In this 5-part series Dr Abdul Wahid looks at the environmental challenge, their causes and how numerous summits have tried to address the issue. The series will also assess the environmental challenges in the Muslims world and Islam’s unique perspective on the environment.
إِذَا زُلْزِلَتِ ٱلْأَرْضُ زِلْزَالَهَا
وَأَخْرَجَتِ ٱلْأَرْضُ أَثْقَالَهَا
وَقَالَ ٱلْإِنسَـٰنُ مَا لَهَا
يَوْمَئِذٍ تُحَدِّثُ أَخْبَارَهَا
بِأَنَّ رَبَّكَ أَوْحَىٰ لَهَا
يَوْمَئِذٍ يَصْدُرُ ٱلنَّاسُ أَشْتَاتًا لِّيُرَوْا۟ أَعْمَـٰلَهُمْ
فَمَن يَعْمَلْ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ خَيْرًا يَرَهُۥ
وَمَن يَعْمَلْ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ شَرًّا يَرَهُ
In the Name of Allah, Al-Rahman (the Merciful), Al-Raheem (the Most Merciful).
When the earth is shaken violently in its [last] quaking; and when the earth throws out its burdens; and when man cries, ‘What is happening to it?’ On that Day, it will tell all, because your Lord will inspire it [to do so].On that Day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds. Whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom’s-weight of evil will see that. [Surah Al Zalzalah (The Earthquake) 99:1-8]
1.1 Humanity at a crossroads
Over the past few decades there has been a growing urgency about the state of the planet; atmospheric pollution in Los Angeles or Lahore causing respiratory problems, poisoning of our waterways from industrial or human waste, droughts and floods destroying crops. In addition to this is the acidification of oceans, depletion of the ozone layer, destruction of the rainforests, land degradation, loss of species and a host of other issues. The concern is that we are potentially coming to the tipping point where human action is irreversibly damaging the planet and its ability to sustain life.
There is a sense something has to be done – that it should have been done by now – but nonetheless, there may still be time if people act fast.
It is this growing sense of awareness and foreboding that has led to greater concern amongst sincere people – wondering what can be done at this critical juncture.
The main aim of this paper is to show that Islam has a distinct approach to understanding the human relationship to the environment – and to compare that to the current situation of how humans have been engaging with the environment.
‘Environment’ means the planet where we live, which was created by Allah ﷻ as a perfect harmony of thousands of ecosystems that support life.
The planet does not belong to us but rather we exist on it, and we all belong to Allah ﷻ! He ﷻ says:
ٱللَّهُ لَآ إِلَـٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ٱلْحَىُّ ٱلْقَيُّومُ ۚ لَا تَأْخُذُهُۥ سِنَةٌ وَلَا نَوْمٌ ۚ لَّهُۥ مَا فِى ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَمَا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ ۗ
“Allah! There is no god ˹worthy of worship˺ except Him, the Ever-Living, All-Sustaining. Neither drowsiness nor sleep overtakes Him. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth.” [Al-Baqarah 2:255]
As human beings we have a responsibility to treat the planet as well as we can and Allah ﷻ will account us on how we behaved with respect to those things that we were responsible for.
فَمَن يَعْمَلْ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ خَيْرًا يَرَهُۥ
وَمَن يَعْمَلْ مِثْقَالَ ذَرَّةٍ شَرًّا يَرَهُۥ
‘Whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom’s-weight of evil will see that.” [Al-Zalzalah 99: 7-8]
The evidence before us today suggests we have much to be accountable for. It reflects a failing of how humanity has interacted with the environment over the past one or two centuries.
1.2 The failings of the past two centuries
Humans have always interacted with the environment in ways that have benefited us, accompanied by some degree of disruption or damage due to that interaction; ploughing the land for cultivation, cutting trees for firewood, or using animals for work, food and for their skins.
The advent of the industrial revolution brought technological advancement and a step-change in the degree of disruption and damage. In particular the use of fossil fuels for energy production and increased efficiency in manufacturing.
Technology and the use of fossil fuels is not by itself the sole cause of where we are today. They are tools used for aims and those aims are defined by a system, which in turn is executed by a political leadership.
1.3 A failure of leadership and of the system
Ultimately it is a failure of political leadership and the dominant system that has defined the way we have lived.
Environmental problems are not some theoretical future problem. Environmental problems include vital interests for people like clean air and clean water – problems that should be dealt with by governments at a state level – but which have been neglected.
They are problems which emerged for the people due to the systemic use and abuse of this technology and energy sources under Capitalism.
Over this period, leaders of dominant world powers prioritised economic growth for their own countries – and the interests of business over the interests of the people.
When they did meet periodically to set targets and goals for change, each one sought their own interests. Those who promote the status quo do so because it benefits their economies – whilst those states that currently champion alternatives to fossil fuels do so because they have realised their own countries are currently energy-insecure due to a dependency on fossil fuels. Each one suspects the motives of the others, meaning little has changed.
Yet the plight of ordinary people across the world suffering the effects of human activity has been a daily lived experience due to polluted air, water and due to conflict – all of which are more immediate than the concerns of campaigners about an uncertain future and disconnected from global summits and conferences. Many will suffer or die before the conferences are even concluded, never mind the future dates set as targets for change, decades in the future.
Alongside this we must look at a failure of political leadership in the Muslim world.
We see many examples of neglect in terms of tackling air and water pollution, as well as harm caused by vanity and luxury projects. All of this adds to the harmful environmental impact on the citizens of those countries.
Furthermore, the absence of leadership and ideological vision in the Muslim world is responsible for the fact that the Muslim world does not have any effective voice in global discussions about climate change and environmental damage. As a result, debates are skewed by the dominant powers towards their interests and priorities.
1.4 Causes and solutions
This paper will touch briefly on some of the dominant causes of environmental damage today. Whilst most of the discussion across the world is focussed upon the damage attributed to climate change, this far from the only matter that needs to be considered.
There are many environmental harms that affect many people in more immediate ways that are often overlooked – and many in the Muslim world are affected by these. Air and water pollution and other forms of environmental degradation have been harming people for centuries. Only a few decades ago the skies of London were filled with smog, just as some of its water supplies were contaminated with sewage.
Today, similar problems afflict people in other parts of the world, either because there have been inadequate systems of hygiene, or inadequate regulation of industry at a state level – or as a consequence of conflict.
These are matters for which there are answers that do not rely on global cooperation for a solution.
These problems have been allowed to fester, with no sense of political urgency to solve them.
However, a sense of urgency has emerged over the past few decades in the developed world – where people have started to fear that they too may be subject to environmental harms – though in a less direct way than polluted air and water, or due to conflict. The growing concern is about climate change and that human societies across the world – including the developed world – could be harmed by global warming.
This is a matter which also requires systemic change, as many of the causes lie in the global Capitalist system – and no one is currently proposing a solution that addresses endemic consumerism that fuels the demand for material goods, which drives pollution as well as economic growth.
There are opposing views about the causes of climate change and consequently the solutions. From sceptics about the extent of human activity to those who strongly believe this is the most important issue facing humanity today, both camps claim to be ‘following the science’ – which only goes to show that such claims rarely come without a political bias.
In terms of solutions – the extreme sceptics would do nothing; whilst the extreme environmentalists would argue to ban the use of fossil fuels, are concerned about nuclear energy and argue people should stop eating meat.
However, the dominant proposals revolve around reducing CO2 emissions via ‘clean’ energy sources, or improving technology to increase energy efficiency. International efforts have been made to reach targets – leaving the only difference between the political ‘left’ and political ‘right’ being about how much should be left to the individual or business to voluntarily change – or whether it should be mandated by government regulation in order to meet targets.
The problem with the current situation is not merely the challenge of how to overcome these divisions. It is that these divisions, whether the conflicted views on the science or the solutions, all essentially come from the viewpoint that nothing should fundamentally change on a global systemic level. Moreover, they are predominantly centred on a model that reacts to harms caused by human behaviour, rather than human beings behaving in a way that minimises harm. They focus predominantly on climate change because that is where the political centre of gravity is today – whereas there is much less focus on the many, more immediate, environmental problems that harm people on a day-to-day basis.
There is no serious proposal in the mass media that challenges the idea that people should be free to pursue their individual desires and pleasures; or that human societies are basically ‘consumer’ societies; or that economic growth at all costs is the most important economic goal. There is no serious proposal that is not built on a model of nation states that are competing in terms of economic growth.
Policy proposals largely lie on the ‘supply side’ of the economy, either by technological efficiency – or by carbon offsetting. Aside from dedicated climate change activists arguing that people should eat less meat, there is not a lot proposed that looks like a fundamental change in demand for material things – whether the latest gadgets, cheap air travel, or the latest fashions, and so on. The system that dominates the world continues to promote the idea that people should consume and business should produce – though suggesting that technology should produce things in a cleaner and more environmentally friendly way.
In addition, many realise that international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions will disproportionately harm emerging economies – whilst the developed world has enjoyed a head start in economic and industrial growth whilst being responsible for the emissions to date. As such, global conferences become a competition to define a framework that would benefit individual states and not humanity as a whole.
1.5 The Islamic Alternative
Islam views matters pertaining to the environment in a distinct way. We hope to illustrate how Islam addresses this from an individual and systemic approach – and that this systemic approach necessitates an Islamic authority to implement the appropriate laws and measures. The Khilafah is that authority.
Firstly, Islam views that human beings are accountable for their actions before Allah ﷻ – so individual behaviour is not merely personal moral choice, nor something that people are coerced into by a series of tax or pricing incentives. Anything that causes harm to others, no matter how small, will be something that Allah ﷻ will ask people to account for. Moreover, Islam discourages people from being wasteful.
Secondly, Islam sets the desire for the pursuit of material things in a much greater context. Islam distinguishes between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’; it obligates the former, permits luxuries (though encouraging people to ‘make do’ with what one needs rather than pursuing ‘wants’), discourages excessive or wasteful consumption, and focuses the mind above the narrow horizons of this material world.
Consequently, an Islamic society is one that strongly discourages harmful behaviour at an individual and a societal level; and is one that would reduce demand for material things.
Thirdly, Islam has a distinct economic system which encourages trade, prohibits riba (usury) and does not have the in-built imperative for growth that comes with Capitalism.
Fourthly, Islam has a political system, implemented by the Khilafah, through which it enforces legal sanctions protecting against societal harm. This is through a distinct branch of the judiciary.
Fifthly, the political leadership has to look after the affairs of people. This includes energy production to meet the priorities Islam sets and its distribution for the population. In this context the Khalifah needs to reconcile several principles:
i. Utilising the good things that Allah ﷻ provided for us and not wasting them
ii. In order to look after peoples’ needs,
iii. Managing energy security issues, which are essential for protecting the Ummah.
iv. Whilst minimising harms that may come from the necessary use of different energy types (i.e. learning the lessons from the past).
Hence, a future Khilafah would probably look to diversify modes of energy production to achieve these objectives. Islam looks at energy resources – whether solar, wind, geothermal, fossil fuels or nuclear, as blessings from Allah ﷻ for the benefit of humanity. They should not be wasted but also the lessons of the past need to be learned so as to avoid potential harms. Furthermore, energy security is one of the essential matters for any state – not just securing it but reducing vulnerabilities in regards to it.
Sixth, the Khilafah would actively focus on the environmental priorities facing its people, as well as ending conflict and implementing some of the aforementioned Islamic rules – for example, pollution to air and water from industrial waste falling under the mandate of looking after peoples’ affairs. Moreover, the Islamic Khilafah would dissolve the artificial nation-state borders that exist in the Muslim world, thereby enabling the tackling of many environmental issues in a manner that is cooperative between varied populations.
With regards to the concerns about the man-made causes of climate change and identifying potential ‘harms’, the Khilafah would also ‘follow the science’. This is because technical matters demand consulting those with technical expertise. Yet, it is obvious that political decisions based on scientific views are governed by the political principles of the state. Science, as we have already said, rarely has a neutral position on such complex issues. Regardless of what extra measures may be needed in terms of addressing this issue, the Islamic principles and system (as mentioned above) mean that it would already be addressing many of the concerns that people feel are related to the problem.
Finally, the Khilafah would be a state engaged in the politics of the world.
So, where it sees cynical geopolitical games which call for conferences to promote their own interests, it will expose them.
Where it sees the harms from Capitalism, it will expose them.
But where it is necessary to engage with other states in terms of trying to solve genuine problems that affect whole regions, it will do so, offering arguments from an Islamic perspective. Moreover, it would not allow either itself, or vulnerable states in the world to be exploited or manipulated by powerful states that seek to maintain their own dominance in global affairs.
Real geopolitical leadership would be to set the agenda, not follow someone else’s; address a matter affecting humanity in the interests of all – both from an intellectual level and from a political level; not allowing colonial states to promote their interests at the expense of the rest of the world.
This series of articles is not a comprehensive exploration of this matter. By touching on some of these issues we hope, by the Permission of Allah ﷻ, to show how Islam addresses such human problems with a comprehensive approach – and in a distinct manner, not merely trying to add some Islamic clothing upon environmental solutions that are limited to the current world order.
We pray that Allah accepts it from us, and forgives any shortcomings. Any good within this is from Allah ﷻ, the Creator of the heavens and the earth and whatever is in it!