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Historical Background To The Present Environmental Crisis
Oct 1, 1999

All scriptures in world religions have something to say about the environmental problems caused by such natural disasters as floods, droughts, and earthquakes. God not only creates but also destroys through natural disasters. However, there is little reference in the scriptures to human-caused environmental destruction, except during times of wars and other hostile human engagements. Although most scriptures draw connections between human faith and its ability to bring about action, the idea that human environmental behavior is determined by religious beliefs and values is alien to traditional religious thought. Such a linkage between environmental problems and religion is modern, for traditional civilizations did not pose a threat to life through the pollution engendered by the wasteful use of resources.

The great transformation that followed the Industrial Revolution at the end of Middle Ages created imbalances between the legitimate use of resources and environmental well-being. The Industrial Revolution brought about improvements in agriculture, the large-scale production of iron and steel, the development of machinery, and the factory mode of production. Behind these changes lay a new energy system based on the rapid expansion of the use of coal as fuel. Coal dominated industrial society's energy production until well into the twentieth century, when oil and gas superseded it. These cheap, concentrated, and abundant fossil fuels led to the explosive growth of population, wealth, technology, production, and trade. Cheap energy tilted the balance between the careful use of resources with a maximum effectiveness and the polluting effects of these resources.

Contemporary industrial civilization differs strikingly from traditional civilizations in two important ways. Both these differences have impacted upon the present environmental crisis. First, the huge consumption of fossil fuels and use of modern technology have enabled unprecedented production levels of goods and wealth accumulation, and have allowed large numbers of people to live in luxury. Although this production has not required traditional forms of slavery, a large portion of humanity has been left out of the productive process or benefits little from the wealth it produces. Second. industrial society exhibits growth and innovation rates so much faster than any previous civilization that a new situation has emerged. The increase of the world's population is the most obvious kind of growth: It doubled between 1850 and 1930, and then doubled again between 1930 and 1975. Though growth rates have peaked. the world's population may double again between 1975 to and 2010. Meanwhile, technological innovation has accelerated so rapidly that many persons living today can remember a world into which no cars, airplanes, or radios existed. Technological changes in transportation and communication have been viewed, until quite recently, as instruments of progress. Now they are being reexamined for the rate of energy consumed and the quality of life delivered. Further innovations may have a different character.

Innovative, energy-intensive technology exacerbates two tendencies found in both industrial society that it shares with and traditional civilizations:

" These civilizations developed large integrated economic and political systems. Industrial (and post-industrial) society is rapidly incorporating the whole world into its integrated economy.

" Traditional civilizations tended to be so unstable that few flourished for more than a few centuries. Industrial society becomes dysfunctional as it depletes resources, pollutes the environment, and manufactures weapons, all at a rate that many believe cannot be sustained for even a century longer.

The development of large-scale technology in the service of extensive, complex institutions has engendered a new situation. Never before has so much energy been available for human use. The novelty of the sheer quantity of energy is matched by its concentration. In this century, the governments of industrial nations have increased and centralized their power. In recent decades, the appearance and expansion of multinational corporations and energy conglomerates has allowed the leaders of a few institutions to determine much of our planet's future. These firms are drawing the whole world into a single integrated economy dedicated to establishing a universal, high-energy consumer culture. No previous time has seen, on a global level, such an acceleration of growth and social change as that caused by these institutions.

Better living conditions for all is the well-publicized promise offered by the present industrial society. And although in absolute numbers more people are hungry than ever before, it is true that today more people, and a higher percentage of people, are wealthier than at any time in the past. The revolution of rising expectations suggests that the world's poor increasingly believe that economic development and industrialization will bring affluence even to them.

But the costs and dangers of the present order are no less familiar. The growing world economy's voracious appetite exploits resources at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. Huge though the global reserves of usable natural resources are, present trends ensure their depletion within an ominously brief time. The processes of the world global economy poison the environment on which we all depend, and the accompanying misuse of land and water threatens, over time, to transform large parts of the planet into desert.

