The Baha'i Approach to Trees and Forest

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 28. May 2011 - 13:55
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Klingenthal, Alsace, France, 22-26 September 1999


Arthur Lyon Dahl*
Geneva, Switzerland

Trees are a dominant element of the human environment in most parts of the world. It is only natural that they should figure strongly in the sacred scriptures of the major religions. In the writings of Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), the Prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith, and the explanations of his son 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1844-1921), there are many hundreds of references to trees, mostly in a symbolic or metaphorical context. The tree bears fruit, provides shade, marks the landscape. It is a living thing that grows from a seed, produces leaves, branches and roots, and eventually becomes barren, dies and decays. All these aspects lend themselves to illustrating spiritual concepts. The following selections demonstrate the wide range of symbolism using trees found in the Bahá'í writings.


In many passages, the tree represents the Prophet or Manifestation of God, or the Divine Revelation. This is derived from the references in Islam to the Sadratu'l-Muntaha, literally "the furthermost Lote-Tree" or the Tree beyond which there is no passing, as described in Muhammad's Night Journey. It marks the point beyond which neither men nor angels can pass in their approach to God, and thus delimits the bounds of divine knowledge as revealed to mankind.1 This symbolism also appears when referring to the burning bush or tree on Mount Sinai through which God spoke to Moses. "Give ear... unto the Voice that calleth from the Fire which burneth in this verdant Tree, on this Sinai...."2 Again in the story of Adam and Eve, the tree of good and evil signifies the human world, where light and darkness, good and evil, exist as opposite conditions, while the tree of life symbolizes the Word of God and the Manifestation. "This tree of life was the position of the Reality of Christ; through His manifestation it was planted and adorned with everlasting fruits."3

The Revelation also provides spiritual shelter and nourishment: "It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness."4 And "...gather together Thy servants beneath the shade of the Tree of Thy gracious providence. Help them, then, to partake of its fruits, to incline their ears to the rustling of its leaves, and to the sweetness of the voice of the Bird that chanteth upon its branches."5


The life cycle of the tree and the cycle of seasons also illustrate the renewal of religion through progressive revelation. "From the seed of reality religion has grown into a tree which has put forth leaves and branches, blossoms and fruit. After a time this tree has fallen into a condition of decay. The leaves and blossoms have withered and perished; the tree has become stricken and fruitless. It is not reasonable that man should hold to the old tree, claiming that its life forces are undiminished, its fruit unequaled, its existence eternal. The seed of reality must be sown again in human hearts in order that a new tree may grow therefrom and new divine fruits refresh the world. By this means the nations and peoples now divergent in religion will be brought into unity, imitations will be forsaken, and a universal brotherhood in reality itself will be established."6 "As the beginning was a seed and the end is a seed, we say that the seed has returned. When we look at the substance of the tree, it is another substance, but when we look at the blossoms, leaves and fruits, the same fragrance, delicacy and taste are produced. Therefore, the perfection of the tree has returned a second time."7 "The branches are many, but the tree is one. The foundation of the divine religions is reality; were there no reality, there would be no religions."8

"Reflect upon the material springtime. When winter comes, the trees are leafless, the fields and meadows withered, the flowers die away into dustheaps; in prairie, mountain and garden no freshness lingers, no beauty is visible, no verdure can be seen. Everything is clad in the robe of death. Wherever you look around, you will find the expression of death and decay. But when the spring comes, the showers descend, the sun floods the meadows and plains with light; you will observe creation clad in a new robe of expression. The showers have made the meadows green and verdant. The warm breezes have caused the trees to put on their garments of leaves. They have blossomed and soon will produce new, fresh and delightful fruits. Everything appears endowed with a newness of life; a new animus and spirit is everywhere visible. The spring has resuscitated all phenomena and has adorned the earth with beauty as it willeth. Even so is the spiritual springtime when it comes."9


