Abraham’s four birds

Abraham's four birds

 
This popular verse is a thought experiment of Abraham1 who is the Quranic epitome of questioning minds:

And when Abraham said, O my Sustainer, show me how you give life to the dead, He said: Have you then no faith? He said: Yes, but that my mind be reassured. He said: Then take four BIRDS, then fashion them towards you; then place them separately on every hill; then summon them: they will come flying to you; and know that God is Mighty, Wise. 2:260

It responds to the human curiosity about how life originates and regenerates from the non-living, and how God could potentially resurrect the dead.

Please look into the phrase “take four birds … then place them separately on every hill”. Here four birds remind us of the four basic elements (fire, water, air, earth) that the ancients believed the world and life to be composed of. Also, the number four reminds us of the four directions (east, west, north, south) and hence of all directions. Apparently, the phrase refers to the scattering of the moving particles/four basic elements, which constitute life2, into four/all directions after death.

Thus the four birds trained by Abraham symbolize the numerous atoms and molecules which, when rightly assembled, generate life and which – when the living matter dies and disintegrate into its original organic and inorganic constituents – go scattered in nature.

Here, like many other places, the Quran essentially portrays ‘self’ and ‘life process’ as an assembly of flying creatures/birds, i.e., an organization of moving particles arranged in a specific order (cf. 2:260, 19:93-94; 34:3, 34:7, 34:9, 34:22; 72:28).

This is in line with the Quranic position that life arises from death/dead material, while ‘living’ dialectically recycles with ‘non-living’ (3:27, 6:95-96, 10:24, 10:31, 16:65, 22:5-6, 22:73, 30:11, 30:19, 30:20, 30:24, 30:27, 43:10-12), a concept that is consistent with the current biochemical knowledge about life’s origin through a purely natural process from inorganic and organic particles.

What is more, the verse eventually argues from a metascientific perspective that is beyond the scope of science: Since all these flying creatures/birds/particles are allegedly ‘tamed’ by the divine law (note: “fashion them towards you”), they are always ready, as expected, to gather and re-assemble instantly under its ‘call’3 (“then summon them: they will come flying to you”; cf. 30:25). Evidently, an Omnipotent, Omniscient God is well able to bring the dead back to life, if He so wills (“know that God is Mighty, Wise”).

Then, because ‘BIRD’ in the Quran essentially refers to self and mind, as noted elsewhere, Abraham’s birds may also symbolize the individuals in a society, who, when reorganized by right guidance and reform, can as easily create a civilization out of ruins through their conscious, collective effort. This interpretation seems reasonable when we read 2:260 together with The Parable of the Town in Ruins in its preceding verse 2:259 (cf. 2:258) that deals with social resurrection as it illustrates how God’s infinite creative power revives the dead, while giving life to a dead town or society4.

Remarkably, through this thought experiment, the Quran encourages scientific inquisitiveness and its associates – experiencing, experimenting and reasoning – as important steps towards attaining conviction.

 

Related articles:

Hearing, sights and senses as flying birds

Meaning of ‘BIRD’ in the Quran

The Parable of the Town in Ruins

 

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Note 1

A literal reading of 2:260 has led traditional Muslims to understand the story as an instant, physical miracle where God made the birds alive, after they were cut into pieces, to demonstrate His power to Abraham. However, this understanding violates the consistent Quranic message that highlights the absurdity and futility of such instant miracles, because – not only that a temporary, physical miracle, though may serve only as a proof for those who witness it, means little to others – previous messengers were rejected by people despite those alleged miracles (17:59). Although, like any story, this story is also narrated in the past tense, it is actually a timeless parable with certain moral intent.

Note 2

When flying creatures/birds/particles are scattered (or separated from each other “on every hill”), they stay in nature as individualized dormant potential. According to the Quran, consciousness to various degrees is an intrinsic attribute of all created things (41:11, 41:21). Also, plants have life (35:9, 43:11, 7:57).

