Michael Kennedy: Qur’anic Implications for Modern Environmentalism

*This post is a Final for Oberlin College’s Religion 272 Course*

Before I begin, I would like to thank Professor Jafar Mahallati for the privilege to learn, reflect, and write about my perspective on Qur’anic themes, exegesis, and values. This semester has contributed to my own understandings of faith, paradigms of ethics, and has shifted my own moral values. Each response has been an enjoyable journey and I hope to do similar work in the future.

This research draws from the conclusions made in my March 3rd post, “Human’s Role Within the Qur’anic Cosmology in the 21st Century.” In this piece, I identified the ways in which the Qur’an constructs the cosmological framework between God, nature, and humans. Based on certain Qur’anic verses, exegesis, and Islamic scholarship, I interpreted a special and sacred relationship between humans and nature arguing that human’s divine purpose includes the interpreting, repurposing, and testing elements of nature.

In this piece, I complicate my previous reading by suggesting that while this relationship exists, this relationship must be balanced with human responsibility. Qur’anic verses lie out God’s granting of stewardship to humans explicitly warn of the spiritual and physical consequences of environmental unsustainability and corruption of the Earth.  These verses are in tandem with modern discourses of environmentalism and offer a perspective that may compel greater action in protecting the Earth from greater exploitation and hope for its renewal.

Scholars contend that “there is no sacred scripture that speaks about nature and earth as much as the Qur’an.[i] The Quran refers to the earth no less than 485 times.[ii] While this may be true, I believe what is important is not the prevalence of discussion of nature but the substance of the topic, and the Qur’an is extremely substantive. Although the Holy text was compiled over the early 7th century, its discussion of the relationship between humans and their environment has strong similarities to modern discourses of environmentalism. However, I will not be writing about the numerous similarities, but rather focusing on what the Qur’an adds to these modern discourses. The reading of the Qur’an for its environmental implications draws the conclusion among scholars that, in the words of Mohammad Hashim Kamali, “Modern environmental problems have not only material but also moral and spiritual dimensions.”[iii] To understand these spiritual dimensions, we must first understand God’s role in nature, the relationship between humans and other forms of creation, the ideal world, and humankind’s corruption of nature all from a Qur’anic perspective.

Tawhid- Oneness of God in Nature

Existing scholarship regarding environment and Islam similarly discuss the notion of “Tawhid” as a central component to understanding the sanctity of nature. Central to the religion of Islam is the belief in one God; “Tawhid” is the Arabic word meaning the oneness of God.[iv] However, the word also implies the “unity of God” in creation.[v] This connotation asserts that God does not exist as a separate other but is rather God is omnipresent in His creation. Several scholars reference two Qur’anic verses as evidence of God’s presence in nature:

  1. 57:3 “He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward…
  2. 2:115 “Unto God belong the East and the West. So wherever ye turn, there is the face of God.[vi]

In their paper, The Holy Qur’an and the Environment, scholars Ghazi bin Muhammad, Reza Shah-Kazemi, and Aftab Ahmed deconstruct these two quotes. Interpreting the first verse, they explain, “The Outward is that which surrounds us, hence our natural surroundings, the environment. Thus God is informing us that the environment is a reflection of the Name Al-Thahir.”[vii] Al-Thathir is one of God’s names in the Qur’an and can be translated into “He who has risen over (ascended) everything and is above everything.”[viii] The second verse is also interpreted as explaining God’s omnipresence in the physical world, existing everywhere one looks. To the authors of The Holy Qur’an and the Environment, God’s presence in nature is reason alone for Islamic environmentalism. They explain, “This natural world was created by Him, for His purpose and that in itself confers upon the natural environment a sacredness which must be recognized by all believers. This, then, means that all believers must have the utmost care and respect towards nature.”[ix]

Islamic scholarship has also recognized the unity of God reflected within nature. Kamali explains that this religious concept has been supported, rather than contradicted, by historical findings in science. He explains, “This aspect of tawhid also underlines the history of Islamic science that sought to make unicity of nature as an ecological principle and a distinctive feature of environmental science. The mineral kingdom supports the vegetable, and they in turn support the animal and there is a link of mutual dependence between them. The waste of one is made the food of the other, and an innate process of cleanliness exits in the world.”[x] My previous essay on Islamic cosmology recognized the Qur’anic worldview that was human-centered, whereas these readings suggest that nature exists in cooperation and unity. In addition, Qur’anic environmentalism also recognizes the dignity and spirit of all life.

Sanctity of Nature- Living Creatures

The Qur’anic concept of God’s presence in nature has already shaped the practices and cosmological understandings of Muslims. In regards to animals, the Qur’an explains that they, like humans, share in God’s judgement and final destiny with humans.

