There is no faith on the face of the earth that cares so much for nature as Islam. In our faith, caring for the environment is not just a passing fad to save the future; it’s a religious duty we live and practice in our day to day lives.
Everything in nature is, after all, God’s Creation. The earth we walk, the air we breathe, the scents we smell, the fruit of the earth we eat of, the blue dome of the sky which at nightfall opens out to reveal the stars like a gigantic planetarium, the vast pools of the oceans that caress our shores with their waves and kiss it with foam; the verdant earth studded with rolling hills and carpeted with lush green flora, the gushing rivers and the cooling breezes, the boughs and the blooms, and the bees, birds and butterflies, all of it a work of art like no other, works of art the hand of man can only imitate, not create. They are the very Signs of God by which we know him and the Mirror that reflects as it were His Countless Mercies upon us. All of creation points to the Creator behind it all:
Verily in the heavens and the earth, are signs for those who believe. And in the creation of yourselves and in the fact that the beasts are scattered are Signs for those of assured Faith. And in the alternation of Night and Day and the fact that God sends down sustenance from the sky, and revives with it the earth after its death; and in the change of the winds- are Signs for those that are wise
(The Kneeling Down:3-5)
Such verses instill in us a deep love for the ways of nature. Nature is not to be exploited but loved and groomed and looked upon with wonder as the Signs of God. But that’s not all. As Muslims we hold that all of creation, be they animals or trees, glorify God in their own way and in this sense are themselves Muslim:
Seest thou not that to God bow down in worship all things that are in the heavens and on earth,- the sun, the moon, the stars; the hills, the trees, the animals; and a great number among mankind?
Man is only a humble member of this universal family of God, one among the many communities He has created:
There is not an animal (That lives) on the earth, Nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms) communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end
God very often speaks of nature and animals in the Qur’an in very endearing terms, showing how much he loves his creation to the tiniest ant. In one passage we have him drawing our attention to the Days of David, bringing in his creatures to sing along with him like a symphony resounding with His Glory:
We bestowed Grace aforetime on David from ourselves (saying) “O ye mountains! Sing ye back the praises of God with him and ye birds!”
On another occasion He speaks of David’s son Solomon’s encounter with an ant, when it relates with relish how when Solomon’s army was on the march, they came to a valley of ants and one of them said: “O ye ants, get into your habitations, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you without knowing it” . All Solomon could do was smile, amused at her wise words, and thank God for His Favours. An entire chapter of the Qur’an titled The Ant or Al-Naml takes its name from this incident.
Prophet Muhammad like the Prophets before him also had his animal friends. Which Muslim can forget how when the Pagan Meccans announced a boycott of Muhammad and his family in the early years of his mission, and hung the proclamation in the Holy Temple of the Ka’ba, the white ants got to work to reduce it to naught. Who can forget how when the Prophet and his companion Abu Bakr sought refuge in the Cave of Thawr from a mob of assassins from Mecca on their way to Medina, a spider wove a web at the entrance to the cave, leading the pursuers to believe there was no one inside. Who can ever forget that at the very spot where a man would have had to put his foot to climb into the cave was a rock dove which seemed as if she were sitting on her eggs further misleading the disbelievers. And who can ever forget, how when he finally reached Medina, the Prophet built his mosque, that famous mosque you see in Medina today, at the very spot where Qaswa, the she camel he rode fell on her knees outside a date store belonging to two orphan brothers and refused to budge.
The Prophet ensured that nature would be sustained by his followers and that it would be not be disturbed in any way. One of his companions tells us:
We were on a journey with God’s Messenger when we came across a bird the size of a sparrow with two chicks. We seized the chicks, whereupon the hen started beating its wings and screeching. God’s Messenger turned and when he saw what we had done, asked: ‘Who separated those chicks from their mother? Return them at once!’ So we left them free.
But we have a duty by God to protect not only the creatures He has created but also the very ecosystems that preserve this vast array of life forms, each unique in its own way and each contributing to the balance of nature. Thus environmental protection is not a call to just save the future, but a sacrosanct religious duty.
The Qur’an speaks of man as Khalifa or God’s Vicegerent on earth. He told the angels so even before creating Adam:
Behold thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a viceregent on earth”
Man in his special role as khalifa or Custodian of the Earth has a special mission in safeguarding nature. As the Prophet put it:
The world is green and beautiful, and God has appointed you as His stewards over it
So if we are God’s vicegerents on earth. It follows that this world has been given to us on a trust, a sort of long lease. Thus we are not the masters of the world. We are only trustees of this good earth God has given us and as such must discharge this trust in all good faith by preserving and protecting the rest of creation. To betray that trust will only hurt us and earn the Wrath of God.
