Birds played a key role in the understanding of the Islamic religion and culture. Dating back to “The miracle of the birds,” an event which occurred around 570 C.E., birds were seen as saviors of the Islamic religion as they stopped an army of invaders from destroying the Kaaba in Mecca. Birds were present many times throughout the life of Muhammad as well, preventing his capture. As a result, birds became a metaphor in many stories that spread throughout the Islamic culture.
Within the Islamic religion, there are two types of birds, the natural and supernatural. Mythological birds, including the Simurgh and the Phoenix were commonly used motifs in Islamic art. The Simurgh is a giant winged creature, resembling a peacock with the claws of a lion and the head of the dog. While the Phoenix is believed to have the head of a golden pheasant, the tail of a peacock, the legs of a crane and the wings of a swallow. The myths of the Simurgh and the Phoenix originated in different places, so the symbolism connected with each of the creatures is different. The Simurgh, which originated in Persia, is commonly associated with God and divine power. While, the Phoenix, which originated in China, is associated with celestial bodies and is believed to be connected with peace, prosperity and happiness. But, both of these mythological creatures play important roles in Islamic mythology and visual arts.
In his article, At the Sign of Simorgh: Mythical Birds and the Mystical Discourse in Persian Poetry, Karimi-Hakkak provides evidence of how mythical bird-like creatures have been used in a variety of cultures (“From the ibis’ headed Egyptian god Thoth to the Indian bird Gadura, to the caduceus or the winged staff of Mercury”) to symbolize this idea of transcendence. Despite the use of all these mythical winged-creatures in a variety of cultures, each one seems to associate it with a set of common abilities: guiding, healing and protection. Karimi Hakkak believes the Simurgh is one creature that exemplifies these abilities. He believes the Simurgh’s perspective of the world is the reason for its power and abilities; the Simurgh sits high above all people watching all that goes on below.
The Shahnameh, tells the story of Zal (the son of Sam) and reveals the Simurgh as a heroic creature. Zal was born perfect in almost every sense, with the exception of his white hair, which made him freakish. For this reason his parents felt the need to have him taken far away from the rest of society to the mountain of Elburz. His parents left him near the nest of the Simurgh, where the supernatural creature later found him. The Simurgh cared for and protected Zal, until his father returned one day after dreaming about him years later. The Simurgh flew Zal to his father and gave him three feathers to protect him from danger. Zal, eventually uses these feathers to summon the Simorgh, when Rudaba is giving birth to their son, Rustam. The Simorgh gives advice to Zal to help him with the delivery of the baby. These stories help to emphasize the power and protective properties of the Simurgh and provide reasoning as to why this creature has such positive associations within the Islamic culture.
The Simurgh, among many other supernatural creatures, was commonly used as a metaphor throughout Turkish and Persian literature and works of art. One possible reason was to provide comfort and support to people when they began to feel powerless against the problems of the world. Man began to seek solace in these supernatural creatures. These creatures became associated with a set of medicinal properties including revival, miraculous treatment, and immortality.
Lobed Bottle with Phoenixes in Flight made in the 17th Century during the Safavid Dynasty depicts supernatural phoenixes with long flowing tails and long feathers around their heads. The tails of these birds wind up towards the neck of the bottle in a repeating “S”-shaped motion. The phoenix, originally a Chinese motif, and the use of the white glaze suggests the attempt at recreation of Chinese artwork. The pure white porcelain seen in Chinese ceramics was a widely desired characteristic. The phoenixes upon this bottle were most likely used to symbolize power or omnipotence, as they are the largest design on the bottle, emphasizing their importance. While their copper color emphasizes the elegance and beauty of the creatures, adding a decorative quality to the bottle.
Bowl with Simurghs made in Samarkand during the 10th Century also emphasizes the power of mythological birds in Islamic art. This bowl has three Simurghs around the center, which consist of abstract lines and shapes, each of which is used for the purpose of decoration.
These depictions dominate the movement and directionality around the center of the bowl. Orange shapes make up the beaks and feet of the birds and orange dots help to unify the piece. Gold wings and pointed tail feathers point outward and contribute to the directionality of the ceramic bowl.
One natural bird that is commonly associated with the Simurgh is the Hoopoe. The Hoopoe bridges the gap between supernatural and natural birds in certain pieces of Islamic literature. It is commonly associated with leadership qualities, and as a result is used as a connection to divine power.
In Islamic Art in Detail, Sheila Canby discusses the importance and symbolism behind birds in Islamic art and literature. Canby provides details of how animals, including birds, are used to represent the actions and personalities of humans. She specifically mentions how birds are a popular motif as they are found across a wide variety of media. Her text proposes the theory that birds often have positive connotations associated with them because they are creatures of the air.Canby believes this is the reason that many incense burners were decorated to look like birds, as the aroma from the burners was carried throughout the air. Birds are also believed to be connected with this idea of transcendence, a quality that distinguishes them from many other animals. The Simurgh is believed to be a creature capable of facilitating transcendence from one place to another, as it provides a means of release and liberation.
The Conference of the Birds, by Farid-al Din, tells the story in which the birds of the world are called together by the Hoopoe bird in order to discuss the many problems they must face, including anarchy, starvation, and unhappiness. The Hoopoe bird convinces the other birds that they must go out in search for the Simurgh, as he could serve as their king and resolve many of their troubles. At the end of the journey, the thirty birds remaining birds, now unified by their quest, realize that together they make up the Simurgh (“thirty bird”). The story effectively demonstrates how in order to become one with a higher power, one must first demonstrate persistence as well as a willingness to make sacrifices. Farid al-Din’s book helps to establish a connection between the Hoopoe bird and divine power, which in the case of the story is the Simurgh.
