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Ecology in Islam

Summary and Keywords

Starting in the late 1960s, a small number of Muslim scholars turned their attention to how the Islamic scriptures and intellectual tradition might help Muslims understand and respond to climate change and environmental crisis. In building this Islamic approach to ecology, these scholars undertook close analysis of the Qur’an, the Sunnah (the collected traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), centuries of Islamic law, and the writings of Sufi mystics and scholars in order to construct Islamic environmental theologies and law. This Islamic ecology remained on the margins of mainstream Islamic discourse for decades, but the participation of Muslims in environmental movements is growing and with it, the need for an Islamic ecology. In developing environmental theologies, Muslim scholars focus upon the relationship of God to the natural world, positing that as God’s creation, the natural world is a sign through which humanity can experience God. Although the natural world is “made useful” to humanity, humans do not have absolute dominion over creation. Rather, humanity is Khalifah—God’s representative or steward on earth. The development of Islamic environmental law from within the shari’ah tradition is arguably just as—if not more—important as articulating an Islamic environmental theology. Some Muslim environmentalists argue for the revival of Islamic land management institutions and look to the many regulations regarding agriculture and water management found in shari’ah as avenues for implementing Islamic environmental law.

Keywords: Islam, ecology, environmentalism, theology, Sufism, shari’ah, Qur’an

Ecology in Islam: The Context

Climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation impact Muslims and Muslim-majority countries in serious ways: Bangladesh is at risk of major internal displacement as rising sea levels encroach upon low-lying coastal regions; Indonesia has suffered from a series of severe tsunamis and adverse weather events costing lives and destroying villages; and the countries of the Arabian peninsula swelter under rising summer-time temperatures and battle chronic water shortages. Ecological crisis is often approached as a technical problem, requiring the input of climate and environmental scientists, engineers, and policy makers to address the myriad problems. But what is the role of religion in addressing environmental crisis?

For the Muslim scholars who have engaged in the project of building an Islamic ecology, religion is of vital importance. Such scholars draw on the Islamic scriptures and intellectual tradition to both convince their Muslim communities of the need to address environmental crises and to motivate environmental action. Environmentalism is presented as a religious duty, one central to the divinely ordained role of humans as Khalifah (stewards) on earth, and the natural world, as God’s creation, is presented as a revelation or sign from God through which humans can come to know God and experience Him.

Islam may be a motivating force for environmental action by Muslims, but it also may have contributed to environmental crisis in the first place. In 1967 the historian Lynn White Jr. published a seminal article on The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, which laid blame for environmental crisis at the feet of an Occidental Christian worldview that desacralized and instrumentalized the natural world. White argues that the efforts of Enlightenment scientists to understand the world, coupled with what he argues is a uniquely Occidental dualism of transcendent soul and profane matter, resulted in a worldview that has permeated all Occidental societies. This worldview instrumentalizes the natural world and has led directly to its exploitation and degradation.1

However, the worldview identified by White is not necessarily exclusive to Occidental Christianity and its societies. Whether exploitative attitudes toward the natural world emerge from Islamic cultures themselves or are products of long histories of interaction and influence between Anglo-European and Islamic societies, such attitudes exist among Muslims. Although a strand of Islamic ecological literature seeks to demonstrate that Islam is an inherently environmental religion, that historical Islamic societies existed without causing major environmental destruction has more to do with their size and industrial capacity (or lack thereof) than with any inherently ecological outlook.

Islamic Environmental Theologies

God and Nature

In articulating a distinctive Islamic ecological theology Muslim scholars dwell at length on the relationship between God and the natural world, as this relationship has important consequences for the status of the natural world and the care due to it. There are three ways to conceive of God’s relationship to His creation, and all three are evident to varying degrees in both Islam and Christianity. Where supernatural theism posits that God is entirely transcendent and the natural world is entirely profane, panentheism claims that God is both immanent and transcendent at all times, and finally pantheism holds that God is entirely immanent—God is identical with or entirely within the natural world.2

The seminal critique of Lynn White that Christianity resulted in nature becoming desacralized is a critique of supernatural theism: it is only by seeing God as entirely transcendent that nature loses divinity. To the extent that supernatural theism exists within Muslim societies, Islam is open to White’s critique.3 The influential Iranian-American philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr argues exactly that—Islamic societies, like Christian ones, have lost a metaphysical foundation to their knowledge and no longer see the divine reality of creation. Nasr, like White, locates the origin of this trend in the late Middle Ages when theology split from the sciences, transforming our understanding of the world.4 In locating God as entirely outside of His creation, supernatural theism posits only a weak relationship between God and the natural world with God simply a “spectator.”5 Such a worldview gives license to the exploitation of the natural world: as nature has no connection with the divine, there are no metaphysical consequences to its destruction.

