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Nature

By:
Bahar Davary
Source:
The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the major issues in Islamic bioethics, including medicine, clinical practice, genetics, theology, and Islamic law.

Nature

Introduction

In the classical Islamic tradition, nature (Arabic ṭabīʾah), generally understood as the physical universe, is divided into categories of water, atmosphere, plants, and animals. These categories, along with inanimate objects such as rocks and mountains, loom large in the primary sacred sources of Islam, namely the Qurʾān and the Sunnah (tradition of the Prophet). Consequently, Muslim theologians, jurists, and ethicists have addressed the topic of nature. Many verses in the Qurʾān speak of observing the natural world as a means for understanding the divine. Over 30 of the 114 chapters of the Qurʾān—about one-third—are named after natural events or animals. Even a cursory reading of the Qurʾān reveals the numerous references to natural elements. The word earth is mentioned approximately 460 times in the Qurʾān. Water is repeated 63 times, rivers 43 times, spring 40 times, sky 313 times, night 92 times, day 25 times, tree 27 times. This article will begin with the position of the Qurʾān on nature. It will then briefly discuss the place of nature in Islamic theology, Shariʿah, and ethics.

Nature in the Qurʾān

The foremost sacred source within the Islamic tradition is the Qurʾān. Its revelation itself is identified within the tradition as a divine sign. At the same time the cosmos and the natural world are introduced as signs of the divine. Natural phenomena, such as a bee’s labor, is described in the Qurʾān as an example of revelation (waḥy; 16:68). The book also speaks of ants and the birds as possessing ample complexity and as recipients of God’s care (27:18; 67:19). It declares that the sun, the moon, and the stars follow God’s command and are God’s signs themselves (7:54). Just as the relation between God and creation is important, harmonious relations between living beings are an important measure of the quality of life on earth. The Qurʾān speaks of balance (mīzān), and equity and justice (qisṭ) as measures of this harmony (55:7–9).

The Qurʾān emphasizes the importance of the interrelationship between humanity and the natural world by declaring that all beings, the heavens and the earth, glorify God (17:44). It further states that all beings surrender to the will of God and are therefore, literally, muslim (21:79). “Do you not see that 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 worship God?” (22:18)

In other words, the communities called to submission to the will of God include not only human communities, but communities of ants, bees, birds, as well as the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, and the rivers—indeed, all of God’s creation. These passages underline the centrality of the Qurʾānic concept of tawḥīd (unity)—the unity of the transcendent God—and the concept and ideal of submission of all of creation to the one God.

The Arabic terms al-Raḥmān (the most Merciful) and al-Raḥīm (the most Gracious) point respectively to God’s transcendence and immanence and are important ideas in the Qurʾān. Islamic theology is based on the teachings of the Qurʾān that God “can be likened to nothing” but “is closer to the human being than the carotid artery” (50:16). Moreover, “God is the First and the Last, the Outward, and the Inward” (57:3). The Qurʾān further insists that “To God belongs the East and the West, wheresoever you turn there is the face of God” (2:115). God is “al-Wāsiʿ” (all embracing), “al-ʿAlīm” (all knowing) (2:115), and “al-Muḥīṭ” (all encompassing) (4:126). In other words, God comprises both the ultimate and the immediate environment. Therefore, knowledge of the natural world—and consciousness of the current environmental crisis—should not be viewed as disjointed from consciousness of God, the meaning of submission, and of jiḥād (struggle) to protect the God-created balance.

In the Qurʾān, nature is “anchored in the divine, both metaphysically and morally,” reflecting what Nomanul Haq (2001) calls “the contours of theistic naturalism” where nature reveals itself as a form of cosmic sacredness. It is for this reason that damage to the natural environment is an offense to oneself and others (both human and non-human) as well as to the divine.

The causes of ecological destruction and humanity’s separation from nature include human greed and arrogance. Some have associated the causes of arrogance as being rooted in the human-centeredness of Abrahamic traditions. Human superiority or dominance over the rest of creation has been a consistent theme among Abrahamic sacred texts on the position of humanity vis-à-vis nature, though it should be noted that there is some debate over how the earliest commentators of the Qurʾān viewed this issue. Regardless, the Qurʾān refers to humans as khalīfah, arguably God’s vicegerents on earth. This position comes with a heavy responsibility, a trust amānah given exclusively to humanity.

