Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Honey, miracles and Islam

Mrs Spinoza and I have just started keeping bees. And by just, I mean a box of ten thousand and a queen was delivered yesterday afternoon and are happily flying off all over collecting nectar and pollen as I type. Which got me to thinking about the various claims made about bees and honey in the Qur'an, and how determined a certain sort of Muslim - like my convert friend - is to maintain that the holy book of Islam was the first to tell mankind about the wonderful properties of honey and how this is yet another example of miraculous knowledge imparted to us by Allah via his prophet.
"Your Lord revealed to the bees: "Build dwellings in the mountains and the trees, and also in the structures which men erect. Then eat from every kind of fruit and travel the paths of your Lord, which have been made easy for you to follow." From inside them comes a drink of varying colours, containing healing for mankind. There is certainly a Sign in that for people who reflect"  (16: 68)
(وأوحى ربك إلى النحل أن اتخذي من الجبال بيوتاً ومن الشجر، ومما يعرشون، ثم كلي من كل الثمرات فاسلكي سبل ربك ذللا ، يخرج من بطونها شراب مختلف ألوانه فيه شفاء للناس، إن في ذلك لآية لقوم يتفكرون) النحل
There are two aspects to this claim to miraculous knowledge which bothers me. i. knowledge of the many different properties of honey was widespread at the time of Muhammad ii. there are obvious factual errors in the verse which any child with a basic understanding of biology can point out.

i. Unique miraculous knowledge?
It is plainly ridiculous to suggest, as the miracle seekers do, that the verse in the Qur'an was first mankind was aware of the medicinal/curative properties of honey. As early as 4,000 BC honey was being used in Ayurveda medicine in India. In fact over 600 remedies using honey have been noted in ayervedic medicine- a little more impressive than the odd story of Muhammad suggesting a follower with a dodgy tum drink honey.... And what are we to make of the ancient Egyptian papyri which famously (although the fact seems to have escaped the miracle seekers) show how honey was used in the their medicinal compounds. In fact, of the 900 medical remedies known from ancient Egypt, more than 500 used honey in some form or other; the bee even became a symbol of the pharaohs! We might even, if we wished to labour the point, note how the ancient Greeks and Romans were accustomed  to using honey in medicine hundreds of years before Muhammad ever thought to mention it. Hardly miraculous knowledge then.

ii. Factual errors
One doesn't need to be a beekeeper or indeed any kind of expert to see the embarrassing factual error in the verse above. But just in case there are any miracle seekers reading this who are a little hard of reasoning, let me spell it out: BEES DO NOT MAKE HONEY FROM EATING FRUIT. Bees make honey from nectar. Nectar is not a fruit, does not resemble a fruit and contains complex sugars not available in fruit. Nectar for honey comes from FLOWERS. Ironically, some plants do have extra-floral nectaries (bits of the plant which are not flowers that produce nectar) and some of those extra-floral nectaries can be fruits, but rather awkwardly for Muhammad and the miracle seekers they are defensive or aggressive in nature and would more than likely kill any bee trying to eat it so that it could be consumed by the plant...oops.
""Ah - but Muammad's followers were simple folk and the verse is obviously not meant to be read so literally. Eat from every kind of fruit obviously means from every fruit-bearing plant"
So how difficult would it have been for God to have said, Visit every sort of flower? Would that really have confused His simple followers so much?

So in summary we have a verse which reveals nothing not known before in all the major civilisations which preceded Islam and which contains a glaring factual error.

Many Muslim miracle sites reassure anxious questioners who have spotted the factual error in the verse by rather superciliously explaining that bees do eat fruit.
Bassam Zawadi at ahlalhdeeth says this:
bees do eat fruits. Here is a picture of a bee feeding on a grape you can read about the picture here
I'm sure bees do eat fruit, Bassam. But that's not the point, is it? The point is that the verse surely is utterly meaningless unless God is telling the bees how to make honey. And however much you may wish it was the case, bees don't generally do that by eating fruit. So why should God tell bees to eat fruit? If anything, God is actually advising the bees to become annoying and costly little critters by eating what man eats and farms instead of visiting flowers and performing the vital function of pollination.
Thanks, God.

Unless - and I know this is a wild suggestion - Muhammad saw bees eating dates and grapes (as they do in that part of the world to gain moisture) and assumed that was how they made honey...Now there's a thought.


  1. Nice summary of the mindset that goes along with these miracle claims. The unique knowledge can easily be debunked by the availability of knowledge at the time or before.

    The one that baffles me is the claim that the verses are accurate representations of science. When I read the verses, I understand how a layman would describe these phenomena and the quran verses do exactly that. Classic god of the gaps/argument from ignorance, not totally unexpected.

