Consider The Fly

Written by Shifa L Mustapha

During my time as a Muslim, for which I praise Allah for His great Mercy, I have never read anything in the Qur’an which has not been worthy of further study.  Therefore, when I came across the following verse, I was prompted again to look more closely:

O ye men(people)! A parable is set forth so listen ye unto it!  Verily, those whom ye call upon besides Allah can never create (even) a fly, (even ) if they should all meet together for that purpose!  And if the fly should snatch away anything from them, they would have no power to release it from the fly.  Feeble are those who petition and those whom they petition!

Surah Al Hajj (22:73).

Everybody knows about the common fly – that seemingly unimportant, mischievous and annoying insect which may be found worldwide, and which claims every picnic hamper as its own.  So prevalent is the fly here in Australia that “the great Aussie salute”- that wave of the hand to dislodge it from one’s face – has been dedicated to its unpopularity and tenacity.  However, that message from Allah regarding the seeming insignificance of the fly was first given some fourteen centuries ago, and as we know, man has come a long way since then.  Although, looking closely at that text,  it was not man- in this instance – who was being called upon to create, but rather those to whom man called upon apart from God.  In fact, this very challenge was originally thrown to the pagans in Mecca who worshipped many idols.  Nevertheless, as man becomes more and more gifted in knowledge and power, and less inclined to want to worship the Creator God, we cannot rule out the fact that mankind has, in many cases, made man the object of worship.  In fact, scientifically there are those who have “created” through cloning, much larger animals than the mere fly.  But have they indeed “created”?  As such, no!  The cloning process starts with an already-created organism from which are taken cells containing the threads of life (DNA).  Therefore on those grounds alone, one cannot claim that man has created life in even the least form.  Besides which, even the cloned animal has been demonstrated to be inferior to that which has come about through the natural God-given process of procreation.  “Dolly” was a painful reminder of this aspect.

A Closer Look

So now that we have science at our fingertips, microscopes with which to inspect minutely, and scientists in entomology who can explain the cycles and idiosyncrasies of the various insects, just what is it about the humble fly which takes it beyond the realm of those who would even attempt to create such?

The scientific name for this order of insects is Diptera, a Greek term relating to the two wings.  There are considered to be about 100,000 species of fly, among which are included mosquitos, gnats, sandflies, fruitflies and so on. The midge would be among the smallest of the order and the woodboring fly from South America, with a body and wingspan each of three inches, would appear to be the largest.  For our purposes, however, let us look at the common housefly – Musca domestica .

The body of the fly is composed of three parts- head, thorax and abdomen.  However, it was the eyes of the fly which immediately amazed me.  The fly, like most insects, has two compound eyes made up of thousands of six-sided lenses.  The housefly has no fewer than 4000 lenses in each eye, and no two lenses point in exactly the same direction, each lense working independently.  It is said that flies do not have sharp vision, but every movement may be seen.  The male is said to have the larger eyes, which at times appear to fuse almost together, the female eyes are wider set.  The size and shape of the antennae, which grow near the centre of the head,  also vary between male and female, and between the different species.  Flies may feel changes in movement with their antennae, but they also smell with these organs.  The housefly does not bite or chew, it cannot open its jaws, nor yet does it have a needle-like mouth part hidden in the proboscis as other biting “flies” may have.  The house fly has two oval shaped parts called labella at the tip of the proboscis which are used somewhat like sponges to suck up liquids into the proboscis.  They turn solids into liquids by dropping saliva onto them.  The fly’s respiratory function is worthy of note in the light of what is to follow:  it breathes through air holes called spiracles which are situated along the side of its body.   As we know, the fly has six hairy legs attached to the the inside shell wall of the thorax.  Both legs and wings are attached by extremely strong muscles.  The flies are among the fastest flying of all insects and the beating of the wings, which make the buzzing sound of the fly, range between about 200 times a second (house fly) to 1000 times a second (some midges).  The average speed of the house fly approximates 4.5 miles per hour.  This is but a little information and a much more indepth study of the fly makes the point that even a fly is a remarkable work of Creation.  Indeed, how would it be possible for any other than Allah to accomplish such!

Flies and Contamination

However, the study of the fly does not end there – flies generally are recognised as dangerous carriers of disease, and thus, the pinnacle of creation, man, may be overcome by this tiny insect.  The fly contaminates all that it touches and its nourishment of choice is usually that which is unclean or rotten.  Even clean food is contaminated by contact with the fly, and man is ever laid low by this small creature’s foray into areas which are bacterially dangerous.  Therefore we are warned from childhood to keep the flies off our food, our mouths, and our eyes, in particular.  In modern times it has been recognised that flies carry parasitic pathogens for diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, sleeping sickness, malaria, gastrointestinal infections, and blight.