Farid-al Din’s story is illustrated in Habiballah of Sava’s The Concourse of the Birds, which depicts a diverse assortment of birds, as well as other creatures, all surrounding a crowned bird. This crowned bird at the center of these other creatures is the Hoopoe bird referenced in “The Language of the Birds.” The painting serves as a recreation of Part I from Farid’s story in which all the birds of the world gather for a conference led by the Hoopoe bird, as he addresses their need for a king.
Sava’s painting characterizes the Hoopoe bird as a leader; he stands upon a rock, his posture upright and forward, and all eyes fall in his direction making him the center of attention. The birds in this painting are meant to symbolize individual souls, each of which represents a human fault. The Hoopoe believes that a king could solve all the problems and faults in the world, so he leads the other birds through the seven valleys to the Simorgh.
Canby’s theory of how birds are used to reflect the personalities of humans is shown within Sava’s painting. The stubbornness of the falcons is conveyed in Sava’s painting through their facial expressions: they seem to have furrowed brows.While the arrogance of the peacock is conveyed through its elaborate display of mesmerizing plumage.
This painting illustrates many of the pieces in Farid al-Din’s story, however, the Simurgh isn’t present. Sava probably wanted to make a reference to divine power without explicitly showing it. He probably intended to show how individuals must be shown the path to God and spiritual enlightenment by a leader (in the case of the painting this leader is the Hoopoe Bird). Many of the features in the landscape of Sava’s painting could possibly serve as references to Farid-al Din’s story. There are a variety of complex abstract shapes within Sava’s painting, which could possibly be a reference to the veil of clouds mentioned by the Hoopoe in Farid al-Din’s story. The Hoopoe tells the birds of the world how the Simurgh is hidden behind the veil of clouds before they begin their search for him. The complex, folded shapes almost resemble voluminous, puffy clouds. “The Language of the Birds” ends with the remaining thirty birds from the journey seeing their reflection upon a body of water and realizing that together they are the Simurgh. This is consistent with the Muslim belief that the Simurgh symbolizes ultimate spiritual unity. This piece of the story could possibly give meaning to the bodies of water within the painting, as they were used to illustrate an important metaphor within Farid al-Din’s narrative. The tree within the painting has a symbolic connection to the Simurgh as well. The tree in the painting is most likely meant to be a sacred beech tree, as birds that were perched atop these trees were symbols of God (Sari).
The connection between the Hoopoe bird and divine power is shown within Calligraphy In The Shape of A Hoopoe (17th Century Iran) as well. This calligram uses thick black font upon gold folio in order to create the image of the Hoopoe bird, which is presented nobly with a crown of feathers upon its head. This is a common characteristic of the Hoopoe Bird, as it helps to display its leadership qualities. The Arabic writing that makes up the bird translates to “in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.” It makes sense that the artist chose to draw the characters in the shape of the Hoopoe bird, as the Hoopoe bird was the one that encouraged the other birds of the world to follow him to the Simurgh for guidance.
The prominent use of birds as motifs within Islamic art could be linked to all the bird references within the Quran. The Quran states that souls take the form of a bird on their journey to God. In “Reference to Birds in the Quran,” Ahmad Basharat appeals to logos in order to support his belief as to why birds might have such a positive connotation. He discusses the two types of people in the world those that remain on the ground and those that rise above reaching their true purpose in life (which refers to an attainment to God). Basharat creates a connection to the theory of evolution, discussing how birds evolved from ground-dwelling creatures. This could be connected to the idea of progression and how an individual must set one’s sight above lower subjects in order to fly (which is symbolic of a paradise in the afterlife). Basharat then analyses the metaphor behind the two wings of a bird and how the bird must use both in order to fly. The flight of man depends on knowledge, which comes from one of two ways. The first is a revelation from God and the second is intelligence; each of these is symbolic of a wing and they must move in unison in order for man to soar spiritually. Ahmad’s article helps provide logical reasoning as to why birds have such religious associations.
Certain birds within the Quran are mentioned in explicit detail. One example being the raven. This could provide reasoning to the raven in Miskin’s The Raven Addressing the Assembled Animals (1595-1600), as the raven (in the Quran) demonstrates to Cain how to bury his murdered brother, which is consistent with the idea that the raven is typically associated with death and wisdom. This painting is part of the Anwar-i Suhayli illustrated manuscript (a collection of fables that features animals and uses them symbolically). This detached folio focuses on the troubles in the world similar to Farid al-Din’s story; there are many connections between the story and the painting. The birds of the world referenced in Farid’s story appear throughout the painting. The large mystical bird-like creature in the upper right hand corner of the painting has feathers with a flame-like pattern and a long flowing tail. It is painted with a vibrant array of vermilions, jade greens, ochres, browns, and whites. All of these are characteristics of the phoenix, however in the context of this painting the Simorgh and phoenix are used interchangeably. The flock of birds following behind the phoenix is most likely a reference to the remaining thirty birds at the end of Farid’s story, when they realize that together they make up the Simorgh. The large variety of animals in this piece most likely sparked from the fascination of the Mughal emperors for the flora and fauna of India. They explored this naturalistic subject matter in many paintings, which provides an explanation for the prevalent use of animal and plants as motifs after the 17th century in Islamic works throughout India and Persia.
There are numerous reasons for the use of birds as motifs within Islamic art and literature. Over time, they gained religious and spiritual connotations from writings from the Quran and the Shahnameh. Islamic culture established a connection between birds and transcendence, and the supernatural birds (Simorghs and Phoenixes) are believed to control this transcendence. Whether it be these supernatural creatures or natural birds that appear in Islamic art, these images are often used symbolically, usually as a way to create a certain relationship between people and their faith.
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