How should a Muslim view and treat the natural world in which he has been placed by his Creator to live his life and work out his destiny in the Hereafter? This is a crucially important question for which every Muslim needs a clear answer.
The question has acquired an added impetus because we are living at a time of unprecedented catastrophe in the human and the natural worlds. The variety, harmony and beauty of the planet have been ravaged beyond recognition through man's reckless activities. Technological advances have given man speed but no sense of direction. Thrilled by the speed, unchecked by any scruples, man has been using his intellect, skill, and technological prowess to destroy the planet at a ferocious pace. Insatiable greed, soaring arrogance, and recklessness have done their work: the degradation and defilement of the earth now stand nearly complete. The earth cries aloud to its Creator.
In this moment of stupendous crisis, how should the Muslim respond? He must ask what choices and responsibilities he has.
Fortunately, Islam provides clear guidance in these matters. Respect, love and concern for the environment are an essential part of a Muslim's piety and worship.
Hear what Allah says in the Qur'an:
# To Him belongs every being that is in the heavens and on earth: all are devoutly obedient to Him. (Quran 30: 26)
# Seest thou not that to Allah bow down in worship all things that are in the heavens and on earth - the sun, the moon, the stars; the hills, the trees, the animals; and a great number among mankind? But a great number are also such as are fit for punishment: and such as Allah shall disgrace - none can raise to honour: for Allah carries out all that He wills. (Quran 22:18)
# The seven heavens and the earth, and all beings therein, declare His glory: there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; and yet ye understand not how they declare His glory! Verily He is Oft-Forbearing, Most Forgiving! (Quran 17: 44)
# Seest thou not that it is Allah Whose praises all being in the heavens and on earth do celebrate, and the birds of the air with wings outspread? Each one knows its own mode of prayer and praise. And Allah knows all that they do. (Quran 24:41)
# Do they not look at Allah's creation even among inanimate things-how their shadows turn round, from the right and the left, prostrating themselves to Allah, and that in the humblest manner? And to Allah doth obeisance all that is in the heavens and the earth, whether moving living creatures or the angels: for none are arrogant before their Lord. They all revere their Lord, high above them, and they do all that they are commanded. (Quran 16: 48-50)
# Nay, thunder repeateth His praises, and so do the angels, with awe. (Quran 13:13)
# There is not an animal that lives on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but forms part of communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they all shall be gathered to their Lord in the end. (Quran 6: 38)
# Allah disdains not to use the similitude of a gnat... (Quran 2:26)
# Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth - here indeed are signs for a people that are wise. (Quran 2: 164)
# Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding, men who celebrate the praises of Allah standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the wonders of creation in the heavens and the earth, with the thought: "Our Lord, not for naught hast Thou created all this! Glory to Thee! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire. (Quran 3: 190-91)
# Do they not look at the camels, how they are made?
And at the sky, how it is raised high?
And at the mountains, how they are fixed firm?
And at the earth, how it is spread out? (Quran 88: 17-20)
# And thy Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in men's habitations; Then to eat of all the produce of the earth, and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a sign for those who give thought. (Quran 16: 68-69)
# Do they not observe the birds above them, spreading their wings and folding them in? None can uphold them in? None can uphold them except Allah Most Gracious: truly it is He that watches over all things. (Quran 67: 19)
# I have only created Jinn and men, that they may worship me. (Quran 51:56)
# It is He who hath made you (His) khalifas on the earth: he hath raised in ranks, some above others: that he may try you in the gifts He hath given you; for thy Lord is quick in punishment; yet He is indeed Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Quran 6:165)
# We did indeed offer the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man undertook it - he was indeed unjust and foolish... (Quran 33: 72)
# Blessed be He in Whose hands is dominion; and He over all things hath Power -
He Who created death and life, that He may try which of you is best in deed; and He is the Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving. (Quran 67: 1-2)
# Ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern of conduct for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the praise of Allah. (Quran 33:21)
# Say: 'If ye do love Allah, follow me: Allah will love you and forgive you your sins; for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.' Say: 'Obey Allah and His Messenger': but if they turn back, Allah loveth not those who reject faith. (Quran 3:31-32)
# So set thou thy face steadily truly to the faith: establish Allah's handiwork according to the pattern on which He has made mankind: no change let there be in the work wrought by Allah: that is the standard religion: but most among mankind understand not. (Quran 30: 30)
# Work not confusion in the earth after it has been set in order, but call on Him with fear and longing in your hearts: for the Mercy of Allah is always near to those who do good. (Quran 7: 56)
# So eat and drink of the sustenance provided by Allah, and do no evil nor mischief on the face of the earth. (Quran 2: 60)
# The prayer that man should make for good, he maketh for evil; for man is given to hasty deeds. (Quran 17: 11)
# ... make not your own hands contribute to your destruction; but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good. (Quran 2: 195)
# It is He who produceth gardens, with trellises and without, and dates, and tilth with produce of all kinds, and olives and pomegranates, similar in kind and different in variety: eat of their fruit in their season, but render the dues that are proper on the day that the harvest is gathered. But waste not by excess: for Allah loveth not the wasters. (Quran 6: 141)
# Verily spendthrifts are brothers of the evil ones and the Evil One is ungrateful to his Lord. (Quran 17: 27)
# ... do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. (Quran 2:190)
# Is there any reward for good other than good? (Quran 55: 60)
# 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....That house of the Hereafter We shall give to those who intend not high-handedness or mischief on earth: and the end is best for the righteous. (Quran 28: 77- 83)
# ...but those will prosper who purify themselves,
And glorify the name of their Guardian-Lord and lift their hearts in prayer.
