In some verses, it is stated that "ghayb (the unseen, the unknown) cannot be known by anyone except Allah. How can it be explained under the light of these verses that some prophets and saints give news about the future?

The Details of the Question

In some verses, it is stated that "ghayb (the unseen, the unknown) cannot be known by anyone except Allah. How can it be explained under the light of these verses that some prophets and saints give news about the future?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Can the future be known?

The following verse declares using a majestic style that Allah’s knowledge surrounds everything:

With Him are the keys of the Unseen, the treasures that none knoweth but He. He knoweth whatever there is on the earth, and in the sea. Not a leaf doth fall but with His knowledge: there is not a grain in the darkness (or depths) of the earth nor anything fresh or dry (green or withered) but is (inscribed) in a Record Clear (to those who can read)” (al-An’am, 59).

It is understood from the general style of the verse that ghayb is like a treasure whose doors are locked. Allah has the keys to this treasure. As a matter of fact, the following verse states as a general decree that only Allah knows the ghayb:

Say: None in the heavens or on earth, except Allah, knows what is hidden.” (an-Naml, 65)

However, there may be exceptions to any general rule. When we say “Swans are white”, it is understood that “they are generally white” because there are some black swans though they are very rare.  

“Can anybody know the future? Can Allah not give the keys to the treasure of the ghayb He has to others?” The following verse clarifies the questions above:

He (alone) knows the Unseen, nor does He make any one acquainted with His Mysteries ― Except a messenger whom He has chosen…” (al-Jinn, 26-27). That is there is an exception to the decree “Only Allah knows the ghayb.” If Allah informs a person about the ghayb, that person can know the ghayb to some extent.

The phrase “a messenger whom He has chosen” is interpreted differently in tafsir books.

According to some interpreters, what is meant by a messenger is a prophet. That is, Allah informs only a prophet about the ghayb. They reject the view that saints, magicians and soothsayers can know about the ghayb. For, magicians and soothsayers are the people that are the furthest away from the consent of Allah and nearest to His wrath. Saints are people that Allah is pleased with but they are not prophets.

We want to attract attention to the following issues:

1. The word “messenger” is not a word that is exclusively used for prophets. As a matter of fact, the following verse states it clearly: “Allah chooses Messengers from angels and from men…” (al-Hajj, 75)

2. Since the word “messenger” in the verse above includes angels, it is possible that some angels convey inspiration to some saints. As a matter of fact, the following is stated in a hadith: “Satan touches the son of Adam and the angel touches him.” (Tirmidhi, Tafsir 2/ 35) As it will be seen, some saints were informed about some secrets about the ghayb.

3. Being addresses by divine speech is not something that is peculiar to prophets. It is possible for some people to learn about some secrets about the ghayb through dreams or inspiration; there are examples of it. As a matter of fact, the following verse states the principle of Allah’s speaking to man:

It is not fitting for a man that Allah should speak to him except by inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a Messenger to reveal, with Allah's permission, what Allah wills...” (ash-Shura, 51)

In the verse, it is stated that “It is not fitting for a man that Allah should speak to him through three ways” it is not stated that “It is not fitting for a prophet that Allah should speak to him”, which shows that other people can be addressed by divine speech. Accordingly:

a. Allah’s speaking through revelation can include various degrees of revelation like being strong and weak. It expresses receiving divine message while one is awake or asleep as it is the case in revelation to the prophets and to the mother of Moses. Therefore, the revelation here also contains the meaning of inspiration.

b. Allah’s speaking from behind a veil includes incidents like hearing the divine speech directly as it was the case when Moses received the first revelation.

c. Allah’s speaking by sending of a messenger expresses the incidents like sending Gabriel to Hz. Muhammad (pbuh) to reveal.

As it is seen, “the treasures of the ghayb” belong to Allah but Allah informs His prophets and some of His special slaves about some secrets.  

Hz. Isa (Jesus) giving information about the future

Prophets are people that receive information about the ghayb through revelation. God Almighty conveyed His message to people through these people that He chose among them.

These prophets are not the people who know the ghayb but they are the people who receive information about the ghayb. That is, these distinguished people do not know the ghayb on their own. They only know what is revealed to them.

It is seen in the Quran that prophets give some information about the future. For instance, Hz. Isa (Jesus) mentioned the name of the prophet to come after him:

And remember Jesus, the son of Mary, said: "O Children of Israel! I am the Messenger of Allah (sent) to you confirming the Law (which came) before me, and giving glad Tidings of an Messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad...” (as-Saff, 6)

The glad tiding that Hz. Prophet would be sent was expressed clearly by Jesus as it is seen in the verse above.

Without doubt it is (announced) in the revealed Books of former peoples. Is it not a Sign to them that the learned of the Children of Israel knew it (as true)?” (ash-Shuara, 196-197) As it is stated in the verses above, the other heavenly books also mentioned Hz. Prophet and the Quran, which was sent down to him.

