Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Islam

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As with most religious traditions, in the Islamic world the attempt to retrieve environmental values in response to the present ecological crisis is a recent phenomenon. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Muslim intellectuals remain preoccupied with other issues (such as Western hegemony, local and regional politics, gender issues, the role of religion in society), and accord environmental degradation a marginal status if they pay attention to it at all. Indeed, it might not be an exaggeration to state that environmental discourse is less developed within the contemporary Islamic tradition than among the followers of most other major religious traditions. Nevertheless, the few Islamic thinkers who have addressed environmental values specifically have found much in the tradition that could potentially lead Muslims to value nature and to adopt a more effective and responsible stewardship ethic than one typically sees throughout the Muslim world today.

Humans and Nature in the QurʾĀn

The Qurʾān presents natural phenomena as signs (ayat ) pointing to the existence of God (16:66, 41:53, 51:2021, 88:1720). The value of nature is therefore primarily symbolic. Scientific inquiry, which aims to understand the workings of the universe, thus constitutes for Muslims a sacred quest. Nature is perfectly proportioned and without any flaws (67:3), a reflection of the qualities of its Creator. It has a divinely ordained purpose (3:191, 21:16, 38:27) and is neither random nor meaningless. The "environment" is nothing less than God himself, since, according to the Qurʾān, "whithersoever you turn there is the presence of God" (2:115).

Within the hierarchy of creation, the Qurʾān accords humans a special status, that of God's Khalīfa (2:30, 6:165), which has been generally understood by Muslims to mean "vice-regent," thus one of stewardship or trust (amanat ). Jafar Sheikh Idris (1990) has criticized this as a later interpretation, however, arguing that the original meaning of Khalīfa was "successor"; according to this view, humans are not the "deputies of God" but simply the "successors to Adam."

Nevertheless, the Qurʾān states that "all that is in the earth" has been subjected (sakhkhara ) to humans (22:65) and that "It is He who has created for you all things that are on earth" (2:29). Yet ultimately, it is God "in whose hands is the dominion of all things" (36:83; cf. 2:107, 24:42). And though humans are said to have been created "in the best of forms" (fi asani taqwim ), the Qurʾān goes on to caution that "Assuredly the creation of the heavens and the earth is [a matter] greater than the creation of human beings: Yet most people understand not!" (40:57).

Humans are described in the Qurʾān as being more like other beings than unlike them. All creation is said to worship God (22:18), even if its praise is not expressed in human language (17:44, 24:4142). Nonhuman communities are said to be like human communities (6:38), and nonhuman animals are explicitly said to possess speech (27:16). Nonhuman animals are said to have received divine revelation, as when God instructs bees on how to make honeycombs and honey (16:68). The earth was created for the benefit of all living beings (anām ), not for humans alone (55:10). In fact, the only significant difference between humans and other beings is that humans alone possess volition (taqwa ), and are thus accountable for their actions.

Humans will accordingly be held accountable for any acts of wanton destruction committed against the earth (2:205, 7:85). Wastefulness and overconsumption are also prohibited (7:31), as is hoarding. Water, arguably the most vital natural resource, is to be kept as common property (54:28). Balance (mīizān ) is to be maintained in all things, including, presumably, natural systems (13:8, 15:21, 25:2); failure to do so, consequently, may be argued to be un-Islamic.

In adĪth

The Arabs to whom the Qurʾān was revealed in the early seventh century ce had a long familiarity with the ecological constraints posed by their native desert environment. Reports about the words and deeds of Muammad (adīth ) indicate that the Prophet of Islam possessed both an awareness of these constraints and a sensitivity to the duties of humans toward the rest of creation.

Muammad received the first of his revelations while meditating in a cave on a mountain outside of Mecca. Thus, as in the case of numerous other seminal religious figures, his insights came within the context of immersion in the natural world. Perhaps the most illuminating of the adīth in this regard is the one that states, "The earth has been created for me as a mosque [i.e., as a place of worship], and as a means of purification" (Sahīh Bukhārī 1:331).

A well-known adīth has Muammad prohibiting his followers from wasting water, even when it is found in abundance and when it is used for a holy purpose such as ritual ablutions (Musnad ii, 22). Muammad also decreed that no more than an ankle depth of water (that is, sufficient for one season) could be taken for irrigation. Essential resources are to be common, not private property: "Muslims share alike in three thingswater, pasture and fire" (Mishkāt al-maābī ).

