Man and Environment in Islam: Implications for Islamic Architecture


Man as the vicegerent (khalifah) on earth


Man, according to Islam, is not a fallen being as the Christianity asserts,[1] and his existence on earth is not a sentence passed on him by God on account of what had transpired between Adam, the first man, and his wife Eve, the first woman, in the Garden of Eden. Rather, man is a vicegerent on earth entrusted with the honorable task of inhabiting it in accordance with the divine guidance given to him. This terrestrial life serves to man as a platform for either elevating his status over that of angels, should he abide by the divinely prescribed rules and regulations, or for debasing his self lower than the rank of animals, should he turn away from Truth and dazed and lost wander aimlessly amid the innumerable and awesome wonders of creation.

God created man with the primordial natural disposition (fitrah) to thirst for and worship his Creator. God, therefore, knowing best the character of man, his needs and weaknesses, on sending Adam and Eve to earth to assume the duty of vicegerency, revealed to them that He will never forsake them and their progeny. God promised that His guidance and signs will be coming to them, and “Whosoever follows My guidance, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (Al-Baqarah, 38)

“…Whosoever follows My guidance, will not lose his way, nor fall in misery.” (Ta Ha, 123)

God’s guidance and signs mean the religion of Islam preached by every prophet from the down of mankind and Adam as the first messenger to Muhammad as the last and seal of all messengers. God’s divine guidance will enable man to remain strong, sensible, content and “healthy” while on earth, making him, in turn, capable of keeping up the focus of his undertakings on worshipping his Lord in every act, word and thought (‘ibadah). God says in the Qur’an that He has created both Jinns and men only that they may serve Him. (Al-Dhariyat, 56)

On the other hand, in the event of man’s rejection of God’s message and guidance, the repercussions will be costly. The Qur’an says: “But those who reject Faith and belie Our Signs, they shall be Companions of the Fire; they shall abide therein.” (Al-Baqarah, 39)

“But whosoever turns away from My Message, verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment.” (Ta Ha, 124)

Man is created as a social being endued with free will, passion and emotions, which could either lead him to the highest or drug him to the lowest ebb of creation. Humanity is but a big family with the same origin, mission and purpose. People have been divided into nations and tribes only to know each other, learn from each other, and cooperate at various scales in righteousness and piety, not that they may loathe each other and conspire against each other. They are to explore the universe and within the framework rendered by revelation try to make their existence as convenient, comfortable and meaningful as possible, hence create virtuous cultures and civilizations. However, no sooner does this universal equilibrium become impaired and vitiated than man’s relationship with God, his peers and the whole of the environment starts to degenerate.

Allah says about this: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (al-Hujurat, 13)

“And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors: verily in that are Signs for those who know.” (al-Rum, 22)

Islam with its unique tawhidic worldview champions that Muslims are brothers to each other and their similitude is like a wall whose bricks enforce and rely on each other. They are like a solid cemented structure held together in unity and strength, each part contributing strength in its own way, and the whole held together not like a mass, but like a living organism. Muslims are furthermore related to each other in such a way that if one of them (a part of an organic and formidable formation called the Ummah, the Community) is troubled by a problem of any kind, the rest of the body parts will remain disturbed and restless until the matter became fairly solved.[2]


The relationship between the vicegerent (khalifah) and environment


This Islamic unique perception of man and his position on earth necessitated the formation of a compelling and comprehensive view of the natural environment as well. This is so because man totally depends on nature for his survival. Also, nature is a ground for man’s realization of his spiritual purpose on earth. Simply put, man is an integral part of the total natural setting. Man is nature himself. Sustaining nature means sustaining his self, damaging nature means damaging his self and his prospects of a civilizational triumph. Owing to all this, Islam attaches so much importance to the subject of environment clearly expounding man’s rights over it and his responsibilities towards it.

Islam teaches that environment is part of the universal web of creation. Its role is two-fold: to worship its Creator (in ways suitable to it), and to be subjected to serve the exigencies of man, so that God’s vicegerent can smoothly and undeterred carry out his honorable task of managing earth.

Environment holds enormous potential and diversified resources meant only for the vicegerent of earth. They are to be seen as facilities which if rightly used facilitate each and every facet of man’s fleeting stay on earth. Environment is further to be seen by man as an “ally” or a “partner”, so to speak, in the execution of his earthly mission. After all, in order to create any piece of his built environment, which serves as a framework for his activities, man borrows diverse natural ingredients, such as space, water, clay, timber, stone and other substances, placing the newly created or built elements back into the existing natural contexts. In reality, built environment is in so many ways the natural environment which has been processed and manipulated.

According to a number of divine instructions, natural diversity and the forces of nature are to be the focus of man’s exhaustive scientific and contemplative attention. Diversity in humans: skin colors, languages, attitudes and cultures, are to preoccupy the cognitive faculties of men as well, thus trying to find a link between it and the former. In all natural phenomena a great deal of wisdom lies and waits to be unearthed.

In Islam, man’s rights over environment are rights of sustainable use based on moderation, balance and conservation. The rights of environment over man, on the other hand, are that it be safe from every misuse, mistreatment and destruction. Greed, extravagance and waste are considered a tyranny against nature and a transgression of those rights.[3]

Islam teaches that all things have been created with purpose and in proportion and measure, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Nature’s resources and forces are gifts granted by God to man. At the same time, however, the natural environment is a field for man’s vicegerency mission. It is right there, while interacting with different aspects of environment, that people clearly demonstrate how strong, or how deficient, their relationship with God is.  So significant is man’s relationship with environment in Islam that in some instances such relationship is able to take precedence over other deeds of man, placing him then on the highest or dragging him to the lowest level.

Furthermore, environment stands for a source of man’s spiritual enlightenment too, provided his treatment of it is apt and derived from divine teachings, in that environment in its totality is an expression of God’s presence, oneness, mercy and supremacy. By the power of reason and insight that has been accorded to him to subdue the forces of nature, man at the same time will be able to penetrate through and grasp properly nature’s countless mysteries and phenomena. Consequently, this will lead to a considerable enhancement of his physical well-being, as well as to expediting the process of his spiritual advancement.

Finally, environment, in a sense, participates in revealing Truth to man. It is in fact a revelation itself. Therefore, in addition to having the composed or written Qur’an (al-Qur’an al-tadwini) there is a cosmic or ontological “Qur’an” (al-Qur’an al-takwini) as well. Both revelations complement each other, as it were, in furnishing man with the necessary substance so as not to let him betray the trust of productively inhabiting the earth which he had wittingly accepted. It follows that those who fully submit to Divine Will and read, understand and apply the written Qur’an, they easily see upon the face of every creature “letters” and “words”, or messages, from the “pages” of the cosmic Qur’an. For this reason are the phenomena of nature referred to in the Qur’an as signs or symbols (ayat), a term that is also used for the verses of the Qur’an.[4]

The following are some verses from the Qur’an on the addressed aspects of environment:

“Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth declares the glory of Allah; and He is the Mighty, the Wise.” (al-Saff, 1)

“Do you see the seed that you sow in the ground? Is it you that cause it to grow, or are We the Cause? Were it Our Will, We could make it broken orts. And you would be left in wonderment… Do you see the water which you drink? Do you bring it down (in rain) from the cloud or do We? Were it Our Will, We could make it saltish (and unpalatable): then why do you not give thanks?” (Al-Waqi’ah, 63-70)

“O you people! Worship your Guardian Lord, Who created you and those who came before you that you may become righteous; Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith fruits for your sustenance; then set not up rivals unto Allah when you know (the truth).” (Al-Baqarah, 21-22)

“And He has subjected to you, as from Him, all that is in the heavens and on earth: behold, in that are Signs indeed for those who reflect.” (Al-Jathiyah, 13)


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