But there’s another reason why we need to protect the environment. And that is the foretaste of Paradise it gives us. If paradise, the ultimate reward we are promised, is described as ‘gardens beneath which rivers flow’ by God Himself, then should not this earth created by that very God give us a foretaste of Paradise? Should we not strive to make the earth a vast garden where God’s Glory and His Timeless Beauty is reflected in all its splendour – under the cooling shade of trees where roses bloom and rabbits frolic, where nightingales sing their songs in gay abandon and the patter of rain could be heard now and then?
This is exactly why Muslims have come to regard gardens as reflections of heaven on Earth; places where we can count God’s blessings and where our souls can connect with nature so that we all become one under God. One has only to visit Islamic lands and see for themselves how lovingly the Muslims of old have tended their gardens since the earliest times, from the exotic Shalimar Gardens of India to the Hesperian Gardens of the Alhambra in Spain. Horticulture as we know it today was in a sense a Muslim contribution. Did you know that the tulip was actually introduced to Europe by the Turks and so were Garden summerhouses which have their origins in the Turkish koshk like the Cinili koshk found in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It was this Turkish term which gave us the English word kiosk. Modern-day tents used to observe nature in the wild also have their origins in Turkish camps and have been a part of Western culture ever since Louis XIV had ceremonial tents a la torque set up on his estate.
So you see it’s a Muslim’s duty to spread the green message of Islam far and wide and to make the earth one big beautiful garden.
In fact, Islam places much emphasis on growing trees. As the Prophet said:
If any Muslim plants any plant and a human being or an animal eats of it, he will be rewarded as if he had given that much in charity.
Whoever reclaims and cultivates dry, barren land will be rewarded by God for the act. So long as men and animals benefit from it, He will record it for him as almsgiving
(Majmu al-Zawaaid, Haythami)
Here we are told that even if an animal eats from a plant which has been planted by a human, it will count as an act of charity and that such reward will continue to accrue to him even after his death, so long as such plant benefits the rest of creation. Indeed the Prophet taught that even in the end days one should not hesitate to plant a tree on account of its great reward:
If the Hour (Doomsday) were to come and someone had a sapling in his hand and were able to plant it, then let him do so
(Fayd al-Qadir, Al-Munawi)
It is only today that science has discovered the importance of planting trees for the wellbeing of our environment and indeed of ourselves. Trees not only give us shade and fruit, but also play an important role in the delicate balance of nature, even to the extent of absorbing pollutants released to the environment by man in the course of what he calls modern civilized living.
But hold on. We are warned again and again in the Qur’an not to take God’s blessings for granted:
See you the water which you drink? Do you bring it down (in rain) from the cloud or do We? Were it our will, We could make it salt (and unpalatable); then why do you not give thanks? See you the fire which you kindle? Is it you who grow the tree which feeds the fire, or do We grow it? It is We Who make it a means to remind (you of Us), and an article of comfort and convenience for the denizens of deserts. Then celebrate with praises the name of your Sustainer, the Supreme!
That’s not all, God tells us point blank that whatever corruption takes place on earth, it is because of man’s doing and to reverse such disastrous impacts on our surroundings we ourselves have to take responsibility and make some hard choices even at a personal level:
Corruption doth appear on land and sea because of (the evil) which men’s hands have done, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order that they may return
Wastefulness is particularly condemned by God. For one thing, it shows callous disregard for God’s bounties by taking his blessings for granted, and for another, it harms the environment we live in, making it unsustainable for future generations.
O children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer; eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for God loves not the prodigals
It is He Who produces gardens, with trellises and without, and dates, and tilth with produce of all kinds, and olives and pomegranates, similar (in kind) and different (in variety); eat of their fruit in their season, but render the dues that are proper on the day that the harvest is gathered. But waste not by excess;for God loves not the wasters
It once happened that the Prophet came by while his companion Sa‘d was taking his ablutions. Seeing that Sa‘d was using a lot of water, he said: ‘What is this? You are wasting water.” Sa‘d replied: “Can there be wastefulness while taking ablution?” Pat came the Prophet’s response: “Yes, even if you take it on the bank of a rushing river”(Musnad). Thus we could see that conservation which we think of as a modern idea, has been known to Muslims for ages past and honoured as such as a religious obligation.
God also draws our attention to the balance of nature, urging us not to transgress this beautiful balance He has created:
The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed; And the herbs and the trees – both (alike) bow in adoration. And the firmament He has raised high, and He has set up the balance, In order that you may not transgress (due) balance.
