Muslims have many scriptural imperatives that demand we work for the preservation and health of our environment. As we enter an era where the prospect of environmental catastrophe is perhaps greater than the prospect of disaster from any other source, it is especially important that we make environmental protection one of our most pressing priorities.
In a talk I gave at the London School of Economics on Islam and the environment, I said that when one considers the dismal record of the Muslim nation-states in dealing with environmental issues, and the virtual lack of any significant grassroots environmental organizations in those countries, one may find it strange that a Muslim should speak about this topic.
This sentiment is only reinforced by the fact that the various Islamic movements, which have become the main opponents of the regimes governing those states, lack even the semblance of an environmental agenda. However, the informed Muslim can easily speak on Islam and the environment for a number of reasons. First of all, Islam is described in the Qur’an as the religion of nature. God declares: “Therefore, orient yourself, with all due sincerity and uprightness towards the natural religion; this is consistent with the nature He (God) has created in humankind. Never will there be any change in that nature, this is the straight way. However, most of humanity realizes it not.” (30:30)
Having created us, and then through the institution of religion oriented us towards Him, our Creator then situated us in a delicate, intricate system where our success, and indeed the perpetuation of that system, rests in maintaining a balance between all things. He says in the Qur’an:
“The Merciful. He has taught the Qur’an. He has created the human being. He has taught him elocution. The sun and moon flow along in their established orbits. The stars and trees recline themselves humbly in prostration. He has raised aloft the firmament of the sky and established the balance. Therefore, cheat not in maintaining the balance. Establish just measure and do not fall short in maintaining the balance.” (54:1-9)
In this group of verses, God enumerates some of His Blessings to humanity. He starts by mentioning the Majestic Qur’an. As Muslims, we believe that the Qur’an contains the enduring message of God to humanity. Its guidance defines the worldview of the conscientious believer. God reminds us: “Remember the blessing of God upon you, and the Scripture and Wisdom that He has revealed unto you, by way of admonition. Be mindful of God, and be assured that He knows all things.” (2:231)
He then mentions His creation of the human being. This creation is mentioned after His teaching the Qur’an. In other words, God has facilitated our success before our actual creation. From this we should understand that God desires that we succeed in this life. This is consistent with His saying: “God has made faith beloved to you, and adorned it in your hearts. And He has caused you to hate disbelief, corruption, and sin.” (49:7)
He then mentions His teaching humanity clear speech, elocution. He has given us the ability to express our thoughts, emotions, feelings and sentiments. Imam al-Baydawi says in his commentary on this verse that this is the greatest encouragement for man to express his gratitude to God for His blessings. An individual may lack the means to express his appreciation for a favor with a gift or some other material possession. However, he never lacks the means to express his thanks verbally. It is as if God is saying to humanity, “I’ve created you, guided you, and facilitated the means for you to thank me.”
After this He enumerates some of His blessings, all are to be found in the world of nature. He mentions the “sun and moon flowing along in their established orbits.” The predictability of their orbits increase their benefit to humanity as signs for guidance, markers of time, and regulators of the tides and winds.
“The stars and trees bow in prostration…” The stars prostrate by willingly accepting the Divine Decree governing their arrangement into constellations. These constellations are an adornment for the sky, and a source of guidance for humanity. The trees do so by accepting the determination that they deliver their fruit consistently and uniformly in an appointed season. This regularity makes possible the harvests, which provide repeated benefit to humanity. The trees also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help to replenish our supply of oxygen. All of these processes are based on laws established by God.
“We have raised aloft the firmament of the sky and established the balance…” God has crowned the benefits He has bestowed upon us by raising over us the miraculous canopy of the sky, which protects us, the animals, the plants, and helps to preserve the stored up repositories of water found in glaciers and the polar ice caps. He then declares that He has “established the balance.” The balance mentioned here is a symbol of the justice that must characterize all of our transactions. Those transactions must be based on a system of equitable reciprocity and they involve our interactions with everything on earth. Everything in this creation gives and takes fairly: the plants, animals, seas, winds and the Earth.