The shift from a world consisting of many societies with largely self-reliant economies to a single global society with an integrated economy makes the whole system vulnerable to disaster, should one essential part of the system malfunction. War or large-scale revolution anywhere in the world may disrupt the economic and political stability of the entire world. Thus, while the global economy serves us, it makes us dependent and transforms us into its slaves, for when its smooth functioning becomes necessary for our survival, its perpetuation, whatever the cost, becomes our most urgent and necessary task. When its smooth functioning depends on a disciplined, rational, careful work force, all that is spontaneous, emotional, exuberant, and unpredictable-qualities that make up part of our humanity-must be sacrificed. Such issues are already beginning to emerge in the nuclear power debate.

In this age of cheap and abundant energy, we feel as powerless to affect the decisions of Exxon as of OPEC. We can feel the edge of the old adage that technological advance does not give power to people generally, but gives some people greater power over many other people. Environmental costs in the form of stripped landscapes, polluted waterways, marine oil slicks, and smog are increasing. If we do not act now, we will continue to pay the human costs in increased regimentation and rising cancer deaths.

The decline of what Muslims ethicists call "contentment" (qana'at) and the rise of a consumer society have made every whim and appetite worth pursuing. Unmitigated pleasure can be enjoyed without struggle, self-discipline, or hang-over. Advertising often gives the impression that advancing technology and a high-energy life style can fulfill all our desires at the touch of a finger. A high-energy life style offers instant gratification in the form of fast food, electronic entertainment, high-speed travel, air conditioning and central heating, painkilling drugs, and laborsaving machinery.

The human aspiration to overcome biological limits, to extend the boundaries of human knowledge, power, and experience as far as possible, regardless of the cost, has led to the space program, supersonic transport, and the development of fusion power. These infinite aspirations are enclosed in finite flesh, and thus present a contradiction that must be resolved by religion, for it is religion that makes us aware of the limits by showing us death as an imminent reality.

It is ironic that although we witness death almost every day, the certainty of our own death always lurks on the fringes of consciousness. In his book The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1974). Ernest Becker argues that since we know we are to die and are therefore doomed to live in a tragic and terrifying world, the situation calls for new heroism (basically matters of belief and will), dedicated to a vision. "But modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing."

The vision to be free includes not only freedom from human finitude and death, but also repudiation of the smelly, messy, and transient fleshiness of our own bodies. Bodies originate in the soil. They feel hunger and thirst. They eat and drink and defecate. They fall sick, deteriorate with age, die, and rot in the dirt. They also generate passions, irrational emotions, and "lower" impulses. They engender lust, lechery, and fornication. How could anyone with such a body become free? Repudiating the body and physical work only encourages our penchant for mechanization.

We live and make public policy in industrial culture as if we half-believed these dreams to be real. We pursue scientific research as if the knowledge gained will improve rather than threaten human well-being. We talk and plan as if industrial civilization will continue forever. Such a pretense has a long historical lineage in history. The Pharaohs and Qaruns, as the Qur'an reminds us, believed in their own divinity and hence eternity. The Greeks observed that those whose ambitions and success raised them too high suffered a fatally distorted perception of reality-called arrogance-that led to a form of madness inevitably resulting in their downfall.

Fortunately, an alternative does exist. Environmentalism has an important religious dimension. It does not demand a sudden end to technological advancement, but rather calls for stringent measures to develop a morally and spiritually satisfying life style for all. Only such a strategy might succeed in arresting environmental deterioration and establishing and then maintaining satisfying and egalitarian human communities for long into the future.


Religion remains an important source of moral-spiritual awareness that engenders responsibility and accountability for the individual as well as the collective good. Religious beliefs help make sense out of many otherwise inexplicable human conditions. It is religion that reminds humanity of its creatureliness. Belief in the transitory nature of life and final judgment in the Divine court means abandoning the aspiration to surpass human limits and of the pretense that gaining power will not bring with it the often irresistible temptation to misuse it.

This must not mean an end of scientific enterprise, but rather a careful directing of science and technology to those activities that really will improve the quality of human life. Mortality remains the greatest measure of human limitation, and a spiritual-moral culture must find ways to help people face the sorrow connected with their own death and the deaths of those they love. At the same time, it must reconcile us to our limited sojourn on Earth without denigrating our bodies. The pious life must involve physical labor as well as prayer.

