Muslims and the Environmental Crisis

by Fazlun Khalid

There are a very few spaces left today that can be described as 'Islamic' in the sense that a truly holistic appreciation of it exists that takes into account and integrated perspective that includes a deep affinity with the natural world.

It has often been observed that Islam cannot ordinarily be described as a religion and that it prescribes a way of life that goes beyond the performance of rituals … It provides a holistic approach to existence, it does not differentiate between the sacred and the secular and neither does it place a distinction between the world of humankind and the world of nature … ‘The creation of the heavens and the earth is far greater than the creation of humankind. But most of humankind do not know it’ (Qur'an 40: 57).

So, how is it that given this perspective that Muslim nation states and their populace inhabitants have been left behind when it comes to manifesting concerns about the environmental debacle the human race has collectively created for itself? A short answer to this is that in common with the other traditions Muslims have succumbed to western hegemony based on the secular ethic driven by capitalism that has reduced allegiance to the divine and the sacred to a private pursuit. A near total disconnection from the natural world is now evidenced by a rampant consumer ethic at the individual level and the penchant for grandiose projects at the level of the nation state which manifests itself in the competition to construct tall buildings.

'Between 1900 and 2000, the increase in world population was three times greater than during the entire previous history of humanity—an increase from 1.5 to 6.1 billion in just 100 years.' We are now rapidly approaching the 8 billion mark and this points to a stark economic reality. As human numbers grow and the economic cake shrinks the rich and the powerful grab the icing and the poor and the weak are left with the crumbs. And the end result of blasting and bruising Planet Earth to enrich ourselves has caused nature to change course. We, the human race, have become a force of nature and scientists have seen fit to call this time the Anthropocene—the human epoch.

More than 1,700 independent scientists, ‘including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences’ issued a warning in 1992 that cautioned humankind that, ‘a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided’ and showed in their manifesto ‘that humans were on a collision course with the natural world’. This warning was reiterated by more than 15,000 scientists 25 years later in December 2017: ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice’. They expressed concern about current, impending, or potential damage on planet Earth involving ozone depletion, freshwater availability, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones, forest loss, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth. They proclaimed that fundamental changes were urgently needed to avoid the consequences our present course would bring. They ‘... pleaded that we stabilize the human population … (and) implored that we cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and phase out fossil fuels, reduce deforestation, and reverse the trend of collapsing biodiversity.’

humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse … Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels, … deforestation, … and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption … Moreover, we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century.

The scientists further itemize their concerns as follows:

  • intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption;
  • continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats;
  • reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth;
  • reduce greenhouse gases;
  • incentivize renewable energy;
  • protect habitats;
  • restore ecosystems;
  • curb pollution;
  • halt defaunation;
  • constrain invasive alien species.

Scientists are less prone to using emotive language than most of us but when they say: ‘humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere’ we need to sit up and take notice. They urge us to put pressure on our politicians and ‘insist that their governments take immediate action as a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life’ and compel political leaders to do the right thing. They also remind us that: ‘It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviours, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources.’

So where does all this leave the Islamic world—the Muslims? My engagement in this work for the past 40 years has convinced me that there is much we can contribute to turn things around for the better. We comprise 20% of the world’s population and a corresponding mitigation of the problems we have collectively caused can be beneficial for all of us. I have attempted to show in my book that what we have come to describe today as environmentalism is deeply embedded in the matrix of Islam. It is at its simplest level about good manners. It is about personal behaviour and how it manifests itself in our relationships with others. It is about being well behaved in our relationship with the natural world and other sentient beings. The exemplar is Prophet Muhammad, and it grew from the foundations he established into a range of rules and institutions that manifested an expression of life in a way that is truly holistic. As the prophetic model is based on the Qur’an it could be distilled into three categories, bearing in mind that public good must be the ultimate objective. They are to do what is right, forbid what is wrong and act with moderation at all times: Let there be a community among you that calls for what is good, urges what is right and forbids what is wrong; those are the ones who have success (Qur'an 3: 104).

The body of the Shariah allows us to deduce three general principles as it pertains to the natural world:

  • The elements that compose the natural world are common property, bearing in mind that the ultimate owner of the Earth is the Creator.
  • The right to benefit from natural resources is a right held in common.
  • There shall be no damage or infliction of damage to it bearing in mind future users.

What is now emerging as ‘Islamic environmentalism’ (a tautology) originated from this foundational code and Muslim legalists have over the centuries worked out both principles and structures to give this expression. They concern individual rights, obligations and responsibilities individuals owe to the community, accountability, benefits accruing to users from renewable and non-renewable resources held in common, and penalties for improper use of natural resources. I have given concrete examples of how this could work in the book, although I see it only as a beginning. My intentions have been to start a process of dialogue and to invite scholars with greater understanding of the Qur’an and the traditions to participate in extending and improving this knowledge base, as there is much to be drawn from the sources.

But I cannot repeat often enough that there is an inherent urgency in what we face given the predictions by scientists of global systems collapse and the looming climate crisis. What Muslims, who form over one-fifth of the world’s population, can offer the rest to mitigate the collapse and how soon we do it will have a bearing on how the human race will survive in a changed world. Equally, how the rest relate to planet Earth will have a bearing on Muslims, and the times call for a sensitivity to these common challenges in a shared space.The Islamic template provides us with a model whereby we could lead reasonably satisfactory lifestyles that meet our needs based on the prophetic tradition, where caring and sharing takes precedence over selfishness, personal aggrandizement and greed. I summarize them below:

  • Live moderate simple lives.
  • Do not hoard wealth for its own sake.
  • Share your wealth. Pay the compulsory zakat—2½ per cent of your savings—as charity. Give your surplus wealth to the needy and good causes.
  • Caring for the environment is a sacred undertaking.
  • Broadly-speaking, money is any non-perishable commodity that can be used as a medium of exchange. Usury/interest and fake money is forbidden.
  • Markets must be free and open.
  • Fair trade is encouraged and is built into contractual obligations.
  • Wages must be paid immediately when they are due.
  • Conduct affairs by mutual consultation.
  • Give precedence to the rule of law.

The first community of Prophet Muhammad in Madinah was a social patterning Muslims can emulate, working in harmony with the heartbeat of the natural world. It can be applied at the level of the nation state and also in small communities wherever Muslims live. There are good examples to be set from which no doubt our children will benefit.

Fazlun Khalid is the Founder/Director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences

1 Op cit.
2 Falun M Khalid, Signs on the Earth—Islam, Modernity and the Climate Crisis. Kube, Leicester UK, Winter 2018/19.