Islam’s Earth Ethics: Are We Healers or Corrupters?
The current state of our planet is one wherein there is huge imbalance and pollution; where the equilibrium of our Earth has been greatly corrupted. Armed conflicts and wars are increasing across the globe; the economies of an ever-increasing number of countries are in meltdown as global capitalism spirals out of control; and we continue to inch ever closer to environmental destruction, to a point where it could be beyond repair. Modern man, instead of being a caretaker of the earth, has become its most deadly predator: damaging the planet, devouring its natural resources and destroying his fellow man!
The Qur’an says: Corruption has appeared on land and on sea for what men’s hands have earned, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, so that they may repent. [30:41]
Corruption (fasad, in Arabic) is often defined as: “A thing leaving a balanced state.”1 In other words, corruption is when something becomes ruined, contaminated, polluted and is out of balance. Its opposite is salah/islah: to rectify, correct, or set right. In other words, to bring a thing back to some sort of equilibrium and balance.
What follows is a reminder about how, in Islam, we must be muslihun – people of islah, not mufsidun – people of fasad; of how we are to be people who set things aright, not sow mischief throughout the earth; and of how we, as Muslims, are called upon to be healers, not corrupters. The following core precepts will help in some way to portray the Qur’an’s “earth” ethics:
1. God Loves Not Corruption: The first and foremost reason why we are to be people who seek to heal is because corruption is wicked and God is not pleased with it: And when he turns away [from you], he hastens about the land to do corruption therein, and to destroy crops and cattle; and God loves not corruption. [2:205]
2. Stewardship of the Earth: This stems from the idea of being khalifahs – “stewards” or “vicegerents” of the earth. The Qur’an says: Indeed, it is He who has appointed you as vicegerents of the earth. [6:165] Classical Quranic authorities explain khalifah to mean (i) One generation succeeding another, and (ii) one delegated to uphold God’s laws and administer justice – in other words a vicegerent.2 Accordingly, man is required to tend to the earth, uphold the Divine purpose in it, establish justice upon it, keep it in balance and to work not corruption on the earth after it has been set in order. [7:56] We see this very sentiment echoed in the following hadith: ‘The world is green and sweet and God has placed you as vicegerents in it, to see how you behave.’3
3. Not Living Excessively: About this, the Qur’an declares: God created for you all that is on the earth. [2:29] He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth. [45:13] The earths bounties are for all of humanity, not just a privileged few. Yet, having stated the obvious, we live in a world where less than twenty percent of the globe (mainly us in the “developed world”) consume eighty per-cent of the earth’s natural resources so as to buttress a consumption-driven lifestyle. Our concern here in the West is not fear of poverty, as it is obesity! We have created a world that is now grotesque in its excesses and staggering in its inequalities. Partake of the earth’s fruits for our needs we must; partake of them for our wants we certainly may; but partake of them excessively and irresponsibly we may not: Eat and drink, but not excessively. For God loves not the excessive. [7:31]
4. Honouring the Balance: In one celebrated Qur’anic passage, we read the following: The All-Merciful has taught the Qur’an. He created man, teaching him speech. Sun and moon follow a reckoning and the plants and the trees bow down. And He has raised the heavens and has set a balance, that you may not upset the balance, but observe the balance and not fall short therein. [55:1-9] This, as well as one of the previously cited verses, reminds us that God has created the earth in a state of equilibrium, which itself is composed of innumerable mini equilibriums. We can, of course, utilise the earth for our food, clothing and instruments of trade and, indeed, for actualising the potentials that lie within us. But all of this is conditional on not disturbing this equilibrium, nor transgressing the balance.
5. Enchantment with Nature: For believers, the natural world is as a mirror: beautiful in itself, while reflecting the even greater beauty of God. The Qur’an invites mankind to contemplate creation and be enchanted by its majestic beauty, in order to know and appreciate the Maker of such enchantment: In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are signs for people of understanding. Those who remember God standing, sitting, or lying down, and meditate upon the creation of the heavens and the earth. [3:191-2] Thus, if the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung rose elicits in us a sense of beauty; if the solemn stillness of an autumn woodland elicits in us a sense of sublimity – then how much more awesome, beautiful and sublime must the Creator of such things be.
6. Celebrating Creation: In an intriguing verse, the Qur’an informs: Have you not seen that all that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies God? And the birds as they spread their wings? Every creature knows its prayer and its glorification. [24:41] Elsewhere: There is not a single thing that does not proclaim His praise, yet you understand not their praises. [17:44] Such verses teach us to celebrate God’s creation, telling us that each created thing, animate or inanimate, extols His praise and glory. The prophets and many of the saints (awliya) are able to hear such praises, while some objects even make known their love for the godly. In the lifetime of the Prophet, peace be upon him, trees and stones spoke to him, and glorified God when he picked them up or passed by them.4 He said about Mount Uhud: hadha jabal yuhibbuna wa nuhibbuhu – ‘This mountain loves us, and we love it.’5
7. Courtesy with Life on Earth: Inanimate things aside, in regards to the animal world the Qur’an insists on courtesy: There is not an animal in the earth, nor a creature flying on two wings, but they are communities like you. [6:38] This courtesy is one that is based on a sense of awe and respect for earth’s living creatures. The Prophet, peace be upon him, was asked: Will we be rewarded for doing good to animals? He replied: ‘There is a reward for serving every living creature.’6 On another occasion, he told a group who were mounted on their camels, chatting to one another: ‘Ride these animals safely and return them safely, but do not use them as chairs for your conversations in the streets and marketplaces.’7 He also said: ‘A woman was once flung into Hell for tying a cat till it starved to death.’8 And there is the hadith where a man took an egg from a bird’s nest, which then distressed the mother bird. Observing this, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Have mercy on the mother; return her egg.’9 Such is the courtesy Islam obliges us to show to other creatures with whom we share this earth.
This, then, is Islam’s case for why we must tend to our fragile planet and partake in its healing. This, then, is a believer’s ethical world-view. But for such revealed teachings to truly bear fruit, we must each become, in our own lives, the example we wish others to follow. Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 636.
2. Cf. al-Sam‘ani, Tafsir al-Qur’an (Riyadh: Dar al-Watn, 1997), 1:63-4; Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 2002), 52-3.
3. Muslim, no.2742.
4. As per Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.2110; al-Bazzar, Musnad, no.2413; Muslim, no.2277.
5. Al-Bukhari, no.4084; Muslim, no.1393.
6. Al-Bukhari, no.3321; Muslim, no.2245.
7. Ahmad, Musnad, no.15629.
8. Al-Bukhari, no.3318; Muslim, no.2241.
9. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.2675.