In Surah Al-Qalam, chapter 68 in the holy Quran, Allah Subhanuhu wa Taala narrates a parable about the owners of an orchard who did not give charity to the poor and needy. On the contrary they avoided them. The selection of orchard in this parable is worth pondering over because a good harvest of fruit is dependent on good weather, timely rain and regular sunshine, which are beyond man’s power to control. An orchard does not require regular tilling of the soil or care after it has grown up. It yields annual harvest of fruits without much labour. For the owners of the orchard to regard it as the reward of their hard labour is utter folly and this is what the parable brings out in the story of the orchard owners in Surah Al-Qalam.
So Allah tested the owners of the orchard when they decided without saying in-sha- Allah and qualifying their intention with the will of Allah, that they would pluck its fruit by the break of the dawn before the poor wake up. But Allah had other plans for them. A fire burnt down their orchard on the eve of the harvest while they slept. When they got up, they whispered to each other to make haste and reach the orchard. They planned not to let any poor person enter the garden lest he may ask for alms. When they arrived there, they found their orchard was struck by a calamity leaving nothing to harvest. They thought they had lost their way and come to another garden. But soon the reality began to dawn on them that the ruined garden was indeed theirs. They realised that they had been deprived of the same thing they wanted to deprive the poor of. They realised they had been ruined.
A wise person among them told them: “did I not tell you before that you should praise Allah and be thankful to Him for receiving the blessings. At that moment they started blaming each other. They said indeed they had forgotten to glorify Allah and give their thanks. They admitted that they were transgressors. Then they hoped that Allah will forgive their mistake and give them something better to replace their loss. [68: 17 to 33].
The parable ends with the admonition: “in this way the punishment comes. And, of course, the punishment of the Hereafter is even greater, only if they realise!” Then there is the promise of the garden of bliss for the God fearing.” [68:34 to 35].
This parable highlights human frailty and places it a context suggesting how to overcome our selfish behaviour. It is a story of greed, loss, denial, blame, acceptance of individual and collective guilt, repentance, hope and compensation. We all go though this cycle at least a few times in our lifetime, if not frequently. We also see these characteristics in others in our practical lives. We are all part of this story. Little do we realise that there is a way out of this by listening to the advice of the wise men among us, such as the person among the owners of the orchard, to glorify our creator and help the poor. The fruits symbolising wealth and well-being are not guaranteed to stay with us forever. We as humans do not own them, and when we do possess them temporarily, there is a share of others in these fruits.
This parable compares the orchard of the world to the everlasting garden of bliss in two ways. The first is that whatever is in this world is destined to be destroyed. It will also ruin its keepers, i.e. human beings if they do not remember Allah and be grateful to Him for the many blessings they enjoy free in this world. However, if they are grateful and give charity, they shall enter the everlasting garden of bliss in the hereafter where there will be no loss, nor calamity on them or on their possessions.
This parable also addresses us directly about our own nature. How many of us do not despise the company of the poor when we are celebrating success or are at a feast. On the contrary we change our walkways to avoid encountering them in our good time. We think the empty and dark ‘world’ of the poor is different from our small ‘world’ of joy and abundance. For the more affluent and powerful among us, our servants and guards act as the gatekeepers to keep the poor away from us. Are we not then behaving like the owners of the orchard in our small selfish ways? This questions needs to be asked by each one of us and answered to our conscience privately.