When the modern day intellectuals and religious leaders have placed themselves to be poles apart, and communicate much through that distance saying religion and the matters of this world to be two different paths that never cross each other. While on the contrary, in reality intellectualism and spirituality/religion are supportive to each other, paving ways for personal growth to excel in both the worlds.
And it is here that the leaders of Ummah or scholars in the Ummah have failed to guide and thereby create awareness about the environment and responsibility of a Muslim towards the environment. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “There is none amongst the believers who plants a tree, or sows a seed, and then a bird, or a person, or an animal eats thereof, but it is regarded as having given a charitable gift [for which there is great recompense].” [Al-Bukhari]
The idea of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) as a pioneer of environmentalism will initially strike many as strange and surprising considering the way Islam has been portrayed by many in the eyes of a common man. I completely agree that the term “environment” and related terms like “Ecosystem”, “Ecology”, “Environmental Awareness” and “Sustainability”, are modern-day inventions or modern-day terminologies that were formulated in the face of the growing concerns about the contemporary state of the world around us.
A close reading of the hadith, reveals that He (PBUH) was a staunch advocate of environmental protection. One could say he was a pioneer in the domain of conservation, sustainable development and resource management, and one who constantly sought to maintain a balance between man and nature. He was a strong patron of the sustainable use and cultivation of land and water, proper treatment of animals, plants and birds, and the equal rights of all its users. In this context the Prophet’s view of the environment and the concepts he introduced for us to follow are mind-boggling; certain hadith could easily be interpreted as discussions about contemporary environmental issues.
The Prophet’s environmental philosophy is first of all holistic: it assumes a fundamental link and interdependency between all natural elements and propagates on the premise that if man abuses or exhausts one element, the natural world as a whole will suffer direct consequences. This belief is nowhere formulated in one concise phrase; it is rather an underlying principle that forms the foundation of all the Prophet’s actions and words, a life philosophy that defined him as a person.
The three most important principles of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) philosophy of nature are based on the Qur’anic teachings and the concepts of Tawhid (Unity/Oneness), Khalifa (Stewardship) and Amana (Trust).
Tawhid, the oneness of God, is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith. It recognizes the fact that there is one absolute Creator and that man is responsible to Him for all his actions: “To God belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth, for God encompasses everything [4:126].” Therefore abusing one of His creations, whether it is a living being or a natural resource, is a sin. The Prophet considered all of God’s creations, not just animals, but also land, forests and water resources have rights.
The concepts of Khalifa, stewardship, and amana, trust, emerge from the principle of Tawhid. The Qur’an explains that mankind holds a privileged position among God’s creations on earth: he is chosen as khalifa, and carries the responsibility of caring for God’s earthly creations. Each individual is given this task and privilege in the form of God’s trust. But the Qur’an repeatedly warns believers against arrogance: they are no better than other creatures. “No creature is there on earth nor a bird flying with its wings but they are nations like you [6:38]”; “Surely the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of man; but most people know not [40:57]”.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) believed that the universe and the creations in it – animals, plants, water, land – Man is allowed to use the resources but can never own them. Thus while Islam allows land ownership, it has limitations: an owner can, for example, only own land if he uses it; once he ceases to use it, he has to part with its possession.
The Prophet said: “When doomsday comes, if someone has a palm shoot in his hand, he should plant it,” suggesting that even when all hope is lost for mankind, one should sustain nature’s growth. He believed that nature remains a good in itself, even if man does not benefit from it. Similarly, the Prophet incited believers to share the earth’s resources. He said: “Muslims share alike in three things – water, herbage and fire,” and he considered it a sin to withhold water from the thirsty. “No one can refuse surplus water without sinning against Allah and against man” [Mishkat al Masabih].
“The earth has been created for me as a mosque and as a means of purification.” [Al-Bukhari I:331] The Prophet here emphasizes the sacred nature of earth or soil, not only as a pure entity but also as a purifying agent. This reverence towards soil is also portrayed in the ritual of tayammum, or “dry wudu” which permits the use of dust for purification before prayer when water is not available.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) saw earth as subservient to man, but recognised that it should not be overexploited or abused. In order to protect land, forests and wildlife, the Prophet created inviolable zones known as hima and haram, in which resources were to be left untouched. Both are still in use today: haram areas are often drawn up around wells and water sources to protect the groundwater table from over-pumping. Hima applies particularly to wildlife and forestry and usually designates an area of land where grazing and woodcutting are restricted, or where certain animal species are protected.
The Prophet not only encouraged the sustainable use of fertile lands, he also told his followers of the benefits of making unused land productive: planting a tree, sowing a seed and irrigating dry land were all regarded as charitable deeds.“Whoever brings dead land to life, that is, cultivates wasteland, for him is a reward therein.” Thus any person who irrigates a plot of “dead”, or desert land becomes its rightful owner.
In the harsh desert environment where the Prophet (peace be upon him) lived, water was synonymous to life. “We made from water every living thing” [21:30]. The Qur’an constantly reminds believers that they are but the guardians of God’s creation on earth and that they should never take this creation for granted: “Consider the water which you drink. Was it you that brought it down from the rain cloud or We? If We had pleased, We could make it bitter” [56:68-70].
Saving water and safeguarding its purity were two important issues for the Prophet. Even when water was abundant, he advocated thriftiness: thus he recommended that believers perform wudu no more than three times, even if they were near to a flowing spring or river. The Prophet also warned against water pollution by forbidding urination in stagnant water sources.
His holistic view of nature and his understanding of man’s place within the natural world pioneered environmental awareness within the Muslim community then. Sadly, the harmony and balance, that the Prophet advocated between man and his environment has today been lost. As we face environmental crisis head-on, it is time for the world as a whole, irrespective of our religion and ideologies, to read out a page from the Prophet’s life and address the current environmental crisis. To begin from a caring heart to a balanced world, all it requires is to take the responsibility on oneself and to live a life as a passerby, only to govern and not to own.