Islam and the Environment - by Jamshed Yazdani
Islam has a rich tradition of highlighting the importance of environmental protection and conservation of natural resources. According to Islamic law, the basic elements of nature – land, water, fire, forest, and light – belong to all living things, not just human beings. The Holy Qur’an and Sunnah (Prophet Muhammad’s practice) are a guiding light to promote sustainable development in Islamic countries as well as around the world. God commands human beings to avoid doing mischief and wasting resources as these acts cause degradation of the environment. The privilege to exploit natural resources was given to mankind a trust, which implies the right to use another person’s property on the promise that it will not be damaged or destroyed.
The Holy Qur'an has a number of specific references to ecology and also contains some important principles for environmental conservation. The first principle which guides Islamic teaching on environmental sustainability is the concept of trusteeship. Being God’s representative on earth, a man should take all necessary steps to ensure that the entrusted property is passed on to the next generation in as pure a form as possible. According to Islam each man is the custodian of nature, and must live with harmony with other creatures. It is the duty of all Muslims to respect, nurture and care for the environment.
Corruption of all kinds, including environmental corruption, which includes industrial pollution, environmental damage, and reckless exploitation and mismanagement of natural resources are disliked by God. God says in the Qur’an:
“ . . . and make not mischief in the land after its reform.” (Qur’an 7:85)
“ . . . and do good to others as God has been good to you. And seek not to make mischief in the land.” (Qur’an 28:77)
Therefore, according to the Holy Qur'an, environmental conservation is a religious duty as well as social obligation, and not an optional matter. The exploitation of a particular natural resource is directly related to accountability and maintenance of the resource.
Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) also deal extensively with various aspects of environment including resource conservation, land reclamation and environmental hygiene. Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) discouraged over-consumption, luxury and lavishness and encouraged moderation in all walks of life. The most popular Hadith (Prophet’s saying) on environment states:
"The earth is green and beautiful and Allah has appointed you his stewards over it." It reiterates Qur’anic teaching that human beings have been given the responsibility of guardianship over the natural environment.
The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) clearly forbade destruction of trees and crops even during war times as long as their existence remains advantageous to the enemy. The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) gave high degree of importance towards sustainable cultivation of land, humane treatment of animals, preservation of natural resources and protection of wildlife.
The Prophet recognized that natural resources should not be over-exploited or abused. In order to protect land, forests and wildlife, the Prophet created inviolable zones, known as Haram and Hima, in which resources were to be left untouched.
Haram areas were drawn up around wells and water sources to protect the groundwater from over-drawing (over-pumping). Hima applied to wildlife and forestry and designated an area of land where grazing and woodcutting was restricted, or where certain animal species (such as camels) were protected.
Prophet Muhammad established a Hima to the south of the city of Madinah and forbade hunting within a four mile radius and destruction of trees or plants within a twelve mile radius. The creation of inviolable zones shows the importance placed by Prophet Muhammad on sustainable use of natural resources and protection of wildlife and agricultural land.
Some of the sayings of the Prophet about the environment are as follows:
“The world is beautiful and verdant, and verily God, be He exalted, has made you His stewards in it, and He sees how you acquit yourselves.” (Book of Hadith - Muslim)
"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." (Book of Hadith - Bukhari)
“Whoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded,” (Book of Hadith - Musnad)
Water – the Source of all Life
God has made water the basis and origin of life. God says:
“We made from water every living thing…” (Quran 21:30)
God has called on man to appreciate the value of this so essential source of life:
“Have you seen the water which you drink? Was it you who sent it down from the rain cloud, or did We send it? Were it Our will, We could have made it bitter; why then do you not give thanks?” (Qur’an 56:68-70)
“Say: Have you considered, if your water should subside, who is it then that could bring you clear, flowing water?” (Qur’an 67:30)
Plants, animals, and man all depend on water for their existence and for the continuation of their lives. God has said:
“Verily... in the rain that God sends down from heaven, thereby giving life to the earth after its death...” (Qur’an 2:164)
“It is He Who sends down water from the sky; and thereby We have brought forth the plants of every kind…” (Qur’an 6:99)
“And you see the earth barren and lifeless, but when We pour down rain upon it, it stirs and swells, and puts forth growth of every resplendent kind.” (Qur’an 22:5)
“And We send down pure water from the sky, thereby to bring to life a dead land and slake the thirst of that which We have created-cattle and men in multitudes.” (Qur’an 25:48-49)
God has also shown us other functions of lake, sea, and ocean water. He has made it the habitat of many created beings which play vital roles in the perpetuation of life and the development of this world. God has said:
“It is He Who has made the sea subservient to you, that you may eat fresh flesh from it, and that you may bring forth from it ornaments which you wear. And you see the ships cleaving through the waves, that you may seek of His bounty and that you may give thanks.” (Qur’an 16:14)
“Lawful to you is the pursuit of water-game and its use for food a provision for you, and for those who travel…” (Qur’an 5:96)
Owing to the importance of water as the basis of life, God has made its use the common right of all living beings and all human beings. All are entitled to use it without monopoly, usurpation, despoilment, wastage, or abuse.