(The Most Merciful:5-9)
And commanding us to keep it that way:
Do no mischief on the earth, after it hath been set in order
God, has after all, played His Role. He has ensured balance and order in the good nature He has created, even to the extent of ensuring that it would be kept clean day after day till the end of days, from the rain that washes away animal carcasses to the bacteria that break up rotting matter to our very own white corpuscles that cleanse the blood of germs and impurities. Yes, God had done his part, but have we done ours? Are we prepared to do the little we can for the environment by simply letting it be and taking from it only what is necessary in a sustainable way?
We don’t have far to look. The way we have taxed our environment is already telling on us. Little do we stop to think that if we upset the ecological balance it is we who have to pay the price for it. I need recall just one instance where this folly even turned to famine. That was when that fat fool Chairman Mao in his greed to have all the harvest for his countrymen and grudging the little birds that ate a small percentage of the grain, ordered that all sparrows be killed in his infamous kill the sparrow campaign. Millions of the innocent little birds were killed, some shot down by Mao’s people’s army while they were flying and others killed by other means like when brainwashed peasants kept on banging their pots and pans at dusk, sustaining the commotion for days on end till the exhausted birds fell down and littered the ground, whereupon the fools would rush to wring their little necks. They even broke the eggs and ruthlessly killed the nestlings. And so the Chinese mercilessly slaughtered the birds in hundreds of thousands.
But what happened as a result is sadder. The birds ate only about five percent of the harvest, and with it they ate the pests that plagued the harvest. In the absence of the birds, swarms of locusts proliferated and ate into the harvest resulting in the Great Chinese Famine where twenty million people perished through mass starvation.
God had in His wisdom created animals the way they are and it is folly for man to attempt to change it according to his whims and fancies. As God Himself tells us there can be no change in the Work of God:
So set thou thy face steadily and truly to the Faith. God’s handiwork according to the pattern He made mankind; no change (let there be) in the Work (wrought) by God
Thus new-fangled scientific breakthroughs like biotechnology or genetic modification where plants or animals are manipulated at the genetic level to change their traits can have no place in Islam. Very often this process involves gene splicing where the genes of one species of animal are transferred to another. Across countries like the USA nature is being deliberately manipulated so that nowadays we find animals even being patented as inventions.
Private biotechnology companies, universities, and individual bioentrepreneurs have been granted hundreds of patents on animals such as chimpanzees, rabbits, dogs and cats who have been genetically altered in some way or other. Such animals are often used for research purposes in painful experiments to satisfy man’s curiosity about the way nature operates. In the case of plants, it is also ostensibly done to confer traits thought to be desirable like improved nutrition and pest resistance with companies like Monsanto taking the lead. But what of the impact of these organisms?
To give one example, take the case of genetically modified corn which has incorporated the gene of the Bacilius Thuringiensis, a natural pesticide to make it resistant to the corn borer. However it has been scientifically proven that such corn, when eaten by the larvae of the Monarch Butterfly, killed nearly half and stunted the rest. Now, the Monarch Butterfly is the natural protector of the corn since it feeds on pests injurious to the corn plant. But what the modified corn does is wards off the pest and kills the butterfly. The pests could evolve strains resistant to the corn in less than a decade, while the butterfly which could control the pest would be wiped out, posing a threat not only to our food security, but also the larger environment.
Interestingly, Muslims were warned against these developments in the Qur’an revealed more than 1400 years ago. Here we are told that Satan, the arch foe of mankind had vowed to tempt man to change the nature created by God:
I (Satan) will take of your (God’s) servants a portion marked off. I will mislead them and I will create in them false desires. I will order them to slit the ears of cattle and to change the (fair) nature created by God.
It is evident today more than ever before that the latest developments in biotechnology we see today is Satan’s work, who has seduced man to think that unbridled science is the cure for all his ills and even resorted to a misplaced Judeo-Christian notion of subjugating nature to serve man’s ends to cajole men into this mischief. Perhaps there will come a day when it will be left to the lot of the world’s Muslims to fight for and protect the natural order in all its beauty and variety at a time when the rest of the world is being led astray by evil men whom the devil has driven mad by his touch. Muslim nations have already done a lot here besides just avoiding biotechnology. Take for instance Masdar City in Abu Dhabi which is the world’s first true zero-carbon city.
It was also in this spirit that a sixteen year old Muslim girl from Alexandria in Egypt, Azza Faiad discovered a revolutionary trash to fuel formula, an inexpensive way of turning plastic waste into fuel by using a cheap and plentiful catalyst known as aluminisilicate to converts plastic waste into gases like methane and propane, which can then be turned into ethanol or biofuel. Why, because the organic chemicals from plastic polymers so extracted are precisely the same chemicals extracted by biofuel producers who have to ferment food crops to produce ethanol. So with one stroke, this beautiful young lady has not only shown the world a way to address the environmental impact of discarded plastics, but also turn it into a viable, eco-friendly fuel source.