Guardians of the Natural Order
outlines the Islamic approach to environmental protection
In our eagerness to 'progress' and 'develop' we have lost sight of the
finite and delicate nature of planet Earth and of humanity's place in it.
Islamic teaching offers an opportunity to understand the natural order and
to define human responsibility. It could be said that the limits of the
human condition are set within four principles - Tawheed, Fitra, Mizan
Tawheed is the fundamental statement of the oneness of the Creator,
from which everything else follows. It is the primordial testimony to the
unity of all creation and to the interlocking grid of the natural order of
which humanity is an intrinsic part. God says of Himself in the Qur'an:
Say; He is God, One, God,
the Everlasting Refuge
and about creation:
To Him belongs whatsoever is
in the heavens and the earth,
all obey his will
And it is He who originates creation,...
The whole of creation - being the work of one Originator - works within
one stable pattern, however complex it may be. Another verse in the Qur'an
refers to the heavens and the Earth as extensions of God's throne, thus
conveying the idea that creation was designed to function as a whole. Each
of its complimentary parts, including humankind, plays its own
self-preserving role, and in so doing supports the rest.
The Fitra describes the primordial nature of creation itself and
locates humankind in it. The Qur'an says:
So set thy face to the religion, a man of pure faith -
God's original upon which He originated mankind.
There is no changing God's creation.
That is the right religion;
but most men know it not -
God originates humankind within His creation, which He also originated.
Humanity is then inescapably subject to God's immutable laws, as is the
rest of creation. Creation cannot be changed: global warming can be seen,
in this light, as the Earth's endeavour to maintain a balance in the face
of the human assault against it.
The Mizan is the principle of the middle path. In one of its most
eloquent passages the Qur'an describes creation thus:
The All-Merciful has taught the Qur'an.
He created man
and He taught him the explanation.
The sun and the moon to a reckoning,
and the stars and trees bow themselves;
and heaven - He raised it up and set the balance.
Transgress not in the balance,
and weigh with justice, and skimp not in
And earth - He set it down for all beings,
therein fruits and palm trees with sheaths,
and grain in the blade, and fragrant herbs.
Of which your Lord's bounties will you and
God has singled out humans and taught them reason - the capacity to
understand. All creation has an order and a purpose. If the sun, the moon,
the stars, the trees and the rest of creation did not conform to the
natural laws - 'bow themselves' - it would be impossible for life to function on Earth. So we have a
responsibility not to deny the 'Lord's bounties' and actively to recognize
the order that is around us, for ourselves, as much as for the rest of
Khalifa - or the role of stewardship - is the sacred duty God has
ascribed to the human race. There are many verses in the Qur'an that
describe human duties and responsibilities, such as the following which
It is He who has appointed
you viceroys in the earth
Humankind has a special place in God's scheme. We are more than friends of
the Earth - we are its guardians. Although we are equal partners with
everything else in the natural world we have added responsibilities. We
are decidedly not its lords and masters.
We may deduce from these four principles that creation, although quite
complex and yet finite, only works because each of its component parts
does what is expected of it - in the language of the Qur'an, submits to
the Creator. Humanity is inextricably part of this pattern. The role of
humans - who uniquely have wills of their own and are thus capable of
interfering with the pattern of creation - is of guardianship. This added
responsibility imposes limits on their behaviour and should lead to
conscious recognition of their own fragility. They achieve this by
submitting themselves to the divine law.
Until quite recently the human race - both rebels and conformists, the
ignorant and the enlightened, whether in small self-governing communities
or vast empires, barbarian tribes or points of high civilization -
functioned unconsciously within natural, unwritten boundaries. It had an
intuitive disposition to live within the Fitra, though this was
only achieved by conscious recognition of the existence of a superior
force, the divine. This was an existential reality, neither idyllic nor
We are clearly no longer functioning within these limits. Two events in
16th and 17th century Europe allowed the human species to break free from
the natural patterning of which it had always been part. One was the
appearance of the Cartesian world view, which propounded a dualism that
separated mind and matter and allowed for the development of science on
purely mechanistic lines. Cartesian scepticism brushed aside the
accumulated wisdom of the ages and sowed the seeds of doubt. From then on
humanity began to worship itself: in Descartes' own words humans were
'lords and masters of creation'. They now had reason on their side to
support them in their acts of predation.
This period also saw the laying of the foundations of the banking system
to which we are all now in thrall. Bankers have, in Islamic terms,
sabotaged the Mizan of creation by not only charging interest but
by doing so on money which they create endlessly out of nothing. This
explosion of artificial wealth provides the illusion of economic dynamism:
but in reality it is parasitic. Endless credit devours the finite
Fitra. If kept up, this would eventually result in the Earth looking
like the surface of the moon.
People who lived in the pre-Cartesian dimension, that was before we were
told that nature was there to be plundered, were basically no different
from us. They had the same positive and negative human attributes, but the
results of human profligacy were contained by the natural order of things,
which transcended technological and political sophistication and even
religious disposition. Excess in the natural order was contained because
it was biodegradable. When old civilizations, however opulent, profligate,
greedy, or brutal died, the forest just grew over them. They left no
pollutants, damaging poisons or nuclear waste. By contrast, and assuming
we survive as a species, archaeologists excavating our present rampant
civilization are going to have one or two problems...
The Qur'anic references are from The Koran Interpreted by
A. J. Arberry, 1983. The World Classics Series, Oxford University
Fazlun Khalid is Founder Director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology
and Environmental Sciences.