As pointed out in a previous article, there is a conspicuous absence of action from Muslim religious leaders on one of the great issues of our time, climate change. Critics may point to an even deeper problem: a lack of Muslim environmental awareness and activism in general. I think there is much truth to this claim.
There are two reasons why I think Muslim environmentalism hasn’t really taken off. The first is that, by and large, Muslims have de-prioritized the environmental costs in their uncritical acceptance of modern industrial technology and methodologies from the West. As with many other areas, we did not see the unintended consequences of adopting such systems, such as modern mechanized agriculture we which slowly degrades the soil, and only now when the West has taken a lead on this issue are we gradually coming around to it.
The second reason is based on our traditions. Throughout Muslim history, our urban and rural habitats existed mostly in consort with the natural surroundings. We did not create systems that would ruthlessly exploit our nearby resources. Our growth was measured and balanced. In fact, Muslims contributed significantly to the development of sustainable agriculture (see the Arab Agriculture Revolution). This was all enshrined in our traditions and in harmony with our Deen. Thus, there was no environmental crisis necessitating the development of Muslim environmentalism. Based on our heritage, we are not used to thinking that our lifestyles must come at detriment to nature.
Throughout the Quran, we are constantly reminded by Allah sbt of the many wonders in His creation in the natural world. We are also told (in verse 2:30), “Behold, thy Lord said to the angels, ‘I will create a vice regent (khalifah) on the earth.” The interpretation of the word ‘khalifah’ in this context has changed over the years, but a general meaning conveys the idea than mankind is here with a specific hierarchal position to oversee this land.
In the words of Dr Abdul Rashid Agwan in his article Islamic Ecological Thought, “it may be presumed that the purport of the concept of Khalifah urges that human operation in nature should be cautious, judicious and dispassionate and without the arrogance, greed and ignorance in his behaviour.” Essentially, mankind is given a responsibility of proper and careful use of our resources. The principle in Islam, according to Imam Afroz Ali, is that while Allah’s sbt Blessings are infinite, mankind’s desires should be restrained, in opposition to the current view of scare resources and unlimited growth.
The West under Christendom held a somewhat similar view on nature, that mankind must be good stewards of the earth. But after the break in the Church following the Protestant Revolution in the 1500s, a new Calvinistic view emerged. This view gave much more allowance for the pursuit of profit and exploitation of resources than under traditional Catholic thought. And the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, only accelerated the mad race for resources, leading to this environmental and ecological crisis we are now in.
Muslims would do well to heed the verse from the Quran stating, “Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness].” (30:41). This is a call to recognize our own contribution to the leading global problem we are facing, and return to the traditional view of man and nature that focused on balance and not dominance.