Islam puts an emphasis on the environment like no other religion. It is not a foreign concept, a tree hugging fad or something to be done after we have acquired all other knowledge about Islam; it is an integral part of our deen. The branches of knowledge are all branches of a single tree whose roots are grounded in the belief in One God. From this we get our sense of unity and balance. A Muslim has responsibility to this earth, to its environment. As an ummah, Muslims have ignored this part of their deen. Our emphasis in schools, khutbahs, lectures, Islamic courses is primarily on rituals, on spiritual growth; sometimes at the expense of this very practical aspect of Islam.
If we believe that everything belongs to Allah and that we are just transiting then we have to treat the earth as His amanah – a trust of which we are the guardians, the khalifahs.
If we believe that everything belongs to Allh and that we are just transiting then we have to treat the earth as His amanah – a trust of which we are the guardians, the khalifahs. Abu Sa'd Khudri reported that Allh's Messenger said: “The world is sweet and green and verily Allh is going to install you as vicegerent in it in order to see how you act.” (Muslim) Does this not make you think? We have been placed on earth for the purpose of taking care of it.
According to Najma Mohamed, a lecturer and environmental journalist, “Muslim environmental scholars interpret this to mean that men and women are custodians of creation and are provided with bounties to be enjoyed with limits. The interpretation of a khalifah as a vicegerent not master, trustee not tyrant is central to the environmental teachings of Islam. If a Muslim understands by trusteeship that he or she can exploit and abuse natural resources, then they fail to understand the concept khilafah. Humankind needs to carry out this role with compassion, kindness and sincerity – with justice and goodness. Our relationship with all of creation should reflect these qualities.”
Let's reflect on this eloquent yah from Surah Rahman:
The All-Merciful has taught the Qur'an. He created man and He taught him the explanation. The sun and the moon to a reckoning, and the stars and trees bow themselves; and heaven – He raised it up and set the balance. Transgress not in the balance, and weigh with justice, and skimp not in the balance. And earth – He set it down for all beings, therein fruits and palm trees with sheaths, and grain in the blade, and fragrant herbs.
Which of your Lord's favors will you then deny? (55: 1-12)
Frequently this verse is just used to deter us from cheating in business but look at the context here. Trangress not in the balance is an order from Allh the Almighty. So many ayahs of the Qurn are devoted to reflecting on nature. If we cannot take care of the gardens of earth, how can we aspire to live in the garden of Jannah?
“And it is He Who has made you successive (generations) in the earth. And He has raised you in ranks, some above others, so that He may try you in that which He has bestowed on you. Surely your Lord is Swift in retribution, and certainly He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (6:165) This yah is the crux of our relationship with this planet and all of creation in it. It is another test for us.
Nothing is more destructive than a khalifah who has stopped being an abd (slave) of Allh, disobedient to his commands. Why did the angels ask Allh (ta'ala), why He is sending humans as khalifahs? Look at our state today? We have become so caught up in the consumerism, in gratuitous consumption, that we do forget that we will be held accountable in front of Allh for all our deeds. We look for convenience over doing what is right. This has caused disequilibrium in the balance that Allh has created and we see the consequence is the excess in the developed world and the deprivation and hunger in other parts of Allh's world.
But somewhere inside us we have that ability to live up to the lofty maqam of a khalifah. Allh knows us better than we know ourselves, we just need to find that in us and live up to the personal responsibility that every one of us has. Look at the example of Prophet Muammad, he slept on the ground close to the earth on a bed made of palm leaves, wrapped in his shawl. He sat on the floor to eat simple, wholesome food. He repaired his shoes and urged us to wear out our clothes until they had patches on them. According to a hadith narrated by Tirmidhi, “The worldly comforts are not for me. I am like a traveler, who takes a rest under a tree in the shade and then goes on his way.” So lets use the symbolic tree for shade, to nourish our self, but let's also follow the sunnah and leave the symbolic tree intact so that the next traveler can use it.
Some American scholars are cognizant of our state and speak of this issue. Imm Ammar Ammonette of Central Virginia says “faith has 73 branches, you live your faith, it's your life and the lowest part of faith is removing pollutants or harmful substances, whatever will cause harm to human beings, from the path… when you clean up whatever is dangerous or unhealthy, that is faith.”
