Prophet Muhammad (peace upon him) is reported to have said, “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer; wherever he finds it, he claims it.” Perhaps this is the reason Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and climate change, Laudato Si’, has been so well received by our community. It is as if his wise leadership on this issue is helping to return a part of our lost heritage to us. As a community, we have long embraced ideas such as sustainability, viewing the earth as our common home, and seeing ourselves vouchsafed to protect, nurture, and beautify it. These are themes mentioned by the pope in his historic encyclical, and these are themes that inform the Islamic Climate Declaration, issued in August 2015.
These themes certainly resonate with Muslims. God has prepared the earth to be our home from the time Adam was sent to dwell herein (2:36). The Qur’an describes that preparation in the following moving words, “And the earth We spread out, and cast therein firm mountains, and We caused to grow therein all manner of things in due balance. And we placed therein means of livelihood for you and for those for whom you provide not. Naught is there, but that its treasuries lie with Us, and We did not send it down, save in a known measure. And We sent forth the winds, fertilizing. And We sent down water from the sky, providing you with sufficient drink thereby, and you are not the keepers of its stores” (15:19-22). The blessings mentioned here and the favors that flow from them make our life on this earth both possible and pleasurable.
These blessings allow us benefit in clear ways and they are the foundation of our physical existence. To allow them to be diminished, or possibly destroyed, threatens our physical existence. There is, however, a nonphysical level from which we can view these graces. To begin understanding that level, let us consider some basic Qur’anic teachings. God reminds us, “We did not create Heaven and Earth and whatsoever is between in play. We did not create them, save in truth” (44:38-39). We understand this verse to mean that this world was created for a definite purpose. One of those purposes, which is mentioned in another verse, is to glorify God. We read, “The seven heavens, and the earth, and whatsoever is in them glorify Him. There is nothing, save that it hymns His praise, though you do not understand their praise. Truly He is Clement, Forgiving” (17:44). Similarly, “Hast thou not considered that unto God prostrates whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is on the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the beasts, and many among humankind” (22:18).
Such proclamations from the Divine help shape a Weltanschauung that looks beyond physical systems and immediately perceptible biological functions. They create awareness of a creation that is spiritually alive and finds its highest expression in the worship and adoration of its Lord. It glorifies God and sings His praises, by night and day. Hence, when we pollute the air, defile the land, or poison the water, we tear asunder delicate ecosystems working in incredible harmony with each other. By so doing, we not only destroy our worldly home, we interrupt the great symphony of praise that its denizens are engaged in. We disrupt their worship.
The Qur’an also informs us that the creation embodies a delicate balance, which we are enjoined to maintain. We read, “The Merciful taught the Qur’an; created the human; taught him speech. The sun and the moon are upon a reckoned [course], and the stars and trees prostrate. Heaven He has raised and the balance He has set, that you transgress not in the balance. So weigh justly and fall not short in the balance. The earth He has laid down for all creatures. Therein are fruits and date palms bearing sheaths, husked grains and fragrant herbs. So which of the favors of your Lord do you deny?” (55:1-13). This set of verses calls our attention to the heavenly order and the amazing signs it displays of Divine wisdom. They then call us to turn our gaze to the lower, more accessible world immediately surrounding us and the great favors and blessings God has bestowed upon us therein. We are reminded, however, that the perpetuity of those graces lies in maintaining the balance that defines them.
Excess and waste disrupt that balance and therefore interrupt the aforementioned worship that qualifies the natural order. In that sense, they are demonic. That the Qur’an therefore declares, “Truly the wasteful are the brethren of satans, and Satan is ungrateful to his Lord” (17:27), should not come as a surprise to us. We are to use and enjoy the resources of the earth. God encourages us, “O Children of Adam! Put on your adornment at every place of worship, and eat and drink, but do not be prodigal. Truly He loves not the prodigal” (7:31). When, however, we squander and waste them through prodigious practices and lifestyles we are behaving in a demonic fashion, far removed from the godly spirit that should dominate our lives.
As Muslims, we believe that we have a responsibility to our earthy home, serving as God’s vicegerent on earth. What exactly is the role of that vicegerent? Many interpretations are mentioned, in response to the term, “Khalifah,” introduced in a verse that mentions Adam being sent down to dwell on earth (2:30). One of those interpretations is one who acts on behalf of God, having been duly deputized. One of the great responsibilities of this vicegerent is to preserve the order God has established in the earth. We humans are told, “And work not corruption on the earth after it has been set aright, but call upon Him in fear and hope. Surely the Mercy of God is ever nigh unto the virtuous” (7:56). The environmental implications of this verse are clearly stated in the following exegetical passage:
“Working corruption upon the earth” may also be understood as referring to human actions that pollute or destroy the natural environment. The human ability to “work corruption upon the earth is juxtaposed here with the earth’s having been set aright, that is, by God. God’s “setting aright” can thus mean His establishment, through the revelations and laws brought by His messengers, of a just and moral social order as well as his creating the harmony and balance that pervades the natural order. In light of mankind’s contemporary ability to corrupt the earth physically through environmentally destructive behavior, this verse might therefore also be taken to mean that human beings should not physically corrupt the earth after God has “set it aright” with regard to its beauty, its inherent balance and harmony, and its beneficence for mankind –all of which are alluded to in many places in the Qur’an. (Study Qur’an, 428)
Therefore, we can understand that among the greatest duties of God’s vicegerents is to preserve the beautiful, balanced, harmonious, and beneficent order God has established in the natural world. Doing so is not only necessary for the perpetuity of these great blessings; it is also the foundation of a just and moral social order. It is not accidental that the unprecedented ecological damage being done to this planet is accompanied by unprecedented levels of economic disparities. This situation not only fuels the unnatural and increasingly dangerous changes in the earth’s climate, it also fuels the growing political instability and the resultant wars, which pose a growing threat to our collective security.
As Muslims, as people of faith, we must stand up and take the lead in addressing the causes of climate change and the underlying environmental degradation that fosters it. Doing so will require a degree of environmental consciousness that is unprecedented both in its nature and scope. Creating that consciousness is a moral imperative, and it has always been the job of religion to provide the framework that supports society-wide higher morality and ethics. There are no substitute or alternative institutions capable of assuming this task. Hence, as people of faith, we will either rise to the challenge before us to provide moral leadership on this issue, or we will sit back as seemingly helpless spectators as the earth and human civilization as we have known them cease to exist. The choice is ours.
This essay appears in Creation at the Crossroads, a faith-sharing resource on Laudato Si'.