Talks #10-12: Islam, Nature and the Environment from Short Talks on Islam (broadcast by the BBC between 1978 and 1996).
These precious talks on Islam, ninety in all, and each one a jewel of less than 700 words, were written and delivered by Gai Eaton for the Reflections and Words of Faith series of short Friday broadcasts by the BBC between 1978 and 1996.
They provide a beautifully clear and accessible introduction to the central tenets, principles and practices at the heart of Islam. As such, they are not only a unique guide for non-Muslims, but also an inspiring reminder to Muslims of the essence of the faith.
Published online for the first time by The Book Foundation.
The Whole Earth as a Mosque
One of the oddest things about the people who reject what they call "organized religion" in favor of strange cults is that they so readily replace the profound with the superficial. The great religions have a breadth and a depth which could never be explored, even in a lifetime, whereas the cults, when their surface glamour is scraped away, are empty and narrow. But it is inevitable that the believers in the great Faiths find in them more than they can absorb -dare one say more than they can use? -and often neglect aspects of their religion which do not seem immediately relevant to their lives. This, I believe, has been the case with a majority of Muslims who have tended to
ignore what the Quran has to say about our environment and regarding our obligations towards the animal creation.
The Quran speaks of the Day when the earth will "yield up her burdens". She will then "tell her tales". "On that Day", we read, "mankind will issue separately, to be shown their deeds. Whosever has done an atom's weight of good will see it then, and whosoever has done an atom's weight of ill will see it".
It might be said that we leave our fingerprints on everything that we touch, and they remain in place long after we have gone on our way. But this is only one side of the relationship we have with everything around us, a relationship of reciprocity. We are not insulated from our surroundings. We are, so to speak, porous and soak up elements from what ever we see, hear or touch. When we treat the natural world only as an object to be exploited and conquered, we are damaging ourselves. Environmentalists predict that our abuse of the earth will have disastrous consequences for humanity as a whole, but that may be the least of our worries. The consequences are on many different levels; the higher the level, the more deadly they are likely to be. "Work not confusion in the earth after the fair ordering thereof", says the Quran.
The Muslim is assured that the whole earth is a mosque for him. The walled buildings to which he is summoned to prayer are simply a convenience. The fields, the forest and the desert are equally fitting as places of prayer and therefore demand the same respect that is accorded to a conventional mosque. To show respect for everything that God has created is a part of faith, for everything bears the imprint of His hand. The man or woman who stands, bows and prostrates in the midst of nature is a member of a universal congregation, joining in a universal prayer. "All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies God", says the Quran.
The beauties of the earth are, the Quran tells us, a "reminder to mankind", a reminder to those who are disposed to remember their origin and their end. For such as these, the natural world sparkles with light. It is not some chance agglomeration of atoms, unrelated to our innermost being. It gives, if we are receptive to the gift, and it receives if we, in our turn, offer it the care which is its right. The objective world around us and our human subjectivity might be compared to two circles which intersect rather than float, separate and divided, independently of each other. This is implicit in the Islamic principle of Tawhid, the Oneness of God and the unbroken unity of all that He has created. It is implicit also in the word "cosmos" (as opposed to "universe", a neutral term that implies nothing. The "cosmos" is, by definition, an ordered and harmonious whole, in which the parts are inter-dependent. "No man is an island", as the poet Donne said, and the human creature - totally dependent on God, but dependent also upon the environment - is for ever in the bonds of need and the net of love.
Rediscovering the Signs of God in Nature
The importance of which the Quran attaches to the environment, the natural world, as a "reminder" which helps us to keep God always present in our awareness. Nothing in our surroundings is quite what it seems, or rather nothing is only what it seems, and, for the Muslim, it is a part of faith to look upon all things with "seeing eyes". But to perceive, even dimly, these inescapable "signs of God" requires a child's eye preserved into maturity. The Prophet is reported to have prayed: "Lord, increase me in marveling!" This is how a child sees the world, fresh from the Hand of God and full of wonders but, with the passage of the years, the vision fades. Yet, in the words of the Quran, "It is not the eyes that grow blind but the hearts within the breasts that grow blind". Imbued with faith, the heart may still regain its sight, its insight.
The loss of harmony between man and his environment is but an aspect of the loss of harmony between man and his Creator. Those who turn their backs on their Creator and forget Him can no longer feel at home in creation. "God's Vicegerent on earth", as the Quran describes the man who truly fulfils his human function, is then no longer the custodian of nature and has become a stranger in the world, a stranger who cannot recognize the landmarks or conform to the customs of this place.
