How Birds Fly

It has become a major tool in Muslim dawah ("invitation", i.e. efforts to convince others of the truth of Islam) to claim that the divine origin of the Qur'an is proven by its amazing scientific accuracy that can only be from God, giving details that were impossible for Muhammad to know in his time, since they were only discovered recently.

Many of these Muslims claims are examined in our section Qur'an & Science, and so far we have not seen even one that withstands close scrutiny.

However, there are plenty of passages in the Qur'an that are clearly wrong in scientific terms, and those certainly need to be considered in this discussion as well. This short article will look at one such verse of the Qur'an making a statement about the flight of birds:

Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of (the air and) the sky?
Nothing holds them up but (the power of) God.
Verily in this are signs for those who believe. Surah 16:79 Yusuf Ali

The author of the Qur'an tells us that birds are a sign to encourage belief (in the existence and power of Allah) since there is no natural reason why they are suspended between the earth and the sky. It is only by Allah's miraculous power that birds are able to fly and do not fall down to earth.

A couple of questions to consider:

Are airplanes also held in the air only by the power of God? Is every plane that makes it to its destination another unexplainable miracle?

Have not scientists and engineers carefully calculated the forces and designed the wings of airplanes in a manner as to carry the plane from continent to continent?

Birds fly by the same aerodynamic principles that airplanes use. Humans, physicists and engineers, have studied those principles in detail. They have formulated exact mathematical equations of aerodynamics and based on those equations, they have built airplanes.

Muhammad could apparently not imagine that air itself could hold up anything. Everything that one may throw up in the air comes falling down quickly, whether dead things like stones or pieces of wood, or living things like a mouse or a cat. So, he apparently concluded, it must be merely the power of Allah who decided to hold up the birds in the air. He could not see a natural reason. The author of the Quran simply did not understand what is going on.

This lack of comprehension, or better, this ERROR, has been enshrined in the Quran in Surah 16:79.

Interestingly, those Muslims who seek to convince others of the scientific miracle of the Qur'an argue exactly like the third line of this Qur'an verse. They claim that the scientific accuracy of the Qur'an is a sign from God, so that people may believe in the Qur'an as the word of God.

Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of (the air and) the sky?
Nothing holds them up but (the power of) God.
Verily in this are signs for those who believe. Surah 16:79 Yusuf Ali

However, given that the second line of this verse is wrong, i.e. the part that gives the reason or evidence for the conclusion in the third line, this invalidates the conclusion and this verse becomes instead a sign for the disbelievers that the Qur'an does not come from God since the Creator would certainly know that it is the air itself that carries the bird, i.e. the density of the air in interaction with the shape of the bird and its wings that holds up the bird in its flight.

There is still a miracle: God created the physical properties of the air, and the shapes of the birds in this exact way so that they could fly. Believers will still recognize this to be a sign of the existence and wisdom of God. However, the God who designed creation in this way would certainly not have told us that there is no reason in the created order that the birds are able to fly.

The author of the Qur'an could easily have said:

Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of (the air and) the sky?
Although you cannot fly, God created birds in a special form so that the air can carry them.
The air carries the birds like the water carries your ships.

Verily in this are signs for those who believe.

The people at the time had built ships for centuries and understood that it is a design question that makes ship float on the water. They did not understand the design principles of birds yet. But formulating it in this way, God could have communicated that it is a design issue, and that it is the air that carries the birds. Since flying was not yet understood at the time, a verse like the above could legitimately be seen as giving supernatural insight. It would have made a correct statement in a way the people could have understood, i.e. by analogy to something they were used to. All these words and concepts were familiar. There is no reason why the author could not have spoken this way.

However, the way the verse is formulated in the Qur'an, it is in error, and is testifying that the Qur'an originated from a human author who was simply ignorant and could not imagine that there is a natural reason (i.e. one that is built into creation without needing the direct intervention of God) that would account for the flight of birds.

Jochen Katz

Qur'an, Islam & Science
Answering Islam Home Page