Tuesday, June 23, 2015

There are trees and then there's a Tree

I haven't posted in so long I figure this is going to be rather like speaking into the void. But here we are anyway.

I'm reading the Qur'an this Ramadan, and can I just take a moment to tell you how pleased I was when I discovered that my shiny new Qur'an indicates where it breaks into juz? I had a list printed and everything, which was a little annoying but you do what you must, and then I discovered this feature.

Shiny new Qur'an has many features. Yay shiny new Qur'an!

It's this one, in case you're curious: Al-Qur'an. 

So I'm reading the other night and I come across some verses in relation to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Now, the Qur'an is laid out differently from the Bible, and in many cases a story is revisited in different surahs throughout the Qur'an, spreading the details of the story out. Which, I admit, can get annoying when you're used to having the style of the Bible to look at. Story begins, story ends.

I know that there are more verses that deal with Adam and Eve and the 'fall', but this isn't about those, it's about the thought I had while reading these early verses. They're Surat al-Baqarah, 35-37. It's just a short little reference to a story that is familiar to most people. Adam and Eve are in the Garden and God tells them that they can eat from any of the trees therein. Except for this one.

In the Bible, it is called the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil'. We see it in Genesis 2:16-17 and 3:1-7, generally speaking. There's obviously more to those chapters, but those are the verses that refer to the same incident. Here's a link to Genesis 2-3 for reference.

Now, having been raised in Christianity, more or less, I have always filled in the blank when reading Qur'anic references to this story and known that it was the Tree of Knowledge (because the whole name is long and I'm being a lazy typist). However, when I was reading these verses again, it struck me that the Qur'an doesn't spell any such thing out. One might infer it, given the stance that the Qur'an is there to correct mistakes in the previous revelations (mistakes by people, not God) or places where the stories have been corrupted. The fact that the Qur'an doesn't explicitly correct the attribution could be considered support for it or you could look at the fact that the Qur'an doesn't name the tree similarly to say that it was not, in fact, the Tree of Knowledge.

Adam and Eve do realize their nakedness after eating the fruit, which could be taken as another sign that this is the Tree of Knowledge, but it could also be taken that there was nothing special about the tree itself, knowledge wise, only that their first sin brought into possibility shame and other sins.

So. What I was thinking was, there are two different messages that are being presented here, depending on how you look at it. In the Biblical story, the prohibition with regard to the Tree was specifically because it was the Tree of Knowledge. There was also the Tree of Life, but there doesn't seem to be an edict not to eat the fruit of that one. One could interpret the prohibition to mean that knowledge is a part and parcel with sin.

I don't think most people do interpret it that way, or have historically, but it's a thought. I know plenty of people who wish to go back to what they view as the simplicity of the 'Garden times' and I could easily see some of them making this connection. Adam and Eve were happy and in line with God when they were ignorant. Then they gained knowledge (against God's edict) and boom. Everything went to pot.

On the other hand, you have the Qur'anic version of the story which makes no mention of the tree being anything other than a tree. Just a tree that God said not to touch. Which makes Adam and Eve's sin fairly straight forward. God said 'no', they did it anyway. Much simpler. God's not, in this story, even appearing to be wanting to keep them from knowing things as He is in the Biblical version.

There's a rule. They break it. They get punished and forgiven.

Does the Biblical story even mention forgiveness? There's a lot of punishment, a lot of blame going around, but I don't see or recall an explicit mention of Adam or Eve repenting and seeking forgiveness for their transgression.

In the Qur'an they do receive a punishment, they're put out of the Garden to live on/in the rest of the earth and life is much more difficult there, but they are also shown to look for God's forgiveness and to receive it.


  1. I guess I supplied the name in my head, too, since the Bible's account is the one familiar to me. I think you have to know the Bible versions to make sense of a lot of the Quran. At least I felt that way while reading it...then again, that's been a few years ago so what do I know.

    I had to look up "juz." Don't think I've ever heard it before.

    Good to see you posting again!

    1. It's sort of a fuzzy area, I think, if you're reading the Qur'an on your own. The familiar Biblical stories are familiar but not quite 'right' and if you ask anyone you're told that they're there to correct the Biblical version. But then you have something like this where a missing detail might be important - a distinction between the Biblical version and the implications thereof - or it might just mean that the Biblical version had that part correct so the Qur'an doesn't mention it since you're supposed to already be familiar with it.

      I'm trying to just read the Qur'an this time through, even though the new one I got is specifically for studying it. It has lots of features, have I mentioned? :) And trying to recognize any automatic assumptions I might be making and examine them without really *studying* any of it at the moment. But this thought just sort of struck me and here we are.