Note 3

Asad’s note on 2:260: My rendering of the above parable is based on the primary meaning of the imperative surhunna ilayka (“make them incline towards thee”, i.e., “teach them to obey thee”). The moral of this story has been pointed out convincingly by the famous commentator Abu Muslim (as quoted by Razi): “If man is able – as he undoubtedly is – to train birds in such a way as to make them obey his call, then it is obvious that God, whose will all things obey, can call life into being by simply decreeing, .Be!”‘

Note 4

This parable could have yet another meaning, if applied to individual level. By knowing and aligning the essential elements that constitute our existence, we experience life. When the same go scattered, this equals death. Then when we can call them back, after having been able to harness them, we get revived.

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Understanding chapter 6 from Abraham’s perspective

Understanding ch 6 from Abraham’s perspective

The Quran narrates the famous story of Abraham’s observation of the Universe during his quest for God (6:75-79, 37:88, 14:33-35).

This is an allegory of mankind’s spiritual journey in search for the ‘Ultimate’ behind the laws and harmony of nature, manifested in the absolute unity within its infinite diversity.

Considering that the main appearance of this story is in chapter 6 of the Quran (sura Anam), which is expected to provide a meaningful context for the narration, we went through the chapter to obtain some genuine insight regarding the moral of this story.

In our study we found that sura Anam, in line with Abraham’s holistic observation of the Universe (6:75-79), confirms God’s absolute oneness through a series of holistic observations (observing unity in diversity).

While thus beholding absolute unity in infinite diversity, Abraham eventually discovers his God, the One without associate.

After reading ch 6 from this important, unitarian perspective of Abraham, we tried to summarize the chapter in the following three headings:

THE CHAPTER CONFIRMS THE ABSOLUTE ONENESS OF GOD

The chapter – in line with narrating Abraham’s holistic observation of the Universe (6:75-79) – confirms God’s absolute oneness through a series of holistic observations (observing unity in diversity), for example:

Unity of dialectical opposites (6:1, 6:13, 6:14), unity of unknown and known, invisible and visible, unobservable and observable (6:13, 6:73, 6:59);

unity of all cosmic systems (6:14, 6:73, 6:101; cf. 6:75-79, 96, 97), unity of the solar system (6:75-79; cf. 14:33-38; 37:1-7, 88), unity of the solar system with the outer cosmos (6:75-79, 96-97; cf. 37:1-7, 88);

unity of life and death, organic and inorganic, living and non-living, seed and kernel, and cause and effect (6:95), unity of all life, unity of all humans, animals and plants (6:98-99), unity of all wombs (6:137-144, 6:98-99), unity of all plants, unity in the diversity of plants and unity in all their photosynthetic products (6:99, 6:141), unity of all animals (6:38), unity of the genders (6:98, 6:139, 143);

unity of man with the Universe (6:2, 6:98-99, 6:38, 6:133, 6:6), unity of man with earthly material (6:2), unity of man with plants (6:98-99), unity of man with animals (6:38), unity of man with hominoids (6:133, cf. 6:165), unity of all humanity (6:98, 6:165), unity of all communities (6:38);

unity of all senses and visions (6:103; cf. 6:25, 36, 38-39, 46, 103-104), unity of sleep and consciousness (6:60), unity of subconscious and conscious, and thoughts and actions (6:3), unity of prosperity and adversity (6:17);

unity of all messengers (6:42, 6:48, 6:10, 6:33-34, 6:84-88, 6:130), unity of all scriptures (6:91-92, 6:154-157), unity of all monotheists (6:159), unity of all worship (6:52), unity of all religious duties (6:162-163), unity of the divine system (6:159-161) and so on ….

