The entire universe worships its Creator with paramount joy and pride, with neither fatigue nor boredom ever befalling it. This is a truth which humans, owing to their restricted aptitude, will never be able to comprehend. As a result of their arrogance and ignorance though, human beings have developed their own perceptions in relation to many a secret of both the animate and inanimate worlds that surround them. However, most of the existing views and theories are dubious, at best, as they rest on no definite epistemological source. The unsurpassed and only source of trustworthy knowledge in this regard is revelation, that is, the revealed knowledge wherein many secrets of other worlds have been disclosed by the Creator and Sustainer of every creature, as well as the knowledge that derives its authority and orientation from the revealed word. This reality notwithstanding, there are many people who favour the 'knowledge' based on assumptions and superstitions over that which is based on the wisdom granted by the Creator and Lord of the universe. Certainly, due to their ideological and epistemological disparities, people's outlooks on the realities of life vastly differ, often resulting in the creation of not only irreconcilably different but also conflicting cultures and civilizations.
For example, Allah mentions that all the created objects, celestial and terrestrial, are His obedient servants:
"Do you not know that to Allah prostrates whoever is in the heavens and whoever is on the earth - the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, the moving creatures and many of the people? But upon many the punishment has been justified. And he whom Allah humiliates - for him there is none that can bestow honour on him. Indeed, Allah does what He wills." (Qur'an 22: 18)
"Whatever is in the heavens and on the earth exalts Allah and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise." (Qur'an 61: 1)
"The seven heavens and the earth and whatever is in them exalt Him. And there is not a thing except that it exalts (Allah) by His praise, but you do not understand their (way of) exalting. Indeed, He is ever Forbearing and Forgiving." (Qur'an 17: 44)
Furthermore, all nature bears witness to Allah's oneness, power, wisdom and goodness. All of it contains signs, the unearthing of which leads the believer to an appreciation of the wonders of Allah's creation, bringing them thus closer to their Lord. It goes without saying, therefore, that nature, in a sense, participates in revealing the truth to humankind; it is, in fact, a revelation in itself. Accordingly, in addition to having the composed or written Qur'an for guidance, it could be duly asserted that humankind has a cosmic or ontological 'Qur'an' too for the same purpose. (Seyyed Hossein Nasr) Both revelations complement each other as it were, in furnishing people with the necessary substance so as not to let them betray the trust of inhabiting the earth. It follows that those who fully submit to the divine Will, and also read, understand and apply the written Qur'an, will easily see upon the face of every creature, letters and words from the pages of the cosmic 'Qur'an'. For this reason does the Qur'an refer to the phenomena of nature as signs or symbols (ayat), a term that is also used to describe the very verses of the Qur'an.
In relation to this, Allah mentions as in numerous verses in the Qur'an that:
"Indeed, within the heavens and the earth are signs (ayat) for the believers." (Qur'an 45: 3)
"And on the earth are signs (ayat) for the certain (in faith)." (Qur'an 51: 20)
In his classic Book of Animals, al-Jahiz, a prominent Muslim scholar of the ninth century, writes, reflecting the unique Islamic view of reality, that the miracles (signs) of Allah's creation are as manifest in the most insignificant as in the grandest. "I would have you know that a pebble proves the existence of God just as much as a mountain, and the human body is evidence as strong as the universe that contains our world: for this purpose the small and slight carries as much weight as the great and vast."
Hence, the whole of the earthly existence is called 'alam, which means the world and which is derived from the words 'alam, ma'lam and 'alamah, which all mean symbol, sign, signpost and indication. The world as an independent entity, thus, is a sign itself pointing to the existence of its Creator and to the oneness of His Being. In its multifaceted tiers, however, the world comprises inestimable signs with a variety of modes, expressions and intensities. This undeniable truth led a poet to assert:
Oh, what an oddity... How is it that Allah is disobeyed,
How can a disbeliever deny Him,
When in every single thing there is a sign,
Revealing that He is the One! (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)
It is because of this that Islamic science is anchored in the Muslim scientists' attempts to unearth, comprehend and appreciate the signs of Allah in nature, followed by drawing on whatever such signs can offer to the good of humankind and its civilizational headway. As proven in the history of Islamic civilization, this is best done when the Noble Qur'an is wielded in the one hand and the power of reason in the other with solid bonds connecting them. A one-sided approach to studying the world phenomena will never be able to lead humankind as far as an approach that combines the authority of both reason and revelation can. In the same vein, a conflict, either methodological or ideological, between the proponents of the two epistemological foundations is as bad as a one-sided approach in knowledge acquisition. The last two scenarios have also been proven beyond any doubt as correct by the history of Islamic civilization, as both of them accounted for one of the main causes that brought about a sharp decline in its downfall.
