The concept of the environment in Islam
In Islam, all things have been created with purpose and in proportion and measure, both qualitatively and quantitatively, (al-Qamar 49). Concerning the environment, which is God’s creation too, its role is dual: to worship its Lord and Creator, and to be subjected to man whom it surrounds. As for the former, Allah says: “Seest thou not that to Allah prostrate 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? But a great number are (also) such as unto whom the chastisement is justly due. And such as Allah shall disgrace, - none can raise to honor: for Allah carries out all that He wills.” (al-Hajj 18)
“Whatever is in the heavens and on earth, declares the Praises and Glory of Allah: for He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.” (al-Saff 1)
There are many verses in the Holy Qur’an which repeatedly and in different styles testify to this truth. The message hereby to men, especially to those who worship or unduly revere some of the natural marvels, is very clear: how can something that worships God, and is completely dependent on Him, be an object of worship, or of any kind of exaltation!?
The Prophet (pbuh) said that the phrase “subhanAllah” which means “glory be to Allah” is the prayer of the created world and everything in it, its glorification and praise of Allah (tasbih), and with it the whole of the created world receives sustenance.
Allah also says about this: “Have they not observed all things that Allah has created, how their shadows incline to the right and to the left, making prostration unto Allah, and they are lowly?” (al-Nahl 48)
“Not one of the beings in the heavens and the earth but must come to (Allah) Most Gracious as a servant.” (Maryam 93)
“The seven heavens declare His glory and the earth (too), and those who are in them; and there is not a single thing but glorifies Him with His praise, but you do not understand their glorification; surely He is Forbearing, Forgiving.” (al-Isra’ 44)
“Do you not see that Allah is He Whom do glorify all those who are in the heavens and the earth, and the (very) birds with expanded wings? He knows the prayer of each one and its glorification, and Allah is Cognizant of what they do.” (al-Nur, 41)
Based on the contents of the Qur’an as well as the experiences of the Prophet (pbuh), some early authorities in the interpretation and commentary of the Qur’an concluded that there is absolutely nothing in the universe, natural or man-made, animate or inanimate, but worships and glorifies Allah, its Creator. Indeed, “He (Allah) knows the prayer of each one and its glorification…” (al-Nur, 41) “…but you (people) do not understand their glorification…” (al-Isra’, 44). Hence, for instance, the squeaking of the door is its glorification of Allah; the murmuring of water is its glorification; the standing of a column is its worship; the waves of the sea are its glorification; the shadow of every being and its movement signify their prostration and worship, etc.
By virtue of being the last revelation, the Holy Qur’an, along with the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh), explained the real position and role of the environment in Islam in such a way that no room whatsoever has been left for any doubting or questioning. The Islamic methodology in dealing with the subject in question can be divided into the following three major segments.
Islam corrects some of the erroneous notions with regard to the environment founded upon a number of past events in which many God’s prophets, such as Adam, Nuh (Noah), Musa (Moses), Dawud (David), Sulayman (Solomon) and ‘Isa (Jesus), are often main protagonists. Such events are documented in the Old and New Testament and, as such, in the course of time were subjected to many an act of distortion and interpolation. It would be worthwhile for the sake of exposing the truth and eliminating confusion, if a comparative study between the Qur’an and the Bible is undertaken on the issues of, say, Adam’s descent on earth, the Flood, the conquest of the Holy Land by the Israelites, the might and overall conduct of Dawud (David) and his son Sulayman (Solomon), the teachings and character of ‘Isa (Jesus), etc.
Besides, there are many instances in the Qur’an where the truth about the environment has been strikingly brought to light, but on which the Old and New Testament are completely silent. One of the examples is the prophet Nuh (Noah). While expounding and propagating Islam to his disobedient people, Nuh is said to have been regularly capitalizing on various natural wonders and phenomena communicating to the masses that they are merely God’s sings on earth and the source of man’s provisions.
The next example is the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) who attempted -- albeit to no avail -- to avert his people from worshiping anything other than Allah, notably some of the natural phenomena, such as the sun, the moon and stars, in addition to the idols that they had fashioned for themselves. (al-An’am 74-82, al-Anbiya’ 51-71)
The Qur’an applies somewhat the same approach while dealing with the rest of the prophets and their ways of tackling the patterns of polytheism which their respective nations and tribes had invented and fostered. In the Bible, however, many of such prophets are in no way depicted as prophets in the first place. Rather, they were only righteous men, blameless among the people of their time, and they walked with God. Nonetheless, the righteousness of most of them was not absolute, for which reason they sometimes erred, thus in turn losing their favors in the eyes of God.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr commented on the Christian theology of nature vis-à-vis the same within the framework of Islam: “As far as the question of the spiritual metaphysical significance of nature is concerned, Islam has placed greater emphasis upon it than the mainstream theological tradition of Western Christianity and had always emphasized and preserved even to this day teachings which have been either forgotten or marginalized in religious thought in the West. This does not mean, however, that Judaism and Christianity are in themselves responsible for the environmental crisis. Moreover, this marginalization combined with the acceptance of the secular view of the cosmos and even condonation, if not out and out approval of the rape of nature by secularized man, was the result of Christianity’s battle for five centuries with humanism, rationalism and secularism although Western Christianity did fail to emphasize the spiritual significance of nature in its mainstream theology even before Renaissance.”
