Islam and Environmentalism Today

By: Tarik M. Quadir

As a child growing up in a small town in Bangladesh, I remember being very careful not to hurt bugs, ants, birds, animals and even plants because it would be a sin against God to do so. Even the earth was not to be dug or hurt unnecessarily because one day when we die we will be returned to the earth, and the grave itself would punish us for our unnecessary cruelty toward it. Islam, my religion, had formed my view of nature and made me a little environmentalist two decades before I became aware of the environmental crisis. This realization inspires me to this day to take a religious approach to environmentalism. Today, as Islam is often maligned by some as a religion of hatred and violence, it is worth remembering that this religion possesses immense potential as a source of healing for this beautiful planet that is our home.To begin with, according to the Quran, the various species on the earth "form communities" like us, 6:38, "every entity celebrates God's praise," 17:44, and they are all "signs of God," 42:29, and thus, all have transcendent meanings and purposes. Moreover, the Quran uses the same term "aya" to refer to both the entities in nature and the verses of this revelation. In other words, we are immersed in the "cosmic Quran" by which God sustains not only our bodies, but also our souls. In fact, the Quran speaks of nature as reminders and beacons of God, more than the central scriptures of any other major world religion. Moreover, intrinsic worth is "greater than" that of any arrogant human, 40:57, and forbids us from activities that may upset the balance in nature, 55:8. Most importantly, humans were sent with the charge and capacity to be God's representatives, 35:39, and all of nature, including our own faculties, were given to humankind as trusts for which we will be held accountable if we misuse them, 102:8.


These teachings were also manifest in the examples set by the Prophet Muhammad. The prophet forbade dirtying public spaces and water sources and thus established the institution of "harim" (forbidden space) for that same purpose. Likewise, he established sanctuaries for animals and plants. He forbade waste of any natural element even if it is available in plenty and urged sharing of basic necessities. The prophet strongly encouraged the planting of trees, saying, "There is no believer who plants a tree or sows a field from which a human, bird or animal eats, but it shall be reckoned as charity." He encouraged showing mercy and compassion to all beings, saying, "O people, have mercy for those who are on the Earth, then He who is in heaven will have mercy on you."

Apart from the prophet's extraordinary environmental sensitivity, the idea of nature as a sign of God, and thus, as conveyer of transcendental meanings, can give us insight into what may be missing in today's mainstream environmentalism.

Today, most environmentalists do not see environmentalism as a religious or spiritual cause. Accordingly, most mainstream environmentalists do not see that the root of this crisis lies in the unprecedented level of materialistic values of modern societies that sustain the economic system and government policies that they seek to change. Even when they realize this, they do not see that the root of this level of materialism lies in the secularized perception of nature generated by modern science, the kind of science most of them view as their greatest hope.

Without denying the benefits of modern science and technology, we must understand their limitations, especially in their role in grinding out all notions of transcendent value, meaning and purpose of nature. Unless the materialistic values of greed for wealth, power and sensual pleasures are not sufficiently restrained, efforts to change economic models and government policies cannot succeed in solving the problem. The worldly solutions that mainstream environmentalists seek, very helpful as they are, can only delay environmental catastrophes by a few decades, but not in the long run. Aware of this prospect, many veteran environmentalists are calling for a paradigm shift in values, but still within a secular framework.


Let us remember that the flame of greed is deeply ingrained in human souls. From a religious perspective, only that which can reach our souls at a deeper level, and not just better economic models and policy changes, however well intended, can keep the flame of greed sufficiently restrained to let nature survive, and even thrive. As the Prophet Muhammad and even the creation story of Genesis, says, humans are made in the "image of God," the one who has no limitations. Made in God's image and yet unaware of this, there is something in us that is never satisfied by anything of this finite world – we hunger for the infinite. Unless this hunger is sufficiently turned toward the one who has no end, it can only end with humans devouring the world. From a spiritual perspective, this is what has been happening over the last 300 years since the scientific revolution gave us a mechanical worldview and thus stripped nature of its status as a sign of God. Instead of seeing nature as a spiritual means for knowing God, modern science taught us to see nature, including ourselves, only in purely physical terms.

Muslims should acknowledge and proclaim this deficiency in mainstream environmentalism and join people of all faiths in demonstrating the crucial role all religions can play in reawakening humanity to eternal meanings of nature. They should "compete in good works," 5:48, with people of other faiths as the Quran advises them to do. In these very difficult times for the earth as well as for millions across the world, more than ever, Muslims should pay heed to these words: "The servants of the Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, 'Peace'!" 25:63.

* An assistant professor of environmentalism and of contemporary Islamic thought at Necmettin Erbakan University in Turkey, the author of "The Traditional Islamic Environmentalism."

This article was originally published on Daily Sabah on March 7th, 2016.