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Jun 17, 2019

Can We Live in Harmony With Nature?

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S H Nasr Cropped

Seyyed Hossein Nasr

The George Washington University

Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a renowned scholar of Islam and professor of religion.

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Can We Live in Harmony With Nature?


Smog and light in the Cairo skyline; photo: Sebastian Horndasch

This is a version of an essay that will appear in the forthcoming book Handbook of Ethics of Islamic Economics and Finance, ed. Zamir Iqbal, Kazem Sadr, and Abbas Mirakhor (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019).

All things hymn God’s praise. (Qur’an, 17:44)

The environmental crisis is now fully upon us, and no one with an open eye and open mind could seriously deny it. From global warming and the greenhouse effect to the loss of species and the pollution of land, air, and sea, signs of the problem are evident to anyone who looks. Yet, many neglect the roots of this crisis, because if they were to accept the real causes, they would have to change their worldview and manner of living. That is why many people seek only technological solutions. But those solutions are drawn from the very causes of the crisis: modern technology, and the view of the relation between humanity and nature upon which it is based. Moreover, this crisis is now global. The pollution of the Atlantic near big ports in North America affects the fish in the waters off Iceland, and the cutting down of trees in the Amazon basin affects the quality of air in Africa.

The environmental crisis did not, however, begin globally; it began locally, in the West, during the Industrial Revolution, in such places as the Ruhr Valley in Germany, the midlands of England, and Lowell, Massachusetts. Some have tried to draw a continuous line of cause and effect between goats eating the lower branches of trees in Syria two thousand years ago and the pollution of the Thames in the nineteenth century. This view, however, is false. The Industrial Revolution initiated a quantum jump in the negative impact of human activities upon the natural environment. A traditional Afghan or Indian village was, and to some extent still is, in harmony with its natural surroundings; it could continue its life in this manner for as far as one can project into the future. The same cannot be said of a modern city, such as New York, Cairo, or Seoul. The environmental crisis became global only when non-Western countries that had been dominated economically, politically, and/or militarily by the industrialized West, having regained their independence, sought to take advantage of the economic benefits of modernism by adopting Western norms and practices, especially Western technology.

As one would expect, awareness of the environmental crisis also began in the West. When I gave the Rockefeller Series lectures in 1966 at the University of Chicago, entitled “The Encounter of Man and Nature,”1 I predicted what was then called the ecological crisis. At first, the published form of my lecture met with great opposition, especially from Christian theologians in Britain, who, like many other Christian thinkers of the day, took pride that modern science and technology had been born in the Christian West. They saw that fact as proof of the superiority of Christianity over other religions. But soon the situation changed. Most leaders of the environmental movement did not think and act within the Christian tradition and would not consider themselves Christian thinkers; yet the concern of Western Christian thinkers about the environmental crisis has grown since the 1980s.

One of the most important figures in the history of environmentalism is a Canadian political and intellectual leader named Maurice Strong. He read my Encounter of Man and Nature (reprinted later as Man and Nature) and arranged to see me. In 1971, he and a few of his collaborators organized the first Earth Day in Stockholm, and he personally invited me to give a keynote address. Delegations were invited from all over the world. The two major Communist countries, the Soviet Union and China, did not even accept that they had such problems and claimed that the crisis was the result of capitalism—but they sent observers. My own country, Iran, sent a very large delegation, chosen and led by the brother of the Shah, Prince Abdol-Reza. I was not a member of the Iranian delegation and not bound by any political directives of the Iranian government; so I could speak without political constraints. During my lecture, I refuted the view that the environmental crisis was the problem only of capitalistic countries and said facetiously that no river was “more Communist” than the Volga, which flows for a thousand kilometers in Russia before joining the Caspian Sea. Yet, it was so polluted that many fish (such as sturgeon, which spawned in the Volga basin) swam south to the less polluted Iranian part of the Caspian Sea as soon as they grew in size. That comment so angered the Soviet delegation that many stood up in protest and walked out. The truth of the matter was revealed to the world after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, delegations from Islamic countries put all the blame and responsibility for the environmental crisis on the West and spoke as if Muslims themselves had no responsibility in this matter. Alas, since then, the environmental crisis in the Islamic world has gone from bad to worse. When I first visited Lahore, Pakistan, in 1958, the city was like one big garden. You saw green everywhere, and the sky was blue. Look at it now. In Iran, some national parks were established during the time of the Shah, and the habitat of animals, many rare, was preserved. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, however, the new government labeled this as an act of cruelty by the Shah against the peasants, who had been moved from the national park areas. So the peasants were allowed to return to the protected areas, with the result that the habitats of many animals were destroyed, causing the extinction of some rare species. Later, President Rafsanjani, who realized the folly of this way of thinking, reestablished the national parks and tried to make environmental concerns a government priority, but he did not have much success in preventing environmental degradation and pollution. Today, Tehran is one of the most polluted cities in the world; Mashhad, Ahvaz, and other major Iranian cities are also extremely polluted. And this is similar to the fate of many other major cities in the rest of the Islamic world and, in fact, in the world at large.

