One of the senses that over time humans have come to neglect has been our sense of smell. Most people if asked if they had to give up a single sense indicate that it would be their sense of smell. Immanuel Kant said “Which organic sense is the most ungrateful and also seems the most dispensable? The sense of smell.”
But smell should not be so easily disregarded. In the past smell was an essential tool that we used for survival. Sensitivity to smell allowed us to be able to locate food as well as determine if the food is safe to eat, but today rather than smelling the food for freshness we resort to looking at the use-by-date. But this downplayed gift from God got a new level of appreciation as one of the side effects of COVID is the loss of smell.
Smell and Taste
Our sense of smell is responsible for about 80% of what we taste. Without this sense, our sense of taste is limited to only five distinct sensations: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami or savory sensation. All other flavors that we experience come from smell. For instance, the tastes of strawberries, peach, or grapes come predominately from smell and not our tastebuds. Consider how foods don’t taste as good when our noise is stuffy or when we are on a plane and the air is dry.
Also, when researchers studied depression among people who lost senses they found that individuals who lost their sense of smell had longer lapses in depression than people who lost their sight. This may be due to their experience with eating and taste, as eating is one of the simplest ways a person can lift their spirits. If someone is sad or depressed a common consequence is that they lose their motivation to eat. Ironically when they do this they are creating the conditions to stay in the state of despondency rather than experiencing the joy of eating and helping themselves to get out of their depressed state.
[22:28] They may seek commercial benefits, and they shall commemorate GOD’s name during the specified days for providing them with livestock. “Eat therefrom and feed the despondent and the poor.“
لِيَشْهَدُوا مَنَافِعَ لَهُمْ وَيَذْكُرُوا اسْمَ اللَّهِ فِي أَيَّامٍ مَعْلُومَاتٍ عَلَىٰ مَا رَزَقَهُمْ مِنْ بَهِيمَةِ الْأَنْعَامِ فَكُلُوا مِنْهَا وَأَطْعِمُوا الْبَائِسَ الْفَقِيرَ
When we taste delicious food it is a natural way to better our mood and lift our dopamine levels. Since eating is critical for survival, our brains release feel-good chemicals in the reward system to let our body knows that it is doing something right. These chemicals include the neurotransmitter dopamine, which the brain interprets as pleasure. The brain is hardwired to seek out behaviors that release dopamine in the reward system, and probably the simplest way to lift the spirits of someone who is feeling down.
Smell and Spirituality
All these functions of smell are good, but so far we are only dealing with the physical. I find that smell plays a large part in our spiritual well-being as well. The sense of smell is highly correlated with being present and conscious of our surroundings. We spend most of our time in our heads, thinking about our thoughts, and this causes us to lose our connection to what is clearly in front of us. We are so fixated on our own reflections that we miss the world around us. Out of all our senses, the sense of smell is what really determines if we are paying attention to what is going on in our immediate space.
Consider your breath, most of us probably are not even thinking about our own breathing until we are reminded of it. When we notice our breath we automatically notice the subtleties in the smells around us and our environment. When we are present we become aware of our bodies, our souls, our lives. When we are absent, life can pass us by without us even being aware of it.
It is profound that when we fast one of the physiological responses that occur is that it increases our sensitivity to smell. This effect not only will make us more conscientious when we eat so we can be more appreciative of the foods we consume, but also heightens our sense of awareness around our surroundings as we fast.
The Quran informs us that one of the reasons the messengers were selected was because they were among the most righteous.
[38:45] Remember also our servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were resourceful, and possessed vision. [38:46] We bestowed upon them a great blessing: awareness of the Hereafter. [38:47] They were chosen, for they were among the most righteous. [38:48] Remember Ismail, Elisha, and Zal-Kifl; among the most righteous.
(٤٥) وَاذْكُرْ عِبَادَنَا إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَإِسْحَاقَ وَيَعْقُوبَ أُولِي الْأَيْدِي وَالْأَبْصَارِ
(٤٦) إِنَّا أَخْلَصْنَاهُمْ بِخَالِصَةٍ ذِكْرَى الدَّارِ
(٤٧) وَإِنَّهُمْ عِنْدَنَا لَمِنَ الْمُصْطَفَيْنَ الْأَخْيَارِ
(٤٨) وَاذْكُرْ إِسْمَاعِيلَ وَالْيَسَعَ وَذَا الْكِفْلِ وَكُلٌّ مِنَ الْأَخْيَارِ
One common trait that I see regarding the character of the messengers in the Quran is that they were much more in tune with the follies of society. That while others were oblivious and heedless the messengers were able to clearly identify how the people have been misled by Satan and had strayed off the right path.
