Ecological Significance of the Quranic Understanding of Humans as Custodians

Our relationship with Nature should be one of stewardship, not mastery.

By Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz
The Quran teaches us that human beings have been placed on planet Earth as God’s khalifa or vicegerent. In other words, we are guardians or custodians, not owners, of this planet. Accordingly, our relationship with Nature should be one of stewardship, not mastery.
Wrong conceptions of the position and status of human beings have resulted in ecological havoc across the planet. In my childhood, I remember hearing the slogan: ‘Man is the Conqueror of Nature’. Much of the ecological devastation that we have witnessed stems from this completely wrong notion of our role on Earth. Thankfully, this notion is being increasingly recognised as false and dangerous. Many people are realising that human beings need to be humble before Nature and that we need to be in sync with it. There is an increasing recognition that the natural model of things is the best.
God is the Owner
From the Quran we learn that the Earth, along with everything else in the Universe, has been made by God and that God is the Owner of everything. God has placed human beings on Earth simply as custodians. In this role, it is binding on people of faith to take proper care of the abundant resources that God has blessed the Earth with and which we have inherited from our ancestors. If we pass them on in a better shape to the next generation, it would be good, but the least we should do is to leave them in the shape that we inherited them that is how we should behave as good custodians.
We human beings have been accorded the right to use natural resources, we do not have the right to abuse them with impunity. Here it is easy to see how ‘Development’ models that are based on materialism, stimulation of desires and endless consumption, entailing uncontrolled plunder of natural resources, go completely against the understanding of custodianship that the Quran teaches us.
Another point to consider here is that this Earth is but a temporary abode for human beings. One day, we will all have to leave it. According to the deeds we have done on Earth, God rewards or punishes us here, in this world, and in the Hereafter. This fact has very significant ecological implications: those who do not behave as good custodians of the Earth and its resources will have to face the consequences of their actions. In contrast, those who do behave as good custodians may hope to be rewarded.
The verses of the Quran are signs or ayats of God. They indicate or draw our attention to God. In addition to these are the ayats or ‘signs’ of God that fill the entire universe all the many created things and beings. They too point us to the Creator. These ‘signs’ of God include birds and animals, trees and mountains, deserts and lakes, and so on. Respecting these ‘signs’ of God is also binding on people of faith, as is respecting the signs of God in the Divine scriptures. Those who work to preserve and nurture these ‘signs’ of God in Nature, be it working for forest regeneration or protecting an endangered bird species or inventing a method to control atmospheric pollution may hope to receive rewards for their good deeds. In contrast, those who act against God by wantonly destroying these ‘signs’ of God in Nature will have to face the results of their actions. In fact, unwarranted destruction of these ‘signs’ is also a form of blasphemy.

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