The Book of Nature

As I have always said, the key for Muslims confronting this crisis successfully, at least to the extent that is possible (since some of the causes of the crisis are global and beyond the control of the Islamic world), is to return to the teachings of traditional Islam about nature and human beings’ relation to it. Faith in Islam is still strong throughout the Islamic world, and therefore, Islamic teachings can be used much more readily for this purpose than can religious teachings in secularized parts of the globe. With this reality in mind, let us review the traditional Islamic teachings concerning the natural world and the rights and responsibilities of men and women concerning God’s creation.

In the noble Qur’an, it is asserted that God encompasses all beings (innahu bi kulli shay’in muĥīţ). Now, the term muĥīţ also means “environment,” and it can therefore be said that God’s Presence is ultimately the “environment” of His creation—more specifically, the world of nature and of human beings. To destroy the natural environment, whose beauty and harmony are results of this Divine Presence, is to veil this Presence and disrupt the harmony and balance of nature, of human life, and of their interrelation.

The Qur’an itself, in the deepest sense, addresses both humanity and nature and, in certain verses, calls upon and takes as witness elements of nature (such as mountains, the sun and the moon, and certain animals) and reminds us of His Wisdom reflected in creatures, both animate and inanimate. It refers to water as the indispensable substance for life and uses symbols drawn from the natural world, such as the tree or the bee, to teach us about the nature of the cosmic reality that surrounds us. In the Qur’an, God’s creation has a sacred quality. There is in fact no sacred scripture, except perhaps the Tao te-Ching, in which nature plays as central a role as it does in the Qur’an. On the basis of the Qur’an, traditional Islamic thought even speaks of each living species having its own divine law (shariah).

The actions, sayings, and teachings of the Prophet of Islam are also replete with environmental lessons and directives. It was he who created what today would be called a national park or protected area, from the south of Mecca to the north of Medina, where animals and plants are to be protected—an idea that is being revived by environmentalists in Saudi Arabia today. He forbade the wasting of food, the polluting of water, and the cutting down of fruit trees. He taught Muslims to live in harmony with nature and not to be at war with it. He emphasized the Qur’anic teaching that creatures have a direct nexus to God and pray to Him in their own fashion. This teaching has been immortalized in Islamic literature—for example, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī states in a famous Persian poem:

If only existence had a tongue,
So that it could lift the veil from divine mysteries.

The Prophet encouraged his followers to plant trees and ordered ¢Alī to plant many palm trees in Medina, many of which are now dying from lack of water so that the land on which they were planted can be sold at exorbitant prices. And the Prophet said it would be a blessed act in the Eyes of God if a person were to plant a tree, even if it were on the day before the end of the world and the Day of Judgment. A hefty book could be written on the prophetic understanding of the philosophy of the natural environment and the relation of human beings to the rest of God’s creation. If only contemporary Muslims were to heed the teachings of their Prophet on this crucial subject!

As the Divine Law promulgated for all Muslims, the Islamic shariah does not discuss the philosophy of the natural environment, but it does contain many laws and practical instructions related to the environment directly, from those concerning cleanliness, care of waste, and treatment of animals and plants to those concerning excess in the acquisition of material things and numerous other matters. The shariah emphasizes not only the rights of humans but also their responsibilities in honoring the rights of other creatures, especially animals, including domesticated ones. Also, its moral teachings about avoiding greed, gluttony, aggression, and similar vices have a direct bearing upon the environment.

The full exposition of the Islamic philosophy of the environment should be sought in the teachings of Sufism, Islamic metaphysics, cosmology, philosophy, and anthropology. The Islamic wisdom teachings speak about the correspondence between the cosmic Qur’an, the human microcosm, and the macrocosm. They speak of the lessons to be learned from the “pages” of the “cosmic book” and the wisdom that can be gained from seeing the signs (āyāt) of God in the world of nature and realizing that the harmony of creation and the interrelatedness of all beings are consequences of the oneness of the Author of the book of existence.

The Islamic wisdom tradition also emphasizes the love that pervades creation and issues from the Love of God for His creatures and of His creatures for Him. As the Qur’an says, “He loves them, and they love Him” (5:54). Muslim sages see this love as the moving force of the universe and agree with Dante when he speaks of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” In this vein, the famous Persian Sufi poet Sa¢dī says,

I am joyous with the world since the world is joyous with Him;
I am the lover of the whole world since the whole world issues from Him.

