.  But what strikes me more is the first ayah of the story -

[And since the life of this world is but a test], doest thou [really] think that] the parable of] the Men of the Cave and of [their devotion to] the scriptures could be deemed more wondrous than any [other] of Our messages? (9)

Throughout Quran we are reminded of the most important messages – the miracles of the natural world, of our own existence, of our own consciousness, our creative intelligence.  Think of the image we all now have of our earth, a shining blue-green jewel in the blackness of space – an image that the Prophet and his community could never have imagined, but that we all now take for granted – a product of the evolution of human intelligence and technological development.  Or take the miracle of our birth – each and every individual. 

In Ayah 9 God is telling us that the story of the Men of the Cave - whether it really happened in history or it is an allegory or a myth - cannot hold a candle to the miracle of creation that we see around us each and every day.    Al Hamdu Lillah.

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