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An Islamic Response to the Ecological Challenge

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All the creations of God are a Divine work of art. They are all signs of God, indicative of the greatness, goodness, subtlety and wisdom of the Creator.

By Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz

The gifts of Nature that come from God are in plenty. As the Quran (16:18) says: “If you try to count God’s blessings, you would never be able to number them. God is ever forgiving and most merciful.”
The bounties of Nature need to be used judiciously. Extravagant and mindless use of these bounties has resulted in the environmental crisis that we are beset with today. Lavish lifestyles, unjust consumption, waste and extravagance are not compatible with true religiousness. Thus, the Quran says: “O Children of Adam, dress yourself properly whenever you are at worship: and eat and drink but do not be wasteful: God does not like wasteful people.” (7:31).
Working for Balance
Extravagant lifestyles, based on untrammelled greed, wasteful production and heedless consumption, are at the root of the current global ecological crisis. Islam links israf or extravagance to fasaad (chaos, disorder, imbalance and mischief in society) and forbids it. It declares that the extravagant are corrupters of society and spoilers of social order and harmony. It forbids people from following such people or systems. Thus, it says, “”¦do not obey the bidding of those who are given to excesses, those who spread corruption in the land instead of putting things right” (26:151-52).
The bounties that God blessed this planet with have an inherent balance. Even a slight change can upset the balance. We know, for instance, how even a small increase in the level of carbon dioxide can lead to climate change. Whenever the balance in the elements occurs, there is fasaad pollution, chaos or disorder. Human beings’ extravagant misuse of Nature’s resources, fuelled by greed, has resulted in widespread fasaad, manifested in the ecological crisis that we are faced with.
The word fasaad and related terms are used several times in the Quran. In Arabic, the word fasaad has a wider connotation than in Urdu. In everyday Urdu, fasaad is often equated with generally as violence, particularly rioting. But in Arabic, the word has a much broader meaning. It includes depravity, rottenness, disorder and corruption and also connotes damaging something, not letting it remain in its original or proper condition or disturbing its balance. Understood in this way, the widespread destruction of the environment at the global level today is a very obvious form of fasaad. It entails overturning the fine balance that God established in the environment, this process being driven principally by human greed.
Balance in Nature
Balance is one of the most crucial factors operating in Nature. To damage or destroy this natural balance, as is happening today, is to destroy oneself. As the Quran (6:51) says: “He who transgresses God’s bounds wrongs his own soul.” The destruction of one part of the environment will have repercussions for every component, including human beings. This is almost self-destruction, which is strictly prohibited in Islam, as in many other religious and spiritual traditions.
The Quran condemns every form of fasaad. Hence, environmental degradation and destruction are obviously something that people must oppose and seek to overcome. Given the grave implications this phenomenon has for the very survival of life on Earth, it is a very serious form of fasaad. Despite this, however, relatively few of us consider the environmental crisis as a form of fasaad. Many of us are not even aware of the existence of such a crisis! In fact, through the reckless pursuit of a consumerist lifestyle, based on mindless exploitation of the bounties of Nature, many of us are actually deeply complicit in this fasaad. The Quran clearly condemns those who are engaged in fasaad. This means that those who are responsible for the fasaad of environmental degradation are also engaged in sin. Such sin can be called ‘ecological sin’.
The opposite of fasaad is islah, which denotes maintaining a thing in its right condition and proper balance. Those who engage in islah are known as musleheen. They are the opposite of the mufsideen, those who engage in fasaad. The musleheen are rectifiers, correctors or reformers. Such people have been exhorted to engage in acts of correction and reformation that can undo the damage done by the spoilers or corruptors. Thus, it is the duty of people of faith in God to take up corrective measures for improving society and to ameliorate the conditions of people suffering because of inequalities, imbalances and disorders in society, including due to the destruction of the ecology.
People of faith in God are supposed to be musleheen. They should be engaged in actions of islah geared to oppose and overcome fasaad. Working for the restoration of ecological balance and opposing efforts to destroy the environment are acts of islah. And so, as musleheen, people of faith should be actively engaged in meaningful and constructive efforts to help improve the environment and overcome the environmental crisis. That is something that is part of their faith, a part of their role as musleheen.
People of faith are expected to engage in virtuous or pious actions that draw people closer to God. And so, they must also engage in the virtuous action of working to oppose the fasaad of environmental degradation and of helping promote and preserve environmental balance. We must broaden our conventional understanding of virtuous actions to include such actions as well. Planting trees and looking after them can be a form of virtuous action, as can be joining movements for the protection of greenery or for promoting a minimalistic lifestyle. So too can promoting solar energy to replace the use of diesel or petrol, engaging in clean-up drives in residential localities, saying ‘No!’ to plastic where possible, protecting disappearing animal and bird species, avoiding foods painted with chemical colours, and so on.
One could considerably lengthen this list of eco-friendly virtuous actions which we can do in our own individual capacity. Some of these may appear to be ‘small’ or ‘ordinary’ steps. But even if they are so, that’s alright! On the Day of Judgment, when we appear before God, even our smallest good deed will be presented before us, just as will our smallest misdeed.
Human Beings Along with Other Forms of Life
The importance that Islam gives to respect for Nature is also evident from the Islamic understanding of the role of human beings on this planet. According to Islam, our role here is that of trustees or guardians. Hence, our relation to Nature should be one of stewardship, not of mastery. We are only stewards, not owners of this planet. The sole Owner of this planet and everything in it is God. Till not very long ago, some people advocated that human beings were Masters of Nature or Conquerors of Nature. Today, however, there is a growing awareness that we are simply trustees of Nature and that it is our duty to protect it, not only for us humans but for all forms of life.
It is important to note here that the bounties of this planet are not meant only for human beings. Rather, they are meant for every form of life. Planet Earth, with its many bounties, is our home while we live here, but it is not just for human beings that God created the earth. God prepared and created it for all living beings, for all life forms. The Quran (55:10) says: “He has laid out the earth for His creatures.”
All the creations of God are a Divine work of art. In the Quran, they are called aayaat (singular: ayat) or signs of God, indicative of the greatness, goodness, subtlety and wisdom of the Creator. All the components of our environment, be they on land, water or the air, are signs of God. These include rocks and mountains, insects, fish, animals and birds, plants and trees and the gases in the atmosphere. Like the verses of the Quran (which are also called ayats), they point to God’s existence. This being the case, protecting the environment and respecting it is binding on us. To deface, defile or destroy Nature would thus be an impious or sinful act. To disrespect Nature by polluting it is to disrespect and abuse a sign of the Creator.
(Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz is presently Vice-Chancellor of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, India. He is the founder-editor of the Urdu monthly ‘Science’ magazine, founded in 1994. He has written extensively on the interface of Islam, ecology and science. He can be contacted on [email protected])