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Ecological Balance in Islam

Cover Story

, by DR. BADRUL ISLAM

Islam gives a holistic approach to environmental problem. The interaction of man with physical, biological and social environment is guided in Islamic teachings. There is adequate guidance in Islamic teachings regarding man’s use of environment.
The importance of Environment and as a matter of Nature is emphasised in the Qur’an and traditions of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him). There are many verses in the Qur’an describing nature and natural phenomena – much more than the commandments and sacraments. Thus the study of nature becomes obligatory for believers.
Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) also deal extensively with various aspects of environment, related to nature hygiene, resources conservation, land reclamation, etc. Because of this Environmental Hygiene was given special importance during the peak of Islamic civilization.
One of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) is as under:
‘There is no Muslim who planteth a tree, or soweth a field, and man, birds or beasts eat from them, but it is charity for him. Whoever bringeth the dead land to life, that is, cultivateth wasteland, for him is reward therein.
There are clear instructions in Prophetic traditions to prevent the destruction of trees. Even during war times the cutting of trees is prohibited as long as their existence remains advantageous to the enemy. This is why the Muslim troops were given clear instructions not to destroy the towns and crops.
Life, as a biological entity, is a part of eco system. Hence in the Qur’an animal life stands on the same footing as human life in the sight of God. Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) said:
‘Verily are there rewards for our doing good to quadrupeds, and giving them water to drink?’ ‘There are rewards for benefiting every animal having a moist liver.’ (i.e. every one alive)
Attention towards preservation of wild life is seen in the teaching: ‘Islam teaches the hunter that he should not hunt merely for sport.’
Ehsanullah Khan notes that Imam Abu Yusuf remarked that those who do not understand the environment cannot judge properly the form of implementation of Islamic laws.
Islam does not enjoin its followers to sing the glory of nature but they are taught to join all other creations in the glory of God, to realise that each inhabitant in the biosphere has its own community, and that all are in fellowship with one another. Muslims are taught to eat the fruits of trees without breaking their branches, to avoid polluting stagnant water with impure things, and are encouraged to grow plant even if the Day of Judgment is just to come. The Qur’an stresses the importance of water cycle, the atmosphere vegetation, oceans, and mountains, in the life and well being of humanity. As a result a Muslim is enjoined to adopt an appreciative approach towards nature.
The Islamic view about natural order and environment finds its roots in the Qur’an . The Qur’an addresses not only men and women but also the whole of the cosmos. That is to say that nature participates in the Qur’anic Revelation. Some of the Qur’anic verses address natural forms as well as human beings, while God takes non-human members of His creation such as plants and animals, the sun and the stars to witness in certain other verses. The Qur’an does not draw a line of demarcation between the natural and the supernatural or between the world of man and that of nature. The Qur’anic spirit does not regard the world of nature as its natural enemy to be conquered and subdued but it regards it as an integral part of man’s religious universe sharing in his earthly life and in a sense even ultimate destiny.
Muslims were fully aware of the fact that the Qur’an refers to the phenomena of nature and events within the soul of man as ayah (signs and symbols), a term that is also used for the verses of the Qur’an. They read the cosmic book, its chapters and verses and see the phenomena of nature as “signs” of the Author of the book of nature. They treat the form of nature as the signs of God (Ayatollah). The Qur’an depicts nature as being ultimately a theophany, which both veils and reveals God. According to Syed Hussein Nasr:
The forms of nature are so many Mosques, which hide various Divine Qualities while also revealing these same qualities for those whose inner eye has not become blind by concupiscent ego and the centripetal tendencies of the passionate soul.
As a result of this view of nature described in the Qur’an and traditions of Prophet (may Allah bless and greet him), Muslims always harboured love for nature. The Islamic teachings concerning environment cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration the nature of men in Islam. According to Islam each man is the custodian of nature, and must live with harmony with other creatures. Man is God’s vicegerent on earth, His servant and is expected to obey God’s commandment. God is the sustainer of the world. Man as His vicegerent must nurture and care for the environment where he plays an important role. He cannot neglect the care of natural world without betraying the ‘trusts’ (al-amanah), which he expected from God.
The Qur’an  says:             
Seest thou not that God has made subject to you (men) all that is on the earth and the ships that sail through the sea by His command?--- (Qur’an  22:65)
Here the world ‘subjected’ nature to man does not mean the ordinary conquest of nature as claimed by so many modern Muslims, thirsty for the power which modern science bestows upon man. Rather it means the dominion over the things which man is allowed to exercise only on the condition that it be according to God’s laws, because he is God’s vicegerent on earth, and the power given to him ultimately belongs to God. Nothing will be more dangerous for the natural environment than the practice of power of vice-gerency without accepting man to be God’s servant, and obedient to His laws and commands. Man has no rights of his own, independent of God, whether these rights be over nature or over him because he is not the creator. Man possesses only those rights which have been given to him by God; consequently he has to fulfil his responsibilities as God’s vicegerent on earth.
As has been noted by Syed Hussein Nasr, Islamic tradition is rich in preserving to this day the knowledge combined with love of natural environment, metaphysics of nature, which includes in it the symbols of the world of Divine Majesty. It also possesses ethics, rooted in the Revelation and bound to the Divine laws, which concerns the responsibilities and duties of man towards the non-human realms of the created order.
 
