Environmental Ethics in Islam

Environmental Ethics in Islam
By Abdur-Razzaq Lubis


Over the past few decades or so, there has been a growing realization that the accelerating deterioration of the environment is not so much an environmental problem as a human one, and has its root in a distorted and unbalanced perception of existence. Many in the West are engaged in articulating a new eco-philosophy” or “deep ecology”, emphasizing the importance of developing an ecological consciousness, and in the process formulating a comprehensive and radical environmental ethic. The Muslim response to this, all over the world, has been virtually absent.

In order to alter the kufr (concealing of the truth) world-view responsible for the state of our environment, it would require a fundamental change in the way we live our lives at the personal and societal level. Islam is the willing submission to the Lord of Creation and a personal taking-on of ad-Din (the life transaction). Allah has guided us to the life transaction, which is nothing but the perfection of human behaviour or character. It is behaviour towards Allah, behaviour towards people, behaviour towards all of Allah’s creatures. It is the pattern of living by example and discernment, and of living in a natural state in accordance to the laws that govern the universe, which we in Islam call fitra. The fitra the natural pattern of creation itself and the Qur’an locates humankind in it:

So set thy face to the religion,
a man of pure faith –
God’s original upon which He originated mankind.
There is no changing God’s creation.
That is the rig ht religion;
But most men know it not (Qur’an 30:30).

God created humans as part of His original creation to function within its primordial pattern. Humanity is then inescapably subject to God’s immutable laws, as is the rest of creation. In this sense, human beings are equal partners with nature. Creation cannot be changed. Where there is an action there is a reaction, according to God’s laws. Global warming can be seen, in this light, as the earth’s endeavour to maintain a balance in response to the human assault against it.

The Oneness of Creation

Tawheed is the fundamental statement of the oneness of the Creator, from which everything else follows. It is the primordial testimony to the unity of all creation and to the interdependence of the natural order of which humanity is an intrinsic part.
Allah says of Himself in the Qur’an:

Say; He is God, One God,
the Everlasting Refuge.
and about creation:

To Him belongs whatever is
in the heavens and the earth
all obey His will
and it is He who originates
creation,,, (Qur’an 30:25).

The whole of creation – being the work of one Originator – works within a defined pattern.
Another verse in the Qur’an refers to the heavens and the Earth as extensions of God’s throne, thus conveying the idea that creation was designed to function as a whole. Each of its complementary parts, including humankind, plays its own self-preserving role, and in so doing supports the rest.
The Order of Things

Allah has created the world and the universe perfect in proportion, measure and balance as a life-supporting system.

Behold, everything have We created in
due measure and proportion (Qur’an 67:3,4).

Allah created the heavens and the earth, and everything between them.

Unto Him belongs all that is in the heaven and
all that is on the earth, and all that is between
them and under the ground (Qur’an 20:6).

The primary function of all created things, including humans, is to obey and glorify its Creator:

The seven heavens extol His limitless glory,
and the earth, and all they contain;
and there is not a single thing but extols His limitless glory and praise;
but you (O men) fail to grasp the manner of their glorifying Him (Qur’an 17:44).

All the elements in the universe are interdependent and connected, and have a value to each other, over and above their value to humans; for humans need the earth in order to subsist, but the earth has no need for humans. Allah has said:

Greater indeed than the creation of man is the creation of the heavens and the earth:
yet most men do not understand (Qur’an 40:57).

Indeed the earth and what it contains is a means of subsistence for all creatures, not only for humans:

And the earth We have spread out wide, and placed on it mountains firm,
and produced therein means of subsistence – for you (0 men) and for those whose sustenance does not depend on you (Qur’an 15:19,20).

Thus each single element plays an essential part in the maintenance, sustenance and preservation of the whole. In other words, the function of all created things is to serve creation itself. In contemporary parlance, all created things have an ecological function.
A further function of creation is to service humans:

And He has made of service to you (as a gift) from Himself,
all that is in the heavens and on the earth;
in this, behold, there are signs indeed for people who think! (Qur’an 45:13)

Allah has passed the whole of creation to humans by virtue of the trust placed on them.
In summary, all creation have a hierarchical function or value:
An inherent value as things-in-themselves
An ecological value as integral parts of the whole
A utilisation value to humans
The Nations of Allah

Humans are not the only creatures that are worthy of protection and recognition in Islam. All that Allah has created are “nations” or “communities” unto themselves:

There is not an animal in the earth nor a flying creature flying on two wings but they are nations like unto you. We have neglected nothing in the Book (of our decrees).
Then unto their Lord they will be gathered (Qur’an 6:38).

