Hadith Hadith Exegesis

Hadiths of the Fly (Bac­te­rio­phages)

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Only in mod­ern times was it dis­cov­ered that the com­mon fly car­ried par­a­sitic pathogens for many dis­eases includ­ing malar­ia, typhoid fever, cholera, and oth­ers. It was also dis­cov­ered that the fly car­ried par­a­sitic bac­te­rio­phag­ic fun­gi capa­ble of fight­ing the germs of all these dis­eases. The Prophet Muham­mad — upon him and his House bless­ings and peace — allud­ed to both facts 1,400 years ago when he said, as nar­rat­ed from Abu Hurayra and Abu Sa‘id al-Khu­dri by al-Bukhari and in the Sunan :

If a fly falls into one of your con­tain­ers [of food or drink], immerse it com­plete­ly (falyagh­mis-hu kul­lahu) before remov­ing it, for under one of its wings there is ven­om and under anoth­er there is its antidote. 

A ver­sion from Abu Hurayra in Abu Dawud, Ahmad, and al-Tahaw­i’s Sharh Mushk­il al-Athaar (8:341 #3293) adds :

And it [al-Tahawi : always”] pro­tects itself (yat­taqi) with the wing that car­ries the poi­son, so immerse it completely. 

Ahmad and al-Tahawi add : Then remove it.”

A sound-chained ver­sion in Ahmad, al-Tahawi, al-Nasa’i, and Ibn Majah (the lat­ter two men­tion only the sec­ond half) states :

Sa‘id ibn Khalid said : I went in to see Abu Sala­ma. He brought us some but­ter and date pas­try. A fly fell into the dish. Abu Sala­ma began to sub­merge it (yamqu­luhu) with his fin­ger. I said, Uncle ! What are you doing?”

He said : Tru­ly, Abu Sa‘id al-Khu­dri told me that the Mes­sen­ger of Allah said, In one of the fly­’s two wings there is poi­son and in anoth­er, its anti­dote. If it falls into food, sub­merge it in it ; for it sends the poi­son first and keeps the cure last.’ ” 

Al-Tahawi in Sharh Mushk­il al-Athaar(8:339 #3289) has :

Uncle ! Allah for­give you ! What are you doing ? 

Al-Baz­zar in his Mus­nad and al-Diya’ al-Maq­disi in al-Aha­dith al-Mukhtara” (5:206) nar­rate from Thu­ma­ma ibn Abd Allah ibn Anas through trust­wor­thy nar­ra­tors accord­ing to Ibn Hajar in Fath al-Bari” (10:250) and al-Qastal­lani in Irshad al-Sari” (5:304):

Thu­ma­ma said : We were with Anas and a fly fell into a ves­sel. Anas motioned with his hand and immersed it (faghamasahu) three times then said : Bis­mil­lah” and he said that tru­ly, thus did the Mes­sen­ger of Allah order them to do.

Shah Wali Allah al-Dih­lawi men­tioned in Huj­jat Allah al-Baligha that this hadith shows God-giv­en knowl­edge of the many dis­eases a fly poten­tial­ly car­ries as well as illus­trates the Cre­ator’s wis­dom in giv­ing every ven­omous species some immu­ni­ty or anti­do­tal pro­tec­tion to its own poi­son insur­ing its survival.

Shaykh Muhyi al-Din Ibn Ara­bi in one of his Wasaya spec­i­fied that the fly always keeps its anti­do­tal wing” off the sub­stance in which it finds itself mired so as to try and use it to fly away. The Ule­ma said that this behav­ior is Divine­ly-inspired instinct, sim­i­lar to that of the bees, the ants, the hoopoe, and the earth in the Qur’an.Cf. al-Tahawi, Sharh Mushk­il (8:343 – 344) and al-Khat­tabi, Ma‘alim al-Sunan (4:459)

Ibn Hajar wrote in his com­men­tary on this hadith :

I found noth­ing among the vari­ants to pin­point the wing that car­ries the anti­dote but one of the Ule­ma said he observed that the fly pro­tects itself with its left wing so it can be deduced that the right one is the one with the anti­dote.… Anoth­er said that the poi­son may be that of pride (tak­ab­bur) occur­ring in one’s soul caus­ing him to dis­dain eat­ing that food or avoid and dis­card it alto­geth­er, while the anti­dote takes place by sub­du­ing the soul and forc­ing it to be humble.