  2. Hi there! Not sure if this will help, but at least historically, the Church has focused more on the cosmic effects of sin rather than the individual, at least as far as how discussion on the Fall in the Church Fathers in concerned. This link might prove useful: http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith8050

    1. Yes! And this is one of the many things I really love and appreciate about the Orthodox perspective. It's not about the weight of the Fall falling (haha) on individuals but on the whole of creation, which explains how the consequences of two peoples' sin can affect all of their descendants when we're told in the Bible that children do not (theologically speaking) pay for the sins of their parents.

  3. Hey, I have the same version! I picked it up at a used book store because it was pretty and hardcover and my husband is trying to build up a fancy hardcover library. Good to know that it also happens to be a good one. :D I should get around to actually reading it.

    I like your observations. I don't know if that would have stood out to me, I probably would just assume that if it's spread over many sections it's named *somewhere*.

    It's interesting that the result is basically the same. Like maybe the tree itself isn't important but that human curiosity eventually leads them to disobey. Like they just have to know "but WHY can't we eat it?" So it results in knowledge but also pulls them away from God. One of my pastors used to say that all the things that are sin now weren't when we didn't know any better. So if there had been other people to steal from, Adam and Eve could have stolen their stuff without guilt. Just impulse, like animals. Once they eat from the tree and are able to think more carefully about their actions, they become responsible for them. I always thought that was a nice metaphor for evolution and the development of human ethics.

    1. I picked up this one because it was highly recommended as a good Qur'an to use for studying. Heather uses it in a group study she has going, which is where I heard of it. It's very nice.

      You know you're a book nerd when the extra bits in a book make you cackle with glee. :D

      Well, and I am hardly an expert on everything that is in the Qur'an, but I haven't been able to find anything that says the Tree is explicitly referred to as the Tree of Knowledge elsewhere in the Qur'an. I'm looking into whether or not it is generally assumed/known to be in Islamic thinking but I haven't gotten a definitive answer on that either yet. My go-to knower of all things Muslim is busy with Ramadan and school so I'm giving her a pass. :)

      It is interesting that no matter which way you look at it the result is the same, isn't it? I think the tree can stand for a lot of things, but at the base it really is that people are curious and we suffer the consequences as well as the reap the rewards of that. Sometimes all in the same stroke.

      It's funny that higher thinking and degrees of self awareness seem to have come from committing this first sin. Like you say, Adam and Eve just did what they did prior to the Tree Incident. It's only afterward that they seem to gain self awareness. With it comes shame and a whole host of other problems, but before that for all that they do they could be trained parrots.

  4. i loved the part when adam took responsibility of his actions and never blamed shaytan (although shaytan did influence big time) and then sought forgiveness. On the other hand shaytan too transgressed but all he did was blame. The lesson is clear which is to take responsibility of our own actions and always seek forgive after committing a sin.

    1. Wow I am tardy replying to this, sorry! But I do want to talk about this part of the story as well as some point, not only because of the lesson inherent in the actions of Adam here but also because of the differences between this and the Biblical version of events. It's another one of those things that I never really thought about until I reread it this Ramadan.

      But that'll have to be another post.

  5. Amber, I shared this post with my friend Naomi, and she gave me permission to share her thoughts so I'll copy what she wrote. I wanted to hear her Jewish viewpoint on this topic.


    I read the article with interest. I do not know a lot about Christian thought, and even less about Islamic thought, but it does seem to me that there is a lot about sin and punishment and forgiveness. I know Christians seem to read the Jewish texts as somehow very, what? unforgiving? We interpret our texts through the Oral Law, Midrash, which is part of the Talmud, and things sort out rather differently there.

    Here, for example, is one rabbi's take on the Tree: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2568/jewish/The-Tree-of-Knowledge.htm.

    He sees the story as about the drive of the human intellect, which is essential to our natures, and the result is not so much punishment as natural consequence. G!d's command, then, was not so much to test the pair's obedience, but to help them avoid the consequence, much as a father might instruct a child not to reach out and grasp a bright, pretty, burning ember because it would result in pain.

    Of course the stories, true or mythological, are written down to teach us something. What each of us learns from the story can be different, and complimentary - by sharing our views we enlarge ourselves and each other.


    I don't know if what she said is helpful, but I thought I'd share it just the same. :)

    1. Thanks Susanne!

      I'm going to read the article now, but I think your friend is right at least in that Christian thought focuses a great deal on the sin of well...everything? And it's hard to change the mind set. Much as I thought that I'd let go of the things I was taught in my childhood, I realize more and more now that I still make assumptions based on the Christianity of my youth.


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