This article was written as part of our series: A Muslim's Complete Guide to Climate Change! In Part 1, we discuss what Islam says about the environment and our role in protecting the world we live in.
As Muslims, we know there are many people who have rights upon us. Allah (swt) has commanded us to care for our neighbours, speak gently to our parents, provide for our families and give regular charity to those in need. In addition to the rights of human beings, the environment around us also has rights which we have promised to fulfil.
This article will cover seven important lessons the Qur'an and Sunnah teach us about environmental rights.
1. The world was created in balance
Our world was perfectly designed by the ultimate Creator and Designer. In Surah Ar-Rahman, Allah says, 'The Most Compassionate. He taught the Qur'an. He created man. He taught him eloquence. The sun and the moon (move) by precise calculation. And the stars and the trees prostrate. And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance. That you do not transgress within the balance…' [The Noble Qur'an, 55:1-8]
It was Allah who placed the Earth at a perfect distance from the sun and wrapped the Earth in layers of protective sky. He filled our world with trees which stabilise the soil, rivers upon which civilisations can flourish and countless miraculous ecosystems - coral reefs, marshes, rainforests and more.
Therefore, it is vital that we strive to maintain the balance of this world.
Allah tells us that Shaitan has declared, 'I will command them so they will alter God's creation' [The Noble Qur'an, 4:119]. By altering parts of creation for our own needs - e.g. by polluting the air to mass-produce products, or cutting down trees to develop land - our perfectly balanced environment has now been disrupted.
2. Our environment is a blessing for us
In this day and age, we have a saying that 'environmental rights are human rights'. Human communities have the right to a safe and sustainable environment, so fighting against deforestation or pollution is actually fighting for the rights of human beings.
Islam also teaches us that the environment protects and nourishes human civilisation - and the Qur'an is filled with beautiful imagery about this blessing.
Consider how Allah talks to us about the joys of rain, saying: 'And Allah has sent down rain from the sky and given life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness. Indeed, in that is a sign for a people who listen'. [The Noble Qur’an, 16:65]
Allah also says, 'And it is He who sends down rain from the sky, and We produce thereby the growth of all things. We produce from it greenery from which We produce grains arranged in layers. And from the palm trees – of its emerging fruit are clusters hanging low. And gardens of grapevines and olives and pomegranates, similar yet varied. Look at [each of] its fruit when it yields and [at] its ripening. Indeed, in that are signs for a people who believe'. [The Noble Qur’an, 6:99]
Or consider how Allah talks of how the Earth is our home:
- 'It is Allah who made for you the earth a place of settlement and the sky a ceiling and formed you and perfected your forms and provided you with good things. That is Allah, your Lord; then blessed is Allah , Lord of the worlds'. [The Noble Qur’an, 40:64]
- 'And He has cast into the earth firmly set mountains, lest it shift with you, and [made] rivers and roads, that you may be guided'. [The Noble Qur’an, 16:15]
In this way, Islam encourages us to witness the benefits which Allah has created in our environment - to shelter us, feed us, make travel easy for us and so much more.
When we neglect the rights of the environment, we not only disrupt a perfect balance, we also cause ourselves and future generations to suffer. Instead of nourishing rain, we see devastating floods and droughts increasing. The sky is no longer a protection and the earth becomes a place of displacement rather than settlement.
3. The environment is our responsibility
Although the environment is a blessing for us, this is not a one-way relationship, where we can take from the world without giving anything back. Since the beginning of humankind, we have always been responsible for protecting the environment as much it protects us:
This world is an amanah (trust) which human beings accepted from Allah. Every human being is a khalifah (successor or steward) for the Earth - someone temporarily responsible for keeping it safe and thriving. We are not the masters of this world - we are actually in service to it.
Allah reminds us of our own place by saying, 'Do not strut exultantly on the Earth. You will never split the Earth apart nor will you rival the mountains in stature'. [The Noble Qur'an, 17:37]
Allah also says, 'Indeed, the creation of heaven and Earth is greater than the creation of humankind, but most people do not know it'. [The Noble Qur'an, 40:57]
Therefore, we can't expect that the environment will take care of itself as human development accelerates. It is our duty to ensure we don't exploit it or neglect our responsibility towards it.
4. We have been commanded not to 'spread corruption'
There are two ways we can fulfil the environment's rights: by not harming it; and by actively protecting it.
As for the first, Allah commands us, 'Do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption'. [The Noble Qur'an, 2:60]
Elsewhere, Allah says, 'Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by what the hands of people have earned - so that He may let them taste part of (the consequences of) what they have done, so that perhaps they will return (to righteousness)'. [The Noble Qur’an, 30:41]
In this day and age, 'corruption' has rapidly spread throughout the earth. While some people are far more to blame for the destruction of the environment, now all of humankind is tasting the consequences of its exploitation.
The most obvious consequence has been climate change: massive changes in the weather and an increase in natural disasters. But we have also destroyed habitats which we depend on for survival and spread pollutants and toxins which are making us sick. The environment is now so fragile that every individual must actively work not to harm it.
So far, we have mentioned how the world was created in balance; how the environment is a blessing for us; that we are responsible for it; and that we have been commanded not to 'spread corruption'.
Our next three lessons will be three ways we can protect the environment: protection of resources, nature conservation and valuing life.
5. Resources should be treated as limited
Islam encourages us to treat all resources as limited. Of course, we are entitled to benefit from them, but we are encouraged to think of our 'needs' only and not be wasteful.