Divine Enlightenment

That the fly was a carrier of disease was recognized back in the time of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace be upon him) and among the traditions of that time we find of extreme interest ahadith relating to the fly.  Not only, 1400 years ago, was the disease-carrying propensity alluded to, but also to that of the bacteriophagic fungi capable of fighting disease which is also carried by the fly:  (i) Abu Sa’id al-Khudri is reported in Bukhari as saying that the Prophet – upon him and his House be blessings and peace – said, ‘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.’  (ii)Another version reported in Abu Dawud, Ahmad and al-Tahawi’s Sharh Mushkil al-Athar adds: ‘And it (al-Tahawi: “always”) protects itself (yattaqi) with the wing that carries the poison, so immerse it completely then remove it”. A third hadith from the same source is reported similarly but has the following (iii): ‘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’. In fact in some of these ahadith it is mentioned to immerse the fly three times completely in the food or drink before removing it altogether.  This is worthy of note as we know that the poison or source of disease, the bacteria, drops from the fly onto all that it touches and 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 illustrating the wisdom in giving every venomous species some immunity or antidotal protection, thus ensuring its preservation.  Sheikh Muhyi al-Din ibn ‘Arabi in one of his Wasaya specified that the fly always keeps its “antidotal wing” out of the substance in which it finds itself mired so as to try to use it to fly away.  The scholars have said that this behaviour is a Divinely-inspired instinct similar to that of the bees, the ants, the hoopoe in the Qur’an (cf al-Tahawi, Sharh Mushkil (8:343-344) and Al- Khattabi, Ma’alim al-Sunan (4:459)

That this became a practice we note in another sound-chained hadith: (iii) Sa’id ibn Khalid said, “I went to see Abu Salama.  He brought us butter and date pastry.  A fly fell into the dish.  Abu Salama began to submerge it with his finger.  I said, “Uncle! What are you doing?”  He replied: “Truly Abu Sa’id al-Khudri told me that the Messenger of Allah said, ‘In one of the flies two wings there is poison and in another an antidote.  If it falls into food, submerge it in it, for it sends the poison first and keeps the cure last. There are other ahadith which relate to this.  Ibn Hajar in Fath al-Bari (10:250) and Al-Qastallani in Irshad al-Sari (5:304) are among those noted.  Ibn Hajar also cited al-Jawzi’s remark that flies pounded with antimony benefit eyesight, another, al-Ayni cites Ibn al-Baytar al-Maliqi’s recipe as flies pounded with egg yolk.

Science or Superstition?

So what we would like to know, is – do these ahadith reflect truth, or are they just superstition which has found its way into the history and teaching?   Some have said that it is true, while another has said it is not to be taken literally, that in fact it may be that pride occurring in one’s soul may cause a person to disdain eating fly-contaminated food, thus avoiding and discarding it altogether, while the antidote takes place by subduing the soul and forcing it to be humble.  This being the case, is it merely to hoodwink one into making edible something which abhorrent?

My internet search has revealed the following through the site- “Dr. Ghyath Hasan al-Ahmad in his book al-Tibb al-Nabawi fi Daw’al-‘llm al-Hadith (Prophetic Medicine in the light of Modern Science) 1995 2:188-189) mentions that a Dr. Nabih Da’ish ran an experiment at King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz University in Ryadh in which he created ten bacterial cultures from samples of sterilised 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.”  Therefore “it is established that the house flies 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, upon him be peace, knew that flies carry such harmful organisms.  From whence then 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 ot be seen whether flies transmit the pathogen.’sn arc9/76  7  97/refl.htm.

Confirmation of Divine Enlightenment

I read further that there has been evidence of bacterial pathogen-suppressing micro-organisms living in houseflies for a very long time.  In fact the following is from an article in Vol. 43 of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Journal of Experimental Medicine (p.1037) from the year 1927:  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).

A more recent study from Colorado State University website on entomology ( states: “Gnotobiotic (germ-free) insects (Greenberg et al, 1970) were used to provide evidence of 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.” In a nutshell then, flies, while being pathogenic carriers also carry microbiota which can be beneficial.  These microbiota were described as “longitudinal yeast cells living as parasites within 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”.   Now if you remember, in my rundown of the anatomy of the fly,  those spiracles or respiratory tubules are located on the sides of the abdomen and would certainly appear to be “under the wings” as mentioned in the ahadith regarding the source of the poison and the antidote.  How is it possible that the Prophet of Islam (upon whom be peace), unless divinely guided, would know such a source?  Even if he had made an intuitive guess about the fly having both elements, which of course is out of the question because knowledge, even of contamination did not come to light until centuries later, but how could he stumble upon the truth of where both elements were to be located upon the fly itself?  Why did he not refer to the head, or the feet?

Reportedly these bacteriophages, first named in 1917 by researcher Felix d’Herelle at France’s Pasteur Institute, carried by the fly are viruses of viruses.  They attack viruses and bacteria.  They can be selected and bred to kill specific organisms.  In Science 292 (June 2001) pp.2326-2329 it is reported that bacteriophages 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.  So while bacteriaphagic medicine was available in the West before the forties, it was discontinued when penicillin and other antibiotics were designed.  Now that we are faced with strain upon strain of viruses which have developed immunity to all our smart drugs, perhaps we should go back and look more closely at what the Creator of the Universe has shown us.

The fly, that humble, mischievous, much maligned creature, is utterly remarkable.  Indeed, how would it be possible that any could replicate such.  A challenge from Allah to mankind and those they would follow.  However, in that challenge may be much more.  Theologically the position of the One Creator God is beyond any doubt, but in opening our eyes to the  intricacies and marvels of the creation of the fly and the science which upholds such, is Allah not giving us something further at a time of man’s peril from deadly viral strains?

O ye men(people)! A parable is set forth so listen ye unto it!