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The Symbolism of Trees in Quran

One of the accomplishments of modern science is the creation of a greater consensus about assigning the status of living organisms to plants. The nature of plants though had always been recognized as highly complex in their diversity and systems of regeneration, but due to the limitations concerning organs of mobility and sensations that they were categorised as lesser forms of life. Nevertheless, the mystical perspective on the behaviour of plants carries a rich legacy of inspiration and devotion offered throughout history by all the major religious and cultural traditions. The mythologies of the world preserve special accounts to signify a whole spectrum of properties from medicinal remedies to mystical experiences caused by their prescribed applications. Many scholarly works have been conducted to describe the use of plants (leaves, flowers, fruits, etc.) in terms of their symbolic associations in the ritual practices of religions. Here, I shall be investigating the symbolic analogy of trees mentioned in the Quran as representatives of the most correct or true mode of expression and communication in nature from a hermetic perspective.

The Symbolic Teachers of Languages

The faculty that distinguishes humans from all the other creatures on earth is their extraordinary capacity to memorize words or symbols as expressive of definite meanings in terms of identifiable experiences. From a hermetic standpoint, all human experiences have their origins in the cosmos, as nature influences them according to the prevalent conditions of time and space. The function of linguistics therefore is to translate those experiences into convenient modes of recognition and expression. Now, humans comparatively get to experience a far greater level of diversity in physical and psychological climates than to plants due to their extraordinary ability to travel both in space and time. Human beings have faster modes of transporting themselves from one place to another, and at the same time have records of past occurrences that they can study in the history books or other references of historical imports. Due to this immense pressure of processing a wide variety of experiences for adapting to the requirements of their existence in the world, there is a far greater chance for human minds to be confused or even collapse under the extreme conditions. But plants usually do not have to endure traumas of the changing environment consistently as they take roots in particular places with specific climatic conditions that fulfil their needs for survival. There is a much greater level of both authenticity and diversity present in the plants as their habitat mostly defines their characteristics throughout the earth. Therefore, the trees can certainly be more authentic and unadulterated in their expressions of experiences that are induced on account of cosmic influences to be symbolically associated with the most true or meaningful form of language. The Quran states,

Seest thou not how Allah coineth a similitude: A goodly saying, as a goodly tree, its root set firm, its branches reaching into heaven. Giving its fruit at every season by permission of its Lord? Allah coineth the similitudes for mankind in order that they may reflect. And the similitude of a bad saying is as a bad tree, uprooted from upon the earth, possessing no stability. Allah confirmeth those who believe by a firm saying in the life of the world and in the Hereafter, and Allah sendeth wrong-doers astray. And Allah doeth what He will. (14, 24–27)

The verses (14, 24–27) suggest the parallel between ‘trees’ and ‘sayings’. The authentic words are strongly rooted in the human experiences; they serve as lessons or guidelines for humans to follow in every situation; and thus acting upon such words inevitably brings forth good results. Whilst frivolous ideas are of illusory nature similar to those bad trees that do not carry any roots or stability, and thus are quite meaningless and futile. The Quran further states concerning the nature of human language.

And He taught Adam all the names, then showed them to the angels, saying: Inform Me of the names of these, if ye are truthful. They said: Be glorified! We have no knowledge saving that which Thou hast taught us. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Knower, the Wise. He said: O Adam! Inform them of their names, and when he had informed them of their names, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the secret of the heavens and the earth? And I know that which ye disclose and which ye hide. (2, 31–33)

The human languages are composed of sentences and words that can be further decomposed into alphabets. The ancient Egyptians in particular used to have hieroglyphic writing systems whereby images were employed to represent certain words or sounds as the main constituents for formulating their language. Similarly, the combinations of basic or root alphabets (such as names or images) used in different orders and contexts reveal the meanings implied in sentences. In order for such sentences to make sense to the listeners, the communicators in a language must recognize a common ground of experiences that are embedded in the universal influence of archetypal or authentic elemental natures. The trees therefore, serve as the right symbols of experiences as their conditions are influenced by the archetypal elements i.e. fire, water, air, and earth in a very similar fashion to the humans. The Quran states,

And if all the trees in the earth were pens, and the sea, with seven more seas to help it, (were ink), the words of Allah could not be exhausted. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise. (31, 27)

The verse (31, 27) is very indicative of the evolution of human languages because the symbol of sea in the hermetic philosophy represents the mirror which reflects the impact of cosmic influences. Just as the words of a language reflect the consciousness from which it is uttered; the universal consciousness governed by the seven planetary influences (the seven seas) determine the existence of all forms of verbal expressions, and the symbolic medium for those expressions are the tremendously diverse varieties of trees.

The given verse also makes another subtle point by mentioning, ‘the words of Allah could not be exhausted’ that though the Quran (the words of Allah) contains a limited number of sentences in the Arabic language but the value of this divinely inspired book should not be assessed by the quantity of materials or discourses that it provides but rather the quality of them. The words merely serve as conduits for conveying the message, and therefore they must never be allowed to dominate over the theme of the message itself. Hence, there are many divinely inspired messages but there are no sacred languages, and as such the idea of making a language as the holy language of God is totally absurd. Thus, the philosophical analysis of Arabic literature is not necessary to understand the messages of Quran or its mysteries because Arabic language only serves as a convenient vessel to transfer the Quranic knowledge. And just as the transfer of water from one container to another can be managed without loosing the water’s essential ability of quenching the thirst, and so does it applies to the use of languages as mediums of knowledge. The phrase ‘the words of Allah could not be exhausted’ symbolically refers to the ability of Quranic knowledge to solve all the mysteries of life regardless of the language it is studied or learnt.

