Islam Introduction

Religions of the World and Ecology Series

Islam and Ecology Volume

Richard Foltz, Frederick Denny, Azizan Baharuddin, eds.
Note: The Persian translation of Islam and Ecology is available through JDM Press


Richard Foltz


Islam is the religion of over one billion people—roughly one-sixth of humanity. One of the major “universal” faiths, it is practiced in virtually every country on earth. Though popular stereotypes often equate Islam with the Middle East and with the Arab world, it is important to note that some seventy-five percent of the world’s Muslims live further east, in Asia, with the largest concentration (over 350 million, about one-third of the total) in the countries of South Asia. Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India rank second, third and fourth in the world in terms of their total Muslim populations, while the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, lies even further east. Muslim minority communities exist in locations as diverse as Finland, Ecuador, and New Zealand. Most “Western” nations now have significant Muslim populations, and in the United States Islam is considered by many to be the fastest growing religion.

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a monotheistic faith based on a sacred scripture. While Muslims accept the other two “Abrahamic” religions as divinely inspired and authentic, they consider the revealed message of the Qur’an to supersede the Bible and the Torah. The Prophet of Islam, an Arab merchant of Mecca by the name of Muhammad (ca. 570–632 CE), is revered and honored by Muslims, but they do not consider him to be divine. Muhammad’s example, however, makes him a natural role model for Muslims; indeed, the Qur’an itself notes that “in the Messenger of God you have a beautiful example (uswa hasana)” (Qur’an 33:21). As such, the records of the Prophet’s words and deeds, which are preserved in a vast body of literature known as hadiths, supplement the Qur’an as a basis for helping Muslims understand the Islamic way of life (shari’a).

Although the overwhelming majority of Muslims today are not Arabs and do not live in the Middle East, the influence of Arab culture on the cosmopolitan tradition of Islam is undeniable. As a desert dweller Muhammad must have been sensitive to the delicate natural balance within which his people were able to survive. The Qur’an is replete with references to the precious resources of water, air, and land, and proscribes wastefulness. The hadiths likewise report Muhammad’s concern for the protection of natural resources and their equitable availability to all. Clearly, from its very origins fourteen centuries ago Islam offers a basis for ecological understanding and stewardship.

Yet the articulation of an Islamic environmental ethic in contemporary terms—recognizing the urgency of the global crisis now facing us all—is quite new. The first Muslim intellectual to do so was the American-trained Iranian Shi’ite philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a proponent of the philosophia perennis associated with Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, and Rene Guenon, in which timeless truths are seen as being expressed in a variety of historical cultural and philosophical traditions. Nasr’s environmentalist critique of Western modernity began with a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 1966, which were published the following year as Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man.1 Nasr has continued to explore the spiritual dimension of the environmental crisis over the past four decades through further articles, lectures, and his 1996 book Religion and the Order of Nature.2

The conference on Islam and ecology organized by John Grim, Fazlun Khalid, and Mary Evelyn Tucker and held at the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, 7–10 May 1998, was, so far as we know, the first of its kind. Subsequent conferences on Islam and the environment, organized not privately but by national governments, were held in Tehran, Iran, in 1999 and in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2000. Jeddah was also the site of the first Islamic Conference of Environment Ministers in June 2002. More such international gatherings will surely follow.

The present volume includes a number of papers presented at the Harvard conference on Islam and ecology, along with several that were not. Three previous books on the topic—Islam and the Environmental Crisis, by Akhtaruddin Ahmed (1997), Islam and the Environment, edited by Harfiyah Abdel Haleem (1998), and The Environmental Dimensions of Islam, by Mawil Izzi Dien (2000)—were directed mainly at a readership of practicing Muslims. A short, earlier collection (featuring several of the authors represented here) also entitled Islam and Ecology, edited by Fazlun Khalid and Joanne O’Brien (1992), was published as part of a series sponsored by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). The present work seeks a broader audience, both non-Muslim and Muslim, scholars and lay readers.

Indian sociologist Ramachandra Guha, in a 1989 essay, argued against a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of global environmental degradation.3 Speaking from the vantage point of a postcolonial, Guha eloquently pointed out that the approach to conservation seen in the West––and which tends to characterize international organizations such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)––is the product of a particular culture (mainly White North American) with its own historical processes, and it cannot therefore simply be exported and imposed on other societies with their very different historical experiences and cultural norms. The attempt to do so, Guha argued, more often than not results in “a direct transfer of resources from the poor to the rich.”4

No concern could better shed light on the very “un-Western” perspective of the Muslim contributors to this volume. It is a tragic reality that the poor suffer far more directly from environmental degradation than do the rich, who are better able to insulate themselves from its effects. And on a global scale, a disproportionate percentage of the world’s poor happen to be Muslim.

It is no accident, therefore, that for the most part our writers are more immediately concerned with issues of social justice and the human relationship with the Divine than they are with the state of the environment per se. Environmental problems exist, to be sure, but in the perspective of many Muslim thinkers, environmental degradation is merely a symptom of the broader (and, to a Muslim concerned not just with this world but also the next, more alarming) calamity that human societies are not living in accordance with God’s will. A just society, one in which humans relate to each other and to God as they should, will be one in which environmental problems simply will not exist.

The essays in the first section, “God, Humans, and Nature,” outline the Islamic view of the cosmic order. Abrahim Özdemir’s essay, focusing as it does on the Qur’an, is an appropriate introduction to the Islamic view of where humans belong in the hierarchy of being. Drawing on the approaches of commentaries both medieval and modern, Özdemir contends that a Muslim who correctly understands the relationship between the Creator, humans, and the rest of creation as stipulated in the Qur’an will see in it an environmental ethic. L. Clarke explores the cosmology found in the mystical poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273), one of the most influential and beloved of all the Sufi poets. In Rumi’s vision, the entire universe is alive; humans are but one part of the Divine Creation, all of which worships Allah. Saadia Khawar Khan Chishti’s essay offers an ecological commentary on the notion of fitra, understood as the primordial nature of things. Islam is described as the religion that expresses this fundamental reality. Chishti goes on to posit that the original nature of humans is to live in accordance with their environment; thus, environmental consciousness is something that needs not to be taught, but merely awakened.

The next section, “The Challenge of (Re)Interpretation,” brings the preceding overview of traditional paradigms into a contemporary context. The essays invite us to look at how the established Islamic worldview can be applied to the environmental problems of the present day. Seyyed Hossein Nasr discusses the many obstacles to practicing Islamic environmental ethics in the modern world, and goes on to suggest ways in which these obstacles might be overcome. Mawil Izzi Dien, who, following Nasr, has been one of the first Muslim intellectuals to make the environment a central concern, mentions the real-life crises of pollution, water scarcity, and other environmental issues facing Muslims today. Izzi Dien then shows how Islamic values can be directly applied to addressing these problems. S. Nomanul Haq examines the normative sources of Islam—the Qur’an, the hadiths, and classical Islamic law—in an attempt to “recover” how traditional Islam can guide contemporary Muslims in dealing with the environmental crisis. Haq suggests, however (subtly corroborating, perhaps, my comments above), that “a much wider net” will have to be cast if one is to explore the full range of Islam’s contribution to this problem. Abdul Aziz Said and Nathan C. Funk bring an ecological reading to the traditional Islamic concepts of unity (tawhid) and peace (salam), suggesting that environmental problems represent a lack of the latter resulting from a failure to acknowledge the former. Othman Abd-ar-Rahman Llewellyn provides a comprehensive overview of how traditional Islamic law addressed environmental management, then, noting that such laws are no longer practiced in much of the Muslim world, makes detailed suggestions as to how they might be reinterpreted and applied today. Next, in my own essay, I point the way from theory to practice, showing how Islamic principles are beginning to be applied to environmental protection at both the government and grassroots level in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I further suggest that since religious traditions are constantly being reinterpreted to meet present-day needs, it may matter less what Islam has said about the environment in the past than what it might say now. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi takes this notion a step further, arguing that while Islam does possess important resources for valuing the environment, Muslim thinkers will need to go further and reassess some basic assumptions if the tradition is to respond effectively to the current crisis.

The essays in the third section, “Environment and Social Justice,” focus on a theme that is seen by many as one of the central priorities of Islam. Fazlun M. Khalid finds the roots of the environmental crisis in Western modernity, which has been imposed on Muslim societies for the past several centuries. Yasin Dutton elaborates on certain features of the modern world—in particular, the interest-based global banking system—that he argues are un-Islamic. Dutton sees environmental problems as arising largely from illegitimate profit-seeking at the expense of human communities. Hashim Ismail Dockrat expands on Dutton’s critique by providing an outline for how a hypothetical modern Islamic system would differ from the model that currently exists. Nawal Ammar combines an ecofeminist critique with one based on Islamic social justice, arguing that environmental issues must be addressed within a broader context that includes women’s rights of equal access to both natural and social resources.

The fourth section, “Toward a Sustainable Society,” looks at real-life issues of development facing Muslims today, many of which have environmental implications. Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz begins with a short essay focusing on the Qur’anic concept of balance (mizan). He cites several contemporary examples to show how current models of development are violating this principle. Safei-Eldin A. Hamed looks at development in contemporary Muslim societies within the wider scope of existing development paradigms. Finding the idealism of some of the preceding writers “overly optimistic,” Hamed asks to what extent purely Islamic models can be put into actual practice. Nancy W. Jabbra and Joseph G. Jabbra present contrasting examples of family planning in Muslim societies, citing case studies from Egypt and Iran. Mohammad Yusuf Siddiq draws on the experience of Bangladesh, one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries and also one of the poorest, to argue that environmental protection cannot be separated from efforts to alleviate human poverty. Abu Bakar Abdul Majeed presents an overview of Malaysia’s current development platform, called Vision 2020. Although Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country with a number of recognized religions, Abdul Majeed sees the principles underlying Malaysia’s development program as being compatible with Islamic definitions of a just society. In the final essay, Tazim R. Kassam writes of the many development projects in Muslim communities supported by the Aga Khan Foundation.

The fifth and concluding section focuses on the Islamic garden as a metaphor for Paradise, a notion which features prominently in the Qur’an. Attilio Petruccioli discusses ways in which traditional Muslim societies have manifested their place within the natural order through architecture and the building of gardens. Using case studies from Algeria and from India, Petruccioli contrasts the Muslim view of human participation in natural space transformations with the modern Western notion of preserving “virgin” nature. James L. Wescoat, Jr., highlights the specific example of the royal gardens built under the Mughal emperors in Lahore (now Pakistan) during the seventeenth century. Finally, Farzaneh Milani looks at the garden metaphor in the modern feminist poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad.

The attempt by Muslims (and those who study them) to discover what the tradition has to say about the global environmental crisis today has only recently begun, and this volume is fortunate to include many of the voices which have been prominent in this endeavor. We will surely hear many more such voices in the years to come.


1 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, rev. ed. (1967; Chicago: Kazi Publishers, 1997).
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2 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). See also idem, “Islam and the Environmental Crisis,” in Spirit and Nature, ed. Steven C. Rockefeller and John C. Elder (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 83–108; “The Ecological Problem in Light of Sufism: The Conquest of Nature and the Teachings of Eastern Science,” in Sufi Essays, 2d ed. (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1991), 152–63; “Islam and the Environmental Crisis,” Islamic Quarterly 34, no. 4 (1991): 217–34; “Islam and the Environmental Crisis,” MAAS Journal of Islamic Science 6, no. 2 (1990): 31–51.
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3 Ramachandra Guha, “Radical Environmentalism: A Third World Critique,” Environmental Ethics 11, no. 1 (1989): 71–83.
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4 Ibid., 75. One of Guha’s more striking examples is of Indian peasants being removed from their ancestral lands to create park preserves for tigers and other such “charismatic megafauna” that attract wealthy tourists.
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    Copyright © 2003 Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.
Reprinted with permission.



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