Despite the evident exploitation of the natural world across the globe, including in Muslim-majority nations, supernatural theism is rare in Islamic theology. Panentheism is more common—the belief that God is both transcendent and immanent at once. The Sufi mystical tradition in Islam affirms the ability of humans to encounter the divine through religious experience, and this is important: it would not be possible to have genuine religious experience if God was entirely transcendent. It is only through His immanence that religious experience is possible.6 The influence of Sufism on Islamic ecology is strong: in their search for union with God, Sufis dedicate themselves to contemplation and spiritual practices and believe contemplation of the natural world is key to understanding higher reality.7 Sufi poets have for centuries extolled the virtues of turning to nature to experience God. For example, in one of his many poems Rumi wrote:

  • The unique God has manifested His signs in the
  • six directions to those with illuminated eyes.
  • Whatever animal or plant they behold, they
  • contemplate the gardens of divine Beauty.
  • That is why he said to them,
  • Wheresoever you turn, there is His face. (2:115)8

Nasr, himself a Sufi, argues that a widespread spiritual awakening to the immanence of God in creation—a revival of a traditional Islamic worldview that sees a metaphysical reality in the natural world—is the only true way to address environmental crisis.9

It is not only Sufis, however, who see God as being immanent in creation. A constant refrain in Islamic environmental theology is that the Qur’an calls nature an Ayah (sign) from God.

It is He who made the sun a shining radiance and the moon a light . . . God did not create all these without a true purpose; He explains His signs to those who understand. In the succession of night and day, and in what God created in the heavens and earth, there truly are signs for those who are aware of him. (10:5–6)10

The Arabic word for “sign” used in this verse and in the many others where the Qur’an calls Creation a “sign” from God (for example, 2:164, 3:189, 6:96–97, 7:56–57, 10:5–6) is Ayah (pl. Ayat). The only use for the word Ayah is to refer to a verse of the Qur’an, and this is highly significant as it implies nature is a revelation of God similar to the Qur’an. Taking this analogy seriously, some Muslim environmental activists have even likened being in the natural world to “walking through the verses of the Qur’an.”11

The Muslim scholars who dwell on the immanence of God in the natural world and its significance for an Islamic ecology are, however, at pains to qualify their attribution of divinity to nature. The difference between panentheism and pantheism is of vital import: to claim that God is identical with the natural world, or that the natural world is sacred in and of itself, would be a heretical claim. Instead, the natural world is framed as a manifestation of God’s power, rather than as sacred itself.12 The Sufi doctrine of the “unity of Being” (wahdat al-wujud) of creation posits that there is one ultimate reality or truth—a singularity of being, God—from which all things that exist emanate. This doctrine is central to Nasr’s environmental philosophy, as it explains the metaphysical or higher reality he ascribes to the natural world. Yet he argues the concept has been “misinterpreted by many Western scholars as pantheism,” and it does not imply that “the world in its totality is God or even that God is only immanent without being transcendent.”13

Although a more esoteric understanding of nature as Ayah might focus on the potential of humans to experience God through encounters with the natural world, nature is also a sign of divine reward and punishment in the Qur’an—much as in the Hebrew Bible. Biblical scholar Jeanne Kay’s words are as applicable to the Qur’an as they are to the Bible when she calls nature a “tool of divine justice: beneficent nature is a reward for religious observance, and a deteriorating environment is God’s punishment for idolatry or immorality.”14 The following verse is often cited in Islamic ecological literature, and shows how nature reflects God’s pleasure or displeasure with human action: “Corruption has flourished on land and sea as a result of people’s action and He will make them taste the consequences of some of their own actions so that they may turn back” (30:41). In a number of other verses in the Qur’an (7:96, 11:52, 13:13, 17:68–69) bounteous nature is clearly named a reward for good action and natural disaster or environmental degradation a punishment for bad action. That God might reveal His judgment of human action through the natural world is thus a further reason to see the natural world as an Ayah—a sign or revelation—from God.

