Quranic Reflection No. 405. Ayat 6:38 – Animal communities

وَمَا مِنْ دَابَّةٍ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلَا طَائِرٍ يَطِيرُ بِجَنَاحَيْهِ إِلَّا أُمَمٌ أَمْثَالُكُمْ
Wamā min dābbatin fil-ardhi walā tā’irin yatīru bijanahayhi illā umamun amthālakum
There is no animal on land nor a bird that flies with its wings but they are communities like yourselves
(Sūrat al-An‘ām, No.6, Āyat 38

This verse addresses people and shows them creation in a different perspective. It talks about two types of creatures – the animal who walks on land and the bird who uses wings to fly. The word ‘dābba’ comes from ‘dabab’ which means to walk slowly with small steps. The two phrases together are a comprehensive inclusion of all forms of land and sky creatures. These creatures form groups and live with their own kind, interacting with one another in sometimes complex ways, just like the human being.

The word ‘umam’ is plural of ummah. An ummah is defined as a group that is united in one factor – either in objective, or in path they follow, or in place or time. Each of these could be a common factor that unifies a group. It makes them seem one despite being many in number. The factor that unites them could be an involuntary factor, something that comes instinctively to them, or it could be one that they choose knowingly.

How are animal and human communities similar? The Tafāsīr give the following similarities:
1. Both possess an understanding and awareness of the world around them. The examples in the Quran of the ant and Prophet Sulayman (a), and hoopoe (Q 27: 17 – 26), etc. show that there exists a certain awareness in animal communities. The fact that Islam does not allow slaughtering of an animal in front of other animals also shows that animals are sensitive and respond to stimuli around them.
2. Both have knowledge albeit to their own level. Animals can identify members of their groups, find food, protect themselves and their groups, build shelters etc.
3. Both glorify and worship God in their own way. Many verses of the Quran talk about this. Allah talks about the glorification of creatures: The seven heavens glorify Him, and the earth and whoever is in them. There is not a thing but celebrates His praise, but you do not understand their glorification (Q 17:44). And about the prostration of all creatures: To Allah prostrates whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth, including animals and angels, and they are not arrogant (Q 16:49). And even their prayer – Have you not regarded that Allah is glorified by everyone in the heavens and the earth, and the birds spreading their wings. Each knows his prayer and glorification, and Allah knows best what they do (Q 24:41). The shrill voices of the birds are their way of glorifying Allah ‘azza wa-jall (Enlightening Commentary, v. 8 taken from Bihar 4:27).

Animal societies vary in structure. Some have a more sophisticated community life than others. They have division of responsibilities, assignment of tasks, mutual fulfillment of needs etc. like the organized ant colonies and bee hives. Others work together as a team to make it easier to find food and protect themselves.

Āyatullāh Mutahharī in his book Islam and the needs of the Time says that although there are similarities between animal and human communities there is one big difference.  Animal communities have since the beginning of creation always lived in the same way. They have done things according to what they know instinctively. There is no place for innovation and creativity in those communities, unlike human communities that have progressed over time. Man has gone through many stages over history and has evolved in the complexity of the life he leads with others. This shows the superiority of the human being and the level of intellect and freedom he has been blessed with.

This verse reminds us of the complex natural world we live in. There is much going on in the life of all creatures that move on earth. Keeping that in mind is both humbling and enlightening.

Sources: Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān