Born and raised in Cairo of the Mu’ez (Old quarters of Cairo), I found myself surrounded by remnants of a glorious past.
My extended family and I used to gather on the rooftop of our home to have our usual meals. Both the Qalawun complex (a school, hospital, mosque and mausoleum) and Barquq mosque command the landscape around us.
These structures were established by the Mamluks in the middle ages. The Mamluk architectures in old Cairo reflect many devices that tend to effectively blend the built environment with the natural surroundings using some natural phenomena to improve the built environment. Such improvements helped to reflect the Islamic heritage.
The key to understanding the Islamic influence on the environment is the full appreciation of the Islamic concepts of God, the role of man on earth, and the role of the natural environment.
On the other hand, it is man who impacts the environment more than any other creature of God. Seyyed Hossein Nasr who is considered as the ‘founding father of Islamic eco-theology’, argues that “in the old days man had to be saved from nature, today nature must be saved from man in both peace and war”.
Islamic teachings provide a blueprint for an ecological sustainability that is workable and ethical. When we look at the amount of deforestation, soil erosion, water and air pollution and toxic waste in the majority Muslim countries, we find that Muslim communities are sometimes worse than many advanced nations in the world.
They tend to import inappropriate technologies to resolve local environmental issues. They overlook traditionally appropriate practices that were prompted by their Islamic teachings, and hence unnecessarily create difficulties and hazards.
The Muslim Mamluks have employed some ecological measures that enabled them to introduce a number of environmentally friendly measures to improve their built environments. Their attitude was dictated by their belief in Islamic ethics.
The environment holds a huge potential that man may wisely use for his benefit and other inhabitants of our earth making certain that enough resources for future generations were secured.
Muslims need to be aware of their environmental heritage so that they would both reap the benefits in this life and be rewarded in the Hereafter as they would have fulfilled their obligations as vicegerents of God on earth.
The primary sources of Islam; the Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet, contain many injunctions aiming at guiding the Muslim’s activities in this life so that on the one hand he/she would fulfil their obligations towards their God and on the other hand they would enjoy a good and healthy life with a promise of even better rewards in the Hereafter.
Qur’anic verses describing nature and natural phenomena outnumber verses dealing with commandments and sacraments. Some 750 verses, or one-eighth of the Book, exhort believers to reflect on nature, to study the relationship between living organisms and their environment, to make the best use of reason and to maintain the balance and proportion God has built into His creation.
The Qur’an and Sunna stipulate some principles that affect man’s attitude towards the environment. Fitra (initial state of creation), tawhid (Unity of God), khilafa (vicegerency), mizan (balance), and hikma (wisdom) are some important concepts that seem to lay the pathway for Muslims as they deal with their environments.
Fitra (The Creation) Principle
God created man as part of the primordial nature (fitra) of His creation [Qur’an 30:29]. Fitra is the intrinsic goodness in everything created by God. Man’s role is defined by that patterning . . . and the conscious expression of this rests with humankind.
Tawhid (The Unity of God) Principle
Muslims believe in one undividable God who has no partner nor does anyone or anything may resemble. Tawhid implies the unity and the equality of all God’s creation who should strive to mutually benefit one another. God considers every type of creation, particularly in the animal world, as nations much like human nations.
The Qur’an also emphasises the concept of the unity of God in many surahs (Qur’anic verses) indicating the supremacy of Almighty God over all of creation and that most creation willingly prostrate themselves to the will of God
Khilafa (The Responsibility) Principle
The Qur’an and the Sunna combine to remind mankind of their responsibilities towards maintaining and caring for the environment. God has created man to be His khalifa (vicegerent) on earth.
Such prerogative carries with it a heavy responsibility. Humans are “responsible for maintaining the unity of all God’s creation, the integrity of the earth, its flora and fauna, its wildlife and natural environment. As representatives of God on earth, Muslims should effectively preserve and care for the environment in order to protect God’s creation.
Mizan (The Balance) Principle
As God has created all things in quantified amounts, balance is required to maintain equity between species and their environments. The concept of balance draws the attention that moderation is required to maintain the balance in nature.
Violating the balance in nature has serious consequences. The destruction of the environment causes a severe imbalance in nature.
Hikma (The wisdom) Principle
“He giveth wisdom unto whom He will, and he unto whom wisdom is given, he truly hath received abundant good” [Qur’an 2: 269].
Undoubtedly wisdom is necessary for the right judgements to be passed so that future impacts of today’s decisions would perhaps be minimised.
The five main principles for humans to deal with their environments named above, Fitra, tawhid, khilafa, mizan and hikma represent the Qur’anic plan for the relation between man and the environment.
Each creation should be guaranteed respect and the right to live in security and dignity.
“Our God, the Creator, they said, is He Who gave form, shape and features to every entity. He created and vested each entity with its qualities and attributes which guide each creature to its inherent role in life” [Qur’an 20:50],
The Qur’an asserts the universality of creation that would place every creation as an important contributor into the overall functioning of life on earth as we know it. God determined that
“Everything, spiritual, animates and inanimate We create according to plan indicating the relations of objects to one another” [Qur’an 54:49].
The books of sirah are full of teachings pertaining to the good use of the environmental resources and other measures to help in maintaining the balance of nature. The Prophet advised his followers to restrict their consumption of the earth’s resources to their immediate needs without causing any waste. In a hadith the Prophet of Islam reprimanded one of his close Companions for using excessive amounts of water for their ablution.
Muslims should be thrifty in the use of the earth’s resources even if resources were abundant. The Muslim should consume enough amounts to meet his/ her needs and then think of ways to recourse the surplus to those in the world who may need it. The concern for a lot of other humans is so much ingrained into the Muslim’s psyche that the rewards for kind and charitable actions are highly rewarded by Almighty God in both this life and in the Hereafter.
In pursuit of conserving the environment, the Qur’an issues clear and unambiguous instructions dealing with the conservation of land animals. Almighty God has decreed in the Qur’an that “The calendar introduced by God . . . divides the year into twelve months, four of which are sacred” [Qur’an 9:36].
These four months were further elaborated in Suratul Ma’eda (The table).
“Nor are you permitted to engage in the chase (killing) of wild animals or game”, while you are on pilgrimage –major or minor- (in the sacred months). God ordains what He will” [Qur’an 5:1].
For four months every year (three of which are consecutive and one stands alone), Muslims are not permitted, by order of God, to hunt land game.
Such halt of killing the land game would allow the animals a chance to rejuvenate and multiply so that its numbers would not dwindle or even become instinct as the situation is today with so many species disappearing from the face of the earth after extensive harvesting by people.