2015 World Environment Day: Islam and The Sacredness of the Environment
Ghazi bin Muhammad, Reza Shah-Kazemi and Aftab Ahmed
Allah says in the Holy Qur’an that: ‘We created not the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in play’ (Al-Dukhan, 44:38). He also says that: ‘We created not the heavens and the earth and all that is between them save with truth…’ (Al-Hijr, 15:85).
These verses tell us that there is a meaning and a purpose behind Allah’s creation. The created environment is not just a random form, but rather a reflection of the Truth, which is one of the Divine names. Indeed, the environment manifests and reflects a number of the Divine Names and Qualities. These Qualities are made known to us by the Creator’s own description of Himself in the Holy Qur’an. Four of these Divine Names are given in the following verse: ‘He is the First and the Last, the outward and the Inward …’ (Al-Hadid, 57:3).
What do we understand by the name ‘The Outward’ (Al-.ahir)? The Outward is that which surrounds us, hence our natural surroundings, the environment. Thus, Allah is informing us that the environment is a reflection of the Name Al-.ahir. This is confirmed by the following verse: ‘Unto Allah belong the East and the West. So, wherever ye turn, there is the face of Allah’ (Al-Baqara, 2:115).
These two verses confirm the mystery of the presence of Allah in the natural world. This natural world was created by Him, for His purpose and that in itself confers upon the natural environment a sacredness which must be recognised by all believers. This, then, means that all believers must have the utmost care and respect towards nature.
Moreover, believers must also recognise that after He created the world, Allah did not just leave creation to be an independent reality existing by itself. Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: ‘Allah produceth creation, then He reproduceth it …’ (Al-Rum, 30:11). And also: ‘… He multiplieth in creation what He will…’ (Fatir, 35:1).
And of course all of this happens through Allah’s knowledge: ‘… not a leaf falleth but He knoweth it’ (Al-An‘am, 6:59)
These verses make very clear Allah’s activity and knowledge in His creation. The believer must be fully aware of this activity and knowledge and ponder the consequences of everything he does as he interacts with the environment. Allah is active in His creation now; and He knows every detail.
Two further points about creation which serve to increase our reverential attitude toward it are given in the following verses: ‘Assuredly the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of mankind; but most of mankind know not’ (Gha’r, 40:57); and ‘…Thou canst see no fault in the Beneficent One’s creation …’ (Al-Mulk, 67:3).
The complexity, beauty and harmony of creation are awe inspiring, and even non-religious people cannot fail to be impressed by it.
(B) The Ayat (signs, verses) of Allah
The natural phenomena of the environment are referred to as ‘ayat’ (signs), which is the same word used to describe the verses of the Qur’an.
‘Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the difference of night and day are signs for men of understanding’ (Aal‘Imran, 3:190). ‘Lo! In the difference of day and night and all that Allah hath created in the heavens and the earth are signs, verily, for folk who ward off evil’ (Yunus, 10:6)
This shows us that the environment can be viewed as a cosmic Qur’an, with natural phenomena corresponding to the verses of a book which are to be read. These verses may be read, as the two above verses remind us, by men of understanding and folk who ward off evil. This means that there are lessons to be learned from the environment.
By just observing, or being in nature we should be able to gain some profound knowledge or insight into the workings of the cosmos, about the Creator or indeed about ourselves.
The sacred significance of the phenomena of virgin nature is also made explicitly clear by the verses of the Qur’an themselves. Allah takes oaths by many of the natural phenomena: ‘By the sun and her brightness’ (Al-Shams, 91:1); ‘By the light when it enshroudeth’ (Al-Layl, 92:1); ‘I swear by the planets’ (Al-Takwir, 81:15); etc. The Qur’an is absolutely remarkable for the range and depth and subtlety with which it makes reference to the phenomena of virgin nature; no other scripture contains so many references to the beauties of the natural world. Many chapter headings indicate the importance of the natural world, such as: ‘Thunder’, ‘The Star’, ‘The Moon’, ‘The Sun’, ‘Dawn’, ‘Morning Hours’, ‘The Sand Dunes’, ‘Smoke’, ‘The Winnowing Winds’, ‘Iron’, ‘The Ants’, ‘The Bees’, ‘The Spider’, ‘Cattle’, ‘The Elephant’, ‘The Fig’, and so on.
This constant reference to the phenomena of virgin nature invites people to contemplate, to meditate, to reflect on the signs of virgin nature as being expressions of the Divine creativity, and thus of being holy in their very substance. ‘Will they not regard the camels, how they are created? And the sky, how it is raised? And the mountains, how they are set up? And the earth, how it is spread?’ (Al-Ghashiyah, 88:17-20). ‘Those [the men of understanding] who remember Allah, standing, sitting, and reclining, and consider the creation of the heavens and the earth. (Aal ‘Imran, 3:191).
(C) ‘Everything Praises Him’
Every single thing in creation glorifies and praises Allah. ‘The seven Heavens and the Earth and all that they contain glorifies Him; nor is there anything that does not glorify Him in praise; yet you understand not their praise …’ (Al-Isra’, 17:44; see also 57:1; 59:1; 61:1; 62:1; 64:1; 24:41 and 59:24).
This in itself is enough to explain another facet of the Islamic attitude towards the environment: whether we understand it or not, everything in nature is Allah’s creation that constantly praises Allah; the mountains, seas, trees, sun, moon, stars etc and all living creatures hymn His praise. Everything and every natural phenomenon must thus be respected for its being a creation of Allah, and/or for being a sign of Allah, and for its devotion to Allah. Indeed, the Remembrance of Allah is in every single thing down to the smallest insect.
