Islam & the Environment
By F. Kamal
(An excerpt from the award-winning book about the religion of Islam called "Easily Understand Islam")
This article discusses what one of the world's main religions (Islam) has to say about the environment. There are over an (estimated) 1.4 billion Muslims throughout the world.
What is expected of a viceroy, a trustee or ruler? If those over whom one commands power are killed without cause, have their homes polluted heedlessly with toxic wastes, and have deformities and diseases resulting from the careless and wasteful disposal of carcinogens, should not the ruler be asked if he is discharging his responsibilities and trust faithfully? Unfortunately, there have been altogether too many shameful, unnecessary cases of pollution that have taken their toil on the planet, the animals, and the plants that inhabit it. One wonders if man is taking his responsibilities seriously.
Quran 2:30 “…Your Lord said unto the angels: “Lo! I am about to place a viceroy on the earth…,” and Quran 22:65 “Do you not see that God has made subject to you (humans) all that is on the earth”
In Islam, Muslims believe that man has been given a responsibility by Allah (i.e., Arabic for God) on this earth and that man will be accountable to God for his actions and the trust placed in him. Prophet Muhammad said, ”Everyone of you is a guardian and is responsible for his charges. The ruler who has authority over people is a guardian and is responsible for them” (Sahih Bukhari 3.46.730). Islam has urged humanity to be kind to nature and not to abuse the trust that has been placed on the shoulders of man. In fact, to be kind to animals is an integral part of Islam for Muslims. There are two primary sources defining Islam: The Quran (Muslim Holy Book) and the Hadith (the example, sayings, and actions of Prophet Muhammad). Both emphasize the accountability and responsibility of man toward the rest of creation.
Prophet Muhammad announced the rewards of caring for animals and the importance of avoiding cruelty to animals. He urged kindness toward all living things. He recounted a case of a women who was insensitive and cruel to her cat. She had kept locked up until it died of hunger. So God punished her for it on the Day of Judgment. “God said (to the woman), ‘You neither fed it nor watered it when you locked it up, nor did you set it free to eat the insects of the earth.” (Sahih Bukhari). This was 1400 years ago — long before it became fashionable or “politically correct” to care about “animal rights.” Yet even in this barbaric time the Prophet had banned forcing animals to fight for human entertainment (Sunan Abu Dawud #2556).
In fact, there was no concept of “animal rights” or for that matter much civility by the strong toward the weak in the rough Arabian society that Prophet Muhammad had been born into more then 1400 years ago. He also talked of the great rewards of kindness to animals. He recounted, “While a man was walking he felt thirsty and went down a well and drank water from it. On coming out of it, he saw a dog panting and eating mud because of extreme thirst. The man said, ‘This (dog) is suffering from the same problem as I am.’ So he (went down the well) filled his shoe with water, caught hold of it with his teeth, and climbed up and watered the dog. God thanked him for his (good) deed and forgave him.” The people asked, “O God’s Apostle! Is there a reward for us in serving (the) animals?” He replied, “Yes, there is a reward for serving any animate being.” (Sahih Bukhari 3.40.551). During the prophet’s life, Muslims were instructed that one could not allow one’s beasts of burden (camels) to become hungry (through neglect), or even to overburden them (by loading them too heavily). (Sunan Abu Dawud #2543). These were radical ideas for that place and time.
Nature and environment have always played an important part in the lives of devout Muslims. Muslims understand that God has not created all this for nothing. In fact, Muslims have been commanded to find the wonderful signs of God around them so that they will only increase them in their awe of their Rabb (Cherisher and Sustainer).
Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day- there are indeed Signs for men of understanding men who celebrate the praises of God, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth (with the thought): “Our Lord! not for nothing have You created (all) this! Glory to You! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire Quran 3.190-1.
Early Muslims intrinsically understood this and led the world in science. In fact. modern science owes much to Muslim scientists ( see Islamic websites on this topic such as http://cyberistan.org/islamic/ for more details on this topic). But it was a science intertwined with seeking the Glory of God, not a cold pursuit devoid of any ethical considerations. It was not a confrontation with nature, but a search for God’s signs, limitless bounty, and Mercy. It is in kindness that our Lord has reassured us through His prophet:
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “God has sent down both the disease and the cure, and He has appointed a cure for every disease, so treat yourselves medically, but use nothing unlawful.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, book 28, number 3865)
In fact, nature offers a rich bounty in the medicinal arena.
