ISLAM’S PERSPECTIVE OF THE ENVIRONMENT

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Written by Mehmet Ozalp

Modern attention to the environment and its protection has been on the agenda for less than a century. Only after the full scale of the damage done to the planet’s environment, did we become serious about the environment and its preservation. The extinction of wildlife, clearing of rainforests, the hole in the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect threatening the climate of the globe underscore the contemporary concerns not only of sensitive individuals but also of many governments. The irony is that modern concern for the environment stems more from selfish reasons than from a sincere concern. “We do not have another planet to go to” becomes the rationale for environmental activism. Environmental protection as a scientific field rests on two main disciplines.

1. Waste minimisation and control

2. Conservation of environment: air, land, water, vegetation, animal life and natural resources Before I comment on what has been Islam’s record, we need to look at Islam’s theological perspective on the topic.

The Qur’an tells us that human beings are created from an earthly essence [QUR’AN, 7:11, 17:61] and more generally that every living being is created from water. “Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were of one piece, then We parted them, and We made every living thing of water? Will they not then believe?” declares the Qur’an [21:30]. We do have a common physical existence with everything else on earth. There is, however, a profound difference between the way humans along with plants and animals function in the common home we call the earth.

When we examine nature and living beings from the perspective of their contribution to the natural environment, we realise that every living being adds value to its ecological system. Consider a grapevine, for example. It sucks muddy water from the soil and turns it into sweet and nutritious grapes. Sheep consume grass from the meadows and produce milk, wool and meat. Trees inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, thus, cleansing the atmosphere for animals and humans. Every animal and plant species adds value to its natural environment, either by the end products that they produce or by the functions they perform. Human beings, on the other hand, consume the best of what nature has to offer and turns it into waste that is flushed away in a hurry. Humanity, in a physical sense, adds no value to the ecological environment. This observation has two consequences:

1. Humanity is not really part of the ecological system, as it functions independently of humans. Humans are designed to utilise the materials provided by the earth and to live within the environment but are really alien to the ecosystem.

2. For human existence, one has to look for a purpose other than its mere physical existence. The finer intellectual and spiritual faculties are given to us for a more comprehensive and willing spiritual enlightenment and worship [QUR’AN, 51:56]. The Qur’an also talks about the worship of everything that is in the heavens and the earth.

We live on earth and inevitably interact with the environment. Not being part of the ecosystem, the result of our inevitable interaction with the environment is in the form of consuming its value-added products without returning any tangible value. Human life and ecosystems are not mutually exclusive and certainly not interdependent. Humanity depends on the environment but the environment does not depend on humanity. In fact, the whole planet would rejoice if we all packed our bags and left the planet for good.

The only real value we can add to the environment is by protecting and preserving it. Islam addresses the issue at three levels.

We only take care of things if we believe they are valuable. So, the first thing Islam does is to give immense worth to the environment. Islam asserts that all life is special and valuable because it is the life and the art displayed by each creature that connects it to the Divine. To a Muslim, God has created this universe like a majestic palace. He fashioned the earth like a huge exhibition hall within the palace. He then decorated the hall with his fine works of art for those conscious beings who can appreciate the art and recognise the Artist behind it all. It is this connection, the work of art with the Artist, which makes every living entity valuable because of the Artist, God, just as the painting of a master artist gains immense value, beyond its material worth, because of the art in the painting. Therefore, in Islam, the natural environment and animal forms are sacred and valuable. On the other hand, not recognising God reduces the value of all creatures to their mere material worth.

Although Islam treats the life of all creation as valuable, it gives greatest honour to human life [QUR’AN, 95:4]. However, this honourable position is not absolute. The level of human development one attains is the measure of every person’s status with respect to other beings. Just as it is possible to reach levels above creation, it is also possible to fall far below it. What might appear to be an advantage can turn out to be disadvantageous. The reality is that we have the opportunity and the freedom to determine our own destiny.

With the freedom of choice comes accountability. This is the second level in Islam’s education of humans with respect to environmental protection. One of the roles given to humanity in the Qur’an is that of vicegerent (caliph) on earth [QUR’AN, 2:30]. This role gives the human being authority over the creation, rendering the creation on earth at human disposal. This is not an unconditional authority, as accountability is a natural consequence of authority. Therefore, Islam teaches that on the Day of Judgment humanity will be questioned about its treatment of animals and the environment: The Prophet Muhammad declared, “Fear God in your treatment of animals” and “Verily, there is heavenly reward for every act of kindness done to a living animal“.

