As a food staple and a valued source of cooking and lamp oil, the olive holds a place of prestige and special symbolism in many religions, including Islam. References to olives and olive trees are found throughout the Quran, Islam's holy book, and in the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. For Muslims, the inclusion of the olive and olive oil in religious observance invokes the words of Allah, Muhammad and even heavenly paradise.
The Olive Tree
Native to Asia, cultivation of the olive tree spread to the Middle East around 6,000 years ago. The olive tree was one of the earliest plants to be cultivated in early Islamic civilization, due in large part to its hardy underground root system, which allows it to thrive in arid regions by tapping into deep sources of groundwater. In addition to its status in Islam, the olive also carries significant symbolic references in Christianity and Judaism.
Olives in the Quran
There are several references to olives, olive oil and olive trees in the Quran. One reference is an oath that comes directly from the mouth of Allah, demonstrating the sacred nature of the olive: "By the fig and the olive, and by Mount Sinai, and by this secure city, surely, We have made man in the finest order." Taking this oath as a representation of the olive's sacred nature in the eyes of God, Muslims have made prayer beads out of wood from olive trees for centuries.
Prophet Muhammad is a central figure in Islam, and he regarded the olive tree as a sacred plant, instructing his followers to "anoint yourselves with olive oil because it comes from a blessed tree." According to Zaytuna College -- a Muslim liberal arts college in the United States named after the Arabic word for olive -- the Prophet Muhammad used so much olive oil in his religious devotions that his prayer shawl became saturated with it. Muslims today continue Muhammad's devotion of anointing themselves with olive oil.
The olive tree takes on an important role in the decoration of prayer rugs used by Muslims when praying to Allah. Islamic prayer rugs are akin to a portable mosque, and their imagery is meant to encourage religious devotion and contemplation. Some prayer rugs depict a lantern hung from the branch of an olive tree, intended to represent heavenly paradise and inspire the worshiper to "the path of the upright," according to one study published by the journal Studies in Comparative Religion.
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