Ecology in Islam: Protection of the Web of Life a Duty for Muslims

Dr. Hasan Zillur Rahim

Posted Jun 13, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Ecology in Islam: Protection of the Web of Life a Duty for Muslims

By Dr. Hasan Zillur Rahim

Given that Islam provides an ecological outlook that is practical as well as ethical, how is it that, in terms of deforestation, air and water pollution, soil erosion, wildlife extinction and even toxic waste management, Muslim nations are no better than the industrialized nations of the world? By importing inappropriate technology to solve indigenous problems, they uproot traditionally sound environmental practices and create ecological perils that threaten their survival. Many Muslim states could be described as having reached “endangered nation” status.

Among the varied and complex reasons for this, perhaps the most telling is that many of us are unaware of the environmental dictates of our religion. Few know that Qur’anic verses describing nature and natural phenomena outnumber verses dealing with commandments and sacraments. In fact, of more than 6,000 verses in the Holy Qur’an, some 750, one eighth of the Book, exhort believers to reflect on nature, to study the relationship between living organisms and their environment, to make the best use of reason and to maintain the balance and proportion God has built into His creation. The earth’s resources land, water, air, minerals, forests are available for our use, but these gifts come from God with certain ethical restraints imposed on them. We may use them to meet our needs, but only in a way that does not upset ecological balance and that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Thus, not knowing about stewardship and accountability, we reduce Qur’anic teachings to narrow definitions of crime and punishment. This is reflected in unenlightened environmental leadership found in some Muslim countries today.

For many Muslims, it will undoubtedly come as a revelation to know how emphatic the Qur’an is about protecting the environment. The Islamic approach to the environment is holistic. Everything in creation is linked to everything else; whatever affects one thing ultimately affects everything. Man has been distilled from the essence of nature and so is inextricably bound to it.

Because of its ability to reason and think, humanity has been made the trustee or steward of God on earth. Nature is created on the principle of balance, and as a steward of God it is the human’s responsibility to ensure that his or her actions do not disrupt this balance. Stewardship does not imply superiority over other living beings: because ownership belongs to God alone, stewardship invests humans with a moral responsibility in safeguarding God’s creation.

Stewardship requires that humans learn to live in harmony with rather than work against nature. That is why reflecting on nature and understanding its inner workings has been made the fundamental basis of knowledge in Islam. Man can detect God’s “signs” in all the natural phenomena that surround him and should, therefore, observe them better to understand “God’s way,” which is the Qur’anic term for “laws of nature. ” Thus “in the succession of night and day,” “in the water that comes down from the sky, giving life to the earth after it had been lifeless,” “in the change of the winds,” “in the mountains towering above the earth ... .. in the hives of the bees and the flight of the birds, ” “in the wonder of the seed,” “in the springs that gush forth from within the earth in these and similar Qur’anic verses, God reminds humankind that there are “messages for those who reason and think. ”

The Fundamental Role of Water
Several verses of the Qur’an deal with the hydrological cycle and the fundamental role water plays in sustaining life on earth. In referring to the fertility of the soil, to the unique properties of fresh and sea water, to the course of rivers and the presence underground of springs and aquifers, and most significantly to the aquatic origin of life, the Qur’an places water at the top of all the natural phenomena on earth. The miracle of water is emphasized in a particular verse where God, addressing those who may doubt the truth of resurrection, first gives the example of the growth of the fetus within the mother’s womb, leading to the birth of a human being. The verse then concludes, “If you are still in doubt as to resurrection, consider this: you can see the earth dry and lifeless and suddenly when we send down waters upon it, it stirs and swells and puts forth every kind of lovely plant! ” (22:5)

One of the great principles of ecology is diversity of life and the role it plays to make the earth habitable. Without the biotic diversity of plants, animals and microorganisms that share the planet with us, life as we know it could not exist. All living species have a right to live and flourish on earth, not because of their potential use to humans, but because their presence sustains the harmony and proportion of God’s creation. This is expressed in the Qur’an thus: “And the earth?we have spread it out wide, and placed on it mountains firm, and caused life of every kind to grow on it in a balanced manner, and provided means of livelihood for you as well as for all living beings whose sustenance does not depend on you. ” (15:19)

Stewardship invests humans with a moral responsibility.

Man is only one of God’s creations, existing side by side with other living beings. His life depends on other lives and energies and processes in an interwoven system of which he is only a part. Lest his arrogance lead him to believe that he represents the epitome of God’s creation, the Qur’an reminds him that “Greater indeed than the creation of man is the creation of the heavens and the earth.” (40:57) By stressing that man is only a small part of the universe, the Qur’an points out the absurdity of the anthropocentric world-view.

A diminishing biotic diversity whose principal cause is man changes his role from a steward to a predator, from a nurturer to a destroyer. One way for this fatal transition to occur is for man to accept a conceptual division between the body and the soul, between the earthly and the holy. After all, if the human soul can aspire to God’s grace without being troubled by the destruction wrought by human hands, what can be wrong in plundering the planet, in destroying the earth and its creatures?

