Birds in Islamic Culture

islam_JML

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).

Summary

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.

Sources:

  1. Lings, M. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2006. pp. 19–21.
  2. Lings, M. p. 21.
  3. Lings, M. p. 122.
  4. Wilsdon, C. Smithsonian Q & A: Birds. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. p. 199.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Frankel, E. The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993. pp. 214–216.
  8. 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/.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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/.
  12. Asani, A. pp. 170–179.
  13. Ernst, C.W. pp. 353–366
  14. Abdi, R.
  15. Ernst, C.W. p. 358.
  16. Tottoli, R. “At Cock-Crow: Some Muslim Traditions about the Rooster,” Der Islam. Volume 76: Issue 1. January 1999. pp. 139–154.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
Advertisements

“V” is for Vulture—and Virgin Birth, too

vulture_web

Giving birth without conception is usually considered a miraculous affair. However, according to encyclopedia-like manuscripts of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, such acts were not that extraordinary for vultures.

Back then, female vultures were supposedly capable of producing offspring without sexual relations. In some situations, the wind was believed to impregnate the female (1, 2). What’s more, one ancient text even states that a pregnant vulture can obtain a special stone that, by her sitting on it, will free her from pain while she goes about laying her eggs (3).

Mary and the Vulture, Jesus and the Pelican

Fascinating stories like the ones above emerged in the bestiary collections of late medieval Europe. These manuscripts, consisting of illustrations, notes, scriptural citations, and commentaries on numerous creatures, drew upon earlier sources, most notably Physiologus, an ancient text likely composed in second-century CE Egypt (4). Other classics, such as Herodotus’s The History, Pliny’s Natural History, Aelian’s History of the Animals, and the writings of church fathers, including St. Isidore’s Etymologies and St. Ambrose’s Hexameron, also offered ample material (5, 6).

Bestiary authors featured all types of animals—and many kinds of fowl—relating them to Christian themes. As is the case with animals like the dragon and unicorn, some of the avian entries, namely the phoenix, cinnamolgus (cinnamon bird), and charadrius, are mythical. However, most of the listings describe real subjects, such as the aforementioned vulture—but attached to erroneous information. Although detailed observations clearly did not inform the accounts, medieval readers didn’t seem to mind. First, most of the people at the time were likely unaware that the descriptions were inaccurate. Second and most importantly, these folks were consulting the text primarily for spiritual inspiration and ethical guidance. “Concerning the natural world, bestiaries were never intended to be scientific; instead the entries were moralizing and religious allegories,” states Jenneka Janzen of Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands (7).

Several accounts provide what for modern audiences must seem like unfamiliar, if not strangely tenuous, examples of religious symbolism. For instance, the female vulture in many bestiaries not only represents chastity, but the bird—due to the fantastical belief noted earlier—is also connected with the Virgin Mary (8, 9). The pairing, at first glance seems rather odd, but probably not any stranger than that of Christ with the pelican. The reason behind the latter’s association is due to another specious notion. Apparently, blood from a pelican’s wound was once believed capable of reviving the bird’s offspring. Ornithologist Peter Tate does offer a sensible explanation for such a bizarre belief: “Parent pelicans feed their young macerated food from the large pouch under their bill. Early observers clearly thought that it was blood that was being transferred” (10). The mistaken belief in the pelican offering blood to revive its young led to its symbolic association to the atonement of the Crucifixion. Hence, in late medieval paintings (11, 12), the bird is sometimes depicted nesting on or near Jesus’s cross.

Reborn Eagles, Vigilant Cranes

Since bestiaries and their earlier sources were far from factually sound, the texts propagated lots of rather peculiar ideas. For instance, eagles were thought to be emblematic of spiritual rebirth and baptism, for people centuries ago believed that when one of these birds advanced in age, it would soar as far possible towards the sun to sear away the cataracts from its eyes and burn away the remaining plumage from its body. The fiery raptor would then plummet into a spring or lake where it would again rise, as if from some magical fountain of youth, emerging as a renewed version of itself (13, 14). What an amazing but truly fantastical idea! If such a notion were true, of course, reproduction would not be necessary for eagles to survive.

Other accounts avoid reproductive matters altogether, praising a creature for embodying a particular virtue. For instance, the crane, noted for its vigilance, was cited metaphorically as a friend who assists by watching out for others, particularly against the stealthy advances of sin. How did this odd idea take root? Well, before drifting to sleep, a group of these birds were said to designate one of their members as a lookout. To safeguard itself from napping while on duty, the lookout supposedly hoisted a stone in one of its feet. That way, if the crane nodded off, the small rock would fall, thumping the ground and rousing the bird back to attention (15). This story, unlike so many in bestiaries, does have a ring of truth to it. Cranes indeed have the ability to sleep with one leg up; however, the part about sentries and clasped stones is not an accurate portrayal of crane behavior (16).

Overall, medieval writers penned bestiary entries to celebrate spiritual ideals, extol virtuous conduct, and condemn vice—not to provide true-to-experience, naturalistic reports. One today could excuse most of the erroneous descriptions, for the stories, just as they must have centuries ago, do appear to offer some memorable life lessons and religious instruction. And such accounts definitely make for some interesting reading.

Next week’s post will continue to look at the symbolic significance of birds on our culture, but we will move out of the Dark Ages. Instead we’ll focus on the spiritually uplifting effects of birds in general on modern society.

Sources:

  1. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. p. 425.
  2. Biedermann, H. Dictionary of Symbolism. Hulbert, J. (Translator). New York: Facts on File, 1989 (1992). p. 370.
  3. Curley, M.J. (Translator). Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. p. 48.
  4. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 81.
  5. Curley, M.J. pp. xxi, xxix of introduction.
  6. Janzen, J. “Where the Wild Things Are: The Medieval Bestiary,” 8/16/2013. Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth Century. Institute for Cultural Disciplines at Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands: http://medievalfragments.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/where-the-wild-things-are-the-medieval-bestiary/.
  7. Janzen, J.
  8. Werness, H.B.
  9. Biedermann, H.
  10. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 105.
  11. Collections: “Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene.” Philadelphia Museum of Art: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/102733.html.
  12. Rosasco, B. “Recent Acquisition: Crucifixion by Jacopo del Casentino,” Princeton University Art Museum: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/story/recent-acquisition-crucifixion-jacopo-del-casentino.
  13. Curley, M.J. p. 12.
  14. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 141.
  15. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 354.
  16. Johnsgard, P.A. Cranes of the World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983; electronic edition: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008. p. 72.