Numerous adīth speak to Muammad's concern for the interests of nonhuman animals. In regard to the killing of domestic animals for food he called for swift and conscientious slaughter with a sharp knife (Sahīh Muslim 2:11, "Slaying," 10:739) and not to slaughter an animal within view of its kin. He forbade hunting for sport and frequently reprimanded his followers for abusing or neglecting their camels and donkeys. He urged his followers to plant trees and cultivate land to provide food not only for humans but for birds and other animals as well (Sahih Bukhari 3:513). In a adīth that is strikingly similar to a well-known rabbinical saying, Muammad is reported as saying, "When doomsday comes if someone has a palm shoot in his hand he should [still] plant it" (Sunān al-Baīhaqī al-Kubrā ).

In Islamic Law

The legal corpus known as the sharīʿah, codified by Islamic jurists during the eighth through the tenth centuries ce, was meant to address the breadth of human activity and thus includes aspects that could be said to deal with environmental protection and management of natural resources. Sunnī jurists based their prescriptions on interpretation of Qurʾanic injunctions, the example of Muammad as attested in the adīth, analogical reasoning, and their own consensus of opinion, as well as preexisting customary practices of the Arabs and the Persians in particular, and to some extent of other Muslim peoples. Other schools of Islam also developed their own approaches to defining the sharīʿah.

Common aspects of sharīʿah law with the most explicit environmental applications may be the institution of the protected zone (arim ), which prohibited the development of certain areas, mainly riverbanks, for purposes of protecting watersheds. A related institution is that of the preserve (ima ), which usually entailed the protection of trees and wildlife. Some traditional arim s and ima s still exist today, but they are much diminished from former times and continue to disappear. The legal texts go into some detail about the distribution of water resources and also devote sections to the "bringing to life" (iya ) of "dead" lands (mawāt ), including the conditions and rights pertaining to one who engages in such "development."

Islamic law also extends many legal protections to nonhuman animals, including the "right of thirst" (aqq al-shurb ), which states that they cannot be denied drinking water (Qurʾān 91:13). A thirteenth-century work by ʿIzz al-dīn Ibn ʿAbd al-salam, Qawaʾid al-ahkam fī masāli al-anām (Rules for Judgment in the Cases of Living Beings ), includes what some contemporary commentators have called "an animals' bill of rights." Among the provisions are that animals should be properly cared for, not overburdened, kept safe from harm, given clean shelter, and allowed to mate.

Although there is little in the classical legal corpus that could be explicitly categorized as environmental law, there exist within it several basic principles that could, if so interpreted, serve to mitigate some of the main causes of global environmental degradation today. In particular, one may cite the principles of minimizing damage, the primacy of collective over individual interests, and the giving of priority to the interests of the poor over those of the rich. While some contemporary Muslimsnotably Mawil Izzi Dien and Uthman Llewellynhave attempted to provide such interpretations, these have not yet found their way into the legal codes of any existing Muslim societies.

In Islamic Philosophy

From around the tenth century ce Muslim philosophers, familiar with Classical works, appear to have been the ones to coin the Arabic term tabiʿa to represent the Latin and Greek equivalents natura and physis. (The word tabiʿa does not appear in the Qurʾān.) The derivatives tabʿ and matbuʿ may, on the other hand, have been the source of the Latin pairing natura naturans (the creating) and natura naturata (the created) (Nasr, 1993, p. 9). In Islamic philosophy the distinction between the Creator and creation is represented by the terms haqq (literally, "Divine Truth") and khalq (that which is created). The laws of the universe exist not in and of themselves but rather as expressions of the divine will, understood in Aristotelian terms as the First Cause. There are no "secondary" causes; thus, what appear to be the laws of nature are merely the "habits" of created things, which God could alter if he chose. Miracles, accordingly, are seen simply as instances in which God chooses to cause things to happen in other than their familiar, habitual manner.

Yet the relationship of the infinite (the Creator) to the finite (creation) is neither entirely one of immanence (tasbī ) nor one of transcendence (tanzi ), since both extremes are incompatible with the ultimate oneness (tawīd) of God. Neither can creation be divine alongside the Creator, nor can there exist separate realities for each; either case would represent a kind of polytheism (shirk ) unacceptable in Islam.

