In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
God, there is no god but He, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent.
An allegory to understand the nature and the worth of religion to man
To understand the world and the spirit of man in it; to understand the nature and the worth of religion to man; to understand how, if there were not the True Religion, the world would become the darkest dungeon and the unbeliever the most unfortunate of creatures; to grasp why it is that belief in the existence and Unity of God and reliance upon Him open the secret sign of this universe and saves man’s soul from the darkness—read this allegory:
Once upon a time, there are two brothers who set off on a long journey together. One is self-indulgent and clever. The other is self-disciplined and wise. After a while they come to a fork in their road where they see a wise old man. They ask him which way to take. He tells them that the right fork requires obligatory observance of the law which governs that road, but that this burden of observance brings with it a certain security and happiness; while the left fork promises a certain kind of freedom it represents also certain danger and distress. “Now the choice is yours,” says the old man.
On hearing this, the well-disciplined brother takes, in reliance upon God, the right fork saying that he accepts dependence on law and order. The other brother takes the left fork just for the sake of freedom. Seemingly, he is comfortable but in truth he feels no tranquility inside. He reaches a desert. Suddenly he hears the terrible sound of a beast, about to attack him. He runs away and, happening to come across a waterless well sixty meters deep, jumps into it. Half-way down, his hands meet a tree growing out of the walls of the well. He clings on to it to save himself from falling further. The tree has two roots. Two rats, one white and the other black, are gnawing away at them. The man looks up and sees that the beast is waiting at the top of the well. He looks down and there is a horrible dragon almost at his feet, with its large mouth gaping to receive him. Having time to do so, the man looks more closely at the wall of the well and notices that it is all covered with laboring insects. He looks again at the tree. It is actually a fig tree but it is a miracle of a tree in that it has a great variety of fruits growing on it, such as walnuts and pomegranates.
There, hanging in the well, he cannot understand that all that has happened to him is in any way special or meaningful, that the scene and the events in it cannot be merely coincidental. That there should be, must be, some secret to it all, that behind the scene and the events there must stand an arranger and doer of all—none of this, alas, even occurs to him due to his lack of reasoning.
Now, although this man is inwardly distressed about this situation and his spirit and heart are complaining, his evil-commanding self pretends to itself that there is nothing to complain about and so he pays no attention to the weeping of his heart and spirit. The man pretends to himself that he is in a garden, having a nice time, starts eating all kinds of fruits—for free—but some of which, it will turn out, are poisonous and harmful to him to consume in this way.
In a sacred tradition (a saying from the Prophet, the wording of which belongs to the Prophet but the meaning to God) God says, “I will treat My servant in the way he thinks of Me.” This wretched man in the well sees every event that befalls him as no more than itself, as having no further weight or significance—and, for him, so it is. He does not die but he does not live well either. He persists merely, in an agony of suspense.
Let us now recall the other brother. He is the wiser of the two and, because well-disciplined, not suffering anxieties. He always thinks of the good, affirms the law, and feels himself to be secure and free within it. Whenever, on his journey, he enters a garden and comes across, besides lovely flowers and attractive fruits, ruined or ugly things in it, he is able to turn his mind to that which is good and beautiful. His brother cannot and does not do the same; he has concerned himself with evil and therefore cannot find ease in such a garden. The wise one lives according to the saying, “Look on the good side of everything,” and is therefore generally happy with everything.
On his way he too reaches a desert, just as his brother did, and a beast shows up. He too is afraid but not as much as his brother, because he is sure that the beast must be in the service of a certain master. This disciplined man also jumps down a well that happens to be there and, halfway down, catches hold of the branches of a tree. He too notices a pair of rats gnawing at the two roots of the tree. Looking down, he sees the dragon and, up above, the beast still waiting for him. Just like his brother, he finds this suspense a strange situation to be in. But because he is wise and self-disciplined, he infers that all these strange happenings are arranged by someone and constitute a sign. He thinks he is not alone and that he is being watched and examined by someone. He understands that he is being directed and guided in some way as a test and for a purpose.
He is curious about the one who arranged all these events and asks, “Who is it that desires to make me know him?” Even in his curiosity he is patient and self-disciplined, and so this curiosity arouses in him a love for the owner of the sign. This love, in turn, builds in him the desire to understand the sign and meaning of these events and the will to acquire good qualities that will please the owner of the sign.
He observes that the tree from which he is suspended is a fig tree but one that bears almost every kind of fruit. He is no longer afraid; he understands that this tree is actually a sort of catalogue of samples of the fruits belonging to the unseen owner, which the owner has prepared for his guests to his garden. Otherwise, one tree would not bear so great a variety of fruits as this one does. He starts to entreat earnestly and, as a result, the key to the secret is inspired in him. He declares:
“O owner of all this scene and these events, I am wholly in your hand. I take refuge in you and I am at your service. I desire your approval and I desire to know you.”
Following this prayer, the wall of the well unexpectedly parts and a door opens onto a wonderful, pleasant garden. Indeed, the dragon’s mouth has been transformed into the door, and both the dragon and the beast become two servants inviting him in. The beast even changes into a horse for him to ride on.