The second segment of the Islamic way of correcting people’s misconceptions about the environment is the Qur’anic emphatic verses wherein Allah in some general terms and in a unique fashion speaks of numerous environmental facts. In some instances, not only that the Prophet (pbuh) is asked to convey what had been revealed to him, but also he is urged to argue in a gracious manner with unbelievers about the matter. After the Prophet (pbuh) had gone, though, the onus of doing so fell on his successors, i.e., scholars (‘ulama’), and whosoever may be in a position to add any good to human knowledge and human well-being. Some examples of this method are the following verses:
“Say: “To whom belongeth all that is in the heavens and on earth?” Say: “To Allah.” (al-An’am 12)
“They ask thee concerning the mountains: say, “My Lord will uproot them and scatter them as dust; He will leave them as plains smooth and level; nothing crooked or curved wilt thou see in their place.” (Ta Ha 105-107)
“See ye the seed that ye sow in the ground? Is it ye that cause it to grow, or are We the Cause? Were it Our Will, We could make it broken orts. And ye would be left in wonderment… See ye the water which ye drink? Do ye bring it Down (in rain) from the Cloud or do We? Were it Our Will, We could make it saltish (and unpalatable): then why do ye not give thanks?” (al-Waqi’ah 63-70)
“Say: “See ye? - if your stream be some morning lost (in the underground earth), who then can supply you with clear-flowing water?” (al-Mulk 30)
“Or, Who has created the heavens and the earth, and Who sends you down rain from the sky? Yea, with it We cause to grow well-planted orchards full of beauty of delight: it is not in your power to cause the growth of the trees in them. (Can there be another) god besides Allah? Nay, they are a people who swerve from justice. Or, Who has made the earth firm to live in; made rivers in its midst; set thereon mountains immovable; and made a separating bar between the two bodies of flowing water? (can there be another) god besides Allah? Nay, most of them know not. Or, Who listens to the (soul) distressed when it calls on Him, and Who relieves its suffering, and makes you (mankind) inheritors of the earth? (Can there be another) god besides Allah? Little it is that ye heed! Or, Who guides you through the depths of darkness on land and sea, and Who sends the winds as heralds of glad tidings, going before His Mercy? (Can there be another) god besides Allah?- High is Allah above what they associate with Him! Or, Who originates creation, then repeats it, and who gives you sustenance from heaven and earth? (Can there be another) god besides Allah? Say, "Bring forth your argument, if ye are telling the truth!” (al-Naml 60-64)
The third segment of the Islamic methodology in dealing with the issue of the environment as God’s faithful servant is that which the Prophet (pbuh) featured in his numerous sayings and practices. Some examples of these are:
*The weeping of the date-palm tree – or a date-palm trunk - against which the Prophet (pbuh) used to stand in his mosque in Madinah when delivering the Friday prayer sermons (khutbah) before he got the pulpit (minbar). It wept like a child, so the Prophet (pbuh) went towards it and rubbed it with his hand, following which it stopped weeping.
*The utterance of praises to God by some of the Prophet’s food.
*Some inanimate realities, such as a stone, a mountain and a tree, saluting the Prophet (pbuh).
*The prostration of some trees and animals before the Prophet (pbuh). Some companions who had witnessed one of such miracles said that they too wanted to do the same, in that they as humans were more qualified. However, the Prophet (pbuh) reminded them that no man is allowed to prostrate himself before another man. He went on to confide that everything in the universe knows and admits that he is the Messenger of Allah, save those who are disobedient from among the Jinns and men.
*On one occasion, the Makkan unbelievers requested a sign from the Prophet (pbuh) whereupon the moon appeared cleft asunder. After they had turned away, branding the occurrence as sheer sorcery, the Prophet (pbuh) told the believers, many of whom were present and witnessed the whole episode, to testify (ishhadu). The incident was one of the reasons for revealing the Qur’anic chapter al-Qamar (the Moon) the first three verses of which we cite here: “The Hour (of Judgment) is nigh, and the moon was cleft asunder. But if they see a sign, they turn away, and say, “This is (but) continuous magic.” They reject (the warning) and follow their (own) lusts but every matter has its appointed time.” (Al-Qamar 1-3)
*Once while climbing the Uhud mountain with his nearest companions Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, the Prophet (pbuh) felt that it was trembling. He thereupon said unto it: “Calm down, for on you there are only the Prophet, al-Siddiq (Abu Bakr) and the two martyrs (Umar and Uthman).”
