Environment and Nature: Islam
The sacred text of Islam, the Qur'an, contains a theology of ecology, for nature and ethics are at the very core of its moral world-view. Indeed, so central is the theme of the affinity of nature and ethics that even outside observers, such as Marshall G. Hodgson, have epitomized the dictates of the Islamic commitment as "the demand for personal responsibility for the moral ordering of the natural world".
The creation of humanity is one of the grandest themes of the Qur'an. It is alluded to either philosophically in a symbolic language or biologically, employing the medium of natural science. Philosophically, the first assertion is that of the purposefulness and meaningfulness of human life. The Quranic teleology is pre-eminently moral: humans are to execute the will of God, but it is an undertaking which they have imposed upon themselves. It is a pledge made by man and woman to God. Hence, God, for His part, has endowed them with all the faculties essential to undertaking this august moral mission. Nature is the testing ground of this moral responsibility. Men and women are thus enjoined to read its “signs”. For this purpose, nature has been created both orderly and predictable. The creation of human beings and the creation of nature are thus two chapters of the single theme of moral responsibility and trust that is the sine qua non of Islamic commitment.
Nature, therefore, is a trust or amana and a theatre for a Muslim’s moral struggle. According to the Qur’an, heavens, earth, and mountains refused to assume this responsibility which humans took upon themselves voluntarily. By doing this, no doubt, humans showed ignorance and hubris – but also their willingness to serve God’s purpose. As trust is a mutual commitment, it may also be surmise that God, by entrusting people with this responsibility, expressed confidence in their ability. No wonder that in the Quranic worldview and the Islamic tradition the individual is known as the trustee, or Khalifa, of God.
The Islamic rationale for an ecological ethics rests on the Quranic notions of Khalifa and amana. Nature, being the gift of God to man, is accepted in Islam as an estate over which we have temporary control but no sovereign authority. Our relationship with nature thus can never be ethically neutral. Islam views nature essentially in a teleological perspective and therefore the claims of man’s dominion over her have no resonance in Islam.
While Islam is a monotheistic faith belonging to the Abrahamic tradition, its teachings on environment and nature contrast sharply with its sister religion of Christianity. To give an example: the Hebrew story of creation is transformed in Christianity into the doctrine of the fall. Creation thus appears to the Christian mind as “fallen”, and nature is viewed as opposed to grace. St Augustine, to take one example, believed that nature was “unredeemed”, just as many Christian theologians maintain that nature cannot teach man anything about God and is therefore of no theological and spiritual interest. Salvation is the humbling of nature by miraculous, the intrusion of the supernatural into history. The nearest thing in the physical universe that reflects the miraculous is man. Holiness exists only in a man-made environment. Thus, nature, so devoid of God’s presence and grace, may be “tortured”; it may be justifiably subjected to scientific experimentation. The Islamic view is very different. Creation (nature) in the Quranic view always bears the “signs of God” and is necessary for man’s salvation. It is in accordance with this that Islam holds that there is no such thing as a profane world. All the immensity of matter constitutes a scope for the self-realization of the spirit. All is holy ground; or as the Prophet Muhammad said, “the whole of this earth is a mosque”. Earth, creation and nature thus have a sacramental efficacy in Islam which can be ill-accommodated with the perverse applications of the “dominion ethics”. The claim for nature’s “salvational worth”, however, may never be construed as a token of its autonomy. In fact, Muslim theologians have always claimed that nature has no meaning without reference to God; without Divine purpose it simply does not exist. (Hence, nature is simply known as the created order.).
The ethical link between faith in God and the love for His creation is fully demonstrated in the life of the Prophet Muhammad himself who declared that whoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself. One authentic tradition narrates that a man once came to the Prophet with a bundle and said, “I passed through a wood and heard the voice of the young of birds, and I took them and put them in my carpet and their mother came fluttering around my head”. And the Prophet said, “Put them down”. And when he had put them down, the mother joined the young. And the Prophet said, “Do you wonder at the affection of the mother towards her young? I swear by Him who has sent me, verily, God is more loving to His servants than the mother of these birds. Return them to the place from where you took them, and let their mother be with them”.
Such environmental teachings were actually translated into environmental policies and legislation in the classical Muslim civilizations. For example, the Muslims developed the notion of haram – inviolate zones – outsides towns, near water-courses and other areas where development was forbidden. A second type of inviolate zone was hima which applied to forests, woods, and wild habitation and was designed to conserve wildlife. Ibn abd as-Salam (fl. thirteenth century) formulated the first statements of animal rights. Muslims were also concerned about the protection of the urban environment; Islamic town planning and architecture provide ample demonstrations of this. Many classic cities, like Fez, were built with the full understanding of carrying capacity and were designed so that the city’s population would not increase beyond a critical limit. The debate about conservation, protection of animals and their habitats, and the Islamic teachings on the environment can be clearly seen in such classics as Dispute Between Animals and Man, which is a part of the Rasa il Ikhwan al-safa (The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity) written in the tenth century. The deep respect for nature and environment is also evident in Sufism, the mystical strand of Islam, both in its thought and practice. The titles of some of the classic Sufi works reflect their concern with nature: Gulistan (The Rose Garden) and Bustan (The Fruit Garden) by Sa’di of Shiraz, and Farid al-Din Attar’s Mantiq al tavr (The Conference of the Birds) provide good illustrations.
Contemporary Muslim societies have lost much of their traditional consciousness and concerns. Both colonialism and the mad rush for modernization have played their part in this oversight, but today we can detect a minor resurgence in Islamic environmental consciousness. This is evident both in the intellectual and academic efforts to shape a contemporary Islamic environment theory – for example in the works of Gulzar Haider, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Othman Llewellyn – and the frequent use of traditional Islamic concepts and technologies (such as qanat, the ingenious system of wells drained through a network of tunnels) in developing environmentally sound practices in the Middle East and Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia.
Equipped with the ethical insights of Khalifa and aman, and impelled by the Quranic dictates to assume personal moral responsibility in the world of nature, Muslims have a responsibility to meet the challenge of ecology to religious and consciousness and provide mankind with a healing vision of the harmony of man and nature under God. Like everything else of value in Islam, its ecological insight can be summed up under the seminal concept of tawhid (unity). Tawhid, Islam’s eternal quest for the unity of life and purpose, spirit and matter, human beings and nature, law and ethics, faith and morality, implies that man not dominate the earth or commit violence in any form.
Helaine Selin, “Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures”, pg. 296-298