The metaphor of the tree is often used to emphasize that the purpose of human life is to produce good qualities and actions. "Man is like unto a tree. If he be adorned with fruit, he hath been and will ever be worthy of praise and commendation. Otherwise a fruitless tree is but fit for fire. The fruits of the human tree are exquisite, highly desired and dearly cherished. Among them are upright character, virtuous deeds and a goodly utterance. The springtime for earthly trees occurreth once every year, while the one for human trees appeareth in the Days of God - exalted be His glory. Were the trees of men's lives to be adorned in this divine Springtime with the fruits that have been mentioned, the effulgence of the light of Justice would, of a certainty, illumine all the dwellers of the earth and everyone would abide in tranquillity and contentment beneath the sheltering shadow of Him Who is the Object of all mankind. The Water for these trees is the living water of the sacred Words uttered by the Beloved of the world. In one instant are such trees planted and in the next their branches shall, through the outpourings of the showers of divine mercy, have reached the skies. A dried-up tree, however, hath never been nor will be worthy of any mention."10

"Ye are the trees of My garden; ye must give forth goodly and wondrous fruits, that ye yourselves and others may profit therefrom. Thus it is incumbent on everyone to engage in crafts and professions, for therein lies the secret of wealth, O men of understanding! For results depend upon means, and the grace of God shall be all-sufficient unto you. Trees that yield no fruit have been and ever will be for the fire."11

"O DWELLERS OF MY PARADISE! With the hands of loving-kindness I have planted in the holy garden of paradise the young tree of your love and friendship, and have watered it with the goodly showers of My tender grace; now that the hour of its fruiting is come, strive that it may be protected, and be not consumed with the flame of desire and passion."12

"Regard thou faith as a tree. Its fruits, leaves, boughs and branches are, and have ever been, trustworthiness, truthfulness, uprightness and forbearance."13


The imagery of the seed and the tree also helps to explain spiritual realities. "Consider: We plant a seed. A complete and perfect tree appears from it, and from each seed of this tree another tree can be produced. Therefore, the part is expressive of the whole, for this seed was a part of the tree, but therein potentially was the whole tree. So each one of us may become expressive or representative of all the bounties of life to mankind. This is the unity of the world of humanity. This is the bestowal of God."14

"The human reality may be compared to a seed. If we sow the seed, a mighty tree appears from it. The virtues of the seed are revealed in the tree; it puts forth branches, leaves, blossoms, and produces fruits. All these virtues were hidden and potential in the seed. Through the blessing and bounty of cultivation these virtues became apparent. Similarly, the merciful God, our Creator, has deposited within human realities certain latent and potential virtues. Through education and culture these virtues deposited by the loving God will become apparent in the human reality, even as the unfoldment of the tree from within the germinating seed."15

"As to the... meaning of sacrifice, it is this: If you plant a seed in the ground, a tree will become manifest from that seed. The seed sacrifices itself to the tree that will come from it. The seed is outwardly lost, destroyed; but the same seed which is sacrificed will be absorbed and embodied in the tree, its blossoms, fruit and branches.... Christ, like unto the seed, sacrificed Himself for the tree of Christianity. Therefore, His perfections, bounties, favors, lights and graces became manifest in the Christian community, for the coming of which He sacrificed Himself."16


Another common theme in the Bahá'í writings is the importance of the gardener, symbolizing the Divine Educator. "If the earth is not cultivated, it becomes a jungle where useless weeds grow; but if a cultivator comes and tills the ground, it produces crops which nourish living creatures. It is evident, therefore, that the soil needs the cultivation of the farmer. Consider the trees: if they remain without a cultivator, they will be fruitless, and without fruit they are useless; but if they receive the care of a gardener, these same barren trees become fruitful, and through cultivation, fertilization and engrafting the trees which had bitter fruits yield sweet fruits...."17

