Rethinking Sustainability: Islamic Perspectives

The 21st century is characterized by a number of global environmental challenges that shaped and defined the discourse and agenda of the West with respect to the developing world, specifically the Islamic world. Islam provides new sustainability perspectives for discovering and explaining the root causes for the current environmental, economic and social crises as manifested in climate change, HIV, poverty and human security. For example, the Islamic perspective on climate change is that the root cause of this global issue is the absence or lack of human stewardship and is an indication of market failures.

Pitfalls of the Western Model

The Western model of economic development with its free market economies, political, economic and social institutions created a number of externalities and environmental costs. In the name of development local and indigenous people are deprived of their rights in the developing world. Rights and natural resources of local people are taken away and substituted by needs that are defined by the west.

Sustainability is not a product manifested in a sector like energy, tourism, agriculture, trade or urban environment but rather a worldview that encompasses all domains of life from spiritual realms, norms and consumption and production patterns to macro-economic policies. This system thinking and perspective towards culture, economy and ecology is fundamental for re-thinking sustainability and root it in local knowledge and embed it as a model for human-centred development.

The global financial crisis which started in 2008 along with poverty, AIDS and climate change challenges compel and incite a dire need for a new economic model that address these global challenges. There is a need to critique and rethink the underpinning of the current market economy that look at both human nature and culture as a commodity. The main pitfalls of the existing market model are that it discounts the future and is based on compound interest rate and a banking system that encourages loans and over-consumption.  When looking at the benefit-cost analysis of climate change, the interest rate (how much we discount the future) will justify the rationality of taking preventive action. In other words, the more the future was discounted the more it made economic sense for climate change impacts to take place.

Islamic Perspectives on Sustainability

The high cost and irreversible environmental costs of the market-based economic model is evident. It is argued that markets do not tell us the ecological truth and that climate change and global financial crises issues are evidence of the market failure. Re-defining the basic notion “what constitutes a good life” and how to pursue happiness are critical in understanding sustainability from an Islamic perspective.

The pursuit of happiness from an Islamic perspective is about adding value to life through good deeds and knowledge as part of human role in the construction of universe, helping others, bringing up good children, and also about living lightly on earth and elimination of waste and over-consumption. The Islamic dream is not linked to accumulation of wealth and living in luxury but rather on conserving the human, social and natural capitals which are considered as necessities.

There is a need for a macro-shift in our worldviews; a re-thinking of the fundamentals of the western economic model to ensure a humanistic and sustainable model that resonate with culture and ensures balance (mizan), social equity (adl) and respects harmony between nature, people and markets. Above all, what is needed is a new and fresh look at Islam as a source of both inspiration and restoration of the natural state of humans as referred to in Islam as fitra. The following is a brief outline on how Islam looks at the three pillars of sustainability (environment, social and economic).

Environment and Spirituality

The most interesting feature of the worldview of Islam is that it presents an interactive and integrated outlook. Therefore, a contemporary understanding of the notion of maslaha (public interest) may lead to a theoretical understanding of sustainability in its broader terms. Islam represents the natural state (fitra) or the intrinsic state of goodness. The natural state (fitra) implies a full harmony with nature, people and the built environment. It also means a full realization and consciousness of the role of the human as a trustee and a witness (khalifa). Humans are trustees (khalifa) to make sure that all resources are used in a sustainable manner.  Islam views the potential risks of climate change as a problem of absence of human trusteeship which is referred to as mischief (fasad). Islam looks at species as nations like humankind. Reading Quran informs the mind and the soul that our natural capital and social capital are interconnected and inter-dependant.

Islam teaches that species including plants and wildlife are in a state of prayers (tasbeeh). The harm of any species means that we are disrupting the symphony of life and silencing worshipers. Quran elevates and deepens the notion of aesthetic intelligence, bio-mimicry, and learning from nature. Both Quran and nature contain many signs (ayat) that demonstrate and offer insights and guidance to nurture naturalistc intelligence, innovation and learning. Ihsan is a key concept in Islam which is the driver and fuel for human stewardship, responsibility and excellence. Zohd means living lightly on earth which is an Islamic concept that promotes conservation and rational use of resources. Waqf which is endowment fund resourced by civil society and private sector as an economic tool to ensure socio-economic and environmental security and also as a vehicle to contextualize the notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and a value-based organization.

Social Dimension

From an Islamic perspective, losing the social compass means the lack or absence of embodiment of the teachings of Islam (as a code of reference). This will result in a state of both ecological degradation (fasad) and human and social alienation. The second pillar of sustainability is the realization of the human and social dimension of development. The notion of equity, social justice (adl), public participation (shura) and the deep concern for future generation are cornerstones in Islam. The role of Ummah as a community of practice is to set standards for ethical codes of conduct and also to create new knowledge based on the values and public interest.

Within the framework of the Islamic way of development, material and spiritual aspects of life are complementary. To be able to live the good life of devotion to God, we have, therefore, to make the best use of the material resources of our world. Talking about development without considering the spiritual side of people is meaningless; development must preserve the essence of our humanity.

Among the dynamic principles of social life Islam has particularly emphasized two – firstly the optimal utilization of resources that God has endowed to man, and his physical environment; and secondly their equitable use and distribution and the promotion of all human relationships on the basis of rights and justiceCare for the poor and the marginalized through sharing resources and financial contribution of Zakat and Waqf a key concept in Islam that need to be harnessed through institutional innovation (ijtihad) and reform of governance.

Economic Dimension

Islamic economics prohibits the compound interest which is the basic concept of the western banking system. Also, Islam provides regulatory framework that ensures the development projects are in the interest for the wider community, not for few individuals. Islam also provides a framework for valuing and weighting interest and value that transcends humans to species and natural resources and future generations.

The fundamental concept is that Islamic economics is that it prohibits usury (riba) and does not discount the future implies that fossil oil at the present is not discounted in the future and hence Islam limits over-use of fossil fuels and hence contributes to limit CO2 emissions due to climate change. Unlike the existing banking system which encourages loans and mega-projects that exploits our natural capital.

Islam encourages small-scale development which will result in lessening the distance that goods are transported and hence lowering of greenhouse gas emissions and the ecological footprints in the business sector. Islamic economics in its profit-sharing and absence of usury provides sound constraints to prevent borrowers from running into un-payable debts whilst encouraging wealth to be distributed evenly. This in turn will help to have a greener economy that is reformed by Islam.       

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About Odeh Rashed Al-Jayyousi

Odeh Al-Jayyousi is a professor in the Department of Technology and Innovation Management at Arabian Gulf University (Bahrain). He is also an independent consultant and a founder of Sustainable Development Professionals for Environmental Consulting (Jordan). He was the vice president for science and research at the Royal Scientific Society (RSS) in Jordan during 2011-2013. He was the regional director for IUCN – The International Union for Conservation of Nature - West Asia / Middle East regional office during 2004-2011. He was dean of research and professor in civil engineering during 1994-2004. Prof Al-Jayyousi is a founding board member Jordan Green Building Council, and a member of the Advisory Board for MSc program in IWRM between Cologne and Jordan University. He has also authored a popular book on “Islam and sustainable development”.
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