Plants and Nature in Bible and Quran – How Respect for Nature Connects Us
Plants and nature play an important role in the Holy Scriptures of both Christians and Muslims – associated in both religions with the task of preserving Creation and exemplified in the parable of Noah’s Ark, which is found to be almost identical in the Bible and the Quran. As far as we can allocate the Hebrew-Aramaic and Arabic names to botanical species, these species, with few exceptions, are mostly identical in both scriptures. All of this is not surprising, considering that, including Judaism, the three monotheistic religions, which refer to the God of Abraham, all emerged from the narrowly defined semiarid region of the oasis-civilizations between the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers (Figure 21.1). Biogeographically, this is the natural distribution range of the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). One may also consider the spatial proximity (the distance between Jerusalem and Medina is only about 900 km) and the historically rather short time frame in which these core texts emerged: The selection and final version of our modern Bible texts took place in Alexandria AD 375, the central Christian doctrine of the Trinity was dogmatized in Toledo AD 675, that is, only after the revelation of the Quran had been completed AD 632.
However, in the history of the monotheistic religions, nature has played a secondary role. The natural world was often primarily seen as a set of resources for human utility (White 1967). Only after the anticipated extent of global environmental changes (e.g. Meadows et al. 1972, Rockström et al. 2009) became apparent, did the religions elicit their task of preserving Creation and the environment (e.g., Assisi Declarations 1986; Pope Francis 2015, Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change 2015; cf. Pye et al. 1997, Alt 1999, Grim & Tucker 2014, Jenkins et al. 2017). The encyclical by Pope Francis (2015) in particular, was a fundamental waking call – and highly important for the mutual respect among the Abrahamic religions – as it resembled a milestone in a process, which had commenced only late in history with the Second Ecumenical Council (1962-1965).
Religions shape our values and culture and determine the actions of most people. Natural science can only deliver data and recommend actions; however, society, media and education, politics, sentimentalities and ideologies decide. About 75% of the Earth’s population (currently ca. 7.6 bn people) are affiliated with one of the four most prevalent religions (Christianity ~2.3 bn., Islam ~1.8 bn., Hinduism ~1.1 bn., Buddhism ~0.5 bn.) according to recent figures published by the Pew Research Center (2017).
The majority of the Earth’s population has therefore – at least theoretically – a common goal: the preservation of nature. However, whether or not this preservation is pursued, depends on the prerequisite that we are able to learn to treat each other with mutual respect and empathy and that we give up on our claim to sole ownership of truth. In the following, this essay does not aim to provide botanical lists of the plants of the holy scriptures; rather, it focuses on answering the question how respect for nature could connect us (cf. Barthlott 2018 and 2019).
Plants and nature in the Scriptures
The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) emerged from similar cultural traditions in a rather short historical time frame, biogeographically within the natural distribution range of the date palm, in a narrowly defined area of the oasis cultures of the semiarid region between the Indus valley and the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers (Figure 21.1). The Jewish Torah forms a central part of the Old Testament, and much of the Quran refers to both the Old and New Testament. The commonalities of Bible and Quran are vast; the few differences, however, fundamental.
In the Old and New Testament, a large diversity of plant names is listed. In a long historical tradition starting long before Linnaeus’ work for the Swedish Bible commission in the late 18th century, one assumed to be able to identify several hundred different species in the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek texts. For the Bible, popular science books and internet websites list hundreds of different plants (see, e.g., lists of Bible plants on Wikipedia). However, with some confidence, fewer than 60 names can be assigned to defined botanical species. The list of publications on this topic is long, with analyses provided by various authors (Moldenke & Moldenke 1952, Zohary 1983, Stückrath 2012, Musselmann 2012, Barthlott et al. 2016).
Often, there are less scientific than philological and cultural-historical aspects that allow to identify a Bible plant as a certain botanical species. Bible and Quran are written in the closely related Semitic languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic. On a purely quantitative level, the Quran (McAuliffe 2006) is less comprehensive than the much longer texts of the Bible and, for several reasons, fewer scientific analyses are available: There are some 20 names in the Quran, which, with few exceptions, seem to be more or less identical with plants in the Bible. Overviews are given by Musselman (2007), Ahmad et al. (2009), Al-Khulaifi and El-Gharib (2015), and Barthlott et al. (2016) (cf. also Ghazanfar & Fischer 2013).
