Islam and the Environment, Theory and Practice

The paper discusses some aspects of the industrialisation effects on the natural environment in the Middle East in general. While Islam as a religion has a deep sense of respect and consideration for the natural environment (Izzi Dien, 1990), the current status quo in Muslim countries is not noticeably different to that in the rest of the world. The paper submits that this is because industrial culture has overtaken traditional culture leading to the prevalence of materialistic values over the intrinsic.

The paper maintains that Islam provides a paradigm solution for many forms of environmental degradation, including that of water distribution. The proposal does not preclude other, non-Islamic, regional states from a fair share of water, nor does it deny that international law is the main arbitrator in resolving disputes. However the paper underlines Islam’s role as an important potential ground for settling disputes from which international law may proceed. The examples discussed are only models and the author acknowledges that other cities such as Beirut, Baghdad, Teheran, and Jerusalem also warrant study.

In searching for the real reasons that have led to current, world wide, environmental problems many modern scholars put the blame on the philosophical foundation of modern thinking. For example, Sterling (1990) maintains that: the world problem started because of the eclipse of the earlier world view of medieval Christendom. This eclipse took place when the church was no longer seen to offer a parallel intellectual view for scholars like Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and Newton. The new secular world view became inherently materialistic with no recognition for concepts such as value, spirit, feeling, emotions, intuition and intrinsic goals. Most importantly Cartesian duality [that separated mind and body ] set human beings apart from and over nature, thus opening the way for a relationship that is primarily expletive and manipulative. (Sterling, 1990:78)

The theory

In Islam the problem did not arise, at least, during what Sir H. Gibb (Nasr,1978: xiii) called the “Golden age of Islamic culture when literature and science widened out in every direction, and economical prosperity reached its climax”. During that time all researches and discoveries were revolving around the profoundly dominating concept of tawhid which states that the only god is Allah. This basic principle is described to mean that there is no reality outside the Absolute Reality (Nasr, 1978:5). Accordingly all scientific and intellectual effort was seen to have been kindled from the same light of God and lit to offer further “lights” for humanity. The calculations of mathematicians were for religious or Islamic objectives, the same applied to the chemist, the engineer, and all other technical innovators.

In a recent speech, delivered at Wilton Park on 13 December 1996, the Prince of Wales referred to the Islamic “sense of the sacred” as having an important role in the rediscovery of our human responsibilities of which the environment is but one. The Quranic verse “whithersoever you turn, there is the face of God” was apparently understood by the Prince as a manifestation of a “profound sense of the sacred and the spiritual”. This verse was originally revealed to assist those who were unable to ascertain the direction for prayer qibla. The Quran replied that “whithersoever you turn, there is the face of God”. This indicates that the reverence of God is not only for what is sacred but also a part of the reason for the existence of creatures upon earth. The Islamic attitude towards the environment that surrounds humanity is not merely restricted to the presence of God everywhere but also to the following dimensions.

By submitting to God, Islam establishes the bedrock of the relationship between finite, mortal human beings and the infinite Divine, the secular and the sacred. This relationship cannot be understood without first realising the meaning of the “submission” that the “created” should concede in his relationship with the creator. Humans have to accept that they are created beings who act as the “agents” of God on earth. These agents are creative in their own way but they are not God. Humans, however will become closer to the sacred by operating according to God’s instructions. Muhammad is reported to have narrated that God said,

“When a worshipper moves closer to me by good virtues and worship nawafil, I will be his hearing by which he can hear, I will be his eyes by which he can see, I will be his hand by which he can act, and his feet by which he can walk. If he asks Me [to give him] I will give him what he wants, and if he asks for protection I will protect him”. (Al-`Asqalani, 1959: 11, 341)
Islam, as a way of life expects human beings to conserve the environment for several reasons which may be summarised as follows:
The environment, is God’s creation. The creation of this earth and all its natural resources is a sign of His wisdom, mercy, power and His other attributes and therefore serves to develop human awareness and understanding of this creator. (Quran 13: 2-4; 21:79)

Muslims should seek to protect and preserve the environment because by so doing they protect God’s creatures which pray to Him and praise Him. Humankind might not be able to understand how these creatures praise God but this does not mean that they do not do so:

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! (Quran 17:44)

Thirdly, the environment contains God’s's creatures which the `ulama’ or Muslim scholars consider to also deserve protection (hurma).