THE CHAPTER HIGHLIGHTS THE FALLIBILITY AND HUMANNESS OF MUHAMMAD

The chapter highlights the fallibility and humanness of Muhammad (6:50), who is not to be idolized as a divine mediator or intercessor (6:51, 6:94, 6:164), and not to be taken as a divine associate in any way or any form whatsoever (6:1, 6:14, 6:70, 6:94, 6:100, 6:106).

Thus it asserts that, while God is enough to witness the truth of the messenger (6:19), one actually venerates the messenger as a divine associate by bearing witness about him in association with bearing witness about God’s oneness (6:19).

And thus, violating the holistic logic (6:150), one wrongly turns him into a subsidiary authority along with God (6:19, 6:106, 6:150).

THE CHAPTER INSISTS THAT THE MESSENGER DELIVERED ONLY THE QURAN

The chapter emphasizes that the only book that the messenger delivered is the Quran (6:19), which, as a complete guide to the straight path (6:39; 6:87; 6:87, 6:126; 6:151-153; 6:161), requires no hadith or clerical authority to annexe to it (6:38, 6:68, 6:112-115).

And, since deifying of human authorities besides God is polytheism, it calls sanctifiers and followers of fabricated teachings as idolaters (6:21-24, 6:112-115, 6:118-119, 6:140, 6:145-150, 6:155).

This is because they divide religion into sects by worshipping their idols instead of following the messenger (message) of monotheism, who, evidently, has nothing to do with the sectarians (6:159).

Related article: Abraham’s observation of the Universe

Abraham’s observation of the Universe

Abrahams observation of the Universe


THE STORY OF ABRAHAM’S OBSERVATION

The Quran narrates the famous story of Abraham’s observation of the Universe during his quest for God (6:75-79, 37:88, 14:33-35).

After beholding the Planet, the Moon and the Sun (6:76-78), Abraham’s continuing observation crossed the boundaries of the Solar system (‘the lowest Heaven’, 37:6, 41:12, 67:5) and encompassed the Stars (6:96-97; cf. 37:88), i.e. the outer cosmos …

This is an allegory of mankind’s spiritual journey in search for the ‘Ultimate’ behind the laws and harmony of nature, manifested in the absolute unity within its infinite diversity.

While deeply observing the world – this transitory world, where ‘being’ exists only through ‘becoming’ and where everything is ephemeral and nothing lasts – Abraham’s holistic questioning for the Ultimate cannot accept anything temporal or mortal as holy or divine (6:75-79; ‘I love not setting ones 6:76’) and, therefore, eventually settles in and submits to the ‘changeless and eternal’, the ever-living One God alone (6:78).

As in this example of Abraham – the spiritual father of monotheists (4:125, 22:78) – this contemplative study of the Universe is essential for attaining the logical certainty in faith (6:75).

ABRAHAM OBSERVES ABSOLUTE UNITY IN INFINITE DIVERSITY

Considering that the main appearance of this story of Abraham is in chapter 6 of the Quran (sura Anam) – which is supposed to provide a meaningful context for the narration – we expected to get throughout the chapter some genuine insight regarding the moral of this story.

So we decided to go through the chapter to carefully read the verses from an Abraham’s perspective.

Outcome: In our study we found that chapter 6 of the Quran (sura Anam) in line with Abraham’s holistic observation of the Universe (6:75-79) – confirms God’s absolute oneness through a series of holistic observations (observing unity in diversity):

Unity of dialectical opposites

Unity in dialectical opposites prevalent throughout the universe, e.g. Heavens and Earth, darkness and light, night and day and so on:

Praise be to God, who created the Heavens and the Earth and made the darkness and the light; yet those who reject set up equals with their Sustainer. 6:1

And whatever dwells and lurks in the night and the day, all belong to Him, and He alone is the Hearer, the Knower. 6:13

God, the Originator of the Heavens and the Earth, when it is He who feeds and is not Himself fed? 6:14

Unity of unknown and known

Unity of unknown and known, invisible and visible, and unobservable and observable:

And whatever dwells and lurks in the night and the day, all belong to Him, and He alone is the Hearer, the Knower. 6:13

