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September 22nd, 2014

Abraham — a Birdie or an eagle?

Abraham – a Birdie or an Eagle?[1]

Birds have been mentioned in various hues and for many reasons in Quran[2]. The parable of Abraham being taught reformation and resurrection in verse 2:260 at times becomes problematic when read from ‘classical’ sources or from the discourses of advocates of such sources. One such non-quranic fantastic narrative is as follows:

Therefore, Ibrahim caught four birds, slaughtered them, removed the feathers, tore the birds to pieces and mixed the pieces together. He then placed parts of these mixed pieces on four or seven hills. Ibn `Abbas said, “Ibrahim kept the heads of these birds in his hand. Next, Allah commanded Ibrahim to call the birds to him, and he did as Allah commanded him. Ibrahim witnessed the feathers, blood and flesh of these birds fly to each other, and the parts flew each to their bodies, until every bird came back to life and came walking at a fast pace towards Ibrahim, so that the example that Ibrahim was witnessing would become more impressive. Each bird came to collect its head from Ibrahim’s hand, and if he gave the bird another head the bird refused to accept it. When Ibrahim gave each bird its own head, the head was placed on its body by Allah’s leave and power.”[3]

Such an understanding as above besides being nonsensical, fails the fundamental test of Quran i.e. once dead in this world is dead for ever, be it a human or an animal. It contradicts Quran:

23:99. Behold! when death approaches one of them (- the rebellious ones) he says (making entreaties repeatedly), `Send me back, My Lord! send me back,
23:100. `So that I may do righteous (deeds) which I failed to do (in the worldly life).' `Never, that can never be,' (is the answer he receives). It is but a word (of excuse) which he utters. And there is a barrier behind them which shall remain till the day when they shall be raised to life (again).[4] [Emphasis added]

So, it begets one to explore the said verse 2:260 for its context and its purpose. The context encircles the ever pervasive debate between materialism and spiritualism. Materialism believes in the physical modalities and power alone for sustainability of nations, whereas the spiritualism and morality, the symbols of which are the prophets, consider the Divine guidance as the ultimate elixir for revival of the society. It all begins with Abraham, a prophet, in his debate with the king, the materialist:

2:258. Have you not considered (the case of) him (- Nimrod, the then ruler of Babylon) who controversed with Abraham concerning his Lord, because Allâh had given him kingdom? When Abraham said, `My Lord is He Who fertilises (the earth) and causes desolation.' He (- Nimrod) replied, `I do bring about fertility and cause desolation.' Abraham said, `Allâh surely makes the sun rise from the east, so you should make it rise from the west.' Thereupon the one who had rejected the faith (- Nimrod) was completely confounded. Indeed, Allâh does not guide the unjust people.[5]

Of note is that both Abraham and the king are using the same words in their argument, but with a difference, the meanings of those words are spiritual for the former and materialistic for the latter. For example, the implication of the fertility and desolation of the land for Abraham is the presence and the dearth of morality in a nation respectively. Whereas, for the king, it is actual fertility from water and fields that he can control. When Abraham challenges the king of the possibility of sun rising from the west, because he believes in such a capacity of his God, he essentially is speaking of spiritual and moral revival of the otherwise unexpected corners and quarters of the world, in the manner of sun which shines light and wakes people from their slumber, whereas the king is dumbfounded by his incapacity to do such a physical event. If in this parable there were a question in physical domain from Abraham, then he too would not had any answer if the king had made the claim first that he makes the sunrise from the east and could the God of Abraham raise it from the west? In summary, the materialists, even of our times, totally miss the purpose of a prophet and his message, which is none other than reformation of mankind, to bring them back from a morally dead state, heal them of their moral leprosy and blindness and make them spiritually soar like birds[6].

Sustained moral reawakening can only come about from Divine guidance. Any efforts authored by man in this realm are short lived and inevitably create “Chasm of the Isms” (a separate chapter in this book – link). The rain in Quran is a metaphor for the Divine guidance that comes to humanity for its revival in a similitude of the fertility of an otherwise barren land, via the agency of prophets that were sent to each nation before the final and universal prophet, Prophet Muhammad[7] and the Quran through him:

86:11. I call to witness the clouds that rain over and over again,


86:12. And the earth that bursts forth (with herbage and with springs),


86:13. (That) verily, this (Qur'ân) is a decisive word.


