Dr A Q Khan’s article, ‘Maroof Karkhi and wonders,’ in a major newspaper last month, was as intriguing as it was thought provoking. Intriguing because the nuclear physicist drifted far from the world of science into the realm of the esoteric; thought provoking because he wrote with passion about miracles attributed to saintly personages as well as his belief in their power of intercession before God on behalf of their devotees. The two concepts warrant comment especially because they are widely, though wrongly, accepted as being in consonance with principles of Islam.

On miracles, two passages of the Quran are particularly relevant. The emphasis in the first is: “Now they swear by God with their most solemn oaths that if a miracle were shown to them, they would indeed believe in this (divine writ). Say: ‘Miracles are in the power of God alone…’” (6: 109). The Arabic word ayah does not only mean a ‘miracle’ i.e., an occurrence that is far beyond the ordinary observable course of nature, but also a ‘sign’ or a ‘message.’ It is the last of these significations that occurs the most frequently in the Quran.

From this it follows that what is commonly described as a miraculous happening constitutes, in fact, an ‘unusual message’ from God in order to convey a spiritual truth, which would otherwise have eluded the human intellect. This is further elaborated by the respected scholar, Muhammad Asad (1900-1992): “But even such extraordinary, miraculous messages cannot be regarded as ‘supernatural’ for the so-called ‘laws of nature’ are only a perceptible part of ‘God’s way’ (sunnat Allah) in respect of His creation – and, consequently, everything that happens, is ‘natural’ in the innermost sense of the word, irrespective of whether it conforms to the ordinary course of events or goes beyond it.”

For the reason that these ‘extraordinary messages’ manifest themselves through the instrumentality of those rare and divinely blessed personalities known as prophets, and also saints, they are erroneously said to have ‘preformed miracles.’ This misconception is demolished by the pronouncement: “Miracles are in the power of God alone.”

The other Quranic passage affirms: “And nothing has prevented Us from sending (this message, like the earlier ones,) with miraculous signs (in its wake), save (Our knowledge) that the people of olden times (only too often) gave the lie to them…” (17:59). This highly elliptic formulation, so typical of the Arabic language, has a vital bearing on the purport of the entire Quran. The Holy Book repeatedly affirms that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), although the last and the greatest of God’s apostles, was not empowered to perform miracles in order to reinforce his message.

His only miracle was the Quran – the final revelation from God and, therefore, destined to remain unchanged forever: “For behold, it is a sublime divine writ: no falsehood can ever attain to it openly and neither in a stealthy manner…” (41: 41-42). Muslims claim that it is a scripture unparalleled in its lucidity, free of contradictions, and unmatched in its ethical and moral comprehensiveness. Addressed as it is to the entire human race, its emphasis is on the use of reason.

In contrast, the messages of the earlier apostles were intended for their respective communities and times. For instance, a textual analysis of the Bible shows that the teachings of the prophet Moses were meant exclusively for the ‘children of Israel’ – the descendants of the patriarch Jacob, or, Israel as he is widely known. Similarly, in the New Testament the apostle Jesus emphasises: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Their teachings were restricted to their own community and were circumscribed by the social and intellectual circumstances prevalent at the time.

Since the people they addressed had not, till then, reached the level of human development necessary for independent reasoning, the earlier prophets were empowered by God to resort to those extraordinary portents known as miracles. These were needed to convince their people that their mission was divinely inspired and was anchored in truth.

The Quran, on the other hand, was revealed at a time when mankind, and, in particular the people whom it addressed in the first instance – the inhabitants of the region that witnessed the development of the Judaeo-Christian religion – had attained a sufficient level of intellectual maturity to comprehend its message without the aid of miracles.

Against this background, and, in spite of the Quranic pronouncement that “miracles are in the power of God alone,” Dr A Q Khan comes across in the article as a person obsessed with themiraculous feats of savants and sages:“One should be careful in doubting such events. Have we not been told in the Quran how a learned man (and not a jinn) had fetched the throne of the Queen of Saba and put it at the feet of HazratSulaiman (SA) in the twinkling of an eye? This wonder was not carried out by an angel or a prophet, but by a pious man.”

The passage cited by Dr Khan is an excerpt from the story of Solomon and Sheba as it appears in surah An-Naml(27: 38-44). The exact formulation of the verse on fetching the Queen of Sheba’s throne is, “Answered he who was illumined by revelation: ‘(Nay,) as for me – I shall bring it to thee ere the twinkling of the eye ceases!...”’ This is a part of an allegory aimed at demonstrating that worldly power – symbolised by the throne – is insignificant in comparison to the awesome majesty of God.

The person “illumined by revelation” could only have been a prophet, and, according to several commentators, was none other than the apostle Solomon himself. This is confirmed by the outstanding scholar Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi (1149-1209) in his eight-volume Quran commentary At-Tafsir al-Kabir which is also known as Mafatih al-Ghayb(The Keys of the Unknown).

The nuclear physicist strays into controversy through statements such as, “there is no harm in…praying to Allah through the good offices of a saint, as is the case of Hazrat Maroof Karkhi or Ghause Azam etc.” In another place he states, “…Hazrat Maroof Karkhi…advised people to use his name as reference while praying so that, Inshallah, their prayers would be answered.”

Such views are utterly rejected by the Quran, for instance: “Is it not to God alone that all sincere faith is due? And yet, they who take for their protectors aught beside Him (are wont to say) ‘We worship them for no other reason than that they bring us nearer to God.’ Behold, God will judge between them (on Resurrection Day)…’’(39:3). The belief in intermediaries between man and his Creator is anathema to Islamic doctrine because it conflicts with the concept of God’s omniscience and justice.

On the other hand, Dr AQ Khan is absolutely correct in asserting that the great sufisplayed a significant role in the spread of Islam. They were the true interpreters of the religion. They preached love and compassion. It was in this spirit, as Oscar Wilde writes, “that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek.”