These voices are few but rising. Responding to environmental issues in the Islamic world and teaching its rulings is the imperative of our present ulema (scholars), especially now as we can see the ubiquitous results of the destruction caused by our prevailing way of life. All the injunctions are in the classic books of fiqh distributed across the different babs (chapters), they need be gathered and taught to the layman.
“All the produce of the earth is duly proportioned (bi-qadarin mawzun-15:19), not just in what is evident but as to their internal composition of nutrients, water, minerals, salts, etc. God blessed the earth and made it safe such that you shall not see imperfection in the creation of the Most Merciful (67:13).” “When man acts, instead of a trusted custodian and architect of the earth, as its most dangerous destroyer, driven by greed rather than need,” then the result is havoc. We are obliged not to do injustice to the rest of creation. These will be witnesses for or against us on the Day of Judgment.
Dr. Soumaya Pernilla Ouis, a senior lecturer at Lund University, Sweden, coined the phrase Islamic ecocosmology. The idea is that nature in itself is Muslim; that we look around us and recognize every organism as our Muslim fellow being. That really changes the relationship, doesn't it? We know that everything from thunder to ants hymn the glory of Allh, 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. (17:44)
Allh asks us, do you not see that to Allh 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 of mankind? (22:18) It is harder to ignore and cause destruction.
Many of the already established Islamic legal principles can be applied within the environmental field, and it is actually argued by some ecotheologicans that the environmental perspective has traditionally always been a part of Shariah. Institutions within Shariah such as harim (preserved natural environments) and hima (protected land for grazing purposes) are used for natural conservation. The five principles of protection in shariah are religion, reason, life, property and descendants, which may not include the 20th century term environment but all lead to its protection.
An addition to Islamic law includes a specific category of contemporary jurisprudence called fiqh al-bi'ah, or jurisprudence of the environment. “Law-makers take a number of the foundational concepts of Islam such as rahmah (mercy), tawazun (harmony) and shukr (gratitude) and apply them to this ethico-juridical discipline which links ecological health to the psychological health of man. Environmental degradation is seen as a sickness of the human ego because man is unable to give up short-term gratification in favor of long-term prosperity.”
If we look back at our heritage, the principles of reuse, recycle, clean energy are NOT new – “Muslim potters heated their kilns by burning fruit husks, fruit stones, pine-cones and vegetable waste. Millers ground their corn in mills turned by the wind. Both windmills and animals were used to lift water into irrigation channels.” The industrial uses of tidemills and watermills in the Islamic world date back to the 7th century.
This may be because “traditional Islamic society, no matter how rich in spiritual and aesthetic content, was slower, and simpler in its technology. The production of the artifacts and adornments did not wreak havoc on nature or strew debris over land and sea. Means were simpler, materials natural and even crude. Exquisite ceramics emerged from raw clay and textiles of unrivaled beauty were born from hand-looms and the hand of the embroiderer. Travel, although surprisingly extensive – consider the journeys of Ibn Battuta – was on foot, on beasts of burden or by sailing boat.”
As Muslim nations are going through industrial renaissance and calls for industrialization increase, let us not make the same mistakes, importing inappropriate technology, setting up industry without studying the environmental ramifications. We have the opportunity to inculcate Islamic injunctions into eco-concsiouness, and to be leaders protecting our planet.
Surely changing a light bulb will not change the world, but what we need is a change in attitude to our eco-lives. If we do these acts as forms of ibadah, of obeying Allh insh'Allh we can live up to the status that He has bestowed upon us.
'Aisha (radiAllahu anha) narrated, that the Prophet was asked: “What deeds are loved most by Allh?” He said, “The most regular constant deeds even though they may be few.” He added, “Don't take upon yourselves, except the deeds which are within your ability.” [Sahih Bukhri, 8:76:472]
Principles Into Practice: Islamic Traditions – Ismail Peter Hobson
Environmental Care in Islam: A Qur'anic Perspective – Muammad Hashim Kamali
Global Environmental Relations: Islamic Perspective – Dr. Soumaya Pernilla Ouis