A fourth reason why Islam seek to protect and preserve the environment is that Islam, as a way of life, is established on the concept of good (khayr). Therefore it is expected that Islam will protect the environment once it is understood that such protection is good by itself. The Quran states that:

He whoso do good

An atom’s weight

Will see it.

And whoso do ill

An atom’s weight

Will see it. (Quran 99: 7-8)

Fifthly, all human’s relationships in Islam have to be based on the concept of justice (`adl), and kindness (ishn), and not on material or economical gain. The Quran strongly emphasizes this concept in the following verse:

God enjoins justice

And kindness. Quran 16: 90)

In Islam, humans are expected to protect the environment since no other creature is able to perform this task. Humans are the only being that God has “entrusted” with the responsibility of looking after the earth. This trusteeship is seen by Islam to be so onerous and burdensome that no other creature would `accept’ it. The Quran (33: 72) says:

Lo! We offered the trust

Unto the heavens and the

Earth and the hills,

But they shrank from bearing it

And were afraid of it

And man assumed it

Lo! he is a tyrant and fool

Accordingly, not every human can claim this appointment, only those who are aware of this caring pact of respect for life can claim it.

The Practice

It must be admitted that Islamic culture and society has not been free from a historical transition similar to that which took place to produce a twentieth century West with different moral standards than those prevalent in the fourteenth century. In Islam, to use Professor Gibb’s statement

“the course of moral and religious integration and the progress of the Community toward deepening self-consciousness and universality call for an entirely different standard of measurement than those by which the intellectual breadth or economical property of the Islamic civilisation in its `Golden Age’ is judged”. (Nasr, 1978: xv)
However, the traditional consciousness of its “divine” calling has remained within the community. Was this because of the comparatively young age of the faith compared to other similar divinely based linear faiths? Or could such a consciousness be attributed to the concept of Divine grace and Divine guidance or baraka (Nasr, 1978: xv) that lies beyond human understanding? Perhaps Islam remained as an effective social and political force in the Muslim world because it paid the organic element (the human) an attention equal to that it paid to the organisation (the establishment). Despite the historical decadence of the political establishment and existing religious legal system Islam was “cultured” into the human in such a way that it continued even after the establishment had died. Thus all discussions about right and wrong were still considered in Islam as part of the decision- making process that took place collectively between the roots and uppermost branches of the tree. This is in contrast to modern politics that denies such a feature to the process of political decision making. (Sterling, 1990: 78)
The schism between the spiritual and the “scientific” was imported into the Muslim mind and land when the material, industrial culture was introduced, effectively separating the political system from the traditions of the community. This had a devastating effect on the indigenous culture and the environment and its biota.

Saudi Arabia represents a self-professed, pioneering model of a modern Islamic state that adopts the “Islamic solution” which was established in August 1932 by the sword and wisdom of the late King `Abd al-`Aziz bin Sa`id. (Kishk,1981: 77;691) The country had started to import the materialistic culture by the late seventies, when increasing oil revenues were being utilised to improve living conditions. By the late eighties the huge jump from a nomadic desert society to a society that has all the facilities of an industrial world at its disposal had been all but completed. The fully fledged features of industrial fa硤e were achieved when large cities like Riyadh and Jeddah were constructed. The style of living which accompanied multi-storey housing and office work meant a further drift away from the earth and what it can provide.

The tools which were provided by a keen and rich government budget had, in many ways, a negative effect on the human element of the environment and resulted in massive degradation of the natural ecosystem. Expensive water was provided to the consumer in a subsidised price close to nothing, causing people to waste it with no consideration of the cost of its production. Comparing the city of Riyadh’s water consumption (412 litres per person per day) with that of the small villages and countryside (hafr al-Batin and other small villages consume 29 litres per person per day) (Abu Rizayza, 1996) the great difference in the pressure that each culture places on the environment can be appreciated. The impressive road network, which was meant to facilitate life, had a catastrophic effect on both traditional village and agricultural life. The young were encouraged to migrate to the town to take the place of the many foreign workers. The farmers stopped planting their lands either because the imported crops were cheaper, although not better, or because they found the task demeaning and only suitable for employed workers whose pay was unrelated to yield. The easy availability of funds lead many people to feel too proud to practise manual or agricultural work as their fathers and grandfathers had before them. In other words, humans were forced to cope with the new pattern of life, alien to them. The Islamic holistic concept of one society like one body living on God’s gift to his creatures, the earth, began to crumble. The earth became only an object which is measured by metres and valued by dollars. Mother earth became building plots and high-rise towers climbed to take the virginity of nature.