Silver, for example, has potent germicidal properties (e.g., even capable of
anti-microbial activities at which antibiotics fail) and has widely been used
(e.g. silver sulphadiazine in burn centers in
Medicine has also benefited greatly from the animal kingdom. Honey from bees has a number of medicinal uses. While maggots and leeches may conjure up discredited images of medieval medicine, one may be surprised to find that they have made a resurgence in modern medicine. Leeches have recently been used in microsurgery to control swelling in order to promote the healing necessary to reattach severed fingers, for example. Leeches conveniently provide an anticoagulant (e.g., hirudin or hementin—as in the Amazonian species), an anesthetic and some antibiotic properties through their saliva – all in one package. “Disinfected” maggots have been used in MDT (Maggot Debridement Therapy) to treat certain types of wound healing They release proteolytic enzymes to aid in debridement (removal of unwanted matter), enzymes with antimicrobial properties, and compounds like allantonin, urea, ammonium bicarbonate, and a calcium carbonate/ picric acid mixture that seem to promote wound healing. Scientists have even managed to analyze snake venom. Pit viper and cobra venom can help make anticoagulant drugs. Work on the jararaca pit viper’s venom has found use in hypertension drugs.
The plant kingdom too has paved the way for an extraordinary number of modern drugs. Aspirin, is probably one of our most famous modern drugs. Did you know it has its beginnings from the salicylic acid from the willow tree. How about quinine – from cinchona trees -- a treatment for malaria? It too has its origins in nature. Then there is the “miracle” antibiotic penicillin from the mold (fungus) penicillium, a medicine that has helped millions of people. How about digitalis from the foxglove plant, Ipecac (whooping cough), tuba/quassia (lice infestations), quabain (heart disease), curare (spastic ceberal palsy, tetanus convolutions, surgery aid), sangre de grado (stomach cancer/peptic ulcers), and epibatidine (painkiller) from the poison dart frog.
Today, important new fronts in medicine are being opened in molecular biology, biomedical engineering, biochemistry, nanotechnology, ideas like rational drug design, advances in the genome project, and emerging “biological hardware and software” possibilities. Exponential increases in computing power are allowing complex 3D calculations modeling how molecules could fit together to identify possible candidates for medicines from a staggering field of combinational possibilities. But at the same time we are losing species to extinction, biodiversity is threatened, and human reservoirs of traditional medicinal knowledge are dwindling. Perhaps as such events handicap and delay our abilities to exploit and leverage fully our new technologies, we will begin to realize the true value of the enormous treasures we failed to appreciate and protect.
If one has an opportunity to watch videos of modern forensic entomology/biology (e.g. detective work using insect and plant evidence) Muslims marvel at how one can see evidence of the extraordinary Mercy of God — available for those who seek it. There have been cases of men being released from death penalty criminal prosecutions because simple insect evidence scientifically dated a crime to a time where it was impossible for the suspect to have committed the crime. Alternatively, vicious killers have been caught lying when their alibi statements clearly contradicted plant evidence.
Muslims note that God can be kind beyond words— if people exert their minds and hearts. “.... But if you count the favors of God, never will you be able to number them” Quran 14:34. His signs, Muslims feel, are everywhere.
One of the most destructive causes of pollution is consumer waste. Needless and wasteful consumer packaging, for example, unnecessarily fills up our landfills. Vast tracts of tropical rainforests – potentially the storehouse of numerous as-yet-undiscovered medicines – are heedlessly destroyed through neglect, mismanagement, laziness, greed and wasteful methodologies. When toxic chemicals are driven into our waters by greed, Muslims may reflect on what is written in Quran 30:41: “Corruption appears on land and sea because of (the evil) that men’s hands have done, so that He may make them taste a part of what they have done, in order that they may return.” Have our inner problems become our outer problems? Numerous animals and plants are thoughtlessly killed and harvested when people throw out tons of unused food. Yet some of these animals that end up in garbage cans may have had their numbers occasionally artificially inflated by production techniques that border on being inhumane or at least of questionable ethics in order to meet the huge consumer buying demands.
Lo! the squanderers were ever brothers of the devils, and the devil was ever an ingrate to his Lord. Quran 17.27.
Muslims have been enjoined to avoid waste and ingratitude to their Lord. Muslims strive to find the signs of God in nature to glorify their Lord, to thank Him, and to order their world in the manner in which their Rabb (Cherisher and Sustainer) wishes it to be ordered. They do not disorder their world in heedlessness of their Rabb in search of self-gratification, greed, and waste and with ingratitude to their Lord.
God reminds humanity about the beauty of his creatures for which He has entrusted the burden, responsibility, and accountability to man as His viceroy.
Do they not look at the earth,-how many noble things of all kinds We have produced in it? Quran 26:7
Muslims seek God’s help in discharging their responsibilities in a manner that pleases Him and to thank Him for the extraordinary bounties He has placed here.
The rewards of tending to the environment are great indeed.
Anas reported God’s Messenger as saying, “Whenever a Muslim plants trees or cultivates land and birds or a man or a beast eats out of them, it is a charity on his behalf.” Sahih Muslim book 010, number 3769
Practicing Muslims see God’s extraordinary beauty and bounties in such copious amounts around them that for the grateful heart God’s Grace seems to know no limit. In fact, when faced with the seemingly infinite reservoir of Grace all Muslims can say is :
“All praise is to God, Lord of the worlds.”