The immanence of God in creation and believing the natural world to be a sign from God provides two reasons for protecting the environment. Firstly, Muslims have a duty to respect and glorify God, which includes respect for His creation.15 If God is immanent in creation or the natural world is a “sign” then desecrating nature is akin to desecrating the Qur’an or showing disrespect to God. Muslim writers on Islamic ecology who take this perspective have cautioned, “if any species becomes extinct, it is considered a loss of a Sign that reflects the greatness of the Creator.”16 Secondly, if the natural world is an avenue to religious experience, it should be protected to ensure Muslims are able to experience God through nature. It is only through the immanence of God in His creation that humans are able to have “a direct encounter with the divine.”17 Even for those who do not seek a direct encounter with the divine, as a manifestation of God’s power and wisdom the natural world “serves to develop human awareness and understanding of the Creator.”18

Humans and Nature: Khalifah

The environmental theologies that seek to explain the relationship of God to the natural world may help Muslims to develop attitudes of respect toward nature. But it is through articulating the proper relationship of humans to the natural world that a systematic environmental ethic begins to emerge. Creation narratives are an important means by which religious traditions construct the relationship of humans to the natural world. There is no one sustained account of God creating the universe in the Qur’an, but there are a number of verses scattered throughout the Qur’an that together form the Islamic creation narrative. God “created the earth in two days. . . . He placed solid mountains on it, blessed it, measured out its varied provisions for all who seek them – all in four days . . . and in two days He formed the seven heavens and instilled into each its function” (41:9–12). In another verse, the Qur’an states, “it is He who created the Heavens and the earth and what is between them in six days.”

The creation of humans is described in three different ways in the Qur’an. The first human, Adam, was created from clay (15:26); humans are created from fluid at conception (25:54); and humankind was created from dust at creation (30:20). Significantly for Islamic ecology, God created humans for a specific purpose: to be a successor or trustee on earth (Khalifah) and to worship God (30:20). That humans were created with this purpose in mind is an important distinction to the Christian creation narrative. In Islam, humans were always destined for earth, whereas in Christianity humans were banished to earth after the fall. Life on earth is not a punishment and nature is not “unredeemed.”19 There is, therefore, a more positive outlook on humans’ life on earth in Islam, and this could translate to a more positive attitude toward the natural world itself.

The word “khalifah” is often translated as “viceroy” or “steward” by Muslim environmentalists, however, in English translations of the Qur’an it is translated as “successor” or “inheritor” in 2:30, 6:165, 10:14, 27:62, and 35:39.20 In explaining his translation Muhammad Abdel Haleem states “the term Khalifah is normally translated as ‘vicegerent’ or ‘deputy’. While this is one meaning of the term, its basic meaning is ‘successor’—the Qur’an talks about generations and individuals who are successors to each other—or a ‘trustee’ to whom a responsibility is temporarily given.”21 That humans succeed one another in generation, and that trusteeship is only temporarily given, is important for Islamic ecology. Humans have a responsibility to pass on the world to the following generations of humans. The responsibility of trusteeship thus holds humanity accountable to their descendants and the other creatures who share the earth, as well as to God.

That Khilafah (trusteeship or stewardship) is a divinely ordained task for humanity reoccurs throughout Islamic ecology. Muslim environmentalists interpret the concept to entail a religious duty to care for the earth.22 Verse 2:30 is frequently invoked in the writings of Muslim ecologists, and it reads: “When your Lord told the angels: ‘I am putting a successor (Khalifah) on earth’ they said, ‘How can You put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’” The verse not only establishes that God intended humans to be His trustee on earth but also demonstrates that humans may not always be capable of living up to the task.

Because of this, the role of Khalifah entails an accountability to God, with some Muslim ecologists arguing it is a “test” to which humans will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment. The role requires careful management of the earth’s resources—although the Qur’an encourages humans to cultivate and create order in the land, “corruption” (Fasad) or disorder is intensely disliked by God and taken as a sign of hypocrites. Verse 2:11–12 reads, “When it is said to them, ‘Do not cause corruption in the land’ they say, ‘We are only putting things right’ but really they are causing corruption, though they do not realise it.” In this verse, derivatives of the verb afsada (to cause disorder or do corruption) are translated by Abdel-Haleem as “corruption.”23 This word is repeated in 2:60 when God commands, “Eat and drink the sustenance God has provided and do not cause corruption in the land” and again in 2:204–205 where God warns Muhammad about a person “whose views on the life of this world may please you . . . yet he is the bitterest of opponents. When he leaves, he sets out to spread corruption in the land, destroying crops and livestock – God does not like corruption.” In ten additional verses (7:56, 7:74, 7:85, 11:85, 12:73, 13:25, 26:152, 26:183, 29:36, 47:22) God displays displeasure at the “corruption” of the natural world, indicating to Muslim ecologists a duty to ensure the preservation of nature.

