Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Ecology in Islam: Protection of the Web of Life a Duty for Muslims

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Ecology in Islam: Protection of the Web of Life a Duty for Muslims

Article excerpt

Given that Islam provides an ecological outlook that is practical as well as ethical, how is it that, in terms of deforestation, air and water pollution, soil erosion, wildlife extinction and even toxic waste management, Muslim nations are no better than the industrialized nations of the world? By importing inappropriate technology to solve indigenous problems, they uproot traditionally sound environmental practices and create ecological perils that threaten their survival. Many Muslim states could be described as having reached "endangered nation" status.

Among the varied and complex reasons for this, perhaps the most telling is that many of us are unaware of the environmental dictates of our religion. Few know that Qur'anic verses describing nature and natural phenomena outnumber verses dealing with commandments and sacraments. In fact, of more than 6,000 verses in the Holy Qur'an, some 750, one-eighth of the Book, exhort believers to reflect on nature, to study the relationship between living organisms and their environment, to make the best use of reason and to maintain the balance and proportion God has built into His creation. The earth's resources -- land, water, air, minerals, forests -- are available for our use, but these gifts come from God with certain ethical restraints imposed on them. We may use them to meet our needs, but only in a way that does not upset ecological balance and that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Thus, not knowing about stewardship and accountability, we reduce Qur'anic teachings to narrow definitions of crime and punishment. This is reflected in unenlightened environmental leadership found in some Muslim countries today.

For many Muslims, it will undoubtedly come as a revelation to know how emphatic the Qur'an is about protecting the environment. The Islamic approach to the environment is holistic. Everything in creation is linked to everything else; whatever affects one thing ultimately affects everything. Man has been distilled from the essence of nature and so is inextricably bound to it.

Because of its ability to reason and think, humanity has been made the trustee or steward of God on earth. Nature is created on the principle of balance, and as a steward of God it is the human's responsibility to ensure that his or her actions do not disrupt this balance. Stewardship does not imply superiority over other living beings: because ownership belongs to God alone, stewardship invests humans with a moral responsibility in safeguarding God's creation.

Stewardship requires that humans learn to live in harmony with rather than work against nature. That is why reflecting on nature and understanding its inner workings has been made the fundamental basis of knowledge in Islam. Man can detect God's "signs" in all the natural phenomena that surround him and should, therefore, observe them better to understand "God's way," which is the Qur'anic term for "laws of nature." Thus "in the succession of night and day," "in the water that comes down from the sky, giving life to the earth after it had been lifeless," "in the change of the winds," "in the mountains towering above the earth," "in the hives of the bees and the flight of the birds," "in the wonder of the seed," "in the springs that gush forth from within the earth" -- in these and similar Qur'anic verses, God reminds humankind that there are "messages for those who reason and think."

The Fundamental Role of Water

Several verses of the Qur'an deal with the hydrological cycle and the fundamental role water plays in sustaining life on earth. In referring to the fertility of the soil, to the unique properties of fresh and sea water, to the course of rivers and the presence underground of springs and aquifers, and most significantly to the aquatic origin of life, the Qur'an places water at the top of all the natural phenomena on earth. The miracle of water is emphasized in a particular verse where God, addressing those who may doubt the truth of resurrection, first gives the example of the growth of the fetus within the mother's womb, leading to the birth of a human being. …

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