Flickr: Maria Keays
And your Lord inspired the bee, saying: “Build yourself houses in the mountains and in the trees and in what people construct. Then feed on all kinds of fruit, and follow the ways made easy for you by your Lord. From their bellies comes a drink of different colors in which there is healing for people. There truly is a sign in this for people who think. [An Nahl: 68-69]
Honey is deeply respected in Islamic medicine as a powerful cure. Aside from tasting wonderful, honey is nourishing, rich in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, eases allergies and can be used topically to disinfect wounds and cure skin problems. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ himself took honey medicinally, saying “Make use of the two cures: honey and the Qur’an” (Ibn Majah). In another hadith narrated by Abu Said Al-Khudri:
A man came to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and said, “My brother has some abdominal trouble.” The Prophet said to him “Let him drink honey.” The man came for the second time and the Prophet said to him, “Let him drink honey.” He came for the third time and the Prophet said, “Let him drink honey.” He returned again and said, “I have done that ‘ The Prophet then said, “Allah has said the truth, but your brother’s abdomen has told a lie. Let him drink honey.” So he made him drink honey and he was cured.” [Sahih Bukhari]
There is a little honey shop in Mecca that sells Yemeni Hadramawti honey, highly praised throughout the Arab world for its exceptional flavor and medicinal properties. We visited it last winter while on ‘umra and brought home various types of medicinal honeys, bee pollen, and sweet-smelling honey soaps. The man behind the counter had a long thin beard, happy eyes, and was proud of the products that he sold. He took great care in explaining all of the different varieties and offering us a taste of each, some more notable for their flavor, others for their healing. I thought of him today when I read an article from Food Safety News, which recently commissioned a study on honey sold in the United States.
The results show that the pollen frequently has been filtered out of products labeled “honey.” The removal of these microscopic particles from deep within a flower would make the nectar flunk the quality standards set by most of the world’s food safety agencies…The food safety divisions of the World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others also have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.
Flickr: Gavin Mackintosh
Bee pollen is a special component of honey and contains much of what makes the stuff so good for us. The composition of bee pollen changes depending on the geographic location of the bees and no two pollen samples are completely identical. This makes it possible to track the origins of honey. When the pollen is completely filtered out through a process called Ultra Filtering, “because North American shoppers want their honey crystal clear,” there is no way to trace the honey. This can be problematic and even dangerous, as Chinese honey distributors have “illegally dumped tons of their honey – some containing illegal antibiotics – on the U.S. market for years.” The tests were commissioned by Food Safety News after a previous investigation found that Indian honey, banned in Europe on account of its “contamination with antibiotics, heavy metal and a total lack of pollen which prevented tracking its origin,” was widely available in US stores.
The study found that ultra-filtered honey comprises over three fourths of the honey sold commercially in the United States. Mark Jensen, president of the American Honey Producers Association, said:
In my judgment, it is pretty safe to assume that any ultra-filtered honey on store shelves is Chinese honey and it’s even safer to assume that it entered the country uninspected and in violation of federal law.
One finding in the study is that 100% of the samples purchased from farmers’ markets, co-ops, and stores such as Trader Joe’s contained the full amount of pollen. Raw, unprocessed honey, which can vary widely in texture, flavor, and color, is the the best for our bodies. Insh’Allah, armed with this knowledge, consumers will take it into their hands to demand higher health and safety standards by purchasing honey from local apiaries. These are often represented at farmers’ markets, but if not, the National Honey Board has a state-by-state locator. Raw honey is often more expensive than the cheap, clear honey available at the corner store, but it is a superior product. This is the honey that our Prophet ﷺ referred to in his hadith.
On a final note, we had the pleasure of buying honey and beeswax in bulk from Nature’s Bounty, a fantastic halal meat farm and small-scale slaughterhouse in California. Nature’s Bounty makes us wish we lived in the San Francisco Bay area!
Also, I highly recommend The Honey Gatherers, a breathtaking global photographic exploration of the world of honey gathering and beekeeping.
Flickr: Maria Keays