Whether Khalifah is a collective or individual responsibility is not resolved by Muslim ecologists. Some scholars believe it to be a daily “devotional practice” required of all Muslims that entails caring for the earth through one’s actions.24 However, Islamic law stipulates that some religious duties are incumbent upon all Muslims whilst others only need be performed by a few Muslims. Although Muslim ecologists hope to motivate as many Muslims as possible to become environmentally conscious, and there is environmental benefit to all Muslims acting in an environmentally responsible manner, whether environmentalism is a duty required of everyone or whether the duty can be fulfilled by a smaller number of Muslims is not settled within environmental theology.

Humans and Nature: Dominion

Whether humans have dominion over nature is a particularly fraught question in various religious communities. The Qur’an does not clearly give dominion over the earth to humans. In seventeen separate verses (2:107, 3:189, 5:17, 5:18, 5:120, 7:158, 9:116, 24:42, 25:2, 39:44, 42:49, 43:85, 45:27, 48:14, 57:2, 57:5, 85:9) it states: “Do you not know that control [Mulk] of the heavens and the earth belongs to Him?” Mulk, translated in the verse above as “control,” is a verbal noun coming from the root M L K, which has a basic meaning of ownership or possession. In other English translations of the Qur’an, Mulk is translated as “dominion” in these verses. The word is used forty-eight times in the Qur’an, and whenever it is “the heavens and the earth” as a whole that is possessed (in some verses, it refers to “control” or “dominion” over a discrete kingdom on earth, i.e., that of Solomon in 2:102), it is always God who has Mulk. It seems, therefore, that the Qur’an assigns “dominion” or ownership of the earth only to God and not to humans.

Yet the Qur’an does state that animals, plants, the seas, and the earth have been “subjected” or “made available” to humankind. For example, 31:20 states: “[People], do you not see how God has made what is in the heavens and on the earth useful to you [sakhhara lakum], and has lavished His blessings on you both outwardly and inwardly.” In this verse, the Arabic phrase sakhhara lakum means “to make available to you” and comes from the root S Kh R. This root appears elsewhere in the Qur’an as taskhir—a verbal noun meaning that God makes things available for your benefit (see 14:32, 16:12, 16:14, 31:20, and 45:13). These verses highlight a tension in contemporary Islamic environmental literature: whether humanity is privileged, unique, or superior to the rest of creation or whether humans are but a small part of creation and interdependent with it.

This tension is not unique to contemporary Islamic thought. The 10th-century “Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan Al-Safa”), an esoteric secret brotherhood who produced fifty-two treatises on an encyclopedic range of subjects, tried to demonstrate that humans elevate themselves above the rest of Creation in an unjust manner. In their treatise The Animals’ Lawsuit against Humanity, the animals of a mythic isle take humanity to court—to the King of the Jinn—for mistreatment. Defending themselves against the animals, a human argues to the King, “God raised us humans over all other creatures and gave us the animals and other foods to eat . . . God created animals solely for our use. They are our slaves and we are their masters.”25 The treatise, which inspired Nasr in the development of his environmental philosophy, argues that the only reason humans can be considered superior to the natural world is the ability of some humans to “achieve sanctity and act as a channel of grace for the rest of God’s creation.”26 In no other way is humanity superior to other creatures, and the path to sanctity involves relinquishing the “hubris” that causes humans to exploit and enslave animals and the natural world.27

Most Islamic environmental literature is anthropocentric—attributing a privileged position to humanity in the order of creation. In calling humankind a “channel of grace” for the world, Nasr argues that it is the continued spiritual practice of (at least some) humans that channels divine “light” to nature. He writes, “[Humans are] the mouth through which Nature breathes and lives . . . were there to be no more contemplatives and saints, Nature would become deprived of the light that illuminates it and the air which keeps it alive.”28 In this framing of the relationship between humankind and nature, humans are not raised above other living things because of their gift of reason: the grace of God that sustains the very existence of all creation flows through humans (at least, those humans who engage in devotional and contemplative practices).

For less esoteric Muslim scholars who are concerned with ecology, anthropocentrism is still evident in their interpretation of the concept of Khalifah, which they take to mean humanity has a responsibility to preserve the earth for future human generations—not for its inherent worth. An anthropocentric environmentalism, whilst interested in preserving the natural world and addressing environmental crises, does so in the interests of human wellbeing. It is possible, and indeed common, for Muslim environmentalists to see humans as privileged or superior to the natural world. As in the creation story told in the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’anic narratives of creation can be interpreted as giving humanity authority or superiority over nature. Muhammad Iqbal, writing on the Islamic creation narrative, argues that in the process of developing rational thought Adam learnt to differentiate himself from nature: verse 2:31 tells how God taught Adam “the names of all things.” Iqbal notes that the process of naming involves forming concepts, “and forming concepts of them is capturing them.”29 However, even when Muslim ecologists take an anthropocentric stance, it is always mediated by the demands of Khalifah. The “capture” of the natural world, therefore, is not absolute.

