HONEY (ʿasal, Ar. term now the most common name for honey in Persia; archaic Pers. angobin < Mid. Pers. angubēn, with the variants angup/mēn recorded in Frahang ī Pahlavīk, ed. M. J. Maškur, Tehran, 1968, pp. 68, 144), the well-known substance made by honeybees (Ar. naḥl;Pers. zanbur-e ʿasal [lit. “honey wasp”]; Mid. Pers. magas ī angubēn [lit.”honey fly”]; arch. Pers. mong)in their nests in the wild or in man-made beehives (Pers. kandu); the obsolete angobin still survives as anja/ebin in the compounds sek-anjebin “oxymel” (q.v.; arch. sek “vinegar”) and tar-anjebin,lit. “fresh/moist honey,” a kind of medicinal manna.
In pre-Islamic lore and traditions. From pre-lslamic (Sasanian) times we have a few references to honey and honeybees. In the Bundahišn (q.v.) the magas ī angubēn and two other kinds of “fly” constitute a separate sardag (“sort, kind”) within the large category of xrafstar (“noxious animals”) created by Ahriman (q.v.), the Evil Spirit (tr. Anklesaria, 22, pp. 184-85; tr. Bahār, p. 98); however, it is stated later (tr. Anklesaria, pp. 188-89; tr. Bahār, p. 99) that Ohrmazd in his omniscience diverts these noxious animals to the benefit of his creatures. In the anonymous Draxt ī āsūrīg (q.v.), the date-palm, when enumerating its benefits and uses, boasts (ed. and Pers. tr. Māhyār Nawwābi, couplet 19, p. 29): “I am šīr [“milk”] for war-zīgarān [“cultivators, peasants”], angubēn [for] āzād-mardān [“noblemen”]. (The meaning of this couplet is not quite clear; the “milk” may refer to the crude sap of the date-palm, and the “honey” to the rich nectar of its blossoms; cf. Ar. šahd, which in Persian means both “flower nectar” and, by extension, “honey”).
In the summary version of the Pahlavi story Xusro ī Kavātān ut rēdak (“Ḵosrow, son of Kavāt, and [his] page”), quoted by the historian Ṯaʿālebi (Ḡorar, ed. and Fr. tr. Zotenberg, p. 707), the knowledgeable noble boy, when answering the monarch’s query about the aṭyab al-ḥalāwā (“the finest sweetmeats”), mentions a kind of fāluḏaj (< Mid. Pers. pāludag > New Pers. p/fāluda, a term which does not designate now the sweetmeat in question, which is said to be made of sugar and honey. In the Pahlavi text of the story, pālūtak [sic] is translated “fruit gelée” by Unvala (par. 41, p. 23), and rendered by Monchi-Zadeh (par. 41, p. 72) as “pālūtak which is prepared from the juice of the small white apple.” Only fruit is mentioned, not honey.
Again in the Iranian lore, according to the Nowruz-nāma (attributed to ʿOmar Ḵayyām, p. 16), Hušang (q.v.), the second king of the mythical Pišdādiān dynasty, among other innovations, first “brought out honey from zanbur (“wasp”) and silk from the cocoon,” but the historian Gardizi (q.v.; p. 31) credits the demons (diws; see DĒW) with the creation of the honeybee and the silk worm in the time of Hušang’s son and successor Ṭ/Tahmureṯ. According to the latter author, Ṭahmureṯ ruthlessly fought the demons, who finally begged him for mercy, but the king replied that he would continue to subdue them “till the time when dried-up wood . . . would be rejuvenated . . . and the [mulberry] tree would produce material [for] kings’ garment [i.e. silk] . . . and when I [could] eat a delicious foodstuff not [originally] sown by oxen and not cooked by fire.” The crafty demons “brought [him] the silkworm that wove silk on a tree, saying: ‘Here is a tree [presumably a mulberry tree] that bears [the material for] kings’ garments; and they brought forth the ‘honey wasp’, declaring: “Here is [the producer of] a delicious food[stuff] obtainable without oxen’s toil and without cooking by fire.” Cf. also Abu Rayḥān Biruni’s quotation of a marvelous phenomenon (Āṯār,p. 353) from the Samanid vizier Abu ʿAbd-Allāh Aḥmad b. Moḥammad Jayhāni: “in the Indian Ocean there is a kind of tree whose branches spread over the pebbles on the coast. Its leaves gradually decay, [and] turn into honeybees [which] fly away . . . The generation of honeybees from beef, and of the genus zanbur (wasp) from horse flesh, is known to naturalists” [!].