The third level is the recognition that the vegetable and animal worlds establish ecosystems just as humans develop interdependent communities. The Qur’an clearly talks about living beings existing in ecological systems. It declares [QUR’AN, 6:38], “There is not a moving creature on earth, nor a bird that flies with its two wings, but are communities like you. We have neglected nothing in the Book (of Our decrees). Then unto their Lord they will be gathered“. The comparison of animal species to human communities is very significant. Since human societies are complex systems made up of numerous interdependent individuals: the comparison in this verse leads us to the modern concept of ecosystems for the vegetable and animal worlds. The plural “communities” also leads us to the conclusion that there are many concurrently existing independent ecosystems.

It is the culmination of how Islam gives value to the creation, the theological responsibility and accountability given to humankind and its recognition of ecosystems that shapes Muslims’ perspective on the environment and its protection.

How is this theology put into practice? The Qur’an states [7:31], “O Children of Adam! Eat and drink but waste not in excess, for God does not love the wasters“. While Islam encourages people to enjoy the blessings of life it clearly lays down as a precondition that there be no waste. Also notice the verse does not address just “Muslims” or “believers” but the whole of humanity with the proclamation “O children of Adam!”

Islam takes efforts to minimise waste to a higher level in the words of the Prophet Muhammad, who asked people not to overuse water even while having the ablution for prayer next to a flowing river. While this recommendation is aimed at waste minimisation, it is also saying that waste minimisation should not only be confined to times of shortage but, more importantly, even when there are ample resources. This is because wastage usually occurs when there are more resources than needed. There is not much to waste when there is a shortage, is there? The attitude of waste in abundance causes later shortages.

Muhammad also said that the lowest manifestation of belief in a person is that one should remove harmful objects in the path of people. Since it is good to remove waste and harmful objects, it is better not to litter in the first place.

In a well-known saying, Muhammad recommends that we “lay in the ground the plant at hand even if it is the Last Day” on earth. It is characteristic of the sayings of Muhammad, that there is always the hint of a very important teaching in every recommendation. In this case, while people are being encouraged to plant a tree, this is not to be done for an immediate benefit, but for the benefit of future generations. We also know that when the Prophet migrated to Medina, he initiated a tree planting campaign along with a push to improve public literacy.

The Prophet Muhammad enjoined people to show kindness not only to each other but also to all living souls. He forbade the practice of cutting the tails and manes of horses, of branding animals at any tender spot, and of keeping horses saddled unnecessarily (Sahih Muslim). If he saw any animal over-loaded or ill-fed he would pull up the owner and say, “fear God in your treatment of animals“. (Abu Dawud, Kitab-ul Jihad)

We see many examples of how the Prophet educated his followers in relation to the treatment of animals. Once a companion came to him with the chicks of a bird in his sheet and said the mother bird had hovered over them all along. He was directed to replace the bird’s offspring in the bush where they were found (Mishkat, Abu Dawud). During a journey somebody picked up some bird’s eggs from a nest. The bird’s plaintive cry and fluttering attracted the attention of Muhammad, who asked the man to replace the eggs (Sahih Bukhari).

Islam is arguably the first religion that introduced animal rights along with human rights. Muhammad stated, “Verily, there is heavenly reward for every act of kindness done to a living animal.” It is also believed in Islam that humans will be judged on their treatment of animals on the Day of Judgment.

Clear pronouncements in the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad gave Muslims the impetus to preserve the environment and to get a good record for their treatment of wild life and domestic animals. During the Ottoman reign (1299–1923), for example, comprehensive waste and environmental management regulations were stipulated as early as 1539. In 1502, local government legislation regulated the loads of animals and the number of days they could be worked in a week. There were even organisations dedicated purely to treating storks injured on their annual migration. Centuries before similar regulations were introduced in the modern world, hunting was regulated on the basis of need and no hunting was allowed during the breeding season. When mosques were built, the architects provided covered nesting areas for birds under the facades.

In its long history Islam not only produced a culture of charity but also a “green” culture centred on a world view that places humanity in harmony with nature and the environment.