But how is this connected with smell? Smell seems to be an almost superpower that a number of God’s messengers possessed. One aspect of smell is that our sense of smell gets diminished when we get older, but consider Jacob that despite his old age he sensed the smell of Joseph from a caravan leaving Egypt carrying the shirt of Joseph.
[12:93] “Take this shirt of mine; when you throw it on my father’s face, his vision will be restored. Bring your whole family and come back to me.” [12:94] Even before the caravan arrived, their father said, “I can sense the smell of Joseph. Will someone enlighten me?” [12:95] They said, “By GOD, you are still in your old confusion.” [12:96] When the bearer of good news arrived, he threw (the shirt) on his face, whereupon his vision was restored. He said, “Did I not tell you that I knew from GOD what you did not know?”
If Jacob was able to achieve this miraculous feat even at such an old age, is there any doubt that years before when the brothers gave him Joseph’s shirt with fake blood on it, he was not able to detect their scheme?
[12:18] They produced his shirt with fake blood on it. He said, “Indeed, you have conspired with each other to commit a certain scheme. All I can do is resort to a quiet patience. May GOD help me in the face of your conspiracy.”
وَجَاءُوا عَلَىٰ قَمِيصِهِ بِدَمٍ كَذِبٍ قَالَ بَلْ سَوَّلَتْ لَكُمْ أَنْفُسُكُمْ أَمْرًا فَصَبْرٌ جَمِيلٌ وَاللَّهُ الْمُسْتَعَانُ عَلَىٰ مَا تَصِفُونَ
Or consider one of the miracles that Jesus presented to the people as proof of his messengership was his ability to detect what a person ate as well as what they stored in their homes.
[3:49] As a messenger to the Children of Israel: “I come to you with a sign from your Lord—I create for you from clay the shape of a bird, then I blow into it, and it becomes a live bird by GOD’s leave. I restore vision to the blind, heal the leprous, and I revive the dead by GOD’s leave. I can tell you what you eat, and what you store in your homes. This should be a proof for you, if you are believers.
وَرَسُولًا إِلَىٰ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ أَنِّي قَدْ جِئْتُكُمْ بِآيَةٍ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ أَنِّي أَخْلُقُ لَكُمْ مِنَ الطِّينِ كَهَيْئَةِ الطَّيْرِ فَأَنْفُخُ فِيهِ فَيَكُونُ طَيْرًا بِإِذْنِ اللَّهِ وَأُبْرِئُ الْأَكْمَهَ وَالْأَبْرَصَ وَأُحْيِي الْمَوْتَىٰ بِإِذْنِ اللَّهِ وَأُنَبِّئُكُمْ بِمَا تَأْكُلُونَ وَمَا تَدَّخِرُونَ فِي بُيُوتِكُمْ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَةً لَكُمْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ مُؤْمِنِينَ
Now, this may knowledge may have been given to him via divine inspiration, or simply that he could detect this by his acute sense of smell.
Solomon was blessed with understanding the language of jinns, humans, and animals.
[27:16] Solomon was David’s heir. He said, “O people, we have been endowed with understanding the language of the birds, and all kinds of things have been bestowed upon us. This is indeed a real blessing.” [27:17] Mobilized in the service of Solomon were his obedient soldiers of jinns and humans, as well as the birds; all at his disposal.
وَوَرِثَ سُلَيْمَانُ دَاوُودَ وَقَالَ يَاأَيُّهَا النَّاسُ عُلِّمْنَا مَنْطِقَ الطَّيْرِ وَأُوتِينَا مِنْ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ إِنَّ هَٰذَا لَهُوَ الْفَضْلُ الْمُبِينُ
وَحُشِرَ لِسُلَيْمَانَ جُنُودُهُ مِنَ الْجِنِّ وَالْإِنْسِ وَالطَّيْرِ فَهُمْ يُوزَعُونَ
In the next verse, we see that Solomon also understood the communication of ants.
[27:18] When they approached the valley of the ants, one ant said, “O you ants, go into your homes, lest you get crushed by Solomon and his soldiers, without perceiving.”
