قَالَ رَبِّ أَنَّىٰ يَكُونُ لِي غُلَامٌ وَقَدْ بَلَغَنِيَ الْكِبَرُ وَامْرَأَتِي عَاقِرٌ ۖ قَالَ كَذَٰلِكَ اللَّهُ يَفْعَلُ مَا يَشَاءُ
Lord, said he (Zachariah), How shall I have a son when old age has overtaken me, and my wife is barren? Just so, he (the angel) said, God does whatever He wills.
(Al ‘Imrān 3:40)
Prophet Zachariah, upon him be peace, had prayed to his Lord, saying: “My Lord, bestow upon me out of Your grace a good, upright offspring” (Āl ‘Imrān 3:38). However, when he was informed that his prayer had been accepted, he was not able to stop himself from uttering, “How shall I have a son?” in both rejoice and amazement. Although one may sense a contradiction between these two incidents at first sight, there is no contradiction at all. In fact, Zachariah prayed to his Lord to give him a son, turning to his Lord with all his heart and in complete concentration. Without thinking about the means and causes, he asked of his Lord beyond the causes, which is essential in prayers. There is also an aspect of otherworldliness in Zachariah’s prayer, as he asked for a successor to the mission of Prophethood. But when he was promised a son, although he was too old to have a son and his wife was barren, if one may say so, he went out of the realm of prayer into the realm of causality, and in utter joy and amazement, he exclaimed: “How shall I have a son when old age has overtaken me and my wife is barren?”
There is another point to mention concerning this matter: In some classical books of the Qur’anic commentary, Zachariah’s exclamation (how shall I have a son…?) is interpreted as an expression of confusion in the face of an apparent impossibility. However, according to me, it is not an expression of confusion uttered in the mood of questioning; rather, it is an expression of surprise and wonder and the appreciation of God’s omnipotence. This is the attitude which is proper for a Prophet. According to Ibn ‘Arabī, the highest rank in the friendship of God (sainthood) is the rank of amazement. Therefore, it is amazement and appreciation in the face of God’s acts which is proper for the position of Prophethood. Completely aware of God’s Power and miraculous acts, Prophet Zachariah, upon him be peace, uttered his amazement and appreciation in the face of God’s promise to bestow on him a son despite his old age and his wife’s barrenness.
Indeed, the conception of a baby by a woman who is either barren or in menopause is not usual or familiar within the Divine laws or as manner of acting in our world. However, God is never dependent on or bound by the laws or the law of causality that He Himself has established in the physical world. Therefore, it is the same and equally easy for Him to do something within or beyond these laws. But His acting beyond these laws is exceptional and therefore is considered by human beings as a miracle. So it is quite normal for Zachariah to receive a miraculous promise with amazement and appreciation more than even rejoice.
Furthermore, the conclusion of the verse, “God does whatever He wills,” both heralds God’s many other unusual creations, such as Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus, in the future, and warns that God is absolutely independent in His will and He does whatever He wills. Therefore, He is not bound by what we call natural laws and causality.