Answered by Shaykh Jamir Meah
Question: Assalamu alaykum
I am doing an assignment based on Islamic environmental ethics. Is there any information you could provide on Tawhid & Balance and Stewardship & Trust? How are these teachings significant for adherents in relation to environmental ethics?
Answer: In the Name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate
Thank you for your question. May Allah grant you the best of states and guide you to what is pleasing to Him.
With the world becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues, and the unprecedented dangers that post-industrialisation, globalisation, and nuclear power pose to mankind, the discussion of Islamic ethics in relation to the environment has gained timely prominence. However, environmental and ecological considerations are not something new in the religion, as Islam encompasses every aspect of human existences holistically.
The subject of Islamic ethics and the environment is a vast subject, and it can be approached and discussed on many levels. Therefore, for the purpose of this answer, we shall touch on the main subject areas, and provide some textual evidence for these.
FITRA (Primordial Nature)
Man is created in a pure state, a primordial human nature. The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) stated, ‘Every child is born in a state of fitrah’ [Muslim], and in the Qur’an we find, ‘So set thou thy face steadily and truly to the Faith: (establish) Allah’s handiwork according to the pattern on which He has made mankind: no change (let there be) in the work (wrought) by Allah: that is the standard Religion: but most among mankind understand not.’ [3:30].
This fitrah, or natural pattern, that man was created on, also applies to the rest of the natural world. Everything in nature is governed by a strict order of patterns, constituting the laws of nature, the scope of which man has only just started to understand a small amount of. This system of law flows universally throughout the cosmos. Without deviation, the celestial planets run their course in orbit, the seas and oceans move and flow accordingly, the animals roam and hunt each day while the plants and trees provide numerous benefits, all in a hyper-complex and unbelievably intricate system.
Mankind therefore, is merely ‘part’ of the much larger ‘whole’. Out of this natural order, man is the only species who has been given the free will to make the choice of following order and the natural state of life or creating disorder and chaos, thereby upsetting the delicate balance.
Just as a child is born into a state of fitrah, a pure state, and it is the parents duty to preserve this purity and develop and nurture the child into a fully grown and blossoming human being, so too is mankind’s collective responsibility to our environment. Our job as the human species is to maintain and preserve this pure state and the natural order, both within ourselves and outside of ourselves. For how can we maintain inner order when we destroy everything outside of us, or, have outward order, when our inward is disordered?
MAN AS VICEGERENT ON EARTH
When the Prophet Adam was created, he was presented to the angels as a ‘Khalifa’ on earth. Allah Most High tells us, ‘And lo! Your Sustainer said to the angels: Behold, I am about to establish upon earth a khalifa.’ [2.30].
The word khalifah means vice-regent or viceroy, or one who succeeds another. In his Tafsir al Wasit, Shaykh Tantawi explains the deputation of man by God by saying, ‘He [Adam] was the viceroy of God on earth, and likewise, all the Prophets were sent as viceroys of Allah to inhabit the earth, to attend to the affairs of people, to perfect their characters, to implement God’s laws upon them, and to enact God’s orders amongst them. And it is said [as a secondary opinion], [khalifa refers to] Adam and his progeny, because they succeed one another in inhabiting the earth, and by mentioning Adam [in the verse], it is not necessary to mention his progeny [as well], as he [Adam] is the originator]. [al Tafsir al Wasit]
Though the main opinion stated here is that the representatives of God are only the Prophets, in actual fact, all men bear the responsibility of the earth’s guardianship. Why? Because the Prophets were sent as examples to mankind, and examples are meant to be followed. To not do so would be abandoning human kinds optimum destiny.
A ‘khalifah’ is one who inherits a position, and this means that responsibility is a trust from the one who deputizes him. To violate that trust would mean dissent. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, in his footnotes to his translation of the Quran, eloquently sums up the role of a khalifah as, ‘The perfect vicegerent is he who has the power to initiate himself, but whose independent action always reflects perfectly the will of his Principle. The distinction is expressed by Shakespeare (sonnet 94) in those fine lines: “They are the lords and the owners of their faces. Others but stewards of their excellence.” [The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an].
This guardianship and responsibility of man over the earth is far reaching. Man must uphold not only the laws pertaining to human relations, but also the laws of nature, and the order of the universe we find spread out all around us, and that we are a part of, because it a trust that has been given to us. As with all trusts, it must be protected and nurtured. One cannot let a trust go to ruin through neglect, let alone destroying through it by one’s own hands, otherwise we can expect to be held accountable.
We mentioned that one of the meanings of khalifa is the one who succeeds another. This becomes more important when we consider the fact that our own successors and inheritors of this earth will be our children and all the future generations. Imagine a man who, just before he dies, spends all his life savings to enjoy a few more moments of life, leaving his children and his grandchildren destitute. It is the duty of Muslims to ensure that the earth is passed down to each future generation in a state of goodness, healthiness, and usability. It is totally against Islamic ethics that we destroy the earth for our own fleeting profit or enjoyment, with the full knowledge that our actions will affect future generations.