This wisdom tradition can provide the categorical refutation of the secularized and materialistic view of nature that is a basic cause of the present environmental crisis, a view that had its birth in the West but has now spread globally.2

Village Outside Herat Afghanistan Oct2009

Village outside Herat, Afghanistan; photo: Marius Arnesen

Harmony Between Humanity and Nature

Islamic teachings about the environment and humanity’s relation to it have become manifested throughout Islamic history and culture. Perhaps it would be best to begin with the division of Islamic society into nomads and sedentary people. In his Muqaddimah (Prologomena), the book introducing his work on world history,3 Ibn Khaldūn analyzed profoundly the interactions of these two groups, identifying them as the driving force of Islamic history. As he wrote, the nomads lived in nature and were its protectors, while sedentary people built towns and cities, which were centers of both cultural refinement and decadence. The Mongols, who were nomads, decimated much of the sedentary centers of Central and Western Asia. While their invasion was a major catastrophe for the eastern regions of the Islamic world, from the point of view of the environment, it had a positive effect: it reduced the population of areas such as Persia to probably about 50 percent of what it was before the seventh (AH)/thirteenth (CE) century and destroyed substantial portions of the irrigation systems in many towns and cities, causing them to recede from their earlier boundaries. The fact that Central and Western Asia have not had problems of overpopulation to the extent that one finds in South and East Asia is to a large extent due to the Mongols’ destructive invasion in the seventh/thirteenth century.

Even in traditional Islamic architecture and city planning, the harmony between humanity and the natural environment was almost always kept in mind. On the basis of principles drawn from the Qur’an and hadith, Islamic architecture grew, with full awareness of the necessity of preserving harmony and balance with the natural environment. The use of space, building materials, water, heat and cold, sunlight and shade, the wind, the creation of gardens, and many other elements in Islamic architecture and city planning were based on the balance and harmony between humanity and nature, in contrast with today’s cities, which are out of balance with nature and whose very existence depends on intrusion into and destruction of the natural world. As mentioned earlier, the people of a traditional village in the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Persia or North Africa could, in principle, continue their life for eons without causing an imbalance with their natural surroundings. Traditional cities did not cause pollution in their own air or a thousand miles away, as we see today. Even with the changed conditions of today, Muslims can learn much from their own traditions of architecture and urban design in dealing with the environmental crisis they now face along with the rest of the world.

Agriculture in the traditional Islamic world, as in other traditional societies, was also carried out in such a way that harmony with the environment was taken fully into account. Where soil was rich from an agricultural point of view, towns were not built on it; rather, such soil was preserved for agriculture. A fine example of this principle is traditional Cairo, which was built not along the Nile but some distance away from it, to preserve the land on the river’s edge, which was saved for agricultural purposes because the Nile annually deposited rich soil upon it during the season of floods. We had to wait for modern times to see this rich soil be taken over by the sprawl of the city and become lost to food production. Also, the types of vegetation planted were chosen with environmental considerations in mind. However, such considerations must not be seen only as making a virtue out of necessity. Although it was possible to transport goods from one region to another in the Islamic world, and occasionally some fruits (such as dates) were transported and sold in regions some distance from where palm trees grew, crops were generally cultivated to serve local needs.

The use of space, building materials, water, heat and cold, sunlight and shade, the wind, the creation of gardens, and many other elements in Islamic architecture and city planning were based on the balance and harmony between humanity and nature.

Closely related to this subject is the question of diet. On the basis of the science of the four natures (ţabāyi¢; hot and cold, dry and moist), various cuisines were developed in the Islamic world that aimed to preserve the balance between the human body, food, and the natural environment. This is a vast subject that cannot be treated fully here, but just to cite an example, although much of North Indian cuisine has Persian origins and many North Indian dishes still bear a Persian name, Indian food is hot and Persian food is not. Because most of Persia is hot and dry, whereas India is hot and moist, hot spices were added to Persian recipes to preserve harmony and balance between the body and the natural environment.4

Lessons about the spiritual significance of nature and about the bonds between humanity and nature, beyond the material and utilitarian, reflect the Qur’anic teachings and are also abundant in Islamic literature, especially in poetry. Some Western scholars have characterized such poetry as naturalistic and even pantheistic. Such a characterization is, however, false. “Nature poetry” in Arabic, Persian, and other Islamic languages is always based on the awareness of the reality of the transcendent nature of God, while emphasizing the sacred nature of His creation, and must not be equated with the nineteenth-century nature poetry of the English Romantic poets, despite some similarities. (Some English poets of this period did in fact have some familiarity with poetry from the Islamic world, especially in Persian.) Furthermore, this type of poetry in the Islamic world was not confined to the educated classes but percolated into all levels of society. Many of these poems are quoted in the daily life of ordinary Muslims to this day and have had a profound effect upon the attitude of traditional Muslims toward nature over the ages.