TRUSTEESHIP OF MAN
The concept of trusteeship (amanah) given in the Qur’an is an important concept in dealing with the environmental obligations of man. We read in the Qur’an as:
We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains: but they refused to undertake it being afraid thereof: but man undertook it; he was indeed unjust and foolish. (The Qur’an  33:72)
Here trust is something given to a person over which he has power of disposition; he is expected to use it as it is expected, but man has freewill also and can use it otherwise too.
Man, being vicegerent and having accepted trust from God and with the freewill, becomes responsible for his every act before the Creator who made him vicegerent and given the trust, and accordingly he will be tried. God destroyed those nations, who corrupted these powers. The Qur’an is a witness to it.(The Qur’an  Hud Chapter 11).
 
PROPORTION AND BALANCE IN THE UNIVERSE
Since man is not the owner of this world. But the heavens and all that is on earth belong to God. (The Qur’an  20:6)
God created all the things including man to obey and glorify him  (The Qur’an  17:44; 22:18; 16:49-50)
These verses show the perfect resonance and harmony with natural laws willed by the Sustainer.
Further we see that God has created things with a definite purpose, which every single element has to fulfil. Hence it is essential that they must be maintained and preserved, it has an ecological function. God has created the world and the universes perfectly, its life supporting systems are in proportion, measure and balance.
Verily all things have We created in proportion and measure. (The Qur’an  54:49; 67:3-4; 55:7)
This proportion and balance of the natural world mentioned in the Qur’an  reveals the interdependence and connections between all things. It also expresses the qualitative and quantitative relationship of the part to the whole. Thus all natural elements have a valid relation to each other and to the total global system apart from their value to man. This demands from man to honour this balance and harmony of nature because it is in its own interest. Abd-al-Hamid quotes ‘Izzad-Din ibn ‘Abd as-Salam, as saying: “Know that God created His creatures and made them dependent upon each other, so that each group would support the welfare of the others.”
Another dimension of creation, in relation to man is that they are created for the service of man.
Do ye not see that God has subjected to your (use) all things in the heavens and on earth and has made His bounties flow to you in exceeding measure (both) seen and unseen? Yet there are among men those who dispute about God without knowledge and without guidance and without a Book to enlighten them! (The Qur’an  31:20)
This is a blessing from God so that man becomes grateful to Him. The Qur’an also mentions at various places the blessings of God in the form of flora and fauna given to man.
Man has the power to use these resources for the purpose beyond his immediate needs, for the nurturing of society and collective endeavour.         
The Qur’an reminds man about the benefits he gains from various animals. (The Qur’an 36:71; 40:79). Man’s right to use domestic animals carries with it certain obligations towards them. It is a distinctive characteristic of Islamic law that all animals have legal rights.
Abd-al-Hamid comments:
All the components of the earth and the universe – light, air, water, the soil, the rocks and minerals beneath it, plants and animals, communities and eco system – as well as the creation as a whole, have several hierarchical functions or values which are summarised as:
An inherent value as things-in-themselves, because they are created by God, they obey their Lord and sing His glory.
An ecological value, as integral part of the whole.
A utilisation value to man, both as spiritual sustenance and             material resource.
Right of just distribution of Natural resources among human beings and the right of future Generation:
The main cause of Environmental tragedy on earth today is the elevation of the resource value of the creation to the detriment of the ecological and spiritual values. There is no Qur’anic sanction of use by one group of people, so that one power may usurp the resources of the earth for its own sole use, as is seen today. Not only human beings but also all other creatures on earth have an equal right to benefit from natural resources. Similarly all the future generations will also enjoy equal right in God’s bounty.
This shows that the right attitude towards earth and all its resources is to use them in accordance with our material and spiritual needs, the needs of other human beings now in the future and the needs of all other creations on earth so that we do not jeopardise the planet itself. Man as vicegerent of God can solve this problem by balancing these needs throughout the earth for the benefit of all, through establishing a just and wise principle of use of natural resources. There are Islamic principles of conservation of natural environment also.
 