Q.6:38 “And there is no creature on [or within] the earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are] communities like you. We have not neglected in the Register a thing. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered.[xi]

This verse not only explains that all God’s creatures are sacred and afforded a relationship with God, but explicitly compares these creatures to human communities. Through this, humans are not only supposed to understand existence but empathize with other creations. From this shared sacred relationship to God and similarity amongst each other stem several practices in Islam.

Muslim Halal is one religious practice that recognizes the sanctity of all creatures. According to Islamic Shari’ah, eating meat is generally haram (forbidden). To make meat halal (permissible), an animal must be slaughtered in a ritual known as Zibah (or Zabihah).[xii] This ritual and definition of halal meat are laid out in the Qur’an.

Q.5:3 “Prohibited to you are dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah, and [those animals] killed by strangling or by a violent blow or by a head-long fall or by the goring of horns, and those from which a wild animal has eaten, except what you [are able to] slaughter [before its death], and those which are sacrificed on stone altars, and [prohibited is] that you seek decision through divining arrows. That is grave disobedience… But whoever is forced by severe hunger with no inclination to sin – then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.[xiii]

While Islamic cosmology characterizes nature’s role in the relationship between humans and God, this relationship also exists among the rest of His creation.

  1. 55:10 “And the earth, He has assigned it to all living creatures[xiv]

The notions that God has a direct relationship with living creatures, that they share a destiny with humans, and they have divine claim to the earth are absent from most contemporary scientific-based environmentalism. Rather, ethical appeals for animal protections are marginal in U.S. discourses of environmental change and impact, rather they are seen as essential components to an ecosystem that is falling out of equilibrium. Some Qur’anic verses regarding the Earth and God’s intention for creation can construct a worldview that addresses both scientific and ethical reasoning for conservation and animal protections.

Sanctity of Nature- Earth

Earth within Qur’anic cosmology is not only a place of spiritual belonging but a place of physical protection and care. For contemporary readers, many aspects of Earth’s description in the text reflect modern scientific understandings of biology and the environment. This compatibility with science is one focus of my previous post on Qur’anic Cosmology.

The notion that humans are made from earth is asserted repeatedly throughout the Qur’an. While the substance itself interchanges throughout the text, it is most often referred to as clay.

  1. 23:12 “And certainly did We create man from an extract of clay.”[xv]
  2. 38:71-72 “[So mention] when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Indeed, I am going to create a human being from clay. So when I have proportioned him and breathed into him of My [created] soul, then fall down to him in prostration.’[xvi]

However, a more ambiguous term used is “earth.” Earth can also be interpreted as more scientifically correct than “clay” in the sense that humans, the planet Earth, and all known forms of matter are made up of the same elements. However, the use of this term also has spiritual implications.

  1. 20:55 “From the earth We created you, and into it We will return you, and from it We will extract you another time.”[xvii]

This verse stands out to me among many in the Qur’an, not only because it is poetic and holds scientific basis, but that is also parallels the Catholic Ash Wednesday tradition of priests applying ashes to the foreheads of parishioners. During the mass, the priest will say “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The Qur’anic verse itself is special in its entirety. In a single verse, it lies out the creation of life, death, and promise of resurrection poetically interconnecting these to a comfortable home: earth. The following verse reflects the same understanding of earth as home:

  1. 78:6 “Did We not make the earth as your cradle and resting place?”[xviii]

In the Qur’an, the planet is a home of spiritual creation and a place of destiny. As it was created for humans and other forms of creation, it was created with specific divine intention. The earth was created as balanced in which all forms of nature and creatures can coexist in harmony with each other.

  1. 15:19 “And the earth – We have spread it and cast therein firmly set mountains and caused to grow therein [something] of every well-balanced thing.”[xix]

However, while this balance was created, it can be altered and the Qur’an warns humans against tipping the scales of balance.

  1. 55:5-9 “The sun and the moon [move] by precise calculation, And the stars and trees prostrate. And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance That you not transgress within the balance. And establish weight in justice and do not make deficient the balance.”[xx]

At our contemporary moment, we know that the scientific climate equilibrium at which the Earth has functioned for thousands of years is no longer stable but in dramatic flux. The Qur’an warns of the meddling with earthly balance and identifies it not only as a physical/scientific issue but an issue of spirit. This is best expressed in the Qur’anic use of “corruption.”

Corruption of the Earth

Exploitation and use of resources beyond needs is criticized in the Qur’an as “corruption” of the land. Like other Abrahamic religions, Islam recognizes the temporariness of material possession, but the Qur’an is explicit in God’s disdain for those who corrupt the earth.

  1. 28:77 “But seek, through that which Allah has given you, the home of the Hereafter; and [yet], do not forget your share of the world. And do good as Allah has done good to you. And desire not corruption in the land. Indeed, Allah does not like corrupters.”[xxi]

This corruption can be interpreted as corruption of the divine equilibrium or balance put in place by God. Even though humans are offered a share of the world, they must not transgress upon other forms of creation in relationship with God. In Islamic cosmology, all earthly life has a claim and shared relationship with God and the planet. Corrupting the land so that other creatures can no longer live from it is an act of cruelty towards fellow creation, the earth, and God. This is not only an issue of faith, in disrespecting God, but is an issue with physical consequences that can easily grow.

  1. 2:60 “And [recall] when Moses prayed for water for his people, so We said, ‘Strike with your staff the stone.’ And there gushed forth from it twelve springs, and every people knew its watering place. ‘Eat and drink from the provision of Allah, and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption.’”[xxii]

This verse illuminates the concept of corruption of the earth. According to the Qur’an, God gave Moses and his people the water that they needed, sustenance was given “from the provision of Allah.” Even though Moses and the Hebrews were in state of hunger, thirst, and desperation, Moses recognizes that they should not become too indulgent of these resources. If corruption implies the transgression or effect upon the Earth’s equilibrium, its spreading can be interpreted as the natural phenomenon following the imbalance. When the equilibrium of an ecosystem is put out of balance, it may face a permanent change that can change the ecosystem itself. Modern climate change is a relatively contemporary shift in the global ecosystem that has the potential of altering landmasses, killing species, and altering the world as we know it.

However, the Qur’an also recognizes that man has transgressed on this equilibrium before and details the implications of such corruption. In his reading of the Qur’an to identify environmentalism in Islam, Mohammad Hashim Kamali argues, “The text identifies the human being as having the greatest potential for mischief in violation of God’s commands. Hence the warning: ‘Do not spread corruption in the earth after it has been so well ordered;’ for ‘behold what happened in the end to the mufsidun, who spread corruption and ruin.’ (Q. 7:85)”[xxiii]

As the verse suggests, the consequences of corruption are ultimately self-damaging; the same conclusion modern environmentalism finds. Upon transgression, the Qur’an explains that humans will face the negative consequences of their actions.

  1. 30:41 “Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness].”[xxiv]

Some readings of the verse may consider this action damning, but the wording itself suggests the possibility for redemption. Rather than accountability for all the harm done, the text suggests humans taste part of the consequence, so that they in turn may realize the potential harm and work to restore the ecological balance as best they can. This notion of redemption is perhaps the most important element of environmental corruption in the Qur’an; the mercy of God allows humanity to taste a bit of the overall corruption and grants the possibility for a “return to righteousness.”

Returning to righteousness is defined by the authors of The Holy Qur’an and the Environment as a process of internal and external purification. They explain, “…Mankind’s inward corruption is not only reflected in the world’s outward corruption, it is its actual cause, both directly and physically (through man’s pollution of the world and his upsetting the natural balance), and spiritually and existentially (as man’s inner corruption changes the subtle existential conditions of the physical world, by ‘solidifying’ it and cutting it off from the graces of heaven).”[xxv] The authors argue that modern environmentalism does not emphasize that the cause of environmental change is, at the core, the corruption of human values. They follow with this criticism:

“This is the real reason why no amount of scientific environmental action can fully work without spiritual renewal within mankind, and why conversely, spiritual renewal needs also environmental action to be successful. This particular insight is what is perhaps most lacking in all the environment saving efforts of our day: environmentalists think they know the world and can save it without knowing and saving themselves first.”[xxvi]

A Model for Returning to Balance

Within Qur’anic cosmology, humankind was given a special task and an ultimate destiny.

  1. 33:72 “Indeed, we offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they declined to bear it and feared it; but man [undertook to] bear it. Indeed, he was unjust and ignorant.[xxvii]
  2. 11:61 “He it is who created you from the earth and made it your assignment to build it[xxviii]

While religious understandings of humans (across different faiths) have interpreted human’s destiny as “inheritors of the earth,” the Qur’anic focus on environmental balance and harmony between creation suggests that humanity has a certain role to play. The text explains that humankind as spiritually connected to Earth and all its life; made of earth, provided for by the earth, sharing in an intimate relationship to God with all forms of life. However, in humankind’s special pact with God, they also carry a responsibility. They have a role as stewards of the earth.

