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.
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.
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).
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!”‘
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.