Author’s Note: When I have on occasion visited some Muslim majority nations it has saddened me to see a sometimes cavalier (almost to a point of carelessness) attitude towards things like pollution. I really do understand that there is a lot of poverty and lack of education in these regions. But I know there are many good people there too, who if reminded of Islamic teachings, will strive for a more healthy relationship between man and his environment. Perhaps this article will help in that regard.
There is an interesting concept in modern economics called “externalities.” It deals with certain market price imperfections arising due to poor information transmission. The transmission of information between individuals (who are immediate parties to a transaction) and others (who may not be immediate parties to a transaction) may be loosely coupled, leading to an inefficient allocation of costs and benefits between the parties.
A classic example of a negative externality is your neighbor deciding to sell his plot of land to be used as a “toxic dump” by a polluting company. While your neighbor has realized a handsome profit, the polluting company may not be paying the true cost of the transaction. The prices of homes in your neighborhood will plummet; increased cancer rates, medical costs, reduced longevity and productivity may also occur – and none of these costs will be assumed by the polluting company. Thus, the true cost to the nation is significantly higher than the actual cost paid by the polluting company.
Furthermore, if the national/state government pays Medicare Medicaid or other federal/state medical payments that can be shown to be linked to the toxic dump, the government, in a sense, could be subsidizing the cost of the initial transaction for the polluting company. “Externalities” are an interesting area of modern economics with many important policy implications.
Public goods/game theory
In sociology there is a concept of “public goods.” Examples of public goods could be oceans, public parks, or even portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Research has delved into the conflict between self interest and the public interest. For example, oceans have a maximum clearing rate for their fishing stocks after which severe species depletion can occur. As long as fishers cooperate and do not over fish they can all prosper. This, however, is in perennial conflict with an individual’s incentive to fish for maximum profit.
(Note: If you are interested in a closely related topic and are a teacher, you might want to check out the following teaching simulation called “Tragedy of the Commons Simulation” (Tori Haidinger. College board AP program). Search google.com or follow up with www.enviroliteracy.org/pdf/materials/1132.pdf )
Sociologists, such as Ostrom, have identified several factors that can cement cooperation among individuals. Factors include the importance of monitoring in order to assure that those subject to the rules play a role in developing them, that sanctions are graduated and that low cost methods exist to resolve conflicts. Game theory (the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, tit for tat, reputation, and Fehr’s and Gachter’s public goods game) all attempt to tackle and illuminate the issues dealing with “public goods” and cooperation. [Note: Sometimes the words “the commons” is used with reference to this topic.]
How can the study of nature help bring about justice? If you wish to encourage young people to consider careers in law enforcement and science check out PBS’s video “Creatures in crime” and Vivien Bower’s “Crime Science.” For example, the last three chapters (each about 2-3 pages) in Ms. Bower’s book deal with cases for a forensic botanist, a forensic geologist, and a forensic entomologist written for a young audience.
Real life case studies
Real life environment cases are interesting studies since
they illustrate societal dynamics, subtleties, pitfalls, and solutions. One
intriguing case involves the disastrous cases of mercury poisoning in
Elephants: Be realistic enough to identify and transform misdirected financial incentives with enough creativity and hard work to realign the financial incentives toward your goal. For example, elephants are killed in areas of abject poverty because of the realizable economic value of their tusks. Some individuals have sought to make elephants more valuable alive than dead by creating “photo safaris” where a portion of the proceeds benefit the local villagers. This paradigm shift has turned the profit motive on its head with promising results for both the elephants and local people.
Biodiversity: Another interesting case deals with the tension between the ranchers and biodiversity in the Amazon. Here too, attempts are being made to align tangible economic benefits with preserving biodiversity. For example, attempts are being made to link biodiversity goals with a realizable economic stake in pharmaceutical patents arising from research in Amazon plant species.
“Cap and trade”: The history of acid rain and the climate control exchange both offer interesting reading. “Cap and trade” is an economic concept to transfer resources by penalizing less compliant solutions (that overshoot a “cap” threshold) and by rewarding and encouraging more promising environmental ones (e.g. those below the “cap” threshold). Climate control exchange may be interesting to follow.
Science can play an important, positive role in solving
environmental puzzles. One such interesting case occurred in
In almost the opposite scenario, in the early 1930s American
dentist Charles MacKay from
These days, scientists can use various scientific measuring techniques to monitor our environment. Titration techniques can check for water salinity, spectrophotometric absorbance can check for traces of mercury in solution, and emission spectroscopy can check for types and concentrations of elements and bonds that can be checked against known “fingerprints.”
Copyright F. Kamal. All rights reserved.
Note: If you like this article, you may also like:
Easily Understand Islam (paperback)
Please report any
broken links to
Copyright © 1988-2012 irfi.org. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer