The Ethic of Sustainable Development: Fulfilling the Amanah of Our Khilafah

We are cognizant of the fact that that all forms of economic and social activity make demands on our environmental and natural resources. The moral dilemma is whether we are able maintain a balance in pursuing development benefits with ecologically sustainable, socially equitable and economically efficient use of natural resources.

Defining Sustainable Development 

"Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs." The term "sustainable development" refers to a systematic approach to achieving human development in a way that sustains planetary resources, based on the recognition that human consumption is occurring at a rate that is beyond Earth's capacity to support it. 

I would define "sustainable development" as material development which takes into consideration environmental and societal implications and entails the integration of economic, social and environmental objectives, to produce development which is socially desirable, economically viable, ecologically sustainable and morally justifiable.

Undermining the Environment

For the capitalistic materialist, Earth is seen as a primarily a reservoir for resource extraction and an opportunity for profiteering. Fast development brought in appalling degradation of the environment including ozone depletion, deforestation, species extinction and global warming. 

The environmentalists continue to express dismay on the decadent health of the planet. They lament about the diminishing biodiversity, global warming, depleting fish stock, shrinking supplies of unsullied fresh drinking water, the plundering of virgin tropical forests, and air pollution reducing agricultural yields and affecting human health. "Mischief has appeared on land and sea because of (the need) that hands of people have earned." [Qur'an 30:41]

The recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment undertaken by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over a period of four years inform us "... the human abuse of the environment, through pollution, deforestation and indiscriminate exploitation of the natural resources has caused irreversible changes that are degrading the natural processes that support life on Earth. This will impact on hunger, poverty and healthcare."

Indiscriminate economic progress seems to have resulted in a gradual depletion and, in some cases, an outright destruction of scarce ecological and other resources. Rapid growth has in many ways been characterized with aggravating poverty and inequities crowned with abysmal environmental deterioration. 

Dynamics of Khalq / Creation and Khaaliq / Creator

The entire universe is a creation of Allah [Qur'an 39:62] Everything in creation is made to exist in a harmonious balance (mizan). Consider the sun and the moon, which gives us night and day. Since the beginning of time, for millions of years, we have been able to benefit from this balanced system to raise our crops and to measure time, to determine when to work and pray. Everything has its proportion and all is in balance. "... He has created man. He has capacitated human with the art of communication. The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed. And the herbs (or stars) and the trees both prostrate to Allah. And the Firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the Balance of (Justice), in order that you may not transgress (due) balance ... " [Qur'an 55: 3-9]. Withhold not from people the things that are their due; and do not cause corruption/ mischief on the earth after it has been set in order [Qur'an 7:85

  • Amanah / Custodianship, a trust that necessitates fulfillment of responsibility [Qur'an 33:72]. We have been entrusted (amanah) with this planet, this is a sacred covenant with our Creator. This trust is an obligation to protect the planet, and it comes with the gifts of the many unique abilities such as thought, knowledge, speech and the wisdom to make appropriate decisions. The environment is an amanah/trust, requiring awareness of accountability. Amanah is directly linked to the principle of khilafah (stewardship or vicegerent) of the Earth.
  •  Khilafah / Human Vicegerency
    - The human being, in the Islamic world-view is considered a khalifah / vicegerent of Allah in the world [Qur'an 2:30]. As vicegerent of this Earth, we should always remind ourselves that its True Owner is the Creator and all other creations have their rights to inhabit the Earth. Vicegerency is considered a test :"It is He Who has made you (His) vicegerents, inheritors of the earth: He has raised you in ranks, some above others: that He may try you in the gifts He has given you: for your Lord is quick in punishment: yet He is indeed Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful." [Qur'an 6:165]
  • Mas'uliyyah accountability of stewardship. The Prophet (pbuh) said, " ...  we are each accountable for whatever is under our care." [Bukhari]
    - The earth is made available for human use, without abuse or misuse. Subjected/ of service to humanity is whatever is in the celestial spheres and the earth; Surely, in all these there are signs for those who reflect [Qur'an 45:13]. We deduce from the above-mentioned Qur'anic principles that although the various components of the natural environment serve humanity as one of their functions, this does not imply that human use is the sole reason for their creation. 

    - We are commanded in the Qur'an not to cause fasad/disruption /corruption/ mischief/chaos on earth after it has been so well ordered/organized [Qur'an 7:56]. We are an integral community among communities of creation on Earth; as the human community is part of nature so too do other creations form communities at their respective levels [Qur'an 6:38]

The Consequence of What We Do

Native Indian Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe said: "Whatever befalls the Earth - befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life - he is merely strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." There is an age-old native Indian saying: "Reflect on the fact that the land belongs to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless numbers are still unborn." Remember, we are not inheriting the earth so much from our parents as much as we are borrowing it from our children.

Shari'ah regulation demands spiritual growth not material gluttony, contentment not greed, patience not haste, moderation of usage not exploitative maximization of usage, positive balance not negative tilt, beneficial cooperation not detrimental competition, the spread of equity not manifestation of corruption; for we are merely the temporary custodians not the eternal owners of the world in His land.

Let's use engage our reason, let us properly exercise our khilafah, be Allah- conscious of our amanah and environmentally cognizant so that ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life. Let us heed the Prophetic advice "... The world is green and delightful and Allah has put you in charge of the world and is observing carefully how you deal with it" [Sahih Muslim] 


Shaykh Sadullah Khan is the Director of Impower Development International

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Older Comments:
Asalamu allaikumu

I felt enlightened from reading this article. Jazakallah. May Allah
guide us to follow Allah's teaching and make this world a peaceful