Could you please explain and tell the difference between "Karamah" and "Istidraj" ?

Details of the Question
Could you please explain and tell the difference between "Karamah" and "Istidraj" ?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

WONDER-WORKS (Karamah)

Karamah literally means something precious, superior, nice and generosity. As an Islamic term, it means “a supernatural event which happens through a believing righteous person”.

Some scholars considered Allah’s all kinds of endowment on saints a wonder-work, regardless of the condition of supernaturality (Sayyid Sabiq, al-Aqidatu’l-Islamiyya, Beirut, (nd), p.24). What is meant here by “supernatural event” is an event which happens outside the general laws of nature.

Indeed, the system and plan that are dominant over the universe is more marvelous than supernaturality. For this reason, Allah, the Glorious, suggests the system and plan in the universe as evidence to His oneness by saying “If there were, in the heavens and the earth, other gods besides God, there would have been confusion in both! But glory to God, the Lord of the Throne: (High is He) above what they attribute to Him!” (al-Anbiya, 21/22). People attach more importance to wonder-works than those perfect laws ruling in universe because they have become too familiar with them as they observe them every day.

As the creator of the natural laws is Allah, it is also in His power to change them. “To God belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth; and God hath power over all things” (aal-i Imran, 3/189). In this sense, we should consult to the book sent by Allah to us in order to determine the possibility of supernaturality.

Scholars specially cite the 24th-26th verses of chapter Maryam, 16th-17th verses of chapter al-Kahf and 37th verse of chapter Aal-i Imran as evidence to wonder-works. (see: Razi, at- Tafsiru'l Kabir, Tahran (n.d.), VIII, 30; AbusSuud, Irshadu'l-Aqli's-Salim, Cairo (n.d.), II, 31; Tabatabai, al-Mizan fi Tafsiri'l-Qur'an, Qum (n.d.), III, 174-175)

The fact that one of Prophet Solomon’s viziers brought Bilqis’ (or Balqis; queen of Sheba) throne from Yemen to Palestine in a blink of an eye (an-Naml, 27/40) and the story of “ashab-al kahf (inhabitants of the cave)” told in chapter al-Kahf are examples of righteous people’s wonder-works (al-Kahf, 18/9-25). The fact that fresh dates dropped when Maryam (Mary) shook a dead date tree is a wonder-work of hers. (Maryam, 19/19).

The narrations about the issue in hadiths are as follows:  Abd b. Juwain talked with a child in cradle (Bukhari, Anbiya, 48). The narrative of a cow talking with its owner (Bukhari, Anbiya, 54). Umar shouted out from Madinah to Sariyah, the commander of Islamic army in Nahavand saying that “go up to the mountain” and commander Sariyah heard it (Ajluni, Kashfu’l-Khafa), II, 380-381).

Allah, the Glorious, says in a verse in the chapter Aal-i Imran: “Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: To the care of Zachariah was she assigned. Every time that he entered (Her) chamber to see her, He found her supplied with sustenance. He said: "O Mary! Whence does this come to you?" She said: "From God: for God Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure." (Aal-i Imran, 3/37).

In this verse, a boon bestowed upon Mary is told about. What we should ponder over is from whence this boon may have come. Was it natural, that is to say; in accordance with natural laws, or was it through a supernatural event? The expression style of the verse and Zachariah’s prayer mentioned in the verse prior to this one support that the boon was bestowed in a supernatural way. If it was not through a supernatural way, it would be meaningless to mention this to extol Mary (Razi, ibid., VIII, 30; Alusi, Ruhu’l Maani, Beirut (n.d.), III. 144).

As for the issue of Zachariah’s prayer, Prophet Zachariah was old and his wife could not give birth anymore (Aal-i Imran, 3/40). However, when he witnessed the boon bestowed upon Mary, he prayed as “Lord, give me a pure generation. You hear the prayers” (Aal-i Imran, 3/38). It is meaningful that he prayed for having a pure generation right away after seeing it. As is told by many interpreters, when he witnessed that wonder-work created for Mary, he desired to have children though his wife was too old and he prayed for it (Fakhruddin ar-Razi, ibid, VIII, 30; Abu Suud, II, 31).

Moreover, the word “boon” is mentioned as “nakra (indefinite)” in the verse and it indicates to honor that boon. That is to say, it indicates that the boon is so unordinary and unexpected (Razi, ibid, VIII, 30; Abu Suud, ibid, II, 30).

