Richard Swinburne and Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli agree on many issues pertaining to miracles. Yet, whereas Swinburne sees the difference between miracles and other similar events as being their “religious” significance, Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli describes miracles as instances of divine “provocation” (taḥaddī), in other words a divine challenge for human beings to reproduce what God has done.
Richard Swinburne is one of the most prominent British philosophers of religion in the past few decades. An emeritus professor of Oxford University, he is an eminent theistic philosopher who believes in and argues for religion and the belief in God. He has written a number of books on issues relevant to religion, in particular on proving the existence of God. Among his most prominent contributions to the philosophy of religion is his work on miracles, an issue he has examined with great analytical care.
Swinburne defines the concept of miracles as, “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” He elaborates on three issues in this definition that he states can be easily misunderstood.
He argues that there are many ways to prove a miraculous event occurred, including: first, our own clear and unadulterated experiences and memories; second, the accounts of others about various events, historical and otherwise; third, physical remnants or artefacts of those “events”; and fourth, our own current understanding of how the world works and the realm of possibility therein.
These methods of examining miracles are key to discovering whether it is possible for miracles to occur, methods he states David Hume disregarded in his refutation of miracles. Swinburne illustrates the importance of these forms of evidence with an example: We may have some physical evidence that John was on one side of a large river only a few minutes ago. But now we see that John is on the opposite side of the river without the smallest traces of water on his person. And there are no boats, bridges, airplanes, or other means he could have used to cross the river. This in itself is good evidence that he must have somehow crossed the river in a way that defies our normal assumptions about how nature works. Of course, this method can primarily, if not exclusively, be used when assessing current claims of miracles and not historical ones; after all, those historical events passed long ago, and there remain little to no physical traces of them today.
Swinburne further argues that the belief in God is central to understanding miracles as such. In fact, he contends that believing in miracles without a prior belief in the existence of God would be quite difficult. If someone were to have prior evidence that God did in fact exist, then he may have good reason to believe that God caused such a miracle to occur.
Now, in addition to understanding miracles as a way of proving God, he also at times argues that miracles can provide good evidence to prove the claims of a particular prophet or messenger from God. Many of these prophets’ teachings changed the lives of those they preached to quite significantly, and many of their teachings were at times quite dangerous for their congregations. And yet there are very few means for their audiences to evaluate the validity of those teachings, particularly when the prophets would claim they have received revelation.
He also argues miracles are good evidence for particular claims and teachings of those prophets, arguing that miracles can provide evidence to help us prefer one religion over another.
Miracles According to Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli
Ayatullah Jawadi has also discussed the notion of miracles quite extensively. He provides the following definition: A miracle is an act used to prove a particular person’s claim to prophethood.
In his description of miracles, Ayatullah Jawadi emphasizes that miracles, although clearly supernatural, do not contradict laws of causation. He rejects claims of miracles being irrational, or belief in them as going against the intellect. And yet some who try to prove the possibility of miracles have fallen into this trap. He instead explains it in terms of the individual’s spiritual strength and ability which will allow him to perform these acts, a level that can neither be acquired nor taught.
Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli argues that the miracles that occur in a particular time or era necessarily surpass all scientific advancements of that era. Hence we see that each prophet would present his community with a different set of miracles than any of his predecessors. And because miracles are fundamentally beyond human abilities, he states, it is hard to conceive whether any of those miracles will ever be easily recreated by any other communities, regardless of how advanced the knowledge of that community may be.
There is also the phenomenon of charismata (karāmāt), which are extraordinary acts of particular individuals that seem quite similar to miracles, but with important categorical differences. Ayatullah Jawadi sees the primary difference between these two categories of acts in that the latter, namely miracles, are coupled with a divine taḥaddī, or an impassable challenge.
He argues that in fact miracles are only effective in affirming or bolstering a particular claim, and cannot be the primary or sole proof for the true origin of that message. The substance of that message and its source can only be sufficiently proven through intellectual arguments and reasoning; once that origin is proven, then even claims about the most fundamental pillar of
religion, tawḥīd, can be resolved by relying on the teachings of that infallible source.
Ayatullah Jawadi also argues that if a person other than a prophet claims to have the ability to produce miracles, whatever supernatural act he may produce will ultimately fail in reaching its goals.
Miracles in his view, are proofs for the truth and sincerity of prophets, and are universal, regardless of whether they are produced by the final Prophet or not, and regardless of whether that prophet’s miracle, or its physical artefacts persist or not. Additionally, he does not consider an act to be a miracle if it seems supernatural only to a particular community or people but not to a different community, which may have more advanced knowledge or greater abilities to manipulate the physical or spiritual worlds.
There are distinct similarities between how these two scholars, Ayatullah Jawadi and Swinburne, understand miracles, but also important differencs. Whereas Swinburne sees the primary difference between miracles and other extraordinary acts, like magic or charismata, in terms of their religious signification and reference, Ayatullah Jawadi locates the essential difference between the two in terms of the taḥaddī coupled with miracles, in other words, the challenge of the prophets regarding the inimitability of their supernatural acts.
It seems, though, that Swinburne’s explanation for miracles isn’t entirely satisfactory, particularly because he stipulates “religious signification” as a necessary element in his definition. If we take Swinburne’s explanation of the final cause of the created world, all occurences that increase good or decrease evil in the world can be said to have religious significance. And insofar as God is a being who is all-Good—or, according to Muslims, Ḥakīm (all-Wise)—and all of his acts are purposeful, we can say that all of God’s acts are intended to as “religiously signficant” acts, which will in turn make this condition superfluous. In other words, implied in his definition is that miracles are acts of God. If true, and we see all miracles as acts of God, and God is also all-Wise, all of God’s acts are necessarily good and ultimately lead to that divine goal of making good prevail over evil.
Swinburne believes that a miracle cannot prove the origin of creation; a person who denies the existence of God cannot accept God’s existence simply through a miracle. Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli however argues that, first, a miracle can prove the claims of a particular prophet to his prophethood; and second, it can assist in proving that origin. After all, the essential element in all prophets’ claims is that true origin of creation, namely the Divine Essence.
Ayatullah Jawadi also pays particular attention to the law of causality in his explanation of miracles, stating that every miracle must necessarily abide by this law. He also pays much attention to the individual who produces the miracle and from whom it arises. Swinburne’s exposition addresses neither of these two key issues.