Ibn Hajar also cit­ed al-Jawz­i’s remark that flies pound­ed with anti­mo­ny (stib­nite) ben­e­fit eye­sight but al-Ayni in <em>Umdat al-Qari (7:304) cites Ibn al-Bay­tar al-Maliqi’s recipe as flies pound­ed with egg yolk.

Dr. Ghy­ath Hasan al-Ahmad in his book al-Tibb al-Nabawi fi Daw’ al-Ilm al-Hadith" ("Prophetic Medicine in the Light of Modern Science") (1995 2:188-189) mentions that a Dr. Nabih Daish ran an exper­i­ment at King Abd al-Aziz Uni­ver­si­ty in Riyadh in which he cre­at­ed ten bac­te­r­i­al cul­tures from sam­ples of ster­il­ized flu­id into which a fly fell with­out being immersed ; ten more bac­te­r­i­al cul­tures from sam­ples into which a fly fell and was immersed once ; ten more from sam­ples into which the fly was immersed twice ; and ten more from sam­ples into which the fly was immersed three times. The results showed that bac­te­r­i­al colonies thrived in the first set but were stunt­ed and deplet­ed in the sec­ond, more so in the third, and most in the fourth set.

It is estab­lished that house­flies are car­ri­ers of dan­ger­ous pathogens of ani­mals and humans. Even the mus­capho­bic crit­ics of this hadith are forced to admit that no one at the time of the Prophet(P) knew that flies car­ry such harm­ful organ­isms. Whence the obser­va­tion that under one of its wings there is venom”?

Sec­ond, from the per­spec­tive of log­ic, if the fly did not car­ry some sort of pro­tec­tion in the form of an anti­dote or immu­ni­ty, it would per­ish from its own poi­so­nous bur­den and there would be no fly left in the world.

Fur­ther, the trans­mis­sion of what the fly car­ries in or on its body is not an auto­mat­ic fact. For exam­ple, the microbe respon­si­ble for ulcers and oth­er stom­ach ail­ments can live on house­flies, although it remains to be seen whether flies trans­mit the pathogen.Sci­ence News Mag­a­zine, http://​www​.sci​ence​news​.org/​s​n​_​a​r​c​97​/​6​_​7​_​97​/​r​e​f​1​.​htm

There has long been evi­dence of bac­te­r­i­al pathogen-sup­press­ing micro-organ­isms liv­ing in house­flies. An arti­cle in Vol. 43 of the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion’s Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Med­i­cine (1927), p. 1037 stated :

The flies were giv­en some of the cul­tured microbes for cer­tain dis­eases. After some time the germs died and no trace was left of them while a germ-devour­ing sub­stance formed in the flies — bac­te­rio­phages. If a saline solu­tion were to be obtained from these flies it would con­tain bac­te­rio­phages able to sup­press four kinds of dis­ease-induc­ing germs and to ben­e­fit immu­ni­ty against four oth­er kinds.Cit­ed in Abd Allah al-Qusa­mi, Mushk­i­lat al-Aha­dith al-Nabawiyya wa-Bayanuha, p. 42

More recent­ly, a Col­orado State Uni­ver­si­ty web­site on ento­mol­o­gy states that :

Gno­to­bi­ot­ic [= germ-free] insects (Green­berg et al, 1970) were used to pro­vide evi­dence of the bac­te­r­i­al pathogen-sup­press­ing abil­i­ty of the micro­bio­ta of Mus­ca domes­ti­ca [house­flies] .… most rela­tion­ships between insects and their micro­bio­ta remain unde­fined. Stud­ies with gno­to­bi­ot­ic locusts sug­gest that the micro­bio­ta con­fers pre­vi­ous­ly unex­pect­ed ben­e­fits for the insect host.Re-assess­ment of the role of the insect gut micro­bio­ta” at http://lamar.colostate.edu/~insects/systems/digestion/plenuryrd.html

So then, flies are not only path­o­gen­ic car­ri­ers but also car­ry micro­bio­ta that can be benef­i­cent. The fly micro­bio­ta were described as :

…lon­gi­tu­di­nal yeast cells liv­ing as par­a­sites inside their bel­lies. These yeast cells, in order to per­pet­u­ate their life cycle, pro­trude through cer­tain res­pi­ra­to­ry tubules of the fly. If the fly is dipped in a liq­uid, the cells burst into the flu­id and the con­tent of those cells is an anti­dote for the pathogens which the fly car­ries.Cf. foot­note in Muham­mad Muhsin Khan, Trans­la­tion of the Mean­ings of Sahih al-Bukhari (7:372, Book 76 Med­i­cine, Chap­ter 58, Hadith 5782).