Whether or not the role of Khalifah elevates humans above the rest of the natural world or justifies an entirely anthropocentric environmentalism, evidence of the inherent value of the natural world is found within Islamic scriptures. Scholars point to verses such as those that claim animals form communities like humans do (6:38) or that the natural world is always in a state of submission and worship to God, in addition to the already-discussed claim that the natural world is an Ayah from God.30 That nature exists for purposes other than human benefit has been acknowledged in the Islamic tradition for centuries. The 14th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya wrote, “it must be remembered that God in His wisdom brought into being these creatures for reasons other than serving human beings. In these verses [those stating the natural world has been made useful to humans] God only explains the [human] benefits of these.”31 These scholars at the minimum express that the natural world has inherent value independent of its usefulness to humankind. In some instances, they also cautiously explore whether such verses may mean that humans are in fact equal and interdependent with nature, rather than superior to it.32 There is evidence in Islamic scripture that animals have also been given use of the natural world to support themselves, like humans, and thus any entitlement humankind has to the natural world must be shared with other living things.33

Shari’ah and Environmental Law

Where the previous sections have explored various aspects of an Islamic environmental theology, this section turns to whether Islamic law—Shari’ah—can be used in the development of an Islamic environmental ethic. Willis Jenkins argues that jurisprudence, rather than the development of environmental theology, is more important for achieving environmental reform in Islam.34 Not only has jurisprudence historically been used as a mechanism of reform, it is a “revelation-in-praxis”: the means by which Muslims implement “God’s will on earth.”35 Shari’ah is both a concept and a method: it is the normative content of the Qur’an, specifying law for Muslims to follow; and it is the methodology by which Muslim legal scholars interpret the Islamic scriptures and legal tradition to formulate law for those things not regulated in the Qur’an, or to interpret the Qur’anic law in particular socio-historical contexts.36

Shari’ah as a methodology involves trained legal scholars using the Qur’an, the collected hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), analogical reasoning (Qiyas), and the consensus of scholars to develop law. It is this methodology, and its ability to “adapt Islamic principles to a world of climate change in continuity with the tradition’s integrity,” where Jenkins finds potential for an Islamic environmental ethic.37 Other Muslim scholars also look to the various normative guidelines within the Qur’an and the Islamic legal tradition—specifically those regarding land and water management—and advocate for a revival of their use.

What constitutes shari’ah is, however, contested. In addition to the normative content of the Qur’an is the significant body of fiqh (law) that built up into the medieval period. In some more conservative Muslim circles, the explicit law of the Qur’an and classical fiqh constitute shari’ah—no “new” law can be formulated. Other scholars argue that, within the established methodology for interpreting the Qur’an and hadith, there should be the possibility of undertaking new interpretations for the contemporary world. Abdulahi An-Na’im argues, “there is nothing to prevent the formation of a fresh consensus around new interpretive techniques or innovative interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunna, which would become part of Shari’a just as the existing methodologies and interpretations came to be a part of it in the first place.”38 The work of scholars like An-Na’im who find room for reinterpretation of Islamic law inspires those who take a more “reformist” approach to Islamic ecology, such as Jenkins. It is the flexibility that An-Na’im sees within Islamic jurisprudence that encourages Muslim ecologists that it may be possible to formulate a response to environmental crisis from within the Islamic tradition.

Of the environmental regulations found within Islamic scriptures and early jurisprudence, it is those that categorize and regulate the management of land that draw the most attention from Muslim ecologists. Land is broadly divided into ‘amir (developed) and mawat (undeveloped). These two categories are further divided: ‘amir land into settlements and agricultural land; mawat into “rough grazing” land and wilderness.39 Settled communities can designate a Harim, or protected zone—which is derived directly from the Harim of Mecca, a large area of land that by order of the Qur’an is accessible to all people in the community and in which no hunting is allowed and no trees may be cut down.40 Muslim environmentalists see much potential in the regulations regarding these protected zones, arguing such laws could be used to establish wilderness and nature reserves for the preservation of endangered species and ecosystems.41 One such kind of reserve is that captured by the categorization of Hima. The Hima existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, although prior to Islam this “reserved zone” was typically used by the powerful to secure rights to land and served to entrench inequality and oppression.42 The institution was adopted in early Islam and transformed by the requirement that a Hima meet the following conditions: (1) it must be established by a legitimate Islamic authority, (2) it must be for the purpose of public welfare or benefit, (3) its establishment should not deprive local people of indispensable resources or cause undue hardship, and (4) it must, overall, cause economic or environmental benefit to society.43 The prominent Muslim environmentalist Fazlun Khalid argues that “special reserves (Hima) may be established by the state for use as conservation zones . . . the state may establish inviolable zones (Harim) where use is prohibited or restricted,” whilst Adi Setia calls upon the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation to follow the example of “Umar (the second Islamic Caliph) and revive the traditional Islamic environmental conservation institutions of Hima (reserves) and Harim (inviolable zones).”44