Generally, the plants mentioned in the two scriptures can be divided into three main groups. Dominating are economic and medical plants in the widest sense, ranging from grains, figs, dates, papyrus, and cedars to perfumes and incense plants such as frankincense or spikenard. A second group of conspicuous, often attractive plants, usually are flowers (the “flowers of the fields” or “lilies of the valleys”) which can rarely be unequivocally assigned to botanical entities.
The third group are symbolic plants such as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil found in the Paradise of both the Bible and the Quran, which is certainly not the apple tree and probably not the fig or pomegranate tree, but might rather be the grape vine, which, during the antiquity, was classified as a tree. Pliny the Elder discusses this extensively in his Naturalis Historia. Wine is ambivalently good and bad in both the Bible and the Quran – according to the Quran, there are rivers of wine in paradise (Surah 16). The two Holy Scriptures express the belief that drinking wine allows to distinguish between good and evil (Herodotus about the Persians, see Tree of Knowledge cf. Genesis 2,9 and Surah 7) and the Bible additionally compares this action to drinking blood (Androkydes to Alexander the Great, cf. Last Supper or Deuteronomy 32).
Environmental change commenced early and is reflected already in the Bible (Sperber 1994). Two examples may elucidate this: Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) originated in tropical East Africa and was distributed along the Nile until reaching the Mediterranean coast. It is one of the oldest useful plants connected to our cultures as writing material (“paper”) or to building boats, which were able to cross the Atlantic (see Thor Heyerdahl’s boat “Ra II”). The history of young Moses exposed in a reed box appears in the Bible and in the Quran – nevertheless, this box is more likely to have been a small papyrus construction (Zohary 1983). The history of the Exodus from Egypt, which is told almost identically in the Bible and the Quran, does not refer to the Red Sea, but to the endless Papyrus and reed swamps in the North Eastern delta of the Nile. The Hebrew texts clearly call it a swamp or “sea of reed” (Yam Suph יַם-סוּף), extensive Papyrus swamps, which are known today as “Sudd” from the White Nile in South Sudan. Papyrus is an astonishing example for early environmental change brought about through intense human activities (agriculture and drainage) in the last 5,000 years. Already in the time of the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon (1798-1801), Papyrus was no longer found in its native habitat. The last report on finding actual Papyrus dates from 1821 and refers to the region of Port Said (Serag 2003) along the route which Moses probably took. The Nile delta variety of Papyrus was obviously re-introduced in the middle of the 20th century, probably originating from the Botanical Gardens of Luxemburg. This act reflects an interesting example for the role of living collections for the preservation of nature.
The sacred lotus Nelumbo has a similar history. Probably of Chinese origin, it came via the Indus valley and arrived in the Nile region about 600 BC, only to disappear again from Egypt around 1100 AD, owed to the extensive cultivation of sugar cane (Saccharum is a Southeastern Asian plant, probably of New Guinean origin). Nelumbo was ascribed high symbolic value due to its conspicuous flowers and additionaly was an economically valuable plant, which due to its edible seeds was also referred to as Fabae aegyptiae, Egyptian beans. Both aspects make it almost certain that Nelumbo is mentioned in the Bible – yet we do not know under which name (perhaps the expression “lily of the valley” refers to it). The history of the lotus is most confusing (cf. Woenig 1897, Bretzel 1903), because the name “Lotus” is used also for two species of Nymphaea (N. lotus, N. caerulea) of the Nile. Homer (e.g., Odysseus and the lotus-eaters) mentions lotus at least seven times and, apparently, uses this term to refer to different plants, ranging from grasses to trees (Herzhoff 1984) – thus confirming the modern hypothesis, that Homer is a collective name for several authors. Lotus, with its wasp nest-like fruits, which Herodotus already listed, easily identifiable under the name krinos (Lily), was considered a symbol of purity in Hinduism and later also in Buddhism – the super-hydrophobic leaves became the model for the high technology of the Lotus-Effect (Barthlott & Neinhuis 1997). Presumably, the purity of the Nelumbo/“Lily” continues to live on under its Semitic name in the parable of Susanna and the Elders, and possibly even as the white lily, the symbol of purity of the Immaculate Conception in the Christian tradition.