86:14. And it is not a vain (revelation).[8]

With Prophet Muhammad and general humanity as its audience, the subject matter of the verse 2:258 that was centered on Prophet Abraham continues in the next verse where example of another prophet, as evident by it’s opening words – ‘Or consider the case of’ being foretold, is quoted from history about revival of a nation after its wretchedness:

2:259. Or consider the case of him (- Ezekiel) who passed by a town (- Jerusalem as it was left in desolation by Nebuchadnezzar) and it had fallen in upon its roofs. He said, `When will Allâh restore this (town) to life after its destruction?' So (in his vision) Allâh kept him in a state of death for a hundred years, then He raised him (to life). Then (God) said, `How long have you stayed (in this state of death)?' He replied, `I may have stayed a day or a part of a day (in this state).' (God) said, `(Yes this too is correct) but (as you have witnessed in your vision) you have stayed for a hundred years. Now look at your food and drink, they have escaped the action of time, and look at your donkey (too, years have not passed over it). And (We have made you visualise all this) that We may make you a sign to the people. And look at the (dead) bones how We set them together and then clothe them with flesh.' Thus when the fact of the matter became clear to him, he said, `I know that Allâh is the Possessor of full power to do all that He will.' [9]

The above verse re-frames the argument of Abraham before the king in that Ezekiel, a (later) prophet when he sees the physical and moral desolation of Jerusalem and its people; he terms it as its death. He wonders if such a township and its people can be restored to their earlier resplendence. Thereafter, as an answer, Ezekiel has a vision with a prophecy spanning a hundred years when Dhul-Qarnain, the Cyrus II, another prophet will restore it – a hundred years after the initial destruction of Solomon's temple and dislodgment of Israelites to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II and their subsequent sorry state. Since this was visualization into the future, the actual time of the visionary state is no more than a day or a part of a day that is confirmed by food and drink, and the donkey as they have escaped the action of time. It is the vision of Ezekiel[10] which then foretold the revival of the apparently ‘dead’ Israelites i.e. the (dead) bones how We set them together and then clothe them with flesh.' [11] This vision in Book of Ezekiel 40:1-49 covers the rebuilding of Solomon's temple the second time, which was fulfilled subsequently because of Cyrus II who not only repatriated the Israelites to Jerusalem but also funded the reconstruction of the temple[12]. No wonder, Cyrus II is labeled as a liberator and not as a conqueror in history and is entitled as Messiah by the Jews:

The Book of Ezra narrates a story of the first return of exiles in the first year of Cyrus; for this, Cyrus is addressed in the Jewish Tanakh as the "Lord's Messiah". Glorified by Ezra, and by Isaiah, Cyrus is the one to whom "Yahweh, the God of heaven" has given "all the Kingdoms of the earth"[13]

The next verse 2:260 completes the subject matter of the previous two verses 2:258 and 2:259, where Abraham is explained the philosophy of how a prophet revives a nation, the main purpose of prophethood:

2:260. And (recall the time) when Abraham said, `My Lord! show me how You give life to the dead.' (The Lord) said, `Do you not believe (that I can)?' He said, `Yes I do, but (I ask this) that my mind may be at peace.' (The Lord) said, `Take four birds and make them attached [Arabic: ṣur’ – incline] to you, then put them each [Arabic: juz’an – a portion] on a separate hill, then call them, they will come to you swiftly. And know that Allâh is All-Mighty, All-Wise.'[14]

In the above verse, the parable of domestication of birds is used to explain the principle underlying the reformative efforts of a prophet. A non-domesticated or untamed bird, for example a falcon, by its very nature flees away when approached. Similar to the trainer, in order to overcome the initial tendency of a bird to avoid any training or in case of humans the reformation by a prophet, the prophet has to first attach or incline the audience to himself by kindness, love, affection and wisdom, that we read in the instructions to Prophet Muhammad in Quran as:

16:125. (Prophet!) call the people to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly and kind exhortation, and argue with them in the most pleasant and best manner. Surely, your Lord knows very well who has gone astray from His path, and He knows very well the guided ones to the right path.[15]
 
26:214. And (Prophet!) warn your nearest kinsmen,


26:215. And be gentle and affectionate to the believers who follow you.