"If the mountains, hills and plains of the material world are left wild and uncultivated under the rule of nature, they will remain an unbroken wilderness, no fruitful tree to be found anywhere upon them. A true cultivator changes this forest and jungle into a garden, training its trees to bring forth fruit and causing flowers to grow in place of thorns and thistles. The holy Manifestations are the ideal Gardeners of human souls, the divine Cultivators of human hearts. The world of existence is but a jungle of disorder and confusion, a state of nature producing nothing but fruitless, useless trees. The ideal Gardeners train these wild, uncultivated human trees, cause them to become fruitful, water and cultivate them day by day so that they adorn the world of existence and continue to flourish in the utmost beauty."18


One of the most powerful symbolic uses of trees is to underscore the unity of the human race. Bahá'u'lláh wrote in several places: "Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.... So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth."19 "Thus hath He likened this world of being to a single tree, and all its peoples to the leaves thereof, and the blossoms and fruits. It is needful for the bough to blossom, and leaf and fruit to flourish, and upon the interconnection of all parts of the world-tree, dependeth the flourishing of leaf and blossom, and the sweetness of the fruit."20

Trees also exemplify the diversity of humanity. "This diversity of type is apparent throughout the whole of nature.... Let us look... at the beauty in diversity, the beauty of harmony, and learn a lesson from the vegetable creation. If you behold a garden in which all the plants were the same as to form, colour and perfume, it would not seem beautiful to you at all, but, rather, monotonous and dull. The garden which is pleasing to the eye and which makes the heart glad, is the garden in which are growing side by side flowers of every hue, form and perfume, and the joyous contrast of colour is what makes for charm and beauty. So is it with trees. An orchard full of fruit trees is a delight; so is a plantation planted with many species of shrubs. It is just the diversity and variety that constitutes its charm; each flower, each tree, each fruit, beside being beautiful in itself, brings out by contrast the qualities of the others, and shows to advantage the special loveliness of each and all."21

"Trees differ though they grow in the same orchard. All are nourished and quickened into life by the bounty of the same rain, all grow and develop by the heat and light of the one sun, all are refreshed and exhilarated by the same breeze that they may bring forth varied fruits. This is according to the creative wisdom. If all trees bore the same kind of fruit, it would cease to be delicious. In their never-ending variety man finds enjoyment instead of monotony. And now as I look into your faces, I am reminded of trees varying in color and form but all bearing luscious and delectable fruits, fragrant and delightful to the inner and outer senses."22


Trees are use to explain another important Bahá'í principle, the equality of men and women. "In the vegetable kingdom we find the male and female fig tree, the male and female palm, the mulberry tree and so on. All plant life is characterized by this difference in gender, but no distinction or preference is evidenced. Nay, rather, there is perfect equality."23 "If we investigate impartially, we may even find species in which the female is superior or preferable to the male. For instance, there are trees such as the fig, the male of which is fruitless while the female is fruitful. The male of the date palm is valueless while the female bears abundantly."24


Similar imagery can help to explain the soul and God. "The soul of man is the sun by which his body is illumined, and from which it draweth its sustenance.... Consider... how the fruit, ere it is formed, lieth potentially within the tree. Were the tree to be cut into pieces, no sign nor any part of the fruit, however small, could be detected. When it appeareth, however, it manifesteth itself... in its wondrous beauty and glorious perfection. Certain fruits, indeed, attain their fullest development only after being severed from the tree."25

As 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote to the famous Swiss scientist August Forel, who later became a Bahá'í, "...we observe that man is like unto a tiny organism contained within a fruit; this fruit hath developed out of the blossom, the blossom hath grown out of the tree, the tree is sustained by the sap, and the sap formed out of earth and water. How then can this tiny organism comprehend the nature of the garden, conceive of the gardener and comprehend his being? That is manifestly impossible. Should that organism understand and reflect, it would observe that this garden, this tree, this blossom, this fruit would in no wise have come to exist by themselves in such order and perfection. Similarly the wise and reflecting soul will know of a certainty that this infinite universe with all its grandeur and perfect order could not have come to exist by itself."26


The Bahá'í writings are rich in metaphors and symbolic language based on trees, such as the examples below:

- "...if the root of a tree be corrupted, its branches, and its offshoots, and its leaves, and its fruits, will be corrupted...."27