Later Mazdeans’ doubts about the licitness of honey. After the Arab conquest of Persia and the flight of a number of endangered Zoroastrians to India (where they are still known as “Parsees”), and because of the Muslim rulers’ fondness for honey (see below) and for silk garments, there gradually arose doubts (among those Mazdeans remaining in Persia) as to the licitness of using these two materials, notwithstanding the exception made for the honeybee and the silkworm and their products. This uncertainty is well reflected in The Persian Rivayats of Hormazyar Framarz and others (a collection of religious questions asked by some common Zoroastrians in Persia and of the answers given by some Parsee authorities of the time; ed. and Engl. tr. B. N. Dhabhar [q.v.], 1932, pp. 265-66). Here is the gist of the issues concerning honey. The following points should be observed by Zoroastrians: (1) Honey “extracted” by a jud-dēn (lit., “of a different religion, non-Mazdean”) or by a darvand (sic; < Pahl. druwand “evil, unrighteous person”) should not be taken as a medicament; (2) honey should be extracted from a previously cleaned beehive by a hūrbud [sic; < Pahl. hērbed “teacher-priest”) or by a behdin (< Pahl. wehdēn “Maz-dean”) for other Mazdeans; and (3) before extracting the honey, the said hērbed or wehdēn should wash his hands.
The Islamic period. Some of the earlier Arab or Persian geographers have casually indicated the localities in the geographically vague Jebāl region (= ʿErāq-e ʿAjam) in Persia, where (wild) honey was obtained (for these unimportant references, see Schwarz, Iran I, index, s.v. Honig).
To Muslims everywhere ʿasal acquired a special significance because of its mention in the Koran: first in the sura al-Naḥl (16:68-69) and, more importantly, in a description of the Islamic paradise (47:15), where anhār (“streams”) of ḵamr (“wine, alcoholic beverage”), of ʿasal nuṣaffā (“clarified honey,” i.e., separated from the wax), and of “milk whose taste does not change” (i.e., non-putrescible). The relevant versesof the sura al-Naḥl read as follows (we have adopted M. M. Pickthall’s popular translation): “And thy Lord inspired the bee [in these terms]: ‘Choose thou habitations in the hills [sic; jebāl, “mountains”] and in the trees, and in that which they [i.e., people] thatch [meaning of “min-mā yaʿriššun” unclear]; and eat of all kinds of fruits [sic] and follow the ways of thy Lord, made smooth (for thee)’.” The following verse69is not directly addressed to the bee: “There comes forth from their [= the bees’] bellies a drink diverse of hues, wherein is healing for mankind. Lo! Herein is indeed a portent for people who reflect.”
As expected, these few Koranic verses have given rise to a great deal of rewāyāt and commentaries, of which we shall quote some. In his Persian ʿAjāyeb al-maḵluqāt (“The marvels of creation,” comp. between 1160 and 1177; pp. 622-23), Moḥammad b. Maḥmud Ṭusi explains away some basic problems that seem to have occurred to “people who reflect”: (1) To the question, “How did the creator [without the intermediary of the Arabic-speaking Gabriel, the angel communicating Allah’s revelations] reveal these facts to the bee?” Ṭusi explains that here waḥy (“revelation”) means elhām (“inspiration”). (2) Ṭusi dispels doubts about the licitness of using honey by imagining a fantastic origin for honey: “Some argue: ‘If honey comes out through the bee’s mouth, juridically it should be considered a vomit; if coming out through its rear end, it should be considered a ḥadaṯ (excrement)’ “; in either case it is najes (virtually unclean) and illicit. Ṭusi’s explanation: “No, it is neither. It is subtle ṭall (dew) hidden in the air” [!], “which ṭall the bee [gathers] and transfers to the kanduj (hive).” ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb states that honey comes out from under the bee’s wings. Then, in confirmation of his opinion, he cites this saying of the Prophet: “The moʾmen (Muslim believer) is comparable to the honeybee that does not eat but ṭib (good pleasant things) and does not produce but ṭib.”