An important point to also note is that despite mankind being appointed vicegerent on earth, God nevertheless reminds man that, ‘Assuredly the creation of the heavens and the earth is a greater (matter) than the creation of men: Yet most men understand not.’ [40:57]. We understand from this that man is but just a tiny speck in the vastness of Allah’s creation, yet most of mankind is so ego-centric that he views himself as the sun to which everything else orbits around. In reality, the whole is far, far, greater than the part.
Developments in new-physics are discovering a subtle world of energy and the inter-relationship and inter-dependence of all things. Every element in the universe is interconnected and each have a value to each other. These interdependent values shared between elements in the universe far exceed their value to humans. In other words, we need the natural world more than it need us.
THE UNIVERSE AS A SIGN OF GOD’S ONENESS (Tawheed)
The perfection and order of the world is direct proof of God existence, for the natural laws and patterns of the universe all come from the One Source. We are told repeatedly in the Qur’an to ponder and reflect on the universe. This is because through the world around us the Divine Oneness is manifest. Allah Most high tells us, ‘We shall show them Our signs, in the horizons and in themselves, until it is plain to them that it [this revelation] is the Truth.’ [41:53].
Allah created the world with a purpose. He, Most High says, ‘And We did not create the heaven and the earth and that between them aimlessly.’ [38:27]. This means that Allah created the universe in this way with a purpose and with the Divine Wisdom, and He instructs us to reflect and ponder on the universe, so that we may prosper, ‘Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs for a people who use reason’ [2:164].
Furthermore, everything in this world praises God, from the leaves in the trees in the cities and the rainforests, to the birds in flight, the ants as they work, the fish in the sea, to the great beasts that roam. Allah, Most High informs us that, ‘The seven heavens and the earth, and all beings therein, declare His glory: there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; And yet ye understand not how they declare His glory!’ [17:44].
Everything points to God and His Oneness when one sincerely reflects on creation. There is no plurality in godhood, or else we would have surely seen chaos and disorder in the universe. As God Most High tells us, ‘If there were, in the heavens and the earth, other gods besides Allah, there would have been confusion in both! but glory to Allah, the Lord of the Throne: (High is He) above what they attribute to Him!’ [21:22]
What respect and honour does man show to these great signs of God, and in what direction is our guardianship of the earth we have inherited going? We pollute our seas, our skies, our food, and destroy, not for need but for greed, the trees and mountains and the natural habitats and delicate ecosystems, thereby laying waste to the balance, order, and beauty of the universe that Allah has called upon us to reflect upon? We are told, ‘And the earth We have spread out wide, and placed on it mountains firm, and produced therein means of subsistence – for you and for those whose sustenance does not depend on you [Qur’an 15:19-20]. It becomes clear that we are not the only ones with a right to dwell and benefit from this earth, and that Islamic ethics goes far beyond purely human interaction.
Instead of pondering and connecting with nature as a means to drawing closer to God, humans seem bent on trashing those very signs we are asked to reflect upon. The tragic reality is that our trashing of our environment is representative of our trashing our very own souls.
Allah has created the world and the universe perfect in proportion, measure and balance. He, Most High, tells us, ‘Glorify the name of your Lord, the Most High, Who hath created, and further, given order and proportion, Who hath ordained laws. And guides them’ [87:1-4]. Similalry in al Mulk, ‘He Who created the seven heavens one above another: No want of proportion wilt thou see in the Creation of (Allah) Most Gracious. So turn thy vision again: seest thou any flaw?’ [67:3].
Newton’s third law of motion, ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,’ is confirmation of both the perfect and miraculous balance in which the universe has been created by God, and the danger when man transgresses this balance by taking more than what is needed from the world. We are only starting to see the effects that global warming, wildlife extinction, deforestation, relentless mining and fracking etc. is having on the planet. As long as we take and destroy the world without moderation, the consequences in the future could be horrendous.
God repeatedly reminds us of the gifts of nature and warns us of transgressing our role on earth in Surat al Rahman, such as when He, Most High, states, ‘The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed. And the herbs and the trees – both (alike) prostrate in adoration. And the Firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the Balance (of Justice), In order that ye may not transgress (due) balance. So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance. It is He Who has spread out the earth for (His) creatures: Therein is fruit and date-palms, producing spathes (enclosing dates); Also corn, with (its) leaves and stalk for fodder, and sweet-smelling plants. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?’ [55:1-13]
This is something previous nations, such as the native Americans, understood. The concept of taking what one needs from the world and not transgressing the laws of nature was for such people innate concept, and despite their primitive belief systems, they understood and greatly respected the function that nature played in their lives.
CONSUMPTION AND WASTE
One of the biggest catastrophes modern civilisations are facing, particularly so called ‘developed’ countries, is the issue of mass consumption. It is causing untold damage to the environment and to other innocent people in other parts of the world, as well as the natural habitat of thousands of species of animals.