The first type of wastefulness is overusing a resource:
In the above hadith, the Prophet (saw) teaches us a profound lesson - even if we have seemingly limitless resources, we should still only use them to meet our needs. Here in the UK, we have hot and cold running water 24/7, but we should still only use exactly as much as we need. This simple action is actually intrinsic to treating our environment respectfully, without overusing its resources.
The second type of wastefulness is not using a resource at all:
The above quote is taken from a letter which Ali (ra) wrote to Mali Al-Ashtar An-Nakha'i (rh), whom he had appointed to govern Egypt. In this letter, Ali (ra) stressed the need for landowners to cultivate their land rather than simply paying taxes on it, stating, 'You should…keep your eye on cultivating the land more than on collecting revenue, because revenue cannot be had without cultivation. Whoever asks for revenue without cultivation ruins the area and brings devastation to the people. His rule will last only a moment'.
If a land can be cultivated, then it would be a waste not to do so. The land would become purposeless when it could be feeding people, livestock and birds.
In advising a man who had reclaimed and developed some abandoned land, Ali (ra) said, 'Partake of it gladly, so long as you are a benefactor, not a despoiler; a cultivator, not a destroyer'. [Kitāb al-Kharāj]
However, it is worth noting that some types of land should not necessarily be farmed - rather, their ecosystems should be preserved, as that would be more beneficial. This leads us onto our next point: preserving the Islamic tradition of conservation.
5. The Islamic tradition of conservation
We mentioned earlier that the environment has a right to not be harmed and also to be actively protected. Actively protecting the environment can be done through the practice of conservation.
The definition of conservation is the care and protection of natural resources so that they can keep existing for future generations. This includes maintaining the diversity of species and ecosystems. The emphasis is placed not on keeping nature away from human beings, but on ensuring that we use natural resources in a sustainable way, benefitting it without damaging it.
Although the idea of conservation may seem modern, humankind actually has a long tradition of protecting its different habitats and wild places in this way. Many indigenous cultures have a symbiotic relationship with the land they live on, using it to grow food or hunt animals without ever damaging it. And Islamic law itself follows this practice through the concept of 'protected areas'.
In Islam, a 'protected area' is called a Hima. They did exist in pre-Islamic Arabia, but the Prophet (saw) laid down specific rules for us when he established the protected areas of Madinah.
It is well-known that Makkah is a protected area where it is forbidden to kill any living thing, thus ensuring the conservation of its living creatures. Similarly, in Madinah, the Prophet (saw) established 'Hima ash-Shajar', or 'The Protected Area of the Trees'. It surrounds the Haram of Madinah, covering 1,300 km2, and it is forbidden to hunt there or cut the woody vegetation.
This area is thus able to thrive as a biologically diverse land, which includes hills, canyons, wetlands and volcanic lava terrain. Its ecosystems have been kept intact, so Madinah can be a haven for native plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.
The Prophet (saw) also established Hima an-Naqi around 90km south of Madinah, designating it for pasturing the Muslim's cavalry horses.
Later, Umar ibn Al-Khattab (ra) established Hima ar-Rabadah, 160km away from Madinah, thus showing the Sahabah keeping to the practice of conservation rather than careless use of the land. They set the precedent for Muslim jurists to lay down certain rules about protected areas.
As-Suyuti (rh) said that a Hima must be established by a governing authority. Its purpose is for the sake of Allah (i.e. for common good rather than private benefit). A protected area should not deprive local people of resources - i.e. it is about sustainability. If it stops being beneficial, then the way it is managed should change.
These four conditions are similar to modern thinking on 'protected areas' and conservation sites. As Muslims, therefore, we should not only know about environmental rights in theory, we should also support existing efforts to conserve our land and wildlife. Wherever you live, there is definitely an effort to protect endangered animals, encourage organic farming, fight against cutting down trees or something similar. So do research what you can do to support modern conservation efforts!
7. All 'life' is inherently valuable
We have mentioned already the dangers of disrupting the balance of the world, as well as the fact that protecting the environment means protecting humankind.
However, regardless of the impact of environmental destruction upon us, we have a responsibility to keep the environment healthy for its own sake.
We know that trees are valuable to us, that bees are useful and livestock are helpful. But regardless of how they benefit us, our primary reason for protecting them is that they are inherently valuable as part of Allah's creation.
They are also communities; they are also His worshippers. They are signs from Him and each and every piece of creation is unique and worth protecting.
The Messenger of Allah (saw) taught us, 'Once there was a prophet who was resting under a tree when an ant bit him, so he ordered that his luggage be taken away from underneath it (the tree) and the ant’s dwelling burned with fire. Allah revealed to him: "A single ant has bitten you, yet you have destroyed a nation that glorifies Allah?"' [Bukhari]
This discussion around environmental rights is often framed as something that is necessary in order for human beings to be safe and healthy. But Islam teaches us that, even if we weren't being impacted by flooding and drought, even if our water and food was still pure, even if there were plenty of resources for us to use - we still need to treat the environment well.
Every part of Allah's creation is glorifying Him - and we have accepted the trust of looking after every single fragile community in this world.
Muslim Hands is an award-winning charity, established in 1993 to help those needing emergency relief and tackling the root causes of poverty. We hope this article was useful to you! If you would like to protect the environment in just a few clicks, why not plant a tree to purify the air, stabilise the soil, provide food and shelter countless little creatures?