The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said:

All creatures are God’s dependents and the most beloved to God,
among them, is he who does good to God’s dependents (Kashf al-Khafa’)

In Islamic belief, humans have certain obligations towards other living creatures. We will be responsible on the Day of Judgement for how we have treated these creatures. The owner of an animal is obliged to feed it and to treat it if it is ill.

The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

Allah punished a woman because she imprisoned a cat until it died of hunger.
She neither fed it, nor let it obtain its own food (Riyadh as Salihin).

It is wrong for anyone to over-burden and mistreat an animal and cause it unnecessary pain. A man cannot even milk an animal at a time or in a way that would damage its young, as the milk rightly belongs to the young animal. Before a Muslim milks a cow, he is expected to cut his nails so that he does not unwittingly hurt her. Likewise, when honey is taken from a beehive, enough should be left for the bee’s own use. The protection of animals extends beyond mere physical protection. Cursing an animal is also frowned upon. Ahmad and Muslim have transmitted a hadith, narrated by lmran, in which the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, while traveling, overheard a woman cursing a female camel. He reprimanded her, saying, “leave it alone” (spare it from your curses).
The Guardian of Planet Earth

Adam, the progenitor of the human race, primal man, and prophet was appointed khalifa, and, by extension, every man and woman, has inherited the power and responsibility in relation to the planet and all its life forms.

We have honoured the children of Adam and carried them on land and sea,
and provided them with good things, and preferred them greatly over many of those We created (Qur’an 17:70).

A khalifa is one who inherits a position, a power, a trust, and who holds it responsibly and in harmony with its bestower – in this case, Allah. He does not violate the trust. The verbal root of khalifa is khalaf, which means “he came after, followed, succeeded” and holds with, despite, be at variance with; and offend against, violate or break a rule, command or promise. This is significant in the light of the angel’s prediction:

And lo! Your Sustainer said to the angels: Behold,
I am about to establish upon earth a khalifa.
They said: Will you place on it such as will spread corruption and shed blood whereas it is we who extol Your limitless glory,
and praise You, and hallow Your name?
Allah answered: Verily,
I know that which you do not know (Qur’an 2:30).

Of the nine times the word khalifa and its plural are found in the Qur’an; seven times it is used in conjunction with the prefixed fil’-al-ardh- on earth, on this planet. In each case it refers to a person, people, or mankind in general, to whom Allah has entrusted part of His power on earth. The term has been variously translated into English as a successor, deputy, viceroy, and trustee. We would like to add yet another translation, that of the role of stewardship. In that, the human race are more than “Friends of the Earth”- we are its guardians. Although we are equal partners with everything else in the natural world, we have added responsibilities. What we are not is it’s lord and master.
Humankind as Trustees

In this context, a concept unique to man is amana or trust. Allah offers amana to the heavens, to the earth, to the mountains – to the rest of creation – but they all refused; only mankind was foolish enough to accept it.

Verily, We did offer the amana to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains; but they refused to bear it Yet man took it – for, verily, he has always been prone to tyranny and foolishness (Qur’an 33:72).

A trust entails one who entrusts and a trustee. Allah offered the trust to man, the trustee, and he accepted the responsibility. Man chose the amana the faculty of choice and relative free will – and gained thereby the capacity to live for good or evil. As khalifa on earth, man must fulfill that trust placed on him by Allah, by acting justly in accordance with Allah’s laws, or be false to that trust and perpetuates tyranny and injustice against Allah’s earth and His creation.

For He it is Who has made you khalifa on earth,
and has raised some of you by degrees above others,
so that He might try you by means of what He has bestowed on you.
And thereupon We made you their
khalifa on earth,
so that We might behold how you act (Qur’an 6:165).

This is confirmed by part of a hadith, reported by Abu Sa’id al-Khudri and transmitted by Muslim, that Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), said:

The world is sweet and green, and verily Allah has installed you as khalifa in it in order to see how you act.
History of the Environmental Crisis in the Qur’an

So the picture we get from the Qur’an is of a khalifa who is a trustee on earth and is responsible and accountable for his conduct towards his fellow human kind, creatures, and the Earth itself. His purpose is to serve and worship Allah, by acting in harmony with Allah’s laws, thereby fulfilling his trust and gaining the pleasure of Allah. If he abuses his God-given power and violate the laws of Allah, he brings about his own destruction, and severe loss in the Hereafter.