The environment lost out when remote rural agricultural land was abandoned because many species of fauna and flora, that had come to depend on centuries old agricultural practices, lost their habitat. In contrast to this, many of those who planted the land, misused it, and drained all its reserves, often solely because they could afford the technology to recover fossil water.

The scenario has been repeated in similar Middle Eastern countries; the threats to the environment started when the “modern” material philosophy was brought in. A new culture was imported with the modern, fast, petrol-thirsty cars which were driven by the same individuals who had driven camels or donkeys only a few years before. The language of the Middle East provides strong evidence of a human whose body has a western appearance but whose mind was still evolving towards that different high speed culture. One example can be cited here from the local Gulf dialect, in which the word “shepherd” ra’i is still used when referring to the “owner” of a car. The human/ animal relationship represented in this word exists to indicate care and attention, although the animal has been replaced with coloured metal. Until the early eighties scrap cars used to be disposed of at the desert roadside in a long metallic line. Many were only two or three years old, discarded because the rich owners wanted a newer model or because it was too troublesome to repair.

Despite the fact that Islam’s attitude in the theoretical environmental debate is both straightforward and well respected, many parts of the Muslim world are currently witnessing a cultural environmental rupture which can be ascribed to two causes. The sudden, almost shocking, introduction of the industrial age to these countries was not supported by a value system compatible with the prevalent Islamic values. The outcome has been a sad alteration of “satisfaction” with the little, that can be acquired from the environment, to a “dissatisfaction” which can only be appeased by ever increasing consumption. Human values were and still are witnessing a dangerous level of deformation that cannot be controlled without going back to the bottle that once contained the genie. Both Islamic values and industrial values need to be re-examined to extract from them a new value system that fits modern human beings, without rejecting the bedrock of Islam and the environmental elements that it supports.

The Middle East started to experience environmental problems after the Second World War when large cities were built (Beaumont, Blake & Wagstaff, 1978) to serve the world’s huge machine of industry. The first impact of these towns was the fracturing of traditional social bonds that led to a self-centred relationship within the fabric of society.
The environment was the first to suffer the impact of such a cultural and economical transfusion. Humans started replacing huts with mansions, and their date palm diet with date expiry food with all its disposable packaging. This was done with no consideration for water supply, sewage disposal or any environmental hazard. (Beaumont et al,1978) reported the following situation that resulted from building of new cities in the Middle East:

“The serious effects of such rapid growth on the environment have not always been appreciated. Large areas of cultivated or potentially cultivatable land have been swallowed up by the expansion of many cities… In many places especially where industrial development has become important, new pollutants are beginning to cause ecological damage. Petrochemical and other chemical waste product present the greatest dangers to what is often very fragile ecosystems. Pollution by solid waste from urban centres is another growing problem throughout the region. Waste disposal methods are generally primitive. The usual practice is either to throw domestic and industrial refuse into the nearest water course, whether dry or flowing with water, or to tip it indiscriminately just outside the city boundaries.
Regrettably, atmospheric pollution is already characteristic of the Middle Eastern urban environment. Exhaust fumes from automobiles are probably the greatest single cause of this nuisance, but domestic and industrial consumption of hydrocarbons is also an important contributory factor. In winter, Ankara is frequently blanketed by a thick brown smog which collects in its enclosed basin as a result of temperature inversion and the use of lignite in central heating systems. Photochemical smog is now apparent in the larger cities during the hot summer months, and is likely to grow worse because of the lax regulations governing automobile exhaust emission. Closely associated with the automobile and air pollution is the growing amount of urban noise and its deleterious effect on the inhabitants. From this point of view, cities such as Cairo, Teheran, Tel Aviv, Beirut and Istanbul are now as unpleasant to visit or work in as London or New York. The tranquillity and charm which recently characterised Jerusalem and Esfahan, for example, have been lost, possibly for ever.”

The new industrial culture did not pay attention to the fact that some of the resources are only there for a short time and inappropriate use will harm not only one nation but all the nations in the region. Water shortage is one example of the resources problem that needs a solution.
The Water Problem

According to Butrus Ghali , “the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water not politics”, a statement made when he was Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1985.

