Environmentalism in the Quran and the Bible

“What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny — that is, by religion” [1].

 

Religion inherently deals with a variety of ‘fields’, such as culture, theology, science and philosophy and through its interactions and synthesis of these fields, it creates an experience centered around relations between humans, the environment, and God. Naturally, therefore, any religion influences essentially all aspects of its follower’s lives and can have substantial impact on how people relate to their surroundings. That being said, religion can have a tremendous influence on how humans deal with the natural environment and can thus have important implications for understanding the causes of, and potential remedies to, climate change.

It is no longer, and arguably never was, acceptable to consider global warming a “hoax perpetrated by the Chinese”, and it is even less acceptable to rid humans of blame for the radical changes in climate that we are beginning to see. But if humans are to blame, how did we get here? The answer is obviously complicated and no one person could provide an exhaustive enough explanation for this in a few pages. However, to put it simply, one of the main reasons for this is the disconnect from nature and the perception that humans are the alpha-male species on the planet. This disconnect comes, to some extent, from the absolute mastery of knowledge and technology which has lately been used irresponsibly to satiate human greed, consequently destabilizing long-living (much longer than humans) ecosystems around the globe. But, like I said, it’s a lot more complicated than that and I should avoid going into this given the limited scope of this paper. Keeping that in mind, there is something to say about the way that religions shape the way humans experience the world and approach their immediate environments.

In 1967, Lynn White recognized this and wrote about it in his essay The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis. In this historically controversial text he condenses modern human history into a few pages to explain human involvement in degrading the environment. Particularly, he looks at original Christian ideals and practices that almost incentivize exploitation of the natural world and argues that “the roots of environmental problems could be traced to the Bible” [2]. He also mentions the rapid increase of technology, which was only made possible by crucial scientific advancements by Muslims in the 11th century, that allowed humans to both intentionally and unintentionally alter the natural world around them. Following this train of thought, in this paper, I look at two of the world’s biggest faiths; Islam and Christianity, and compare how their religious texts would lead their respective followers to treat the natural world. I will specifically argue that, based on the Quranic teachings and the Five Pillars of Islam, the Islamic faith is much more conducive to harmony between man and nature and therefore prone to environmentalism.

 

First, I must define environmentalism and its implications for human endeavors. This is a broad philosophy concerned with the protection of the natural world that advocates for the lawful preservation and restoration of the worlds natural habitats. This approach is not so focused on the scientific basis for climate change, but rather geared towards its social and economic solutions; primarily by changing modern human’s relationship to nature by altering consumption habits and teaching about diversity, resilience, and balance. The rationale is to recreate a connection between humans and nature by educating about the importance of diversity and resilience; a diverse community is much more likely to withstand shocks than a homogenous one. Consequently, these teachings seek to alter and ultimately diminish peoples compulsive desire for material things, which sounds an awful like Sufism, a mystical trend within Islam.

 

Despite being an anthropocentric faith Islam is an environmentally friendly religion, meaning that the religion addresses human needs and well-being while also preaching protection of, and harmony with, the natural environment [3]. Of the many components that make up the Islamic world view, one could name the primacy of community, equality, rationality, and forgiveness as the most significant ones. These elements and paradigms were originally expressed through the words of Prophet Muhammad and were later written down in the Quran and Prophetic Hadiths. Despite not being necessarily unique to Islam, these elements take on a shape of their own when considering the cultural and geo-political context in which Islam was created and spread to the world.

Prophet Muhammad had his revelations on a mountain, the place he sought for refuge from his job as a merchant. Around him, all over the Arabian Peninsula, were hundreds of polytheistic tribes who struggled to see eye to eye and were thus in constant warfare. But this all changed within a few years of Muhammad’s revelations. As he spoke through God, Muhammad began to accrue a large following and eventually the entire Arabian Peninsula was united under one new religion, Islam. This happened for many reasons but arguably the most important one was the expertise with which Muhammad navigated a politically fragile situation and used kindness and reciprocity to create a community. In the end, by reciting the Quran and instituting the five pillars, Muhammad, established a religion based on equality among all living beings.

