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Reflections on Ecology

Cover Story

PROF. U. MUHAMMAD IQBAL turns the pages of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s traditions to show how Islam has made its followers ecologically responsible in order to keep the earth worth living.

Man is a social being. He has to live not only for himself but also for others. He owes a great deal to other living creatures. He has to pay attention to the environment because he has a name and a local habitation in it. Ecological responsibility is a very important area which he can ignore at his own risk. The survival of his species is deeply linked to the way he keeps the environment free from pollution.
Muslims today constitute a large part of the world which is under-developed, non-industrialised, non-western, populous, and poverty-stricken. There are nearly three hundred ethnic groups among them. Their sense of ecological responsibility is governed by the Qur’anic precepts and the way of the Prophet (May Allah bless and greet him).
The pre-Adam celestial scenario is conjured up in the Qur’an as follows. “Behold, the Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?” (2:30) The Arabic word yufsidu has been translated as ‘make mischief’. Its noun form fasad can be translated as disturbance, trouble, outbreak of rebellion, and dissension. The semantic flexibility of the Arabic word is such as to make it applicable to the angelic sense of premonition that man may disturb the ecological balance, endangering the survival of the human species.
The fear of the angels has been confirmed beyond a shadow of doubt. If nature is red in tooth and claw, man’s hands are smeared with human blood. Human history records a narrative of warfare interspersed with interregnums of halcyon days. The hazards of industrialisation and the indiscriminate use of electrical and electronic gadgets have assumed dangerous proportions. The Qur’an rightly says, “Mischief has appeared on land and sea because of what the hands of men have earned, that He may give them a taste of some of their deeds.” (30:41) Reference to land and sea does not exclude air and atmosphere in the present circumstances.
Commenting on verse 30:41, Maulana Shams Peerzada has this to say in his Dawatul Qur’an, among other things, “Chaotic conditions are rampant. Bloodshed, looting, riots, battles, all these have made the world a picture of hell. During a war, the high seas are not safe; huge ships and men-of-war are torpedoed. The theatre of armed conflict is not confined to land and sea. Surface-to-air missiles are fired. Planes are hijacked. The use of cluster bombs is unrestricted. It is as though man has made scientific progress only to transform the environment into a store-house of dangers. In this way there is no bunker of peace for man either on land or sea or in the air. Man is obliged to get a taste of his misdeeds.” (Footnote 73-translation) That is, man has sown the wind and is reaping the whirlwind.
All is not lost yet. There is no need to lose hope. The situation can still be retrieved. Awareness of the impending doom is but a first step towards the realisation that we should not allow the situation to go from bad to worse. Science has made us aware that industrialisation can lead us to the tragedies of Bhopal and Chernobyl, that pollution through rickety and old automobiles makes the atmosphere a gas chamber leading to respiratory diseases, that oil tankers accidentally spill oil on the high seas posing a threat to the sea-birds and marine life. The Green House Effect, the depletion of ozone layer, the melt-down of the Polar ice, the consequent rise in the sea-level endangering islands and coastal cities, the over-exploitation of the non-renewable natural resources, deforestation, the shrinking natural habitats of the wild animals, even the disappearance of the habitats frequented by the migratory birds, the extinction of several kinds of mammals, birds, and fishes – all these do not augur well.
The World Environment Day is celebrated and every year some aspect or other of the environment is brought into focus. Humanity as a whole has a stake in the preservation and purification of the eco-system. The year 1998 was declared as the year of the ocean.
The Qur’an says: It is He who has spread out the earth for his creatures. (55:10) We poured water, pouring it in great abundance, and cleaved the earth, cleaving it asunder; then caused the grain to grow out of it, together with grapes and vegetables, and olives and palms, and dense orchards, and fruits and pastures – all this as a provision for you and your cattle. (80:25-32) The animals, and birds, and other creatures have a right over the earth.
The Qur’an says about the structure of the cosmos: You will see no incongruity in the Merciful One’s creation. Turn your vision again, can you see any flaw? (67:3) The Qur’an wants people not to disturb the ecological balance and proportion and to be thankful to God and turn to Him. Did you cast a good look at the water that you drink? Is it you who brought it down from the clouds or is it We who brought it down? If We had so pleased, We could have made it bitter. So why wouldn’t you give thanks? (56:68-70) Otherwise pollution will come as a divine scourge and acid rain will be within the realm of possibilities. The famous rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, are so polluted with petrochemicals that the American soldiers, it is reported, are advised to use their water to bathe and not to drink. The ecological disaster facing mankind, it is hoped, will bring about a salutary change; “perhaps they will turn back (from evil).” (30:41)