The area’s spiral population growth, expanding agriculture, and high standard of life demand more water and other environmental resources. Joyce Starr of the Global Water summit initiative based in Washington DC stated: “Nations like Israel and Jordan have only 10-15 years left before their agriculture and ultimately their food security is threatened.”(Vesilind, 1993)

Water seems to be replacing oil as the region’s most contentious commodity and in Saudi Arabia, water is, for obvious reasons, more expensive than oil. A country in which rain is considered a great novelty had to resort to expensive measures to survive the hot climate of the desert. Desalination plants represent a major synthetic “river” available not merely to Saudi Arabia but to the entire world. The Saudi’s 22 desalination plants produce about 30 percent of world desalinated water. The sharp increase in population that accompanied the economical leap that the country witnessed with the oil boom during the seventies and eighties resulted in doubling the population figure from 7,012,642 in 1980/ 1474AH to 16, 929,000 in 1994/1413AH. (Abu Rizayza,1996) This lead to an increased demand for water. Saudi Arabia today is opening itself to internal analysis and is searching for the means of repairing the large gaps in its internal environmental needs. Saudi academics now are monitoring the potential environmental problems that the country will have to resolve during the next two decades resulting from the further increases in the population which will demand more water, and improved sewer systems and treatment plants for waste water.(Abu Rizayza,1996)
Many reports indicate that water wells are sometimes being dug as deep as 2000 metres for the purpose of irrigation. There are also some “rumours” that farmers who dig that deep are not getting fresh water but water contaminated with sulphur. (Humayd, 1996) The agricultural water consumption has increased during the year 1994 to reach 22,000 million cubic metres which has resulted in the dramatic depletion and contamination of the irreplaceable underground water. (Abu Rizayza,1996)

However with the catastrophic effect that the Iranian and Gulf Wars have had on the Saudi budget, there have had to be many cuts and a reconsideration of future plans. In a country where taxes are still seen as not appropriate, there is an apparent undercurrent calling for big investors to put their hands in their pockets to help. A recent article by a leading academic in Saudi Arabia suggested that some contribution should be provided by “those who are making hundreds of billions” to help maintain the country’s infrastructure including the great road network. (`Urayfi, 1996) The argument seems to be justified, bearing in mind that the same people (mainly bankers for the time being) who are been asked to make a contribution were only there because of the presence of such expensive facilities.

Another country in the region which is a key regional player in today’s and future environmental dilemma is Turkey. This is a country which seems to express serious interest in Islam. Islam appears to be the important historical political platform upon which the ruling Welfare Party stands. This fits very well with this paper’s argument that Islam as a common factor between the regional states is one of the main keys, if not the key, to the resolution of the region’s environmental problems. Turkey as a main player in the region, considers water distribution as a vital strategy to solve many of its economical problems resulting from the paucity of alternative natural resources. It is this consideration that led Turkey to build the giant Ataturk Dam in the late 1980s. The dam contains the Euphrates River, and fills a reservoir ten times the sea of Galilee. It is part of the Anatolia project which also creates 22 dams and 19 power stations on the Tigris. (Vesilind,1993) The Ataturk dam limits the Euphrates down stream flow to 500 cubic metres a second until the reservoir behind the dam reaches its full operational level.(Beaumont, 1996) Both Syria and Iraq are anxious about the reduced annual flow which in actual fact mounts to approximately half that which flowed previously.(Beaumont, 1996) Both complained about the shortage of water and power when Turkey held back the river to begin filling up the Ataturk reservoir. Many rivers that once teemed with life are dead now, one example being the Quwaya river. At the present time the main dispute between Turkey, Syria and Iraq is about how best to use the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Egypt is another area of regional concern. It is expected that Egypt will have to feed a projected 25 million people by the year 2010 which will necessitate the removal of a large number of people that have depended on the River Nile for generations. These populations will have to be uprooted and replanted in the desert. They will also have accustomed themselves to making better use of Nile water, adjusting to multiple use. The Nile drains eight other nations Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Zaﲥ, Burundi, and, Rwanda. The water is currently divided by quota. Farmers, in the delta have been accused of wasting water by flood irrigation, letting water run into the field until they are soaked. However, recent studies seems to have vindicated these practices, for thorough soaking avoids the build up of salts. The long term goal, however, must be to intercept drainage water and reuse it just before it goes into the sea. Twelve billion cubic metres used to drain into the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt is already recycling about 2 billion cubic metres of that water. Further reclamation can be made by lining irrigation canals with plastic and by capturing water underground with drainage systems. (Vesilind, 1993)


Islam today is a recognised power in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Although this recognition might appear at times only superficial, the value to the masses should not be underestimated. The mass of people in the Muslim world is experiencing the world-wide phenomena of “searching for the religious roots” which can be utilised to solve rather than to create problems.