Humans also give and take. However, we often take more than we give. We thereby oppress our fellow humans, the land, the sea, the plants, and beasts. Our Creator, most knowledgeable of this propensity, advises us: “Therefore, cheat not in maintaining the balance.” In other words, do not take more than you give! For if you cheat in this great transaction, you are denying my blessings, and if you deny my blessings, I will withdraw them from you. In this regard, God proclaims: “If you give thanks [for My blessings], I shall increase you in them, and if you refuse [to thank Me], you should know that my punishment is quite severe.” (7:167)
What we are witnessing in our world is the failure of humanity to maintain the balance, and that failure has led to unfathomable consequences for the land, the sea, and all of the creatures therein. The Qur’an gives us an insightful description of this condition when it declares: “Corruption has appeared on the land and in the sea because of what the hands of humans have wrought. This is in order that we give them a taste of the consequences of their destructiveness in order that they will return to the path of right guidance.” (30:41) Qur’anic exegetes have described this corruption as the drying up of the rains, the disappearance of the harvest of the sea, and other ecologically relevant meanings.
One could well look at these and similar Islamic teachings and ask if they had a practical manifestation in Islamic societies. The answer is yes. The protection of natural habitat, the well-being of animals, and related responsibilities were often overseen by appointed officials, members of the world’s first environmental protection agencies. For example, Imam Taj al-Din al-Subki, in his instruction manual to the appointed officials in the Islamic polity, Mu’id al-Ni’am wa Mubid al-Niqam, advises the official overseeing the stuccoing of the city walls: “The person entrusted with stuccoing the walls must first ascertain that no animals are living in them. Otherwise, he might inadvertently cause the death of animals that he has no right to kill, small birds and the like. Were he to do so, he would betray God by killing those animals.”
He advises the official entrusted with the oversight of the animals: “Among the rights owed to these beasts is that you are sincere in serving them. You must exercise the trust you have concerning them fully. They have no tongues with which to complain to you [concerning abuses], they can only complain to God.” Officials charged with overseeing the protection of the forests and trees were also admonished to carefully guard the rights of these living creatures.
In the past, Muslims were among the leaders in utilizing earth, wind, sun, water and shade to develop ecologically friendly systems of air conditioning, refrigeration, heating, energy generation, farming and construction. These systems considered well the damage of human activity to the ecosystem. The resulting positive attitudes towards the environment were not unique among pre-modern people.
This careful attitude towards the environment is countered contemporarily by one of avarice, greed and neglect facilitated by a global economic climate that allows gross corporate ecological irresponsibility. This shift has led to unimaginable abuse of the Earth’s resources and people. At the heart of this abuse is an economic system that is predicated on unlimited growth, while encouraging unimaginable waste. Our planet’s finite resource base and limited absorption capacity cannot long endure such a scheme. Unless we change, perhaps the only question left for us to answer will be, “Will we meet our doom by exhausting our available resources or suffocating in our waste?”
In conclusion, the current economic arrangement fails on three counts. First of all, as Herman Daley and others point out, it fails to meet the basic needs of the planet’s entire population. Secondly, it fails to maintain an acceptable level of biodiversity. Thirdly, it does not ensure a sustainable level of resources for future generations. These failures have their own ecological consequences, global warming being only the most alarming.
Muslims, especially here in the West, have an important part to play in addressing the growing ecological crisis. As we know, the overarching objectives of Islamic Law (Maqasid ash-Shari’ah) determine that religion has been instituted to preserve six things: religion itself, life, intellect, wealth, lineage and honor. If the environment that sustains our life and is the primary source of our wealth, is destroyed, then religion is effectively voided as there would be no life, lineage, or wealth left for it to safeguard. Even if we were to limp along, barely surviving in a toxic, ecologically ravaged wasteland, we would have lost our honor, with our wealth and lives likely to follow in short order.
How can we change? First of all, as Muslims, we must realize that our religious teachings provide us with a valuable source of meaningful ecological consciousness. Our rich history provides us with many brilliant models, which can serve as the basis for significant strategies in developing alternative energy sources, organizing holistic communities, as well as significant direction in other vital areas.
Secondly, we should know that it isn’t necessary for us to “reinvent the wheel.” There are many non-Muslim groups that are active in addressing a large variety of environmental issues. We can both learn from their experiences and join with them to augment their strength.
If we act now, we can help to avert many looming disasters, such as global warming and the associated climate changes, which are already beginning to wreak havoc on our world. If we fail to act, we are only hastening our collective doom.
Imam Zaid Shakir is amongst the most respected and influential Islamic scholars in the West. As an American Muslim who came of age during the civil rights struggles, he has brought both sensitivity about race and poverty issues and scholarly discipline to his faith-based work.