In conclusion, it tells about supernaturality. It is possible for a saint to have a supernaturality, that is, a wonder-work. However, the reality of wonder-works does not require that every saint should have a wonder-work. Saintliness does not need supernaturality (Ibn Abi'l-Izz al-Hanafi, Sharhu Aqida fi't-Tahawiyye, Beirut 1392 p. 561). In fact, most of the companions of the Prophet do not have wonder-works (Muhammad Fakhr Shaqfa, at-Tasawwuf Bayn'l Haqq wa'l-Khalq, Syria 1971, p. 103).

Wonder-works, apart from being real, have been given different meanings, far away from its origin, because of people have too much interest in such events; and they use the wonder-works for propaganda of their sheikhs. When axioms mentioned in the Quran and sunnah as proof to the wonder-works are analyzed, it can be seen that such wonder-works occur when saints encounter some difficulties and that such occurrences do not happen all the time. Moreover, occurrence of such a wonder-work is neither under saints’ control nor do saints have the knowledge of them. When they occur, they occur to ease or abolish saints’ troubles; as a way out.

Doubtlessly, one of the dangerous misinterpretations of wonder-works is the thought that saints predict future and ghaib (unknown) and that they read people’s minds. 

Wonder-works and predicting the unknown:

Ghaib means unknown. The verse the translation of which is “No one can know but Allah” points out to this reality.

It is indicated in the 26th verse of the chapter al-Jinn that ghaib can be known only by Allah. However, in the following verse, it is said that He will give information about past and future to His slaves whom He has chosen. That means that Allah’s beloved slaves can know the unknown as well.

In this sense, we should understand the statement “No one can know ghaib but Allah” as “no one can know unless Allah lets them know”. In fact, our Prophet informed about some events that happened in the past and some that will happen in the future, with the permission of Allah.

Yes, Allah can let a beloved slave of His (a prophet or a saint) know the unknown if He wills. Those honorable people can inform about an event through an inspiration in their hearts. That is to say, Allah can let some people know before an event happens. It is also evidence of Allah’s free will. If we say that no one else but Allah can know and claim that prophets and saints cannot know the unknown, we will have harmed the truth of the verse and we will have admitted the idea that Allah’s will is restricted from the beginning. And it contradicts our belief.

Revelation is sent only to prophets. On the other hand, inspiration is given to Allah’s beloved slaves.

Another idea regarding the issue is that a saintly person can sense some things about another person as the hadith of our Prophet “Beware of a true believer’s perception because he/she observes through Allah’s light (Tirmidhi, Tafsiru surah, 15/6) indicates. As a matter of fact, when a man who looked at a woman while walking in the street went over Hazrat Uthman, he said “one of you is entering and there is a trace of visual fornication in his eyes”. Then, the man asks: “Is revelation still coming after the Messenger of Allah?”. And Uthman says: No, but a true believer has a strong perception” (Nabhani, Hujjatu’l-lahi ala’l-Alamin, p. 862).

When evaluated from this point of view, it is necessary to determine the limits of knowing the unknown very well. We can say according to the criteria given above that we cannot consider a person to be a saint just because he displays supernatural events. And we cannot consider his supernatural events as wonder-works. First of all, we must take that person’s degree of closeness to Allah’s laws and his loyalty to Islam into consideration, and then we can make a judgment about them accordingly. A person who claims to have wonder-works without a lawful reason is not regarded positively but negatively. However, the greatest wonder-work is being on the path of Allah’s laws.

When one talked about wonder-works near Abdullah at-Tustari, he said: “What wonder-work? What verse? There are some things that Allah reveals when their time comes. However, the greatest wonder-work, be sure of it, is replacing one’s own bad features with good ones.” Abu’l Hasan Ash-Shazali says on the issue: “Real wonder-work is being on the right path, and making that path to the most mature level. It is based on two things. It is enabled by really believing in Allah and complying with Allah’s Messenger’s teachings. A person’s duty is to endeavor to gain them. A person must have only one aim: to reach those two goals. However, as for wonder-works which are regarded as supernaturality, it is not esteemed by scholars because it occurs through the ones who have advanced on the path and sometimes occurs as a result of istidraj (supernatural event through the hands of an unbeliever).”

Moreover, Allah’s saintly slaves do not esteem wonder-work or wonder-works which happen through a righteous slave and do not accept those wonder-works as indications of those people’s superiority. On the issue, Imam Yafii says: “A person through whom wonder-works happen is not necessarily a saint. It cannot be said that it is evidence to their superiority over other people; such kind of a claim cannot be put forward. There are some people who do not show any wonder-works yet they are more virtuous than and superior to those who show wonder-works. As a matter of fact, a wonder-work may have occurred in order to improve its owner’s belief. It can be evidence to that person’s righteousness and virtuousness. However, the wonder-work is not necessarily evidence to his/her superiority. Superiority can be gained only by believing as if one has seen God and by recognizing Him” (see: Abdullah al-Yafii, Kitabu Nashri’l-Mahasani’l-Ghaliyya, p.119).