Other scholars have, however, expressed caution about the revival of such institutions. The original intent of such zones was to protect them for human use, rather than for their ecological value. Richard Foltz argues that, “in order for the institution of Hima to be revived in Muslim regions . . . in a form that would actually serve to protect wildlife for the sake of biodiversity and ecosystem balance, the traditional rationale for its existence would have to be reinterpreted in light of contemporary scientific understanding.”45 Yet, as Jenkins argues, the original intent of the law cannot be argued away.46 The justification for laws relating to Hima and Harim was never the preservation of species or particular ecosystems, and arguably that cannot be their justification now.

The juristic practice of Qiyas (analogical reasoning) is used by some Muslim scholars who try to apply hadith to contemporary environmental problems. Hadith relating the cleanliness, foul odors, and hygiene are interpreted as prohibitions against land, sea, or air pollution. For example, one such hadith states, “Beware of the two [acts that bring] curses: relieving oneself in the path of people or in the shade [i.e., Where people rest].” A second that forbids toileting in water sources is interpreted in a similar way: both land and water sources should be protected from toxic chemicals and garbage. Meanwhile, the hadith that forbid Muslims to eat garlic prior to entering a Mosque or public space are seen to be a prohibition against air pollution.47 The hadith that demonstrate concern for the conservation of water are interpreted as injunctions against excessive consumption and wasting natural resources. One such hadith states, “The Prophet performed ablution three [times] and said ‘Whoever increases [more than three] he does injustice and wrong.’”48 Another states, “‘Oh Sa’ad do not overuse water! Just use whatever you need exactly.’ Sa’ad replied, ‘Is there any misuse of water?’ The Prophet said, ‘Yes, even if you are on the shore of a river.’”49

However, the same critique given against the revival of the Hima and Harim could also be made of those who advocate for re-examination of the laws regarding water management, who often use the hadith regarding the prohibition against “overusing” water in their justification.50 The underlying purpose and justification for the development of water management laws is that water should be of benefit to all people who live along and use a water source—be it a river, well, or spring. The law, once again, is intended to protect the environment for human use, not to protect an ecosystem or preserve species that may live in the water.

Review of the Literature

The first explicitly “environmental” (in the contemporary sense) work of scholarship by a Muslim scholar was the 1967 publication Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man by the Iranian-American philosopher and Sufi, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. This short book, based on his 1966 Rockerfeller lectures at the University of Chicago, spoke to the emerging zeitgeist in calling out the detrimental effects of human industry on the natural world. Not explicitly Islamic in its focus, the book nonetheless is a seminal text for Muslim ecologists, and Nasr remained engaged in environmental discourse over the following four decades, with his central arguments largely unchanged. Nasr argues the only way to address environmental crisis is to re-sacralize nature by giving legitimacy to a metaphysical view of nature. Both humanity and its view of nature need to be reborn for this to occur.51 Nasr’s work, although influential in the development of a distinctive Islamic approach to ecology, is idiosyncratic in its mysticism and philosophical methodology.

Within the literature written by Muslims on the environment there are two strands, which can broadly be labelled traditionalist and reformist.52 Traditional scholars frame building an Islamic ecology as a process of “retrieval and reconstruction”—arguing that within the history of Islamic civilisation and scholarship there is already an adequate response to contemporary environmental crisis.53 Building an Islamic ecology is not, therefore, a question of undertaking “new” interpretations of Islamic scripture but rather is about searching for an environmental meaning that was always there but has been either ignored or lost.54 In some instances Muslim environmentalists within this broadly traditional strand of Islamic ecology call not only for the revival of historical Islamic institutions but for a return to an “authentic” practice of Islam. What constitutes an “authentic” Islamic practice is by-and-large unexplained but is often linked to a rejection of consumerism and capitalist economics.55 Such traditional Islamic ecologies are, at times, apologetic in nature—attempting to show how Islam has always been an ecologically sound religion, even if its followers do not always live in ecologically sound ways.

