"If we don’t pull together to save the earth, we will ‘sink’ together"
What do you think about the Fridays for Future global climate strikes?
I am heartened by the youth movement. After all, in order to save the natural world we need nothing short of a giant transformation in the way we think and live. This cannot be achieved without the energy of the young. Now is a crucial time. We have the technology to harness solar, wind and geothermal energy that – with bold political initiatives and financial support – can replace fossil fuels as the source of global energy demand.
Nevertheless, an excess of greenhouse gases is not the only problem that is threatening the environment. We are polluting the land, water and air in numerous other ways, which cannot be reversed with technology alone. We are rapidly depleting the underground freshwater supply, causing loss of biodiversity on land and in water at an extremely alarming rate. What is more, we are making large tracts of fertile land uncultivable through industrial agricultural practices, which in turn are poisoning our bodies and altering our minds with antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides.
Why has the Islamic world participated so little in environmental movements to date?
The Islamic world has been too preoccupied with issues stemming from a need to adjust to social, political, economic, cultural, and military agendas set by the West globally over the last two hundred years. That is also why the Hindu and the Buddhist world have not been as active as the West. Nevertheless, most Muslims are themselves at fault for not knowing what their tradition teaches about nature.
Furthermore, the environmental crisis became ‘visible’ in the West first. After all, industrialisation and modern capitalism began and spread in the West long before they took hold to the same extent elsewhere. As a result, there is an erroneous tendency in the Muslim world to think that just because the environmental crisis began in the West; it is the West’s responsibility to fix it. Muslims must remember that all of humanity is in the same boat – this earth. If we don’t pull together to save it, we will ‘sink’ together. Muslims are called upon to do their part.
Can you name examples of distinct Muslim environmentalism?
Yes, there are many examples of grassroots level environmentalism in Muslim countries, such as the story of a simple faithful rickshaw puller in a small town in Bangladesh. But if you are asking about environmental activists in the modern sense, the first example that comes to mind is Fazlun Khalid, founder of IFEES (Islamic Foundation For Ecology And Environmental Sciences), an institute that has run several successful environmental projects in Asia and Africa. Or the Islamic eco-schools in Indonesia, for instance.
What does Islam tell us about humanity’s relationship with the environment?
The Koran tells us that every entity in nature is a sign of God; every species is a community like us. In fact, every entity (except the human) is ceaselessly praising God, and everything was created in a balance that human beings must not upset. Human beings are created as God’s representatives on earth, charged with the responsibility of taking care of the planet.
Being God’s representatives does not give us free rein to exploit the earth, because its gifts, as the Koran tells us, are to be shared by all living creatures. Most importantly, tawhid (Divine Unity), the most important foundational principle of Islam, implies that God/Truth/Reality (al-Haqq) is One (al-Ahad; al-Wahid). As such we are all in God and are intimately related to all other living things. What we do to the least of God’s creation, we do to ourselves.
If you could point to one thing that is missing in the current popular debate on climate change, what would that be?
The current debate focuses almost exclusively on the need to abandon fossil fuels. It rarely ever questions the prevalent materialistic values that drive consumerism across the world. It fails to see that while modern science is good at monitoring developments is and thus able to tell us much about what is wrong outwardly, the benefits of modern science and its purely materialistic world view has misled our souls. Science is at the root of a value system and economic system that has generated the environmental crisis in the first place.
Most environmental voices today operate within that very scientific and secular framework. Can we save the earth without God?
From the Islamic point of view, the loss of the sacred vision of nature is the deepest cause of the environmental crisis. Many Christian saints in the Middle Ages also spoke of nature in similar terms as the Koran. After the advent of modern science in the 17th century, Europe gradually rejected its traditional Christian reverence for nature in favour of the purely materialistic view of nature as portrayed by modern science.
We must understand that how we view something largely determines how we interact with it. This shift in world view from a sacred to a purely material one is at the root of modern capitalism and the Industrial Revolution that took off in the second half of the 18th century.
If we try to escape the impending environmental chaos within decades by purely secular solutions, without reviving a sacred view of nature, we will only delay the disasters. Without applying ourselves far more to the path of God or Highest Reality, we will not regain sufficient control of the flame of greed fanned for over 200 years to spare the world from wanton exploitation. The environmental crisis is not a product of faith, but rather the product of our unbridled greed in ignorance of the Divine. This is the first time in human history that we have faced a global environmental crisis – this secular age, characterised by everyone feeling they can do what they like with nature.
What role can Islam play in changing people's attitudes towards the environment?
In Islam human duty towards nature is explicit in its holy scripture, the Koran, and in the sayings and examples set by the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims need to wake up and realise how grave the current environmental crisis is. They need to rediscover how the Koran and the Prophet want us to treat nature. Those who call themselves Muslims must take heed and act accordingly, with kindness to the earth: “The servants of the Compassionate are they who walk upon the earth humbly, and when the foolish address them, they say ‘Peace!’” (25:63). Muslims are called upon to set an example of kindness to nature for others to follow.
A Bangladeshi by origin, how do you see the future of your home country in the face of the impending environmental threat?
The situation in Bangladesh is extremely bad, fundamentally for the same reason that it is bad in most other developing countries, Muslim or otherwise. Bangladesh, like all ‘developing’ nations, is trying to catch-up with that model of development which has been successfully advertised globally by the West.
However, many non-Muslim countries that are doing more in terms of projects to reduce carbon emissions or by recycling are also burning more fossil fuel and producing more goods that go on to pollute the earth. For instance, Bangladesh’s carbon footprint would pale in comparison to that of England, France, Germany or Japan, though it has a much bigger population. Nevertheless, Bangladeshis must realise that their current course of ‘development’ is seriously jeopardising the lives of their children now and those of future generations.
Every nation needs to question what it means to be truly ‘developed’. People need to take bold action and set examples for others. They need to harness the power of schools, media, and the mosques for regular discussions about the causes and consequences of the environmental crisis.
© Qantara.de 2019
Tarik Quadir is an assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy at Necmettin Erbakan University in Konya, Turkey. He is the author of “Traditional Islamic Environmentalism: The Vision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr”.