Yet, at the same time, a holistic reading of the Qurʾān shows that human centrality is strongly mediated by moral and metaphysical controls. Humans are not called upon to subdue and conquer the natural world, nor have other creatures been created simply to serve humanity. While many consider humanity to be ashrāf al-makhlūqāt (the best of creation), the Qurʾān still affirms that “creation of the heavens and earth is greater than the creation of human beings: yet, most people understand not!” (40:57); “The earth, God has assigned to all living creatures” (55:10); “there is no animal in the earth, nor bird that flies with its two wings but that they are communities like yourselves” (6:38). The Qurʾān is emphatic about the moral responsibility that humans face. It is important to see whether this emphasis is translated into theological statements and patterns of thought. How does Islamic theology view the human relationship with the divine on the one hand and with the created world on the other? How do they define the relationship between the two?

Nature in Islamic Theology

According to the Qurʾān, observing and contemplating nature is an important element of a Muslim’s spiritual journey. However, most contemporary Muslim theologians and reformers have afforded little attention to it. Current scholarship on Islam and ecology often bemoans this lack of attention. To this end, some have called for an “alternative Islamic theology” or a “theological detour” based on the Qurʾān and Prophetic tradition that considers ecological perspectives (see, e.g., Afrasiabi, 2003).

For Muslim theologians and scientists, especially during early Islamic centuries, observing and discussing the natural world were among the highest of Muslim scientists’ occupations and activities. Scholars such as Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (d. 815), Ibn al-Haytham (d. 1040), al-Rāzī (d. 925), al-Bīrūnī (d. 1048), and many others saw no insurmountable gap between their work as scientists and their faith. Muslim philosophers and theologians used the term al-ṭabīʾah (nature) to refer to the physical world, while the phrase ma baʾd al-ṭabīʾah is used to refer to “what comes after or is beyond the physical world,” that is, “metaphysics.” The dichotomy between physical and metaphysical is not a clear-cut separation in the Qurʾān. The natural world (al-ṭabīʾah) is viewed in the Qurʾān as theophany, a reflection of the divine. Many Muslim scholars have come to describe nature, as did Aristotle, as natura naturaliter formata or the anthropic appropriation of nature, meaning the observation of nature is compatible with the sapient life that observes it. This is not the same as viewing nature as the object of modern natural sciences.

The principles of tawḥīd and islām apply to all of creation, not just to humans. Therefore, they affirm the interconnectedness of humans with the whole of creation. Consequently, shirk (idolatry, worship of others beside God) is to be rejected. Shirk al-asbāb (idolatry of intermediaries) can be interpreted to mean worship of nature as divine. The term denotes a confusion of what points to the divine with the divine itself. Worship of created beings, including nature, the natural world, and all that is in it is considered shirk al-asbāb as they are intermediaries to the divine and not divine themselves.

In his book, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (1967), Seyyed Hossein Nasr suggests that environmental devastation cannot be remedied unless the metaphysical knowledge of nature is revived. As a longstanding contemporary voice on Islam and ecology, Nasr has placed heavy emphasis on the spiritual significance of nature, the interconnectedness of life, and nature as a grand theophany. He has described the destruction of our environment as a crime against the creation that praises the creator. Environmental degradation from this point of view is not solely a problem of physics but also a problem in metaphysics. Hence, the issue cannot be simply resolved by managing resources, because it is not merely about nature as a resource. The problem humans face is fundamentally a problem of attitude, of lost or misplaced relationships, and a distorted perception of humans’ relationship with others, be they other people, animals, plants, and the earth. Within Islamic sacred sources, the Shariʿah, is to be the guide and the blueprint of ethical conduct.

Nature in Shariʿah and in Ethics

Though typically understood as Islamic law, the term Shariʿah refers to divine guidance laid out for humans, including not only civic law but the rules of worship and spiritual practice as well. It has been argued that Islamic law is not only the central domain of Islamic ethical thought but is itself a sophisticated ethical and epistemological system. Some Muslim scholars have argued that saving the environment is in effect protecting the essential objectives that Shariʿah aims to preserve (i.e., religion, life, intellect, progeny, and property).