26:216. But if they (- your kinsmen) disobey you, say (to them), `Surely, I am not responsible for what you do.'[16]

The above injunction of kind exhortation we also find for Moses and Aaron when they go before Pharaoh:

20:44. `But speak to him [–Pharaoh] a gentle speech, maybe he pays heed and fears (the consequences).'[17]

Gentleness and humility were also some of the attributes that Prophet Luqman of Ethiopia emphasized when he addressed his son:

31:18. `And do not turn your face away from people in scorn and pride, nor walk about on the earth haughtily. Surely, Allâh does not love any self-conceited boaster.


31:19. `Rather walk with modest pace and talk in soft gentle tone. Surely, the most repugnant of voices is the braying of the donkey.'[18]

Similarly, kindness of heart was fully embodied in Abraham who pleads for mercy on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, when he was foretold of their doom:

11:74. And when awe departed from Abraham and the good tidings came to him, he started pleading with Us for the people of Lot.


11:75. Surely, Abraham was gentle, tender-hearted and oft-returning (to Us).


11:76. (Thereupon We said to him,) `Abraham! turn away from this (pleading now), for your Lords command has decidedly come. They are certainly going to receive a punishment that cannot be averted.' [19]

The kind approach of a prophet and his followers is not limited to their co-believers but must extend to all humanity:

60:8. Allâh does not forbid you to be kind and good and to deal justly with those who have not fought you because of your faith and have not turned you out of your homes. In fact Allâh loves those who are equitable.[20]

It is only after the followers of a prophet are attached to him, that when the prophet calls them to the way of the Lord for their revival – they will come to you swiftly in the manner of a tamed bird who is now trusting of its keeper (2:260). Because, if the prophet does not display such high morals, to friends or foes alike, then the very people he is sent to revive will disperse around him:

3:159. So (O Prophet!) it is owing to the great mercy of Allâh that you are gentle towards them. Had you been harsh, hard-hearted, they would have certainly dispersed from around you; hence pardon them and ask protection for them, and consult them in matters (of administration), and when you are determined (after due consultation), put your trust in Allâh. Verily, Allâh loves those who put their trust in Him.[21]

In summary, Abraham is asking God in verse 2:260 how to accomplish his mission of prophethood which is to revive a spiritually and morally dead nation to life. In reply, he is told to first attach and incline his people to himself. Thereafter, it is natural for the Divine guidance to flow without hindrance from the prophet to such attached people. This is the sole methodology for spread of Islam that is starkly visible in history for its proliferation by the personal example and conduct of ordinary sea traders from Arabia into Indonesia. Abraham's words can be prophetic in our times for the sun to rise from the west[22] only if the torch bearers of Islam make use of the verse 2:260 by attaching their audience to them by an excellent personal example and when they call the people to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly and kind exhortation, and argue with them in the most pleasant and best manner (16:125).

P.S. Maulana Muhammad Ali in his Urdu translation and commentary of Quran[23] deals with the said verses 2:258-260 with an in-depth view on etymology of the words and refutes nonsensical extra-Quranic views about these verses, including the alleged doubts attributed to Abraham and him mincing the birds etc.


