The Curious Incident of The Bird and The Bike
Perhaps it’s because of all the David Attenborough documentaries I watched as a kid; or perhaps it was the idea of being a free spirit roaming whither the wind blows; or maybe it was an all too familiar need to flee parents who were furious because I’d gotten myself into trouble at school – again: whatever it is, I’ve always wanted to fly like one of our feathered friends.
For many years cycling has been the closest substitue to natural flight I’ve known. I recall vividly the thrill of being able to ride a bicycle for the first time, the rush of adrenalin from the speed, the sense of pride and elation at being able to balance on two wheels, and just the simple joy of effortless motion, as though gliding, soaring along the cobbled and asphalted streets of London. Okay, maybe not gliding so much as tumbling and ricocheting in London but you get what I mean – it’s the need for self-powered speed more than anything else!
These days, cycling isn’t just about speed though. I’ve discovered a deeper spiritual outlook which hadn’t existed for me before. There are two small incidents which have shaped this new outlook. One occurred in May 2012, during a charity bike ride from London to Oxford. It was late afternoon; the sun was beaming down warm and bright onto the Buckinghamshire countryside and I’d just turned off Finings Road into Fingest Lane, a typical narrow, English country road bordered by tall leafy, hedges. After a short burst of intense pedalling I sat back and allowed gravity and the steep incline to maintain my speed when I noticed something: a little sparrow, flying at roughly the same height as my bike and at almost the same speed. I watched, almost transfixed, as the sparrow floated gracefully and effortlessly, dipping a little then flapping its tiny wings to steady itself. For a few fleeting seconds I felt serene, as though we were two kindred spirits on a shared journey – until my bike skidded on some loose gravel and I said something that wasn’t very serene at all. Oblivious, the sparrow continued its flight, rising higher and higher and out of sight.
The second event was a layman’s study of Surah Al-Mulk (chapter 67 of the Qur’an) that I was doing. I was reading this before isha one night recently, as I had intended to recite it in my salah, and reading (as taught to by my teachers) the translation to give me a basic understanding and intensify my khushu’. When I read the translation of ayah 19, I instantly remembered the incident with the sparrow and my bike, and I had to stop reading as I relived it in my head.
“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” (67:19).
These two separate incidents, occurring more than a year apart, demonstrate to me that however we perceive our life experiences, whether they feel trivial or momentous, there is a verse of Qur’an or perhaps a hadith that already exists, which really describes or enriches those moments we thought nobody knew about; but Allah knows and he knows better than we do ourselves. For me, somebody who is only beginning his journey in exploring the Qur’an, it was amazing to discover this idea for myself, one which is probably deeply ingrained in others already, that whatever we experience in life Allah speaks to us about it in the Qur’an. Maybe it was the first time in my life that I’d connected with the Quran so uniquely and so profoundly. I was thrilled. All of a sudden, I felt like a free spirit; I was learning to ride my bike again, I was learning to ‘fly’ again.
This ayah has had such a lasting effect on me because it is an excellent reminder that there exists nothing, nor does anything occur, except by the permission of Allah. Whether it is the flight of birds or the ability to balance on a bike – whatever it may be – it is only by Allah’s permission. Yet, this is something that many of us are all too forgetful of. As one tafsir explains, “(None upholds them) meaning, in the air, (except the Most Gracious.) meaning, Allah holds them up in the air by subjecting the air to them out of His mercy and His gentleness. (Verily, He is the All-Seer of everything.) means, with what is beneficial and suitable for all of His creatures.”
Allah is merciful and gentle to us, if only we see and reflect upon His numerous signs. Even in our existence and our human form there is a sign. Allah says, “Verily, We created man in the best form” (95:4).
Allah created us as human beings, in the best form, without feathers or wings or the ability to fly. With this ‘best form’ he also gave us intellect and He gave us the Qur’an. We may not be able to fly like our feathered friends and from time to time we may overlook Allah’s signs; but if we study the Qur’an and engage our intellect those signs become clear again. When that happens, our spirits soar and there are no heights we cannot reach – and that’s a thrill that neither cycling nor flying can match.
By Kamal Hussain