Colombo Telegraph

Religion, Environment & Islamic Worldview

By Mass L. Usuf

Mass Usuf

The Faculty of Humanities, University of Kelaniya, had organized an International Conference on the Humanities (ICH) which was held on the 06th and 07th October at the Faculty of Humanities. This time, the theme of the conference was, “New Direction in the Humanities: Our Engagement with the Environment.” The focus was on Environmental Humanities which according to ICH is an interdisciplinary area of international research and teaching that encompasses multiple shades of learning.

Below is the full text of an abstract that was presented by me for a panel discussion on the topic “Religion and Environment”, at the Conference.

“Remember in 1975, Chairman Scorer of DuPont which made 1/4 of the world’s Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), commented that the ozone depletion theory was “a science fiction tale…a load of rubbish…utter nonsense.” (Chemical Week, 16 July 1975). It was a scary statement. Had it been true, we would not be sitting here! Four decades later our presence today is testimony that the ozone layer is indeed depleting.

What is wrong with the Environment? The simple answer is global warming, loss of bio diversity, climate change, water scarcity, depletion of ozone layer, acid rain, toxic materials, destruction of forests, air pollution.

The Background

The Industrial Revolution of the 1700s changed the way man behaved. The anthropogenic contribution since then have produced a 40% increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency carbon dioxide alone comprise 81% of all the greenhouse gases. The discovery and burning of coal and later other fossil fuels triggered the emission of greenhouse gases and the onset of environmental degradation.

The Age of Enlightenment in Europe stimulated by new scientific thinking and libertarianism resulted in the separation of the State and Religion. The Christian Religion and religious orthodoxy was challenged by a new form of awareness expressed by the Latin term ‘Sapere aude’, ‘Dare to know’. Religion was put in the dock and its sacred dominance humbled, the unbridled greed continued to enthuse people. The environment was in the threshold of being gradually threatened. Nothing was there to come to its rescue except for some occasional piece of legislation either to reduce or control the impact.

In the East, however, the influence of these phenomena did not have an immediate impact on religion. Therefore, the institutions of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism were relatively safe and unaffected.

Irreligious Man

Close on the heels of the transformation from manual to machines was the capitalist economic system. Large scale production capabilities reduced the cost of production causing the availability of cheap goods. The improvement of living conditions, the emergence of consumerism, the demand for more goods, the urge to produce more and the desire for more profit all got sucked into a vortex of greed.

What started then, when the world population was circa 700 million is continuing even today causing the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming and so many other environmental hazards. The world population today is a whopping 7.1 billion and counting. Statistically increasing by about 144 people every minute.

Although nature and religion are two co-existing realities man’s uninhibited vigour flowing from his new discoveries distanced him from religion. The consequence of which was that he kept himself away from nature. Religion upheld as sacrosanct was substituted by material progress and success. Materialism is neither transcendental nor does it have sacredness in it.

The exponential increase in the threat to human existence is now clearly acknowledged. In this background, the dynamic search for solutions through this Conference by engaging diverse disciplines has to be embraced warmly. Woven into this search is a revisit to an institution which hitherto was relegated to the oblivion of sleep and, that is, Religion. This explains the presence of dignitaries of the various religions who will be presenting their views on the Environment as seen through the lenses of their respective religions.

Islamic worldview

To better understand the Islamic worldview on environment, it is necessary to preface it with the basic theological foundation of Islam. Islam is a purely monotheistic (One God) religion with a theocentric principle. Flowing from this tenet is the concept that everything is God centred. All creations are ascribed to God, as the Creator. Beginning from the creation of the Universe up to the sub atomic particle, God has ensured a purpose, a design and a goal for each – be it the planets, the stars, the solar system, the earth or everything that is in and on the earth. The Quran states:

“Glorify the Name of your Lord, the Most High. Who has created all things, and then proportioned it. And Who has measured; and then guided (them to their goals – an inbuilt system)” (Chapter 87 Verses 1 – 3)

In this complex system, every creation has a role to play either as a distinct entity by itself or as an interacting agency with the other classes of creation or, both roles. For example, like the innumerably different organisms adapting themselves to the biotic and abiotic environment. This is the inbuilt nature designed by God. Environmental scientists would broadly call these biomes and in a particular sense ecosystem.

A Complete Way Of Life

Man is regarded as the higher being of all creations of God on earth. Similar to the others, for the human kind too there is a purpose, a design and a goal. To facilitate the existence of man this dynamic, diverse and complex system has been bestowed on him as a Trust. To this extent Islam is also anthropocentric. Therefore, every man has the religious responsibility of protecting and safeguarding this Trust which is the eco-system and the environment.

Islam teaches a complete way of life to man providing him guidance from the cradle to the grave and beyond. In Islam nature and religion, science and religion, philosophy and religion are intertwined with it. Thus there are numerous references in the Quran on the development of the human Self, sociology, geology, oceanography, embryology, etc. including the environment.

“ ……. And We have sent down to you the Book making clear everything, and as a guidance and a mercy, and as good tidings to those who surrender”.
(Chapter 16, Verse 89)

There are also several sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace and blessings be on him (PBUH) in relation to environment. Here is one such which encourages forestry and sustainability.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “If a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him.” – Imam Bukhari.

Greed Versus Conservation

Love of God leads to loving His creation. Human beings cannot be happy without the happiness of the other beings. It is not for man to conquer nature. It is not for man to change nature. Islam teaches man to live in harmony with nature. Islam teaches man to protect and ensure the continuation of nature. Man’s relationship with the environment is one of stewardship.

Conservation in Islam is about mu’amalat (acting in the public interest; civic responsibility). In general, I believe, that when considering the environment from the perspective of religion, there must be present in religion some qualitative factors, like:

1. An identifiable clear value statement by the religion
2. The significance and sacredness the followers attach to religion
3. The extent of commitment and adherence of its followers
4. The will to translate the value statement into practise
5. Moral obligation or accountability

In contrast to western economic principles, the concept of sustainable development in Islamic economics is based on fundamentals of justness in matters of consumer welfare, economic efficiency, attainment of social justice, and ecological balance. The Quran calls the believers as ‘Ummathan wasatan’ as a middle nation. Neither hedonistic nor ascetic. Not avaricious and not miserly.

As far as Islam is concerned it has a very clear hierarchy linking the relevance of nature to man.

1. Allah: The Creator, Sustainer, Nourisher of the Universe.
2. Man: everything has been created to facilitate man’s existence
3. Other creations: both animate and inanimate.
4. Trust: The creation that has been bestowed on man as a trust
5. Responsibility: Man to protect this Trust as custodian of it.
6. Accountability: Man will be held accountable for the way he
handles this Trust and for his Custodianship.

Finally, the discussion on Environment is not complete if the boundaries of environment are not extended beyond the natural environment. It is also the social, moral, economic and political environment that needs to be clean and free of corruption. People should be made to realize that the conservation of all these environments is a religious duty demanded by God. God has said:

“And do good as Allah has been good to you. And do not seek to cause corruption in the earth. Allah does not love the corrupters”, (Al Qasas 28:77)

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