Naureen Mallick with Zainab Habib
‘Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness].’
I remember the first time ever I read this ayah, and experiencing one of those WOW moments of discovering a gem from the Holy Quran. I have been passionate about the environment for most of my adult life but I did not know that the issue had been addressed so directly in the Quran. “Environment” has become such a buzz word today, but I did not appreciate that great wisdom on the topic was granted to us by Islam many hundreds of years ago.
So let look at the ayah one more time: ‘Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned…..’
“Corruption” [‘fasad’ in Arabic] can be understood in context as a catch-all word for everything that has or is going wrong with the environment from ozone depletion to destruction of entire ecosystems, because of man’s thoughtless choices and actions. And lest we hide behind blanket generics, “man” implies you and me.
What exactly is it that we are doing wrong and what would Allah (s.w.t) have us do? At the most basic, simplistic level, the Messenger (P.B.U.H) told us:
‘Observe moderation (in doing deeds), and if you fail to observe it perfectly, try to do as much as you can do (to live up to this ideal of moderation) and be happy.’
The Prophet (P.B.U.H) lived a very simple and frugal life and taught his Companions to do the same. In environmental terms, we can call it a directive to conserve resources and not be wasteful in their usage, even if a resource was plentiful.
‘Eat and drink: but waste not by excess for Allah loves not the wasters.’
He (P.B.U.H) once passed by Sa’d (R.A) while he was performing ablution and said,
‘What is this extravagance, Sa’d?’ He said, ‘Is there extravagance in the use of water?’ He (P.B.U.H) said, ‘Yes, even if you are at a flowing river
.’ [Ahmad & Ibn Majah]
As for food, the Prophet (P.B.U.H) discouraged excessive food consumption and told us:
‘No man fills a container worse than his stomach. A few morsels that keep his back upright are sufficient for him. If he has to, then he should keep one-third for food, one-third for drink and one-third for his breathing.’
Although he was the leader of a powerful, rapidly expanding community, the Prophet (P.B.U.H) lived and died in a small, lightly furnished house leaving behind virtually no possessions. He (P.B.U.H) reminded us that
‘Richness is not an abundance of worldly goods; rather, richness is contentment with one’s lot.’
(Ibn Majah) And let’s not forget that it was not as if the early Muslims did not have access to the resources of this world, but that it is a basic tenet of Islam to adopt restraint in their usage and avoid extravagance – shunning materialism, if you will.
Extravagance & Waste
We are told in the Quran that Allah does not like the wasters:
‘But squander not (your wealth) in the manner of a spendthrift.. Verily spendthrifts are brothers of the Satans; and the Satan is to his Lord (Himself) ungrateful.’
But in direct contradiction, our lives today are full of unbelievable waste and extravagance. We buy things we do not really need, throw away things that either still work or could be repaired and use more plastics and paper then we need. We eat more than is good for us, do not conserve resources the way we should, put more cars on our roads, and the list goes on…
At present, tons of garbage is produced by each household each year. As a small example, an ad claimed that “over 80 million pounds of toothbrushes are thrown into North American landfills each year”, and those plastic toothbrushes we toss out won’t decompose in our life time, or for some million years hence..…..if ever.
Clean teeth, dirty planet? Well not really, if we look at how the Prophet (P.B.U.H) taught us to keep our teeth clean: the bio-degradable way!
Ibn Mas’ood (R.A) said: ‘I used to gather siwaak sticks from the araak tree for the Messenger of Allah (P.B.U.H).’ [Ahmad]
Scientific studies have proven that the Siwaak- a tree twig – not only brushes the teeth and keeps them white, but also has antibacterial properties, fights gingivitis, eliminates bad breath, strengthens the gums, prevents plaque, helps in digestion, and contributes to the general health of the individual. We can earn points for following a Sunnah while being earth-friendly.
Extravagance Amounts to Ingratitude
Our quest for more material goods and uncontrolled consumerism is causing us to leave a huge carbon footprint on Earth: the enormous increase in the use of fossil fuels and the resultant emission of greenhouse gases depletes the protective ozone layer that shields our planet from the sun’s harmful rays. The resultant global warming and climate changes and their effects we are seeing across the world, if left unchecked, pose a serious threat to life on our planet. Our wasteful tendencies on the other hand create more landfills which cause water and air pollution and affect human health and wildlife.
How many of us have thought that the criminal wastage we indulge in every day amounts to ingratitude for Allah’s blessings? If humanity is to survive, it will have to move from the spirit of ingratitude (kufr) to gratitude (shukr) and give up its wasteful ways as the Quran urges it to do.
Although there are many dimensions to the “corruption” [‘fasad’] we are spreading on this earth, let’s take a look at one of the major ones of these.
To meet our growing demand for food, clothing and shelter, a direct consequence is Deforestation – the permanent destruction of the Earth’s green protective cover or forests to make more and more land available for agriculture, residential, commercial, urban or industrial use. One of the most important things that trees do for us is to act as natural air filters, converting the harmful carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into plant material through photosynthesis and releasing valuable oxygen without which we cannot survive. They thus maintain the fine balance of the Earth’s carbon cycle and keep it optimal for the survival of life. When a tree is cut, the atmosphere’s ability to maintain the optimal level of carbon is stressed.