The consequence of violating the trust is attested in the Qur’an by the frequent recounting of the histories of the people of Ad and Thamud. Both were powerful tribes in their respective times and lands – Ad were “endowed abundantly with power” and Thamud were “settled firmly on earth” – but they arrogantly abused the power given to them by Allah, and were destroyed by an environmental cataclysm. The relevance of their stories to contemporary man – truly endowed with devastating power and so firmly settled on earth – is alarmingly frightening.
Resource Use in Islam

As a social creature, man has biological and ecological needs for the sun, water, food, shelter and community, and he, as with other living creatures on earth, may utilise the earth’s resources to secure those basic necessities. Clearly there is a potential conflict of interest between spiritual and material, man and nature, man and man. In this regard, Allah reminded humans of the balance:

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 weight 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.
Of which your Lord’s bounties will you and you deny? (Qur’an 55:1-12).

It is a test of the amana or trust, that humankind pass on to future generations these resources. There is no Qur’anic sanction of the use by one group of people over another, so that no power may usurp the resources of the earth for its own sole use as is perpetrated by contemporary ‘developed’ societies. All peoples, as well as all other creatures on the planet, have an equal right to benefit from these resources. Similarly, all future generations have an equal right to Allah’s bounty. The use of the earth’s resources ought to be in accordance with our material and spiritual needs, the needs of all other creatures, now and in the future, so that we do not jeopardise the planet itself.

And you devour the inheritance (of others) with devouring greed (Qur’an 89: 19).

There is a price to pay for this misdemeanour. According to lbn Majah, Anas reported that the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

If any one deprives an heir of his inheritance, Allah will deprive him of his inheritance in Paradise on the Day of Resurrection.
From Development to Debt

The conventional Western model of industrial growth through maximization of resource use is seen to be the only path to economic development. All economic activity ultimately depends or is dependent on natural resource input that is neither unlimited nor free. Development agencies and banking institutions have been interested only in high-profits, capital-intensive development projects such as large-scale dams and irrigation schemes, mineral extraction, livestock-rearing programmes and monoculture plantations. These projects are chosen for their relatively fast return on investment, and are calculated to generate foreign currency to repay the debt and the interest as well as for the imported technology deemed necessary for national development. From the outset, social and environmental considerations are subordinated to short-term economic gains. The hidden costs of exploiting natural resources do not enter the economists’ equations.

The resulting breakdown in the social fabric of traditional societies only exacerbates the poverty, chronic malnutrition, and recurring threat of famine and starvation in a world of plenty. And with every piece of land given over to export crops, much less land is available for growing subsistence crops for the local people. Nevertheless, the interest on the debt must be paid or the debtor country will not be able to take out further loans. There is absolutely no way of paying the interest except by further plundering the natural resources, which for the “third world”, usually means cutting down their forest and clearing their lands. Trees are felled and the land is cleared and large-scale mechanized monoculture is substituted for traditional husbandry and the natural ecology, resulting in the lost of top-soil which will ultimately impoverish the land. And the vicious cycle continues.

Debtor countries are obliged by the system to incur further debts, and are thus forced to exploit more and more of their already diminished resources and degraded environment. To remain in the game, these nations have to mortgage their God-given capital with absolutely no chance of winning it back. Indeed, the winners are the banks, the transnational corporations, and a small, mostly corrupt, third world elite. If such a wicked debt-slaver operated on a personal level, the perpetrator would be called a tyrant, an oppressor and an exploiter, but at the national and international level, it is called development.

That nature suffers at the hand of the corrupt and tyrannical is borne out by the Prophets saying that the death of a profligate was a relief to the people, the land, the trees and the animals. Abu Huraira, may Allah be pleased with him, reported that when the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, heard a man say, “The oppressor harms none but himself”, he replied, “It is not so, I swear by Allah that even the bustard dies in its nest on account of the oppression of the tyrant.”
Usury Driven Development

For a host of reasons not unconnected to the global market economy and fundamental flaws in the development model itself, these grand projects have not paid off. It is astonishing that despite all the evidence, people still firmly believe that development means economic growth, which equals industrialisation, equals modernisation, equals progress, equal success. Given that the conventional Western model of development leads inevitably to environmental destruction, to say nothing of social and economic injustice, it would be no exaggeration to say that this kind of development has no place in Islam.

