The Wonder of Flight, al-Mulk (67:19)

The Wonder of Flight, al-Mulk (67:19)

submitted by: Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا إِلَى الطَّيْرِ فَوْقَهُمْ صَافَّاتٍ وَيَقْبِضْنَ مَا يُمْسِكُهُنَّ إِلاَّ الرَّحْمَنُ إِنَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ بَصِيرٌ

Do you not observe the birds
With their wings spread above them,
And (birds with wings) folded up?
None can hold them up in dynamic equilibrium except the Most Compassionate;
Indeed, He is the Seer of all things.

Surah al-Mulk, (67:19)


An appreciation of the subtleties of this Ayah requires a mastery of several disciplines: aerodynamics; ornithology; structural mechanics; oxygenation; energy transfer; guidance, navigation and control, to name but a few. There are wondrous Signs in nature, if only we knew how to look and how to ask the right questions.

Why should an earthbound object fly? One can attempt to explain how but the answer to the question why must be that it is, ultimately, the Grace of the Creator. Matter rides on the wings of Divine Grace and reaches for the heavens.

The wonder and awe of nature defies description. No matter which direction you turn, there are Signs for the majesty of the Creator. This includes birds and other creatures such as insects that fly. Here are a few questions that elicit our wonder and awe: How can a small bird fly 7000 miles without stopping anywhere? How does it navigate and find its destination when there are no landmarks? How does it fly at night? Where does it get its in-flight food and sustenance from? How does it keep warm when the outside temperature is close to zero? How can a vulture dive at its prey at speeds up to 200 miles an hour without falling apart? How can a hummingbird fly in six degrees of freedom? These and other questions baffle the scientists. Some answers are known; others are not. Exhausted, the investigating mind gets tired and falls back on the source of all knowledge, namely, the All Compassionate.

Let us ponder over a few examples:

  • The bar-tailed godwit

The bar-tailed godwit flies about 7000 miles (11000 kilometers) without stopping anywhere. Every year it migrates from Alaska, northwest of Canada, to New Zealand, deep in the southern Pacific Ocean.

Sometimes, it flies West to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia and then south to New Zealand. At other times it takes an alternate route South to the Pacific Islands and then further South to New Zealand.

This extraordinary feat almost defies scientific comprehension. The birds weigh barely 300 grams (about three quarters of a pound). It “fattens” itself up to 600 grams (about 1.4 pounds) before a flight, burning off the “excess” 300 grams of fat during its flight of 7000 miles, which it covers in eight to nine days, at an altitude of up to 20,000 feet. A simple calculation would show that the bird does about 15 foot pounds of work per hour. A calculation of the resistance encountered during this long flight would require a complex computer model including air density, temperature, air currents, rain, wind gusts, storms, body shape and size. A simple mathematical model would show that the effort required is about ten times the effort expended. A reconciliation of the two would require assumptions about an extraordinary effort on the part of the tiny bird to conserve energy, shape its wings, chart its course though rough weather and ride air currents. Astonishing! It is only recently that aircraft have been able to travel such long distances without refueling.

The bar-tailed godwit is endowed with a wing structure that minimizes wind resistance and is shaped for long distance flight. The birds fly in V-shaped flock formation. The flight of each bird creates a “wake” in which the wind resistance is substantially reduced. The birds that are at the back of a flock, therefore, spend considerably less energy than the lead bird. The birds take turns leading the flock so that no one bird gets tired.

How does this tiny bird guide itself in the darkness of the night? There are many theories but no clear, convincing answers. Some birds navigate their flight using the sun as their guide star. Some are sensitive to ultraviolent light which enables them to know the position of the sun even in cloud cover. Nocturnal birds have been shown to be guided by the stars. The magnetic field of the earth has been theorized to act as a compass. It is postulated that a tiny magnet in the brain of a bird or in its eyes enable the bird to locate to magnetic north and hence to guide it to its destination.

How does the godwit “sleep” at night? How does it rest? How does it avoid violent storms? How does it keep aloft if it is drenched in a heavy downpour? These are questions that continue to challenge the scientists.

It is possible that the tiny brain of the godwit is synchronized with the magnetic field of the earth. It is also possible that it is guided by the stars. There is no conclusive proof yet. Whichever mechanism it is that God has provided this little bird, it is an awesome feat that humankind is yet to replicate in a world of robotics and artificial intelligence.

  • The hummingbird

Have you marveled at how a hummingbird moves in six degrees of freedom, up and down, sideways, forwards and backwards, twisting, diving and rotating? It can suspend itself in the air and drink water from a falling raindrop or a sprinkler. It is a marvel of an aerodynamic machine and a challenge to the aerodynamicist, the structural engineer and pointing and stability expert alike.

The hummingbird achieves this capability thanks to the structure of its wings, their ability to flutter at up to 80 cycles per second, and their flexibility of movement. As the wings swing from the body of the bird, they show a forward and backward component of motion in addition to up and down motion. The up and down motion gives the bird a lift, the forward and aft motion enables it to move forward and backward. In addition, the hummingbird wings are complex and they move like a flexible fan. Tail feathers provide additional mobility and guidance and control. The flexible neck adds additional degrees of freedom. As of today, humans have not been able to replicate these movements in known robots. There is wonder in nature that invites the soul to soar with it!

  • Compound eyes

The wonder and awe of this ayah opens up further if we open up the interpretation of الطَّيْرِ “at-tayr” to include not just birds but all creatures that fly, such as insects.

Bees, dragon flies and houseflies have compound eyes. Bees have two sets of eyes: a set of two segmented compound eyes and a second set of three single lens eyes. The compound eyes consist of almost 30,000 segments which work together to provide the bee with a wide field of view. In addition, the three eyes on the head provide the bee with a high resolution, narrow field of view so that it can focus on a target. The integration of images from as many as 30,000 eyelets in the brain of the bees is no mean task. Even the best segmented optical telescopes existing today have difficulty integrating the images from their multiple component mirrors because of “edge” effects. It requires sophisticated algorithms and software to achieve it. That a tiny bee, with compound eyes composed of 30,000 eyelets accomplishes this integration in its tiny brain is a marvel. We do not as yet understand how it does it.

After surveying these few examples, we cannot but reiterate our awe and wonder at the complexities of nature. As Surah al-Mulk states at the outset: “And He is the Mighty, the Forgiving, Who created the seven heavens in layers. You will not see any inconsistency in the creation of the Most Compassionate. So, look again! Do you see any inconsistency? Then, look again, once more, your sight will return to you, humbled and tired.” Subhan Allah!