Few creatures from the animal kingdom can live alongside humans in urban habitats. One of these survivalists are birds. There was a time when birds were simply welcomed and not worshipped not treated badly. You can still find traces of this admiration today. A list of references for birds in Muslim Civilisation would create a book, to name a few here; let’s take a journey of how birds were treated, bred and used in the Muslim cultures.
|1. Introduction||6. Science||10. Art|
|2. Religion||7. Myths||11. Architecture|
|3. Transportation||8. Breeding and Racing||12. Conclusion|
|4. Flight||9. Falconry and Hunting||13. References|
Figure 1. Al Noor Mosque, Sharjah Corniche, by Utsav Verma (Source)
Figure 2. “Horus is one of the most significant ancient Egyptian deities” (Source)
There are only a few animals that live harmoniously alongside humans in urban habitats. One of these animals are birds. Like cats, birds have been treated in extremes throughout the history; either worshipped as gods or persecuted as pestilence. For example, “ancient Egyptians, personified many of their major gods as birds” but in modern times birds, such as pigeons and crows, increasingly became a nuisance to city dwellers. Industrialisation and deforestation also became a significant threat to their existence.
There were times when city councils tried, and still try, to find unorthodox ways to get rid of them. For example, one Ukrainian city council produced “radical plans to get the birds drunk on wine before deporting them” the idea being to disorientate the birds from finding their ‘home’. In other cities, crows or hawks were called upon to scare certain birds away. Birds are still being hunted, poisoned, and killed openly in their thousands. Pigeons were simply labelled as “rats with wings” despite being proven scientifically, that pigeons do not carry diseases as they were commonly blamed. It was and is still just an urban superstition. It became so problematic that most places put razor sharp wires in front of their windows, no wonder there are lots of birds missing their limbs on the streets. All of these horrific practices seem to be medieval in their approaches in today’s world.
Figure 3. A must-read article: “Feral pigeon: flying rat or urban hero?” by Steve Harris (Source)
However, there was a time in medieval history when birds were openly welcomed, not worshipped nor treated badly. To create a complete list of references for birds in Muslim Civilisation would mean creating an entire encyclopaedia, but let’s just name a few examples here:
Let’s take the Caliph, Umar II (682-720), who ruled just 75 years after the Prophet Muhammed (D632). He said:
Spread wheat on the tops of mountains so it cannot be said that a bird went hungry in the land of the Muslims… Just a reminder to have respect for all. Even the smallest of deeds could be our saving grace!” Umayyad caliph Umar bin Abdulaziz
Figure 4. “In Turkey, they throw wheat grain on top of mountains when snow falls so that birds don’t die of hunger in the winter cold.” (Source)
This kind of respect and dedication comes directly from the teachings of Islam, for example in one of the many hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammed) regarding the treatment of animals, his followers asked:
O Allah’s Apostle! Is there a reward for us in serving (the) animals?” He replied: ‘Yes, there is a reward for serving any animate (living being).’” Narrated by Abu Huraira Volume 3, Book 40, Number 551
Fundamentally the life and characteristics of the Prophet Mohammed is routed in the Quran. There are some verses associated with animals and references regarding the responsibility of human-animal interaction in the world. Prophet Mohammed taught people to have mercy to all of God’s creation, after all it was thanks to a nesting bird that saved his and the life of his best companion while they were hiding in a cave from the Meccans who were trying to kill them. There is even a well-known narrative that God says:
…the animals are my silent servants. They are now quiet against the oppressions but on the day of reckoning they will talk about that..”
Interestingly the Qur’an even mentions the flocking of birds, were a group of birds collectively fly together in a syncronised manner:
Do they not see the birds above them with wings outspread and [sometimes] folded in? None holds them [aloft] except the Most Merciful. Indeed He is, of all things, Seeing.” Quran: 67:19
Perhaps, this is why people from the Muslim Civilisation loved and respected birds. Traces of this admiration can still be found today. Birds were, and still are, found in the most sacred of spaces; such as mosques.
