One could well look at these and similar Islamic teachings and ask if they had a practical manifestation in Islamic societies. The answer is yes. The protection of natural habitat, the
well-being of animals, and related responsibilities were often overseen by appointed officials, members of the
world's first environmental protection agencies. For example, Imam Taj al-Din al-Subki, in his instruction manual to the appointed officials in the Islamic polity, Mu'id
al-Ni'am wa Mubid al-Niqam, advises the official overseeing the stuccoing of the city walls: "The person entrusted with stuccoing the walls must first ascertain that no animals are living in them. Otherwise, he might inadvertently cause the death of animals that he has no right to kill, small birds and the like. Were he to do so, he would betray God by killing those animals."
He advises the official entrusted with the oversight of the animals: "Among the rights owed to these beasts is that you are sincere in serving them. You must exercise the trust you have concerning them fully. They have no tongues with which to complain to you [concerning abuses], they can only complain to God." Officials charged with overseeing the protection of the forests and trees were also admonished to carefully guard the rights of these living creatures.
In the past, Muslims were among the leaders in utilizing earth, wind, sun, water and shade to develop ecologically friendly systems of air conditioning, refrigeration, heating, energy generation, farming and construction. These systems considered well the damage of human activity to the ecosystem. The resulting positive attitudes towards the environment were not unique among
This careful attitude towards the environment is countered contemporarily by one of avarice, greed and neglect facilitated by a global economic climate that allows gross corporate ecological irresponsibility. This shift has led to unimaginable abuse of the Earth's resources and people. At the heart of this abuse is an economic system that is predicated on unlimited growth, while encouraging unimaginable waste. Our planet's finite resource base and limited absorption capacity cannot long endure such a scheme. Unless we change, perhaps the only question left for us to answer will be, "Will we meet our doom by exhausting our available resources or suffocating in our waste?"
In conclusion, the current economic arrangement fails on three counts. First of all, as Herman Daley and others point out, it fails to meet the basic needs of the planet's entire population. Secondly, it fails to maintain an acceptable level of biodiversity. Thirdly, it does not ensure a sustainable level of resources for future generations. These failures have their own ecological consequences, global warming being only the most alarming.
Muslims, especially here in the West, have an important part to play in addressing the growing ecological crisis. As we know, the overarching objectives of Islamic Law
(Maqasid ash-Shari'ah) determine that religion has been instituted to preserve six things: religion itself, life, intellect, wealth, lineage and honor. If the environment that sustains our life and is the primary source of our wealth, is destroyed, then religion is effectively voided as there would be no life, lineage, or wealth left for it to safeguard. Even if we were to limp along, barely surviving in a toxic, ecologically ravaged wasteland, we would have lost our honor, with our wealth and lives likely to follow in short order.
How can we change? First of all, as Muslims, we must realize that our religious teachings provide us with a valuable source of meaningful ecological consciousness. Our rich history provides us with many brilliant models, which can serve as the basis for significant strategies in developing alternative energy sources, organizing holistic communities, as well as significant direction in other vital areas.
Secondly, we should know that it isn't necessary for us to "reinvent the wheel." There are many
non-Muslim groups that are active in addressing a large variety of environmental issues. We can both learn from their experiences and join with them to augment their strength.
If we act now, we can help to avert many looming disasters, such as global warming and the associated climate changes, which are already beginning to wreak havoc on our world. If we fail to act, we are only hastening our collective doom.
Imam Zaid Shakir is amongst the most
respected and influential Islamic scholars in the West. As an American Muslim
who came of age during the civil rights struggles, he has brought both
sensitivity about race and poverty issues and scholarly discipline to his
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