Finding the true green of Islam

From ABC | By Bhawana Kamil | September 14th 2010 The association of green with Islam is not simply a colour. Bhawana Kamil says care for ...

From ABC | By Bhawana Kamil | September 14th 2010

The association of green with Islam is not simply a colour. Bhawana Kamil says care for the environment is a guiding philosophy for Muslims.
Since the religion came about, Islam has taught protection and respect for our environment. Credit: iStockphoto
ISLAM'S 'GREEN' MESSAGE is not a recent production of religious scholars in response to our contemporary environmental crisis. It is a message that stems from the core of the faith - the Qur'an and the Sunnah (the manners and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that were intended to be a source of guidance for people). The Prophet Muhammad, and Muslims in general, were concerned with the environment long before there was need for concern.


In the Qur'anic creation story, God relates that Adam was created from clay, while other forms of creation were created from light (the angels) or fire (the jinn). Iblis, a jinn who would later become Satan, considered fire superior to clay and therefore refused to honour Adam. God reprimanded Iblis for his refusal, and confirmed the honour and nobility of Adam, and that from which he is created. From the early history of humans, God confirms the purity and nobility of clay, or earth.
This sentiment is repeated in a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, when he stated, "All of the earth has been made for me and my nation a pure place of prayer." Prayer, in Islam, in addition to being a spiritual and mental act, is a physical one, including bowing and prostrating on the ground. While Muslims usually pray in their homes or in congregational mosques, they do not hesitate to pray outdoors and in public spaces. Muhammad confirmed the permissibility of doing so by confirming that while Muslims are required to pray in pure places, the earth is inherently such a place.

Nature is Muslim?

The Islamic concept of the environment reminds us what it means to be Muslim, literally. The word 'Muslim', like 'Islam', comes from the tri-letter root s-l-m conveying both peace and submission. A Muslim is one who achieves peace through submission.
Muslims believe that God created laws for the entire universe. Some of these laws are apparent in nature in the form of laws of physics, chemistry, or biology. Plants, animals, and planets have no choice but to 'submit' to these laws. In doing so, the universe functions in beautiful order and harmony. Nature achieves peace through submission.
Human beings have no choice in submitting to some of God's 'laws of nature'. "And unto God falls in prostration whoever is in the heavens and the Earth, willingly or unwillingly, and so do their shadows in the mornings and in the afternoons," says the Qur'an (13:15).
However, there are other laws, contained within the theological, moral and legal prescriptions of the Qur'an and Sunnah, which humans have a choice about obeying. If one chooses to accept and submit to these laws and thereby becomes Muslim, she achieves peace with her Lord and herself, and brings herself into harmony with the rest of the Universe.
Nature, then, is a reminder for Muslims of the state of harmony we are trying to achieve through an acceptance of God's laws. They see nature in a constant state of glorification of God, a state which they try to achieve. But the obedience to God by a human is the most valuable obedience, because it is done through choice and free will.

Signs from Nature

Religious scholars in Islam often refer to two books given to humans by God: the written and the displayed. The written book is scripture revealed to Prophets, most recently the Qur'an given to Muhammad. The displayed book is nature - the environment. Just as scripture serves as a source of guidance and a reminder of our Lord, reflection upon the beauty and order of nature is meant to serve as a reminder of the glory of God, draw us closer to God, and increase our faith and spirituality.
There is even an analogy of the terms we use in each case. When God describes and asks us to reflect upon natural phenomena, He refers to these phenomena as ayaat, or signs, for those who reflect, contemplate or take heed.
"And He has made subservient to you, [as a gift] from Himself, all that is in the heavens and on earth: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think!" (Qur'an 45:13)
Interestingly, the word used in the Qur'an and by Muslims to refer to what is typically translated as the 'verses' of the Qur'an is the same word -'ayaat', or signs. And so just as the Qur'an is a collection of ayaat intended to remind us of our relationship with our Creator and proper conduct of our lives, nature is a collection of ayaat that serve the same purpose. Nature, when put in proper perspective, is a source of guidance and is God's other book.


With increasingly frequent and extreme abnormal natural phenomena, the world's attention has shifted towards climate change and humans' role in the rapid destruction of our environment. The question has become, "What do we do?" Islam addressed this question before we were forced to stare it in the face.
Islam teaches us that God created and owns everything.
"All that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth glorifies God; unto Him belongs Sovereignty and unto Him belongs praise, and He is Able to do all things." (Qur'an 64:1)
Everything given to us by God is given as a custodianship or stewardship. This applies to our bodies and our wealth. As Muslims, we are not permitted to intoxicate our bodies and inhibit the functioning of our brains because we are charged their care. We cannot use our money in ways that oppress others or support evil, and we are obligated to share part of it with those who are less fortunate. We have no choice in the matter because it is not completely ours but rather a trust.
This stewardship applies to the environment as well. God has given us a degree of control and authority over the Earth with our intellect and creativity.
Like all forms of authority in Islam, with power comes responsibility. The power we have over the environment charges us to responsibly care for it. As such, Muslims have a spiritual and moral responsibility towards all of Creation - human, animal, and inanimate.
Interfaith environmental careConcern for the environment is a theme that stretches beyond Islam. In a related article, ABC Environment explores the rise of 'ecotheology' and its role in fostering interfaith environmental groups.
Aside from general exhortations, the Qur'an and Sunnah contain specific injunctions related to the environment. In the Qur'an, God says, "But waste not by excess, for God loves not wasters." (Qur'an 7:31)
The Prophet Muhammad also directed his followers, "When doing the prayer wash (ablution), do not waste even if you are using water from a flowing river."
What is significant about these words is that they came at a time when the depletion of natural resources was not an issue. That one should not waste water even if by a river, even when the availability of water is not an issue, shows us that Islam's aversion to waste is not simply instrumental, but fundamental.
Even in times of war, in which Muslims are allowed to engage for defence against aggression or oppression, Muslims should not needlessly destroy trees and other environmental features. Muhammad addressed his followers with the following rules for warfare:
"Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food..."
Islam recognises the lasting and long-term benefits of such environmental features, and protects them even in times of violence.
In addition to these specific exhortations, the general injunction of human stewardship of the Earth, as in several other faith traditions, guides a Muslim to adopt sustainable environmental practices. In a world when so much must be done by each individual to help rectify the situation, we can learn something from Muhammad's saying: "God loves those acts which are consistent, even if they are small."
All of us must start by doing something, and doing it consistently. No act is too small, and the hope is that the consistency will lead to progress and growth in our capacity for change.
Bhawana Kamil is president of the Bay Area Muslim American Society and a member of the Muslim Green Team, a US based organisation devoted to educating the Muslim community on how to live greener lives and demonstrating to the general public the Islamic environmental message.


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