The Knower of the Invisible and the Visible. 6:73

And with Him are the keys of the unseen, none know them but He. And He knows what is in the land and in the sea; and not a leaf falls except He knows of it; nor a seed in the darkness of the earth; nor anything moist or anything dry; all in a clear record. 6:59

Unity of all cosmic systems

Unitary origin and unity of all cosmic systems including the Earth (also cf. 6:75-79, 96, 97):

God, the Originator of the Heavens and the Earth, when it is He who feeds and is not Himself fed? 6:14

He it is who created the Heavens and the Earth in truth and on the ‘moment’ when He says: ‘Be’, and it becomes. 6:73

Originator of the Heavens and the Earth, how can He have a son when He did not take a wife? And He created all things and He is knowledgeable in all things. 6:101

Unity of the solar system

Apart from the following verses there are references to the unity of the solar system also in other descriptions of Abraham (e.g. 14:33-38; or e.g. 37:1-7 as a prelude to a description of Abraham in 37:83-108):

And thus did We demonstrate to Abraham the divine dominion of the Heavens and the Earth, that he might be of those who are certain.

When the night over-shadowed him, he beheld a planet. He said: This is my Sustainer. But when it set, he said: I love not setting ones.

Then, when he beheld the Moon rising …

And when he saw the Sun uprising (cf. Then he did observe the Stars with deep observation. 37:88) …

‘Surely I have turned my face, being upright, wholly to Him who originated the Heavens and the Earth, and I am not of those who associate’. 6:75-79

Unity of the solar system with the outer cosmos

The unity of the solar system with stars of outer cosmos is referred to in 6:96-97, in the continuing context of the story of Abraham in 6:75-79 (cf. a similar trend in other descriptions of Abraham, e.g. 37:1-7, 88):

He is the Splitter of the dawn; and He has appointed the night for rest, and the Sun and the Moon for reckoning. Such is the measuring of the Mighty, the Knowing.

And He it is who has set for you the Stars that you may guide yourselves by them in the darkness of the land and the sea. We have detailed Our messages for a people who possess knowledge. 6:96-97

Unity of life and death, organic and inorganic, living and non-living

Unity of life and death, organic and inorganic, living and non-living, seed and kernel, and cause and effect:

Verily God is the Splitter of the seed and the kernel. He brings forth the living from the dead and He is the bringer forth of the dead from the living. 6:95

Unity of all life

Unity of all life forms – all humans, animals and plants – through their unitary biological origin from a common life-source, the single seed of the great tree of evolution:

And He it is who has initiated you from a single living entity, and then: a course and a destination. Thus have We detailed the messages to a people who comprehend.

And He it is who has sent down water from the Heaven; and therewith have We brought forth all living growth, then have We brought forth out of it green, from which We produce grain heaped up …. Deeply observe the fruit thereof, when it comes to fruition, and its ripening! … 6:98-99

Unity of all wombs

Please note how the verses below make parallel references to all wombs, including wombs of animals (6:139, 143, 144), womb of Mother Earth that sustains and evolves all life forms (6:141; cf. 6:98-99), and wombs of humans (6:137 and 6:140 mention infanticide, an allusion to human womb; cf. 6:98 refers to embryological development from a single cell):

Thus, for idol-worshippers their idols adorned the killing of born children

And they said: What is in the bellies of these livestock is purely for our males …

Losers are those who have killed their born children foolishly …

And He it is who has brought into being gardens – both the cultivated and the wild – and palm trees, and multiform crops in diversity …

Say: Is it the two males that He has forbidden, or the two females, or what the wombs of the two females bore? …

Say: Is it the two males that He has forbidden, or the two females, or what the wombs of the two females bore? … 6:137-144

Unity of all plants

Unitary origin of all plants and unity in the diversity of plants (including all their photosynthetic products):

And He it is who has sent down water from the Heaven; and therewith have We brought forth all living growth, then have We brought forth out of it GREEN, from which We produce grain heaped up; and out of the date-palm, out of its sheaths, clusters low-hanging; and gardens of grapes and olives and pomegranates: each alike yet unlike. Deeply observe the fruit thereof, when it comes to fruition, and its ripening! Most surely in all this there are messages for people who acknowledge! 6:99

And He it is who has brought into being gardens – both the cultivated and the wild – and palm trees, and multiform crops in diversity, and olives and pomegranates, similar and not similar. Eat from its fruit when it comes to fruition, and give its due on the day of harvest; and do not waste. Verily He loves not the wasters! 6:141

Unity of all animals

There is not a moving creature on the Earth, nor a bird that flies on its two wings, but they are communities, the likes of you. 6:38

Unity of the genders      

And He it is who has initiated you from a single living entity, and then: a course and a destination. 6:98

And they said: What is in the bellies of these livestock is purely for our males and forbidden to our women…

Say: Is it the two males that He has forbidden, or the two females, or what the wombs of the two females bore? … 6:139, 143

Unity of man with the Universe

Unity of man with the whole Universe, including his unity with earthly material (6:2), with plants (6:98-99), with animals (6:38), with hominoids (6:133, cf. 6:6) and so on:

Unity of man with earthly material

He it is who has created you out of clay, and then has decreed a term; and a term determined is with Him. And yet still you doubt. 6:2

Unity of man with plants

And He it is who has initiated you from a single living entity, and then: a course and a destination. Thus have We detailed the messages to a people who comprehend.

And He it is who has sent down water from the Heaven; and therewith have We brought forth all living growth, then have We brought forth out of it green … 6:98-99

Unity of man with animals

There is not a moving creature on the Earth, nor a bird that flies on its two wings, but they are communities, the likes of you. 6:38

Unity of man with hominoids

Below one can sense an allusion to the evolutionary unity of humans with their hominoid ancestors (also cf. 6:165):

Your Sustainer alone is self-sufficient, limitless in His mercy. If He wills, He can wipe you off and make whomever He wishes successors after you, just like He raised you up out of the seed of another people. 6:133

Unity of all humanity

And He it is who has initiated you from a single living entity, and then: a course and a destination. Thus have We detailed the messages to a people who comprehend. 6:98

And He is the One who made you inheritors on the earth, and He raised some of you over others in grades, to test you with what He had given you. 6:165

Unity of all communities    

There is not a moving creature on the Earth, nor a bird that flies on its two wings, but they are communities, the likes of you. 6:38

Unity of all senses and visions

Sights encompass Him not, but He encompasses all sights; and He is Unfathomable, All-aware. 6:103 (cf. 6:25, 36, 38-39, 46, 103-104)

Unity of sleep and consciousness

And He is the One who seizes you during the night, and He knows what you have done during the day, then He sends you back again to complete an appointed term; then to Him is your return and He will inform you of what you used to do. 6:60

Unity of subconscious and conscious, and thoughts and actions

He is God in the heavens and the earth. He knows all your hidden and all your manifest; and He knows what you earn. 6:3

Unity of prosperity and adversity

And if God were to inflict you with harm, then none can remove it except He; and if He were to bless you with good, then He is capable of all things. 6:17

Unity of all messengers

And We have sent others to nations before you. We then took them with adversity and hardship, perhaps they would implore. 6:42

And We do not send the messengers except as bearers of good news and as warners; so whoever acknowledges and live righteously will have nothing to fear nor shall they grieve. 6:48 (cf. 6:10, 6:33-34, 6:84-88, 6:130)

Unity of all scriptures

And this too is a Scripture which We have sent down, blessed, confirming what is before it, that you may warn the Mother of cities and all around it. And those who acknowledge the End (‘the whole’, i.e. all scriptures as ‘one Book of God’), will acknowledge this, and they will guard their prayer (from idols). 6:92