حَتَّىٰ إِذَا أَتَوْا عَلَىٰ وَادِ النَّمْلِ قَالَتْ نَمْلَةٌ يَاأَيُّهَا النَّمْلُ ادْخُلُوا مَسَاكِنَكُمْ لَا يَحْطِمَنَّكُمْ سُلَيْمَانُ وَجُنُودُهُ وَهُمْ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ
[27:19] He smiled and laughed at her statement, and said, “My Lord, direct me to be appreciative of the blessings You have bestowed upon me and my parents, and to do the righteous works that please You. Admit me by Your mercy into the company of Your righteous servants.”
فَتَبَسَّمَ ضَاحِكًا مِنْ قَوْلِهَا وَقَالَ رَبِّ أَوْزِعْنِي أَنْ أَشْكُرَ نِعْمَتَكَ الَّتِي أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيَّ وَعَلَىٰ وَالِدَيَّ وَأَنْ أَعْمَلَ صَالِحًا تَرْضَاهُ وَأَدْخِلْنِي بِرَحْمَتِكَ فِي عِبَادِكَ الصَّالِحِينَ
At first glance, such an exchange might appear to be more suited in the land of science fiction and not what one would expect in a Holy Scripture that is from God. But it is passages like this that provide assurances to believers that the Quran has been untampered since its revelation over 1400 years ago.
For generations individuals probably struggled to comprehend how ants could communicate in such a sophisticated manner let alone how a human being would ever be able to understand such communication. Even to date, people use this passage in an attempt to discredit the Quran. But despite the pushback and ridicule, these verses have stayed intact and now with advancements in science and the understanding of ant communication, we can have the final laugh.
Edward Osborne Wilson, usually cited as E. O. Wilson, is an American biologist, naturalist, writer, and staunch atheist. His biological specialty is myrmecology, the study of ants, on which he is considered the world’s leading expert. On June 14, 2009, E.O. Wilson sat down for an interview at the World Science Festival to discuss ant communication. Below are some of his comments from the interview:
“You should bear in mind that we humans are highly unusual in that we are audio-visual. You know, we talk, that’s sound. We see. Communicate the way I’m doing now with my hands and signs and visual signaling. Signaling of all kinds, but ants don’t do that. Some of them have eyes big enough to see, but they don’t use them very much at all to signal back and forth. What they do is they let out smells, and they offer substances on their bodies. And they have many kinds of glands, from where their mouths open all the way to the end of their bodies. And these glands open to the outside so when an ant wants to say something you know like: “watch out danger” or “come here I have something important” or “follow me out the end of the trail I just laid there’s food out there” or “there’s an enemy out there.” They let out a particular substance that has that signal in it.”
When he was asked how many different words do ants have, he continues by saying:
“Ten to twenty. They can say things like, “lookout danger.” They can say things like, “I’m a soldier” or they can say things like, “I’m a member of the such-and-such colony sniff are you a fellow member.”
These pheromones that ants release are how they communicate, and Solomon by God’s leave was able to sense and understand this communication. It is one thing that Solomon had this ability, it is a whole nother thing that he utilized it to listen to the concerns of an ant as his armies were mobilizing. This shows a certain level of awareness of his surroundings that is almost as miraculous as his ability to understand ants.
All this points to not only the miraculous nature of smell but the cognitive alertness that it can bring a person when we are conscious of the smells around us. Consider that we are smelling the entire time we are breathing and adjusting our breath subconsciously based on the smell of our surroundings. Such that we take shorter breaths when the smells around us are unpleasant and longer breaths when we find them desirable, even when we are not conscientious of the smells around us. All this occurs outside of the purview of our consciousness.
In addition to being always active, smell also has more direct and faster access to our brains. This makes smells a direct trigger to cause our most vivid memories. Memories that may be buried in the recesses of our minds that can be unlocked through the right smell. This is because, unlike visual memories that can be reflected upon at will, smell serves as a catalyst that when experienced causes a flood of memories to come pouring in with intense details that were previously inaccessible until the smell opened the gateway to recollection.
When the prophet was taken to the high horizon he was given the entire Quran into his heart.
[17:1] Most glorified is the One who summoned His servant (Muhammad) during the night, from the Sacred Masjid (of Mecca) to the farthest place of prostration,* whose surroundings we have blessed, in order to show him some of our signs. He is the Hearer, the Seer.
سُبحانَ الَّذي أَسرىٰ بِعَبدِهِ لَيلًا مِنَ المَسجِدِ الحَرامِ إِلَى المَسجِدِ الأَقصَى الَّذي بارَكنا حَولَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِن آياتِنا إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّميعُ البَصيرُ
That despite the Quran being released slowly over a span of some 23 years, the entire Quran was given to the prophet all at once.