- "The sword of thy rebellion hath felled the tree of thy hope."28

- "Make not the fruits of the tree of trustworthiness targets for the stones of treachery, nor rend its boughs asunder with the instruments of tyranny and oppression."29

- "Green and living trees can absorb the bounty of the sun; dead roots and withered branches are destroyed by it."30

- "When the root of the tree of the garden is well established and its protection is safeguarded, it will bring forth luscious fruits."31

- "The Divine Gardener cuts off the dry or weak branch from the good tree and grafts to it, a branch from another tree. He both separates and unites."32

- "When you see a tree growing and developing, be hopeful of its outcome. It will blossom and bear fruit eventually. If you see dry wood or old trees, there is no hope whatever of fruitage."33

- "Is it possible for a leaf to be imbued with virtues which are lacking in the whole tree?"34


Specific spiritual lessons are also frequently illustrated with trees. "Devotion to the tree is profitless, but partaking of the fruit is beneficial. Luscious fruits, no matter upon what tree they grow or where they may be found, must be enjoyed. The word of truth, no matter which tongue utters it, must be sanctioned."35 "These Holy Souls are like the leaves of a tree which are put in motion by the blowing of the wind, and not by Their own desire; for They are attracted by the breeze of the love of God, and Their will is absolutely submissive."36


Another important dimension of the Bahá'í approach to trees is the important direct link between nature and spirituality, with Divine qualities reflected through the creation. One of the things Bahá'u'lláh most regretted during his long imprisonment was the lack of contact with nature. He stated at one point: "I have not gazed on verdure for nine years. The country is the world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies."37 When he was allowed some freedom of movement, although still a prisoner, he often visited gardens in the vicinity of the prison-city of Akka, and also pitched his tent among the trees on Mount Carmel, where the Bahá'í World Centre stands in beautiful gardens today.

Among the many quotations on this theme is the following: "And whensoever thou dost gaze upon creation all entire, and dost observe the very atoms thereof, thou wilt note that the rays of the Sun of Truth are shed upon all things and shining within them, and telling of that Day-Star's splendours, Its mysteries, and the spreading of Its lights. Look thou upon the trees, upon the blossoms and fruits, even upon the stones. Here too wilt thou behold the Sun's rays shed upon them, clearly visible within them, and manifested by them."38


Ecological principles relevant to trees and forests are clearly stated in the Bahá'i approach, which sees agriculture and the preservation of the ecological balance of the world as of fundamental interest.39

"Consider for instance how one group of created things constituteth the vegetable kingdom, and another the animal kingdom. Each of these two maketh use of certain elements in the air on which its own life dependeth, while each increaseth the quantity of such elements as are essential for the life of the other. In other words, the growth and development of the vegetable world is impossible without the existence of the animal kingdom, and the maintenance of animal life is inconceivable without the co-operation of the vegetable kingdom. Of like kind are the relationships that exist among all created things. Hence it was stated that co-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness."40

"The excellency, the adornment and the perfection of the earth is to be verdant and fertile through the bounty of the clouds of springtime. Plants grow; flowers and fragrant herbs spring up; fruit-bearing trees become full of blossoms and bring forth fresh and new fruit. Gardens become beautiful, and meadows adorned; mountains and plains are clad in a green robe, and gardens, fields, villages and cities are decorated. This is the prosperity of the mineral world.

"The height of exaltation and the perfection of the vegetable world is that a tree should grow on the bank of a stream of fresh water, that a gentle breeze should blow on it, that the warmth of the sun should shine on it, that a gardener should attend to its cultivation, and that day by day it should develop and yield fruit. But its real prosperity is to progress into the animal and human world, and replace that which has been exhausted in the bodies of animals and men."41

"So it is that in the seed the tree exists, but it is hidden and concealed; when it develops and grows, the complete tree appears. In the same way the growth and development of all beings is gradual; this is the universal divine organization and the natural system. The seed does not at once become a tree; the embryo does not at once become a man; the mineral does not suddenly become a stone. No, they grow and develop gradually and attain the limit of perfection."42