The Quran is the most sacred text of Islam and represents the words of God as recited by the last Prophet. Through this essential text, one can learn much about the original essence of Islam and understand how Muslims approach their natural environments. Particularly, the Quran establishes an equal relationship between humans and the natural world, urges humans to relieve the pain and hardship of others, and to appreciate variety. These are all features that have significant implications for most facets of a person’s life, but are especially impactful in the context of environmental preservation.

Similar to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Quran sees humans as stewards of the environment, but unlike Christianity, they are “only a manager of the earth and not a proprietor” [4]: “the right to utilize and harness natural resources, which god has granted man, necessarily involves an obligation on man’s part to conserve them both quantitatively and qualitatively” [5]. This creates an appreciation for the environment that is deeply rooted in religion above all else; it instills a “profound duty to protect the earth” [6].

This is especially interesting to analyze when also considering the thirst for knowledge promoted by Islam. Why? Because knowledge is associated with technology, which is associated with increased productivity and a detachment from nature that ultimately allowed for global warming; “the end product of pursuing material advancement in a reckless manner” [7]. However, while “there is no doubt that Islam values the development of material culture and improvements in technologies that make life easier, healthier and more enjoyable for people it also preaches restraint and balance: “O you who believe! Do not make unlawful the whole-some things which God has made lawful for you, but commit no excess for God does not love those given to excess” (Quran 5:87). Therefore, God wants to make life easy, but not unnecessarily easy, or easy to a point where no one’s freedom hinders the freedom of the other, the other in this case being the environment.

Not only that, Islam also urges its followers to relieve the pain of others through charity and acts of kindness. We see this primarily in the Zakat, the third pillar of Islam. The act does refer specifically to the small share of one’s income that is given to the needy, however it does highlight a general principle of caring for others. And since the Quran established an equal relationship between humans and the environment, the ‘others’ could be nature and animals, thus promoting environmental conservation. Also, along these lines, the Quran utilizes a quintessential definition of sustainability in the phrase “Man should not abuse, misuse, or distort the natural resources as each generation is entitled to benefit from them but is not entitled to “own” them in an absolute sense”, meaning that Man must be wise with how they consume resource and always keep in mind the well-being of future generations.

Finally, one quote by the prophet aptly summarizes Muslims interactions with the environment; “If the Day of Judgement erupts while you are planting a tree, carry on and plant it”. It is well known that the prophet was fond of trees; in a number of Hadiths “he suggested that not only should existing trees be protected, but also the faithful should plant new ones for charitable purposes for they provide shade and habitat for birds and insects” [8]. But one could interpret the tree as the whole natural environment, which naturally leads to the understanding that no matter what, people should always keep a balanced and healthy relationship with nature. This, however, is not the case the Bible.

            Christianity is, today, the world’s largest religion. Like Islam, it is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion, but unlike Islam its religious texts establish a relationship of human dominance over nature. Given that this class is on Islam specifically, I will not delve into as much detail in this section as I did above, but hope to point out the ways in which the Bible, particularly the Old-testament, almost explicitly promotes environmental degradation.

“The Judea-Christian faith first established a position that separated man from nature and guided the former to the position of supremacy over the latter” [9]. When presenting the creation myth, the Bible personifies God, insists that humans were created in the image of God, and ultimately implies that humans are the center of the planet and the most important species to have been created.

Right off the bat, God is personified in Genesis through the use of words like “Then god said let there be light” and “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden”. This is particularly important because it introduces early on the idea of anthropocentrism and the superiority of humans by discussing them in the same light as God, something that would not happen in Islam [10]. This is further exacerbated by the moments where humans are compared to god. For example, the phrase, “then god said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness”, clearly suggests that humans are a god like agent on the planet. The phrase continues “and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon earth” (Genesis 1:22). So, the logical conclusion one draws from this is that God, the almighty, created god-like beings and non-god like beings; the latter so that the former would not be lonely, hungry, or bored. What this does is reduce nature to a mere object and guides Christians towards a utilitarian and “ultimately destructive attitude towards the environment” [11][12]. Furthermore, in suggesting that humans were created in the image of God, there is a not so subtle implication that humans are god-like, powerful, and therefore “connected to universal rules” that allows them to do as they please with gods gifts.

