Islam and Peaceful Coexistence with the Environment (Part Two)

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia

Subjecting the environment to man

As regards the subjection of the environment by God to man’s use, it is certainly a manifestation of God’s immeasurable mercy over man. Lest he shall become unable to smoothly and responsibly carry out his duties as khalifah, God did not send man to earth until he became fully prepared for his life mission; nor did He send him before earth became fully equipped and set to accommodate him. The Holy Qur’an says: “O ye people! worship your Guardian Lord, Who created you and those who came before you that ye 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 ye know (the truth).” (al-Baqarah 21-22)

“It is Allah Who hath created the heavens and the earth and sendeth down rain from the skies, and with it bringeth out fruits wherewith to feed you; it is He Who hath made the ships subject to you, that they may sail through the sea by His Command; and the rivers (also) hath He made subject to you. And He hath made subject to you the sun and the moon, both diligently pursuing their courses; and the Night and the Day hath He (also) made subject to you. And He giveth you of all that ye ask for. But if ye count the favors of Allah, never will ye be able to number them. Verily, man is given up to injustice and ingratitude.” (Ibrahim 32-34)

“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)

In order to restrain man from abusing his control over the environment, God made it a source of his sustenance, as well as clean and a place of worship (masjid) to him.[1] Regarding the former, any degeneration or decay in the relationship between man and the environment – as decreed by the commands of the Creator of both – shall ultimately result in backfiring on man and his welfare, something that has been proven time and again throughout the history of mankind. Being clean and the place for worship, on the other hand, the environment and the whole earth are bound to receive the most respectable treatment from those who have grasped the actual meaning of the concept of worship and the places designated for it. Indeed, this type of people are those who will value the environment as if it is their mosque rendered to them for glorifying the Lord of the universe through every religious as well as profane activity of theirs. Their worship will never cease, nor will their stupendous respect for the environment, for their words, acts and thoughts are executed only because of God and for God alone. After all, both the Jinns and men have been only created that they may worship God. And that’s why it has been duly communicated to both the Jinns and men that to God belong the east and the west so “whithersoever ye turn, there is Allah’s Face. For Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing.” (al-Baqarah 115)

This kind of people, furthermore, should stand in the forefront of the struggle for the preservation of the environment in every age and in every place, along with correcting the manners and attitudes of such as are yet to attain the same degree of consciousness in relation to the matter. Their struggle will be faithful in the extreme, stemming from the sincere and unadulterated motives saturated with the spirit of tawhid and its worldview. In doing so, they will desire nothing but to please their Lord and Cherisher, who ordained that not only doing good and avoiding evil, but also the constant enjoining of the former and the proscribing of the latter, ought to be of man’s top priorities on earth – should he intend that total peace, harmony and righteousness prevail on it. Luqman, a mysterious wise and knowledgeable man mentioned in the Qur’an, gave his son the following advice: “And swell not your cheek (for pride) at men. Nor walk in insolence through the earth: for Allah loveth not any arrogant boaster. And be moderate in thy pace, and lower thy voice; for the harshest of sounds without doubt is the braying of the ass.” (Luqman 18-19)

Moreover, the environment stands for a source of man’s spiritual enlightenment too, provided his treatment of it is apt and derived from the teachings of revelation, in that the environment in its totality is an expression of God’s oneness, mercy and omnipotence. By the power of reason and insight that has been conferred on him to subdue the forces of nature, man will at the same time be able to penetrate through and grasp properly its countless mysteries and phenomena. Consequently, this will lead to a considerable enhancement of his physical well-being, as well as to the expediting of the process of his spiritual advancement. On this the Holy Qur’an says: “Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of Night and Day, – there are indeed Signs for men of understanding, – men who remember Allah standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders) of creation in the heavens and the earth, (with the saying): “Our Lord not for naught hast Thou created (all) this! Glory to Thee! Give us Salvation from the Chastisement of the Fire.” (Alu ‘Imran 190-191)

What’s more, the environment, in a sense, participates in revealing Truth to man; it, in fact, is 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 inhabiting the earth, which he had wittingly accepted. It follows that those who fully submit to the Divine Will and read, understand and apply the written Qur’an, easily distinguish upon the faces of every creature, letters and words from the pages of the cosmic Qur’an. For this reason does the Qur’an refer to the phenomena of nature as signs or symbols (ayat), a term that is also used for the verses of the Qur’an. Indeed, both the Qur’an and nature in their own respective ways testify to the same truths.[2]

