Bees, the Power of Music, and Other Wonders

I decided- yesterday, in fact- to add to my term paper on Qur’an tafsir material from Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s (543/1149- 606/1210) massive Qur’an commentary, Mafatih al-Ghayb– Key to the Unknown, also known as al-Tafsir al-Kabir, the Great Tafsir. The later appellate is especially apt- al-Razi’s commentary is not only huge, stretching to some thirty printed volumes in one edition, but is also both wide and deep in subject matter. For the limited little bit that I am covering for my paper- verses 66-69 of Surah al-Nahl– al-Razi has a regular field day talking about the wonders of animal physiognomy and the marvels of bees. While he touches on grammatical issues, the bulk of his commentary is taken up with descriptions of digestion, blood and milk production and transportation within the body, the details of beehive construction, and where honey comes from (which, for al-Razi, is an odd mix of traditional Aristotelian speculation on ‘honeydew’ and the, as it has turned out, more accurate Qur’anic idea of honey as bee secretion). Among the wonders of the bees that al-Razi includes is one ‘wonder’ that no other commentator I have examined includes, and is a practice I have in fact never encountered anywhere else. Here is the relevant passage, first in Arabic, then in my translation:

والرابع: أنها إذا نفرت من وكرها ذهبت مع الجمعية إلى موضع آخر، فإذا أرادوا عودها إلى وكرها ضربوا الطنبور والملاهي وآلات الموسيقى وبواسطة تلك الألحان يقدرون على ردها إلى وكرها، وهذا أيضاً حالة عجيبة

‘And the fourth [wonder]: That whenever they flee from their nest and go as a group to another place, and they [the beekeepers] desire their return to their nest, they play the tanbur, music-makers, and [other] instruments of music, and in the midst of these tunes [the beekeepers] are able to return them to their nest- and this also is a wonderful case!’

Well. What appears to be going on here is a dislocated swarm, and beekeepers who wish to return the errant swarm to their nest. Such a situation in itself is not unusual, but the means our Khurisani (presumably) beekeepers employ is one I am not familiar with. It would seem that the music al-Razi describes is meant to make the bees sedate and thus manageable, similar to the use of smoke to calm bees. But beyond this brief passage, I have so far been unable to find any other examples of music being used in bee-management (I suppose that’s the right word), in any part of the world.

If you, dear reader, happen to have knowledge of a similar case, either in ‘folklore’ or Classical science or mythology or whatever, or in actual practice, please share. Besides the fact that this is a fascinating little anecdote, I am interested in uncovering al-Razi’s sources for his tafsir– is this something he has himself observed or otherwise heard about, or is it something one might find in a written source, perhaps even a translation from the Hellenistic world? God knows best…

* N.B.: My use of al-Razi, whose commentary is not available in my university’s library, has been made possible by the truly wonderful website, which has a massive collection of classical tafsir online, free and easily accesible. Most are in Arabic, but there are also a few English translations. For the struggling graduate student, this is a particularly welcome resource- tafsir are usually expensive and bulky; though, nothing awes vistors to your office like an enormous Arabic tome opened on your desk…

Al-Ghazali on Funerals

As I was reading today the last section of al-Ghazali’s Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (The Revivification of the Religious Sciences)- Book XL, Kitab Dhikr al-Mawt wa-ma Ba’dahu (The Remembrance of Death and What is After It), I was struck by how apropros the following two passages seemed in light of the past couple weeks’ spate of well-publicized deaths and funerals:

1. ‘Know that funerals are a lesson to the man possessed of insight, and a reminder and a counsel to all save the people of heedlessness. For these latter are increased only in hardness of heart by witnessing them, as they imagine that for all time they will be watching the funerals of others, and never reckon that they themselves must needs be carried in a funeral cortege. Even if they do so reckon, they do not deem this to be something near at hand. They do not consider that those who are carried now in funeral processions thought likewise. Vain, then, are their imaginings, and soon their allotted lifespans will be done.

‘Therefore let no bondsman watch a funeral without considering that he himself is the one being borne aloft, for so he will be before long: on the morrow, or on the day that follows: it is as if the event had already occurred.’

2. ‘The properties of attending funerals include meditation, heedfulness, preparedness, and walking before the pall in humility… One of these proprieties is to have a good opinion of the deceased even if one he had been corrupt, and to have a poor opinion of oneself even if one may outwardly be pious. This is because the last moment is a perilous thing the true nature of which is unknown.

‘It is told of ‘Umar ibn Dharr that one of his neighbours once died. He had been extravagant with himself, and for this reason many people refused to attend his funeral. However, Ibn Dharr attended it and took part in the prayers. When he [the neighbour] had been lowered into the grave he [Ibn Dharr] stood beside it and said, “May God show you mercy, O father of So-and-so! For throughout your life you kept with you the testimony to Divine Unity, and begrimed your face with prostration. Although they called you a sinner and a transgressor, which one of us is not a sinner and has no transgressions to his account?”‘

Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, in The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife (Islamic Texts Society, 1989), 97, 98.

A Slap in the Face

“An anecdote had it that he [‘Ali an-Nashi’, d. 976] was once engaged in a disputation with al-Ash’ari… The disputation was in progress when, for no reason at all, he slapped al-Ash’ari’s face. Taken aback, Ash’ari demanded the reason for his opponent’s unprofessional conduct. Nashi’ said: ‘That is God’s doing, why get angry with me?’ Beside himself, Ash’ari exclaimed, ‘It is you doing alone, and it is bad conduct exceeding the bounds of decency in a disputation!’ Whereupon Nashi’ replied triumphantly: ‘You have contradicted yourself! If you persist in your doctrine, then the slap was God’s doing; but if you have shifted from your position, then exact the equivalent!’ Whereupon the audience broke in peals of laughter; Nashi’ had made his point that humans are responsible for human acts.”

The Rise of Colleges, Makdisi

I suppose that many of my readers will be familiar with the perennial debates in Christian traditions over the nature and extent of God’s knowledge and determination of human actions. As the above story should demonstrate, the same sorts of questions early on arose in Islam, and became topics of heated debate- and at least one very clever “visual aid.”