The Rest of the Birds Oppress and Loathe It

I’m well aware of the popularity that the infamous lesbian palm tree text has among my friends, and I thought it would take the opportunity to provide the world with another example.  This is taken from Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī’s book Nihāyat al-arab fī funūn al-adab (The Final Goal of the Branches of Art) which, like so many other pre-modern Arabic texts, is concerned with everything.  This excerpt is from the volume about animals, and besides the amusing religious assertion (basically unsupported, and even unmentioned, by anyone else), it is interesting for what it gets wrong – and right – about bats.

Chapter 5: Nocturnal Birds
This chapter contains what has been noted about the bat, the curlew, the owl, and the screech-owl

The bat is not like a bird at all: it has ears, teeth, a snout, and prominent testicles; it urinates just as any mammal; it menstruates, gives birth, and suckles its young; and it has no feathers.
One¹ exegete of the book of God Almighty [the Qur’ān] says: “The bat was the bird which Jesus, son of Mary, created with the permission of God Most High²: thus it is set apart from the design of the Creator, and the rest of the birds oppress and loathe it.  Those which eat flesh ate it and those which do not killed it, and for this reason it only flies at night.”
Their diet consists of mosquitoes and moths, which they catch in mid-flight.  They are enabled to do this only by the speed of their movements, the power of their flight, and the suppleness of their limbs, despite which they do not have feathers; rather, they are flesh covered by a thick skin similar to that of a frog.  Yet they manage to fly without feathers, which is very strange.
They do not fly in daylight, nor in pitch darkness, and the reason for this is that they are deficient in the power of sight, with few ocular rays³.  The sun, therefore, weakens their sight by overtaxing the rays, and total darkness overwhelms them.  Bats are thus forced to fly in search of food while the sun sets, at the beginning of dusk, when mosquitoes rise and are plentiful.
They live in mountains, rocky crevices, plains, wastelands, and islands, and in any place that is run-down or neglected. They seek closeness to people, and if they are in our houses they will find the highest and most-protected area to be in.
Bats are noted for their long lifespans, and they can grow until they are the size of a shoe, or bigger!
They give birth to between 3 and 9 offspring, and they copulate mostly during flight. They carry their young under their wings, and sometimes hold them in their mouths out of tenderness. The female sometimes suckles her young while flying. A man who witnessed this swore to me that it was true, and said that it flew into a sycamore tree and was injured.


Nuwayrī then goes on to quote Jāḥiẓ – who seems to turn up everywhere – and mentions two quite uncomplimentary poems about bats.  One, described as a riddle, is basically along the lines of “I’m hideously ugly, worse than anything God has made, you couldn’t sell me at a market in perfect condition, what am I?” The second one describes various scholars rejecting the idea that a bat can be a real animal because it combines “the skin of a man, the shape of a bird, the claws of a jerboa, and the ears of a fox“, objections which remind me of the early scholars who, presented with a platypus, decided that it must have been stitched together as a hoax.  I find it quite sweet that men of science in the Middle Ages refused to believe in bats and yet continued to insist that manticores and trees which grew sheep were genuine.

[1] The word ba’ḍ, which means ‘some’ in Modern Arabic, is often used in Classical to mean ‘one of’.
[2] This is a reference to verse 3:49 of the Qur’ān: “Surely I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, that I have made the figure of a bird out of clay, and I breathe life into it and it becomes a bird, with the permission of God.” I should probably reiterate that I have never come across any religious authority, or even a casual commentator, who believed that Jesus made the bat.  I have never even seen any rebuttals of it, which does unfortunately suggest that no-one takes it seriously.
[3] Contemporary scientific wisdom held that the power of sight was dependent upon rays which left the pupils of the eyes.


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