[17:106] A Quran that we have released slowly, in order for you to read it to the people over a long period, although we sent it down all at once.
(١٠٦) وَقُرْآنًا فَرَقْنَاهُ لِتَقْرَأَهُ عَلَى النَّاسِ عَلَىٰ مُكْثٍ وَنَزَّلْنَاهُ تَنْزِيلًا
God informs us in the Quran that there are three ways that he communicates with human beings.
[42:51] No human being can communicate with GOD except through inspiration, or from behind a barrier, or by sending a messenger through whom He reveals what He wills. He is the Most High, Most Wise.
وَمَا كَانَ لِبَشَرٍ أَنْ يُكَلِّمَهُ اللَّهُ إِلَّا وَحْيًا أَوْ مِنْ وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ أَوْ يُرْسِلَ رَسُولًا فَيُوحِيَ بِإِذْنِهِ مَا يَشَاءُ إِنَّهُ عَلِيٌّ حَكِيمٌ
And when it came to Muhammad, he was inspired by means of the rūḥu / رُوحًا.
[42:52] Thus, we inspired to you a revelation (rūḥu) proclaiming our commandments. You had no idea about the scripture, or faith. Yet, we made this a beacon to guide whomever we choose from among our servants. Surely, you guide in a straight path.
وَكَذَٰلِكَ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ رُوحًا مِنْ أَمْرِنَا مَا كُنْتَ تَدْرِي مَا الْكِتَابُ وَلَا الْإِيمَانُ وَلَٰكِنْ جَعَلْنَاهُ نُورًا نَهْدِي بِهِ مَنْ نَشَاءُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا وَإِنَّكَ لَتَهْدِي إِلَىٰ صِرَاطٍ مُسْتَقِيمٍ
The mechanism that is understood is that at certain moments in the prophet’s life he was able to recollect the Quran that was locked away in his memory. The interesting part is that the mechanism that is responsible for allowing the messenger to access this part of his memory comes by means of the Spirit.
[26:192] This is a revelation from the Lord of the universe. [26:193] The Honest Spirit (l-rūḥu) (Gabriel) came down with it. [26:194] To reveal it into your heart, that you may be one of the warners. [26:195] In a perfect Arabic tongue.
(١٩٢) وَإِنَّهُ لَتَنْزِيلُ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
(١٩٣) نَزَلَ بِهِ الرُّوحُ الْأَمِينُ
(١٩٤) عَلَىٰ قَلْبِكَ لِتَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُنْذِرِينَ
(١٩٥) بِلِسَانٍ عَرَبِيٍّ مُبِينٍ
The word for Spirit in Arabic is the word rūḥu, which comes from the same root as the word for smell. Now I am not saying the Spirit is a smell, but it is an interesting connection between the word choice and the function. Such that smells have the ability to unlock memories that were previously locked away, and how the Spirit allowed Muhammad to unlock his memory of the Quran and his ability to access it.
It is also noteworthy that throughout the Quran the scripture is referenced as the reminder. In Arabic this is الذِّكْرِ / l-dhik’ri. And in order to be reminded of something it indicates that at one point the person must have known.
[21:7] We did not send before you except men whom we inspired. Ask those who know the scripture, if you do not know.
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ إِلَّا رِجَالًا نُوحِي إِلَيْهِمْ فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
So just like a smell triggers a memory, it is as if the ruhu is what triggers the remembrance of what is innate in all of us even prior to our coming into this world.
[7:172] Recall that your Lord summoned all the descendants of Adam, and had them bear witness for themselves: “Am I not your Lord?” They all said, “Yes. We bear witness.” Thus, you cannot say on the Day of Resurrection, “We were not aware of this.”
وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِنْ بَنِي آدَمَ مِنْ ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَىٰ أَنْفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ قَالُوا بَلَىٰ شَهِدْنَا أَنْ تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَٰذَا غَافِلِينَ
[30:30] Therefore, you shall devote yourself to the religion of strict monotheism. Such is the natural instinct placed into the people by GOD. Such creation of GOD will never change. This is the perfect religion, but most people do not know.
فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا فِطْرَتَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ ذَٰلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Out of all our senses, the sense of smell is the one that is most often neglected, but in certain regards, it is the most mystical of all our senses. Even the process of how the physio-chemical and quantum effects that take place in order to enable our sense of smell are not fully understood. But it seems like this crucial sense served as a critical component in the messenger’s lives and their connection with God and something that we can be conscious of in order to draw closer to Him.