The environmental tragedy now being played out is the result of kufr development model and economic system fueled by usury (riba) and greed. There is little doubt that through usury, creating illusory wealth by charging interest on loans and other unjust monetary transactions, is directly responsible for the destructive development the world over. Since riba (usury) lies at the very heart of the development issue, and Allah has absolutely forbidden riba any form whatsoever, it is only right that Muslims reject this kind of development.

O believers, fear your God;
and give up riba that is outstanding,
if you are believers.
But if you do not,
then take notice that God (and His Messenger)
shall war with you (Qur’an 2:278, 279).

Those who devour riba shall not rise again except as he rises, whom satan of the touch prostrates (Qur’an 2:275).

The banking and financial institutions have, in Islamic terms, sabotaged the mizan (balance) and fitra (natural state) of creation by not only charging interest, but by doing so on money which they create endlessly out of nothing. This explosion of artificial wealth provides the illusion of economic dynamism: but in reality it is parasitic. Endless credit devours the finite earth’s resources. No other prohibition in the Qur’an contains such forceful language and, unlike the restrictions on food, there are absolutely no concessions in this area. We are now beginning to understand why this is the case.

The issues that relate to credit creation are obfuscated by the arguments over interest that is only a part of a larger issue. Riba has a wide definition and if the charging of interest conveys the notion of unlawful gain when a rent is charged on capital, then gains that arise from profits made from intangible created capital also falls into this category. This fraud assumes greater proportions when the banks demand and get security or collateral for the non-money they give us as loans. What is at stake here is the principle of justice – mizan – equal for equal in a freely and openly entered transaction. The community strives to contain greed but the state and the banks have colluded in institutionalising and legitimising it.
Beyond Growth and Greed

For those over-developed and affluent nations, the Qur’an is full of warning. Pharaoh, the peoples of Ad and Thamud and Madya, Gog and Magog, were all powerful and wealthy but spread tyranny and corruption on the earth, and thus destroyed themselves. They are described again and again as the mufsidin fi’l-Ard, those who spread fasad (corruption, degradation, and ruin) on earth. The mufsidin fi’l-Ard abused the trust of amana and are in clear contrast to the khulafa fi’l-Ard, Allah’s trustees on earth.

In the Qur’an (2:205) fasad is connected to the destruction of tilth and fertility. Indeed the destruction of tilth and fertility is a most apt description of the environmental damage now common throughout the third world. It is the loss of biological productivity and diversity that has occurred as a direct result of inappropriate development. Allah warns:

Allah loveth not al-fasad
Do not spread corruption on earth after it has been so well ordered, (for) Behold what happened in the end to the
mufsidin, the spreaders of ruin (Qur’an 7:85,86).
The Pharaoh, the people of Ad and Thamud are referred to as Mufsidin al-Ard, as those who “transgressed all bounds in the land” (taghawa fi’l-bilad) (Qur’an 89:11, 12).

Tagha is to transgress or exceed the bounds, to overstep the limits of Allah’s laws, to upset the balance and harmony of the creation “after it has been so well ordered”.

Limits are transgressed when pursuing limitless wealth, and living a life of sumptuous affluence (teral) and wasteful extravagance (isral). The pursuit of wealth and the greed that fuels it is none other than ungratefulness, for:

Verily, towards his Sustainer man is most ungrateful. And to this, behold, he (himself) bears witness indeed: for, verily, to the love of wealth is he most ardently devoted (Qur’an 100:6-8).

Even though Allah has given man everything that he could possibly need, man’s greed knows no bounds:

Leave Me alone (to deal) with whom I alone have created, and to whom I have granted vast resources, and children as witness, and to whom I have given so generously; and yet he greedily desires that I give yet more! (Qur’an 74:11-15).

And of the surah at-Takathur (Greed) itself, Allah says:

You are obsessed by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves. Nay, in time you will come to understand! …And on that day you will most surely be called to account for (what you did with) the boon of life (Qur’an 102:1-7).