The Prophet (May Allah bless and greet him) wanted to improve the green cover of the earth. He said that even when the Hour was nigh at hand, a sapling could be planted and there would be a reward for such an act. His caliphs used to instruct their armies not to cut down trees. This was their initial contribution towards afforestation. With regard to the conservation of resources: water was a precious commodity in the desert of Arabia and so the Prophet (May Allah bless and greet him) advised his followers in no uncertain terms that water should not be over-used even for a religious ritual like the ablutions. This mindset has to be extended to other resources. With regard to the cleanliness of the surroundings: he advised them not to micturate in the still water and holes. He said, “Those who relieve themselves in places that other people frequent are cursed.” He advised us to keep the outer areas of the houses, squares, streets, districts clean. Harmful things lying on the roads should be removed. In Islam it is an act of worship to remove dirt.
With regard to the preservation of animal life: Muslims, as a community, are noted for their non-vegetarian dietary habits sanctioned by Islam and are shunned on that account. They may feel embarrassed and may be obliged to feel guilty even if vegetarianism is proved to be a most effective device to reduce global warming. They are in fact very selective non-vegetarians unlike the Chinese. Carnivorous animals and birds of prey and blood and pork are banished from their dinner table. The population of wild beasts and vultures will not suffer as a result. Even the animals permitted as food have to be slaughtered in a particular manner so as to become halal. Kindness must be reflected in the sharp and swift way of slaughter. The Prophet said, “The one who kills a sparrow for no reason will be questioned about it on the Day of Judgment.” (Darimi) “The birds’ nests must not be destroyed and neither their young ones nor their eggs be harmed.” (Abu Dawood) When a mother bird began to hover over the heads of some Muslims who had taken away its little one, the Prophet (May Allah bless and greet him) took pity upon the mother bird and ordered his companions to restore the young one to its mother. All games and sports which give pain to birds and animals are forbidden in Islam. Birds and animals cannot be used as targets for shooting practice.
Instead, we are told by the Prophet that a prostitute’s sins were forgiven because once she quenched the thirst of a dog, whereas a woman of noble status went to hell for she allowed a cat to starve to death. Through such a parable the Prophet (May Allah bless and greet him) advised his followers to extend compassion to both human beings and animals. Recently an Indiana father was convicted for the uncivilized act of forcing his daughter to kill a cat with a knife. (Times of India, Chennai, p.14, September 1, 2008)
Soroor Ahmed writes, “Rampant industrialisation and unchecked growth of motor vehicles are held responsible for the menace of environmental pollution which ultimately leads to the global warming. It is no doubt causing immense devastation to the world, yet those who champion the cause of ‘development’ are not at all concerned about it.” (Radiance, p.20, 23-29 December, 2007) Signatories to the Montreal Protocol and the Kyoto Protocol care for both development and environment. They have taken herculean efforts to assign for themselves the maximum carbon dioxide emission levels. They have addressed the issues pertaining to forest management practices, sustainable forms of agriculture, renewable forms of energy, and transport sector. The manufacturing industries and the construction activities are on their agenda. They have identified carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydroflouro carbons, perflouro carbons, and sulphur hexaflouride as the culprits in the life-threatening and life-changing phenomenon of global warming and are carrying a sustained campaign to reduce their levels in the atmosphere.
The earth has traversed a long distance from the glacial epoch to the era of global warming. As Muslims, we look upon the earth from the metaphorical perspective of a mosque. As individuals we propose to keep the earth and its air, and water bodies clean, safe, and pure. We are interested, sincerely and deeply, in reducing noise pollution and hope that a two-minute use of the loud-speaker at five different times each day for the call to prayer, unaccompanied by instrumental music, will not be construed as intolerable nuisance. We celebrate our festivals in an environment-friendly manner. Cleanliness is an integral part of Islamic faith. Purity within and purity without is an ideal to which every Muslim is committed. He is expected to be a citizen who cares for others and who does not inconvenience anyone. The world around him is the handiwork of God and a saga of His glorification. The Prophet said, “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty.” Preserving the beauty of the earth will entitle man to divine love.


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