Nay, behold, ye prefer the life of this world;
But the Hereafter is better and more enduring. (Quran 87: 14-17)
# The mutual rivalry for piling up the good things of this world diverts you from the more serious things,
Until ye visit the graves.
But nay, ye soon shall know the reality.
Again, ye soon shall know!
Nay, were ye to know with certainty of mind, ye would beware!
Ye shall certainly see Hellfire!
Again, ye shall see it with certainty of sight!
Then, shall ye be questioned that Day about the joy ye indulged in! (Quran 102: 1-8)
# ...on the Day of Judgment We shall bring out for him a scroll, which he will see spread open. It will be said to him: 'Read thine own record: sufficient is thy soul this day to make out an account against thee.' Who receiveth guidance receiveth it for his own benefit: who goeth astray doth so to his own loss... (Quran 17: 13-15)
# Wealth and sons are allurements of the life of this world: but the things that endure, good deeds, are best in the sight of thy Lord, as rewards, and best as the foundation for hopes. On the Day We shall remove the mountains, and thou wilt see the earth as a level stretch, and We shall gather them, all together, nor shall We leave out anyone of them. And they will be marshalled before thy Lord in ranks with the announcement, 'Now have ye come to Us bare as We created you first: aye, ye thought We shall not fulfill the appointment made to you to meet Us!' And the Book of Deeds will be placed before you; and thou wilst see the sinful in great terror because of what is recorded therein; they will say: 'Ah! Woe to us! What a book is this! It leaves out nothing small or great, but takes account thereof!' They will find all that they did, placed before them: and not one will thy Lord treat with injustice. (Quran 18: 45-49)
# When the earth is shaken to her utmost convulsion,
And the Earth throws up her burdens from within,
And man cries distressed; 'What is the matter with her?'
On that Day will it declare its tidings:
For that thy Lord will have given it inspiration.
On that Day will men proceed in companies sorted out, to be shown the deeds that they had done.
Then shall anyone who has done an atom's weight of good, see it!
And anyone who has done an atom's weight of evil, shall see it. (Quran 99: 1-8)
These ayahs have been put into three groups. The first tells us that all creation worships Allah, the second, that all of creation is a sign of Allah for the guidance of mankind, while the third group tells us man's position in the creation, warning him against the pitfalls, and reminds him of his eternal destiny and accountability on the Day of Judgment. For the sake of convenience the ayahs have been grouped on the basis of their particular focus, but in fact they are inextricably related and need to be read and understood in their proper relation to each other. There are many similar verses in the Qur'an as well as many hadith confirming and further elaborating these themes.
Let us now consider what the ayahs taken together mean for us. First, all creation belongs to Allah. Everything in the universe is His abd or slave. In this there is no difference between man and any other creation, animate or inanimate. Every creation bears the imprint of Allah's hand. Two conclusions are then unavoidable: man must not think he owns them, and they deserve his respect. Courtesy to them is courtesy to Allah.
Second, every creation glorifies Allah. They worship Allah by being obedient to Him. However, the same cannot be said of man. We use our freedom to disobey Allah. Man often fails in his worship of Allah, whereas the rest of creation never does. They have an unfailing dignity that man does not always have. When man worships, he only joins this 'universal congregation', to borrow a term from Gai Eaton, in harmony with them. The Qur'an makes the point absolutely clear, as do many hadith such as this one in Sahih Muslim: "The Prophet (saws*) said that Allah once scolded a Prophet (awsm*) for destroying a colony of ants in anger when he was stung by them. Allah told him: 'You have destroyed a community that glorified Me'." This story is moving, but also terrifying. Is there any room for a Muslim to look at these unfailing worshippers of Allah with anything but profound admiration and respect? To molest or hamper these worshippers in their worship is to incur the displeasure and wrath of Allah. And if Allah is displeased, what power can save us from doom?
Third, after iman (faith) the most important thing for a Muslim is obligatory salah (ritual prayer) that he must perform five times a day wherever he may find himself. The manner of performing the salah has been prescribed by Muhammad (saws), and he has told us the whole earth has been made a masjid (mosque) for us. This means that just as the masjid is sacred to the Muslim, so also is the earth; there is no difference. Every Muslim is thus obliged to maintain the sanctity of the earth. He cannot degrade or defile it.
Fourth, Allah calls the Qur'an His ayah or sign. Significantly, Allah also calls these objects of nature His ayahs or signs. So Allah has two Books for man to receive guidance from: one in words, the Qur'an; the other in Nature. Think of how many times Allah draws our attention to these natural signs in the Qur'an. Just as we are grateful to Allah for His gift of the Qur'an, so must we be grateful for the other gift. The Qur'an will remain a partially closed Book without them. These ayahs in nature have basically four functions for man. The Book of Nature is a mighty testimony of Allah's power and glory. These ayahs are an ever-present reminder to our straying minds.
The whole of nature is provided for man's contemplation. To contemplate the smooth functioning of nature and its beauty, harmony, and organization is an essential component of the worship of Allah. Nature is a repeated invitation to thikrullah, or to engage in remembrance of Allah. All forms of worship thus are called thikrullah. What sensible person would dishonour a personal invitation? We must do all we can to protect and preserve this other Book of Allah also.
Fifth, a Muslim has a responsibility which no other creation has. He is Allah's khalifah or custodian on this earth. He has been given the task of taking care of Allah's creation. A caretaker cannot abuse what is in his charge. Can a Muslim refuse to accept this duty and still remain Muslim? A human being is nothing if he is not willing to accept this role as Allah's khalifah.
Sixth, Allah commands us to emulate His Messenger Muhammad (saws) whom Allah calls the best example for mankind and rahmatal-lil-a'lameen, meaning Mercy for all the creatures (Quran 21:107). The life of Muhammad (saws) is replete with examples of his love, care and concern for all of Allah's creation and how he never tired of warning his noble companions in this regard. How can a Muslim who wants to follow him then not be merciful to Allah's creations, animate or inanimate?
Additionally, let us consider how Allah again and again promises in the Qur'an that He will reward the blessed in the Hereafter with Jannah, or a garden that will be their eternal abode. Jannah is described as a place of unimaginable natural beauty with trees and streams. This tells of Allah's great fondness for the beauties of nature. If our Lord likes nature so much, how can we, His servants, not like it, let alone allow any harm to be done to it?
At this point it can be legitimately asked: does man not need to take things from nature? Yes, he does, no doubt. And he has its Owner's permission to do so, as the Qur'an says that Allah has created everything for our use. But that is only if we are willing to fulfill our function as His vicegerent on earth. The permission is not unconditional and, as Gai Eaton puts it, the ownership is not transferred. And then there is this question: how much is a Muslim allowed to take? Only that little which keeps us physically fit and enables us to discharge our duties as custodian of all these. Anything beyond that is theft and transgression. Moreover, for whatever little we take out of sheer necessity from the natural world, we must do so in utter humility and with an awareness of our own poverty and helplessness, with respect for it and courtesy toward it and in total gratefulness to our common Lord who created it and mercifully allowed us take from it. The luxuries of modern civilization have no place here. There is no room for greed and wastefulness in Islam. Allah and His Messenger Muhammad (saws) have repeatedly warned the Muslim against these damning vices. Even if one is performing wudu (washing for ritual purification) in a stream, use of excessive water is forbidden.