We cannot even begin to imagine the full extent of damage done by the reduction of the world’s forests such as nutrient imbalance, animal displacement and the reduction in biodiversity caused by replacement of natural old-growth forests with a monoculture of an exotic species.
Given the importance of trees in human life, in Islam, even marching armies are forbidden to cut down trees. Part of the instructions Abu Bakr (R.A) gave to the military expedition dispatched under Yazid bin abi Sufyan, prescribing the Muslim army’s code of conduct in war was: ‘…Do not fell palm trees or burn them. Do not cut down [any] fruit-bearing tree; do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or camel except for food; Do not burn bees and do not scatter them.’ [Muwatta Imam Malik, Bayhaqi in Sunan al-Kabir]
Reforestation in Islam
The planting of trees and shades has been considered highly meritorious in Islam: He (P.B.U.H) said,
‘There is none amongst the Muslims who plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, but is regarded as a charitable gift for him.’
If the Final Hour comes while you have a palm-cutting in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.’
‘If you hear that the Dajjal has exited and you are about to plant a small tree, then do not delay tending to cultivating it, because the people will have a sustenance from that later.’
[Bukhari, narrated from Dawud with an authentic chain]
The second Caliph, Umar bin al-Khattab (R.A) once urged a very old man to till his land, and he excused: ‘I am an old man and I may die tomorrow.’ To this, Umar (R.A) replied: ‘I swear that indeed you must plant on your land.’
The old man’s daughter reports that: ‘Indeed I saw Umar bin al-Khattab plant a plant or tree with his own hands along with my father.’[Al-Jamia’ al-Kabeer’ by Suyootee]
Allah (S.W.T) has created everything on this Earth for the use of man:
‘It is He who created for you all of that which is on the earth.’
And then subjugated everything on this planet for OUR usage:
‘And He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth – all from Him.’
But along with this comes the tag of responsibility: Allah has appointed man -us – as the caretakers of this Earth.
‘And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.”’</p [Al-Baqarah:30]
‘It is He who has made you successors upon the earth.’
Be they animals, birds, fish, or our surroundings, Islam strictly enjoins Ihsaan – excellence in treating everything. Fulfilling our responsibilities is reward-worthy and neglecting them is serious business.
Instead of fulfilling our roles as caretakers of this earth, we seem to be doing the exact opposite: destroying it step by step, and negatively impacting the survival of ANY life – human or other.
Disrupting the Balance
Allah (S.W.T) tells us that He has created everything on this Earth in perfect Balance & Harmony and warned us in the Quran against disrupting this intrinsic Balance:
‘And everything with Him is by due measure.’
‘And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance. That you not transgress within the balance. And establish weight in justice and do not make deficient the balance.’
Looked at another way, man’s responsibility as Khalifa – Viceregent – and Islam’s basic commandment of moderation can also be seen as preserving the balance on this Earth.
Unfortunately, today almost all countries are using the resources of this Earth irresponsibly to meet the ever-growing demand of greedy human desires. From rapid urbanization to emitting toxic pollutants into the atmosphere, dumping large amounts of chemicals into water bodies, to poisoning ecosystems, we have changed the Earth’s natural surface, removed soil nutrients and surface vegetation, indiscriminately destroyed its biodiversity and created an “Environmental Imbalance”.
Consider this example: in a naturally-occurring healthy ecosystem (an ocean or sea, for instance) predators and prey are in a Balance that naturally cycle through life and death sequences. Human practices such as commercial overfishing, where massive fishing nets are used, result in “bycatch,” in which unwanted fish are caught in nets and then thrown away. Bycatch results in the death of one million sharks annually. Large weights and heavy metal rollers that are used with the commercial fishing nets also drag along the bottom of the ocean, destroying anything in their path including fragile coral reefs. These kinds of ‘predator’ human activities result in ecosystem species imbalance and environmental stress.
Responsibility for Future Generations
Many initiatives like reducing dependence on fossil fuels by making renewable energy available and affordable, more efficient public transportation systems, tighter controls on carbon emissions etc. need to be taken by governments and organizations. However, on a personal level, we too need to do our part and cut down on our personal consumption be it food, water, gadgets, electricity, fuel, etc. and think “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”
The approach of Islam towards the use and development of the earth’s resources was very aptly put thus by Ali ibn Abi Talib (R.A), the fourth Caliph of Islam and a man who had developed and reclaimed abandoned land: ‘Partake of it gladly, so long as you are a benefactor, not a despoiler; a cultivator, not a destroyer.’
Man has done much damage to the very Earth he inhabits, putting his own long-term survival at risk. But there is hope: all we need to do is mend our ways. As a believer, our attitude should not be an attitude of: ‘Well, I’m not going to curb my wasteful life-style because this catastrophe you are predicting probably won’t happen during my lifetime.’ Rather the attitude is as the Prophet (P.B.U.H) said,
‘None of you will have faith till he wishes for his brother what he likes for himself.’