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.
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.