The Analogical Bird of Abu Nur

I. The Figure of a Bird

Allah, subhanahu wa taala, revealed in Surah Ali ґImran, Ayah 49:

Ina qad zhatukum bi ayatin min rabikum anni akhluqu lakum min al-tini kafaiҒti al-tairi fa anfukhu fihi fa yakunu taҒiran bi ithni Allahi.

Yusuf Ali translates this literally as referring to a physical bird: I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by GodӒs leave.

This literal translation from Yusuf Ali and most of the other standard translations into English hides the deeper meaning in the Arabic original.  All the prophets of Allah taught the deepest truths often through analogies, as do poets even today.  This was the custom at the time of Prophet Isa, ԑalayhi as-salaam, and especially in Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu alayhi wa salam. 

Allah revealed through the Qurђan that much of His message is in clear prose and is easy to understand, but that some of it also is revealed in the form of analogies because they permit multiple levels of meaning.  This may be the case in the account of the clay bird being transformed into a living being.

In pre-Islamic usage, as well as in several places in the Quran the word taҒir (pl. tayr) and its derivitives is used in the sense of destiny or fortune, both good and evil.  The above quote from the Quran refers to a statement by Jesus (ґalayhi as-salaam) to the Children of Israel.  This statement was revealed by Allah to the Prophet Muhammad, because there is no record of such a statement in the Gospel as approved at the Council of Nicea. 

According to the translation and commentary by Muhammad Asad in his monumental The Message of the Quran, Jesus is telling the people of his day that out of the humble clay of their lives he would fashion for them the vision of a soaring destiny, and that this vision, brought to life by his God-given inspiration, would become their real destiny by GodҒs permission and by the strength of their faith.

It is odd that Yusuf Ali uses a literal translation of the term in Ali Imran 3:49 and in the identical account in Surah al Maђida 5:113 [5:110], but in four other places in the Quran he translates it analogically as ғill omen (Surah Al AԒraf 7:131, Al Naml 27:47, and Ya Sin 36:18-19) and as fateӔ (Surah al Isra 17:13).

In the pre-Islamic period of ignorance or jahiliyya in Arabia, the Arabs tried to divine the future by the pattern of birds in flight in the belief that the future is shaped fatalistically rather than by human vision and action.  Yusuf AliҒs translation of this analogy as fateӔ in Surah al Isra 17:13, where Allah ғties every persons fate to his neck,Ҕ conflicts with the Quranic emphasis on every personҒs responsibility to shape ones own future and that of oneҒs community or nation as well as of all humankind.

The Quranic concept of destiny emphasizes that Allah knows the future, but leaves it up to every person to shape it.  Destiny or ґqadr, as well as the use of birdӔ as an analogy, refers to the direction that one chooses in life through ones moral choices.  It refers to oneҒs entire life, spiritual, moral, and intellectual.

II. The Two Wings of the Bird

The spiritual and moral potential of every human being, and indeed of every community, can be seen most easily in the analogy used by Shaykh Ahmad Kuftaro.  For sixty-six years, since he succeeded his father in 1936, he has been the leader of a group of orthodox Naqshbandi in Damascus, Syria, who try to purify Sufism of its extremist tendencies.  For more than half a century he has been probably the worlds leading Muslim ecumenist promoting mutual understanding and cooperation among the world religions.

In 1995, in the commencement address that I was asked to give at the graduation ceremonies of Shaykh KuftaroҒs Abu Nur University, I used his analogy of the two wings of a bird to reflect the spiritual and moral dimension of the human being and of all social life.

By analogy, the right wing is the element of ruhanniyah or awareness of transcendent reality.  This spiritual dimension of every person is based on the persons ruh or spirit, which, according to QurҒanic revelation, was created outside of time before the creation of the universe.  Ones ruh is always in the presence of Allah, because Allah, according to the QurҒan is closer to oneself than is ones own jugular vein (wa nahnu aqrabu ґalayhi min habel al warid).