These cultures are rooted in Muslim heritage throughout the Islamic history. From artistic Arabic calligraphy to scientific manuscripts like the clock-designs from the ingenious engineer Al-Jazari (1136–1206) or even in peoples’ names; for example Ali ibn Nafi, known as Ziryab, who was an 8th century Andalusian polymath. Cultured in everything from philosophy to fashion, he was commonly known in the Spanish language as Pájaro Negro, or Black Bird.
Their importance is reflected by their presence alongside the prophets Abraham, David, Solomon and Jesus. To put his heart at rest, Abraham was shown a divine miracle using birds. In the story of David, it is revealed to the Muslims that birds frequently praise God in their communication. Solomon had the ability to speak to birds and appointed the Hoopoe bird as his messenger. And Jesus was commanded to demonstrate God’s omnipotence by breathing life into clay birds.
And We subjugated the mountains and the birds to give glory along with David” Quran, 27:79
… Do they not see the birds above them spreading and contracting (their wings)?” Quran 67:19
…Seest thou not that Allah is He, Whom do glorify all those who are in the heavens and the earth, and the birds with wings outspread?…” Quran, 24:41
In the traditions of the prophet, known as the Hadith, birds like cats were respected and protected because animals were loved by the Prophet Mohammed. For example:
During a journey the Prophet left his companion for a while. During his absence, his companion saw a bird called hummara and took two young ones away from the mother bird. The mother bird was circling above in the air, beating its wings in grief, when the Prophet came back and said: “Who has hurt the feelings of this bird by taking its young? Return them to her”. The Prophet companion then replaced the offspring in the same bush.” Hamayun Khan
The Prophet also mentioned “To catch birds and imprison them in cages without any special purpose is considered abominable.” This means if you have birds living in cages, set them free.” Sayyid Abu A’la Mawdidi
As mentioned in the Cats in Islamic Cultures article, animals also set an example for Muslims like in the story of sons of Adam, or popularlay known as the story of “Cain Murders Abel”, a crow plays an eye opener lesson in the Quran:
Then Allah sent a raven [crow] scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother’s naked corpse. He said: ‘Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this raven and so hide my brother’s naked corpse?’ And he became repentant.” Quran, 5:31
Figure 8-9. Crows can be seen in these depictions of Cain burying Abel from an illuminated manuscript version of Stories of the Prophets (Source)
Due to the airborne nature of birds, humans have always been inspired, intrigued and in pursuit of flight. It is thanks to their exceptional flying abilities and their innate sense of geographical location that birds played a central role in transportation and flight in Muslim civilisation.
Birds were commonly used as couriers to send and receive important messages from different locations, cities and nations. In some cases, birds were even used to deliver ‘packages’. Al-Nuwayri, a Muslim chronicler, tells the story of a tenth-century Fatimid Caliph where “600 pigeons were released, each with one cherry in a silk bag tied to each leg… [The] Caliph was [then] served a large bowl containing 1,200 fresh cherries from Lebanon, which had arrived by special air mail delivery…” This ingenious ‘food delivery’ service was accomplished by the use of homing pigeons.
There are many more tales like this in history of Muslim Civilisation. In many places throughout the Middle East and Eurasia, on the top of the buildings, you can still find sanctuaries for birds, which is a long tradition in Muslim civilisation. For example, “In a book about carrier pigeons, the Mamluk historian Ibn ʿAbd al-Ẓahir (1223-1292) wrote that normally there would be about 1,900 pigeons in the lofts of the citadel of Cairo, the communication nerve centre of the time.”
Figure 11. “The Kabūtarnāmah, an illustrated pigeon manual copied in 1788, here showing a training session and some different types of pigeon” (Source)
An interesting example of an inspiration originating from bird’s flight can be seen in the works of Ibn Firnas. Well before the 19th century’s Wright Brothers, Ibn Firnas was experimenting with aviation by studying the flight of birds. It is well recorded that in 852 CE he jumped from the top of the Grand Mosque’s minaret in Cordoba. The flying device he created was based on the anatomy of birds. However, unsurprisingly this contraption failed to glide but it did slow down his fall leaving him with minimal injuries. Some might assume that this could have been the first display of an early parachute. There is not much information about Ibn Firnas’s life, but there are some claims for example, before he jumped, with his bird contraption for his flight attempt, Ibn Firnas may have said:
Presently I shall take leave of you.