Greedy and selfish exploitation of natural resources:
The Qur’an explains at numerous places about the tyranny and corruption on earth spread by well, powerful and wealthy nations of past and their destruction by themselves. For example, Pharaoh, the people of ‘Ad and Thamud and Madyan, Gog and Magog. They were described as Mufsidin fi’l-Ard. Here the word fasada means “badness, corruptness, impropriety, dishonesty; a state of being devoid of virtue or efficacy; a state of disorder or disturbance or of destruction, waste or ruin”.
Fasad on earth was explained by S.Waqar Ahmed Husaini as:
One of the comprehensive concepts that prohibit everything un-Islamic is discussed in the Qur’an in nearly 50 verses (2:11; 30:39; etc). It can be applied to major moral infractions and crimes as well as bad or harm full ideas, policies and activities related to science, technology, sociology, economics, politics, etc. The Qur’an ’s main focus is to hold man responsible for the harmful consequences he causes. This creates in Muslims a very strong consciousness against bad, wrong and careless science and technology too.
The following verse of the Qur’an is a clear indication of it:
Mischief has appeared on land and sea because of what the hands of men have earned that (God) may give them a taste of some of their deeds: in order that they may turn back (from Evil). (The Qur’an  30:41)
God’s creations are pure and good in themselves. All the mischief or corruption was introduced by evil that is arrogance and selfishness. The consequence of the evil must be evil when God says that “The hands of Men have earned”. It means that it is a warning for the future and invitation for repentance.
In the next verse the Qur’an  warns about the ‘end’ of the nations of past as:
Say: "Travel through the earth and see what was the End of those before (you): most of them worshipped others besides God.” (The Qur’an  30:42)   
If we contemplate history and past experience we find that evil and corruption tended to destroy these people because they had idols for worship, false standard of conduct and false goals of desire. The Qur’an itself gives the clue about what it means by fasad in the verse:
When he turns his back his aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth and destroy crops and cattle. But God loveth not mischief. (The Qur’an  2:205)
Here it becomes clear that fasad is connected to the destruction of tilt and fertility.
This shows that man himself is responsible for the deterioration of the natural resources and has to pay for it. This happens due to man’s greedy nature and wasteful nature, which the Qur’an describes as Israf .The Qur’an guides man to moderation, balance and preservation. Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) also advocated practising moderation: “Practise moderation and if you can’t practise it perfectly then strive towards it as far as possible.” This shows that all our actions should be imbued with the spirit of moderation may it be our eating, spending, consuming or production which includes our use of the natural resources and its impact on environment.
There can be wasteful use of abundant resources such as the air, soil, the oceans (water) and vast forests. This is against the Islamic teachings. Now one can imagine the exploitation of scarce minerals and biological resources, which is of course strictly forbidden.
We can summarise the Islamic outlook about the consumption of natural resources as:
Man’s right to natural resources are for sustainable use only, based on   moderation, balance and conservation.
Future generations also have the same right on these resources as the present generation.
It is the right of natural resources that man should keep them safe from misuse, degradation and playing mischief with them.
 