These considerations soon become a question about the meaning of human life. Whether a high-energy, consumerist society can for long preserve humane conditions is much in doubt. The choice of the right path to arrest the deteriorating condition is, in part, ours.

If we, as Muslims, believe that the Earth's resources are a part of God's creation, we must use them in a way that ensures that all life, present and future, will have access to its needed resources. We must also make sure that any threats to life from the pollution engendered by our use of these same resources are minimized.

As followers of Islam, the religion that encourages us to prove the existence of the "Master of the Day of Judgment" through natural phenomena, we should reflect seriously upon the relationship between religion and the environment.

Why should Muslims pay attention to environmental ethics? I can think of at least three answers:

First, the Qur'anic imperative: "Do not defile the Earth..." (7:54). The Islamic revelation calls upon humanity to avoid corrupting the Earth. Although "corruption" here means defiling the material as well the spiritual environment, the Qur'an underscores the interrelationship between the material and spiritual dimensions of the problem. Spiritual problems cannot be worked out apart from correcting humanity's relations with the physical environment. Human beings must live in harmony with the environment if they want to avoid becoming alienated from nature. The Qur'an repeatedly points toward the portents of God's existence in nature, for it states that both terrestrial and celestial bodies are all the ayat (signs or proofs) of the Divine presence. In order to overcome their alienation from God, human beings must learn to live in harmony with their physical and mental environments.

Second, humanity is entrusted with the khilafa of God. This position can be interpreted as conveying humanity's "lordship" over God's creation and that nature exists to serve human beings. In fact, some environmentalists claim that such an anthropocentric view, commonly held by Abrahamic religions, is the source of our environmental crisis. However, it must be pointed out that although religion has an important place in determining people's ideas and culture, it is too simplistic to extract such "lordship" from the creation story. Quite the contrary, for this khiafa implies God's commandment to human beings to assume "stewardship" over His creation, to continue to watch over the world and its creatures as benevolent, responsible guardians. For Muslims, humanity is God's trustee and therefore must serve the purposes of the "Master of the Day of Judgment." The Earth belongs to God, and He has entrusted us with its safekeeping. As such, all human beings are answerable for their actions, for how they use or abuse this Trust of God.

Third, there is a purpose in human life: to worship ('ibada) God. I am using the word 'ibada here in its essential meaning of "serving" God by fulfilling all that God requires us to do. This includes living in harmony and peace with one another. In Islam, faith in God means being aware of matters of ultimate concern. There is a sense of urgency in such an understanding of faith. The Qur'an speaks about of the Day of Judgment in terms of urgency and calls upon human beings to respond to their limited life on Earth.

The spiritual and physical environments face constant challenges by human behavior. Just as awareness about moral dangers should create in us a sense of urgency when we are warned that excessive materialism will damage spiritual well-being, pollution of the physical environment must be treated as a matter of ultimate significance. Environmentalists all over the world warn us that our oceans are rising and so we are going to be drowned, that our food and water are filled with chemicals and so we are going to die of cancer, that the ozone hole will introduce lethal radiation from outer space, and that we actually are going to destroy ourselves, thereby proving that the cosmic experiment of intelligent life on Earth has been a failure. These issues are related to the ultimate value of human life.


The Qur'an declares that "reforming the Earth" is the ideal human endeavor. It also criticizes humanity for several very basic human traits: that human beings are too proud and petty, narrow-minded, and selfish. "Man is by nature timid," says the Qur'an. "When evil befalls him, he panics, but when good things come to him he prevents them from reaching others." This pettiness causes individuals to become so submerged in nature that they lose sight of its Creator. Only when nature fails them do they turn, in utter frustration, to God. Their shortsightedness deludes them into thinking that charity, altruism, and sacrificing for others will impoverish them. This, however, is Satan's influence, for God promises prosperity in return for generosity to the poor.

The Qur'an insists, therefore, that individuals transcend their pettiness and enlarge themselves in order to develop the inner moral quality of taqwa (usually translated 'fear of God," but actually meaning, "to guard against danger"). Using taqwa, individuals can discern right from wrong and, above all, evaluate their own actions properly and so avoid self-deception, a danger to which they are always exposed. People often think they have done something consequential, although in the long run the deed has no importance. The real worth of one's deeds can be judged only through taqwa, and an individual's aim should be the ultimate benefit of humanity, not the self's immediate pleasures or ambitions.