By guiding these wings up and down,
I should ascend like the birds.
If all goes well, after soaring for a time,
I should be able to return safely to your side.”
Figure 12-13. Abbas ibn Firnas’ flight attempt. 1001 Inventions & Awesome Facts from Muslim Civilization, National Geographic Kids (Source) ©1001inventions
Another attempt was done in 17th Century by Hezarfen-Ahmed Celebi. As the story goes, he studied the birds in admiration for many years. Their flight inspired him to design his own aeronautical apparatus, which was made from eagle feathers to make it look like a bird. After many failed attempts, in 1640 C.E he summoned the courage to jump from the Galata Tower in Istanbul. From an altitude of 100 meters he jumped and – believed it be – he successfully glided across the Bosphorus Sea, ending with a safe landing. If all this is true then, this could also be the first self-propelled intercontinental flight. The event was documented by the Ottoman traveller and writer Evliya Celebi (1611 – 1682) and according to him it was witnessed by Sultan Murad IV (1612-1640).
First, he practiced by flying over the pulpit of Okmeydanı eight or nine times with eagle wings, using the force of the wind. Then, as Sultan Murad Khan (Murad IV) was watching from the Sinan Pasha mansion at Sarayburnu, he flew from the very top of the Galata Tower (in contemporary Karaköy) and landed in the Doğancılar Square in Üsküdar, with the help of the south-west wind. Then Murad Khan granted him a sack of golden coins, and said: ‘This is a scary man. He is capable of doing anything he wishes. It is not right to keep such people…’ and thus sent him to Algeria on exile. He died there.” Evliyâ Çelebi (from Seyahatname), 17th Cent.
Figure 14. An artistic impression Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi’s flight Galata Tower, Istanbul (Source)
Birds were also frequently used in the literal tradition of Muslim Civilisation. Featured in many poems, stories and myths, they were a common literary device often used as metaphors to convey spiritual, aspirational and motivational themes.
Bird of my soul,
be patient of thy cage,
This body, lo!
how fast it wastes with age…”
Sultan Cem, 15th Cent.
There are many poems that feature birds, as if words flying from one branch of a poem to the next…
The heart is like a bird:
love as its head
and its two wings are
hope and fear.”
Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya,14th Cent.
Another example is this Folio from al-Mu’nis al-abrar fi daqa’iq al-ash’ar (Free Man’s Guide to the Subtleties of Poetry) by Badr al-Din Jajarmi (d. 1287)
Figure 16-17. Manuscript pages from the “Free Man’s Guide to the Subtleties of Poetry” by Badr al-Din Jajarmi
“This unusual composition [above] is one of six found in a unique, illustrated copy of an anthology of Persian poetry devoted to poetic artifice. The top register prescribes the ideal astrological time for carrying out certain tasks. It reads:
With the moon in Pisces,
study learning and theology,
Make requests from ministers and judges,
Wear whatever new clothes you possess,
Abstain from bleeding.
The tale is ended.”
The accompanying illustration shows the personification of the moon with a large fish, representing the zodiac sign of Pisces. In the lower inscription band, the author explores the rhetoric possibilities of “enumeration” by listing a series of birds. These are portrayed in two registers, creating an unusual and non-narrative correlation between word and image. Wiles of francolin, spirit of hawk, quickness of magpie, Music of nightingale, splendor of huma [mythical bird], glance of partridge, Breast of duck, wrath of eagle, beauty of peacock, Cheek-down like parrot, hair like raven, attainable as simurgh [mythical bird].”
Birds were not only used as literary devices but were also recorded in the scientific literature that was produced by the Muslim civilisation. Their presence can be witnessed in many manuscripts that range in subject from zoology to astronomy.
