Only a couple miles separated Mecca from invaders. Enemy plans to destroy the city’s temple seemed certain—but then the extraordinary happened. Daylight darkened. Masses of birds reportedly swooped in, nearly covering the sky. In their feet and beaks, the birds carried pebbles and clay fragments, dropping them as projectiles.
The Abyssinian forces, despite their sizeable advantage, were soon decimated, and those soldiers who survived the avian ambush quickly retreated. Mecca and its temple, the Ka’bah, were saved. It was 570 CE, the so-called “Year of the Elephant,” thus named for the elephantine-fronted invaders whom the birds and Meccans defeated. It was also the year of Muhammad’s birth (1).
More Birds: In Muhammad’s Life and the Qur’an
Born in Mecca shortly following the “miracle of the birds” (2), the prophet and his followers decades later would establish a new faith known as “Islam.” Not surprisingly, considering the aforementioned avian-related event, birds appear throughout Muhammad’s life and in that religion’s scriptures. In one crucial instance, birds were said to have prevented his capture. Shortly after the prophet had fled persecution to Thawr cavern, a pair of rock doves began nesting at its mountain entrance. The late Islamic scholar Martin Lings notes that the eggs were positioned “where a man might step as he entered the cave,” convincing the Quraysh search party that “no one could possibly be there” (3). This pivotal event preceded the migration of Muhammad and his followers to Medina.
Islamic scriptures also make numerous references to birds, even noting the role of the creatures during the “Year of the Elephant” (Qur’an 105). In one case, Qur’an 16:79, the mysterious ability of birds to fly is offered as proof of God’s existence. Another verse, Qur’an 5:4, permits using falconry to hunt game, a practice with Middle Eastern origins (4), later adopted by Europe. Other verses in the Qur’an restate Biblical events, such as God’s feeding of the Israelites with manna and quail (Qur’an 20:80). Meanwhile, some sections augment older accounts from Genesis, as in the raven that demonstrates to Cain how to bury his murdered brother (Qur’an 5:31) and God’s instructions to Abraham involving the killing of four birds so that they can be brought back to life, thus confirming God’s ability to resurrect the dead (Qur’an 2:260).
Several bird-related passages in the Qur’an allude to lore that developed much earlier in Christian and Jewish traditions. For example, Qur’an 3:49 and 5:110–111 speak of Jesus’s ability to mold living birds from clay. This claim, not found in the New Testament, is in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (5). Legends regarding King Solomon also appear in Islamic scripture. Qur’an 27:17–30, for instance, recounts the role of the hoopoe in communications between Israel’s wise leader and the Queen of Sheba. Jewish folklore held that Solomon could understand the “language of birds” and had established the hoopoe’s privileged status with the great monarch (6, 7). Numerous accounts in other cultures exist of people with such gifts, of course, and at least a couple tales within the Qur’an-influenced Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights) entertain this motif.
Additional Cultural Depictions
Beyond the Qur’an, birds are found in other written sources from Islamic culture. Again, the popular Arabian Nights features numerous stories, the most impressive involving the rukh (also roc)—a giant eagle-like creature that snatches elephants up with its monstrous talons. Mythological birds are present in all cultures, even those that embrace the Abrahamic faiths. In Judaism, for instance, there’s the ziz, and in Christianity, the phoenix and caladrius. Islamic literature outside the Qur’an offers several, especially the rukh. It’s clearly a fictional bird, but speculation has long posited that the creature may be loosely based on the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar (8). Another important mythical entity is the simurgh, the gigantic avian creature sought by an expedition of birds in Fariddin Attar’s twelfth-century poem The Conference of Birds (also known as The Language of Birds). A metaphor for the transcendent unity of the divine, the simurgh functions strictly as a religious symbol.