These fly micro­bio­ta are bac­te­rio­phag­ic or germ-eat­ing”. Bac­te­rio­phages are virus­es of virus­es. They attack virus­es and bac­te­ria. They can be select­ed and bred to kill spe­cif­ic organ­isms. The virus­es infect a bac­teri­um, repli­cate and fill the bac­te­r­i­al cell with new copies of the virus, and then break through the bac­teri­um’s cell wall, caus­ing it to burst. The exis­tence of sim­i­lar bac­te­ria-killing mech­a­nisms in two bac­te­rio­phages sug­gests that antibi­otics for human infec­tions might be designed on the basis of these cell wall-destroy­ing pro­teins.Sci­ence 292 (June 2001), pp. 2326 – 2329

Bac­te­rio­phag­ic med­i­cine was avail­able in the West before the for­ties but was dis­con­tin­ued when peni­cillin and oth­er mir­a­cle antibi­otics” came out. Bac­te­rio­phages con­tin­ued to flour­ish in East­ern Europe as an over-the-counter med­i­cine. The O1-phage” has been used for diag­no­sis of all Sal­mo­nel­la types while the pro­phy­lax­is of Shigel­la dysen­tery was con­duct­ed with the help of phages.Annales Immunolo­giae Hun­gar­i­cae, No. 9, 1966 (in German)

Phage ther­a­py” is now mak­ing a come­back in the West :

First named in 1917 by researcher Felix d’Herelle at France’s Pas­teur Insti­tute, bac­te­rio­phages (or just phages for short) are virus­es that prey upon bac­te­ria. They have a sim­ple struc­ture — a DNA-filled head attached by a shaft to spi­dery legs” that are used to grip onto the sur­face of a bac­teri­um. Once a phage latch­es onto a bac­teri­um, it injects its pay­load of genet­ic mate­r­i­al into the bac­teri­um’s innards. The bac­teri­um then begins to rapid­ly pro­duce daugh­ter” copies of the phage — until the bac­teri­um becomes too full and rup­tures, send­ing hun­dreds of new phage par­ti­cles into the open world.

Doc­tors used phages as med­ical treat­ment for ill­ness­es rang­ing from cholera to typhoid fevers. In some cas­es, a liq­uid con­tain­ing the phage was poured into an open wound. In oth­ers, they were giv­en oral­ly, via aerosol, or inject­ed. In some cas­es, the treat­ments worked well — in oth­ers, they did not. When antibi­otics came into the main­stream, phage ther­a­py large­ly fad­ed in the west.
How­ev­er, researchers in east­ern Europe, includ­ing the for­mer Sovi­et Union, con­tin­ued their stud­ies of the poten­tial heal­ing prop­er­ties of phages. And now that strains of bac­te­ria resis­tant to stan­dard antibi­otics are on the rise, the idea of phage ther­a­py has been get­ting more atten­tion in the world­wide med­ical com­mu­ni­ty. Sev­er­al biotech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies have been formed in the U.S. to devel­op bac­te­rio­phage-based treat­ments — many of them draw­ing on the exper­tise of researchers from east­ern Europe.Hour One : Phage Ther­a­py /​Tau Neu­tri­no at http://​www​.sci​ence​fri​day​.com/​p​a​g​e​s​/​2000​/​J​u​l​/​h​o​u​r​1​_​072100​.​h​tml

Research on the med­ical appli­ca­tion of bac­te­rio­phages is now con­sid­ered to be in its most promis­ing stage. A Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh researcher said in June 2001 :

Giv­en the sheer num­ber and vari­ety of bac­te­rio­phages lurk­ing on the plan­et, the virus­es may rep­re­sent a siz­able untapped reser­voir of new ther­a­peu­tics.Sci­ence 292 (June 2001), op. cit.