The second broad strand of Islamic ecology can be characterized as reformist in character. In this strand Muslim scholars still ground their ecological approach in Islamic scripture and the Islamic intellectual tradition. However, to varying degrees they argue that existing Islamic theology and jurisprudence requires reinterpretation or reform before they can adequately address contemporary environmental crises, as do any historical Islamic institutions that could be used for environmental management.56 Such an approach is influenced by the work of contemporary Islamic scholars such as Abdullahi An’Naim and Khaled Abu El-Fadl, who argue that Islamic scriptures and the shari’ah must be continually open to reappraisal and interpretation that takes into account changing social, historical, and geographical realities.

As hinted at in the section “Shari’ah and Environmental Law,” a further tension exists in Islamic environmental discourse between those who attempt to build an “environmental” theology of Islam and those who believe the most effective means of constructing an Islamic response to environmental crisis is through the shari’ah—Islamic law. Whereas Nasr is exclusively interested in theological work, the work of environmental scholar Mawil Izzi Dien engages with both environmental theology and the shari’ah. However, Willis Jenkins argues that trying to ground an Islamic ethic in cosmology is a dramatic shift from the “normative habitat” of Islamic resources, and it is within law that any Muslim ethics is properly grounded.57

In addition to the academic literature in Islamic theology and law, there is a significant body of literature written for the everyday Muslim that is highly practical and educational in nature. Typical of such literature is the popular book Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about the Environment by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. The book utilizes verses from the Qur’an and selected hadith like those discussed above to make the case that Islam does have an environmental message.58 Such literature aims to motivate Muslims into environmental action and is influenced both by the Islamic theological and intellectual tradition and secular environmentalism. For example, the newsletter Eco-Islam, edited by the influential Muslim environmental activist Fazlun Khalid and published sporadically between 2006 and 2011, not only featured articles profiling the work of Muslim scholars who write on the environment such as the Saudi Arabia–based Othman Llewellyn but also articles on genetically modified food, deforestation, and a report from the Copenhagen Climate Summit.59

Further, a growing body of sociological literature examines the efforts of Muslim groups to put environmental teachings into action. For example, how Turkish Islamists incorporate environmental readings of Islamic scripture into their theological and organizational frameworks; what environmental issues radical Islamist groups like Hizb’allah, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami, and al Qaeda engage on; and analyses of Muslim women’s environmental beliefs and actions in the United States of America and Great Britain.60 This literature demonstrates that environmentalism is a marginal, but growing, concern in Muslim communities, and Muslim environmental groups struggle to recruit and retain active participants in their activities.61

Further Reading

Foltz, Richard, Azizan Baharuddin, and Frederick Denny, eds. Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

    Foltz, Richard, ed. Environmentalism in the Muslim World. New York: Nova Science, 2005.Find this resource:

      Hancock, Rosemary. Islamic Environmentalism: Activism in the United States and Great Britain. London: Routledge, 2018.Find this resource:

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                      (1.) Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967): 1203–1207.

                      (2.) Ahmed Afzaal, “Disenchantment and the Environmental Crisis: Lynn White Jr., Max Weber, and Muhammad Iqbal,” Worldviews 16 (2012): 248.

                      (3.) Afzaal, “Disenchantment,” 240.

                      (5.) Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1996).

                      (6.) Afzaal, “Disenchantment,” 249.

                      (8.) Rumi, “Mathnaw i,” VI, 3640–3642, quoted in William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983), 306.

                      (9.) Nasr, Man and Nature 14; Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of the Environmental Crisis (London: Temenos Academy, 1999).

                      (10.) All quotations from the Qur’an are taken from: Muhammad A. S. Abdel Haleem, trans., The Qur’an: A New Translation by M.A.S Abdel Haleem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

                      (12.) Nawal Ammar and Allison Gray, “Islamic Environmental Teachings: Compatible with Ecofeminism?,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Ecology, ed. John Hart (Hoboken, NJ and Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2017), 302.

                      (13.) Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “God Is Absolute Reality and All Creation Is His Tajalli (Theophany),” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Ecology, ed. John Hart (Hoboken, N.J. and Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2017), 4.

                      (14.) Jeanne Kay, “Human Dominion over Nature in the Hebrew Bible,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 79, no. 2 (1989): 215.

                      (15.) Ammar and Gray, “Islamic Environmental Teachings,” 302.

                      (16.) Mustafa Abu-Sway, “Towards an Islamic Jurisprudence of the Environment,” Environment, Islam Online.

                      (17.) Afzaal, “Disenchantment,” 249.

                      (18.) Muwil Yusuf Izzi Dien, “Islam and the Environment: Theory and Practice,” Journal of Beliefs and Values: Studies in Religion and Education 18, no. 1 (1997): 48; and see also Ammar and Gray, “Islamic Environmental Teachings,” 302.

                      (20.) Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, 7, 93, 129, 242, 279.

                      (21.) Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, 7.

                      (22.) For example, Imfadi Abu-Hola, “An Islamic Perspective on Environmental Education,” Education 130, no. 2 (2009): 195–211; Abu-Sway, “Towards an Islamic Jurisprudence”; and Adi Setia, “The Inner Dimension of Going Green: Articulating an Islamic Deep-Ecology,” Islam and Science 5, no. 2 (2007): 117–149.

                      (23.) Hanna E. Kassis, A Concordance of the Qur’an (Berkely, CA, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1983), 441.

                      (24.) Ammar and Gray, “Islamic Environmental Teachings,” 303.

                      (27.) Nasr, “Introduction,” xiii.

                      (28.) Nasr, Man and Nature, 96.

                      (29.) Iqbal, The Reconstruction, 10.

                      (30.) For example, Setia, “The Inner Dimension,” 142.

                      (31.) Ibn Taymiyya, quoted in Haq, “Islam and Ecology,” 153–154.

                      (32.) See Setia, “The Inner Dimension,” 132.

                      (33.) Ammar and Gray, “Islamic Environmental Teachings,” 302.

                      (35.) Abdulaziz Sachedina, “The Ideal and Real in Islamic Law,” in Perspectives on Islamic Law, Justice, and Society, ed. Ravindra S. Khare (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 15–16.

                      (36.) Abdulahi An-Na’im, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); and David Johnston, “Intra-Muslim Debates on Ecology: Is Shari’a Still Relevant?,” Worldviews 16 (2012): 235.

                      (37.) Jenkins, “Islamic Law,” 341.

                      (38.) An-Na’im, Islam and the Secular State, 13.

                      (39.) Yasin Dutton, “Islam and the Environment: A Framework for Inquiry,” in Islam and the Environment, ed. Harfiyah Abdel Haleem (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1998), 56–74.

                      (40.) Fazlun M. Khalid, “Islam and the Environment,” in Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change, vol. 5: Social and Economic Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, ed. Ted Munn (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2002), 4.

                      (41.) For example, Dutton, “Islam and the Environment,” 59; Safei El-Deen Hamed, “Seeing the Environment through Islamic Eyes: Application of Shariah to Natural Resources Planning and Management,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 6, no. 2 (1993): 145–164; and Haq, “Islam and Ecology,” 149–150.

                      (42.) Lutfallah Gari, “A History of the Hima Conservation System,” Environment and History 12, no. 2 (2006): 213.

                      (43.) Gari, “A History,” 216.

                      (44.) Setia, “The Inner Dimension,” 133.

                      (45.) Richard C. Foltz, Animals in Islamic Traditions and Muslim Cultures (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006), 41.

                      (46.) Jenkins, “Islamic Law,” 349.

                      (47.) Abu-Sway, “Towards an Islamic Jurisprudence,” 28.

                      (48.) Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan Al-Nasa’I, and Sunan Ibn Majah, quoted in Abu-Sway, “Towards an Islamic Jurisprudence,” 28.

                      (49.) Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Zad al-Ma’ad, 1–48, quoted in Abu-Hola, “An Islamic Perspective,” 205.

                      (50.) For example, Dien, “Islam and the Environment,” 55.

                      (51.) Nasr, Man and Nature; and Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature, 6.

                      (52.) Jenkins, “Islamic Law,” 339.

                      (53.) Haq, “Islam and Ecology.”

                      (54.) Hancock, Islamic Environmentalism, 94.

                      (55.) For example, Fazlun Khalid, “Islam and the Environment: Ethics and Practice; An Assessment,” Religion Compass 4, no. 11 (2010): 707–716.

                      (56.) Jenkins, “Islamic Law.”

                      (57.) Jenkins, “Islamic Law,” 340.

                      (58.) Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet (San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler, 2010).

                      (59.) See Fazlun Khalid, “EcoIslam,” last modified 2015.

                      (60.) Oğuz Erdur, “Reappropriating the ‘Green’: Islamist Environmentalism,” New Perspectives on Turkey 17 (1997): 151–166; Emmanuel Karagiannis, “Political Islam and Social Movement Theory: The Case of Hizb Ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan,” Religion, State and Society 33, no. 2 (2005): 137–150; Jumana Vasi, “Environmentalism and Islam: A Study of Muslim Women in the U.S.” (Master’s diss., The University of Michigan, 2008); and Daniel Nilsson DeHanas, “Broadcasting Green: Grassroots Environmentalism on Muslim Women’s Radio,” The Sociological Review 57 (2010): 141–155.

                      (61.) Sophie Gilliat-Ray, Muslims in Britain (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Hancock, Islamic Environmentalism.