By Ahmed Zaafran
A short while ago, my wife and I took our two kids to the local public library. Going to the library today is much different than it was when I was a child. I remember the distinct smell of old books and how their pages seemed to coalesce into a never-ending narrative. There weren’t many computers back then (gasp!) and the ones that were around, made inter-galactic sounds that freaked everybody out.
When we got there, the kids jumped on to the computers positioned along the wall and started working on the interactive programs designed for their education. I took that opportunity to disappear for a bit and explore. As I perused through the columns of bookshelves, I saw a book that sent nostalgic goose bumps down my spine. The book called “The Giving Tree” is a short story written by Shel Silverstein. Initially published in 1964, this children’s book tells the story of a young boy and his relationship with his friend: a tree. In short, the boy befriends this tree that seems willing to do anything for him. The boy would come and play in her shade, gather her leaves, and even play hide-and-seek. As the boy grows older, he becomes more engrossed by the world around him and is no longer satisfied by the company of his friend. At one point, he asks the tree for money!
”I’m sorry”, said the tree,” but I have no money. I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you’ll be happy.”
And so the boy climbed up the tree and gathered her apples and carried them away.
And the tree was happy…
Here we see just one example of the tree’s unconditional love for the boy and its willingness to sacrifice itself for him. This story reminded me of the types of friendships we form and how dysfunctional many of them are. We have all seen, or even been a part of, one-way friendships where one party is always giving and the other always taking. Some give so much emotionally that they completely lose their identity and become utterly dependent on their so called, “friends.”
By now my kids are halfway complete with Dora the Explorer’s version of the matching game and I’m sitting in the corner, squeezing myself into one of those tiny chairs reserved for toddlers, totally engrossed in the book.
Don’t judge me.
But it got me thinking. What is the nature of a friendship in Islam? How is it described in the Qur’an?
Most of us know that many of God’s beloved messengers had names that give us glimpses into how He looks at them. For example, Jesus Christ (peace and blessings be upon him) is known in Islam as Ruh Allah-The spirit of God. Mohammed ﷺ (peace and blessings be upon him) is referred to as, “Habib Allah”– God’s beloved. And Abraham, the father of the prophets, received the name, Khalil Allah– God’s friend. So, if Abraham (peace and blessings be upon him) was God’s friend, what was the nature of their relationship?
In chapter four of the Qur’an, entitled “Women”, Allah says,
“Who could have a better religion than someone who submits himself completely to God and is a good-doer, and follows the religion of Ibrahim, a man of pure natural belief? God took Ibrahim as an intimate friend.” (Qur’an 4:125)
Furthermore, in chapter 16, “The Bee”, Allah says,
“Surely Abraham was an exemplar, obedient to God, upright, and he was not of the polytheists. He showed his gratitude for the favors of God, who chose him, and guided him to a Straight Way. And We gave him Good in this world, and he will be, in the Hereafter, in the ranks of the Righteous. So We have taught you the inspiration, ‘Follow the ways of Ibrahim the True in Faith, and he associated none with God.” (Qur’an 16:120-123)
What struck me about those passages was the importance of gratitude in friendship. If we take a look at our friendships, whether with our spouses, parents, cousins, homeboys/homegirls, we’ve got to ask ourselves, are we grateful for that shoulder to cry on? Do we take the initiative to call our friends when times are good and not just when we need some cash?
At the end of the book, the boy, now an old man, comes back to the tree. The tree, unable to give anything more, tries to explain herself to the boy.
”I am sorry, Boy”, said the tree, “but I have nothing left to give you My apples are gone”.
”My teeth are too weak for apples”, said the boy.
”My branches are gone”, said the tree. “You cannot swing on them”.
”I am too old to swing on branches”, said the boy.
”My trunk is gone”, said the tree. “You cannot climb”.
”I am too tired to climb”, said the boy.
“I am sorry” sighed the tree. “I wish that I could give you something… but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry…”
”I don’t need very much now”, said the boy. “Just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired”.
”Well”, said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, “well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down… sit down and rest”.
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy…
The tree had nothing left to give. Despite that, she still offers her stump, barely a few feet off the ground, as a resting place for her old friend.
Life is too short to lose sight of the people we love. The friendships we formulate during our time here have the power to resonate for eternity. We just have to show gratitude and respect for each other’s time and effort.
And we’ll be happy.