*One day when passing by two graves in which their tenants were subjected to a grievous suffering (one never saved himself from being soiled with his urine, and the other used to go about with calumnies - to make enmity between friends) the Prophet (pbuh) asked for a green leaf of a date-palm tree, broke it into two pieces and then put one on each grave. When asked why he had done so, he replied (due to the fact that plants worship Allah and declare the praises and glory of Him as long as they ‘live’): “I hope that their torture might be lessened, till these get dried.”
To all this can we add the unprecedented manner in which the Prophet (pbuh) generally treated water, plants and animals – as we shall see soon -- and insisted from his followers in every age to follow suit.
The immediate benefit of this Prophet’s approach was that his companions, who firmly believed in whatever they had been told about the past prophets and their peoples, had a chance to enhance their faith by bearing witness to an equivalent legacy, but in their own context. Inasmuch as the revelation of Islam to the Prophet (pbuh) was a gradual and painstaking process, such an approach helped many people soften their hearts and open their minds, gently and vigilantly delivering them from the shackles of their old superstitious beliefs, and bringing them to the light of Islam. While preserving these momentous occasions from one generation to another, the people immortalized them, and as they had influenced the lives of the Prophet’s nearest companions, they, by the same token, did - and will always do - influence the lives of other Muslims.
 Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 2 p. 379.
 Ibid., vol. 2 p. 333, 379.
We mean here the Biblical words: “Cursed are you (the serpent) above all the livestock and all the wild animals… And I will put enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman, and between your offspring and hers… Cursed is the ground because of you (Adam)” Genesis 3: 14, 17.
In the wake of the Flood, God regretted his actions saying: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21) God then established His covenant with Noah and his descendents that all life will never be cut off by the waters of a flood. (Genesis 9:11) God’s rainbow was made the sign of the covenant, thus becoming, together with some other natural phenomena related to it, the object of inordinate reverence and regard by many. Such perceptions and beliefs are likely to lead many persons to developing sets of superstitions, legends and even cults.
The hatred of Israelites toward their enemies was such that they upon conquering the Holy Land indiscriminately massacred not only their enemies, including old, women and children, but also their livestock (cattle, sheep, donkeys etc.) leaving no living thing therein. Needless to point out that most of the settlements in the Land were entirely burned with everything in them. (See the entire Book of Joshua in the Old Testament)
They are depicted in the Bible as sinners, yet the latter even ended up as a polytheist. (2 Samuel 11:2-26; 1 Kings 9:20-22, 11:1-13) Unlike in the Qur’an, nothing in the Bible is said of their graceful and noble conduct towards numerous elements from nature, which had been subjected to their use so that their remarkable struggles for the sake of spreading and defending God’s only religion, Islam, could be further bolstered and intensified.
According to the New Testament, the death and resurrection of Christ is accompanied by a withering and rejuvenation of nature pointing to the cosmic character of Christ, Son of God. Whereas in Islam, Jesus Christ (‘Isa) was but a man, God’s servant and messenger, assigned to do exactly what every other prophet did, nothing more and nothing less. He was not killed nor crucified. The miracles that he performed took place solely by God’s grace and help, and were nothing exceptional if compared with the miracles of the other major prophets. (Maryam 16-40; Al-Nisa’ 156-158)
Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi wrote: “Christian cosmology regards nature as creature of God which was once perfect, but which was corrupted in the “fall” and hence became evil. The evil of creation, ontological, essential and pervasive, is the reason for God’s salvific drama, of His own self-incarnation in Jesus, of His crucifixion and death. After the drama, Christianity holds, restoration has and has not come to creation, theoretically. Practically, the Christian mind continued to hold creation as fallen, and nature as evil.” (Al-Faruqi Isma’il Raji, Al-Tawhid: Its Implications for Thought and Life, (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1995), p. 49.
See the entire chapter Nuh (Noah).
Nasr Seyyed Hossein, “Islam and the Environmental Crisis”, in: Islam and the Environment, edited by A. R. Aqwan, (New Delhi: Institute of Objective Studies, 1997), p. 25.
Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Manaqib, Hadith No. 3319.
Ibid., Kitab al-Manaqib, Hadith No. 3314.
Ibid., Kitab al-Fada’il, Hadith No. 4222. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Manaqib, Hadith No. 3559.
 The hadith has been recorded by Ahmad b. Hanbal in his Musnad from Jabir b. ‘Abdullah. See: Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), vol. 6 p. 142-144.
Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Manaqib, Hadith No. 3365.
See:Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 3 p. 408-409.
Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Manaqib, Hadith No. 3423.
Ibid., Kitab al-Wudu’, Hadith 211.