All of these factors lead one to understand that humans, as the heirs to the beautiful planet that god created for us, have the right to do as they please with the natural environment. This lack of constraint, therefore, acted as a catalyst to environmental degradation once technology was powerful enough to severely alter natural habitats with no apparent downsides. The lack of foresight is astonishing and makes one wonder if it might have somewhat explain the absolute world-wide dominance of Christianity today. I say this because the lack of restraint can lead to large population increases by allowing for more irresponsible use of land for crops, and thus make it easier for this religion to dominate. I highly doubt that this is the actual explanation, but it is an interesting thought.

It is fascinating that two religions with fairly similar origins have drastically different approaches to environmental conservation. Christianity clearly is more concerned with the well-being of humans and accidentally leaves the rest of the planet by the wayside. Islam, on the other hand, seems to be extremely tied and dedicated to developing a balanced relationship between humans and the natural world.

Finally, when all is said and done, it’s useful to look at how these two faiths actually deal with the environment in the real world. It is easy to look at how these ancient religious texts address environmental conservation but it is much harder to observe how the teachings are played out in the real world. That being said, one would expect that, given its inclination towards environmentalism, Muslim countries would exhibit better environmental conservation than Christian countries. This, unfortunately is not necessarily the case. As with ‘jihad’ and the crusades, many people do terrible things in the name of religion. However, these may not be things called for by the religion, and are just gross exaggerations of very specific features of religious texts. So, while the Quran and Hadiths may call for a friendly interaction with nature, “non-Christian eastern regions, where supposedly environmentally friendly faiths rule, that environmental destruction is as bad as in the west, if not worse” [13]. I believe that more research is necessary in this field to determine how religion actually influences real world outcomes, but based on my research, I believe that Islam, in its original textual form, will show better, more balanced interactions with the natural world.

 

 References

  1. White, Lynn. The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis. Science, Vol. 155. 1967
  2. Kula, Erhun. Islamic Ethics Towards Environmental Protection. Afro Eurasian Studies Journal Vol 3. Issue 1. 2014.
  3. Ibid, 39
  4. Oliver, Rachel. All About: Religion and the environment. 2008
  5. Mattson, Ingrid. The Islamic View on Consumption & Material Development in Light of Environmental Pollution. Islam, Christianity, and the Environment. 2011
  6. Ibid.
  7. Kula, Erhun. Islamic Ethics Towards Environmental Protection. Afro Eurasian Studies Journal Vol 3. Issue 1. 2014.
  8. Ibid.
  9. White, Lynn. The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis. Science, Vol. 155. 1967
  10. Mahallati, M. Jafar. Lecture notes. October, 2017
  11. Mattson, Ingrid. The Islamic View on Consumption & Material Development in Light of Environmental Pollution. Islam, Christianity, and the Environment. 2011.
  12. Kula, Erhun. Islamic Ethics Towards Environmental Protection. Afro Eurasian Studies Journal Vol 3. Issue 1. 2014.
  13. Ibid.

Hofmann, Murad Wilfried. The Protection of Animals in Islam. Islam, Christianity, and the Environment. 2011.

Mieth, Dietmar. Christian Conceptions of Creation, Environmental Ethics, and the Ecological Challenge Today. Islam, Christianity, and the Environment. 2011.

Glenid, Al et al. Environmental Protection in Islam. 1994.

Muhammad, Ghazi bin. The Holy Qur’an and the Environment. The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought. 2010

Abdul-Matin, Ibrahim. Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet. Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2010