This paper maintains that Islam may offer valid grounds to resolve not only the environmental problem but also the water distribution problem which is strongly associated with it. The proposal does not preclude other none Islamic regional states from fair access to water, nor does it deny international law its role as the main arbitrator to resolve disputes. However, the paper underlines Islam as an important potential ground for settling disputes from which the international law may proceed. Islamic law has a considerable amount of legislation that can provide a possible basis for international arbitration when disagreements and disputes take place.

In Islam the relationship between humankind and the environment is part of social existence, an existence based on the fact that everything on earth worships the same God. This worship is not merely ritual practice, since rituals are simply the symbolic human manifestation of submission to God. The actual devotions are actions, which can be practised by all the creatures of earth sharing the planet with the human race. Moreover humans are responsible for the welfare and sustenance of the other citizens of this global environment. The Quran contains many verses that can be referred to for guidance in this respect. The following verse, verse 21 of the second chapter, is one example:

“O people! Worship your Lord, Who hath created you and those before you, so that you may ward off (evil) Who hath appointed the earth a resting-place for you, and the sky a canopy; and causeth water to pour down from the sky, thereby producing fruits as food for you. And do not set up rivals to Allah when ye know (better).”:

The word in this verse which is translated as “may ward off evil” is in Arabic tatuqun. It enjoins piety and awareness which is accompanied by an appreciation of the surrounding environment. In this verse the Quran speaks directly to all groups of people, whether believers, or not. It attempts to mobilise people to the importance of “worshipping God” as a symbol and a way of life that enjoins justice and equity in handling the system created by Him.

This system has been placed under human responsibility, to be cared for and not misused as can be concluded by returning to verse 22 of Surat al-Baqara. The word lakum (for you) in the phrase “created for you” contains the message that the earth is not for one generation but for every generation, past, present and future and that would include humans as well as other creatures on this earth. Accordingly, rivers, minerals are the property of all. This should be distributed fairly and justly especially when it happens to be owned collectively like the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates.

Water distribution has very clear cut legislation in Islam. In general terms its rules are based on the principle of benefiting all those who share its water course. Water rules are laid down according to the origin of the water source. These are divided according to size of the source, the kind of water, and its usage. Accordingly water sources are divided into rivers, water springs, wells, and rain water. Rivers are divided into natural rivers, large and small, and human dug canals and irrigation channels.

The Rivers Tigris, Euphrates and Nile are often referred to in the standard text books of Islamic law fiqh as examples of large public rivers anhur `amma. These rivers belong to all the community, and every one can benefit from them providing that no harm is caused to others. These rights vary from the right of watering haqq al-shiffa to the right of drinking haqq al-shurb. The main condition to be borne in mind for all users is that no harm should to be caused to other partners. (Zuayli,1985: 5, 597) The right of flowing haqq al-majra is recognised in Islam and is protected according to the saying of the Prophet who addressed an obstinate land owner, saying, “by God, the water will be passed to others even over your belly”. (Zuhayli, 1985: 5, 605) The partnership between people in water is indicated as part of the general human partnership in all the sources of life. The Prophet of Islam states that “people are partners in three, water, vegetation, and fire”.

According to the rules of legal interpretation tafsir, this statement is an unrestricted text nas mutlaq which should be extended to cover all other elements of the environment which may be associated with them. Accordingly water would include all kinds of water and access to it. This also includes other protection and conservation rights. Vegetation is considered to indicate all kinds of plants, while fire includes all minerals and mined fuels. It is interesting that the hadith did not include animals although the term vegetation implicitly includes pasturing and grazing land.

The main environmental problems in the Middle East are caused by a disturbance of the prevalent value system. Industrial concepts, which have not recognised spiritual or ethical values as commercially significant, have lead to a severe cultural rupture that has taken the human inhabitants away from the earth that supports them. The proposed solution is to go back to the traditional Islamic relationship between humans and the earth, and between humans and the other elements of the eco-system and perhaps most essentially between humans themselves.
Finally it must be stated that Islam does not constitute a magic word that can be uttered to solve all problems. Islam as a religion has many difficulties when it comes to practice, not to mention those that have developed over the last fourteen centuries due to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misappropriation. Islam can only make sense if it is taken as a system and utilised in such a way that makes it applicable within the notion of “submission” to the paradigm of tawhid that governs the whole.



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Dr. Mawil Izzi Dien

Reprinted with permission of the author.  Originally published at