The Prophet (peace be upon him) often highlighted to his companions, and to all Muslims in all ages, the importance of actions that may either lead them to earning God’s reward or make them incur His anger and punishment. He was keen to do so when such actions are not given the necessary attention. A case in mind is that outlined by the following Hadith reported by Abdullah ibn Abbas: “The Prophet passed by the wall of a cemetery in Madinah, or perhaps Makkah, when he heard the sound of two people enduring torment in their graves. He said: ‘They are enduring torment, yet for no major sin.’ Then he added: ‘It is major indeed. One of them did not guard himself against his own urine, while the other used to go about with slandering tales.’ He then called for a green branch of the palm tree, split it into two and placed one half on each of the two graves. To the question why he did that he answered: ‘I hoped that their plight would be lightened as long as these branches have not dried.’” (Related by Al-Bukhari).
A Muslim should always be clean, in appearance and reality. In this Hadith, the Prophet puts strong emphasis on such cleanliness, in intention and behavior as well as in physical cleanliness. As God’s messenger, he is given knowledge through the angel who brings him revelations. It was thus that he learned of the torment received by those two dead people in their graves, and was told of the reasons for such torment. Both had habits that ran contrary to the standard of cleanliness required by Islam. One of them did not take precautions against urine dropping over his clothes or his body. Needless to say, such action rendered his prayers invalid when he prayed. A condition for the validity of prayer is that the worshipper should be free of impurity, in his body, clothes and the place where he prays. Moreover, Muslims are required to make sure to dry and then wash their genitals after urination. However, the dead person paid little attention to that, as do many people indeed, taking such matters too lightly.
The other person used to go about telling slandering tales. Such an action is often done in jest, with the slanderer spreading tales that offend a person who is not present to defend himself. At other times, telling such tales has a more wicked purpose, aiming to detract from the reputation of the person concerned. Again people often take such an action lightly, laughing with the slanderer, or even repeating his tales in front of others, without making sure whether they are true or false.
Islam accepts neither action. Hence, the Prophet makes it clear that the two dead persons are made to endure torment for their sins. At first, the Prophet says that these two actions are not major, because people often take them lightly. Then he says that in fact their sins were major, because this is their true status in the Islamic measure.
By putting the green branches on the graves the Prophet hoped that the punishment of the two dead people would be lightened. His action is a symbol of prayer for lightening their plight. He was always keen that all Muslims are granted forgiveness of their sins.