Every year 21st March is celebrated as the World forest day or the International Day of Forests to raise public awareness about the value and importance of forests/environment. It is relatively a recent development in the wake of environmental crisis brought about by Industrial Revolution of the West. The environmental degradation began locally in the West but then became global due to man’s exploitative and egotistic activities in pursuit of economic benefits, consumerist lifestyle, and modern science and technology.
Consequently, humankind finds himself at a point in history that is critical in terms of the very nature of the relationship to the natural world, as the human activities over the last century have so affected natural world that the environment upon which life depends has been altered. The crises, which appeared in ecological imbalances, resource shortage, and environmental pollution, necessitated immediate action to arrest and reverse the environmental degradation. The gloomy picture of our neighbor surroundings was a major concern for many people in many ways. This paved the way for the emergence of such an academic field and a social movement generally known as “environmentalism” or “environmental ethics”.
It is also true that environmental awareness and nature consciousness, in modern context, also began first in the West. However, one did not find any reference of Islamic tradition and its ethical and moral teachings on the environment in the Western environmental discourse. Since, Islamic texts are inherited and replete with distinctive environmental guidelines which if had been adopted and practiced; the current situation would have been considerably different. It is argued that no other religion mentions “nature” and “environment” related aspects more than that of Islamic texts. In other words, we can say that Islam is inherently ecological or environmental.
Throughout Islamic history, one can find many instances of environmental references in the writings of prominent Muslim scholars, poets, and sufis. However, it was not until the last quarter of twentieth century that Muslim environmental discourse began to develop into a significant trend. Since, environmental problems amass and now have become a major issue for many Muslim majority nations especially in the oil producing Arab countries. Muslim environmental activism is on the rise at different levels because a green image is now an important indicator of global prestige. Muslim environmental ethicists and political establishments have been taking various initiatives to mitigate the environmental crises.
Contemporary Muslims’ rise of awareness and interest in environmental crisis, and its Islamic understanding is attributed to Seyyed Hussain Nasr (b. 1933) — Iranian American philosopher who believe that we do not need to create a new (eco)/theology to understand the Islamic position on environmental protection; instead we need to return and retrieve the fundamentals of Islam about man and nature relationship.
The Qur’an and the hadith form the basis of Shari’ah and thus of Islamic environmental ethics that have been integrated within Islamic jurisprudence. After the Prophetic Muhammad’s (SAW) period, Muslim scholars interpreted and integrated the basic sources in response to the needs of time from which emerged Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Within this jurisprudence, developed a sub-discipline known as Fiqh of Bi’ah (Jurisprudence of Environment) — a series of injunctions derived from the basic sources of Islam that regulates our behaviour to promote a conservationist approach.
Almost all classical books of Islamic jurisprudence contain a separate book/chapter on (Jurisprudence of) Environment which deals with issues such as management and ownership of land, pastures, fuel wood and water. Islamic jurisprudence “contains regulations concerning the conservation and allocation of scarce water resources; it has rules for the conservation of land with special zones [hima and haram] of graded use; and it has special rules for the establishment of rangelands, wetlands, green belts and also wildlife protection and conservation” (Md Saidul Islam, 2012). Hima and Haram could be broadly defines as a conservation zone and wildlife sanctuary respectively. In addition, a system of land grants; charitable endowments (awqaf), office of public inspection (Muhtasib) were established for proper functioning of the environmental jurisprudence.
Historical environmental contribution can also be traced back to Muslim scholars such as sufi poets: Jalal al-din Rumi (1207–1273) and Farid ud-Din Attar (d. 1220) who praised nature through their “Nature poetry”. They had high aesthetic taste of nature; for example, the best composition on nature, Masnavi of Rum termed the entire God’s creation as alive. Similar, the Andalusian mystic Muhyi al-Din ibn ‘Arabi (1165–1240) promoted God’s creation as “unity of being” (wahdat al-wujud)—the idea which influenced many sufi’s throughout Islamic history. Theologians like Imam al- Ghazali (d. 1111) and historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) may also be considered on environmental norms. Ibn Khaldun visualizes, in his influential work Muqaddimah, the impact of physical environment on human history. He also described the climatic zones of the earth.
Moreover, the environmental concerns such as the welfare of animals were explicitly articulated in Islamic history. In Islamic culture there were certain birds and animals which would live harmoniously alongside with human. Muslim scholars were interested in featuring various animals in their literary and scientific writings. For example, one can look into the book, The Island of Animals translated from a tenth-century Arabic treatise of a fable expounding human animal relationship. Similarly, one of the best Arabic literary translated work “Kalila wa Dimna” of a well-known eight century scholar Ibn Muqaffa (724-759), uses animals and birds as literary devices to convey moral lessons to adults and children. Ibn Sina (981-1037), better known in Medicine and Philosophy due to his comprehensive and encyclopedic work Kitab al-Shifa (the Book of Healing), was less known in Earth Science. In Kitab al-Shifa, he presented basic information on and principals of Earth Science: geology, mineralogy, and meteorology. According to Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b. 1926)—a contemporary prominent Islamic scholar—“protection of natural environment is one of the objectives (maqasid) of Sharia’ah”.
All the instances underline that throughout Islamic history; Muslim scholars were concerned about their environment; encouraged and appreciated for environmental protection and conservation of natural resources. Recently, Shah-i Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies (SHIIS), University of Kashmir, successfully conducted a two-day national seminar on “Environmental Ethics: A Religious Perspective” on March 15-16, 2022 which is commendable.
Therefore, in the environmental discourse, it has often been argued that what is really needed to solve the present ecological crisis is the “environmental ethics”, Since the ethics is essentially based on intrinsic values and beliefs, religions have been getting more recognized to define proper environmental ethics mainly because they try to illuminate what possessed intrinsic value. Islam, as a complete way of life, provides efficient, holistic and comprehensive solutions—ethical principles—to mitigate the present environmental crisis.
(Dr. Muhammad Yaseen Gada teaches religious studies at Central University of Kashmir, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)