A huge number of verses in Qura’n and several sayings of the Prophet Muhammad indicate the great importance that has been given to environmental concerns and the responsibility of man to the environment. The concept of sustainable development in Islam can be defined as “The balanced and simultaneous realization of consumer welfare, economic efficiency, attainment of social justice, and ecological balance in the framework of a evolutionary knowledge-based, socially interactive model defining the Shuratic process”. The Shuratic process is the consultation or participatory ruling principle of Islam.
The over arching principle in the use of nature is derived from the prophetic declaration that states: “There shall be no damage and no infliction of damage“. The right to benefit from the essential environmental elements and resources such as water, minerals, land, forests, fish and wildlife, arable soil, air and sunlight is in Islam, a right held in common by all members of society. Each individual is entitled to benefit from a common resource subject to establishing the degree of need, (needs have to be distinguished from wants) and the impact on the environment.
Earth is mentioned 61 times in the Qura’n. According to Islam, the universe has been created by Allah (God) with a specific purpose and for a limited time. The utilization of natural resources (ni‘matullah – the gifts of Allah) is a sacred trust invested in mankind; he is a mere manager and not an owner, a beneficiary and not a disposer. Side by side, the Islamic nation has been termed as) ummatan wasatan) the moderate nation in the Qur’an, a nation that avoids excesses in all things. Thus, Muslims in particular have to utilize the earth responsibly for their benefit, honestly maintain and preserve it, use it considerately and moderately, and pass it on to future generations in an excellent condition. This includes the appreciation of its beauty and handing it over in a way that realizes the worship of Allah.
The utilization of all natural resources – land, water, air, fire (energy), forests, oceans – are considered the right and the joint property of the entire humankind. Since Man is Khalifatullah (the vicegerent of Allah) on earth, he should take every precaution to ensure the interests and rights of others, and regard his mastery over his allotted piece of land as a joint ownership with the next generation.
Prophet Muhammad said, “Whosoever brings dead land to life, for him is a reward in it, and whatever any creature seeking food eats of it shall be reckoned as charity from him“. The Prophet in another occasion said, “There is no Muslim who plants a tree or sows a field for a human, bird, or animal eats from it, but it shall be reckoned as charity from him“; and, “If anyone plants a tree, no human nor any of the creatures of Allah will eat from it without it being reckoned as charity from him“. This testifies the importance the Prophet in the early days of Islam has given to reclamation of land and the equal rights of all God’s creatures to benefit from the resources of earth.
Wildlife and natural resources are protected under Shariah (Rules of Islam) by zoning around areas called “hima”. In such places, industrial development, habitation, extensive grazing, are not allowed. The Prophet himself, followed by the Caliphs of Islam, established such “hima” zones as public property or common lands managed and protected by public authority for conservation of natural resources.
In the Shariah, there is a responsibility placed on upstream farms to be considerate of downstream users. A farm beside a stream is forbidden to monopolize its water. After withholding a reasonable amount of water for his crops, the farmer must release the rest to those downstream. Furthermore, if the water is insufficient for all of the farms along the stream, the needs of the older farms are to be satisfied before the newer farm is permitted to irrigate. This reflects the sustainable utilization of water based on its safe yield.
The rights to benefit from nature are linked to accountability and maintenance or conservation of the resource. The fundamental legal principle established by the Prophet Muhammad is that “The benefit of a thing is in return for the liability attached to it.” Much environmental degradation is due to people’s ignorance of what their Creator requires of them. People should be made to realize that the conservation of the environment is a religious duty demanded by God. God has said. “And do good as Allâh has been good to you. And do not seek to cause corruption in the earth. Allâh does not love the corrupters”, (Al Qasas 28:77.(
Islam calls for the efficient use of natural resources and waste minimization. God says in Qura’n: “Eat and drink, but waste not by excess; “He” loves not the excessive”, (Al-A’raf 7:31). “And do not follow the bidding of the excessive, who cause corruption in the earth and do not work good”, (Ash-Shu’ara 26: 151-152). “And do not cause corruption in the earth, when it has been set in order”, (Al-A’râf 7:56).
Water also plays another socio-religious function: cleaning of the body and clothes from all dirt, impurities, and purification so that mankind can be presentable at all times. Only after cleaning with pure (colorless, odorless and tasteless) water, Muslims are allowed to pray. One can only pray at a place that has been cleaned. In light of these facts, Islam stresses on preventing pollution of water resources. Urinating in water (discharging wastewater into water stream) and washing or having a bath in stagnant water are forbidden acts in Islam. The Prophet said: “No one should bathe in still water, when he is unclean”.
The teachings of Prophet Muhammad emphasize the proper use of water without wasting it. The Prophet said: “Don’t waste water even if you are on a running river”. He also said: “Whoever increases (more than three), he does injustice and wrong”.
Islamic legislation on the preservation of trees and plants finds its roots in Qura’nic teachings of Prophet. They include the following: “Whoever plants a tree and looks after it with care, until it matures and becomes productive, will be rewarded in the Hereafter” and “If anyone plants a tree or sows a field and men, beasts or birds eat from it, he should consider it as a charity on his part”. He is also reported to have encouraged tree planting as a constructive practice, saying that even if one hour remained before the final hour and one has a palm-shoot in his hand, he should plant it. Even at times of war, Muslim leaders, such as Abu Baker, advised their troops not to chop down trees and destroy agriculture or kill an animal.
The protection, conservation, and development of the environment and natural resources is a mandatory religious duty to which every Muslim should be committed. This commitment emanates from the individual’s responsibility before God to protect himself and his community. God has said, “Do good, even as God has done you good, and do not pursue corruption in the earth. God does not love corrupters”.