Islamic Ecotheology: A Religious Call To Protect Ecosystem

By: Malik Gazi Bilal

The calls for ecological justice are intensifying faster and louder than ever. Environmental experts and climate scientists, after conducting vigorous researches, found that climate change is a functional reality which poses great threats to survival of humankind. Their research findings endorse, every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous and polar icecaps and glaciers worldwide have been melting rapidly, faster than their scientific projections. In such a vulnerable situation, together with governments, non-governmental organizations and different international environmental research committees, religious organizations and faith leaders, all across the world,  have also become conscious regarding their role and responsibility vis-à-vis establishing justice for earth, inter-generational justice, and justice for all creation.

Since, environmental crisis is basically the problem of “disequilibrium” of natural world through men’s exploitative behaviour. Therefore, alongside politico-scientific considerations, it also demands a systematic theological perspective that has potential to appeal spiritual and psychological dimensions of man’s “consciousness” towards the biological and physical composition of his (her) environment. The “awakening” of religious consciousness vis-à-vis ecological justice demands that faith-activists of all religions should recognize “ecological justice” as common responsibility and must work together to make this earth a beautiful abode.

Today, the world is witnessing the ever growing participation of faith leaders and appearance of “scripturally contextualized” ecological writings over burning environmental issues such as soaring greenhouse gas emissions, rising global temperatures, typhoons, floods, and killing droughts. Faith leaders, unhesitatingly, are accepting the fact that establishing a just society in principle and practice, would be impossible unless vigorous public discussions, through all channels of communication, are generated regarding how “ecological justice” is valued in religious scriptures and theological formulations. The “utopia” of “just society” would also not come true, if faith-based pro-environment movements for “global action on climate change” are not promoted at national and international level.

Since late 1960’s, Muslim scholars and environmental experts, have been adding their voice to a crescendo of religiously-inspired call for “global action on climate change”- a movement towards developing an Islamic ecotheology. Making “theological formulations” relevant to contemporary ecological issues, Muslim scholars have been engaged in different environmental projects thereby developing a sense of interconnectedness between man and his (her) surrounding ecosystem. Transforming their “less-heard” voice into a meaningful “movement”, on 17-18 August 2015, Muslim faith leaders, ecologists and politicians from more than 20 countries, gathered at a seminar in Istanbul and launched unanimously agreed-upon Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change– a document appealing world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to take immediate, well-mechanized and relevant action against ecological disequilibrium. This declaration followed a similar intervention by the Vatican group earlier this year when Pope Francis issued his 192 page long-awaited encyclical on climate change which warns of “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems and serious consequences” if the world fails to act on the mechanics of climate change.

The discussions generated around the issue of ecological injustice and Islamic response laid the basis of Islamic ecotheology.  Now, the point of concentration is what is this Islamic ecotheology and how does it work?

In my understanding, Islamic ecotheology is a concept that Islam has its own well-structured environmental framework. The philosophical underpinnings of Islamic ecotheology basically include all those concepts and precepts that have been frequently referred to in shari’ah (Islamic law) vis-à-vis God’s design for creation of natural world (ilm al-khalaq)and man’s responsibility for its utilization, maintenance and preservation. Interestingly, Muslim ecotheologists- scholars dealing environmental problems in light of theological formulations- have found that there are about 750 verses in the Qur’an that are, directly or indirectly, related to creation of natural world, the laws that govern it and its impact on quality of human life. For example, the Qur’an has mentioned word maa’ (water) at more than 60 places and introduced it as the origin of whole biological life (21:30). It has also provided every minute detail regarding its source, its forms, its cycling, and its impact on entire ecosystem.

Muslim ecotheologists also maintain that many chapters of the Qur’an are named after specific animals and natural incidents, such as: ‘the Cow’, ‘the Cattle’, ‘the Thunder’, ‘the Bee’, ‘the Ant’, ‘the Daybreak’, ‘the Sun’, ‘the Night’, ‘the Fig’ and ‘the Elephant’ which indicates that Islamic theology doesn’t recognize man a “living being” independent of his (her) environment and the laws that operate therein. Islam advocates that “physically” all ecological factors such air, water, earth, plants and animals support human life. Therefore, man’s attitude towards his/her environment should be based on the principles of justice (‘adl), wisdom(hikmah) and compassion (rahmah). They are also of the opinion that Islam has characterized all natural phenomena as divine signs of God (ayaat-ul-Allah); manifesting His knowledge, wisdom and power. Therefore, it would be right to claim that environment offers profound and constant opportunities to man to be aware of God’s presence and any maltreatment to environmental factors would tantamount man’s negligence towards giving due “respect” to God’s noticeable signs.

However, giving respect doesn’t entail that man cannot take advantage from the nature and its abundant resources positively. Rather, it means while benefiting from the nature, he (she) has to abide by certain principles which form basis of the Islamic ecotheology. These principles can be described as following:

Trusteeship (amanah):

To understand the concept of trusteeship, it is important to understand the nature of relation between the God, man and earth. From the Islamic point of view, whole of earth and all its abundant resources are seen as a divine gift from God and man as the vicegerent (khalifah) of God on the earth (2:30; 6:165; 35:39). The principle of man’s vicegerency tells us that absolute ownership of resources of the earth belong to God and man has been positioned as trustee having right to creatively use it, maintain it and deliver back to God in the best possible conditions. The following Qur’anic verse emphasizes the point, “Believe in Allah and His messenger, and spend of that whereof He hath made you trustees… (57:7).” The meaning of this verse has been appropriately conveyed by Ali ibn Abi-Talib, who said, “partake of it gladly so long as you are the benefactor, not despoiler; a cultivator, not destroyer…man’s abuse of any resource is prohibited”. Hazrat Ali’s explanation suggests that man has been endowed with “special status” over the rest of creation, but, it doesn’t give him (her) liberty to exploit the earth and use its resources extravagantly.

In the contemporary times, modern techno-centric man, fully dependent on energy resources, has abandoned the principle of “trusteeship” in theory and practice. Consequently, he (she) started behaving like an “owner” instead of a “trustee”. This changed nature of relationship from “owner” to “trustee” has become the root cause of environmental disequilibrium. Therefore, rebuilding the concept of “trusteeship” rather than “absolute ownership” while applying the modern technology to earth and its resources can prove one of the effective ways to improve earth’s conditions and protect the ecology from man’s exploitative behavior.

Conservation and Moderation:

Wastefulness (israf) of resources is one of the major contributing factors to present vulnerable conditions of man’s “living” on the earth. Researchers, experts and policy makers have been tirelessly working to generate public consciousness regarding benefits of moderate and conservative approach while consuming natural resources. However, for the Muslims “conservation” of resources is not a reactionary method to avoid “resource dearth” in future; rather, it an “active process” which has been described as essential component of faith. Muslims as “revolutionary community” have been cautioned that “but waste not by excess: for Allah loves not the wasters (6:141)” and “Surely the squanders are friends of Satan (devil) and Satan is ever ungrateful to his Lord (7:31).”In the light of these verses, exceeding limits in “consumption” and living lavishly at cost of others- that include all biological and physical elements of earth- are considered as grave sins and also violation of “divine balance” in Islam.

The principle of conservation can be further understood in the light of Prophet’s golden saying that has been reported in many hadith books.  It is reported from Abdullah bin Amr that messenger of God passed by S’ad while he was performing ablution. The Prophet said, “What is this extravagance?” S’ad said, “Is there extravagance with water in ablution?” The Prophet said, “Yes, even if you were on the banks of a flowing river (Sunan Ibn Majah).” If the essential message of this Prophetic tradition, which is nothing but “conservation”, is applied in a broader context, its practical benefits would be bewildering.

Corruption and Vandalism:

According to Islamic doctrines vis-à-vis creationism, God (khaliq or creator) has created everything in its best form and that too with “balance” as is mentioned in the Qur’an, “Who made all things good which He created (32:7).”  After giving perfection of “form and purpose” to creation, God commanded man, the only one amongst whole creation who has been given power and control, to keep it that way, “Do no mischief on the earth, after it hath been set in order (7:56).” In light of these commands, it is evident that Islam opposes mischief (fasad) and corruption (zulm) in all forms. However, some may argue here that these verses only talk about interpersonal relations, but, many scholars such as Tariq Ramadan, Sayyed Hossein Nasr, and Mohammad Aslam have broadened the scope of these verses to adopt wider issues of the environment wherein man lives.

It is worth to note here that there stands a well-established maxim, “La dhararwa la dhirarafi’l Islam” in the Islamic jurisprudence which states, “harm may neither be inflicted nor reciprocated in Islam”. This maxim is general in application and includes all kinds of harm whether it involves individual, society or environment. Thus, whatever causes harm to environment should be seen as forbidden (haram) and punishable act and all necessary measures should be taken to prevent this harm from happening.

