As I sit to write this piece, my mum whatsapp’ed me to inform me of her sister’s passing. Whatsapp is itself a miracle. Even 50 years ago, the idea of people sending billions of messages across the world without needing to pay astronomical charges was inconceivable. Another miracle was my aunt’s life. Though I did not know her that well, her miracle was her resilience. Although she came close to death a few times before finally succumbing, she always managed to pull through. I always considered that miraculous. Of course, we can only run so far from death.
Those were everyday miracles but in religious traditions, we need something bigger. From young, I had a set of books called stories of the Prophets. In these books, the stories of prophets prior to Muhammad are told. These stories had a few things in common and one of them was the idea of miracles. The prophets called to God and as proof of their divine authority, they had miracles. Noah had his ark; Abraham came out of a furnace unscathed; Moses’ staff became a hungry serpent; Jesus healed the blind, the lepers and brought life to the dead. These are the evidences we need to know that these prophets indeed came from God.
This raises a few problems. The first problem is that of application. The Quran is very unambiguous in the purposes of the stories of the prophets. Chapter 11 Verse 120 and Chapter 12 Verse 111 basically tell us that these stories are lessons. They are to give us concepts which explain God’s own world view. This being the case, the idea of the prophets demonstrating miracles has little or no use to us. We cannot copy these acts, hence much of the Quran becomes redundant. Indeed Traditionalists do tell us that these stories as from ‘shariahs of the past’ and hence no longer apply.
The second problem lies in the matter of faith. At the risk of sounding pompous, the Quran operates on an ontology on signs (ayaat). What this means is that the reality we experience, in my understanding of the Quran, is based on our experience of signs. This is something existential, that is, something within our sphere of existence. We are not expected to read, nod our assent and voila, we become believers. Rather faith is something we attain in accordance with our interaction with signs and at least a third of the signs in the Quran are about the stories of the Prophets.
So where does that leave us? To me, the key is to understand the objective of the Quran which is to become adam, the ideal prototype of human being. In order to do this, we need to get deep into the Quran and understand its stories are metaphors. This means the miracles are not literal but rather deep symbolisms depicting the basic framework of the human condition. I derive far more from the notion of Noah’s ark as a metaphor for a system of social preservation from the flood of life than I would from the idea of building a ship! That is indeed a miracle I can experience.