Attar’s work, like that of Rumi, Hafiz of Shiraz, and other Sufi poets, emphasizes the soul’s mystical journey to God by depicting the spirit in bird form (9, 10, 11). Avicenna’s Recital of the Bird, Sanai’s The Rosary of the Birds, and Muhammad Nasir’s The Lament of the Nightingale are just a few examples of this prevalent theme. The latter creature of Nasir’s work—actually the bulbul but regarded in the Middle East as a “nightingale”—and the falcon are commonly featured in the literature of Islamic mysticism (12, 13, 14). As is the case in many cultures, birds are often associated with the spiritual or divine. One Sufi poet, Ruzbihan Baqli, even refers to Muhammad as both a bulbul “nightingale” and simurgh, in what Islamic scholar Carl Ernst refers to as the prophet’s “dynamic role” between “the divine beloved [Allah] and the human lover [religious devotee].” (15)
Many other birds figure prominently. The rooster, for example, is largely respected by Muslims (16). “In Islamic tradition,” Jack Tresidder, the author of numerous books on symbolism, explains, “a cock was the giant bird seen by Muhammad in the First Heaven crowing, ‘There is no God but Allah.’” (17) The ostrich is another bird of religious significance. Its eggs have been used for centuries as decoration in mosques, and archeologists have excavated them from Muslim burial grounds. The eggs’ use for spiritual purposes actually predates Islam, extending back thousands of years to ancient Egypt. Symbolic of rebirth and purity, ostrich eggs resided as well inside Christian churches throughout the Middle East, Europe, and parts of Africa (18).
Like the other Abrahamic faiths, Islam refers to and depicts birds in many forms: protectors, messengers, nutritional sustenance, and symbols of the soul. The importance of these creatures to Islamic Sufism, in particular, cannot be overstated. From the writings of Ahmad Ghazali and Sa’di to the twentieth century’s Sir Muhammad Iqbal and today’s Coleman Barks and Daniel Moore, one finds such bird-themed motifs.
As with my previous posts on Judaism and Christianity, the information provided here is far from comprehensive. My goal is to simply demonstrate once more the significance of our feathered friends to communities all over the world and throughout history.
- Lings, M. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2006. pp. 19–21.
- Lings, M. p. 21.
- Lings, M. p. 122.
- Wilsdon, C. Smithsonian Q & A: Birds. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. p. 199.
- Cullmann, O., Higgins, A.J.B. (translators). The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Cameron, R. (editor). The Other Gospels: Non-canonical Gospel Texts. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1982. pp. 124–125.
- Frankel, E. “The White Eagle and the Crested Hoopoe: Two Legends about King Solomon,” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: http://www.jhom.com/topics/birds/solomon.htm.
- Frankel, E. The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993. pp. 214–216.
- Simon, M. “Fantastically Wrong: The Angry, Enormous Eagle that Could Carry off Elephants,” 7/30/14. Wired Magazine: http://www.wired.com/2014/07/fantastically-wrong-the-angry-enormous-eagle-that-could-carry-off-elephants/.
- Asani, A. “’Oh that I could be a bird and fly, I would rush to the Beloved’: Birds in Islamic Mystical Poetry.” Waldau, P. and Patton, K. (editors). A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press. 2006. pp. 170–179.
- Ernst, C.W. “The Symbolism of Birds and Flight in the Writings of Ruzbihan Baqli.” The Heritage of Sufism: The Legacy of Medieval Persian Sufism (1150-1500), Volume 2. Lewisohn, L. (editor). Oxford, U.K.: Oneworld Publications, 1999, pp. 353–366.
- Abdi, R. “The Soul – Bird in Persian Sufi Literature,” 3/23/2012. Earthpages.org: https://epages.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/the-soul-bird-in-persian-sufi-literature-by-rupa-abdi/.
- Asani, A. pp. 170–179.
- Ernst, C.W. pp. 353–366
- Abdi, R.
- Ernst, C.W. p. 358.
- Tottoli, R. “At Cock-Crow: Some Muslim Traditions about the Rooster,” Der Islam. Volume 76: Issue 1. January 1999. pp. 139–154.
- Tresidder, J. Symbols and Their Meanings: The Illustrated Guide to More than 1,000 Symbols—Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. New York: Metro Books, 2006. p. 61.
- Green, N. “Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam,” Al-Masaq, Volume 18: No. 1. March 2006. pp. 27–66.