International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust

edited by Richard C. Foltz , Frederick M. Denny , Azizan Baharuddin

Introductory Essay by Brian Heap

In a watershed moment, the 1998 conference that this book grew out of gathered for the first time Islamic scholars and practitioners from Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America to consider ecological questions. This needful and timely volume consists of 23 papers, a helpful glossary of Arabic terms, and a bibliography on Islam and Ecology. Islam, as a monotheistic faith based on revealed scripture partly shared with Christianity and Judaism, has a message which claims to supersede the Bible and the Torah and therefore its elucidation of environmental issues will be of wide interest. Commentaries on all three Abrahamic religions are a reminder of the late arrival of modern environmental challenges and, in the case of Islam, speak to a religious community of over a billion Muslims, of whom 75% are not Arab.

The volume has five sections – God humans and nature; The Challenge of (Re)Interpretation; Environment and Social Justice; Towards a Sustainable Society; and the Islamic Garden as a Metaphor for Paradise. The current environmental crisis is undoubtedly ethical and spiritual, and in common with other theologies, numerous Islamic thinkers see the need to re-orientate sustainable practices and long-term environmental commitments in creative ways.  Views of nature are fundamental to this exercise whether the emphasis is on the covenantal (Hebrew Bible), sacramental and incarnational (Christianity), or the vice-regency concept (Qur’an). The latter refers to humans as vice-regents of Allah and brings with it particular privileges, responsibilities, and obligations. This concept can be seen not only to map on to that of ‘stewardship’ but also to point up the dangers of social injustice and environmental problems that arise when either is not attended to.

A disproportionate percentage of the world’s poor happen to be Muslim, and it is the poor who suffer more than the rich from environmental degradation. Featured strongly in this volume, therefore, are issues of social justice and the Islamic view of human relationships with the Creator and the rest of creation. They are reflected in chapters on mystical poetry, and the after-life (though idealism is contested by some as overly optimistic). They are debated by those who seek to recover traditional Islamic values, examine the role of Islamic law, or explore the full range of Islam’s contributions in light of real-life crises such as pollution, water scarcity and resource depletion.

The roots of the global environmental crisis are identified in Western modernity by several contributors - the un-Islamic interest-based global banking system, illegitimate profit-seeking at the expense of human communities, denial of women’s equal access to both natural and social resources, and over-exploitation of natural resources leading to the lack of ecological balance. There is much in these chapters for the reader to examine critically because of a perceived lack of exposure to the sophistication of modern ethical analysis. For example, the assertions that ‘creation cannot be changed’ and that ‘creations are perfect and flawless’ fit uncomfortably not only with other scriptures but with modern insights, scientific and otherwise. However, it is refreshing to read of the enlightened view about family planning and its great and exemplary success in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the recommendations about the importance of expanding libraries in mosques with books on environmental issues in the local vernacular.