The Tree of Life

The language of a person represents his state of consciousness in whatever conditions he may use that language. The noble use of language implies understanding of physical as well as psychic phenomena so as not to cause any inadvertent offence or confusion. From a hermetic standpoint, the tree of life forms the axis of equinox points of the zodiacal signs i.e. Aries and Libra because in each of these signs the light and darkness are of equal lengths. The parity of light versus darkness on this axis establishes an equilibrium that results in equanimity, harmony, and peace. The Quran states,

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. (This lamp is) kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light. Allah guideth unto His light whom He will. And Allah setteth forth for mankind similitudes, for Allah is Knower of all things. (This lamp is found) in houses which Allah hath allowed to be exalted and that His name shall be remembered therein. Therein do offer praise to Him at morn and evening. Men whom neither merchandise nor sale beguileth from remembrance of Allah and constancy in prayer and paying to the poor their due; who fear a day when hearts and eyeballs will be overturned; That Allah may reward them with the best of what they did, and increase reward for them of His bounty. Allah giveth blessings without stint to whom He will. (24, 35–38)

The verses (24, 35–38) are of great metaphorical importance regarding the essence of faith in the Islamic doctrine. The ‘lamp’ here is the allegory for a compassionate human heart, and when it gets kindled with the flame of love derived from the deepest feelings of sincerity and goodness then the ineffable glory of the purest light of God indelibly shines through the hearts of men. The ‘blessed tree’ here is a reference to the metaphorical ‘tree of life’ forming the equinox axis of the zodiac. The ‘tree of life’ is also mentioned in the following verses.

Then, when Moses had fulfilled the term, and was travelling with his housefolk, he saw in the distance a fire and said unto his housefolk: Bide ye (here). Lo! I see in the distance a fire; peradventure I shall bring you tidings thence, or a brand from the fire that ye may warm yourselves. And when he reached it, he was called from the right side of the valley in the blessed field, from the tree: O Moses! Lo! I, even I, am Allah, the Lord of the Worlds; Throw down thy staff. And when he saw it writhing as it had been a demon, he turned to flee headlong, (and it was said unto him): O Moses! Draw nigh and fear not. Lo! thou art of those who are secure. (28, 29–31)

God had talked to Moses at the ‘tree of life’ whereby the staff of Moses that symbolized his authority became alive and active. The heart of Moses initially got frightened because of realizing his great potential to discover the connection with God, but felt secure afterwards in the divine love and mercy. It was through his association with the ‘tree of life’ that Moses had liberated the Israelites from the tyrannical rule of Pharaoh so that they could go to their Promised Land.

The Tree of Loss

The axis of solstice in the zodiac which comprises of the signs of Cancer and Capricorn forms the ‘tree of loss’ due to the great disparity of light in the two signs of the axis. It is metaphorically described in the following story of Quran.

And verily We made a covenant of old with Adam, but he forgot, and We found no constancy in him. And when We said unto the angels: Fall prostrate before Adam, they fell prostrate (all) save Iblis; he refused. Therefor we said: O Adam! This is an enemy unto thee and unto thy wife, so let him not drive you both out of the Garden so that thou come to toil. It is (vouchsafed) unto thee that thou hungerest not therein nor art naked. And that thou thirstest not therein nor art exposed to the sun’s heat. But the Devil whispered to him, saying: O Adam! Shall I show thee the tree of immortality and power that wasteth not away? Then they twain ate thereof, so that their shame became apparent unto them, and they began to hide by heaping on themselves some of the leaves of the Garden. And Adam disobeyed his Lord, so went astray. (20, 115–121)

The verses (20, 115–121) depict the anecdote of pride, jealousy, subversion, and temptation. Adam and his wife are the eternal twins of the sign of Gemini living in the garden of spring season; seduced by Iblis (the enemy) to exceed their limits (the solstice point) and eat of the tree of loss (the axis of solstice); and thereby lost the garden of spring season to fall into the heat and toil of the summer season. The ‘tree of loss’ made them to loose their ability to sincerely communicate with each other, and thus they had to hide themselves under the pretence of manufactured excuses (lies). The ‘tree of loss’ also represents the estrangement due to the idolatrous behaviours of all kinds whereby people give more importance to the symbols rather than the meanings of symbols, and thus end up inhabiting their own skins as strangers. The unethical behaviours of humans make them to loose their integrity of character, and consequently they fall from a state of grace to that of ignominy and toil.

The End Note

The gist of this article is to communicate the significance of language in the human affairs for the creation of a harmonious society based on love, compassion, and honesty by avoiding the pretentious or duplicitous attitudes. I should conclude here by stating the following verse from Quran.

And Allah will vindicate the Truth by His words, however much the guilty be averse. (10, 82)