The Bahá'í approach links the preservation and reclamation of the earth's resources with both the protection of the physical world and the heritage of future generations.43 It has encouraged the essentially humanitarian work of such groups as the Men of the Trees and the World Forestry Charter, and their noble objective44 of reclaiming the desert areas of Africa.45

A recent statement from the Bahá'í International Community summarizes this approach very well: "Bahá'í Scriptures describe nature as a reflection of the sacred. They teach that nature should be valued and respected, but not worshipped; rather, it should serve humanity's efforts to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. However, in light of the interdependence of all parts of nature, and the importance of evolution and diversity 'to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole,' every effort should be made to preserve as much as possible the earth's bio-diversity and natural order.

"As trustees, or stewards, of the planet's vast resources and biological diversity, humanity must learn to make use of the earth's natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, in a manner that ensures sustainability and equity into the distant reaches of time. This attitude of stewardship will require full consideration of the potential environmental consequences of all development activities. It will compel humanity to temper its actions with moderation and humility, realizing that the true value of nature cannot be expressed in economic terms. It will also require a deep understanding of the natural world and its role in humanity's collective development - both material and spiritual. Therefore, sustainable environmental management must come to be seen not as a discretionary commitment mankind can weigh against other competing interests, but rather as a fundamental responsibility that must be shouldered - a pre-requisite for spiritual development as well as the individual's physical survival."46

This respect for all of nature, including trees and forests, and the emphasis on the close interrelationships between our material environment and the spiritual dimensions of human life, coupled with the full range of Bahá'í approaches to the renewal of civilization, can lay a better foundation for a green and prosperous world. "The Lord of all mankind hath fashioned this human realm to be a Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise. If, as it must, it findeth the way to harmony and peace, to love and mutual trust, it will become a true abode of bliss, a place of manifold blessings and unending delights. Therein shall be revealed the excellence of humankind, therein shall the rays of the Sun of Truth shine forth on every hand."47


1. Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab-i-Aqdas. Notes, page 220
2. Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, page 47
3. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pages 122-124
4. Bahá'u'lláh, Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh, page 121
5. Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations of Bahá'u'lláh, page 26
6. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, pages 141-142
7. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pages 133-134
8. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 126
9. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, pages 277-278
10. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, page 257
11. Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words (Persian) 80
12. Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words (Persian), page 34
13. Bahá'u'lláh, in Compilation of Compilations: Trustworthiness, page 327
14. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 16
15. 'Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 91
16. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 451
17. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 7
18. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 466
19. Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, page 14
20. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, page 1
21. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 51-53
22. 'Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace, pages 51-52
23. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 374
24. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 75
25. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, page 155
26. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablet to August Forel, page 19
27. Bahá'u'lláh, Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh, pages 77-78
28. Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words (Persian), page 21
29. Bahá'u'lláh, Compilation of Compilations: Trustworthiness, pages 332-333
30. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 148
31. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í World Faith, page 403
32. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í World Faith, page 438
33. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 111
34. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 360
35. 'Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 151
36. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, page 168
37. Bahá'u'lláh, quoted in J. E. Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, Chpt. 3
38. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, pages 41-42
39. Universal House of Justice, 31 March 1985 to an Association for Bahá'í Studies
40. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in Compilation on Huququ'lláh, p. 14-15; Compilation on Social and Economic Development, p.12)
41. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, page 78
42. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pages 198-199
43. Shoghi Effendi, from a cable dated 23 May 1951 to the New Earth Luncheon, London, U.K.
44. Shoghi Effendi, from a cable dated 21 May 1956 to the World Forestry Charter Luncheon, London, U.K.
45. Shoghi Effendi, from a cable dated 22 May 1957 to the World Forestry Charter Luncheon, London, U.K.
46. Bahá'í International Community. 1998. Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development. A concept paper written for the World Faiths and Development Dialogue, Lambeth Palace, London, 18-19 February 1998. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, London
47. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, sec. 220, page 275

* The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Last updated 26 August 2001