The blind pursuit of increased material possessions, increased technological progress, increased power over man and nature, inevitably breeds greed for more and more. This unbridled greed leads to transgressing the limits of all that is good, bringing waste and wreaking destruction on the face of the earth. In the words of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him:

By Allah, lam not afraid concerning you that you will commit shirk (associating another with Allah), but I am afraid that you will vie with one another (for the possession of) the treasures of the earth (Muslim).
The Middle Path

In contrast to wanting more and more, the Qur’an guides us to moderation, balance, and preservation. On moderation in all things, Allah says:

“And We have willed you to be a community of the middle path (umatan wasatan)” (Qur’an 2:143).

For Muslims, the path between extremes – the middle path – is enjoined on us:

For, the true servants of the Most Gracious are they who … whenever they spend are neither wasteful nor niggardly, but (remember) that there is always a just mean between these two extremes (Qur’an 25:63).

In a hadith reported by the Prophets wife Aisha, and transmitted by Muslim, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, urges us to actively pursue moderation: “Practice moderation, and if you can’t practice it perfectly, hen strive towards it as far as possible.” Thus all our actions should be guided with the spirit of moderation, from consumption and production, to the use of natural resources. For moderation is balance, and its opposite disturbs the balance:

And the sky has He raised high, and has devised (for all things) a balance, so that you (too, O men) might never transgress the balance: weigh, therefore, (your deeds) with equity,
and do not upset the balance! (Qur’an 55:7-9).

The principles of moderation, balance and conservation, are the core of sustainable living as it provides the framework for discernment, without which there are no limits to wasteful extravagance, affluence and greed.

In order to fulfil the function of khalifa on earth and deliver the trust, Muslim men and women have no exemplary model other than that of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, his wives, and Companions. Muslims should follow his lead in everything, and in this context his impeccable behaviour towards the earth, its creatures, and resources. In the words of his wife, Aisha, “His character is the Qur’an itself” (Muslim).
In conclusion, Islamic environmental ethics may be summarised as follows:

– Allah is the Creator, Sustainer, and Owner of all creation.
– Humankind is the trustee on Planet Earth.
– Each man and woman is, as such, accountable to Allah for his or her actions on the earth and towards its creatures.
– Every created thing has inherent values, an ecological value, and a utilisation value for humankind both as spiritual sustenance and material resource.
– Humankind’s rights over nature are rights of sustainable use – of usufruct – based on moderation, balance, and conservation; future generations have a similar and equal right.
– Nature’s rights (haq) over humankind include the rights to protection from misuse, degradation and destruction. Greed, affluence, extravagance, and waste are considered a tyranny against nature and a transgression of those rights.

The panel on Islamic perspectives discussed the relationship between the beliefs of Islam and the process of maintaining a viable and healthy environment, including the emphasis on protecting natural resources by utilising these resources to satisfy the needs, rather than wants, of society. The panelists also noted the importance of each individual acting in a responsible manner and as a moral leader in society. The embodiment of Islamic principles in the form of Islamic educational institutions is one method to instil and disseminate an ethic of environmental sustainability.

The discipline of the Pesantren and the teachings of Islam are based on fundamental principles of self-reliance, which require the careful use and management of resources. The Pesantren is based on religion, in the context of which other subjects are taught. However, not all Pesantrens encompass the national curriculum as it is sometimes felt that the need to pass through the national system of examinations can distract students from following the fundamental aims and spirit of the Pesantren.

A comment was made on how similar the principles of Islam and Buddhism appear. The idea of individual and community responsibility and leadership are common to both religions, as are the notions of simplicity, self-reliance, and noble character. As in Buddhism, Islamic teachings fit well into the humans-nature-culture matrix framework which has been referred to throughout this seminar. A diversity in religions has to be recognised and celebrated, but it is also clear how much unity there is between the different faiths.

The notion of the Islamic Brotherhood was discussed, with particular reference to the role of women. The panelists described how women are much respected within the Islamic society, and are treated with modesty and regard. Men and women are frequently segregated for these reasons, and women are allowed to devote themselves to the study of the Qu’ran. In rural areas in Indonesia, many women are educated through the study of the Qu’ran as there is limited access to the public schools.
Source: Toward an Environmental Ethic in Southeast Asia, Proceedings of A Regional Seminar, The Budhist Institute, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, 1998

This piece is taken from the website of www.mandailing.org

See on-line at: http://www.mandailing.org/Eng/envethicsislam.html


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