As a matter of fact, when Hz. Prophet became a prophet the scholars of Sons of Israel were talking about the advent of a prophet.

Jesus, who is one of the great prophets, states the following when he talks about the miracles given to him by Allah:

“…and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses...” (Aal-i Imran, 49).

A similar thing is valid for Hz. Yusuf (Joseph). When he was in the dungeon, he told his friends beforehand what food would come. Hz. Yusuf said the following to his two friends who came to him for the interpretation of their dreams: “Before any food comes (in due course) to feed either of you I will surely reveal to you the truth and meaning of this ere it befall you…” (Yusuf, 37) His statement that he knows some ghayb secrets does not indicate pride; it is preparation to call his friends to believe in Allah.  His following statement aims to declare that it is not fortune-telling or sooth-saying: “That is part of the (Duty) which my Lord hath taught me.” (Yusuf, 37)

Hz. Yaqub and Hz. Yusuf

Hz. Yaqub (Jacob) is one of the prophets that the Quran informs us about. He had a special love for Yusuf, who would be a prophet in the future. Yusuf's brothers were jealous of him and threw him into a well. They took his bloody shirt to their father and said to him, “A wolf ate Yusuf.” Afterwards, Yusuf was saved by a caravan from the well and was sold as a slave in Egypt. Then, he was sent to a dungeon due to a slander. He stayed there for a long time. Then, he was saved from the dungeon due to the interpretation of the dream of the king. Then, he was appointed as one of the highest administrators of Egypt.   

Meanwhile, Hz.Yaqub became blind due to his longing for his son, Yusuf. However, due to the knowledge coming from Allah, he believes that his son is alive. Then, Yaqub’s sons went to Egypt to get food due to famine. Hz. Yusuf recognized his brothers. When he found out about his father's situation, he said to them, “Go with this, my shirt, and cast it over the face of my father: he will come to see (clearly)” When the caravan left (Egypt), their father said: "I do indeed scent the presence of Joseph: nay, think me not a dotard." The people around him did not feel such a scent and said, “By Allah! truly thou art in thine old wandering illusion..” Then when the bearer of the good news came he cast (the shirt) over his face, and he forthwith regained clear sight. He said: "Did I not say to you, I Know from Allah that which ye know not?' (Yusuf, 93-96)

In this incident narrated in the Quran, it is an extraordinary state that Hz. Yusuf knows his father will start to see again thanks to the shirt he sends to him and that his father, Yaqub, receives the scent of his shirt from such a distance. Some people may think as follows: “Yaqub felt it because his longing and yearning for his son increased his sensitivity.” Hamdi Yazır, a great interpreter answers it as follows:  

No matter how much Yaqub’s sensitivity and his sense of smelling increased after becoming blind, he did not feel the scent of Yusuf until the caravan left Egypt but felt it later, which shows that it is not based on his sensitivity.” (Yazır, IV, 1651, 1652)

That “Did I not say to you, I Know from Allah that which ye know not?” is stated in the verse shows that Hz. Yaqub received this information from Allah through a special way and that it does not originate from his material sensitivity.

Sheikh Sadi states the following subtle point regarding the issue:

Somebody asks Yaqub, who has lost his son: You received the smell of Yusuf’s shirt from Egypt; why did you not see him when he was in a well in Kanan? Hz. Yaqub answers as follows: “We are like lightning. We sometimes see clearly and sometimes see nothing. We sometimes rise to the sky and sit there; we sometimes do not see our feet.” (Sadi, p. 50)

Hz. Yusuf received divine knowledge when he was a child. When his brothers were jealous of him and threw him into the well, God Almighty inspired the following into his heart:

Of a surety thou shalt (one day) tell them the truth of this their affair while they know (thee) not.”(Yusuf, 15)

It is the manifestation of God Almighty's grace and mercy to send ease during hard times. It was the necessity of divine wisdom and mercy to please the sensitive heart of little Yusuf, who was betrayed by his brothers and thrown into the well. It is a reality experienced by many people that divine mercy comes to help people when they are in agony and trouble and when they are in need of holy consolation.   

That, Hz. Yusuf gave his shirt to his brothers and said to them “Go with this, my shirt, and cast it over the face of my father: he will come to see (clearly)” (Yusuf, 93) is a kind of news about the ghayb.

In addition, although Hz. Yaqub received the ill news that “a wolf ate Yusuf” with a bloody shirt, he knew that Yusuf was alive and said,

I know from Allah that which ye know not” (Yusuf, 86), which shows the dimension of his knowledge about the ghayb.   

That is, prophets knew about some secrets about the ghayb with the permission of Allah. The examples in the Quran prove this reality clearly. These examples show that similar incidents are possible. That is, the knowledge about the ghayb sent to the prophets is not limited with the ones mentioned in the Quran; many similar events took place.    

