Environmentalism: Is a greener Islam possible?

Mosque in Chellah, Morocco (Photo: Alexandre Baron)

“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.” (Quran 33:72)

Green is the color which is most often associated with Islam and coincidently green is also the color which is associated with the environmentalist movement. While the modern Environmentalist movement goes back to the efforts of Rachel Carlson, one can argue that the care of environment has been integral to most of the religious traditions of the world. In recent years environment friendly groups have emerged in all the major religions of the world, perhaps the strongest statement on the issue has come from the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, nicknamed the Green Patriarch, who stated harming the environment could be considered a sin. Many Evangelical Christians have also shown keen interest on the issue of Environmentalism which call Creation Care. In rural Thailand, Buddhist monks have ordained trees as part of their monastic order with the consequence that villagers refrain from cutting down such trees. Islam is no exception to the surge in religious interest in the environmentalist movement. Recently Environmentalism has come to the fore again mainly through the media spotlight generated by Al Gore and thus this is a good opportunity to see how the issue affects Muslims as individuals and as a whole.

According to the Islamic world view, while humans are God’s vicegerents on Earth, they do not have absolute autonomy but rather they have been entrusted the Guardianship of the Earth. The Islamic tradition is rich with references to issues like the protection of the environment and even animal rights. In well known hadiaths, prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is known to encourage planting trees, admonish cutting down trees even in the times of war and being kind to animals. Even the concept of halal and haram in food item recognizes certain permissible practices in raising, treating and sacrificing animals.

In its drive to catch up with the industrialized world, the developing world is currently going through a process of rapid industrialization which will have adverse consequence for the environment. Since majority of the Muslim countries are part of the developing world the process of environmental devastation is rapidly progressing in these countries. The idea that we must first catch up with the developed world and then address these issues also contributes towards indifference towards environmental issues without the realization that by the time we ‘catch up’ it may be too late not just for us but for everyone else. Like most major cities of the world, slums and air pollution have become a common feature of cities in majority Muslim countries. This is despite the fact that according to the well known hadiath of the prophet (peace be upon him) cleanliness is supposed to be half of faith.

A lot of material has been written on the Islamic perspective on the environment. However as with many other aspects of contemporary Muslim life, there is a disconnect between theory and practice. Thus one can ask that if care for the environment is such an important part of the Islamic tradition then why has this subject not been on the top of the Muslim agenda? The main reason could just be economic, in most poor countries as in the rest of the world economics take precedence over everything else and thus the short term gain trumps the long term adverse effects of environmental degradation. Consider the example of Dubai which has been lauded as a model for development in the Muslim world. However it may not be a sustainable model for development as it is fostering a culture of consumerism run amok. In the drive to consume more and more, people do not realize that large amounts of pollutants are actually come from consumer waste. Again moderation in consumption, one of the most important virtues in Islam, is the need of the hour. Abundance of a resource does not justify its wastage, as prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) advised Muslims not to waste water even if they were near a river.

Many Muslim countries have a strong incentive to be concerned by environmental issues. The Maldives is in the danger of being the first country to be swallowed by the rising seawater by the effects of global warming, Bangladesh also runs the risk of permanent flooding of large parts of fertile delta, deforestation in Pakistan and Indonesia, the Sahara desert is encroaching on civilization in many African countries. All is not lost as there have some success in the Islamic world on the Environmental front. In Zanzibar, Islamic teaching are actively being used to encourage people towards conservation, Niger is another example where land has been reclaimed from the Sahara desert by planting trees, Oman has been successful in reintroducing the native Oynx to its wilderness and Islamic organizations with an environmental agenda have also sprung up in recent years, in Iran alone there are almost 150 environmentalist organizations.

The most articulate and reasoned voice in contemporary Muslim discourse on the environment is that of Syed Hossein Nasr. According to Nasr the environmental crisis is not an isolated phenomenon but is rather part of the spiritual crisis of our age. Consequently one cannot address one type of crisis without addressing the other. Given that in most Muslim countries environmental awareness amongst the elites as well the masses is missing so what can an average Muslim do in the face of growing environmental crisis? Here the dictum, “Think globally, act locally” may apply. A good start would be to spread awareness of environmental issues amongst other Muslims and relate it to how this issue is fundamental to an Islamic understanding of man’s place in the universe. Additionally one can combine religious injunctions with pragmatic concerns by stressing that without addressing environmental problems economic growth cannot be sustained.

A substantial grassroots environmental movement amongst Muslims has yet to arise. It could be because environmentalists in the Muslim world have not really tapped into their own tradition to further their arguments. It is also important to work closely with people of other faiths and ideologies on this issue since this is something that effects all people on this planet. This also ensures that Muslims organizations do not have to reinvent the wheel every time but rather they can use and augment the expertise and know-how of their counterparts. No contribution or act in this issue should be taken to be insignificant because in this endevour there is no such thing as an insignificant good deed, as prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “If the Hour (Judgment Day) is about to be established and one of you is holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it.”

M. Aurangzeb Ahmad is a doctorate student. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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