CONSERVATION OF NATURAL RESOURCES
From the above discussion we see that God has created various things to serve each other. The divinely appointed measurement and distribution of all elements and creatures performs its ordained role, and all of them are valuable in making a dynamic balance by which the creation is maintained. Our exploitation, misuse, destruction and pollution of natural resources are all transgression against the divine scheme. Due to narrow-sighted, self-interest men always tempt to disturb this dynamic equilibrium set by God. The protection of all natural resources becomes a mandatory duty of men.
Water: God has made water the basis and origin of life. Plants, animals and man all depend on water for their existence and for continuation for their lives. There are numerous verses in the Qur’an dealing with various aspects and importance of water. (The Qur’an  15:19; 24:41; 20:53; 44:38-39; 6:95; 41:10; 11:61).
Besides these vital functions water has social religious functions also. It is required for purification of the body and clothes without which no prayer can be thought of.
The conservation and preservation of this vital element is inevitable for the continuation of life in various forms may it be plant, animal or human. Abubakar Ahmad draws attention towards the principles of Islamic law that:
‘Whatever is indispensable to fulfil the imperative obligation of prescribing life is itself obligatory. Any action that obstructs or impairs the biological and social functions of this element, whether by destroying it or by polluting it with any substance that would make it an unsuitable environment for leaving things or otherwise impair its function as the basis of life; any such action necessarily leads to the impairment or ruin of life itself. And the juristic principle is “what lead to the prohibited is itself prohibited”.
Based on the Qur’anic injections, traditions of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him), Muslim jurists have drawn detailed principles of allocation of water rights in arid lands giving rise to outstanding example of sustainable use of a scarce resource.
Air: All the creations utterly depend on air for their respiration without which they can’t live for a few minutes. Besides this, air has to perform other important functions also such as pollination, transferring, rain clouds, etc. The Qur’an mentions various such functions as the bounty of God. (The Qur’an  15:22; 2:164; 7:57)
Since the air performs the most important biological and social functions, its conservation becomes an essential aspect of conservation of life itself, which is one of the fundamental objectives of Islamic law. As described above the conservation of air becomes obligatory and at the same times the activities, which pollute it, become forbidden.
Soil:Soil also performs essential functions for the perpetuation of life. As the Qur’an says it is made to establish living creations. (The Qur’an  55:10). According to the Qur’an, man himself was created from dust. (The Qur’an  30:20). Various minerals present in the earth are essential to support the life system of man, plants and other creatures. Many creatures including man draw their food from the earth.(The Qur’an 15:19-20) Besides this, the earth has mountains, rivers, and oceans, etc., which are all engaged in the service of living beings. (The Qur’an  77:25-27). The Qur’an reminds us of various types of fruits; springs, etc., which God creates for man to enjoy. (The Qur’an 36:33-35).
Abubakar Ahmad opines that if we truly want to thank God we are supposed to maintain the productivity of the soil and keep it safe from erosion. For fulfilling our basic necessities such as houses, agriculture, forestry and mining, we must follow such practices, which are not harmful, presently and in the coming future also. To destroy or degrade such an important element is categorically forbidden.
Plants and animals:One cannot deny the important role played by plants and animals in human life, without which we can’t think of man’s survival. The plant performs a unique function of producing food with the help of photosynthesis. The Qur’an  also invites us to ponder over it as:
Then let man look at his Food (and how We provide it): For that We pour forth water in abundance and We split the earth in fragments and produce therein Corn and Grapes and nutritious Plants. And Olives and Dates and enclosed Gardens dense with lofty trees and Fruits and Fodder for use and convenience to you and your cattle.(The Qur’an 80:24-32)
The second important function of plants is the purification of air. Again they protect the erosion of soil by wind and water. They are also helpful in water conservation. There are a number of plants having medicinal value. Man performs many other functions also with their help. Hence their preservation and cultivation becomes compulsory in the light of Islamic law.
As far as the animals are concerned, they provide sustenance to plants, for one another and for man. They directly contribute to enriching the soil and the seas. Apart from food for man they also provide leather, wool, medicine, perfumes, milk, etc., and act as means of conveyance too. They also satisfy aesthetic function. Many other functions are also described in the Qur’an 22:18; 17:44.
Islam gives clear instructions for the welfare of animals also. As a general rule showing mercy to those on earth brings mercy to man.
Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) instructed mankind to provide for the needs of animals under their care, and he wanted that if a person causes an animal to die of starvation or thirst he will be punished by God in the fire of hell. He also said “there is a reward in doing good to every living thing”.
There are many more such instructions of Prophet Muhammad, which can be seen in the books of Hadith. It is worth noting that Islam gives legal right and protection to animals. This can be seen in the book of ‘Izzad-din ibn ‘Abd as-Salam, in Qawa’idal-Ahkam fi Masalih al-Anam (rules for welfare of livestock).
In the words of Abubakar Ahmad the Islamic principle for the conservation of natural resources can be summarised as follows:
Islamic law aims explicitly at the universal common good of all created beings confirming to the scheme of God.
Conservation of natural environment is moral and ethical imperative.
Discharging the function of vicegerency on the part of man can do this.
Ethical teachings in Islam are backed by effective legislation and effective enforcement mechanism.
Development should be ecologically sustainable.
Man should be made accountable for the use of the common assets of the society. Means should be adopted continuously for improvement in scientific and technological endeavours to conserve nature. Every development plan must take cognisance of its ecological impacts.
At no cost natural environment and its resources should be subjected to irreparable damage for the purpose of military and hostile actions.
Noise pollution:Nowadays noise pollution has become one of the major concerns of present day society. Islam strongly discourages loud sound. And treat it as the braying of the ass. (The Qur’an  31:19). The golden mean is to adopt the practice of ‘moderation’, which means here that one should not be too loud nor should he be timid. In yet another verse the Qur’an  prohibits the believers from raising their voices above the voice of Prophet Muhammad. (Qur’an  49:2) As a practice of offering prayers five times a day we see that the prayers which are offered in day time, are silent prayers and the prayers which are offered before dawn and after sunset are offered in loud voice.
Thus we see that Islam has complete guidance about environmental issues. These teachings should be incorporated in educational curricula, to make the upcoming generation conscious about ecological balance.
[The writer is Head Master, Iqra Urdu Boys' High School, Aurangabad (MS)]


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