Concerning the marvelous features of bees, Ṭusi includes the following. Firstly, their sagacity: “They build some [sic] houses [= cells] hexagonally [because] in the Euclidean geometry there is no modawwar (sic, “rounded figure”) fitting another one without [forming] an angle, except a hexagon [with equal sides and angles]. (For a clearer, more plausible explanation, of this hexagonal structure, see Damiri, vol. II, pp. 340-41.) They make the [cell] walls thin and smooth like paper; and, after filling each cell with honey, they cover it with mum (wax). Secondly, “like cranes, they have a chief and mehtar (“superior”) that keeps watch at the entrance [of the hive] and smells the incoming bees. If the latter have eaten [sic] pure honey, they are allowed in; if they have eaten both pure and unclean honey, the chief drives them away by buzzing, and keeps them out; if they have eaten [only] something unclean, the chief stings them, cutting them into two, and throws out their corpses.” Thirdly, according to Ṭusi, honey, being non-putrescible, serves to conserve fresh meat and pounded drugs, just like salt, vinegar, and tar. He mentions the case of Qābus; when he died, his corpse wasput in a glass coffin filled with honey. Fourthly, concerning the bees’ chief (emir), the other bees conceal him under their wings. The chief appears only in fine weather, when he soars in the air with “an army” of bees; then he returns to the hive and is swarmed by other bees. (This obviously refers to the “queen bee” in modern parlance.) Then the chief plucks its sting in order not to hurt any other bee. Should a bee sting a person, it “falls down,” standing on end until it dies. Fifthly, active, honey-producing bees are all females; the males do nothing; all of them, except the chief, are chased away. (Of course, these imaginary data do not entirely correspond with modern scientific information about honeybees.)
The curative virtues of honey. The Koranic praise of honey as “a cure for mankind” is too vague, so that honey may be interpreted as a kind of general tonic or even as a sort of panacea. However, in the Shiʿite tradition (hadith)literature several specific virtues are quoted from the Prophet and some Imams for honey alone or along with some incongruent things; but these traditions are often recorded with variations and additions that make one doubt their authenticity and/or veracity of their transmitters. We quote a number of them, omitting the chain of transmitters. (A comprehensive collection of these traditions is to be found in Majlesi’s Beḥār al-anwār [q.v.], vol. LXIII, pp. 288-97; for the relevant Sunni traditions see Maines and his sources, pp. 445-47.) “The Prophet was delighted by honey. You must seek two cures: from honey and from [reading] the Koran” (attributed to Imam Jaʿfar Ṣādeq; recorded by the famous Shiʿite theologian and traditionist Ḥasan b. Fażl Ṭabarsi [d. 547/1153], p. 188). “Licking [sic] honey is a cure for all ailments” (attributed to the same; ibid.). “Whoever wishes [to strengthen] his memory should eat honey.” Further the Prophet has said that honey “protects” the heart and cures “the coldness” in the chest (attributed to the Prophet by the same; Ṭabarsi, pp. 188-89). An earlier Shiʿite traditionist, Aḥmad b. Moḥammad Barqi Qommi (probably d. 887), who was a friend of the Eighth Imam, related a story (p. 500) ending in the prescription of a curious compound remedy including honey: A devout woman donated, through a pilgrim to Mecca, some yarn to be used to mend the Ka’ba’s cover. When the intermediary reached Medina, he met Imam Moḥammad Bāqer and consulted the Imam about the appropriateness of that donation. The latter recommended this substitute: “Sell the yarn, and with its price buy some honey and saffron. Obtain some soil of [Imam] Ḥosayn’s tomb (ṭin qabr al-Ḥosayn), and knead all these with rainwater into a paste, and then distribute this mixture to Shiʿites in order that they [may] cure their patients with it.” (Some wonderful virtues are ascribed by some Shiʿite authorities to the soil of the tomb of the third Imam, Ḥosayn b. ʿAli, in Karbalā, including that of curing all ailments, just like honey; see, e.g., Ṭabarsi, pp. 190-97.)
Persian literature. Innumerable references to ʿasal and šahd are found in Persian poetry, not only as a delicious sweet substance like šekar (sugar), but also figuratively, often in contrast to šarang (Ar. ḥanẓal), i.e., the very bitter colocynth (numerous quotations in Dehḵodā, Loḡat-nāma, s.vv.).
Mehrdād Bahār, Bundahiš, Tehran, 1990.
Moḥammad b. Musā Damiri, Ketāb al-ḥayāt al-ḥayawān, 2 vols., Cairo, 1887.
Bahmanji N. Dhabhar, The Persian Rivayats of Hormazyar Framarz and others, Bombay, 1932.
D. Maines, “Honey,” in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān II, ed. J. D. McAuliffe, Leiden and Boston, 2002.
Māhyār Nawwābi, Manẓūma-ye deraḵt-e āsūrīg, Tehran, 1967.
Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, an Explanatory Translation, London, 1930.
H.-P. Schmidt, “Ancient Iranian Animal Classification,” Festschrift Paul Thieme, Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 5/6, 1980, pp. 209-44.
Abu Naṣr Ḥasan b. Fażl Ṭabarsi, Makārem al-aḵlāq, ed. ʿA. ʿAlawi Ṭāleqāni, Karbalā, n.d.
Moḥammad b. Maḥmud Ṭusi, Ajāyeb-nāma,ʿAjāyeb al-Maḵluqāt wa ḡarāʾeb al-mojudāt, Tehran, 1996.
Originally Published: December 15, 2004
Last Updated: March 23, 2012
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