And so, O my lazy soul, and O my imaginary friend! Let us now compare the positions of these two brothers, so that we can see how good brings good and evil brings evil:
The interpretation of the allegory
The unfortunate traveler who took the left way, the way of self-trust and self-willed freedom, is about to fall into the mouth of the dragon; he is continually anxious. He suffers loneliness and considers himself a prisoner facing the attacks of wild beasts. Furthermore, he adds more to this distress, eating apparently delicious but actually poisonous fruits which are only presented as samples, not intended to be consumed for their own sake but to persuade the consumers to seek out the originals and become customers of them. This unfortunate one changes his day into darkness; he himself does injustice, changing his situation into a hell-like one, so he does not deserve pity, nor does he have the right to complain to anyone.
In contrast, the traveler who took the right way is in a fruitful garden with servants all around him. He studies every strange and beautiful incident in fearful awe, and sees himself as an honored guest, taking pleasure in the strange and beautiful servants of his generous host. He does not eat up the fruits on the fig tree. Rather he only samples them and, understanding the reality, he postpones the pleasure of eating them up and enjoys the anticipation.
The other is just like a man who denies his favored situation in a summer garden surrounded by friends, and instead, by making himself drunk with foul intoxicants, imagines himself to be among wild beasts in winter time, and complains thereof. He does himself injustice and insults his friends, so deserves no mercy. The brother who took the right way, the way that accepts trustingly what is given and observes the law, sees and accepts the whole reality and for him it is beautiful. In doing this he respects the one who possesses reality, and that is why this brother is deserving of mercy. By this we may understand, at least in part, the meaning of the Qur’anic decree, “Whatever of good befalls you is from God, and whatever ill befalls you is from yourself.”
When we reflect upon the differences between the two brothers we see that the inner-self of one prepared a kind of hell-like situation for him, corresponding to his own attitude to reality. The other’s potential goodness, positive intention and good nature led him to a very favored and happy situation.
Now, I say to my own inner-self as well as to the inner-self of anyone who has read thus far:
“If you desire to be like the luckier of the two brothers, follow the guidance of the Qur’an.” The details of the allegory could be explained at very great length, but the gist of it, roughly, is this:
There are two ways before everyone
One of the brothers is a believer who is good-hearted and the other is a blasphemous unbeliever. Of two ways, the one on the right is the way of the Qur’an and faith, whereas the other is the way of unbelief and rebellion. The garden on the way is human society and civilization, which has in it both good and evil, cleanliness and pollution. The sensible person is he who acts according to the rule: Take what is clear and pleasant, and leave what is turbid and distressing, and goes on his way with tranquillity of heart.
The desert in the story is the earth, and the beast that turns up unexpectedly is death. The well is the life of man, and sixty meters in depth is our average life span corresponding to sixty years. The tree in the well is life itself; the two rats gnawing its roots are day and night. The dragon in the well is the grave opening onto the Hereafter and, for a believer, becomes a door to the Garden. The insects on the walls of the well are the troubles people face on this earth. However, these troubles are but gentle warnings from God for a believer, to prevent him slipping off into the sleep of heedlessness. And the fruits on the tree, as we have already indicated, are the bounties of this world presented as samples from the blessings of the Hereafter, inviting customers towards the fruits of Paradise.
(There is only one tree in the well but there are various fruits on it. This shows the seal of Divinity Whose unique virtue is “to create everything out of one thing” and “to change everything into one thing.” He makes various plants and fruits from one soil only, creates all living things from one drop of water, and nourishes and sustains alike all living things but through diverse kinds of foods.)
To return to the allegory, the sign shows the secret will of God in creating. This sign is opened with faith and the key is: O God, there is no god but God; God, there is no god but He, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent.
For one of the brothers, the mouth of the dragon changes into a door to the Garden. This is a sign that for the other, as for all unbelievers, the grave is the door to a place of trouble, the belly of a dragon. For believers, however, it is the door to the eternal Garden, which is the blessing of God for the faithful followers of the Qur’an.
The beast changes into an obedient servant, a disciplined and trained horse. This means that, for unbelievers, death is a painful detachment from loved ones, a kind of imprisonment after leaving (for them) the paradise-like earth. For believers, on the other hand, it is a means of reunion with the friends and companions who have already gone to the Hereafter. It is like going into their eternal home of happiness. It is for them a formal invitation to pass into the eternal gardens from the prison of the earth. It is an occasion to receive the wage which will be bestowed out of the generosity of the Most Compassionate and Merciful One for services rendered to Him, and a kind of retirement from the burden of life.
In sum, the one who chooses the transient life as his aim puts himself into Hell even though he stays in what appears to him paradise on earth. By contrast, the one who aims at the eternal life will find peace and happiness in both worlds. Despite all troubles, he still thanks God and will patiently conclude his stay on the earth which, as he properly comes to understand, is merely a waiting room opening up to heaven.
O God, make us among the people of happiness, salvation, the Qur’an, and faith! Amen. O God, bestow peace and blessings upon our master Muhammad, and upon his family and Companions, to the number of all the letters contained in the words of the Qur’an, reflected by leave of the Most Compassionate One in the waves of the sounds of each word recited by reciters of the Qur’an from its first revelation to the end of time, and have mercy on us and on our parents; and have mercy on all believing men and women to the number of those words, through Your Mercy, O Most Merciful of the merciful. Amen. And all praise be to God, the Lord of all the worlds.
This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection.