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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2251

Islam, the environment and the human future - Judge Weeramantry

1. The Sources of Islamic Law

Islam is of course based primarily on the Holy Qur’an, the revelation of God to the Prophet Mohammed. This is supplemented by teachings of the Prophet as recorded in thousands of traditions regarding what he said and did, as collected by his followers. In all of these there are numerous references to the human future and to the environment, it being continuously stressed that the environment is God’s creation and must therefore be treated with care and due attention.

Supplementary sources include the consensus of scholars (Ijma) and reasoning by analogy (Qiyas). These additional sources incorporate the benefits of human experience in changing circumstances over the centuries. For this reason they are a fruitful source of practical perspectives.

It may also be noted that there have been in the history of Islam a number of rulers who have been held out as just, and their conduct and attitudes have also been held out as indications of right attitudes and patterns of behaviour. In this area as well there is much which concerns the environment and the human future.

Islamic law is based, on unqualified submission to the will of God. This is a fundamental tenet of the Islamic religion, and since Islamic law is based upon Islamic religion, it proceeds on the same fundamental assumption. The will of God embraces all aspects of life and the law hence covers all of them. It is a path or way guiding the Muslim and the revealed law governing all these matters is known as the Shari’a (The Arabic for track or road).

It is central to its teaching that the entire universe is God’s creation. ‘Muslims learn from the Qur’an that God created the universe and every single atom and molecule it contains and that the laws of creation include the elements of order, balance and proportion: “He created everything and determined it most expertly” (25:2) and “It is He who appointed the sun to give radiance and the moon to give light, assigning it in phases…” ’

2. Islamic Principles of Conduct

Just as in Hindu law there is a principle of good or righteous conduct which is described as conduct according to Dharma, so also in Islamic law, good personal conduct (which is known as Din) is a central part of Islamic teachings.

‘Din (religion) in essence described an integrated code of behaviour which deals with personal hygiene, at one end of the spectrum, and to our relationships with the natural order at the other. It provides a holistic approach to existence, the religious and the secular and neither does it place a distinction between the world of mankind and the world of nature’

3. Islam and the Resurgence of Science

The total separation between science and religion which is a characteristic of the modern industrialized world is quite foreign to the Islamic tradition. Much of the damage done to the environment and to the rights of future generations is due to the misuse of science and scientific power – hence the relevance of this topic.

Scientific progress was encouraged in Islam but held within the matrix of religious values. Science was not free to pursue the course of environmental degradation and damage to the human condition which it has followed in the west.

It is interesting to recall that the release of science from the absolute constraints imposed on it by religion was attributable in significant measure to Islamic philosophical thought. At a time when free scientific inquiry was stifled in the west as leading to contradictions with religious teaching, Islamic philosophers like Averroes in Spain helped to establish the doctrine of double truth – there is truth which comes from divine revelation but there is also truth which comes from human research.

A lead towards free scientific inquiries was found in the teachings of the Prophet that “the ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr’ and that knowledge is so important that one must even go to China in search of it. Consequently philosophers like Averroes were able to find a place for free scientific inquiry consistently with the existence of knowledge coming from divine revelation, by working out the doctrine of ‘double truth’.

4. The Environment, as God’s Creation, Must Be Respected

Islam, as a way of life expects human beings to conserve the environment for several reasons. Its concern for the environment appears in many Qur’anic verses:

“Allah is he who raised The Heavens without any pillars that ye can see… He has subjected the sun and the moon! Each one runs (its course) for a term appointed. He doth regulate all affairs, explaining the Signs in detail… And it is He who spread out The Earth, and set thereon Mountains standing firm, and (flowing) rivers: and fruit of every kind He made in pairs, two and two: He draweth the Night as a veil O’er the day. Behold, verily in these things there are signs for those who consider”(Qur’an 13: 2-4) .

All this is God’s creation and Muslims should therefore seek to protect and preserve their environment. Moreover by so doing they protect God's creatures who are not merely objects but are believed to have a spirit and purpose of their own. They are in fact believed to pray to God and praise Him. Humankind might not be able to understand how these creatures praise God but this does not mean that they do not do so: “The seven heavens and the earth, And all beings therein, Declare His glory: There is not a thing But celebrates His praise; And yet ye understand not How they declare His Glory!” (Qur’an 17:4)

The Islamic attitude of duty towards the environment is not merely derived from the fact that God is its creator. There are other reasons as well.

One is that humans act as the agents of God on earth. This agency is not blind and mechanical but is creative in its own way and moreover it must be fulfilled by operating according to God's instructions.

Another reason why, in Islam, humans are expected to protect the environment is that no other creature is able to perform this task. Humans are the only beings that God has "entrusted" with the responsibility of looking after the earth. This trusteeship is seen by Islam to be so onerous and burdensome that no other creature could 'accept' it.

“Lo! We offered the trust Unto the heavens and the Earth and the hills, But they shrank from bearing it And were afraid of it And man assumed it” (Qur’an 33: 72). By this act of acceptance, humans accepted responsibility for the custody of the environment.

5. Extravagance and Luxury in the Use of Resources are forbidden

‘Islam expects a believer to respect the benefit derived from the blessings of Allah made available in the form of natural resources. Islam is likewise adamant that resources should be utilized only to the extent of necessities and a luxurious life with extravagance should be avoided. The Qur’anic ruling, consume from the eatables and healthy drinks but do not indulge in excess is the key to a healthy individual and society.’

A creation which is so valuable and designed with such a high purpose must be respected, and wastefulness in its use is not a sign of due respect. This is not just or righteous conduct but the very reverse.

6. Cleanliness of the Environment

There are several hadiths of the Prophet stating the importance of protecting the environment and keeping it clean and fruitful.

Cleanliness is an important part of Islamic teaching which goes to great lengths in specifying principles of physical cleanliness.

This principle of cleanliness applies internally to the mind, physically to the body and externally to the environment.

In order to keep the environment free of pollution and therefore pleasant the Prophet has said “Picking up a bone from the way is a Sadaqah (Charity)”. He further said “Removing a harmful and dangerous thing from the way is also Sadaqah.

7. Productive Use of the Environment

Islam requires the environment to be productively used.
There are numerous traditions of the Prophet which show his intense concern with these aspects.

Here are some: “Whosoever plants a tree, he will be rewarded with as much reward as is relevant to its yields” (Bukhari).

On another occasion he said: “whosoever plants a tree, or grow crops, and a man, bird or an animal or a beast of prey eat its fruits, it is a charity for him” (Bukhari).

According to another Hadith, plantation is so important that even if doomsday starts and a person has a palm seedling or palm shoot in his hands he should plant it (Bukahri).

“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, III:513]

8. Governmental Duties in regard to the Environment

Islam, while formulating all these principles relating to obligations towards the environment, also translated these into practical governmental duties with the necessary institutions for enforcement.

‘The primary duty of the Islamic state is to promote good and forbid wrongdoing. As part of these functions, it has the mandate to protect land and natural resources from abuse and misuse. From its earliest years the Islamic state established an agency known as the hisba whose specific task was to protect the people through promoting the establishment of good and forbidding wrongdoing. This agency was headed by a learned jurist (muhtasib) who functioned like a chief inspector of weighing and measures and chief public health officer rolled into one. He was also responsible, among other similar duties, for the proper functioning of the hima and al harim zones and he acted as what one might describe as an environmental inspectorate.

9. The Concept of Vice-Regency

The human being, in the Islamic perspective is considered a vicegerent of the environment and this vice regency carries heavy responsibilities to the future.

"Behold, your Lord said to the angels: "I will create a vice-regents on earth." (Qur’an, 2:30)

The vice-regency given to humanity is subject to scrutiny: "Then We made you heirs in the land after them, to see how you would behave!" (Qur’an, 10:14)

10. The Doctrine of Trust

This doctrine is closely associated with the concept of vice-regency.

The Qur’an states that “Although people are entrusted with caring for the natural world, many violate this admittedly heavy burden of trust”. Islamic teachings state that even if one is cheated or betrayed one must not cheat or betray.

Since the oneness of God and God’s creation of the universe are cornerstones of the Islamic faith, humanity is responsible to Him for all its actions. Therefore abusing one of his creations, whether it is a living being or a natural resource, is condemned.

The Prophet taught that the universe and the creations in it – animals, plants, water, and land were not created for mankind – but that man is allowed to use them. However he can never own them.

11. Living in Harmony with Nature

The ultimate objective of life for a Muslim is salvation which is achieved through peace and harmony. "Salam, the Arabic root of the word "Islam," means "peace and harmony". Therefore, Islamic theologians argue that an "Islamic way of life entails living in peace and harmony" at individual and social as well as ecological levels (Hadith).

12. Exhaustion of Natural Resources

There are direct teachings of the Prophet that the earth should not be over-exploited or abused. The earth itself had rights as indeed had the trees and wildlife. For the protection of the land, forests and wildlife, the Prophet created inviolable zones known as hima and haram. In these zones the natural resources were to be left untouched.

13. Rights of Generations yet Unborn

It is impermissible in Islam to abuse one's rights as khalifa (agents or trustees), because the notion of acting in "good faith" underpins Islamic law. The planet was inherited by all humankind and "all its posterity from generation to generation.... Each generation is only the trustee. In other contexts, the concept of khalifa refers to the fact that waves of humanity will continuously succeed each other and inherit planet earth.

‘Being mindful of the needs of current and future generations is an important aspect of piety in Islam. In the words of the hadith, "Act in your life as though you are living forever and act for the Hereafter as if you are dying tomorrow" (quoted in Izzi Deen 1990, 194).

14. Rights of Other Forms of Life vi

The Prophet has put great emphasis on the conservation and protection of animals and birds. Once he passed by a weak camel. Looking at it he said: “Fear Allah with regard to these deaf and dumb animals”. He also prohibited people from beating and striking the animals on their faces. He once saw a donkey, whose face had been branded and castigated the brander.vii

15. Conclusion

Islamic law thus gives us a number of principles and scriptural statements, which can be of much value in the field of modern concerns with the human future, the wasteful use of resources, environmental damage, water resources, extinction of species, climate change and in general due care of the environment.

Islam had a special concern with the environment, because it started with a desert community and the conservation of resources such as water and vegetation such as fruit trees was of special importance.

As with the other religions, its time frame reached far into the future and short term advantage at the cost of long term damage to the environment was severely discouraged. Islamic teaching has an enormous fund of concepts, principles and rules of conduct offering guidance to all of humanity on the conservation of the environment and the long-term protection of the human future.
resources, environmental damage, water resources, extinction of species, climate change and in general due care of the environment.

Islam had a special concern with the environment, because it started with a desert community and the conservation of resources such as water and vegetation such as fruit trees was of special importance.

As with the other religions, its time frame reached far into the future and short term advantage at the cost of long term damage to the environment was severely discouraged. Islamic teaching has an enormous fund of concepts, principles and rules of conduct offering guidance to all of humanity on the conservation of the environment and the long-term protection of the human future.


Callicott, J. Baird. “The Historical Roots of Western European Environmental Attitudes and Values: Islam.” In Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback, 30–36. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1994 and Tom Regan, ed., “Animal Experimentation: The Muslim Viewpoint.” In Animal Sacrifices: Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science, 171–98. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1986.

Saeedullah Qazi, Environment and Islam, op. cit.

Harold Coward and Daniel C. Maguire, ed. Islam and the Environment: A Legalistic and Textual View (Population, Consumption, and the Environment: Religious and Secular Responses), 67.Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995

Fazlun M Khalid, Islam and Environment, op. cit.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Nature Across Cultures: Views of Nature and the Environment in Non-Western Cultures. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003

See generally Fazlun Khalid with Joanne O'Brien, Cassell, ed., Islam and Ecology ( World Religions and Ecology series) London 1992, Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions (Oct 1 2003), Ba Kader, Abou Bakr Ahmed. Environmental Protection in Islam, Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1995.

Saeedullah Qazi,Environment and Islam, Da’wa Academy IIU, Islamabad, 1998, p.49-50

Fazlun M khalid, Islam and Environment, op. cit.

viiAbu-Sway, Mustafa, “Toward an Islamic Jurisprudence of the Environment” (Fiqh al-Bi’ah f’il-Islam), op. cit.

- Asian Tribune -

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