Learning with a Touch of Amber

Masjid Al Qur’an turns honey harvesting into a learning experience

By Sandra Whitehead

January/February 2022

Dozens of people gathered on a sunny day last September in the backyard of Milwaukee’s Masjid Al Qur’an to witness its second honey harvest.

They also came to meet special guest Dr Muhammad bin Yahya Al-Ninowy, founder of the Atlanta-based Madina Institute, an Islamic seminary with campuses in South Africa, the U.K., Norway, Sudan and Malaysia.

Al-Ninowy, a muhaddith (scholar of Hadith sciences), is listed in “The Muslim 500: The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims” in the “preachers and spiritual guides” category.

Al Qur’an Foundation, one of Wisconsin’s oldest Islamic organizations, was established in 1992 as a religious, educational and charitable organization. Sitting on 8 acres, it features Masjid Al Qur’an (est. 1997), 12 rental apartments, an office, a women’s prayer hall, a community centre — and, to boot, beehives, a fruit orchard and a vegetable garden.

According to the imam and religious director Hafiz Muhammad Shafiq, the last three were developed to create educational opportunities for Al Qur’an Academy’s students and the community.

Masjid Al Qur’an is an affiliate of Madina Institute, which calls “Muslims to go back to the basics of the religion: the Qur’an and the Authentic Sunnah, as well as tolerance, peace and compassion,” the institute’s website states.

Shaykh Al-Ninowy and students from the institute, as well as Muslims from across Greater Milwaukee, joined the academy’s students to harvest the honey.

Collecting the honey

Al-Ninowy is also the teacher of Al Qur’an’s lead beekeeper Shaimai Wu, who prefers to be called Abu Zakaria in honour of his now 4-year-old son. Wu studies in the institute’s part-time Islamic studies program offered in collaboration with Al Qur’an, which offers intensive courses in theology, spirituality and community building.

Al-Ninowy and several students, all wearing broad caps with veils of netting and heavy gloves, approached the hives. Abu Zakaria lined up the “smokers,” volunteers who puff smoke out of small metal containers on short poles. “Smoke calms bees,” he explained. “Then I’ll pull up the frames and we will use blowers to blow the bees off.”

“When you go there say, ‘Bismillah. Assalamu alaikum,’ Shaykh Al-Ninowy suggested. “And ask them for permission to take their honey. It’s their food.”

“They are really generous and hard-working,” Imam Shafiq told the students. “They produce much more than they need, al-hamdu lillah.”

Student volunteers shaved off the honeycombs’ surface and put them in the spinner. Some handed the sweet shavings to younger children, telling them to “try this sweet candy.” A few women took turns at the crank, spinning the honeycombs to ensure that every possible drop of the golden nectar flowed into the container.

Looking at the scene, Shaykh Al-Ninowy exclaimed, “Being here today is something beautiful, in unity with you and in these surroundings, seeing everyone involved from little ones to men and women, and especially seeing the smiles of the children.”

United in their interest in bees

Abu Zakaria grew up in a Muslim family in China, where his maternal family kept bees. “I spent a number of summers at my grandparents’ place, witnessing beekeeping and the honey harvest, but I never kept bees myself,” he stated.

Today he works in the supply-chain field as director of planning and purchasing for Design House in Mequon. “About five years ago, I discovered a beekeeping club in Milwaukee, and I thought, I can pick up where I left off many years ago,” he said. Abu Zakaria has been keeping bees on his own for the past five years.

Imam Shafiq’s interest in bees has been growing ever since he participated in a beekeeping program in 1987 as a university student in Pakistan. “It was only a few weeks, but I learned a lot about beekeeping and bees,” he related.

“Since then, I have been inspired to learn more about bees. I always love to go to talks about honey and bees. When I came to the U.S. I found out there are many people who do this,” he added. “There is a family about a 10-minute drive from here. I used to buy honey from them and talk to them. I learned a lot from them.”

When the imam’s daughter Aiman was a high school junior, she did a project about how signals emitted by cell phones cause a decline in the number of bees. In doing that project, “we developed a closer connection with this family and we started learning more about that,” he remarked.

Meanwhile, four years ago Abu Zakaria joined Al Qur’an’s Madina Program as a student,” Imam Shafiq said. He invited the imam to visit and see his beehives, which he did several times.

Last year Imam Shafiq asked him if he thought the Al Qur’an community could keep its own bees. After considering the educational benefits for youth and the entire community, Imam Shafiq decided it would create “a hands-on learning opportunity.”

Learning by doing

Al Qur’an, after receiving permission from the City of Milwaukee for two hives, ordered a kit online that included a queen bee for each hive and 2 or 3 pounds of worker bees. The kit arrived just before Ramadan in mid-April.

“We put the bees in the hive on April 13,” Abu Zakaria said. “The bees mostly do their own work from there.” However, he had to feed them until the spring flowers blossomed. He made a syrup of water, sugar and pollen patties that he bought online. That kept them happy until natural nectar and pollen were available.

When Al Qur’an held its three-week summer camp in June, the students visited the hives and learned about bees. “At the same time, we started this garden,” Imam Shafiq said, pointing to a nearby vegetable patch. “We teach them how to plant the seeds and grow vegetables. Al-hamdu lillah, we see interest from some of our students.”

Students also picked cherries from the orchard’s trees. “Last summer we had these trees full of cherries, and the summer school kids loved picking them,” he stated. “And last month we had our first honey harvest,” he added. “I was expecting eight or 10 jars of honey. Ma sha Allah, there were 8 or 10 gallons, much more than I expected.

“Students and the community participated and learned from it. We want them to spend some time away from their gadgets and do something productive that engages them mentally and physically. We can do more than this. We can get parents involved and bring people from the community to participate.”

“We can learn so much from the bees,” said Dr Fatima Hendricks (assistant professor of occupational therapy, Chicago State University), who attended the event. “Seeing how the bees collaborate and work together to create honey inspires me to think about what people could do if we put in a collective effort.”

Sandra Whitehead is an author, journalist and long-time adjunct instructor of journalism and media studies in the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.

[Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Wisconsin Muslim Journal, a project of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition.]