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 Altafsir.com, 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…