Trees play a prominent role in many religious texts. With their roots in the ground and their branches stretching toward the sky, trees are linked to the heavens and the Earth, the spiritual and the material, and the vertical and the horizontal. They are like an axis or a pole that stands between both worlds. Its greenery is a symbol of life, its shade is a symbol of comfort, and its fruits are a symbol of fertility. As deciduous trees shed their leaves in some seasons, they are resurrected in others, demonstrating God's power to bring life to the dead.
Ancient people drew parallels between trees and people. A tree's fruit became a symbol of one's offspring, deeds, or knowledge, and a diagram detailing your family "roots" is a "family tree". There are many Islamic examples where this same parallel is made:
The Prophet Muhammad (s) said, "A hypocrite is like the trunk of a palm tree. When its owner intends to use it in construction, it does not fit in the place he wants it to fit. He then tries to fit it elsewhere, but it still does not fit. So in the end, he throws it in the fire." ( قال رسول الله صلىاللهعليهوآلهمثل المنافق مثل جذع النخل أراد صاحبه أن ينتفع به في بعض بنائه فلم يستقم له في الموضع الذي أراد فحوله في موضع آخر فلم يستقم له فكان آخر ذلك أن أحرقه بالنار )
The trunk in this example is the hypocrite. The carpenter sees that it is a trunk, and potentially useful, but it does not meet his requirements. Similarly, Allah tests and tries the hypocrite, but when He sees no good and no use in him, He punishes the hypocrite with hellfire.
The Prophet Muhammad (s) said, "The believers are like sprouting plants that are swirled back and forth by the winds, as the believers are also turned and bent by pain and illness. The hypocrites are like iron rods that are not affected by anything, until they meet death and are shattered by it." ( قال رسول الله صلىاللهعليهوآله مثل المؤمن كمثل خامة الزرع تكفئها الرياح كذا وكذا وكذلك المؤمن تكفئه
الأوجاع والأمراض ومثل المنافق كمثل الإرزبة المستقيمة التي لا يصيبها شيء حتى يأتيه الموت فيقصفه قصفا )
Just as the trees and plants are abused by strong gusts of wind, the believer is tried with his desires (hawa, هوى, which also means "wind"). The hypocrite however is not swirled by the wind because he lives in complete heedlessness (ghafla), and is stiffened by his wickedness, until Allah destroys him.
“And those who believed and did righteous deeds will be admitted to gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding eternally therein by permission of their Lord; and their greeting therein will be, "Peace!" Have you not considered how Allah presents an example, [making] a good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches [high] in the sky? It produces its fruit all the time, by permission of its Lord. And Allah presents examples for the people that perhaps they will be reminded. And the example of a bad word is like a bad tree, uprooted from the surface of the earth, not having any stability.” (14:24-26)
Imam Ja`far as-Sadiq [a] was asked about the verse, "as a goodly tree, its root set firm, its branches reaching into the sky." (14:24) He said, "The Messenger of Allah (s) is its root, Amir al-Mu'mineen is its branches, the Imams from their progeny are its twigs, the knowledge of the Imams are its fruits, and their believing Shi`a are its leaves. By Allah, when a believer gives birth, a leaf sprouts on it; and when a believers dies, a leaf falls from it." ( سألت أبا عبد الله عليه السلام عن قول الله: " كشجرة طيبة أصلها ثابت وفرعها في السماء " قال: فقال: رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله أصلها، وأمير المؤمنين عليه السلام فرعها، والائمة من ذريتهما أغصانها وعلم الائمة ثمرتها وشيعتهم المؤمنون ورقها، هل فيها فضل؟ قال: قلت: لا والله، قال: والله إن المؤمن ليولد فتورق ورقة فيها وإن المؤمن ليموت فتسقط ورقة منها. )
This is an interesting exegesis, and it is crucial to understanding the Quran's analogy. Allah says that a good word is like a good tree. As we know, Jesus (as) was called a "word" (3:45), and in Shi`i exegesis, a word is a person, because Allah summons a person into existence by simply saying a word ("be!", kun faya koon). Allah then compares a goodly word to a goodly tree (shajaratin tayyiba), and this tree may indeed be the Blessed Tree ("shajarat tuba") described elsewhere in the Quran and hadith literature, as the previous verse is describing Paradise, and tuba and tayyiba come from the same root word. The Blessed Tree is one of the best rewards in Paradise, it is said to be in the house of `Ali b. Abi Talib ( دخلت الجنة رأيت في الجنة شجرة طوبى أصلها في دار علي عليه السلام ). After all, a Paradise (jannah) in Arabic is a garden with trees. Either way, the hadith above says that this tree is the Prophet, his Ahl al-Bayt, and their followers. Another hadith compares the Ahl al-Bayt to the trees of Paradise:
Allah said to Moses regarding the Prophet (s), "You are from his Nation if you recognize His status and the status of his Ahl al-Bayt. His example and the example of his Ahl al-Bayt in the creation are like that of the trees in the Gardens of Paradise - their leaves do not shed, and their flavours do not change." ( يا موسى أنت من امته إذا عرفت منزلته ومنزلة أهل بيته ، إن مثله ومثل أهل بيته فيمن خلقت كمثل الفردوس في الجنان لا ينتشر ( 3 ) ورقها ولا يتغير طعمها )
The trees in this example are evergreen tree with perpetually fresh fruit, because life in Paradise is everlasting, and taking from the Ahl al-Bayt's knowledge will result in eternal bliss.