We have to remember that Allah has placed the bounties of nature at our disposal in order to test us and we will have to give our account to Him for all we do with them. Do we receive His gifts with grace, humility and gratitude? Do we accept our role of stewardship? Do we stay within the limits set by Allah? Or do we spoil and squander? All these are extremely serious questions that each of us will have to answer on a very difficult Day. We will have no chance to run away.
We must not forget that each of us will have to face Allah on that Day individually and separately. We will have no helper there. No one will bear anyone else's burden. All Allah's creations, big or small, will be present on that Terrible Day of Reckoning to speak in favor or against us, a most sobering prospect.
In Islam everything is a matter of relationship - man's relationship with Allah, with His Messenger, with himself, his fellow human beings and the natural world around him. His success with Allah depends on his forming and maintaining proper relationships with each. Thus a Muslim cannot remain inattentive to the natural world or indifferent to what happens to it. We Muslims are, by definition, environmentalists: we have no option.
But the Muslim's concern for the natural world is no mere pragmatic necessity; it is an essential spiritual demand placed on every Muslim. He is not allowed to look at the natural world as a storehouse of resources to be exploited and at best to manage carefully. Nor is he allowed to look at the earth's beauties as merely nice picnic spots or tourist attractions. He is required to see it as a phenomenon handed down to him by his Lord as part of a divine scheme of things with special significance for the purification of his soul and his salvation. Man's relation with his natural surroundings reflects his relationship with Allah and is a vital aspect of his worship. A Muslim, then, is not just an environmentalist, but an environmentalist of a very noble kind.
At this point it must be admitted that Muslims have miserably failed in their duties. From what Allah and His Messenger Muhammad (saws) have taught us about the earth and the objects in it, it is the Muslims who should have been the very first to feel horrified and outraged by what has been happening to the planet and who should have been in the forefront in the fight against environmental degradation. Unfortunately this has not been true. In this respect Muslims have not lived up to the call of their religion.
However, the call to discharge his obligations as a Muslim remains. We evade our duties and responsibilities at the risk of incurring our Master's displeasure. There are many things to do both individually and collectively. Collective efforts take place only as a result of individual decisions. There are many things we can do at a personal level, which can improve environmental conditions considerably, but there are also bigger things to be taken care of for which only collective efforts will work. Muslims should eagerly join hands with others, especially people of other faiths, who are actively engaged in this urgent and huge struggle.
There is however one bitter truth all of us have to accept. If we sincerely want any meaningful improvement in our environment, we must give up many of our modern amenities and comforts, not just wasteful habits and luxuries. We will have to dismantle many of the things we have built. We should not fool ourselves by believing that some miracle technology will emerge that will enable us to continue in our greedy, irresponsible habits while negating their adverse impact on the environment. That is a monstrous delusion beyond all proportion.
It is technology, don't forget, that assisted man in bringing the planet to its present misery. We talk of the fury of nature, but far, far fiercer has been the fury of technology-aided man. Technology can beat the earth flat, dry up the oceans, empty the bowels of the earth, turn man to dust and wipe out all living things, but it cannot restore the already lost harmony.
We would do well to realize that a devastated earth is not a dead earth, but a deadly one. With the increasing violence done to it, it is turning deadlier and deadlier. Man does not have the power to kill it. Only its real Master has this power. The long oppressed and suffering earth will survive and unleash its fury on man. Greedy, arrogant, foolish man will be more than paid back in his own coin.
Yet if we are willing to curb our insatiable, ravenous appetite and be satisfied with much less than now, we may be able to halt the alarming deterioration of the earth's ecology. Technology or no technology, the planet cannot support the modern self-indulgent and profligate way of life. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. There is no alternative to our finding a simpler and modest way of life.
The only real question, therefore, should now be: are we prepared to drastically alter our present way of life?
For Muslims, there is nothing new in this call. It is as old as Islam itself. It is a call to follow the shining example of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) and his noble Companions (ra) - to live the way they did. The call is valid for all times and under all circumstances. Surely, the best way to live is to live like them. In the heart of the Muslim, can there be any doubt about this?
A. K. M. Mohiuddin is a retired university professor of English literature living in Bangladesh. He can be reached at this address: akmm45 [at] yahoo [dot] com
Editor Note: saw (salallahu alaihi wassalam or please be upon him), asws (alaihi salam or please be upon him)
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