Some of these scientific works were also translations and transmission of texts from different civilisations. A good example of this is found in the Arabic translation of the Greek encyclopaedia, Materia medica, by Pedanius Dioscorides. This work is a pharmacopeia (related to medicinal substances) which also describes the medicinal benefits of certain animals. It was through translations such as this, that the knowledge from the Greeks and Romans and other ancient Civilisations, transmitted through the Muslim Civilisation to Europeans; paved the way to Renaissance.
Al-Jahiz, the 9th century polymath and ‘father of zoology’ had portrayed his admiration for birds in his scientific work. Before Darwin, Al-Jahiz was studying and documenting natural selection related to animals in his book ‘Kitab al-Haywaan’ (Book of Animals). Interestingly, he also mentions birds when it comes to “natural music” in his many works studying the art of music.
Figure 20-21. Page from the Book of Animals by African Arab naturalist and evolutionist al Jahiz. Kitab al Hayawan (Book of Animals). Ninth Century. Basra. by Abu Uthman Al-Jaahiz (Source) “1001 Inventions and the Book of Animals” launch at Al Ain Zoo, Abu Dhabi (Source)
There are other scholarst followed Al-Jahiz, “The Kitab Al-Hayawan was the object of many studies, and had great influence upon later Muslim scientists, and via them upon European thinkers (especially upon Lamarck and Darwin). And it became the source for later books on zoology. Al-Jahiz’s many sentences are quoted by Ikhwan al-Safa and Ibn Miskawayh, and many passages are quoted by Zakariyya’ al-Qazwini (1203-1282) in his ‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat, and by Mustawfi al-Qazwini (1281- ?) in his Nuzkat al-Qulub; and al-Damiri in his Hayat al-Hayawan’, and still continues to inspire the scientists today.” Other scholars who followed his footsteps like Ibn Bakhtishu (d. 1058) with his book ‘Manafi-I-Hayawan’ (Description of Animals) continued to give more information about birds in the book of animals:
Figure 22-23. From Kitāb al-Manāfi‘ al-Ḥayawān (The Book on the Usefulness of Animals) by Ibn Bakhtishu’ (Source)
Scientist and scholars from Muslim Civilisation did not just translate works from ancient civilisations; they also corrected some of the information and contributed with additional information. For example, Al-Jazari was one of most outstanding mechanical engineer of the Islamic tradition of technology. He is mostly known with his discovery of converting rotary motion into linear motion and also known with his robots. He used animal figures in his works, and birds, from peacocks to legendary phoenix, birds can be found in his most works.
‘Abd al-Rahman ibn’ Omar al-Sufi (903-986) known also by his Latinized name of Azophi, was one of the famous astronomers from Muslim Civilisation. His “Catalogue of Stars” ,”Heavenly Figures” and “The Book of Fixed Stars” were published several times over the centuries with the addition of different animal figures, especially birds.
Figure 26-27. Some examples from Al-Sufi’s manuscripts
Another example is as mentioned above is the llustration and Persian text from a Manuscript of the Mu’nis al-Ahrar fi Daqa’iq al-Ash’ar (The Free Men’s Companion to the Subtleties of Poems) of Muhammad Ibn Badr al-Din Jajarmi, 1341: 
Apart from the scientific study of birds, Muslim scholars were also interested in featuring them in many writings dedicated to religious and spiritual works. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr:
…in Sufism the art of mastery over the language of the birds, a science taught to Solomon, implies both the power to penetrate into the meaning of alien forms and the capability to know the meaning of the spiritual states and stations through which the seeker of the Truth must Journey.” Sayyed H Nasr
Birds, as literary devices, were often at the centre of Islamic stories, teaching moral lessons to adults and children. Some of the most well-known Muslim literature such as ‘Kalila and Demna’ (Kalila wa-Dimna, 1210), Farid al-Din Attar’s ‘The Conference of the Birds’ (Mantiq al-Tayr ,1437, also known as Language of the Birds) and Ibn Hazm’s ‘The Ring of the Dove’ (Ṭawq al-Ḥamāmah, 1022) all feature birds in their stories.