(cf. 6:91-92, 6:154-157; also cf. ‘al-kitab’: 2:113, 2:136, 3:19, 3:100, 3:119, 6:91-92, 6:154-157, 10:37, 21:7, 23:68, 39:18; cf. 18:27, 10:94)

Unity of all monotheists

Certainly those who have divided their religion and have become sects, you have nothing to do with them. 6:159

Unity of all worship

And do not turn away those who call on their Sustainer morning and evening seeking His presence; you are not responsible for their account, nor are they responsible for your account; if you turn them away, then you will be of the wicked. 6:52

Unity of all religious duties

Say: My communion, my rites, my living and my dying are for God alone, the Sustainer of the worlds,

In whose divinity none has a share, this is what I have been bidden; I am the foremost of those who have submitted. 6:162-163

Unity of the divine system

Certainly those who have divided their religion and have become sects, you have nothing to do with them. Behold, their matter rests with God: then He will inform them of what they had done.

Whoever brings a good deed will receive a tenfold reward. And whoever brings an ill deed will be requited for only one. And no one will be wronged.

Say: My Sustainer has guided me to a Straight Path, an upright system, the creed of Abraham the monotheist; he was not from idolaters. 6:159-161

While thus beholding absolute unity in infinite diversity, Abraham eventually discovers his God, the One without associate.

 

SUMMARY

The Quran narrates the famous story of Abraham’s observation of the Universe during his quest for God (6:75-79, 37:88, 14:33-35).

This is an allegory of mankind’s spiritual journey in search for the ‘Ultimate’ behind the laws and harmony of nature, manifested in the absolute unity within its infinite diversity.

Considering that the main appearance of this story of Abraham is in chapter 6 of the Quran (sura Anam) – which is supposed to provide a meaningful context for the narration – we carefully went through the chapter to gain some insight regarding the moral of this story.

In our study we found that chapter 6 of the Quran (sura Anam) – in line with Abraham’s holistic observation of the Universe (6:75-79) – confirms God’s absolute oneness through a series of holistic observations (observing unity in diversity), e.g.:

Unity of dialectical opposites (6:1, 6:13, 6:14), unity of unknown and known, invisible and visible, unobservable and observable (6:13, 6:73, 6:59);

unity of all cosmic systems (6:14, 6:73, 6:101; cf. 6:75-79, 96, 97), unity of the solar system (6:75-79; cf. 14:33-38; 37:1-7, 88), unity of the solar system with the outer cosmos (6:75-79, 96-97; cf. 37:1-7, 88);

unity of life and death, organic and inorganic, living and non-living, seed and kernel, and cause and effect (6:95), unity of all life, unity of all humans, animals and plants (6:98-99), unity of all wombs (6:137-144, 6:98-99), unity of all plants, unity in the diversity of plants and unity in all their photosynthetic products (6:99, 6:141), unity of all animals (6:38), unity of the genders (6:98, 6:139, 143);

unity of man with the Universe (6:2, 6:98-99, 6:38, 6:133, 6:6), unity of man with earthly material (6:2), unity of man with plants (6:98-99), unity of man with animals (6:38), unity of man with hominoids (6:133, cf. 6:165), unity of all humanity (6:98, 6:165), unity of all communities (6:38);

unity of all senses and visions (6:103; cf. 6:25, 36, 38-39, 46, 103-104), unity of sleep and consciousness (6:60), unity of subconscious and conscious, and thoughts and actions (6:3), unity of prosperity and adversity (6:17);

unity of all messengers (6:42, 6:48, 6:10, 6:33-34, 6:84-88, 6:130), unity of all scriptures (6:91-92, 6:154-157), unity of all monotheists (6:159), unity of all worship (6:52), unity of all religious duties (6:162-163), unity of the divine system (6:159-161) and so on ….

While thus beholding absolute unity in infinite diversity, Abraham eventually discovers his God, the One without associate.