Humans Are Trustees of Allah's Creation: Islam & the Environment

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The following post is part of an ongoing series of posts outlining how the world's major religions have traditionally viewed the environment and are putting those beliefs into practice today.

"The world is sweet and verdant green, and Allah appoints you the be His regents in it..." (ARC).

Similar to the classic Christian view on the relation between humans and the environment, the classic Islamic view emphasizes that humans are stewards of creation, guardians of it. Nature has been given to humans for safekeeping, not to ruthlessly exploit in any way we wish. To sum it up in one word: Trusteeship.Going along with it is the concept of Unity, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation explains. "Allah is unity, and His unity is reflected in the unit unity of humanity and nature." Because of that, it is the responsibility of humans to strive for harmony in our relations with the natural world. If we don't, we will be one day held in judgement by Allah for not fulfilling that responsibility, for not being good trustees of creation.

As the Muslim Declaration on Nature (going back to the mid-1980s and part of the Assisi Declarations on Nature) says,

Unity, trusteeship and accountability, that is tawhid, khalifah and akhirah, the three central concepts of Islam, are also the pillars of the environmental ethics of Islam. they constitute the basic values taught by the Qur'an. it is these values which led Muhammad, (peace be upon him), the Prophet of Islam, to say: 'Whosoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded', and 'If a Muslim plants a tree or sows a field and men and beats and birds eat from it, all of it is a charity on his part', and again, 'The world is green and beautiful, and Allah has appointed you as His stewards over it.' Environmental consciousness is born when such values are adopted and become an intrinsic part of our mental and physical make-up.

Practically applying these principles go back centuries.

Driven in at least in part by the fact that Islam originated in a region of the world with a harsh environment and where resources were not as natural abundant as in other places, Muslim texts are some of the first extant to explicitly address environmental science, particularly air, water and soil pollution, as well as municipal waste disposal and even the rights of animals.

Jumping forward to today, while familiarity with Islamic-based environmentalism is lacking, in the United States in particular, in fact there is a thriving Muslim ecological movement--at least as thriving as ecological awareness is among non-Muslim populations.

Take a look at EcoIslam, a publication of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science, for a Muslim take on why genetically modified crops shouldn't be used:

The reductionism on which genetic engineering is anchored is clearly inconsistent with the holistic approach of the Qur'an: "And the earth We have spread out; set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance." [Qur'an 15:19]
It is the fracturing of nature's balance and harmony by profit-driven corporations that is responsible for some of the environmental disasters confronting us today.
Genetic engineering undermines the integrity of God's creation. This technology has the power to break down fundamental genetic barriers, not only between species, but also between humans, animals and plants.

The same issue addresses the concept of water ethics in Islam, and the guidance given by Islamic law and ethics on the issue.

Briefly: Historically individuals could not be considered owners of water unless that water was enclosed in a container. Each person has fundamental rights to water access, based upon individual and communal needs. Direct human needs are generally given priority over the needs of animals, followed by agricultural water usage, and then industrial and recreational usage.

The Muslim Green Team, a project of the Muslim American Society, sums up the relation between the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and water conservation:

Saving water and safeguarding its purity were two important issues for the Prophet: we have seen that his concern about the sustainable use of water led to the creation of haram zones in the vicinity of water sources. But even when water was abundant, he advocated thriftiness: thus he recommended that believers perform wudu no more than three times, even if they were near to a flowing spring or river. The theologian El-Bukhari added: "The men of science disapprove of exaggeration and also of exceeding the number of ablutions of the Prophet." The Prophet also warned against water pollution by forbidding urination in stagnant water."( Green Prophet)

Back to the words of Dr Abdullah Omar Naseef, in the Muslim Declaration on Nature:

We often say that Islam is a complete way of life, by which it is meant that our ethical system provides the bearings for all our actions. Yet our actions often undermine the very values we cherish. Often while working as scientists or technologists, economists or politicians, we act contrary to the environmental dictates of Islam. We must imbibe these values into our very being. We must judge our actions by them. They furnish us with a world-view which enables us to ask environmentally appropriate questions, to draw up the right balance sheet of possibilities, and to properly weigh the environmental costs and benefits of what we want, what we can do within the ethical boundaries