Question: In one of his blessed sayings, our noble Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, compared a believer to stalk and a hypocrite to cedar tree. Could you elucidate this hadith please?
Answer: As this hadith was transmitted by way of spiritual narration, there are some differences of wording between the reports. It is cited as follows in the collection of Imam Muslim: “A believer is like a stalk. The wind constantly shakes it; the believer is constantly struck by misfortunes. A hypocrite is like a cedar tree (seeming to stand firm). Once it is shaken, it is rooted out (not to rise again).”1
Here, we first understand from our noble Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, that the most beautiful example to be given for describing the situation of a believer before troubles and misfortunes is that of a stalk. As it is known, the wind blows from different sides and makes stalks of grain move in different directions. In such a situation, a stalk may bend to the ground, but it straightens up again when the wind and storm abate. Similarly, a believer continuously undergoes troubles and misfortunes, faces different tests through a lifetime, but he or she never topples over by God’s permission and grace. In order to rise to spiritual perfection, attain one’s essence through self-purification, keep up metaphysical vigilance at struggling against evils, and for so many other wisdoms we do not and cannot know, a believer constantly undergoes tests in this world. As the phrase states, “a believer is a sufferer of troubles”. Another saying of God’s Messenger support this fact, “The severest of troubles befall the Prophets, and then to those near to God.”2 When we view the issue from the perspective of this hadith, we see that, for instance, the troubles and misfortunes suffered by the family of the beloved Prophet are far beyond what others experienced. They suffered various torments, were subjected to ordeals by different centers of power, to such a degree that some were even martyred. In addition, what befell them remains so little in comparison to what believers who had lived previously suffered. What these believers who are foremost in faith and good deeds suffered remains so little in comparison to what the Pride of Humanity suffered, because everybody is subjected to troubles in accordance with his or her level and inner worth.
Blizzards and Storms Occur on Peaks
As high souls are always at peaks, snowfall and hail hit them first, and similarly, they are the first ones to be frozen on top. In a way, they are the first destination for everything approaching. Let us consider Imam al-Ghazali, for example. He was not understood in terms of his contemporary society for a certain period; he was abandoned; he moved away to desolate places, and he wandered alone in graveyards. Likewise, if you study the wording of Abdulqadr al-Jilani’s supplications to God, you understand much better what he was subjected to. In the same way, what Abu’l Hasan ash-Shadhili went through was not much different from what Jilani experienced. And when you study the troubles suffered by Bediüzzaman, that great architect of mind for the contemporary age, you see that he was never left alone through most of his life. At a very young age, he came to Istanbul with very important projects beyond dreams even for today. However, as those in the environment of the sultan were too simple minded for them, they sent Bediüzzaman to an asylum with the claim that he spoke insanely. Hindered by the environment of the sultan, even the insightful people of those times could not thoroughly understand the meaning of his words. Actually, a believer does not attain perfect belief, without being called insane on the grounds of his or her faith. As that great personage had attained perfection in faith, he was called insane. Later on he joined the war, spent his days under very difficult conditions, fell captive, and also faced troubles. Then he returned to his country with the hope of finding some peace, but he met a different kind of trouble this time. He was not left alone even when he retreated to a cave near the city of Van, in eastern Turkey. He was arrested while living on his own and exiled to western Turkey. For the next 35 years, they kept mistreating him, some out of jealousy and some out of animosity to religion… exiles, dungeons, isolations, poisonings, imprisonments, trials, and prosecutions with demands for his execution kept following one another.
People Had Suffered So Much… What Did We Suffer for?
In short, the heaviest of troubles and misfortunes strike the Prophets and then other people according to degree. One of the most important wisdoms of this fact is that, if the person who shoulders a certain cause and walks in front are not subjected to such great misfortunes, then those who follow begin to complain about even the slightest things that trouble them. They cannot even endure the biting of a fly or stinging of the bee. When they see a scorpion or snake, they begin to shout even without being stung. But if they look at those who walked in front and see that they tolerated much greater troubles, they feel consoled with it and say, “See what such people went through… ours does not even deserve to be called affliction. By looking at their trials, it will be a shame to even mention ours!” For this reason, the character traits of those who represent a movement mean so much for those who follow. Inflictions which make life a misery begin to seem, sound, and feel differently to those who look at their example and, in the end, they see that even the troubles they experience become sweet.
As for hypocrites, they are compared to a cedar tree. The exact type of the tree does not really matter so much. What matters here is that, once that seemingly unshakable tree faces a severe storm, it is rooted out, topples over, and can never stand up again. Similarly, hypocrites swagger and give an unshakable appearance, but they topple over when exposed to a severe wind, never to stand up again. As for stalks, they straighten up again after lying down, no matter how severely the wind has blown; they stand up again and again.
The following consideration also comes to mind as hinted by the hadith: Sometimes there can be something that shakes a believer and makes that individual dizzy. Such an individual may have indulged in sins and underwent a temporary shaking. You can hold that person by the hand, give sound advice, show the right way, and thus help that person up after falling. It is easy to do that for an individual. However, there is a different issue when an entire society is immersed in sins, being carbonized from within, toppling over, falling like a great oak tree. Helping that society up, allowing it regain vitality is far more difficult in comparison to a single person. This difficult task, however, should be the high and exalted ideal that souls devoted to reviving faith aim for. That is, they should open their arms wide to every section of the society, throb like a pulse everywhere, and show the societies in which they live the path to a fresh revival. Indeed, the actual great duty, the real responsibility that befalls to devoted souls is raising toppled oak trees and helping them to gain vitality once more.
1. Sahih Muslim, Sifatu’l-Munafiqin, 58.
2. Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Zuhd, 57; Sunan ibn Majah, Fitan, 23.
This text is the translation of “Musibetler Karşısında Mü’min ve Münafık.”