All Islamic schools of law have established guidelines for the proper treatment of animals and plants as well as natural resources. A simple example, as related by ninth-century scholar Abū Dāwūd (c.817–889), is the claim that polluting the water is a sin according to the Shariʿah. The Qurʾānic precept about the cosmic balance (mīzān) is present within the Shariʿah in addressing issues of land cultivation, construction of buildings, land consecration (ḥimā), livestock, water resources, animals, birds, and plants. Given that the Shariʿah was initially developed in the ninth and tenth centuries, its foundational texts do not speak to specific modern issues such as the toxic impact of depleted uranium, diseases, humanoid robotics, or nuclear waste. It is however the responsibility of the Muslim jurist to address the important issues that affect humans and nature.

As noted above, humans are called to see their environment not as an “other,” but as a creation of which they are but one part (Qurʾān 6:38; 27:16; 16:68; 79:31–33; 11:6; 55:10) The Qurʾān and the ḥadīth speak of communities of animals as similar to human communities. In a ḥadīth quoted by al-Bukhārī (810–870), the Prophet objected to the destruction of communities of ants. The Prophet is also quoted as saying that people will pay not only for the wrongs they have done against other humans, but also their wrongs against animals, all living beings, and the earth (al-Bukhārī 59:2, no. 3234; Muslim 23:30, nos. 4217–4221). In the Qurʾān God speaks of taking care of all creatures (25:48–49). Even during war, Muslims are commanded not to harm animals or plants, especially agricultural fields and fruit-bearing trees. Muslims are obliged to obey these prohibitions, as they are to refrain from wine and adultery (see Nasr, The Study Quran, p. 1812).

Almost all contemporary scholars concerned with the environment point to broad Islamic concepts such as ʿadl (justice), iḥsān (kindness), and mīzān (balance) as important points in the discourse on Islam and conservation, sustainable development, and resource management. In fact the concept of justice is one of the main principles of Islamic bioethics. The Qurʾān prohibits wastefulness: “… waste not” it declares, “for God does not love those who waste” (7:31). Wastefulness is synonymous with ungratefulness, and the term used for ungratefulness in Arabic is kufr; generally translated as unbelief.

Conclusion

Islam as a reservoir of ethics has much to offer in the conversation about nature and ecology. As such, it is essential to understand and interpret the role that religious thought plays in today’s environmental crisis and in shaping and forming a bioethics that considers the harmony and balance in creation and among created beings. Theoretically there can be much found within the sacred sources of Islam that respects the natural world and maintains its sanctity. Haq (2001) suggests that the rapid introduction of industry without a supporting value system compatible with Islamic values is one of the main reasons for the degradation of the environment. Ethical Muslim conduct that involves the well-being of the created world—and its relation with the Creator—has been the central theme of Islamic thought and action for centuries; however, Haq and others have argued that the advent of modernity along with the wholesale adaptation of it by Muslims has left a gap between what is ethical (according to the Shariʿah) and what is legal. Furthermore, the Shariʿah precepts as they are currently discussed and enforced focus heavily on specific rules such as ḥarām (forbidden) and ḥalāl (permitted) relations between the sexes, dietary rules, laws of purity, etc. The field of bioethics thus offers a way to expand the discussion to reviving environmentalist precepts of Shariʿah.

Contemporary Malaysian Muslim scholar Adi Setia (2007) argues that Muslims’ interactions with nature are constrained by religious ethical precepts—not only mīzān, but raḥmah (mercy) and shukr (gratitude) as well. Setia argues that ethical precepts ultimately refer to nature of self (ṭabīʾat al-nafs). Therefore, he concludes, ecological health is ultimately rooted in the psychological health of the human soul. Based on this statement, the abject state of the natural world is a reflection of the state of humanity. Accordingly, a change in attitude toward the environment is not only necessary but urgent. The Qurʾānic rebuke states: “Corruption has appeared everywhere because of what people have done” (30:41). Another verse (2:11–12) states: “Do not cause corruption on the earth … they are corrupters but they perceive not.” Yet the Qurʾān leaves hope for change when it declares, “God does not change the condition of a people until they change their own inner-selves” (13:11). To this end, several Muslim organizations have been established in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries with the goal of protecting the natural world and the harmonious balance of creation. These organizations include the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), Green Faith, Green Prophet, Green Muslim, WIN (Wisdom in Nature), as well as various religious interfaith environmental organizations, all of which represent positive measures of change and activism.

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