The Qur'an (6:38) declares in no uncertain terms that: "There is no creature upon the Earth or in the skies that does not form part of a community as you do. All things progress through life thanks to Divine guidance: some are more advanced, some are less advanced." This means that humanity is not the only community living on the Earth. God's sustaining provisions reach all of His creatures, and thus all are worthy of respect and protection. Prophet Muhammad regarded all living creatures as worthy of protection and kind treatment. When asked whether kindness to animals will be rewarded, he said: "For charity shown to any creature with a wet heart, there is a reward," (wetness indicates life). This tradition also suggests humanity's stewardship over nature.

The Qur'an does not regard nature as opposed to God for, in reality, nature is muslim, meaning "submitted to God's Will." Every creature that exists in the heavens or upon the Earth bows its head in submission to God's laws, willingly or unwillingly. "The seven heavens and the Earth and all that exists within them sing the praises of God; there is no atom that does not praise God with thanks and gratitude, although you may be unaware of how this praise is expressed." (17:44; 3:38). Giving thanks imparts worth and value, and the Qur'an emphasizes God's greatness and glory by including animate and inanimate creatures in His worship. Such inclusion is designed to create a respect and reverence for nature in human beings. Nature is in harmony with those individuals who give thanks. Just as when people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds overcome their fear of each other when they pray together, this shared aspect of creatureliness overcomes the alienation between humanity and nature.

There is a total harmony between God and nature. There is however, an unfolding process and progression in nature, for God placed in it a creative power that made it grow, bifurcate, and ramify. The Qur'an asks: "Do the unbelievers not see that We have created the planets [in this solar system from the burning, swirling gases that] We tore away from [the sun as it revolved]? Do they not see that We created every living thing from water [that is, this viscous soup of solar gases]?)" (21:30).

God gave nature the power of growth, bifurcation, progression, and change. The Qur'an abounds in statements that nature is the proof (ayah) of God's existence, unity, and wisdom. Nature is well-knit and originally without any flaw. God has created every thing according to a its proper measurement (qadar). Nature is therefore one of His prime miracles. Thoughtful reflections on this divine miracle and keen observation of it can lead us to faith in God and encourage us to worship God. Nature is the reminder (dhikr) of God. The Qur'an calls upon humanity to reflect on nature and learn from it:

"In the creation of the heavens and the Earth, and in the alternation of night and day [in which the means of livelihood are found] there are signs [of Truth] for those with the ability and will to understand. Those who, whether sitting, standing or reclining on their sides, remember God and deliberate upon the creation of the heavens and the Earth [and the purpose that underpins the whole cosmos] saying: "0 Lord! You have not created all this in vain. May You be glorified: You are far above the creation of playthings and trifles. So, 0 Lord, deliver us from the fires of Hell!'" (3:190-91).

The Qur'an emphasizes three dimensions of the human-nature relationship, with nature functioning as the proof of God's existence:

  • Worship engendered by nature


  • Appreciation of beauty and aesthetics derived through nature



  • Gratitude based on the realization of utility and value in nature.


The Qur'an teaches that nature has surrendered itself to the laws of God and thus is muslim. Nature is not only muslim in the sense that it obeys God's laws and rules; the Qur'an (17:44) goes one step further and says that all nature sings God's praises, although ordinary human senses cannot grasp that form of worship.

Whereas nature is the handiwork of God and the Qur'an speaks of its beauty, value, and goodness, it also underscores the purposefulness of creation. Everything in creation has a purpose, and everything functions as a sign of God's existence. Moreover, God created the natural world long before human beings, thus making human beings dependent on the natural order for their survival. There is no reason why human beings should be valued more than other creatures when the human body depends on and is connected with the biotic and abiotic parts of this ecosystem. All living creatures are part of the divine purpose, and are interconnected in the ecological system. Human beings must realize this interconnectedness with the rest of nature and must reach out to all other sentient beings (17:44: 22:18).

The Qur'anic verse: "Every created being has a size [and proportion known to God alone]" (13:8; 15:21) proclaims the natural balance that needs to be preserved for ecological systems. The massive ecological damage caused by humanity indicates its disobedience to God. It is humanity's responsibility to maintain ecological balance as a proof of its gratitude to the Creator. In Islam, the requirement of tahara (ritual purity), usually understood in the context of Muslim ritual cleansing, has an extended application: the elimination of internal and external impurities that pollute our body and spirit. Thus water, an important source of ritual tahara and human consumption must be kept pure. This general rule applies to other ecological systems, mountain ranges, and waterfalls also, because they are essential for healthy living.


In Islam, an individual's relationship with the environment is governed by certain moral precepts. These originate with God's creation of humanity and the role it was given as God's vicegerent (khalifa) on Earth. This vicegerency covers every aspect of life, be it individual, social, or environmental. It regulates a whole spectrum of relationships with God, one's own self, other human beings, and with animate and inanimate objects. Diverse elements in God's creation, including humans, form essential parts of God's measured and balanced creation.

The role of human beings, however, is not only to benefit from their surroundings. They are expected to preserve, protect, and promote their fellow creatures. The Prophet emphasized this interdependency in a tradition: "All creatures are God's dependents, and the best among them is the one who is most beneficial to God's dependents." Through his own example, the Prophet laid down the rules of caring for trees, animals, and all natural elements. He encouraged others to do the same as part of their religious-ethical responsibility by making such assertions as: "The only reasons God does not cause His punishment to pour over you are the presence of the elderly, the suckling babes, and the animals that graze upon your land."

Humanity has an ethical responsibility, then, to face the challenge of acting as God's trustee over His creation, for human beings have been given the gift of intuitive reasoning. This means that human beings are responsible for their actions:

"We offered the Trust to the heavens, the Earth, and the mountains [namely that they attain autonomous existence and acquire total responsibility for their own actions]; but they declined, afraid that they would be unable [to meet the challenge]. But humanity accepted [the Trust], for it was ignorant and unjust" (33:73).

But, as history shows us, human beings often act with arrogance and injustice, not only toward one another, but also toward nature. They think they control nature by discovering, domineering, and then exploiting the laws undergirding natural phenomena. However, since it is God Who has given these laws to nature, He sometimes disrupts its natural course to remind human beings that He is still in control. The Qur'an reminds humanity of its arrogance and forgetfulness by underlining the alienation and desperation of human beings when nature departs from its ordained path:

"It is He Who enables you to travel across land and sea. [Picture this:] a boat full of [passengers is crossing] the waters carried along by gently winds. Suddenly the weather changes; a fierce storm tosses the vessel this way and that, while huge waves threaten to capsize it. [Forsaking their false gods, the terrified seafarers] cry out [to the One True God] with complete sincerity saying: '0 God! We swear that if You save us from this [storm] we shall be truly grateful!' But when God delivers them [safely to the shore) they return to their selfish and evil ways. 0 people! Your selfishness and arrogance will be your downfall" (10:22-23).

Human beings, however, are the most honored creation of God (17:70). That which distinguishes humanity from nature is humanity's possession of reason, knowledge of right and wrong, and its moral agency to act with freedom. Cognition and volition were specifically given to human being so they could exercise authority over and take responsibility for preserving the natural order. The Qur'an records the angels' doubts about humanity's ability to fulfill the responsibilities of stewardship: "Will they not abuse the authority and corrupt God's creation?" God silenced the angels by reminding them that He knew what they did not know (2:30).

Although the Qur'an does not draw the following conclusion, it is not difficult to demonstrate that the test for human beings has always remained the just exercise of authority over those under their stewardship, including nature. The just exercise of power without fully and sincerely submitting to the will of God and accepting social responsibility and personal accountability to maintain a healthy spiritual and material environment can-and has-lead to the present ecological injustices. There is nothing more dangerous to human well-being than the unsupervised exercise of power. According to Seyyid Hussein Nasr: "There is no more dangerous a creature on the Earth than a khalifat Allah who no longer considers himself to be 'abd Allah and who therefore does not see himself as owing allegiance to a being beyond himself. Such a creature is able to possess a power of destruction which is truly Satanic in the sense that 'Satan is the ape of God'; for such a human type wields, at least for a short time, a god-like but destructive dominion over the earth because this dominion is devoid of the care which God displays towards all His creatures and bereft of that love which runs through the arteries of the universe."

The Qur'an says that God created everything in the heavens and Earth for the sake of humanity (22:65; 45:13). However, it is not primarily a relationship of subjugation and utilization of nature. Rather, the meaning of this statement suggests that human beings are the most important beneficiaries of the natural world and possess priority over the other creations of God. At the same time, their moral agency places upon them responsibilities toward other creatures who also depend for their survival on the resources of this biosphere. The Prophet said: "The earth is made for me as a place of prostration (masjid) and as a purifier." This means that the soil has to be kept pure and be used with care and reverence, since it is the place on which a Muslim prostrates as a symbol of complete humility and submission to God.

Thus, the fundamental aspect of environmental ethics in Islam requires human beings to intervene to protect the Earth. They cannot claim exclusive rights over everything in nature, as some interpreters have done. They cannot stand back while the environment is being destroyed. Furthermore, human responsibility is not limited to a particular period of history, for all must work to leave this world in a better shape and order for future generations and other animate and inanimate species.

The Prophet is reported as having said: "God is beautiful and loves everything beautiful. God is generous and loves generosity, and is pure and loves purity." Islam emphasizes nature's beauty, goodness, and value, and creates among its followers an attitude of reverence and respect for nature without making them its worshippers or slaves. In Islam, human beings are neither the masters nor slaves of nature; humans and nature are interrelated in their worship of God, and it is humanity's duty to serve God and take care of His creation.


The Shari'a is the Divine blue-print for the Islamic social order. It is a network of duties and responsibilities toward God, one's own self, other human beings, and the rest of creation. It is important to note that the Shari'a is a comprehensive system that considers life an organic whole. Human beings and all biotic and abiotic members of the biosphere are components of this whole. The Shari'a creates a moral order where humans, individually and collectively, on the micro-level and the macro-level recognize their worth and value, fulfill their duties toward others, and establish an order of peace, justice, and equilibrium.

The fundamental principles of the Shari'a are justice and balance. It seeks to establish a balance between human freedom and welfare, human rights and duties, and individual and communal goals. Seyyid Hussein Nasr has highlighted the following guidance of the Shari'a in matters of environmental ethics:

"The divine law (al-Shari'ah) is explicit in extending the religious duties of man to the natural order and the environment. One must not only feed the poor but also avoid polluting running water. It is pleasing in the eyes of God not only to be kind to one's parents, but also to plant trees, and treat animals gently and with kindness."

The ethical concerns of Islam are summed up in the following five guidelines provided by the Qur'an and the Sunna:

  • Use of the natural environment is permissible, but should not involve unnecessary destruction. "Do not be wasteful" (7:31) is the Qur'anic dictum.


  • Life's component elements must be protected so that their use may continue in a sustainable way.



  • Preservation of the environment must be undertaken in an altruistic fashion, and not merely for its benefit to human beings. Other members of the biosphere who share this planet must be kept in mind.



  • The process of development must sustain life, even if one anticipates no direct benefit from it.



  • Sustainable use of the ecosystem requires that life is maintained with due balance in everything. Human beings are not the owners, but rather the maintainers, of this balance. 

In conclusion, it is worth remembering that as we prepare for the world to come, and even as we run toward our Lord, the Prophet has reminded us to care for the environment. He said: "If the last day comes and one of you has a palm-seedling that he was going to plant, let him plant it, because God will reward him for doing so."

What this tradition seems to emphasize is that even when the world is ending and a person sees no apparent reason for planting trees, he or she is still commanded to do so because it is pleasing to God. This statement sums up Islam's environmental ethics: at no time should a Muslim neglect his or her responsibility to think about the environment and its protection. This responsibility is engendered by our faith in God's wisdom and our own well-being. It is the convergence of faith and action in Islam that essentially links the environment to religion: one who does not use natural resources carefully so that all beings, present and future, have access to the resources they need, has violated the divinely ordained ecosystem.