For Taha J. al-‘Alwani, mankind has been commanded to undertake the reading of the two books, the Book of Allah’s revelation and the Book of His creation, so that they could understand their role and significance in the universe by understanding how the two complement each other. “To undertake a reading of either of these two books without reference to the other will avail humanity nothing at all, nor will it lead to the sort of comprehensive knowledge necessary to the building and maintenance of civilized society, or to knowledge worthy of preservation and further development or exchange among the civilized peoples of the world. In fact, such a one-sided reading will never enable humankind to fulfil its role as the stewards of Allah (istikhlaf), or the keepers of His trust (amanah).”[3]

And finally, while discoursing on the study of natural history in Islamic civilization, Seyyed Hossein Nasr remarked: “Nature thus did not play the negative and dark role that it did in medieval Christianity. Rather, it was a fountain of joy and beatitutude, as can be seen both in the scientific and literary studies of nature, and in the art that was created and cultivated in Islamic civilization.”[4]  


The Prophet’s first environmental lessons in Madinah

Almost immediately after the Hijrah, when the first urbanization and planning enterprises were embarked on, the Prophet (pbuh) wasted no time to underline, and in some practical terms spell out the position of Islam on the environment and its sustainable use. To begin with, in a place earmarked for building the Madinah principal mosque, there were graves of some pagans, and there were some date-palm trees in it. The Prophet (pbuh) ordered that the graves of the pagans be dug out and the unleveled land be leveled and the trees be cut down. The cut date-palm trees were not wasted. Rather, they were later reused as an alignment towards the qiblah of the mosque forming a wall.[5]

Against a tree absorbed by building the mosque — or just a palm-trunk fixed in the ground — the Prophet (pbuh) leaned whendelivering his sermons (khutbah)in the mosque. However, sometime later, he got a pulpit (minbar), which he used for delivering sermons, instead of leaning against the palm-trunk. On the first occasion when he resorted to the pulpit, abandoning the palm-trunk, the latter yearned and even cried like an infant. Next, the Prophet (pbuh) descended from the pulpit, came to the palm-trunk, and rubbed it with his hands, after which it stopped weeping.[6] The trunk (tree) stayed where it was until the mosque was rebuilt and enlarged by the caliph ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan, when it was either buried somewhere in the mosque proper, or was taken away by the Prophet’s companion Ubayy b. Ka’b. The latter kept the trunk (tree) with him until it was eaten by woodworms.[7]

Even before building the mosque, the Islamic general idea of peaceful coexistence with the total natural setting was underscored by the fact that the Prophet (pbuh), prior to the completion of the mosque institution, used to offer prayers wherever the prayer time was due, even if it was in sheepfolds. This was so on account of the whole earth having been created pure and a place of worship (masjid) to the Muslims.[8]

The message meant to be put across by these and other experiences of the Prophet (pbuh), was that nature is God’s faithful servant. Its perfectly executed equilibrium preceded the existence of man, God’s steward on earth, who while becoming a member of the web of creation must rightly fit in and keep maintaining the inherited balance, convenience and comfort. However, should he ever and for any reason fall short of living up to his noble status and mission, declaring a war against the environment, nobody but man himself will be held responsible for the ensuing inevitable consequences which will rage across land and sea. The truth did the Almighty, the Creator and Lord of the universe, say: “By the time, verily Man is in loss, except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual enjoining of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy.” (al-‘Asr 2-3)



[1]Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Tayammum, Hadith No. 323.

[2] Nasr Seyyed Hossein, “Islam and the Environmental Crisis”, in: Islam and the Environment, p. 17.

[3] Al-‘Alwani Taha J., The Islamization of Knowledge: Yesterday and Today, (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1995), p. 7.

[4] Nasr Seyyed Hossein, Science and Civilization in Islam, (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1987), p. 125.

[5] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Salah, Hadith No. 420.

[6] See: Al-Samahudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), vol. 2, p. 388-398. Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Manaqib, Hadith No. 3318. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Manaqib, Hadith No. 3560.

[7]Al-Samahudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, vol. 2 p. 393-394.

Ibn Battuta who visited the Prophet’s mosque in the year 727 AH / 1326 CE wrote in his travels memoirs that he “reverently touched the fragment that remains of the palm-trunk against which the Prophet stood when he preached.”(Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, Translated and selected by H. A. R. Gibb, (London: Darf Publishers LTD, 1983), p. 74) Now, what Ibn Battuta was referring to was either the place where the palm-trunk had truly existed, or where it was interred, for anything thereof to exist for many a century appears, to all intents and purposes, impossible. It is likewise probable that some forged items did really exist in the mosque, which some people believed to be genuine trunk (tree) remnants.

[8] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Tayammum, Hadith No. 323.

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