Just as there is a Blessed Tree in Paradise, there is a cursed tree in Hellfire.
“Is Paradise a better accommodation, or the Tree of Zaqqum? Verily, we have made it a torment for the wrongdoers. Verily, it is a tree issuing from the bottom of Hell. Its emerging fruit is as if it was the heads of devils. And verily, they will eat from it and fill their bellies with it. Then verily, they will have after it a mixture of scalding water. Then verily, their return will be to Hell.” (37:62-68)
An Umayyad man named Sa`d b. `Abd al-Malik used to visit Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a). The Imam used to call him "Sa`d the Good". Sa`d entered upon Imam al-Baqir [a], and Sa`d began weeping profusely. The Imam asked, "Why do you weep, Sa`d?" Sa`d said, "How can I not weep when I come from the lineage of the cursed tree of the Qur’an?" So Imam al-Baqir [a] said to him, "You are not from them. You are an Umayyad, but from us, the Ahl al-Bayt. Have you not heard the saying of Allah, speaking of Abraham? 'Whosoever follows me is from me.' (14:36)" ( دخل سعد بن عبد الملك وكان أبو جعفر عليه السلام يسميه سعد الخير وهو من ولد عبد العزيز بن مروان على أبي جعفر عليه السلام فبينا ينشج كما تنشج النساء (3) قال:
فقال له أبو جعفر عليه السلام: ما يبكيك يا سعد؟ قال وكيف لا أبكي وأنا من الشجرة الملعونة في القرآن، فقال له: لست منهم أنت أموي منا أهل البيت أما سمعت قول الله عز وجل يحكي عن إبراهيم: " فمن تبعني فإنه مني )
This Tree of Zaqqum has fruits that look like the heads of devils. Perhaps this is because the devils, both human and jinn, are the offspring (fruit) of evil. In this hadith, the oppressors from the Umayyads are described as the flesh-and-blood Tree of Zaqqum. They are the family that is juxtaposed to the Ahl al-Bayt in heaven.
The Messenger of Allah (s) would kiss Lady Fatima [a] frequently; and he said, "When I was taken up to heaven, I entered Paradise, and Gabriel brought me close to the Blessed Tree (Tuba). He gave me a fruit from it and I ate it. Then, Allah turned it into water in my loins. So when I descended to the Earth and went to Khadija, she became pregnant with Fatima. Whenever I long for Paradise, I kiss her, and I never kiss her without finding the fragrance of the Blessed Tree upon her, for she is [both] a human and a dark-eyed heavenly maiden." ( وعنه قال: كان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله يكثر تقبيل فاطمة عليها السلام، فأنكرت ذلك عايشة، فقال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله: يا عايشة اني لما اسرى بي إلى السماء دخلت الجنة فأدناني جبرئيل من شجرة طوبى، وناولني من ثمارها فأكلته، فحول الله ذلك ماء في ظهري فلما هبطت إلى الأرض واقعت خديجة فحملت بفاطمة، وكلما اشتقت إلى الجنة قبلتها وما قبلتها قط الا وجدت رائحة شجرة طوبى فهي حوراء انسية )
If the Blessed Tree is truly the Ahl al-Bayt, then it would make sense that Lady Fatima would also come from that tree.
