Prince Charles Challenges Muslims to Act Responsibly Toward the Environment

Hasan Zillur Rahim

Posted Jun 19, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Prince Charles Challenges Muslims to Act Responsibly Toward the Environment

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

In a recent speech at Oxford to mark the 25th anniversary of the Oxford Center of Islamic Studies, Britain’s Prince Charles spoke stirringly on Islam’s holistic approach to the environment.

The comprehensive industrialization of life has led to the destruction of at least thirty percent of the world’s tropical rainforests, the Prince said. There is no end in sight to this relentless destruction. “Over 30 million hectares have been lost, and with them this planet has lost about 80,000 species.” A third of the Earth’s top soil has been degraded. The oceans have been so extensively harvested that global fisheries may collapse in the next forty years.

“Nature’s finite resources, divided by our ever-more rapacious desire for continuous economic growth, does not work out. We are clearly living beyond our means, already consuming the Earth’s capital resources faster than she can replenish them.”

What makes humankind’s predatory environmental practices so unethical and immoral, the Prince said, is that they are “contrary to the teachings of each and every one of the world’s sacred traditions, including Islam.” The solution to our deepening environmental crisis cannot be solved by science and technology alone. “Only sacred traditions have the capacity to help this happen.”

The tragedy of our times is that we have “objectified Nature.” Consequently, materialism and consumerism that serve to maximize the financial profits of global corporations have gone beyond limit. “This ignores the spiritual teachings of traditions like Islam, which recognize that it is not our animal needs that are absolute; it is our spiritual essence, an essence made for the infinite. But with consumerism now such a key element in our economic model, our natural, spiritual desire for the infinite is constantly being reflected towards the finite … The hunger for yet more and more things creates an alarming vacuum and, as we are now realizing, this does great harm to the Earth and creates a never ending unhappiness for many, many people.”

Islam, according to the Prince’s understanding (and rightly so), teaches us that “to deny the reality of our inner being leads to an inner darkness which can quickly extend outwards into the world of Nature.” This leads to ignoring the call of the soul, which in turn leads us to destroy Nature. We must remember that “we are Nature, not inanimate objects like stones; we reflect the universal patterns of Nature. And in this way, we are not a part that can somehow disengage itself and take a purely objective view.”

The Quran describes Nature as the handiwork of a benevolent and creative power. “There is no separation between Man and Nature, precisely because there is no separation between the natural world and God. It offers a completely integrated view of the Universe where religion and science, mind and matter are all part of one living, conscious whole.”

The Prince quoted from the Quran to illustrate his point: “Have you considered: if your water were to disappear into the Earth, who then could bring you gushing water? This is the Divine hospitality that offers us our provisions and our dwelling places, our clothing, tools and transport. The Earth is robust and prolific, but also delicate, subtle, complex and diverse and so our mark must always be gentle – or the water will disappear …”

The reason for this tragic state is because of the abandonment of traditional principles and practices, and with them, “all sense of reverence for the Earth which is an inseparable element in an integrated and spiritually grounded tradition like Islam – just as it was once firmly embedded in the philosophical heritage of Western thought … This is also the teaching of Judaism. The Book of Genesis says that God placed Mankind in the garden “to tend it and take care of it,” to serve and conserve it for the sake of future generations.”

The Prince traced the spectacular flowering of scientific advancement during the Golden Age of Islam in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries to the “understanding of reality that was grounded in a profound spirituality, which included a deep reverence for the Natural world. Theirs was an integrated vision of the world, reflecting the timeless truth that all life is rooted in the unity of the Creator.”

He issued a challenge to his listeners: “It is the challenge to mobilize Islamic scholars, poets and artists, as well as those craftsmen, engineers and scientists who work with and within the Islamic tradition, to identify the general ideas, the teachings and the practical techniques within the tradition which encourage us to work with the grain of Nature rather than against it. I would urge you to consider whether we can learn anything from the Islamic culture’s profound understanding of the natural world to help us all in the fearsome challenges we face. Are there, for instance, any that could help preserve our precious marine eco-systems and fisheries? Are there any traditional methods of avoiding damage to all of Nature’s systems that revive the principle of sustainability within Islam?”

Predictably, most of the English and the American media, as well as right-wing bloggers, had a field day attacking the Prince for his praise of Islam. The Wall Street Journal mocked him this way: “Prince Charles is in the news again for urging an Oxford audience to look to Islam for tips on how to save the planet. In a speech last week, the green heir to the British throne extolled Islam’s ecological teachings, such as its belief that in Islam there is ‘no separation between man and nature.’” (Note the quotes.) The Journal was offended that the Prince dared to express negative feelings about some aspects of the Western way of life. A blogger wrote: “The future King of England, Prince Charles believes the world should follow Islamic spiritual principles. By doing so, the environment will be protected. No surprise Queen Elizabeth is keeping her throne, perhaps gauging Prince William’s ability to succeed her.” And so on.

Prince Charles is a flawed man like the rest of us, but that should not diminish the relevance of his message. In particular, Muslims should carefully consider the importance of his words and act upon them.

About two decades ago, I wrote in an article ( “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 Quranic 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 Quranic teachings to narrow definitions of crime and punishment. This is reflected in unenlightened environmental leadership found in some Muslim countries today.”

Although we are more aware today of global warming and other ecological crises, our actions continue to undermine our talks and sermons. As Muslims, we must understand that when we act irresponsibly toward the environment, we disobey our Creator and violate the sanctity of His creation. As Prince Charles reminded us in his speech, “There is a profound truth in that seemingly simple, old saying of the nomads – that ‘the best of all Mosques is Nature herself.’”

(You can read the complete speech of Prince Charles here: