The Intersection of Faith and Nature: What the Qur’an Tells Us About Environmentalism

Through my brief study of Islam thus far, what I believe to be the most important message the religion teaches to Muslims and non-Muslims alike is that life is the most precious thing in the world and it is our duty to conserve that gift. It is a grave sin to harm oneself or any other living thing, as everything belongs to God and harming life is not only an insult to God but it shows disregard for life and God’s love given to you through life. As well as this, a lack of consideration for fellow living and breathing beings is overall disrespect for all of humanity and the entire natural world. I will be using excerpts from the Qur’an to analyze how the holy book approaches this topic of environmentalism and conservation directly, as well as turning to other scholars and followers of the Islamic religion to consider their understanding of environmentalism in the eyes of Islam. As Ibrahim Abdul-Matin states in the Introduction to his book, Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet, “I was raised to think that leaving the Earth a better place than we found it is a mandate from God.” Abdul-Matin’s perspective of environmentalism as a duty certainly seems to coincide with other Islamic values, because while it is important to give back to those who are in greater need than we are, this can apply to the entire world and not just humans alone.

In one of his earliest memories as a young Muslim boy, Abdul-Matin recounts when his father recited a hadith tradition, or a story traced all the way back to Prophet Muhammad himself, which was, “Wherever you may be at the time of prayer, you may pray, for it is all a mosque.”[1] Abdul-Matin interprets this statement to mean, “The Earth is a mosque.” Mosque, as is any other place of worship, is a holy space meant to foster unity, community, faith and togetherness. The idea that anywhere on Earth is comparative to that of a mosque creates this sense of holiness and fragility to the Earth itself. It is meant to be respected and kept intact.

Now, looking directly at the words of the Qur’an, three Jordanian scholars of Islam wrote a book detailing environmentalist thought in the Qur’an through analyzation of the text. One of the most basic observations they make speaks volumes about the focus of the Qur’an with something that is so easy to notice yet one could easily overlook it. The writers note, “Many chapter headings indicate the importance of the natural world, such as: “Thunder”, “The Star”, “The Moon”, “The Sun”, “Dawn”, “Morning Hours”, “Sand Dunes”…“The Bees”, “The Spider”, “Cattle”, “The Elephant”, “The Fig”, and so on.”[2] Even the second, and longest, chapter in the entire Qur’an is called, “The Cow” or “Cattle.” While the Qur’an details the famous events of biblical heroes such as Noah and Moses and many others, the overall focus tends to always come back to the natural world, or more generally, the cosmos. The authors look closely at one sura, pointing out that even specific animals and insects are subject to their own revelation: “Your Lord has revealed unto the bee: ‘Make your home in the mountains, and on the trees, and the trellises which they erect; then eat from every fruit and follow humbly the ways of your Lord.’”[3] Every living thing, every creation of God, has a specific purpose in this world, not just humans, as demonstrated by just one of many suras directed at other Earth-dwelling organisms. To impede upon another living thing’s instruction from God or to upend its presence on Earth is to upset the balance between the natural world and the Divine.

While the Qur’an gives much insight into what one must do in order to preserve their environment, it also foreshadows what can go wrong if one turns their back on the natural world and doesn’t care to protect it. In one verse, the Qur’an states, “Corruption has appeared on the land and in the sea because of that which men’s hands have earned.”[4] One can interpret this phrase to mean that human production can lead to corruption and greed even at the expense of the lands that grant us the ability to even exist. As Abdul-Matin explains in his book, there is a common misconception that in religious eyes, nothing God-given can be changed by man, so humans couldn’t possibly be having a negative impact on global conditions. This, however, is not taking into account that God has granted man with a huge mass of land to preside over, as a steward of this land, and guidelines for how to take care of it, but it is one’s choice whether or not they will follow these instructions.[5] Turning a blind eye to the environment is not focusing on more “important” matters; it is simply neglecting the breakdown of this God-given land and its creatures and only letting problems get worse. In sura 44, verses 38 and 39 say, “We were not playing a pointless game when We created the heavens and earth and everything in between; We created them for a true purpose, but most people do not comprehend.” This part of the chapter speaks largely about those who turned away from God’s guidance in life and who will not be rewarded with paradise on the Day of Judgment. This passage specifically addresses those who look at the deal they have been dealt as a sort of meaningless game, taking things for granted and not giving back and being a part of a community. These words suggest that taking care of the world around us is not an optional task but it is expected if one wishes to be viewed favorably on the Day of Judgment, or even simply if one wishes to be a pious person. Abdul-Matin interprets this passage as relating to overconsumption and greed, harming the environment and upsetting the delicate balance that God established when He created the natural world.

Natural resources such as water are regarded as highly precious in the Qur’an, as they are the essence of life and make sustained existence possible. As Abdul-Matin explains in his book, water is a simple necessity that cannot be taken for granted and we have a responsibility to take care of this gift bestowed upon us. He cites a verse from the Qur’an, stating, “Is it you who sent it down from the clouds, or is it We Who send down? If We had willed, We would have made it bitter; will you not, then, give thanks?”[6] In other words, God has granted life on Earth with purified water, something we could not obtain on our own, and we must be conscious of the worth of this natural necessity, for without it we would be nothing. In numerous third-world countries today, water is not a basic commodity like it is in most parts of the United States. Families often must go weeks at a time with barely enough water to drink, let alone bathe in. The fact that clean water is treated as a given and that it is always going to be there shows how little respect many first-world citizens have for water as well as the Creator of such a vital resource. Abdul-Matin also recalls a hadith from Prophet Muhammad highlighting the importance of sharing water with others: “There are three persons whom Allah will not look at on the Day of Resurrection…One of them is a man [who] possessed superfluous water on a way and he withheld it from travelers.”[7] As Abdul-Matin sees it, corrupt management of water to a community is essentially a crime against humanity. In a very recent example of this concept, the failure to provide lawfully safe drinking water to residents of Flint, Michigan, is very much a sinful aggression against every single person who was given access solely to water that would result in a grave compromise of their health.

Speaking of water, the Qur’an stresses the importance of dividing up necessities such as water evenly amongst people, as the Earth’s resources are meant for all creatures, not just for a privileged few. In an official Environmental Law Handbook for “Middle East and Arabic Countries,” Doctors Bagader, El-Sabbagh, Al-Glayand and Samarrai compile a long set of general regulations regarding treatment of the Earth and acknowledgement of environmental needs. Regarding water management, they say, “Owing to the importance of water is the basis of life, God has made its use the common right of all living beings and all human beings.” This statement is born from the Qur’anic verse that says, “And inform them that the water is to be divided among them—each share of drink equitably proportioned.”[8] The importance of equal distribution of resources is to make sure that no monopolies emerge and keep anyone with a God-given right from having access to water, as well as discouraging corruption from forming in the management of water amongst a community. Continuing with this avoidance of corruption, the scholars also note, “Extravagance in using water is forbidden; this applies to private use as well as public, and whether the water is scarce or abundant.” While greed is a sin in most religions, gluttony towards water takes that same water away from those in greater need of it. It is better to conserve water as much as possible, which is highly encouraged by environmentalists, including fellow green activist Abdul-Matin.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the leading, if not greatest, Islamic academics and philosophers of his time, has a very thought provoking take on the relationship between religion and science, particularly from an ecological standpoint. Marjorie Hope and James Young converse with Nasr in his office at George Washington University, discussing how Western secularism has turned science into the antithesis of religion more than anything, when really they could go hand in hand. Nasr seems highly critical of the “survival of the fittest” nature that the scientifically minded West tends to hold as truth, but one cannot blame him, due to the anthropocentrism of Western greed and arrogance, deeming humans as the greatest race and those who ought to control everything, including the environment. Nasr explained, “They [the West] want to remove problems brought on by destroying the balance between man and nature through further domination of nature. The problem is not really underdevelopment in the Third World, but overdevelopment brought by the West.”[9] This idea traces back to Qur’anic verse 30:41 previously mentioned, which blames environmental havoc on corruption. As Nasr points out, corruption is trying to be mended by more corruption, which is only projecting further harm onto the Earth, harm that was not there before us. Continuing with this idea, Nasr adds, “Evolutionary theory gives rise to pseudo-philosophies like the survival of the fittest, picturing man as the inevitable winner of the long struggle, with the right to dominate all things. This destroys the spiritual significance of nature…”[10] I don’t share Nasr’s critical view of evolutionary theory, but I completely agree that this unprecedented validation of human control completely leaves no protection for the natural world that makes our survival even possible. Lastly, Nasr even touches on the damage to the environment dealt by those who call themselves Muslims but abide by the corrupted teachings of fundamentalism.

On Khaleafa.com, a website and blog where Canada’s Muslim community is free to organize and share inspiration on how to work towards environmental sustainability through one’s faith, Tarik M. Quadir shares his take on how the Qur’an advises us to treat our natural world and other living things in our ecosystems. Quadir addresses the Qur’an’s attention to the parallels between humans and other animals, explaining that they too gather in a community, much like humans are drawn together in harmony, which often helps bring those of faith closer to God. The passage Quadir cites states, “There is no creature that crawls upon the earth, nor bird that flies upon its wings, but that they are communities like yourselves…and they shall be gathered unto their Lord in the end. Those who deny Our signs are deaf and dumb, in darkness.”[11] These verses, in Quadir’s interpretation, are meant to draw comparisons between man and nature, to show that while we are to care for our own kind, the same treatment is expected from us in terms of the rest of God’s creations as well. Quadir makes similar comments on the negative impact that secularism and the somewhat cold eyes of science can have on environmentalism, taking the “transcendent value” and sacredness out of nature, leaving little motivation for society to genuinely care about protecting the Earth. Quadir asserts, “Instead of seeing nature as a spiritual means for knowing God, modern science taught us to see nature, including ourselves, only in purely physical terms.” In concluding thoughts, Quadir advocates for people to reawaken their sense of humanity and nature’s role in signifying God’s presence, in order to efficiently begin productive and constructive environment-minded work.

A simple way to live an environmentally friendly life is to be cognizant of your consumption and to create as little waste as possible. Syed Rizvi, a writer for “The Daily Texan,” a newspaper for the community at the University of Texas at Austin, weighs in on how the Qur’an advises us to make the most of the resources given to us. He cites the following Qur’anic verse: “He it is Who brings into being gardens, trellised and untrellised, and the date palm and crops with diverse produce…Eat of their fruit when they grow, and pay the due thereof on the day of its harvest, but be not prodigal.”[12] Rizvi uses this passage to support his claim that God expects humans to take care of the resources He has given them and if they are greedy or wasteful, they will not be held in a favorable light. Razvi also recalls a Sunni hadith in which Prophet Muhammad would say, “Muslims will always earn the reward of charity for planting a tree, sowing a crop and the birds, humans, and animals eat from it.” In Razvi’s call to action to instigate leadership in the fight for environmental justice, he asserts that religion deems environmental consciousness and advocacy to be an obligation of all people of faith, regardless of affiliation.

Mustafa Abu-Sway, a Professor of Philosophy at al-Quds University in Jerusalem, gave a lecture at the Belfast Mosque in which he explored various verses of the Qur’an, which pointed towards an obligatory relationship between man and nature. Abu-Sway invokes a specific Qur’anic verse when explaining the call to humans to take care of the world God had put them in: “He it is Who appointed vicegerents upon the earth and raised some of you by degrees above others, that He may try you in that which He has given you.”[13] Looking back to Abdul-Matin’s vision of man as a steward of the Earth, Abu-Sway also refers to man as the trustee of the Earth. He cites this passage to highlight the accountability of humans’ actions, to use their resources for selfless deeds and to not spread corruption, which will decide whether they have passed God’s test, gauging whether they were generous or selfish in life; whether they chose to care for the Earth or let it be destroyed. Abu-Sway also talks about the natural world as consisting of “signs,” or things that invoke the divine nature of God. He explains, “Any destruction occurring to the environment is tantamount to destroying these signs. If any species becomes extinct, it is considered a loss of a Sign that reflects the greatness of the Creator.” In this point of view, Abu-Sway considers the disintegration of any part of the environment to be equivalent to the loss an illustration of the Divine’s holiness on Earth. In this mindset, neglecting one’s environment is to allow God’s creation to wither away and die a waste. If anything, we have an obligation to tend to the natural world around us to preserve life, God’s creation and blessings on Earth, and even the cosmos.

Scholar S. Nomanul Haq takes a more philosophical approach to environmentalism, focusing on the cosmos and humans’ place within it to govern how humans should interact with the world around them. Haq refers to a Qur’anic verse that seeks to humble humans’ role within the universe, saying, “Surely the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of mankind. But most of mankind know not.”[14] In an even more philosophical light, Haq stresses the importance of respect to the Earth by bringing humans into the mix, considering them to be a part of this natural world as well. Haq entertains, “human beings are part of nature; they are a natural entity, participating as an integral element in the overall ecological balance that exists in the larger cosmic whole. And this means that to damage, offend, or destroy the balance of the natural environment is to damage, offend, or destroy oneself.”[15] This thinking is meant to create a deeper bond between man and nature, to feel closer to the cosmos. We are one with our planet, and to harm our planet is to harm ourselves.

In his extended analysis of environmental issues through an Islamic lens, Dr. Mohammad Assayed Jamil, Director of the Department of Environment and Population Education in the Ministry of Education in Egypt, sculpts his arguments by considering Qur’anic text and various Islamic traditions and teachings. Jamil considers the act of pollution, which he says is treated as a kind of vandalism or damage in Islam. He demonstrates this concept by citing the Qur’an’s promise of punishment for anyone who alters blessings sent down to them: “And whosoever alters the Blessing of God after it has come to him, truly God is severe in retribution.” [16] Jamil believes this verse applies to those who negatively alter blessings such as water or air, in which case they are bringing harm and corruption to the Earth and will be punished for this act of violence. As well as this, Jamil notes that the Qur’an speaks of resources given to humans in order for them to thrive, but he makes it known that this is not without expectations in return. One passage that demonstrates this says, “And with what God has given you, seek after the Abode of the Hereafter, and forget not your portion in this world. And be good, as God has been good to you. Seek not to work corruption upon the earth. Surely God loves not the workers of corruption.”[17]

Looking once more at a new perspective, Fazlur Rahman, Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Chicago, makes a similar argument to Jamil in respect to the accountability of humans. A passage he refers to is: “’Did you suppose, then, that We created you frivolously, and that you would not be returned unto Us?’”[18] Following this, Rahman explains, “The purpose of man’s creation is that he do good in the world, not substitute himself for God and think that he can make and unmake the moral law at his own convenience and for his own selfish and narrow ends.”[19] While this argument can apply to any kind of corruption, Rahman focuses on the sloth of man, calling out those who treat life as a carefree game, with no intentions of giving back to the world that gives them everything. The natural world and the order within it have been presented to us by God, but this was not purposeless. It is our duty to show our gratefulness by caring for said gift and bringing more good into the world, not expecting someone or something else to do it for us.

One of the last arguments that I would like to point out is that if you compare all of the Qur’anic verses that I have alluded to in this paper, most of them are from different chapters within the Qur’an. This shows that consideration of the Earth is not something that is brought up once in the Qur’an and set aside for the rest of it. It is a recurring theme, as humans are meant to always have the Earth’s best interest in mind, for if it weren’t for the Earth, we would not even be here, let alone survive. A motif that appeared in many of these scholars’ work is that humans have become blind to the plight of our world, thinking only of our needs and not those of the planet that keeps us alive. We have lost the ability to see the value of our natural world and if we desire to fight for the future of this Earth, we must reevaluate what our world means to us, and for those of faith, what this world means for God, as well. In the words of our friends Muhammad, Shah-Kazemi and Ahmed, “Environmentalists think they know the world and can save it without knowing and saving themselves first.”[20]

 

Works Cited:

Abdul-Matin, Ibrahim. 2010. Green Deen: what Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet. Oakland, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Muhammad, Ghazi bin, Shah-Kazemi, Reza, and Aftab Ahmed. 2010. The Holy Qur’an and the Environment. Hazemite Kingdom of Jordan: Prince Ghazi Trust for Qur’anic Thought.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 2015. The Study Quran. New York: HarperCollins Publishers

Hope, Marjorie and James Young. 1994. “Islam and Ecology.” CrossCurrents 44:180-192.

Rahman, Fazlur. 2009. Major Themes of the Qur’an. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Abu-Sway, Mustafa. “Towards and Islamic Jurisprudence of the Environment.” Lecture.

Quadir, Tarik M. 2016. “Islam and Environmentalism Today.” Khaleafa, March 7. http://www.khaleafa.com/khaleafacom/islam-and-environmentalism-today

Rizvi, Syed. 2014. “Islam offers important lessons for environmental movement.” The Daily Texan, June 12.

Bagader, A., El-Sabbagh, A., Al-Glayand, M., and M. Samarrai. 2006. Middle East and Arabic Countries: Environmental Law Handbook. Washington, D.C.: International Business Publications, USA.

Haq, S. Nomanul. 2001. “Islam and Ecology: Toward Retrieval and Reconstruction.” Daedalus 130:141-177.

Jamil, Mohammad Assayed. 1999. “A Study on Environmental Issues with Reference to the Qur’an and the Sunna.” Rabat, Kingdom of Morocco: Imprimerie Al-Maarif Al-Jadida.

[1] Abdul-Matin, 2

[2] Muhammad, Shah-Kazemi, Ahmed, 10

[3] Q.16:68

[4] Q.30:41

[5] Abdul-Matin, 5

[6] Q.56:69-70

[7] Abdul-Matin, 120-121

[8] Q.54:28

[9] Hope, Young, 184

[10] Hope, Young, 183

[11] Q.6:38-39

[12] Q.6:141

[13] Q.6:165

[14] Q.40:57

[15] Haq, 157

[16] Q.2:211

[17] Q.28:77

[18] Q.23:115

[19] Rahman, 79

[20] Muhammad, Shah-Kazemi, Ahmed, 25