The purpose of the greatest jihad, the jihad al akbar, is to enliven the power of ones own spirit in oneҒs daily life, because ones spirit is constantly aware of Allah.  OneҒs nafs or soul, the decision-making power of the human person, can ignore Allah, but the beauty of the human person is that in reliance on the ruh one is capable of taqwa, which is loving awe of Allahs perfect Being.

The left wing of the bird is the Islamic element of ‘amal or action orientation.  A powerful reason why Americans, especially the African-Americans, become Muslims is the QurҒanic emphasis on truth and on the justice that derives from it.  We read in the Quran, Surah al AnҒam 6:115, wa tamaat kalimatu rabika sidqan wa adlan, ѓAnd the word of your Lord is perfected in truth and in justice. 

This emphasis on justice is clear throughout the Qur’an and in the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. We are constantly reminded: ‘amr bil ma’aruf wa nahi ‘an al munkar, ԓWork to promote the good and avoid evil.  This is a requirement both fard ԑain incumbent on each individual, as well as fard kifaya incumbent on the entire community.  Every person was created with a nature that seeks both truth and justice not only in ones personal life, but in community.  The QurҒan informs us: wa min ma halaqna ummatun yahduna bil haqqi wa bihi yaadilun, ѓAnd among those we have created is the community that is guided by truth and fulfills it in justice.

Justice is the right ordering of one’s own life and of society, which Muslims pursue by both jihad al akbar and jihad al asghar, which are the greater effort to change oneself and the lesser effort to change the world by promoting human responsibilities and rights.  These are the two wings of the analogical bird.

III.  The Tail of the Bird

In my commencement address, I developed the two-winged bird a little further by introducing its tail as a critical factor in its ability to follow a straight path. 

The analogical birdԒs tail refers to a third element of Islam which is just as important as the first two.  This is the jihad al kabir, the great,Ӕ not the greaterӔ or greatest,Ӕ jihad.  The first two jihadain, the akbar and the saghrir or asghrar are not mentioned in the Quran.  They come instead only from the ahadith of the Prophet Muhammad, though they are assumed throughout the QurҒan without being specifically named.  The third jihad is called for in the Quran in Surah al Furqan 25:52: Wa jahidhim bihi jihadan kabiran, ғAnd strive with it [divine revelation] in a great jihad.

This is the duty of Muslims to use their rational intellect in order to understand the Qur’an and hadith and to develop and apply the shari’ah based on them through a process of ijtihad.

Without this intellectual element of Islam, the analogical bird would not be able to steer the straight course prescribed by Allah.  This third element we may compare with the bird’s tail.

Without the shari’ah as guidance, Muslims inevitably go to the extremes common among some Sufis or to the extremes increasingly common among frustrated activists who have no sabr or patience, who do not rely on Allah, and who therefore are motivated by blind hatred.  Such people can never succeed in whatever aims they have in their lives because they cannot draw on the power of Allah.

IV. The Role of Islamic Leadership

Americans need to mount a massive movement to restore the spiritual basis and moral fiber of American society, not only in the homes, but throughout public life.  Increasingly, in recent years Americans have sensed that otherwise all life will degenerate into a jungle and America as a civilization will collapse. 

The new threat since 9/11 from beyond AmericaԒs borders may temporarily eclipse concern about the dangers of spiritual ennui and moral indifference within.  And the primitive fear of foreign attack may bring out the worst in every religion, namely, an indifference to divinely guided justice, which, in turn, prepares the way for revenge, hatred, and evil.

Traditionalists of all faiths need a coherent strategy that combines all elements of the universal din, namely, the ruhanniya or spiritual, the ‘amaliya or commitment to public action, and the aqliya or intellectual framework and effort to guide the first two.  We need the holistic concept represented by the triple jihad, namely, the jihad al akbar to purify oneself, the jihad al kabir to exert one’s intellect in the pursuit of knowledge, and the jihad al asghar or lesser jihad to use this knowledge and oneђs own physical power in the cause of justice.

Following such guidance, Muslims can revive the wisdom of classical Islam.  Then we will be able to work together with like-minded Christians and Jews to restore the functionally Islamic heritage of classical America.  In ecumenical solidarity, in shaa Allah, we can then transform the world.