Figure 29. “A page from the Arabic version of Kalila wa dimna, dated 1210, illustrating the King of the Crows conferring with his political advisors.” (Source)
If Simorgh [Simurgh] unveils its face to you, you will find
that all the birds, be they thirty or forty or more,
are but the shadows cast by that unveiling.
What shadow is ever separated from its maker?
Do you see?
The shadow and its maker are one and the same,
so get over surfaces and delve into mysteries”
The Conference of the Birds by Attar, translated by Sholeh Wolpe
Figure 30-31. Zal, the albino, on the simurg. Shahnamah Firdaws (Book of Kings of Firdaws, The Royal Asiatic society, MS. 239). © Nil Sari and Ulker Erke. Source: 38th International Congress on History of Medicine, Turkish Medical History Through Miniature Pictures Exhibition (Istanbul, 2002). (Source)
Belief in a divine healing energy from higher metaphysical planes into the physical body, that is, the religious interpretation of the holistic healing process, had its symbolic myths in history. Man, throughout history, feeling helpless against the difficulties he came across, and being unable to reach the Creator, hoped for imaginary help from supernatural creatures, whether they are represented by God, a human being or an animal. These imaginary and strange creatures, designed with different organs of animals, appeared within the frame of social beliefs and ideas, used in literature and works of art as a means to describe the supernatural. Referring to fantastic creatures that over rule his destiny, the human being gave meaning to some of them as symbols of medicine such as immortality, miraculous treatment, revival and rebirth, etc. One of these fantastic creatures is the simurgh, which was imagined to be a huge bird of prey, which did not exist, yet had a name. It was believed that those who obtained the feather of this bird could reach the greatest secret of the universe and immortality.” Prof. Nil Sari 
The “Kitab al-Bulhan” or “Book of Wonders”, is an Arabic manuscript dating mainly from the late 14th century A.D. and was probably bound together in Baghdad during the reign of Jalayirid Sultan Ahmad (1382-1410). The manuscript is made up of astrological, astronomical and geomantic texts compiled by Abd al-Hasan Al-Isfahani, as well as a dedicated section of full-page illustrations, with each plate titled with “A discourse on….”, followed by the subject of the discourse (a folktale, a sign of the zodiac, a prophet, etc.). There are other mythical birds in Islamic literature, maybe one of the most popular ones can be found in the Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing by al-Qazwīnī (d. 1283)
Figure 34-35. From Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing) by al-Qazwīnī (d. 1283) (Source)
Pigeon keeping has been a popular pastime in Muslim civilisation. They were kept for a variety of reasons, including breeding purposes and racing. This culture is still commonly practiced today in Muslim countries despite the controversy that surrounds the legal aspect when it comes to racing and wagering. Evidence of racing pigeons and its controversy can be found during the beginnings of the Muslim civilisation.
According to a narration of Abu Hurayrah, (a companion of the Prophet) someone came to him and asked, “We want to wager on two pigeons, but we do not want to use a muhalil for fear that he might take away (the prize).” To which Abu Hurayrah advised them not to race them, stating that this was a common practice among children. Although gambling is strictly prohibited in Islam, many Muslims practiced the art of pigeon breeding and racing for the sole purpose of bragging rights.
Figure 36. “Arabian Trumpeter”, a fancy breed of pigeon developed over many years of selective breeding (Source)
The art of falconry was practised throughout the Muslim civilisation and still is today. Although the practice of training birds is said to have originated in Central Asia, it also has a substantial history in the Middle East and in other Muslim regions. In fact, using birds of prey for hunting can be traced back to 3500 BCE in the al-Rafidein region of Iraq. Falconry and the training of other birds of prey were practiced for many reasons. Although the most common being hunting, it also was a form of pastime for the nobility of that time, where owners would lovingly raise the birds from hatchlings to fully grown adult hunters. Interestingly the first book or manual composed on the art of falconry was called “The Advantage of Birds” by Adham Bin Mehrez al-Baheli, an 8th century scholar who was most probably surrounded by the Umayyad high culture of falconry. Due to the modern world we are now living in, the art of training birds is now redundant for hunting purposes. However, there is a resurgence of training birds of prey for pest control in some of the world’s major cities.