Hz. Khidr

In verses 60 to 82 of the chapter of al-Kahf, the journey of Hz. Musa (Moses) with "a servant of Allah" is narrated. This journey includes very remarkable and interesting incidents regarding "knowledge about the ghayb". The journey of this unknown person with Hz. Musa takes place as follows:

After a long journey with the young man near him, Hz. Musa arrives at the place where he will meet Hz. Khidr.

“So they found one of Our servants on whom We had bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and whom We had taught knowledge from Our own presence.

Moses said to him: "May I follow thee, on the footing that thou teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which thou hast been taught?"

(The other) said: "Verily thou wilt not be able to have patience with me!

"And how canst thou have patience about things about which thy understanding is not complete?"

Moses said: "Thou wilt find me, if Allah so will (truly) patient: nor shall I disobey thee in aught."

The other said: "If then thou wouldst follow me, ask me no questions about anything until I myself speak to thee concerning it."

So they both proceeded: until, when they were in the boat, he scuttled it. Said Moses: "Hast thou scuttled it in order to drown those in it? Truly a strange thing hast thou done!"

He answered: "Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?"

Moses said: "Rebuke me not for forgetting, nor grieve me by raising difficulties in my case."

Then they proceeded: until, when they met a young man, he slew him. Moses said: "Hast thou slain an innocent person who had slain none? Truly a foul (unheard-of) thing hast thou done!"

He answered: "Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?"

 (Moses) said: "If ever I ask thee about anything after this, keep me not in thy company: then wouldst thou have received (full) excuse from my side."

Then they proceeded: until, when they came to the inhabitants of a town, they asked them for food, but they refused them hospitality. They found there a wall on the point of falling down, but he set it up straight. (Moses) said: "If thou hadst wished, surely thou couldst have exacted some recompense for it!"

He answered: "This is the parting between me and thee: now will I tell thee the interpretation of (those things) over which thou wast unable to hold patience.

As for the boat, it belonged to certain men in dire want: they plied on the water: I but wished to render it unserviceable, for there was after them a certain king who seized on every boat by force.

"As for the youth his parents were people of Faith, and we feared that he would grieve them by obstinate rebellion and ingratitude (to Allah and man).

"So we desired that their Lord would give them in exchange (a son) better in purity (of conduct) and closer in affection.

"As for the wall it, belonged to two youths, orphans in the Town; there was, beneath it, a buried treasure, to which they were entitled: their father had been a righteous man: so thy Lord desired that they should attain their age of full strength and get out their treasure― a mercy (and favour) from thy Lord. I did it not of my own accord. Such is the interpretation of (those things) over which thou wast unable to hold patience."”(al-Kahf, 65-82)

We regard it useful to attract attention to some points related to this instructive story:

1. The name of the hero of the story, "a servant of Allah" is not mentioned. The atmosphere of obscurity in the ghayb is seen in the whole story and also in the fact that the name of the hero is not given. Therefore, some scholars did not mention the name of this hero in their tafsirs acting upon the point of living in the shade of the Quran. We will mention this person as "Khidr" since he is mentioned as "Khidr" in hadiths and since it will be more practical.

2. There is no clear expression in the verses whether Hz. Khidr is a prophet or a saint. However, those who say he is a prophet acting upon the fact that he knew some secrets about the ghayb that Hz. Musa did not know and that he said, “I did it not of my own accord”(al-Kahf, 82) are in majority.  

3. The knowledge of Hz. Khidr is known as ilm al-ladun (hidden knowledge). This term originates from the word ladun in the verse “whom We had taught knowledge from Our own presence”.

Although all sciences come from Allah, this knowledge is especially mentioned here, which shows that it comes directly from divine instruction without any reasons from outside. For, it is possible to learn the sciences like history and fiqh from books and by listening to a person. Ilm al-ladun is not a science that can be learned through the ways we have just mentioned. Even a prophet like Hz. Musa was not given this science directly. This science is also called the science of the truth, the esoteric knowledge and the knowledge of the ghayb. The following words of Hz. Khidr to Hz. Moses show the difference between their knowledge:   

“O Moses! I know a science taught to me by Allah that you do not know. And you know a science that I do not know.”

4. When we look at them in terms of their duties, we see that there is a difference between them.  Hz.Khidr is not appointed by Allah to lead people to guidance like Hz. Musa; he is appointed to fulfill the orders of God regarding people. Therefore, his killing the child is like the duty and responsibility of the angel of death, who is appointed to remove the souls of the children who die as a result of the order of Allah. (Yazır, V, 3273)

Or, we can resemble Hz Khidr to an actor that plays a role in the divine scenario. The actors play the roles assigned for them. They have no responsibilities and obligations other than that. (Albayrak, p. 245)

5. For us, this story includes several lessons to learn. The most important lesson for us to learn in terms of "the knowledge about the future" is not to be deceived by the outward appearances of the incidents. Many seemingly bad incidents may have nice outcomes. The following verse of the Quran expresses this reality clearly: “But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you.” (al-Baqara 216) This story is like the explanation of the verse above. Scuttling the boat and killing the child, which were seemingly bad deeds, brought about nice outcomes in the future.

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