Qurʾān 37:1–3

The Language of the Birds — منطق الطير

René Guénon — Fundamental Symbols: The Universal Language of Sacred Science

Wa-ṣ-ṣāffāti ṣāffan,

Faz-zājirāti zajran,

Fat-tāliyāti dhikran. . . .

By those ranged in ranks,

And who drive away, repulsing,

And who recite the invocation. . . .

Qurʾān 37:1–3

There is often mention, in diverse traditions, of a mysterious language called “the language of the birds” — a designation that is clearly symbolic, for the very importance that is attributed to the knowledge of this language, as the prerogative of a high initiation, does not allow us to take it literally.

We read, for example, in the Qur’an: “And Solomon was David’s heir. And he said, O mankind! Lo! we have been taught the language of the birds (ullimnā manṭiq aṭ-ṭayr) and have been given abundance of all things” (27:16)

Elsewhere we read of heroes who, having vanquished the dragon, like Siegfried in the Nordic legend, instantly understand the language of the birds; and this makes it easy to interpret the symbolism in question. Victory over the dragon has, as its immediate consequence, the conquest of immortality, which is represented by some object the approach to which is guarded by the dragon; and this conquest essentially implies the reintegration into the centre of the human state, that is, into the point where communication is established with the higher states of the being. It is this communication which is represented by the understanding of the language of the birds; and in fact birds are frequently taken as symbols of the angels, that is, precisely, of the higher states.

We have had occasion to cite the Gospel parable that refers, in this very sense, to “the birds of the heavens” which come and rest in the branches of the tree, the same tree represents the axis which passes through the centre of each state of the being and links all the states with each other.

In the Qur’anic text given above, the term aṣ-ṣāffāt is taken as meaning literally the birds, but as denoting symbolically the angels (al-malā’ikah); and thus the first verse signifies the constitution of the celestial or spiritual hierarchies.

The second verse expresses the fight of the angels against the demons, the celestial powers against the infernal powers, that is, the opposition between higher and lower states. In the Hindu tradition this is the struggle of the Devas against the Asuras and also, according to a symbolism which comes very close to the symbolism of our theme, the combat of Garuda against the Naga which is, moreover, none other than the above mentioned serpent or dragon. The Garuda is the eagle, and elsewhere it is replaced by other birds such as the ibis, the stork, the heron, all enemies and destroyers of reptiles.

Garuda and Naga depiction — Preah Ko temple, Cambodia

Finally, in the third verse, the angels are said to be reciting the dhikr which is generally interpreted as meaning here the Qur’an; not the Qur’an that is expressed in human language, needless to say, but its eternal prototype inscribed on the “Guarded Tablet” (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ), which like Jacob’s ladder extends from the heavens to the earth, and therefore throughout all the degrees of universal existence. Likewise, it is said in the Hindu tradition that the Devas, in their fight against the Asuras, protect themselves (achhandayan) by the recitation of the hymns of the Veda, and that it is for this reason that the hymns received the name of chhandas, a word which denotes “rhythm”. The same idea is contained in the word dhikr which, in Islamic esoterism, is used of rhythmic formulas that correspond exactly to Hindu mantras. The repetition of these formulas aims at producing harmonisation of the different elements of the being, and at causing vibrations which, by their repercussions throughout the immense hierarchy of states, are capable of opening up a communication with the higher states, which in a general way is the essential and primordial purpose of all rites.

This brings us back directly and very clearly to what was said above about the “language of the birds,” which we can also call “angelic language,” and of which the image in the human world is rhythmic speech; for the “science of rhythm,” which admits of many applications, is the ultimate basis of all the means that can be brought into action in order to enter into communication with the higher states. That is why an Islamic tradition says that Adam, in the earthly Paradise, spoke in verse, that is, in rhythmic speech; this is related to that “Syrian language” (lughah suryāniyyah) of which we spoke in our previous study on the “science of letters,” and which must be regarded as translating directly the “solar and angelic illumination” as this manifests itself in the centre of the human state. This is also why the Sacred Books are written in rhythmic language which, clearly, makes of them something quite other than the mere “poems,” in the purely profane sense, which the anti-traditional bias of the modern critics would have them to be.

Moreover, in its origins poetry was by no means the vain “literature” that it has become by a degeneration resulting from the downward march of the human cycle, and it had a truly sacred character. Traces of this can be found up to classical antiquity in the West, when poetry was still called the “language of the Gods,” an expression equivalent to those we have indicated, in as much as the Gods, that is, the Devas, are, like the angels, the representation of the higher states.

In Latin, verses were called carmina, a designation relating to their use in the accomplishments of rites; for the word carmen is identical to the Sanskrit karma which must be taken here in its special sense of “ritual action”; and the poet himself, interpreter of the “sacred language” through which the divine Word appears, was vates, a word which defined him as endowed with an inspiration that was in some way prophetic. Later, by another degeneration, the vates was no longer anything more than a common “diviner,” and the carmen (whence the English word charm) no more than a “spell,” that is, an operation of low magic. There again is an example of the fact that magic, even sorcery, is what subsists as the last vestige of vanished traditions.

These few indications should be enough to show how inept it is to mock at stories that speak of the “language of the birds.” It is all too easy and too simple to disdain as superstitions everything that one does not understand. But the ancients, for their part, knew very well what they meant when they used symbolic language. The real “superstition,” in the strictly etymological sense (quod superstat), is that which outlives itself, in short, the “dead letter.” But even this very survival, however lacking in interest it may seem, is nevertheless not so contemptible; for the Spirit, which “bloweth where it listeth” and when it listeth, can always come and revivify symbols and rites, and restore to them, along with their lost meaning, the plentitude of their original virtue.

René Guénon 1886–1951 in Cairo
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