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November 4, 2009

Environmental Ethics in Islam

Dr. Mohammed Shokr

The Perfect NatureIslam is most commonly perceived in our society as a faith that calls for observance of highly demanding rules; all included in what is known as Sharia law. 

This, in fact, does not exemplify some of the core issues of the faith.  One of those issues is the preservation of the environment. 

This issue is reflected in the purpose of the creation of human beings as declared in the second chapter in the Qur’an as well as in more than three hundred verses dealing directly with nature, natural phenomena and the environment.

The Qur’an teaches that God created earth before He created man.  Then He created man for a purpose; namely to be His vicegerent on earth.  As such, humans will be accounted for their interaction with the earth’s environment.  The earth is given to us in trust; it is not our property, so we cannot waste its natural resources or dispose of its material as we wish.   

There are three environmentally-related concepts in Islam that should be considered when addressing the subject of environmental ethics: that the entire universe is a sign of God’s power, humans are an integrated part of the unified creation of God, and God’s creation is precisely balanced.

Starting with the first concept, Islam declares that the earth with its components and complex interactions along with the rest of universe with its wonders are signs to recognize and appreciate the existence of God; His Might, Power and Authority. 

Hence, humans are commanded to contemplate upon those signs in order to submit themselves to their Creator.  To destroy one of those signs; for example a living species, a forest, a water resource, or an atmospheric constituent is akin to denying the work of God.

Muslim scholars describe nature as the open Book of God. That is because the Author of the divine Scripture and nature is the same (i.e. God). 

So, as much as the followers of the faith should study the scripture in order to get to know God, he/she should also observe and even study the nature, the open Book of God, in order to appreciate His Signs and Power.

The second concept is about the unity of God’s creation, which implies the integration of humanity with nature. 

From the physical point of view we are integrated parts within the overall earth’s system.  From the spiritual point of view we all celebrate God along with everything else on earth.

The Qur’an declares that there is not a single thing on earth or the heavens but celebrates, glorifies and praises God.  Thunder, mountains, trees, birds, heavens and all components of the environment praise God, though we don’t understand how they do it.

This concept of our physical and spiritual unity with nature puts human beings at great responsibility to preserve the environment. 

For if we tend to destroy one of its components we will then be a non-integrated part of an integrated system.  This will be a cause for adversity and crises. 

Moreover, if we destroy something that glorifies God; we will be infringing on a major spiritual commitment.

So, in Islam, preserving the environment emerges from a sense of respect for the unity of God’s creation. 

The Sharia law calls explicitly for extending religious duties of the believer to the order of natural and the environment.

The third concept entails the balance of the creation. 

God has created everything according to a precise measure. All components of the earth and its atmosphere are in a state of balance. One of the most direct injunctions in Islam is to conserve this balance. 

We have been created with a potential to disturb this divine balance but we are commanded not to do so. And this is where the challenge for human beings resides today.

Modern science also confirms the balance of nature’s component. All natural processes aim at bringing each component into a balance. Volcanic eruptions, as destructive as they are, serve the purpose of balancing the huge pressure under the earth’s crust with the surface pressure. The heat transfer, river water flow, movement of molecules and composition of atmospheric gases are all quests for balance.

The recent discovery of upsetting the balance of the ozone (which represents only a tiny fraction of the stratosphere and troposphere) as a result of more emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) due modern human activities is a statement of how serious the consequences of our wrong actions are to be for life on earth.

The same applies to the balance of atmospheric greenhouse gases that allow enough solar energy to reach the earth and enough energy to leave it such that the earth’s temperature is maintained at the right level for human activities. 

As modern human activities have recently disturbed this divine balance the average temperature of the earth is rising and we may suffer the consequences of global warming soon.

In conclusion, Islam is not just a religion that offers its followers the spiritual guidance they seek or the rules that they should abide by, while ignoring the environment and the nature of the world.   

Islam’s call to preserve the environment and its balance is deeply embedded in its theology. We are all held accountable, by our commitment to God, to save our environment and review our desires from this perspective.

Dr. Mohammed Shokr is a scientist of cold region environment.

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