In Islam, while discharging their mission of leadership, humankind is to concentrate neither solely on this world and neglect the hereafter nor solely on the hereafter and neglect the requirements and benefits of this world. While making use of this world, furthermore, humankind is to lay emphasis neither on its physical dimension at the expense of the spiritual nor on the spiritual dimension at the expense of the physical. A healthy balance between the two is to be meticulously struck in order that one is ensured a prospect of enjoying the good of both worlds. Life's best motto is clear in the words of Allah:
"But among them is he who says: Our Lord, give us in this world (that which is) good and in the hereafter (that which is) good and protect us from the punishment of the fire." (Qur'an 2: 201)
When commenting on this verse, 'Abdullah Yusuf 'Ali inferred that, "The proper Muslim attitude is neither to renounce this world nor to be so engrossed in it as to forget the future life."
The Muslims' relationship with this world is exemplified in the following verse:
"But seek, through that which Allah has given you, the home of the hereafter; and (yet), do not forget your share of the world. And do good as Allah has done good to you. And desire not corruption in the land. Indeed, Allah does not like corrupters." (Qur'an 28: 77)
In his book Science and Civilization in Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, while dwelling on the subject of 'Natural History' states: "Nearly all these works were written to show the wisdom of the Creator in His creation. Most Muslim natural historians, like the medieval Christians, sought to study natural history not for 'curiosity' but in order to observe the 'signs of God', the Vestigia Dei, so that they were continually drawing spiritual and moral lessons from the study of the kingdoms of Nature, and saw in the world of Nature a unified domain in which Allah's wisdom is everywhere manifested."
This remarkable Islamic philosophy of nature and the whole of the universe, as both a concept and sensory reality, had some serious implications for the life and thought of the Muslims in every time and place. The Muslims readily answered the divine call to open their cognitive senses and observe all of life's phenomena, thus ascertaining the greatness, wisdom and supremacy of the Creator. Certainly, gratifying sheer curiosity was the least significant factor in this honorable enterprise. However, the most decisive factors were those related to, firstly, reading and grasping the messages of the signs of Allah; secondly, driving the frontiers of science and technology to new levels; and, thirdly, discovering new physical laws based on which life unfolds so that they could be subjected to the service of humankind, the Creator's vicegerents on earth.
It is certainly for this reason that the terms 'ilm and 'alim, which mean knowledge and the one who knows or the scholar respectively, are derived from the words 'alam, ma'lam and 'alamah which all mean symbol, sign, signpost and indication - just like the word 'alam which means the world, as pointed out earlier. A scholar ('alim) is so called because they are the ones who read and know the signs of Allah better than anybody else. As a result, they eventually become a sign, so to speak, themselves, as they disseminate the knowledge they gain to others, and exude the light they generated whilst learning and applying the knowledge and wisdom they acquired. Thanks to scholars, people are able to not only see, but also obtain the light and use it to see further and read the signs for themselves. Hence, knowledge acquisition, application and dissemination are of the most highly regarded feats in Islam. Small wonder then, that the first revealed words to the Seal of Prophets, Muhammad (pbuh), were those directly related to the questions of reading and knowledge acquisition in the name of Allah, the Lord of the universe, (Qur'an 96: 1-5)
The life phenomena, regardless of whether they operate in the heavens or on the earth, or whether they are huge or small, are seen as definite signs saturated with meanings and life-force. They are intended for the vicegerent on earth to whom everything in the heavens and on the earth have been subjected, so that they can carry out their vicegerency assignments as effectively and smoothly as possible. It goes without saying, therefore, that every believer should work on fostering a close and intimate relationship with the natural surroundings. They are to read, explore, benefit from and sustain nature's riches. The relationship between nature and genuine believers is a reciprocal one, that is to say, believers humbly and gratefully take from nature whatever is necessary for their well-being, but they also gladly and generously give in return whatever is needed and expected from them so that the delicate natural equilibrium is upheld. A believer sees and reads nature in his/ her very self, and a number of aspects of their self in nature. They know that both themselves and nature are created for one another, and that there is no life for either one without the other. Every human being is a micro cosmos also permeated with the signs of Allah, just like everything else:
"And on the earth are signs for the certain (in faith); and in yourselves. Then will you not see?" (Qur'an 51: 20-21)
Surely, the closer and more intimate the relationship one has with nature, the stronger and certainly healthier an impact such an affiliation can have on one's outlook on existence, one's demeanor and spiritual well-being.
Consequently, Islam pays much attention to the concept of the environment with all its components. The Islamic environmental ethics is such an important subject in Islam that its principles have been comprehensively laid down in the main sources of Islam: the Noble Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Islamic view of the environment is somewhat epitomized by the assertion that humankind's relationship with the environment is so significant that in some instances it takes precedence over other deeds carried out by humans, hence either benefitting them or destroying them. There are many verses in the Qur'an, as well as in the hadiths of the Prophet (pbuh), that attest to this.
This article is an excerpt from the author's book "The Philosophy of Decoration in Islamic Architecture"
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 .
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