Islam has always strongly cautioned against any type of excessiveness, encouraging Muslims to be moderate in all things, including our water (even for ritual purity), our food, our money, and our general spending etc. As a community, and as individuals, we are meant be moderate and always stay stick to the middle path, with no excess either way. The Qur’an repeatedly admonishes us with,
‘And do not waste, for God does not love the wasteful.’ [6:141]
‘O you who believe! Do not make unlawful the wholesome things which God has made lawful for you, but commit no excess for God does not love those given to excess.’ [5:87]
‘Eat of the wholesome things We have provided for your sustenance, but commit no excess therein, lest My condemnation fall upon you; he upon whom My condemnation falls has indeed thrown himself into utter ruin.’ [20:81]
‘Children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer and eat and drink. But do not be excessive – verily God does not love the wasteful.’ [7:31].
‘Verily, spendthrifts are brothers of the Shayatin (devils), and the Shaitaan (Satan) is ever ungrateful to his Lord.’ [17:26-27].
The above verses are but just a few. These are in contrast to the verses,
‘And We have willed you to be a community of the middle path.’ [2:143]
‘For, the true servants of the Most Gracious are they who … whenever they spend are neither wasteful nor niggardly, but (remember) that there is always a just mean between these two extremes.’ [25:63]
From the above, we can also conclude that recycling and environmental friendly initiatives are highly regarded in Islam, and carry tremendous rewards.
THE PROPHET AS AN EXAMPLE
Natural conservation, consideration of the environment, and the kind treatment of animals, is something taken very seriously in Islam. Even when we are permitted to kill or take from this earth what we need, we are ordered to do it with excellence and consideration. Islamic fiqh books are replete with examples of the illegality of harming animals unnecessarily, even insects, and cutting down trees. Such topics enter into many chapters of fiqh, including Provision (nafaqah), Trade, Hunting, Zakat, Jihad, Food, Hajj, and more. The general gist of the law is that killing animals or cutting tees down without a need is not permissible. In Islamic law, everything has a right (haqq), and this includes every living creature on earth. Through the law, the order and balance of human relations with each other and one’s environment is maintained and kept in harmony.
These rulings are based upon and supported by the many beautiful hadiths in which the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) showed us how to behave with nature. These actions of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) are not meant as merely heart-warming incidents, but rather serve as profound lessons for us to understand and follow. A few examples are,
The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) once passed by a camel that was so emaciated that its back had almost reached its stomach. He said, ‘Fear Allah in these beasts who cannot speak.’ [Abu Dawud].
Once, the Companions asked, ‘O’ Allah’s Messenger! Is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied: “There is a reward for serving any living being.” [Bukhari].
A group of Companions were once on a journey with the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) and he left them for a while. During his absence, they saw a bird with its two young, and they took the young ones from the nest. The mother bird was circling above in the air, beating its wings in grief, when the Prophet came back. He said, “Who has hurt the feelings of this bird by taking its young? Return them to her.” [Muslim]
Similarly, in Nawawi’s Riyadh as Salihin, we find a narration that Allah punished a woman because she imprisoned a cat until it died of hunger, neither feeding it, nor letting it obtain its own food, while in al Bukhari we find the famous story of a fallen woman of Bani Isra’il who God forgave her sins because she drew some water for a thirsty dog.
The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) ‘I know a stone in Makkah that used to salute (give salaams to) me before I received the revelation, I still know it now.’ [Muslim]
It is narrated in al Bukhari that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) used to deliver his sermons while standing beside a trunk of a date palm. When he had a pulpit made, he used it instead. The trunk started crying like a child, so the Prophet descended (the pulpit) and embraced the tree, and rubbed it with his hands, while the tree continued crying like a child being quietened.
This is the way our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was with nature! And how can it be otherwise, when the One who sent him as the final Messenger to mankind is ‘al Rahman al Rahim’, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate!
Through the Prophet’s life and his example (peace and blessing be upon him), we realise not only the reality that everything in the natural world is a living, breathing entity, but also that it demands from us that we treat it with mutual respect and kindness. Moreover, we learn that everything in the universe, from the trees and rivers, stones and mountains, to countless animals and insects, are all servants of God who, inspired by their Lord, glorify Him in their own way.
As custodians of this earth, it is mankind’s duty to look over the subjects that we have been entrusted with, and it is the Muslims who must assume the mantle and be at the forefront of this care. For Allah Most High says, ‘My servants the righteous, shall inherit the earth.’ [21:105].
Therefore, despite the current bleak state of our environment and its predicated outlook, for Muslims, our faith in Allah should always be the first and foremost guiding principle in any situation, with the full knowledge that Allah is in charge of every affair, and He is the only one who can make a change. It is our responsibility to sincerely supplicate to God, remain optimistic, and then roll up our sleeves and put our ethics into practice.
We ask Allah to make us of those who guard what has been placed under our care and to fulfil the trust that we inherited. I also wish you the very best in your research and studies.
[Shaykh] Jamir Meah
Shaykh Jamir Meah grew up in Hampstead, London. In 2007, he traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he spent nine years studying the Islamic sciences on a one-to-one basis under the foremost scholars of the Ribaat, Tarim, with a main specialization and focus on Shafi’i fiqh. In early 2016, he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continues advanced studies in a range of Islamic sciences, as well as teaching. Jamir is a qualified homeopath.