Today more than half the world’s population live in cities. Our increasingly urban lives have ensured an almost total disconnection from the natural world to the extent that it is not uncommon to meet children who believe that milk originates in plastic supermarket cartons. It is as well to be conscious of this as much is left out in their education, both religious and secular, to the extent that we are continuing to cause irreparable harm to the Earth.
Muslims are no exception to this, having also adopted urban lifestyles and modern modes of living that reveal an almost complete lack of awareness as to where this is all going. Taking children to the zoo or visiting national parks is more in the nature of recreational activity and actually reinforces the idea of otherness. The educational aspects remain lamentably superficial, and the spiritual is nowhere to be seen.
Care for the Natural World
In the Islamic order, care for the natural world expresses itself in every aspect of personal behaviour. The guidance for this comes from the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad’s teachings (Sunnah). It is integral to life, an expression of existence in submission to the will of the Creator in harmony with the cosmic pattern. There is a code of conduct that governs interpersonal behaviour and an individual’s rights and responsibilities within a community; it also deals with an individual’s behaviour towards other sentient beings and the rest of the natural world.
Holistic Expression of Life
As Muslim interaction with the environment evolved, it manifested itself in a range of rules and institutions, embodying a truly holistic expression of life. It took into consideration the importance of reducing waste, being abstemious, generous, considerate, moderate, unselfish, caring, and sharing.
The qualities of love, humility, trust and justice remained preeminent. Over the centuries these values have been elaborated upon by a succession of mystics, scholars, jurists and teachers responding to real problems experienced by the growing community of Muslims in various parts of the world.
Erosion of Sacred Nexus
However, this Islamic mode of expression is now severely attenuated, having been swept aside by the forces of history – like the other older traditions – into a domain which treats the natural world exclusively as an exploitable resource. As the secular ethic progressively seeped into the Muslim psyche, and as industrial development, economic indicators and consumerism became the governing parameters of society, there has been a corresponding erosion of the Muslim perception of the holistic and a withering of its understanding of the sacred nexus between the human community and the rest of the natural order.
Environmental Approach of Quran
As the Islamic tapestry unfolded in its expression over the centuries, we discover that there are no references in the Qur’an to the environment or its -isms, as we now understand them. The context in which we discuss this subject today originated as recently as the second half of the last century and Rachel Carson is recognized as having given impetus to this movement since her research was published in 1962 (see chapter 2, ‘A Delayed Reaction’). Neither can the word ‘nature’, which is an abstraction, be found in the Qur’an. The closest term in modern Arabic usage is bi’ah, which connotes a habitat or a surrounding.
Nevertheless, the Qur’an is inherently environmental and holistic in its approach. It speaks of creation (khalq) and contains over 250 verses where this word is used in its various grammatical forms. Derived from the root kh–l–q, it is used in many ways to describe what we see, feel and sense in the world. The verses contain references to the natural world from herbs to trees, from fish to fowl, to the sun, stars and skies.
He (Allah) created everything and determined them in exact proportions (25: 2).
The human community is but an infinitesimal part of the natural world but we have now lost sight of this through our proclivity for dominating it. The Qur’an observes:
The creation of the heavens and the earth is far greater than the creation of humankind. But most of humankind do not know it (40: 57).
Creation is the fabric into which the tapestry of life is worked. An Islamic approach to the environment provides us with a three-faceted response:
- The first is to approach the Earth as sacred and identify how through abusing it we have desacralized our understanding of it. Hence we can rediscover what it is that we have lost in the process.
- The second is to formulate an ethical understanding of our relationship with the natural world and build a knowledge base that enables us to resolve the immediate crisis and motivates us to lay down a basis for long term behavioural change.
- The third is to look at this through the prism of political economy and discover what it is that an Islamic approach to this subject can do to both improve our understanding of the current malaise and provide some answers as to how we can create a model of well-being without having to subvert our own existence.
Note: The excerpt has been published from Fazlun Khalid’s latest book Signs On The Earth: Islam, Modernity And The Climate Crisis, published by Kube Publishing. The book can be purchased from the Amazon website.