Imam `Ali [a] said, "The tree whose trunk is soft has thick branches." (وقال عليه السلام : مَنْ لاَنَ عُودُهُ كَثُفَتْ أَغْصَانُهُ.)
The person who is haughty and ill-tempered can never succeed in making his surroundings pleasant. His acquaintances will feel wretched and sick of him. But if a person is good-tempered and sweet-tongued people will like to get close to him and befriend him. At the time of need they will prove to be his helpers and supporters whereby he can make his life a success.
Imam `Ali (a) said, "Prayer sheds sins like the shedding of leaves off trees" (Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 109)
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a) said, "When a believer meets the believer and shakes hands, Allah looks to them, and sins fall from their faces like leaves fall from trees." ( إن المؤمن ليلقى المؤمن فيصافحه، فلا يزال الله ينظر إليهما والذنوب تتحات عن وجوههما كما يتحات الورق من الشجر )
A man asked Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a) about the verse, "They made for him (Solomon) what he willed: synagogues and statues, basins like wells ..." (34:13) The Imam replied, "These were not statues of men or women, but rather, they were statues of trees and their like." ( قلت لأبي جعفر (عليه السلام): "يعملون له ما يشاء - من محاريب و تماثيل و جفان كالجواب" قال: ما هي تماثيل الرجال و النساء و لكنها تماثيل الشجر و شبهه )
Statues are normally ornaments that are shaped like people. In this exegesis, the statues of Solomon were in the form of trees instead, as though trees can take the place of people.
Allah said to Jesus [a], "O Jesus! How numerous are the humans, yet how few in number are the patient. The trees are many, but the good ones are few, so do not be deceived by the beauty of the tree until you have tasted its fruit." (يا عيسى ما أكثر البشر وأقل عدد من صبر، الاشجار كثيرة وطيبها قليل، فلا يغرنك حسن شجرة حتى تذوق ثمرها.)
This direct comparison between trees and people is one that can also be found in the New Testament, where Jesus allegedly says, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15-20) The fruits in this example are the actions of individuals, which are a better indicator to a person's inner nature than his appearance.
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (a) said, regarding His saying: “So man should look to his food” (80:24). "[He should look] to his knowledge which he takes and whom he takes it from." ( عن أبي جعفر عليه السلام في قوله تعالى " فلينظر الانسان إلى طعامه " قال: إلى علمه الذي يأخذه عمن يأخذه )
This is very pertinent. Just as a person may consume the fruit of a tree, people are also consumers of knowledge. This hadith is a warning to the believers to take their knowledge from the correct source. Taking knowledge from the immaculate luminaries (a) will give them everlasting life in Paradise.
Jesus [a] said, "Wisdom is established with humility, not with arrogance, just as plants grow in plain, soft ground but not on hard ground and rocks." ( قال عيسى عليه السلام: بالتواضع تعمر الحكمة لا بالتكبر، وكذلك في السهل ينبت الزرع لا في الجبل )
Just as a tree can only grow on soft soil, the believer can only truly develop if humility is his foundation.
Imam as-Sadiq (a) said, "The one you seek and have hopes for will verily rise from Mecca. And he will not rise from Mecca until he sees what he loves, even if it happens that parts of a tree eats [its other] parts." (ابن عقدة، عن حميد بن زياد، عن الحسن بن محمد الحضرمي عن جعفر بن محمد(ع)، وعن يونس بن يعقوب، عن سالم المكي، عن أبي الطفيل عامر بن واثلة أن الذي تطلبون وترجون إنما يخرج من مكة وما يخرج من مكة حتى يرى الذي يحب ولو صار أن يأكل الاعضاء أعضاء الشجرة . )
This narration is describing the rise of the Mahdi, who would come during a great schism between the ruling family of the Middle East. Perhaps this tree eating itself is a description of the infighting between the rulers of that time, which would indeed be pleasing to the Mahdi.
There are many other examples that can be applied, from the story of Adam, to the mi`raj, to other stories involving trees in the Quran. Something to keep in mind is that the Ahl al-Bayt do not speak aimlessly - their examples are full of wisdom, and their examples are full of meaning. If one devotes himself or herself to more than a cursory reading of the scriptures, one will better understand the meaning of these symbols and find intricate connections between these examples.
May Allah give us the Blessed Tree in Paradise in the Hereafter.