    Sure I can accept that muslims want to shoehorn in scientific discriptions in to the quran fair enough, but they should atleast be honest about it. let them atleast present a fact that has not been discovered, from the quran excusively.

    Funnily enough a lot of muslims have attempted this with the jinn claims. They often say that science will eventually prove jinn and we will say it was already in the quran. lol.

    Ramadan has started and I have seen muslims promote fasting as providing health benefits (which is true), therefore, islam is the true religion of God, takbir ..... oh wait, I just realised hindus/buddists have been practising fasting long before islam established, silly me jumping to baseless conclusions what am I, muslim ;).

  2. Spinoza, I was wondering if you were aware of the claim that mohammed was gifted with omniscience, well not god level but supernatural level. It is a widespread sunni belief. He was apparently granted knowledge outside of the quran, that which is contained in hadiths/sunnah. You could use this to point to more glaring errors in islamic doctrine.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts in the blog on the science of hadiths. Alledgedly the greatest science ever formulated. (scence of conjecture, cough cough)

  3. tell me, mr spinoza. how do you explain the fact that the verse's two verbs are in the feminine form? thus the author knew that bees which work are female - noone knew this until the microscope was invented!!!

    1. Not so. Aristotle in his work, The History of Animals, writes in Book 5, Part 21:
      "Others, again, assert that these insects copulate, and that the drones are male and the bees female."
      In part 22 he speaks of the drones being stingless and inactive. Hardly new information.

      Also, the Bible speaks of the bee in the feminine gender in Isaiah 7:18--
      "And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall hiss for the fly that

      uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria."
      The Hebrew word for bee here is Deborah, which is feminine, and the name of a prophetess and leader of Israel in Judges 4 and 5.

  4. from this you haven't proved the Quran is incorrect. You're saying the "eating from from" fruit is in relation to honey. Who said? Just because it doesn't fit your narrative, it doesn't make it wrong. Before that, it says bees should build dwellings in mountains, tress and houses...gosh, are these things also prerequisites to making honey?!! As you see, the paragraph gives a summary of what bees do, not how bees make honey.

    Thanks for confirming there is actually zero factual error in that paragraph. Just misguided "confirmation bias" on your behalf - the very thing you accuse muslims of.

    1. Then Why on earth do muslims spout that this is a scientific miracle. If claims of this passage revealing extraordinary info did not appear, then we would not need to go in this much depth.

      It's muslims that take extra emphasis in to mundane verses and imply divine inspiration. Before you go about telling everyone else to get facts right maybe you could tell your fellow muslims to stop exaggerating claims.

  5. Where have "I" said that this is a scientific miracle? I'm sorry, I don't talk on behalf of the muslims that may do see this as a miracle - we may all look the same to you, but we don't speak for each other.

    This person wasn't talking about miracles, he was talking about "factual errors" and I was merely pointing out that this wasn't a factual error!

    So...please tell "fellow" non-Muslim not to emphasis a phrase and blatantly misquote it.

    I thank you!

    1. Hi Anon,
      I didn't say you (I take it you are Bassam Zawadi)claimed it was a miracle. I said there were Muslims who delight in finding "miraculous" knowledge in the Qur'an who claim that this verse is also miraculous.
      My point to you was simply that showing that bees do occasionally "eat" fruit is counter-productive for then one must surely ask why God is telling the bees to do so when it is such a minor and unproductive (not to say damaging) behaviour.
      Why does God not tell the bees to visit blossoms and find nectar?
      Can you please answer me that?

  6. You said the Quran is "factually wrong" - you're factually wrong for suggesting that. Clearly, as your update shows, bees do eat from fruits - especially in other parts of the world. So, again, you're wrong.

    "Why does God not tell the bees to visit blossoms and find nectar?
    Can you please answer me that?"...but why should he??? Why doesn't he go into detail about a queen?? why doesn't he talk about Man Utd being rubbish under Moyes??? There are many things he could have said, but that isn't the point (it seems like you're hastily changing the goalposts)

    You're point was that it was factually wrong - and as we've proved - it clearly isn't!

    By the way, you used Pickthall's interpretation. Yusuf Ali's translation is said to be better:
    "Then to eat of all the produce (of the earth), and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought."

    Wrong either way!

  7. Hi Anon,
    The Qur'an states that bees eat from fruit and implies that that is how they produce honey for our benefit.
    Either we take from the Qur'an that God rather pointlessly is explaining that bees make a nuisance of themselves OCCASIONALLY by eating fruit OR we take from it that Muhammad wrongly thought bees made honey from fruit.
    Either way you look at it it leaves any sensible reader wondering...

  8. Hi Bee Keeper
    Where does the Quranic verse say that bees use fruit to make honey. It says that God inspired the bee to eat of all fruits in whichever way you want to define it. Not even the scientist are sure how honey is really made and how it heals.