Cleanliness and Hygiene:

Islam doesn’t consider cleanliness only a desirable attitude rather an indispensable part of faith. According to Qur’an, “God loves those that turn to Him in repentance and purify themselves (2:222).” Since, Islam places great impetus on cleanliness, in both physical and spiritual dimensions, that is why we see all great works on hadith(collection of Prophet’s narratives) and fiqh(Islamic jurisprudence)  start with discussions related to cleanliness (taharah) which was methodologically a novel practice in the history of world literature. In effect to cleanliness, there are numerous Prophetic sayings such as, “cleanliness covers half of faith (cited by Imam Muslim)” and “Surely God is clean and loves the clean, so clean your courtyard (Sunan Ibn Majah)”. The Prophet is also reported to have said, “Surely the clothes glorify, (but) when they are dirty and unclean they do not glorify (Mizan al-Hikmah).” What all could be understood from these Prophetic traditions is nothing but “completion” of faith is impossible without having proper sense of cleanliness.

Apart from cleanliness of one’s body, Islam demands cleanliness of the houses, roads, streets, public parks, health centers and educational institutions in order to enhance the living standards and value structures of society. For example, he is reported to have said, “you must clean your houses and do not follow in the footsteps of Jews (practicing ruhbaaniyat i.e. abandoning worldly responsibilities, reported in Al-Tirmidhi)” and “Removing harmful things (which include impurities and filth) from the roads is a charitable act (Bukhari and Muslim)”. The Prophet has also admonished against creating problems for other living beings and considered it one of the reasons to incite God’s curse. He has said, “Beware of three acts that cause others to curse you: relieving yourselves in a watering place, on foot paths or shaded places and public parks (Sunan Abu Dawud)”. In view of the significance of cleanliness in Islam, Muslims are ordained to take these instructions in conjunction with the protection of the environment and establishing ecological justice.

Ecological Responsibility and Acts of Kindness:

There are numerous sayings of the Prophet that promote care and compassion vis-à-vis establishment of “ecological justice” such as protecting animals, preserving the productiveness of the soil, using water sparingly, planting a new tree if cutting down another for a just reason, and not polluting streams with sewage. In a tradition reported by Anas bin Malik, the Prophet(PBUH) has encouraged Muslims to look after God’s creation also referred to as God’s family (ayaal al-Allah) including plants and animals. He is reported to have said, “If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field, which later nourishes a human, a bird, or beast, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him (Bukhari).” While denouncing unnecessary cutting or destruction of plants, the Prophet said, “He who cuts a lote-tree [without justification], God will send him to hellfire (Sunan Abu Dawud).” The environmental consciousness of the Prophet is brilliantly described in his own saying, “If the qiyamah (last hour) comes while you have a palm-cutting in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it (Musnad Ahmad).

As far as the concept of “animal care” is concerned, Tariq Ramadan in insightful book In the Footsteps of the Prophet has outlined some key sayings of the Prophet about judgment day. For example he has quoted Prophet’s saying that, “whoever kills a sparrow or a bigger animal without respecting its rights to exist will be accountable to God for it on the Day of Judgment (Sunan Nasa’i).” It has been also reported that once companions asked Prophet “Is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied “There is reward for serving any living being (Bukhari).” And yet in another tradition, it is mentioned that “A woman entered fire because of a cat which she had tied, neither giving it food nor setting it free to eat from the vermin of the earth (Bukhari).”

These Prophetic sayings, which came more than 1400 years ago, not only promote an ethical sense towards ecological responsibility, but, also reinforce the scientific concept of “chain of life” wherein all living species, including man, depend on each other for their survival. In this regard, God reminds us of His divine balance (here referred to as ‘measure’), “And the sky He hath uplifted; and He hath set the measure, that ye exceed not the measure, but observe the measure strictly, nor fall short thereof (55:7-9).


To conclude, I propose Islamic ecotheology considers environment very sacred and equates serving environment with other forms of Ibadah (worship) such as prayer and fasting. This implies that even if there is no threat of “resource crisis”, Muslims must still take care of earth and its resources, protect animals and plants and, more importantly, improve conditions of“life” on earth by paying due consideration towards their environment with the sense of both duty as well as morality. For that, they need to develop a strong “eco-consciousness” and establish different environmental groups and institutions in order to promote global awareness of damage that is being done to environment. Since good environment promises good life, therefore, it becomes imperative for every single Muslim to maintain the “goodness” of life. Imam Jafar Sadiq has said, “There is no joy in life unless three things are available: clean and fresh air, abundant pure water and fertile soil”.

This article originally appeared on The Companion on April 4th, 2017.