The Muslim philosophers developed further the Hellenistic model of the cosmos, which they understood to be spherical in shape and bounded by the stellar field. The planets, the sun, and the moon occupy the middle layers, with the earth constituting the center. The heavenly world (al-ʿālam al-āʿla ), though made up of ether in contrast to the lower world (al-ʿālam al-asfāl), which is comprised of the four elements, shares with it the qualities of heat, cold, moistness, and dryness and acts upon it accordingly. The earth's geography was most often understood in terms of the pre-Islamic Iranian divisions of seven concentric climes (keshvar s), although the fourfold division of the Greeks and the ninefold version of the Indians were also known.

Muslim philosophers affirm the position of humans near the top within the hierarchy of created beings, below angels but above other animals, plants, and minerals. Humans are the mediators between the heavenly and earthly realms and a major channel for divine grace. The human body, furthermore, is perceived as a microcosm of the universe, with specific parts of the body being identified with parts of the zodiac and thus subject to their influences.

The Ikhwān al-afa, in their tenth-century treatises collectively known as the Rasāʾil, write that the study of nature offers proof of God: "Know that the perfect manufacturing of an object indicates the existence of a wise and perfect artisan even when he is veiled and inaccessible to sense perception. He who meditates upon botanical objects will of necessity know that the beings of this reign issue from a perfect artisan" (quoted in Nasr, 1993, p. 45). For the Ikhwān, who admired Pythagoras, emphasized numbers, regarding them as an important means of insight into the ordering of nature. In one section of their treatise the Ikhwān present a fictitious court case in which nonhuman animals complain of their treatment by humans. Goodman has drawn attention to the similarity of ecological vision evoked in this tenth-century tract with that of contemporary ecologists (Goodman, 1978, pp. 56). The Ikhawān were a marginal group, however, and their views should not be taken to represent the mainstream Islamic thought of the time.

In Sufism

Muslim mystics, known as ūfīs, have tended to interpret Qurʾanic references to the oneness of God (tawīd ) as indicating an underlying unity to all reality. The Andalusian mystic Muyī al-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī (11651240) described creation in terms of "unity of being" (wadat al-wujūd), an idea that won wide popularity among ūfīs especially in South Asia, where his work remains highly influential. Some Muslims have found this belief to verge dangerously close to pantheism, however; the seventeenth-century Indian ūfī teacher Shah Waliullah preferred the term "unity of witness" (wadat al-shuhud) as more clearly maintaining the distinction between Creator and creation.

The ūfī notion of the "Complete Man" (insan al-kamil ), also elaborated by Ibn al-ʿArabī, expands the conception of the human being as microcosm of the universe. For ūfīs, cultivation of the individual is analogous to cultivation of the cosmos as a whole; thus, one's personal spiritual development can affect the entire world.

To ūfīs such as Jalāluddīn Rūmī (12071273), not just animals and plants but the entire universe of creation is alive. "Earth and water and fire are His slaves," he writes in the Masnavī-yi maʿnavī ; "With you and me they are dead, but with God they are alive" (1.838). Nature also speaks, though only the mystics realize this: "The speech of water, the speech of the earth, and the speech of mud are apprehended by the sense of them that have hearts" (1.3279). The conversations of nature are indicative of affective relationships: "You yourself know what words the sun, in the sign of Aries, speaks to the plants and the date palms/You yourself, too, know what the limpid water is saying to the sweet herbs and the sapling" (6.10681069). Moreover, the ūfīs often employ the symbolism of love (ʿishq ) to describe the relationship of mutual attraction between the Creator and his creation. Yunus Emre, a thirteenth-century Turkish poet, composed the famous line, "We love all creation for the sake of its Creator."

Many ūfī tales, such as those found in the works of Rūmī, Attar, and others, include animal characters, though these are almost always stand-ins for human characteristics associated with particular species. Nonhuman animals are seen as occupying a level below humans, and the "animal soul" of the philosophers is equated by the ūfīs with the "lower self" (nafs ), or one's own baser instincts, which along the path of spiritual development one strives to overcome.

Contemporary Muslim Discourse on the Environment

The terms used by contemporary Muslims to denote "the environment"for example, al-biʿat in Arabic, mohit-e zist in Persian, and çevre in Turkishare all of recent derivation. In Muslim societies around the world discussions on environmental ethics and the protection of natural resources remain marginal and the level of discourse in most cases very low. When Muslim intellectuals address these topics at allwhich is not oftentheir responses tend to be backward looking and self-exonerating: premodern Muslim societies are argued to have been perfectly ecological or nearly so, and current environmental problems to be the fault of hegemonic Western ideologies and lifestyles.

