The lote tree is a medium-sized woody shrub native to the Mediterranean region, growing and thriving near rivers and springs, found as far as the oases of the Sahara desert in Morocco. It’s scientific name is ziziphus lotus, or alternatively the ziziphus jujuba, both very similar members to the buckthorn family Rhamnaceae tree shrubs. The tree is called al-sidr or occasionally al-nabq in the Arabic language, its berry-like fruits eaten in regions with a high tree population. As ordinary as this tree might seem, it’s symbolical meaning in the Islamic world is derived from the Quran and the prophetic narrations, in which a specific lote tree is mentioned several times. This specific lote tree bears the name Sidrat al-Muntahā, the Arabic root س د ر (s-d-r) meaning “to obscure or block vision/an area” and muntahā meaning “that which ends.” It’s name is ominous of its function, as this is the tree that marks the border where the seventh and final level of Paradise ends.
In the Qur’anic sūra al-Najm: 14-16, God says: “At the Lote Tree of the Utmost Boundary. Near it is the Garden of Refuge. As there covered the Lote Tree what covered it”. In other words, the lote tree (that which obscures) covers the muntahā, the area none of the creation may enter, the utmost boundary of Heaven. Sidrat al-Muntahā has indeed been interpreted by famous Quran exegetes like al-Ṭabarī and al-Saʿdī on both a concrete and abstract level. Concretely, this majestic tree marks the boundary of the known world, as opposed to the unknown world of the so-called gayb which only God knows. The border of Paradise, up to where the believers will end up after the Day of Judgement. On this physical level, the tree has been mentioned in a famous narration about the prophet Muḥammad’s Isrāʾ and Mi‘rāj Night Journey. According to Islamic tradition, the prophet was invited on a horse-like creature who carried him all the way to Jerusalem in one night, where he ascended to the heavens and back as a sign of his prophethood. In that narration, the Prophet says: “Then I was taken to Sidrat al-Muntahā; its fruits were like the pitchers of Hajar and its leaves were like the ears of elephants. He (the Archangel Gabriel) said, ‘This is Sidrat al-Muntaha’…” This ḥadīth was narrated by both al-Bukhārī and Muslim.
On an abstract, symbolical level, it has been interpreted as the boundary of the creation’s knowledge, hiding the gayb behind it. Standing at the base of God’s throne, it marks the end of that which rises up from the earth and the starting point of the divine coming down into the world of mortals. It’s the conceptual screen between that which is observable by the created and that which is only seen by the Creator. The world of al-qadr (predestination), al-waḥī (revelation) and the divine itself separated from what is allowed to be seen, to be known by all. This symbolism made the tree a popular icon with regard to knowledge and education, as in the tree being the gateway/marker between the two worlds of human knowledge and divine knowledge. Several local schools and non-profit, socially engaged foundations use this tree as their emblem.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.