In translating the Bible into modern languages, species names are often chosen rather arbitrarily, thus corresponding mainly to the preferences and fashion of the current epoch. A good example for this is the modern translation of (e.g. German unified bible translation) “pigeon droppings” in 2 Kings 6:25 as “Milchstern” (“Star of Bethlehem”, i.e. Ornithogalum), based on a misinterpretation of Linnaeus’ work for the Swedish Bible commission in the 18th century. However, it may be more reasonable to take the text literally: Up to the middle of the 19th century, dried pigeon droppings were used as an organic leavening-agent and were thus, for example, an essential component in bread making (Von Rumohr, 2010).
In the Arabic Quran, these problems in translation seem not to exist. Nevertheless, the modern reader needs an interpretation and exegesis as of how the 7th century Arabic terminological references to plants and animals could or should be understood. Every text needs its exegesis.
Furthermore, many of the plants and animals that were of economic interest in the antiquity did not originate in the area in which the Bible and the Quran were written, but rather came from faraway places. Sugar cane (presumably from New Guinea), chickens (presumably from Polynesia), and the lotus flower (presumably from China) were already known in the Middle East during the times that the writings of the Old Testament or rather the Tanakh were compiled. Linnaeus had failed to recognize that the names of plants in the Bible did not necessarily refer to the native flora of Palestine as his interpretations largely disregarded the variety of plants found in the region due to cultural and economic connections.
In both religions, Christianity and Islam, century-old associations of plants play an important role. However, the terminology used in the Holy Scriptures does not necessarily match today’s botanical terminology. In this way, it is strongly unlikely that Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) or Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) were actually referred to in the Bible; the same applies to the rose in the Quran. Rather it is necessary to differentiate between the original texts and the millennia-long traditions of religions (cf. e.g. Schimmel 2001).
Both symbolic and useful plants dominate the canonical texts and, at times, are identifiable as a certain botanical species. The date palm (Phoenix), for example, may function as a biogeographic symbol of the three Abrahamic religions. Date palm, dromedary and lion are the three dominant elements on a robe (Figure 21.2) that emperors of the Holy Roman Empire wore during their coronation ceremonies. It was originally made for Roger II and was worn by the European emperors for over six centuries until the end of the empire in 1806. This garment is of Arabic-Sicilian origin and includes encircling Arabic text, which dates back to the year of Hedschra 528, that is, to 1133/1134 AD.
Respect for nature connects us: Noah or Nuh is only one of many examples
If we see beyond our own cultural imprint, we notice how much agreement there is between Christianity and Islam. In fact, Islam was considered to be a heretic form of Christianity up to the Reformation as expressed, for example, by John of Damascus and Niclas of Cusa (Fletcher 2002). Almost the same parables are used in the Bible and the Quran (cf. synoptic survey in Thyen 2015), the story of the Genesis is almost identical in every detail, the Virgin Mary is the mother of the venerated prophet Jesus, etc. – the fundamental difference being the mystery of the Trinity. This becomes evident in Surah 112 of the Quran, one of the core Surahs to characterize Allah, which reads: “He is Allah, [who is] One, Allah, the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is born”. Goethe masterfully interpreted this image of God in an unpublished poem associated with his West-Eastern Divan, thus bridging the Christian and Islamic tradition by referring to Jesus and Muhammad, respectively: “Jesus purely, thoughtful, awed, / Felt One God, when all was still. / Who’d make Jesus into God / Would put pain his holy will. // Right it seems, and bright as sun – / What Muhammad knew so well; / Through the concept of the One / All the world could he compel”. (Goethe 2010, p. 169).
