The relationship between man and the environment should be as sincere and upright as practical and rightly poised. Any deviation from this sensible and middle-path philosophy will invariably result in pushing man to the extremes on either side, all of which, however, are resolutely rejected by Islam. Not only does this doctrine apply to man’s relationship with the environment, but also to everything else related to each and every segment of his existence. This is so because Islam as a universal code of life, and with it the whole Islamic community (Ummah), is made justly balanced, “that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves.” (al-Baqarah 2:143)
Man must respect the environment in that he is dependent on it. As God subjected it to his use, so did He make it an indispensable field of the vicegerency activities entrusted to man. To put it in a nutshell, man cannot but coexist with the environment, giving away and receiving in return proportionally to what he offered. From this partnership, man is bound to attain either peace, happiness and prosperity in this world, plus salvation in the Hereafter, or frustration, disgrace and chastisement in both worlds. For this reason will it be apt to depict this world as a plantation, or a farm (mazra’ah), which must be diligently taken care of, should its owner harbor any hope of an abounding harvest on the Day of Judgment. The Qur’an proclaims: “But seek, with the (wealth) which Allah has bestowed on thee, the Home of the Hereafter, nor forget thy portion in this world: but do thou good, as Allah has been good to thee, and seek not (occasions for) mischief in the land: for Allah loves not those who do mischief.” (al-Qasas 28:77)
Man’s rights over nature are rights of sustainable use based on moderation, balance and conservation. Nature’s rights over man, on the other hand, are that it be safe from every misuse, mistreatment and destruction. Greed, extravagance and waste are considered a tyranny against nature and a transgression of those rights. Ali b. Abi Talib, the forth Muslim caliph, once told a man who had developed and reclaimed abandoned land: “Partake of it gladly, so long as you are a benefactor, not a despoiler; a cultivator, not a destroyer.”
The creation of nature and its perfect equilibrium preceded the creation of man. Nonetheless, no sooner had man come into existence than he became an integral part thereof. The guardianship of nature, besides, became placed in his care, constituting the essence of his vicegerency assignment. Inasmuch as he is endowed with the power of free will and the other outstanding capacities, such as intelligence and knowledge, man is capable of steering his own bark. Provided he uses his abilities and talent rightly, man furthermore puts himself in a position to attain, to some extent, mastery over the forces of nature and subdue them to his services. If the perfectly executed environmental equilibrium is sustained, man should be commended for that, for he lived up to the demands of his reputation as the vicegerent and custodian of the earth. But if the same becomes disturbed and damaged, it is man again who must be held responsible for the disorder, in that he committed a breach of the sacred trust put on him. The state of the earth is a testimony of man’s either success or failure while on it.
In most cases, however, it is they who rebelled against God and His will that rebel against, and ill-treat, the environment and the flawless forces that govern it. They thus intend to satisfy their personal delirious greed and secure some societal short-term gains at the expense of the long-term vision and objectives of the whole of mankind. When consequently Allah’s wrath descends on such men, and when the favorable position in which Allah has placed them, changes, there is no turning back. Only a substantial change in their conduct and attitude may give those men a reasonable hope of God’s clemency, and a possible turnaround in their fortunes. The Holy Qur’an is pretty clear about this: “Mischief has appeared on land and sea because of (the meed) that the hand of men have earned, that (Allah) may give them a taste of some of their deeds: in order that they may turn back (from evil).” (al-Rum 30:41)
“If the people of the towns had but believed and feared Allah, We should indeed have opened out to them (all kinds of) blessings from heaven and earth; but they rejected (the truth), and We brought them to book for their misdeeds.” (al-A’raf 7:96)
“Allah sets forth a parable: a city enjoying security and quite, abundantly supplied with sustenance from every place: yet was it ungrateful for the favors of Allah: so Allah made it taste of hunger and terror (in extremes) (closing in on it) like a garment (from every side), because of the (evil) which (its people) wrought.” (al-Nahl 16:112)
“And remember! your Lord caused to be declared (publicly): “If ye are grateful, I will add more (favors) unto you; but if ye show ingratitude, truly My punishment is terrible indeed.” (Ibrahim 14:7)
“…Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (al-Ra’d 13:11)
Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, while discoursing on the theme of “the principle of the economic order”, concluded that Islamic responsibility demands that no damage occurs to nature in the process of man’s utilization of it. He said: “Islam teaches that nature’s materials and forces are gifts granted by God to us. The gift, however, is not transfer of title. It is a permission to use for the given purpose. The owner is and always remains Allah (SWT). As the Mesopotamian used to say: ‘He is the Lord of the manor, and man is merely the servant.’ This attitude is perfectly Islamic as well. The gift then must be returned to the Creator at our death or retirement, improved and increased through our production. At the very least, it must be returned intact, as it was when received. The Qur’an has emphatically reiterated that to Allah (SWT) everything in creation returns.”
From the Islamic perspective, man’s treatment of the environment is closely related to his faith. The more is he attached to the normative teachings of Islam in carrying out his daily acts, the healthier is his relationship with the environment. Similarly, whenever a person distances himself from Islam and its beliefs and value system, his behavior degenerates. This deeply affects his surroundings – comprising all animate and inanimate beings – and his fellow human beings. So significant is man’s relationship with the environment in Islam that in some instances the same is capable of taking precedence over the other deeds of a person, placing him then on the highest, or dragging him to the lowest, point of existence. For example, under certain circumstances certain noble environmental acts can obliterate a person’s past misdeeds and ensure him Paradise, whereas some atrocious environmental acts of a person under certain circumstances can make his past good deeds gain naught, promising him nothing in return in the Hereafter but Hellfire. On the subject of animals, for example, the Prophet (pbuh) once said: “A woman was sent to the Fire because of a cat. She imprisoned her and neither fed her nor set her free to feed upon the rodents of the earth.”
The Prophet (pbuh) also related the story of a woman from among the Children of Israel guilty of fornication, who found a dog near a well panting with thirst. She took of a shoe, tied it with her veil, and then managed to collect some water for the dog which it drunk. The dog quenched its thirst, and, as a result, God forgave the woman her sin.
Dr. Spahic Omer, a Bosnian currently residing in Malaysia, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design, International Islamic University Malaysia. He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and philosophy of the Islamic built environment. He can be reached at spahicoyahoo.com; his blog is at www.medinanet.org.