1909 7 31 1A

Niagara, George Inness, 1889

The spiritual and religious attitude toward the natural environment is integrated into traditional Islamic ethics, although many Muslims may ignore it today. Traditional Islamic ethics includes not only the human social order but also animals and plants and even running water, mountains, lakes, and seas. It is of the utmost importance for Muslims to formulate their traditional environmental ethics in contemporary language and then to put it into practice—not just read or speak about it! Moreover, this ethics includes much more than not throwing garbage into the street or breaking branches of trees in the park near one’s house, about which some preachers speak today during their Friday sermons in various mosques; of course, such matters are also of importance, but they are not the whole story.

Traditional Technologies

We cannot conclude this article without saying a few words about the traditional Islamic sciences of nature and technology, although their full exploration in relation to the question of the natural environment would require a separate treatment.5 Islamic science is one of the major scientific traditions in world history, one that not only influenced medieval Chinese and Hindu sciences but also, shorn of its cosmological and metaphysical dimensions, exercised a major influence upon Western science. Where would the development of mathematics in Europe have been without the translations of Arabic works on the science of numbers, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and other related subjects? To demonstrate this basic influence, it is enough to recall that the numbers used in the West are still called “Arabic numerals.” Muslims made vast contributions not only to mathematics but also to physics, astronomy, alchemy/chemistry, botany, zoology, medicine, pharmacology, cosmography, and geography, along with many other fields. But all of these sciences, including the so-called exact sciences, were developed within a worldview that was based on the harmony between humanity and nature and on the balance (al-mīzān) within each level of the cosmos as well as between the various levels of cosmic reality.6

Blinded by modern technology, many Muslims have forgotten the various forms of technology Muslims invented and used, from the qanāt system for irrigation to windmills to technologies used in metallurgy, weaving, architecture, and many other areas. What characterized these traditional technologies was balance with the order of nature and the environment, and minimum intrusion into the natural order. It is not accidental that many environmentalists in the West today are proposing a return to traditional technologies, to the extent possible. In the contemporary Islamic world, one cannot realistically expect people to stop using electricity, but many forms of traditional technology can be preserved or revived, from architecture to agriculture to weaving of carpets and cloth. If Muslims were to follow this path, rather than emulating blindly whatever new technology comes their way from the West, they would face less of a crisis in their natural environment. I do not say no crisis at all, because the environmental crisis also has many global causes that cannot be removed by local action. Yet, let us remember the truth of the saying prevalent among serious environmentalists: “Think globally but act locally.”7

According to a famous Chinese saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” When it comes to the environmental crisis in the Islamic world, that first step is to recognize and accept that the crisis does exist in the Islamic world and that it is not a problem only for the West or China. Once having developed this awareness fully, Muslims have to accomplish two crucial tasks: the first is to revive the knowledge and actions of traditional Islamic society concerning the environment; the second is to know the modern world in depth, so as not to repeat its errors but also to learn about positive actions taken by the West to confront this crisis. It is especially important for Muslims to be aware of the in-depth studies made in the West by well-meaning environmentalists about the deeper causes of the crisis.

Let me conclude by posing the question “Is there a solution?” If one looks at the situation from the perspective only of natural and human factors and extrapolates the present trends into the future from only an “earthly” point of view, then indeed the situation is bleak and catastrophes await us all. But, from the Islamic point of view, the future is in God’s Hands, and one must never lose hope. Resignation to environmental catastrophe is not an Islamically acceptable attitude and does not absolve us from our responsibilities toward God’s creation as His khalīfahs (vicegerents) on earth. We must do what we can to ameliorate the environmental situation to the extent of our abilities, and then and only then leave matters in resignation in God’s Hands, with full trust (tawakkul) in Him and the full realization that we are not only khalīfat Allāh on earth but also God’s servants, or ¢abd Allāh. Neglecting our duties with the excuse that God will take care of His own creation, and therefore abdicating our positions as His khalīfahs on earth, is not, Islamically speaking, acceptable.

Deterministic extrapolations about the future cut off the Hands of God from His creation and are not any more Islamic than is the attitude of doing nothing, under the pretext that God’s Will dominates all things. Muslims must resuscitate the traditional Islamic view of nature and humanity’s relation to it.8 Let us not forget the saying of the Prophet mentioned earlier—namely, that it is a blessed act to plant a tree even if it be the day before the Day of Judgment—and the saying of ¢Alī that we should live as if we were to die tomorrow but also as if we were to live a thousand years. And God knows best (wa Allāh a¢lam).


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