Islam’s stand on this point is clear: it does not recognize any schism between the body and the soul. In Islam, spirit and flesh are different aspects of one and the same reality?human life. A Muslim cannot hope for salvation in the ” hereafter ” if his ” here ” is torn with strife and greed; he cannot love God in Heaven if he hates His creation on earth.

A Double-Edged Sword
Certain forces tend to favor the rift between the body and the soul. Technology is one. A complex technology places machines in the foreground of human existence and by its inherent dynamism gradually estranges man from nature and from himself. Technology is a double-edged sword and unless tempered by scale and balance can overwhelm man’s spiritual consciousness. In the Qur’an it is written: “We bestowed on you from on high the ability to make use of iron, in which there is awesome power as well as a source of benefits for man. ” (57.25) The power inherent in natural elements, whether iron or uranium or silicon can, if harnessed for destructive rather than beneficial ends, destroy man’s sensitivity towards other creatures. It is to warn man of this danger that the Qur’an symbolically stresses the potential “evil” of iron if put to wrong use.

At one extreme, technology with its attendant mechanization reduces man to a cipher; at the other extreme, it breeds hubris. In Islam, however, knowledge that gives man a false sense of sovereignty over God’s creation cannot be pursued or morally defended. Rational inquiry must be shaped by moral and ethical consideration; knowledge is to be sought for glorifying God and for fulfilling man’s responsibility towards His trust.

In the sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Muslims find the embodiment of Qur’anic guidance. Of reforestation and land reclamation, for example, the prophet has said:

? “Whoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded.”

? “If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field and men and beasts and birds eat from it, all of it is charity on his part.”

? “Whoever brings dead land to life, that is, cultivates wasteland, for him is a reward therein. ”

The Qur’an and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad form the legislative basis of Islamic law. Over the centuries, Muslim scholars have developed legislation regarding animal rights, bodies of water, forests, wildlife, land use, city growth, overgrazing and other aspects of earth’s finite resources and their management. Islamic law requires the establishment of areas within which development is prohibited to safeguard natural resources. These areas could border canals, wells and rivers, to protect aquifers and water from pollution. Most forests are designated as wilderness areas where trees cannot be logged. Responsible grazing is fundamental to Islamic environmental law. Pasture, woodland, wildlife and forests cannot be privately owned or monopolized. They are public property, to be managed by the state for the common good of all.

In this Decade of the Environment, public concern over such phenomena as the greenhouse effect, ozone holes, acid rain, and the extinction of species builds upon that which followed publication in the 1960s of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which made ecology a household word. An international effort is now underway to confront environmental ills that plague the earth. Sadly, the Muslim involvement remains reactive and minimal.

If Muslims are to awaken to the challenge of preserving the global ecosystem, modern Islamic scholars must illuminate the ecological principles of the Qur’an as they apply to contemporary environmental issues. The world now is undoubtedly more complex than it was a thousand years ago when the industrial revolution had not yet taken place and the earth’s resources had not yet been strained. Some Islamic environmental laws formulated at the height of Muslim civilization may now appear inadequate and simplistic. The point, however, is that human laws are time bound, while divine guidance is timeless. “Corruption has appeared on land and sea as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought: and so He will let them taste the evil of some of their doings, so that they might return to the right path. ” states a Qur’anic verse (30:4 1), implying that destruction of the natural environment follows from immoral and unethical use of natural resources.

The challenge facing Muslim scholars and scientists is to formulate on the basis of such Qur’anic teachings laws that address environmental issues in the modern context, from deforestation and soil erosion to drought and flood, from the carrying capacity of a habitat to a land ethic, from the application of technology to the preservation of community and culture, from greenhouse effect to acid rain, from nuclear power to genetic engineering, from population and poverty to North-South equity, from stewardship to sustainable development.

The Qur’an teaches that human need cannot justify transgressing the legitimate needs of other species. Man is dependent on a world he did not create, and therefore has no right to destroy. In the web of life, the smallest organism counts. “Mastery of nature, ” with its implied one-sided benefits for man, is a concept foreign to Islam. Inherent in Qur’anic teaching is the notion that ecology is farsighted economics, that in the deepest sense, ecology is religion. These ideas need to be made clear so that Muslims can bind action to principle and ecology to faith. Towards that end, Muslims await a new generation of scholars who will inspire them not only with knowledge and wisdom but also with strength and eloquence of the pen to act on the pressing ecological issues of their times.

Dr. Hasan Zillur Rahim is a Bangladesh born American physicist presently working as a software engineer in Northern California. He also is editor of IQRA, the bimonthly newsletter of the South Bay Islamic Association, in San Jose, CA.

Originally published on the website of the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs at and reprinted in TAM with the permission of the author.