Dr Issam Eido writes on two similitudes in Sura al Nahl and the example of the bees, and explains what we can learn from them about human motivation.
Allah Most High presented in the Meccan Sura, al Nahl, two consecutive similitudes which contain a number of juxtapositions:
Allah has presented a similitude: a slave in bondage, incapable of anything; and he who We have provided an excellent provision, so he spends from it privately and publicly. Are they the same? All praise belongs to Allah – yet most of them do not know.
And Allah gives another similitude of two men: one is unable to speak, incapable of anything and a source of weariness for his master. Wherever he directs him he does not bring any good whatsoever. Would he ever be equal to him who commands [the good] with justice and is firmly upon a truly straight way? (Sura al Nahl, 16:75-76)
These two similitudes succeed the mention of the bee (nahl), the word which the entire chapter is named after. Moreover, the themes of this chapter, in general, center around the bee as a representation of [human] actions, and the value of hard work, earning, effort, and making society thrive.
The essence of the inspiration given to the bee is summarized in the following divine command, “…then take the paths of your Lord which have been subjugated for you.” (Sura al Nahl 16:69) [This is done] in a manner which reflects habitual practice and effort, with no sign of haughty resistance, nor boredom in the making of a drink of various colors which has a healing for humanity, and within it is a tremendous lesson for those who reflect. This lesson is not restricted to the honey alone; rather it is found in the habitual work ethic of the bee itself.
Centrality of Divine Oneness
One cannot understand the two similitudes which were mentioned after the bee without recourse to the vivid imagery and expressive indication of the workings of the bee in producing honey. With this context, it is possible to understand the contrasts found in these two examples: the first, a slave in bondage, incapable of anything, contrasted with someone who God has given an excellent provision; he spends it secretly and openly.
The second similitude is a mute, who is also incapable of anything, and is a burden on his master; regardless of what he is directed to he does not bring any good. He is contrasted with someone who commands [what is good] with justice and is firmly on a truly upright, straight path.
After a quick look at a number of Qurʾanic commentaries which explain these two examples, we find that the issue of divines oneness is central to both similitudes. The chapter of the bee was revealed to the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, in the Meccan period, and the Meccan Qurʾan, by its nature, deals primarily with the issue of divine oneness and the afterlife.
Consequently, we can understand the reason which compelled the Qurʾanic exegetes – coupled with some contextual causes of revelation (asbab al nuzul) – to tie these two similitudes to the issue of comparing belief with disbelief, idolaters with monotheists, idols incapable [of anything] with God Almighty, the lazy disbeliever with the active believer, and a particular individual mentioned by name in a cause of revelation with someone who is his opposite.
Freedom from Impulses
Regardless of what [the interpretation] is, through a contextual reading of these two similitudes in light of the symbolism of the bee and its work ethic, we perceive the strong, essential connection the Qurʾanic text intends to indicate here. Namely, the juxtaposition of the work ethic resultant from goodness, with indolence, idleness, and unproductiveness, which all result from defeatism and laziness.
Through analysis, we find that the first similitude is imagery of a bonded slave, who has no will or capacity: he has neither the strength nor the motivation to work. From this imagery, the mind cannot conceptualize the image of a slave in bondage who is owned by his master.
The image speaks of a slave whose will and mind are in submission to something in particular, and he in turn, has become a slave to it, incapable of anything beyond its scope. This image should be brought in mind in contrast with the other slave who only see what he owns as provision sent to him by Allah.
At this point we must take a step back to understand an important and central issue which was emphasized by the Qurʾanic text in this context: “Allah has preferred some of you over others in provision.” (Sura al Nahl, 16:71) We can see a slave free from his egotistical impulses among which are avarice, desire, greed, and envy.
Obedience and Personal Choice
In the provision of others, he sees nothing but the gifts of his Generous Lord. As a result, the ultimate end of provision with such as slave is that he spends is privately and publicly, because of his complete certainty that the matter is pre-ordained. Here the strength and motivation of the human being is freed from the bondage of shackling egotistical worries; those which turn the human being into a bonded slave, incapable of anything.
In addition to provision, there is another factor which the Qurʾanic text emphasized, which is in a verse that succeeds the two similitudes:
God brought you forth from the wombs of you mothers not knowing anything. And He made for you [the faculties of] hearing and seeing, and emotional hearts that, hopefully, you may be thankful. (Sura al Nahl 16:78)
Here the imagery is perfected when the Qurʾanic text establishes the equality of all of humanity, be they men or women. Each of them came into existence without knowledge. However, the capacity to learn is present, and it occurs through the faculties of hearing and sight, and hearts.
Through personal choice, the human being can either make these faculties (hearing, sight, hearts) shackled incapable of anything; or he can make them motivated, energetic, freed from their bonds, spending publicly and privately. Everyone, without exception, has the special quality of subjugation which God Most High mentioned just after this over a number of verses “Have they not seen the birds subjugated in the midst of the sky? None holds them save God … Clearly, you are only obliged to convey.” (Sura al Nahl 16:79, 81)
The Cure for Defeatism
In the second similitude the issue of productivity comes across much more clearly through the contrasts of “mute” and “incapable” [and their opposites]. The quality of inability is repeated twice in both examples, and it is essential in the allusion to lack of productivity, laziness, indolence, and defeatism.
However, in this example there are two other traits which have a very interesting usage: the first being “mute”, which is a quality mentioned in the Qurʾan with others such as blindness and deafness, to describe the disbelievers. But the inability to speak has been mentioned independent of blindness and deafness here for the first time in the Qurʾan, and in the context of criticizing someone who does not speak.
It is well known that there are many texts in the Islamic tradition which criticize [excessive] speech and praise silence, but the context here criticizes the inability to speak here whilst contrasting it with praise for the man who commands justice.
Motivation Toward Betterment
We can infer the motivation and indolence from this juxtaposition. Motivation to better society, to help the wronged, to stop oppressors, to strive, to earn, to make [society] thrive. The mute here is not just the state of silence, the mute here is the state of defeatism which does not want change. For you to see something wrong in society and for you to just lower your gaze [from it].
Here, it is also possible to appreciate the second contrast. There is the one who is a burden on his master – the man who cannot move or speak except with what his master tells him to do. His good is the good of his master, and his evil is the evil of his master. He is incapable of seeing good himself; unable to perceive good, evil and the concept of justice without his master specifying it. He is in contrast to the one who is on a truly straight way.
The description of the second man as being on a truly tremendous way is an expression of the motivation and deeds of this man. The word “on” here carries meanings which express vigor and movement. He is firmly on this way; no one can dictate to him [what to do], active, a master in his own right, free in his will and capacity.
Dr Issam Eido is a former Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic from the University of Chicago Divinity School (2013-2015). His teaching interests focus on Modern and Classical Arabic language, Arabic Literature, Islamic Studies, and Qur’anic Arabic. Prior to the Syrian uprising, Eido served as a lecturer in the faculty of Islamic Studies in the Department of Qur’an and Hadīth Studies at the University of Damascus. While undertaking his doctoral work in the mid-2000s, Eido solidified an international reputation among Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies experts.
Currently, his research focuses on the question of Authenticity and the shaping of authoritative Islamic texts among Muslim scholars in the Islamic formative period.