The Qur’an comments that human’s stewardship is a daunting task, refused by all except the “unjust and ignorant” humans. The human experience has been rife with mistakes and has altered global ecology thousands of years before the Prophet Muhammad lived. However, in the assignment to build the earth is also the possibility to rebuild. The Qur’an came to being as means of instructing moral re-adjustment among humans; the process is certainly ongoing. The environmental relationships explained in the Qur’an can be made manifest through spiritual and moral restructuring.

The moral restructuring required to co-exist in harmony with nature and other forms of life are not separate, but rather a part of broader ethical themes championed by Islamic scholarship. scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali argues that the ideal relationship between humans and nature is the same as that proposed by themes in the Qur’an for relations with other humans: justice with benevolence. Restoring the ecological balance creates an equilibrium and mutually beneficial coexistence among life. The natural implications for such a relationship are symbolically powerful in that they demonstrate the limitations of justice alone. Kamali explains, “Elsewhere the injunction to do justice is juxtaposed with benevolence, beauty and perfecton (ihsan– Q 16:90). Justice is a measure for measure concept whereas ihsan  can be unilateral and reach far beyond the dictates of justice, especially in relationships between the human and non-human inhabitants of the earth.”[xxix]

The ideal relationship between humans and nature, according to the Qur’an, follows a model ethical paradigm recognized by scholars across the field (including Professor Mahalatti). Humans must move beyond transactions of justice and strive for relations of peace and benevolence. It is in this way that the Qur’an can provide what mainstream environmentalism and even discourses of environmental justice currently lack. Humankind must understand their own greed as a deeply moral issue, take responsibility for their actions, and actively work towards harmonious relationships amongst each other and with all life.

I affirm I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.

Michael Kennedy

[i] Mohammad Hashim Kamali. “Environmental Care in Islam: A Qur’anic Perspective” International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia. Pg. 1

[ii] Ibid. Pg. 6

[iii] Ibid.. Pg. 2

[iv] Ibid. Pg. 4

[v] “Tawhid” Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Web. http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e2356

[vi] Ghazi bin Muhammad, Reza Shah-Kazemi and Aftab Ahmed. The Holy Qur’an and the Environment (The Royal All Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2010) Pg. 6

[vii] Ibid. Pg. 6

[viii] Najeeb ibn Yusuf Al Anjelesi “The Meaning of the Name ‘Ath-Thahir’” Pure Islaam, March 2, 2016. Web. http://pureislaam.com/2016/03/02/the-meaning-of-the-name-ath-thahir-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%B1/.

[ix] Muhammad, Shah-Kazemi, and Ahmed. Pg. 6

[x] Kamali. Pg. 4

[xi] Sura, Al-Anam translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/6/38.

[xii] “Definition of Halal” Halal Food Authority, Web. http://halalfoodauthority.com/definition-of-halal.

[xiii] Sura, Al-Ma’idah translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/5/3.

[xiv] Lutfiyah Suliman, “Islam and Animal Rights” EcoMENA, August 21, 2016. Web. http://www.ecomena.org/islam-animal/.

[xv] Sura, Al-Mu’minun translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/23/12.

[xvi] Sura, Sad translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/38/71-81.

[xvii] Sura, Taha translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/20/55.

[xviii] Kamali. Pg. 6

[xix] Sura, Al-Hijr translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/15/19.

[xx] Sura, Ar-Rahman translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/55/4-9.

[xxi] Sura, Al-Qasas translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/28/77.

[xxii] Sura, Al-Baqarah translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/2/60\.

[xxiii] Kamali. Pg. 10-11

[xxiv] Sura, Ar-Rum translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/30/41.

[xxv] Muhammad, Shah-Kazemi, and Ahmed. Pg. 25

[xxvi] Muhammad, Shah-Kazemi, and Ahmed. Pg. 25

[xxvii] Sura, Al-Ahzab translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/33/72

[xxviii] Kamali. Pg. 7

[xxix] Kamali, Pg. 7

Works Cited

“Definition of Halal” Halal Food Authority, Web. http://halalfoodauthority.com/definition-of-halal.

Ghazi bin Muhammad, Reza Shah-Kazemi and Aftab Ahmed. The Holy Qur’an and the Environment (The Royal All Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2010)

The Holy Qur’an, translated by Sahih International at https://quran.com/1.

Mohammad Hashim Kamali. “Environmental Care in Islam: A Qur’anic Perspective” International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.

Najeeb ibn Yusuf Al Anjelesi “The Meaning of the Name ‘Ath-Thahir’” Pure Islaam, March 2, 2016. Web. http://pureislaam.com/2016/03/02/the-meaning-of-the-name-ath-thahir-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%B1/.

Tawhid” Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Web. http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e2356


*Picture taken and edited from https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/3f/c0/b2/3fc0b24b2e33ba7ff912ab0413d621c3.jpg*