Allah makes this abundantly clear in the Holy Qur’an: ‘Allah is not ashamed to strike a similitude even of a gnat, or anything beyond it; as for the believers, they know it is the truth from their Lord; but as for disbelievers, they say, ‘What did Allah desire by this for a similitude?’ Thereby, He leads many astray and thereby He guides many; and thereby He leads none astray except the wicked’ (Al-Baqara, 2:26).
‘O mankind, a similitude is being struck, so listen to it: truly those on whom you call besides Allah will never create a fly even if they rallied together to do so. And if a fly should take away something from them, they would not be able to recover that from it. Feeble is the seeker and the [thing] sought’ (Al-Hajj, 22:73).
Muslims thus need to be aware of the origin, beauty, function and mystery of everything in creation. The recitation of the Holy Qur’an itself helps Muslims do this. For example, in the following verse, after providing the mental key to understanding the environment, the Holy Qur’an proceeds to provide an existential key to this understanding: ‘Do you not see that everything that is in the heavens and the earth praises Allah? And the birds with wings outspread? Of each He knoweth the worship and the praise (‘wa’ltayru safatin-kullun qad ‘alima salatahu wa tasbiha’) …’ (Al-Nur, 24:41)
When reciting these words according to tajwid (ritually correct intonation) one cannot escape the onomatopoeic effect of the ‘alif’ (the vowel ‘a’) in the word ‘safatin’ which must be prolonged to at least 6 beats: the result is that one recites the word in a manner which evokes the reality of the flight of the birds. This enables the attentive reciter or the listener of the Holy Qur’an to experience the praise of all things not just as a theoretical or mental understanding concept but as an actualised reality through the very sound of the Qur’an. The impact of this then should gradually sensitise Muslims to the universal praise and glorification in the environment and in nature.
Moreover, there is more than just existential praise of Allah in nature. There is praise that is active, aware and deliberate. Allah gives us insight into this in the following verse about bees: ‘Your Lord has revealed unto [awha] the bee: ‘make your home in the mountains, and on the trees, and the trellises which they erect; then eat from every fruit and follow humbly the ways of your Lord’. There comes forth from their bellies a drink of diverse hues, wherein is a cure for mankind’ (Al-Nahl, 16:68-9).
Thus even the tiny bee receives a form of Revelation (‘wahi’) from Allah. ‘Revelation’ here can perhaps be understood to mean that ‘inspired instinct’ which is given naturally to all creatures to: (1) follow their instincts for growth, self-preservation and reproduction (make your home in the mountains, and on the trees, and the trellises which they erect; then eat from every fruit) and (2) worship Allah in their own way (and follow humbly the ways of your Lord). Comparing the second aspect of this form of ‘inspiration’ to creatures with the Revelation granted human beings through Allah’s Messengers, we see that the mass of human beings, in their ‘fallen state’ in the post-Edenic period, have to learn to do through Supernatural Revelation, what bees (and other animals and creatures) are given naturally. Now the worth of creatures is in their real consciousness (and therefore piety, ‘taqwa’) for Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: ‘O mankind! We have indeed created you from a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes that you may come to know one another. Truly the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most pious (atqa) among you. Truly Allah is Knower, Aware’ (Al-Hujurat, 49:13).
It thus follows that all of the creatures of the world (save for mankind and the jinn) are less astray and less ‘bestial’ than the human beings and jinn who are heedless of Allah. Indeed, Allah confirms this exactly in the Holy Qur’an. ‘And We have indeed urged unto Hell many of the jinn and mankind, having hearts wherewith they do not understand, and having eyes wherewith they do not perceive, and having ears wherewith they do not hear. These, they are like cattle – nay, rather they are further astray. These – they are the heedless’ (Al-A’raf, 7:179).
This then is another very potent and powerful reason why Muslims need to respect nature and its creatures: not only were they created by Allah; not only do they contain signs (ayat) of Allah; not only do they all glorify Allah in praise, but nature and all its creatures are inherently less astray and thus nobler in Allah’s sight than heedless human beings!
Finally, it should be noted that all creatures form interactive communities (‘umam’, singular: ‘umma’) much like ourselves. Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: ‘There is not an animal on earth nor a flying creature with wings which do not form communities [umam] analogous [amthalukum] to you’ (Al-An’am, 6:38).
Each species, then, is an ‘umma’, is a divinely-willed community of beings, which are receptacles of ‘natural revelation’. Moreover, each one of these communities or species has its own distinct mode of receiving natural revelation (which is precisely what makes it different from any other species), and thus their own way of naturally engaging in prayer and glori5cation. Each species then has its ‘religion’ so to speak and a ‘people’ in itself ‘like ourselves’, and this in itself should be a powerful warning to us to respect, cherish and empathize with nature and all its creatures.
One of the implications of a truly Qur’anic awareness of the natural world is this: the loss of any kind of species, any kind of creature, is not just a catastrophe, it is a kind of cosmic sacrilege. Each species, being an umma, is not just some accidental feature of evolution, the loss of which may be somehow justi5ed by the greater cause of our progress on the evolutionary scale. On the contrary, it is a direct and blessed manifestation of divine creativity. “e loss of any species of life is thus not just tragic, cruel and immoral but blasphemous and a direct revolt against Allah. Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: ‘Because of that, We decreed for the Children of Israel that whoever slays a soul for other than a soul, or for corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. Our messengers have already come to them with clear proofs, but after that many of them still commit excesses in the land’ (Al-Maida, 5:32).
It can be inferred from what we have seen above that the extinction of a whole innocent species is as grave as the killing of an innocent soul, and that it is thus comparable to the slaying of all mankind. And Allah knows best.
Copyright © 2010 by the Prince Ghazi Trust for Qur’anic Thought