Pos­si­bil­i­ties for use of bac­te­rio­phages in dis­ease con­trol is dis­cussed in the arti­cle Small­er Fleas…Ad infini­tum : Ther­a­peu­tic Bac­te­rio­phage Redux”.In Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca [PNAS], Vol. 93, No. 8 (April 16, 1996), pp. 3167 – 8. Avail­able on the WWW at http://​www​.pub​med​cen​tral​.gov/​t​o​c​r​e​n​d​e​r​.​f​c​g​i​?​i​i​d​=​1253

The fact that the fly car­ried pathophag­ic or germ-eat­ing agents was known to the ancients, who noticed that wasp and scor­pi­on stings are reme­died by rub­bing the sore spot with a decap­i­tat­ed fly as men­tioned in al-Antak­i’s Tadhkiri” (1:140), al-Ayni’s cita­tion of Abu Muham­mad Ibn al-Bay­tar al-Maliqi’s (d. 646) al-Jami’ li-Mufra­dat al-Adwiya wal-Aghd­hiya” in “ Umdat al-Qari” (7:304), and al-Sha’rani’s Mukhtasar al-Suway­di fil-Tibb” (p. 98).

Avi­cen­na pre­ferred the use of a live chick­en slit in two and applied to the wound.Cf. Ibn al-Azraq, Tas-hil al- Man­afi‘ (1306 ed., p. 171 = 1315 ed., p. 147) A sim­i­lar use is cur­rent even today for camel urine accord­ing to a Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­gary web­site.http://​www​.ucal​gary​.ca/​a​p​p​l​i​e​d​_​h​i​s​t​o​r​y​/​t​u​t​o​r​/​i​s​l​a​m​/​b​e​g​i​n​n​i​n​g​s​/​c​a​m​e​l​s​.​h​tml

In the two world wars, the wounds of sol­diers exposed to flies were observed to heal and scar faster than the wounds of unex­posed sol­diers. Even today, fly lar­vae, or mag­gots, are used med­i­c­i­nal­ly to clean up fes­ter­ing wounds. They only eat dead tis­sue and leave healthy tis­sue alone.

Is the fly rit­u­al­ly filthy (najis)? No. The Jurists con­cur that the fly is pure (al-dhubab tahir) and does not defile a liq­uid even if its quan­ti­ty is small and even if it dies in it except, accord­ing to al-Shafi‘i, if one of the aspects of the liq­uid is affect­ed (smell, col­or, taste).Cf. al-Baghawi, Sharh al-Sun­na (11:260 – 261) and al-Qastal­lani, Irshad al-Sari (5:304 – 305)

The Prophet­ic Sun­nah is an end­less man­u­al of healthy liv­ing and prac­ti­cal hus­bandry for peo­ple of all walks of life, espe­cial­ly the poor. The Prophet(P) at all times direct­ed his Ummah to avert waste and penury even in unsan­i­tary con­di­tions. Just as the hadith on camel milk and urine reveals knowl­edge of dietet­ics and nat­ur­al med­i­cine, so does the hadith of the fly reveal knowl­edge of pre­ven­tive med­i­cine and immunol­o­gy. In this respect the com­mand in these hadiths, as in many oth­ers, denotes an advi­so­ry Sun­nah of per­mis­si­bil­i­ty, not a lit­er­al obligation.

The com­mand [of immers­ing the fly] denotes coun­sel (al-amru lil-irshad) so as to counter dis­ease with cure.Al-Qastal­lani, Irshad al-Sari (5:304)

Despite the abun­dance of sup­port­ing evi­dence for the authen­tic­i­ty of these med­i­c­i­nal nar­ra­tions (camel and fly) on the one hand and for their sci­en­tif­ic via­bil­i­ty on the oth­er, cer­tain voic­es con­tin­ue to reject them on both counts. Prin­ci­ple skep­ti­cism of authen­ti­cal­ly trans­mit­ted nar­ra­tions that per­tain to facts demon­strat­ed by ancient and mod­ern sci­ence, or whose sci­en­tif­ic worth is just now com­ing into view, is the wont of stag­nant minds and dis­eased hearts, for which there is no cure save the mer­cy of our Lord. Hadiths of the Fly (Bacteriophages) 26Endmark

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1 Comment

  1. Asalaa­mu alaykum,

    I want­ed to look at some of your ref­er­ences but it seems that many of them are unavail­able. Would it be pos­si­ble for you to pro­vide new ones ?

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