[1] Birdie and Eagle are golf terms, used here as a disdain for the long shot and long winded legends that are hurled against Abraham to show that the birds allegedly dismembered by him miraculously came back to life.
[2]Reference to Birds in the Quran: by Dr. Basharat Ahmad English translation of an Urdu article that appeared in Basharat-e-Ahmadiyya, Vol. II, pp. 22–35. Link: http://aaiil.org/text/articles/bash/referencebirdsquran.shtml
[3]http://salaf-us-saalih.com/2009/11/28/four-birds-prophet-ibrahim-peace-be-upon-him/
[4] Al-Muminun – The Believers: Nooruddin
[5] Al-Baqarah – The Cow: Nooruddin
[6] Al-Maidah – The Table Spread with Food: Nooruddin. 5:110. (Again imagine) when Allâh said, `O Jesus, son of Mary! remember My blessing upon you and upon your mother, how I strengthened you with the holy revelation. You spoke to the people (when you were) in the cradle and when of old age, and how I taught you the Scripture and the wisdom and the Torah and the Evangel, and how you determined from clay the likeness of a bird by My leave, then you breathed into it (a new spirit) then it became a soaring being by My leave, and by My leave you absolved the blind, the leprous, and by My leave you raised the (spiritually or nearly) dead to life, and how I warded off the Children of Israel from (putting) you (to death). It was the time when you came to them with clear arguments, but those among them who disbelieved had said, "This is naught but a hoax cutting (us) off (from the nation)".'
[7]Al-Rum – The Byzantines: Nooruddin. 30:47. Indeed, We have already sent Messengers to their (respective) people before you, and they came to them with clear proofs. Then We punished those who had (denied their Apostles and) cut their ties (with God). And it is of course ever incumbent upon Us to help the believers.
30:48.It is Allâh alone who sends forth the winds and they raise (the vapours to form) a cloud which He spreads out in the sky as He will and sets it layer upon layer, and you see the rain falling from its midst. And no sooner does He cause it to fall on whom He will of His servants than they are filled with joy,
30:49. Though shortly before it was sent down upon them they were in a state of despondency.
30:50. Look, therefore, at the evidences of Allâh's mercy! how He breathes life into the earth (making it green and flourishing) after its (state of) death. Surely, He (it is), the same (God), Who will raise the dead to life (in the Hereafter), for He is the Possessor of power over every desired thing.
30:51. And if We send (another kind of blasting) wind and they see it turn yellow (for its having taken the form of punishment) they will even after that continue to disbelieve (for their being engrossed in evil doings).
30:52. And you cannot make the dead hear, nor can you make the deaf hear the call when they retreat turning their backs (on you),
30:53. Nor can you guide the blind out of their error. You can make only those hear who would believe in Our Messages and submit (to Us).
[8] Al-Tariq – The Night Visitant: Nooruddin
[9] Al-Baqarah – The Cow: Nooruddin
[10]Ezekiel 36: 1“Son of man, prophesy to the mountains of Israel and say, ‘Mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord……33 “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. 34 The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. 35 They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.” 36 Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’ 37 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Once again I will yield to Israel’s plea and do this for them: I will make their people as numerous as sheep, 38 as numerous as the flocks for offerings at Jerusalem during her appointed festivals. So will the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the Lord.”
[11]Ezekiel 37: 1 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”…..10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
[12]Ezra 1: 1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” 5 Then rose up the heads of the fathers' houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. 6 And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered. 7 Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. 8 Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 10 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; 11 all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.
Ezra 2: 1 Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town.…..64 The whole assembly together was 42,360, 65 besides their male and female servants, of whom there were 7,337, and they had 200 male and female singers. 66 Their horses were 736, their mules were 245, 67 their camels were 435, and their donkeys were 6,720. 68 Some of the heads of families, when they came to the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem, made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site. 69 According to their ability they gave to the treasury of the work 61,000 darics[a] of gold, 5,000 minas of silver, and 100 priests’ garments. 70 Now the priests, the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all the rest of Israel[c] in their towns. [English Standard Version]
[13] Wikipedia – Cyrus the Great – Legacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_the_Great#Legacy
[14] Al-Baqarah – The Cow: Nooruddin
[15] Al-Nahl – The Bee: Nooruddin
[16] Al-Shuara – The Poets: Nooruddin
[17] Ta Ha – Perfect Man! be at Rest: Nooruddin
[18] Luqman – Luqman: Nooruddin
[19] Hud – Hud: Nooruddin
[20] Al-Mumtahanah – She that is to be Examined: Nooruddin
[21] Al-Imran – Family of Imran: Nooruddin
[22] Rise of Sun in the West and the Capture of Birds – Dr. Zahid Aziz, The Light & Islamic Review : Vol. 73; No. 4; Jul-Aug 1996; p. 7-10
[23] Bayan-ul-Quran by Maulana Muhammad Ali, footnotes 333-335 for verses 2:258-260. Link: http://aaiil.org/urdu/hq/pdf/holyquranpdf.shtml

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