To sum up the issue of wonder-work, it is a blessing Allah gives to His beloved slaves and it is an inspiration which He evokes in their hearts.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WONDER-WORK (KARAMAH) AND ISTIDRAJ

Allah bestowed upon His prophets wonder-works in order to prove that their prophethood is right and similarly he bestowed some marvelous events called “wonder-works” upon His saintly slaves. Wonder-works shown by a saintly person is the indication of the truth of the Prophet’s prophethood. It is because the wonder-work of a saint is considered to be the wonder-work of the prophet that the saint follows.

There are some events which can be shown as examples of wonder-works: the River Nile overflowed when Umar’s letter was thrown into it. While Umar was reciting a sermon on minbar (pulpit) in Madinah, he shouted out “O Sariya, beware of the mountain” to the commander of the army which was at a distance of one month and Sariya heard it, and the army escaped from that danger.

Wonder-works can be seen with people who recognize Allah with all of His attributions, worship Him faultlessly, avoid sins, do not incline to unlawful means of delight and do not indulge in heedlessness. The marvelous events which are seen with people who do not have those qualities and even live a life which totally contradicts them are not wonder-works but “istidraj”.

Istidraj means marvelous events done by people who are apparently infidels or sinful according to their own will. (1) As a matter of fact, in a hadith written in the explanation of al-Fiqhul-Akbar, the following is stated about the issue:

“When you see that Allah gives a confirmed disobedient person whatever he wants, it is istidraj.” (2)

The reason why Allah gives those who rebel against Him whatever they want is to increase their punishment not because they have got truth. As a matter of fact, Satan is allowed to travel around the world however he likes; Pharaoh and Namrud were given a lot of boons on the earth because it would cause them to increase their rebellion so that they will have more punishment in the Hereafter. In a verse, the reality is indicated by the statement “Those who reject Our Signs, We shall gradually visit with punishment, in ways they perceive not”. In fact, another meaning of istidraj is that it leads a person to his/her desire slowly, while throwing him/her into a disaster without warning.

Badiuzzaman Said Nursi who says “Wonder-work and istidraj are opposite to each other in meaning” explains the issue as follows:

“A wonder-work is an act of Allah’s, like a miracle. And the owner of the wonder-work knows that it is from Allah and also knows that He oversees him. His belief in Allah increases. However, sometimes he is aware of his wonder-works with the permission of Allah and sometimes he is not. The latter is better and safer for him.”

Istidraj consists of revealing the unknown during unawareness and displaying weird acts. However, the ego and the arrogance of the person who shows istidraj grows so much that he starts to recite the verse, the translation of which is ‘This fortune is given to me only because of a knowledge that I have’ like Qarun because he attributes the istidraj to himself and his own power.

“However, if that evolvement is due to depurating of his lower-self and enlightening of his heart, there is not a significant difference between the owner of istidraj and owner of wonder-works.”

Those who totally reach non-existence in Allah’s existence can also reveal unknown events with Allah’s permission. And they perceive events with their senses which have become non-existent in Allah’s existence. It is obviously different from istidraj. In fact, the brightness of the secrets revealed cannot be compared to the darkness of hypocrites.” (4)

On the other hand, istidraj is closely related to witchcraft. The experts of istidraj show what was not done through witchcraft as if it was done. For instance, though they do not eat glass and do not jab enormous needles on their bodies, people think they do so. As it is also stated by Imam Rabbani, this verse clearly describes the position of istidraj people:
And they think that they have something (to stand upon). No, indeed! They are but liars! The Evil One has got the better of them: so he has made them lose the remembrance of God. They are the Party of the Evil One.” (5)
In conclusion, we can say that marvelous things such as eating glass or jabbing enormous needles on their bodies done by people who do not obey Allah and desire things which Allah forbade, are not wonder-works but just istidraj. And even if they obey Allah, Imam Rabbani considers their works as istidraj because they do it in order to show off and become famous. A real saint shows a wonder-work when needed as a kind blessing from Allah, not to show off.
In this sense, we should not esteem the low ones who do such things in order to deceive people, gain some interests and gain a fake fame. Those works of them should not be confused with saints’ wonder-works.
1. Muwazzah Ilm-i Kalam, p. 176.
2. al-Fiqhul Akbar Aliyyu’l-Kari Explanation Translation, p. 195.
3. al-Araf, 182.
4. Mesnevî-i Nuriye, s. 208.
5. al-Mujadala  18-19.
6. Imam Rabban, Maktubat, 2. V, 99. maktub.

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