Although Falconry is seeing a revival for both practice and cultural purposes some animal rights observers have raised an issue with the resurgence of this art. An excess concentration of predatory birds in one area can lead to other vulnerable species’ extinction. The effect of which can be seen today in the Arabian peninsula when it comes to the near extinction of the houbara bustard bird and throughout the entire world when wealthy individuals pursuit foreign birds of prey to sustain their hobbies.
…Lawful for you are [all] good foods and [game caught by] what you have trained of hunting animals which you train as Allah has taught you. So eat of what they catch for you, and mention the name of Allah upon it, and fear Allah…” (Quran, 5:4)
Figure 37. Traditional Arabian falconer (Source)
As we mentioned in the beginning of this article, the presence of birds in Arabic calligraphy is visible in abundance. There are many examples of calligraphic spiritual words fashioned in the figure of various birds. But interestingly, birds do not only contribute to calligraphy with their figure but also it is common that a master calligrapher will teach his students to examine a bird and its motion, and then apply it to specific Arabic letters. Different letters can be used to depict a bird’s head, wings, back or tail.
Calligraphy was the main art of Islam, but artists and craftsmen from Muslim Civilisation didn’t just stop there, they carried artistry in every part of their life, from their carpets to tiles, even to their scientific tools.
Figure 41-42. Carpet with bird couples in a landscape, Lahore, c. 1600, cotton, wool, 233 x 158 cm (The Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna) (Source) A Kirman pictorial carpet. Southeast Persia, circa 1900. 8 ft 1 in x 5 ft 2 in (245 cm x 156 cm). This piece was offered in Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 19 April 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £18,750 (Source)
Figure 43. Islamic Bronze Bird Incense Burner with Calligraphic [Could be from Turkic Seljuk (Seljuq) period, Khorasan, eastern Iran, 1181-1182] (Source)
One important aspect of a culture is the architecture it produces. As birds were seen as noble animals, they were most definitely featured in much of the architecture that sprung out from Muslim civilisation.
Birdhouses were a common sight in the Muslim world and can still be seen till this day. Birds were so welcome that bird houses and sanctuaries became an Ottoman architectural art form. Some may simply refer to them as birdhouses, however; “’with their pronounced eaves, corbelled bay windows and what appears to be the remains of grand staircases, [these] deserve to be called BIRD CASTLES…” The Ottomans rightly called them palaces or pavilions, revealing its importance to their culture.
The stunning birdhouses speak to the overall attitude that the Ottoman Turks had towards animals. Structures built during this time—between the 15th and 19th century—were designed with the care and protection of creatures in mind. The avian homes, with nicknames like “kuş köşkü” (bird pavilions) and “serçe saray” (sparrow palace), are fantastic examples of this. While some stunningly detailed homes were simply for refuge, other birdhouses fed the winged creatures in times of cold weather or could help take care of them while they were sick.” Sara Barnes
Figure 44. “The designs are miniature palaces that project from the exterior. Although prevalent throughout Turkish cities long ago, there are only a fraction of them left today.” Photos: Caner Cangül (Source)
There were also many baths created for birds, and towers; “Farming innovations included using pigeon manure for fertilization, a technique mastered in Iran where towers 18 to 21 meters high (60 to 70 feet) were dotted around the fields to house the birds”.
Figure 45. Bird Towers of Iran, Safavid Isfahan had an estimated 3,000 pigeon towers covering all over their city (Source)
The above are only a few examples of how birds have impacted Muslim civilisation. It is clear that Muslims and others living under the Muslim civilisation revered birds and respected their elegant presence. This admiration is clear in Muslim culture and perhaps we should make extended efforts to preserve their presence so that future generation have the opportunity to seek inspirations in the many variations of our winged friends.
Sunny days are spent cutting the grass while hoping it does not rain too much. Insects are dealt with, moles are moved on, and birds are made to feel welcome…” 
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