However, as far as the aspect of nature conservation is concerned, there are obviously no differences in the two Scriptures. The most impressive example for the mission to safeguard creation is the parable of Noah’s Ark in the Bible and the Quran (Figure 21.3). It also shows the deep historical background of many such texts: The myth is older than the Old Testament and was first written down about 3,500 years ago in the Atrahasis Epic and subsequently in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The flood and the Ark, combined with the divine task to preserve diversity, are found again not only in the Old Testament (Genesis 6,9) but with almost the same wording in the Quran (Surah 11,44), which equally refers to Noah (Arabic: Nuh). The flood myth is found again in a very similar form in Greek mythology, in the parable of Deucalion, who, by the order of a God (Prometheus), builds an ark to safeguard life from a flood. The original texts are dated around 1600 BC – just like the Tempest Stele of pharaoh Ahmose I found in the temple of Karnak at Thebes, or the Ipuwer Papyrus (Papyrus Leiden I 344). All these mythological adaptations (cf. Finkel 2014) probably have their origin in the context of a catastrophic volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini and a subsequent tsunami about 3,600 years ago. The explosive eruption of a volcano can cause global climatic disturbances: The eruption of the volcano Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, for example, lead to subsequent catastrophic climatic disturbances that even affected Europe and North America (Behringer 2015). However, perhaps the most important message for the conservation of biodiversity can be derived from the parable of the Tower of Babel: Humans are to respect the limits to growth.
How respect for nature could connects us
Obviously, all major religions fundamentally agree to protect nature. Herein we may find a key for the successful preservation of our environment. The professing atheist and president of the British Science Association Robert May has summarized this according to a much-read article in The Telegraph (Alleyne 2009) by stating: “Maybe religion is needed” and “A supernatural punisher maybe part of the solution [of climate change]”. Said article continues to explain that May contemplated the belief in a supernatural entity as a contributing evolutionary mechanism to foster cooperation through the fear of punishment. In this way, religious teachings and belief could benefit the protection of this planet and the conservation of all life on Earth, especially if political leaders and governments are hesitant to implement the means of the worldly realm.
We live today in an over-populated and complexly interactive “full world”, that is, humankind and our artifacts have replaced untouched nature and resources that once were part of the “empty world” of our forbearers (Daly 2005). What has brought us to this point, has been coined as “uneconomic growth” and defined as “increases in production […] at an expense of resources and well-being that is worth more than the items made” (Daly 2005, p. 103). In this “full world”, the philosophies of the Enlightenment of the “empty world” are of limited value (e.g. Weizsäcker & Wijkman 2017). Rousseau, Voltaire, Hume, and Spinoza are valid only in a restricted way in today’s digitalized and globalized full world. The old principle of “growth is progress” is no longer valid – we remember the parable of the Tower of Babel. With the beginning of the Anthropocene, we have clearly reached an existential limit (cf. Pope Francis 2015); climate change is only one alarming signal of the human-made environmental pollution and destruction that is brought about by uneconomic growth (Daly 2005).
What unites the overwhelming part of the world’s population are the Abrahamic religions and their goals, such as their mission to preserve Creation. If they and the Western democracies overcome their claim to sole ownership of truth, a basis for communication and common actions in the sense of the Bible and the Quran could be created. Communication between all cultures, ethnicities, religions, and nations, empathy for one another, and the respectful dialogue between East and West and North and South at eye level are the prerequisite for an interconnectedness in diversity that matches both our biological diversity and interdependence. Highlighting the role of religious belief not just in the God of Abraham but in nature as a manifestation of the supernatural, may be the key to integrating the religiously oriented 75% of the world’s population, who according to their belief should be in favor of protecting nature.
The two closely related Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam are prepared to play a crucial role in achieving this core objective. Historical milestones for taking responsibility for the preservation of nature and the environment were the Assisi Declarations from 1986 and the encyclical Laudato si’ by Pope Francis (2015) as well as, in the same year, the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. Undoubtedly, Pope Francis’ encyclical has outlined the essence of the current global crisis and simultaneously identified solutions. As Nicholas of Cusa once stated: “Eadem spectamus astra” – we all look up to the same stars. Yet, we still look for the divisive and accept only very limited differences in the diversity of religions, cultures and political systems in the world. Biodiversity is diversity of life, which is reflected in the many species mentioned in the Bible and the Quran. Maintaining and caring for our “common home” demands respect, empathy, and dialogue. Jointly pursuing this common interest is the great opportunity in the 21st century – not just for ecology and nature conservation but also for our all-encompassing interconnectedness.
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[*] Prof. em. Nees-Institute for Biodiversity of Plants, University of Bonn, Germany.
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 This photo was incorporated without changes under CC BY-SA 2.0 (last accessed on November 8, 2019).