Today, whether we are Muslims or Christians -or of any other Faith -we seem to have lost the key to the language of "signs", God's language. That is dangerous, particularly for the Muslim for whom the Quran must eventually become a partially closed book if its constant references to the natural world as a tissue of "signs" no longer coincide with his experience or touch his heart. Since everything has to be spelled out nowadays, there are many who will ask -"But what do these signs mean?" If they could be expressed in words they would be redundant. They touch us at a deeper level than articulate speech.
The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: "God is beautiful and He loves beauty". To speak of the natural world is to speak of beauty, whether we are receptive to it or not. And what is this beauty if not an act of adoration? "Do you not see", asks the Quran, "that everything in the heavens and all that is in the earth pays adoration to God, as do the sun and the moon and the stars, the hills and the trees and the beasts?" It is only too easy to see this as a "poetic" statement, not to be taken quite literally. On the contrary, for the believing Muslim this is -or should be -an undeniable fact. When the Quran speaks, as it does on so many occasions, of this universal and perpetual adoration, it is doing neither more nor less than telling us what happens, the down-to-earth reality of the situation. Our subjective awareness -or lack of awareness -cannot alter the facts.
We did not make this world, we do not own it. You cannot, the Quran reminds us, create even a fly. This vast picture-book, filled with the "signs of God", is what it is. Appearances are, as we are so often told, deceptive and, if we float only on the surface of our world, we are indeed deceived. There is always more to it than that, then more and still more until you have plumbed the depths and found beyond all the veils -those "seventy thousand veils of light and darkness", according to one of the Prophet's sayings -the Face of God, the glory that lies hidden behind the things we take for granted. Look, we are commanded, and then look again, until you can see.
Honoring the Animal Creation
Many Muslims seem to have ignored the implications of what the Quran tells us about the natural world and about the importance of the animal creation. Not only the Quran. The recorded sayings of the Prophet, the hadith literature, refer again and again to these aspects of the Faith.
The good Muslim's life is lived in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad's example, and it is in the ahadith that we find the most uncompromising references to animal welfare. They have grave implications for all who fall short in their care for the animals in their charge. Not only are there the famous stories of the woman condemned to hell for shutting up a cat till it died of hunger and of the prostitute forgiven all her sins because she gave water to a dog that was dying of thirst, but there are a number of small incidents in the record which emphasize the same principle. When the Prophet saw a donkey that had been branded on its face, he cried out: "God curse the one who branded it!" A man who was about to slaughter a goat for food was severely reproached for letting the animal see him sharpening his knife. A prophet of earlier times, so we are told, was scolded by God Himself for burning an ant's nest because an ant had stung him -"You have destroyed a community that glorified Me!" and there is, according to another saying, a reward in Paradise for whoever shows kindness to a creature with "a living heart".
The Quran tells us: "Your Lord inspired the bee, saying: Choose dwellings in the hills and in the trees and in what is built; then eat all manner of fruit and follow humbly the ways of your Lord made smooth". In other words, follow your Shari'ah. Islam teaches that, just as mankind has been given a Shari'ah, a path of righteousness to be followed by all who believe in God and are obedient to Him, so each of the non-human species has a path laid down for it. And each of these "communities", as the Quran describes them, has a particular relationship with its Lord. But the Lord is One. Ours as well as theirs. There is, however, an important difference here. The animals cannot diverge from their path. They cannot "sin". Whereas mankind has been given the freedom to choose between following the right way -the "straight path", as it is called -or wandering off into a trackless wilderness.
Since we of the human community so readily trip and stumble on our way, constantly tempted to go astray, we have in the animal creation an example of perfect obedience to the divine Rule. If we depart too far from the path laid down for us we do not become, as some would have it, "like animals"; we fall below their level. Free choice is our privilege, a very dangerous privilege if we abuse it.
Were it not for the divine Mercy, scattered like rain throughout creation, we would indeed be in a bad way, but what matters most is that we should keep in mind what might be called the Prime Directive of Islam: the constant "remembrance of God". Yet we are by nature forgetful. The world presses upon us and makes its demands. We are busy, all too busy. We are in haste, though the Prophet said once that haste comes from Satan, slowness (and patience) from God. So we are given reminders. The Quran describes itself, precisely, as "a reminder to mankind". The "signs" which abound in the natural world are similarly described, and here we have the animals -wild and domesticated -saying to us, in effect, "Remember!" There is one complaint we cannot make, one excuse we cannot offer: we can never say -"We forgot to remember God, and no one reminded us!" But if we do remember and follow the path "made smooth for us", then we are in step with the animals, the plants and the earth itself.
Charles Le Gai Eaton was born in Switzerland and educated at Charterhouse at King's College, Cambridge. He worked for many years as a teacher and journalist in Jamaica and Egypt (where he embraced Islam in 1951) before joining the British Diplomatic Service. He is now a consultant to the Islamic Cultural Centre in London.
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