Given that among the world's billion-plus Muslims a disproportionately high number live in poverty, and that the poor suffer more immediately and dramatically from the effects of environmental degradation than do the rich, the lack of serious critical attention to environmental issues by Muslim intellectuals is striking. For all the attention given in current Islamic discourse to issues of social justice, the environment figures very little or not at all.

The number of Islamic voices calling attention to environmental issues is growing, though such voices remain so far outside of the mainstream of Islamic thought. It is perhaps significant that among the very few Muslim intellectuals to write on environmental values in Islamic terms, almost all have written their works in English. The first was Seyyed Hossein Nasr beginning in the 1960s. Since that time attempts to describe an Islamic environmental ethic have been undertaken by Mawil Izzi Dien, Bashir Ahmad al-Masri, Fazlun Khalid, and others.

For the most part the criticisms of several Muslim intellectuals have been directed at modernity as imposed on Muslim societies by the West, in particular such practices as interest taking (riba, which is forbidden in Islam) and the global economic system that is founded upon it, as well as the erosion of traditional Muslim social networks and the encouragement of materialistic lifestyles. Overconsumption by the West is held to be the major cause of global environmental degradation, while overpopulation in the developing world is not, a view believed justified by the Qurʾānic verse, "There is not a creature that walks on the earth but that Allāh provides for its needs" (11:6). One example of a trend against continuing fervent pro-natalism characteristic of traditional Muslim societies can be detected in the official policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which since the late 1980s have called for a reduction in birthrates.

The ecological remedies proposed by contemporary Islamic environmentalists generally involve some kind of "revival" of premodern models that are often highly idealized visions of traditional Islamic society. There has been little serious attempt to gauge critically the extent to which the life ways of premodern Muslim societies were in fact "more ecological" than present-day ones, or to which they resembled the guidelines provided in classical Islamic law, although there is much evidence that in areas such as land and water protection, hunting for sport, and so on, abuses were rampant, as indeed one may find in any human society.

In summary, it may be concluded that the discussion on Islam and ecology is in its very early stages but that it is likely to gain in relevance and sophistication as growing numbers of Muslims come to engage it as a vital contemporary issue.


Ba Kader, Abu Bakr Ahmed, Abdel Latif Tawfik al-Shirazi al-Sabagh, Mohamed al-Sayed al-Glenid, and Mawil Y. Izzi Dien. Islamic Principles for the Conservation of the Environment. Gland, Switzerland, 1983. The first formal attempt by Islamic scholars to formulate an Islamic statement on environmental protection.

Foltz, Richard C., Frederick M. Denny, and Azizan Baharuddin, eds. Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust. Cambridge, Mass., 2003. The most expansive collection of essays to date, most of them by scholars writing from within the tradition.

Goodman, Lenn Evan, trans. The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn: A Tenth-Century Ecological Fable of the Pure Brethren of Basra. Boston, 1978. An excellent translation of a fascinating, but highly unrepresentative medieval tract.

Idris, Jafar Sheikh. "Is Man the Viceregent of God?" Journal of Islamic Studies 1, no. 1 (1990): 99110. A revisionist essay which seeks to correct long-held misperceptions about a key Islamic term.

Izzi Dien, Mawil Y. The Environmental Dimensions of Islam. Cambridge, U.K., 2000. The first book-length single-authored treatise on Islam and the environment by a practitioner. Limited to the Sunnī legalistic perspective.

Khalid, Fazlun, and Joanne O'Brien, eds. Islam and Ecology. London, 1992.

al-Masri, Hafez B. A. Animals in Islam. Petersfield, U.K., 1989. A short, early collection of essays.

Nanji, Azimed. Building for Tomorrow. London, 1994.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (1964). Rev. ed. Albany, N.Y., 1993. A discussion of the cosmological thought of three early Islamic philosophers.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man. London, 1967. One of the first books to address the spiritual dimension of the environmental crisis, written by a Westernized Muslim scholar for a Western audience.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Science and Civilization in Islam. Cambridge, Mass., 1968. Argues that the scientific tradition in Islam, unlike in the West, never lost its sacred dimension.

Richard C. Foltz (2005)

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Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Islam