The reality of climate change calls for a re-evaluation of our actions and a redirection of our energies towards the reduction or possible reversal of the looming environmental crisis. Texts of the Islamic religious tradition speak directly on many issues that are pertinent to this problem. To begin with, the Quran calls on us to recognize our own contribution to the crisis:
Corruption has appeared on land and sea on account of which men’s hands have wrought, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order that they may return. (Quran 30:41)
According to the verse cited, God is giving us a taste of our own medicine so that we may return from the wrong directions we have taken in life. If we are to reverse the deterioration of our environment then we have to make some hard choices and change our practices. In other words, ecological change calls for personal change.
Wastefulness is a major contributing factor to our present woes, hence the sudden awareness of the benefits of reducing, reusing, and recycling waste. The Qur’an reminds us:
“ . . . and be not prodigal. Surely He (God) does not love the prodigals.” (Qur’an 6:141)
The Sanctity of Planting Trees:
The beneficial nature of trees to our ecosystem is now widely known. It may be noted in this regard that the planting of a tree is regarded in the classical Islamic tradition as an act of continuous charity, the most desirable sort of good deeds. The Prophet Muhammad said that if one plants a tree then whatever is eventually eaten from it whether by humans or animals counts for the planter as a an act of charity. The importance of planting trees as a good deed is highlighted in another tradition (saying of the Prophet) which says that if one has on hand a sapling ready to be planted and the Day of Judgment arrives one should go ahead and plant it.
The Equilibrium of All Life:
Islam also teaches humans that all creatures of God, whether it be the tiny ant or the huge lion, serves a certain purpose in the larger scheme of God’s world:
“And there is no animal in the earth, nor a bird that flies on its two wings, but they are communities like yourselves.” (Quran 6:38)
This divine notion, which came more than 1400 years ago, reinforces the scientific concept of ‘chain of life,’ with each species depending on another and together maintaining the balance of life on earth. God reminds us in the Quran not to tamper with His divine balance (here referred to as ‘measure’) by reminding us:
“And the heaven, He raised it high and He set up the measure (balance); That you may not exceed the measure; And keep up the balance with equity, nor fall short in the measure.” (Qur’an 55:7-9)
Hence, irresponsible deforestation and wanton killing of even the tiniest of God’s creatures is strongly discouraged in Islam.
A Call for Change:
Failing to follow the Quranic injunctions, we have, of course, upset the ecological balance. It is up to us to set it right again. This will require great effort, and courageous personal change.
We need to do our best to restore and preserve the balance in nature; to take up our responsibility as representatives of God on earth and hence as custodians, stewards, and trustees in whose trust God has placed the resources we enjoy. We need to maintain the ecosystems that harbor the dazzling array of life forms God has created, including animals, birds, insects, and plants. But the required personal changes are sometimes simple and manageable.
We can easily reduce, reuse, and recycle waste. We can to a large extent conserve our use of water and other natural resources. We can in some small way reverse the process of deforestation by planting one tree at a time. It is time to pay better attention to the principles set forth in God’s message, including this one:
“Man shall have nothing but what he strives for” (Quran 53:39).