Those who care about the environment in the MENA region feel there is a great disconnection between global environmental discussions and local political realities in the Arab world. The attention is understandably more focused on the rise of Islamism and the fall of economic growth than on the melting of the Artic or the extinction of the last Galapagos turtle (RIP George).
However, this hiatus is not a fatality and we would like to argue that a post-revolutionary Arab world where Islam plays a bigger role has a great potential and the duty to contribute to a more Sustainable Development.
The MENA region represents a remarkably small share of global trade (3%) while national growth rates are currently way under their economic potential. The good news is that it means there is potentially an important “catch up” effect ahead of us. Obviously, the state of our planet would rather see the Arab economic awakening taking a greener path than previous catching up countries (i.e. the emerging economies).
Throughout our research, we found out that Islam actually lays the foundation of a deep and refined environmental ethics. The revival of this genuine sense of environmental responsibility could, if coupled with innovative policy framework, bring about positive culturally-rooted changes in the way the region deals with its natural resources.
Islam regulates not only relations between individuals and between individuals and the state; it also regulates relations between Man and Nature. It provides key principles for the respect of nature (i) as well as a detailed body of jurisprudence and historical institutions (ii) to ensure effective enforcement.
Principles enshrined in the Quran and the life of the Prophet
1- The Principle of Unity (Tawhid)
“What is in the heavens and the earth belongs to Allah. Allah encompasses everything” (4: 125)
The principle of unity precludes any separation between mankind and nature. The world is a result of the will of Allah who created everything with a precise purpose and a general sense of balance: “The sun and the moon both run with precision. The stars and the trees all bow down in prostration. He erected heaven and established the balance” (55:1 – 5).
Beyond its specific function or use, every element of the creation has a potential for goodness, participates to the praise of Allah and carries within signs of the divine that “men who hear” are to decipher.
As such, nature enjoys in the Muslim’s eye a tremendous dignity (Faruqi).
2- The Stewardship (Khilafa) and the Principle of Responsibility (Akhirah)
Man was the only creature to accept Allah’s trust as a custodian of the Creation.
Interestingly enough, man was neither the only nor the first candidate: Allah asked first the heavens, the earth and then the mountains that all prudently refused, “being afraid thereof’. They seemed to be deeply aware of the heavy moral burden this implied towards Allah.
Man thus became the khalifa of the Creation with the extended rights and duties attached to such a mission – and the freedom not to comply with it.
It is explicitly said, man was entrusted the world as a test: “He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you” (5:48)”. He will be accountable for his deeds on Judgment Day.
The Quran also underlines other general principles that have direct implications with the way man should deal with environment. First, the motive force in Islamic ethics is the notion that every human being is called to “command the good and forbid the evil” in all spheres of life. Second, the principle of moderation highlighted many times in the Quran commands the following: “Eat and drink, but waste not by excess; Truly He loves not the excessive”.
3- Teachings of the Prophet
Throughout his life, the Prophet displayed a great sense of respect and compassion for nature and living creatures.
Water has in Islam a double function, religious – for purification purposes – and vital as the source of life. The Prophet’s life unfolded in the Arabic peninsula where water was scarce. He advocated for the protection of water resources and recommended that believers perform their religious ablutions without wasting water. What’s remarkable is that the Prophet recommended thriftiness even when close to a flowing spring or river, implying that the value of water is not based on its usefulness or scarcity but is actually intrinsic. He also prohibited polluting by urinating in standing water.
“Whosoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit is rewarded” as a deed of charity. Even on Judgment Day, Man should not refrain from planting a tree: it is never too late for good deeds and planting a tree is valuable in itself, beyond the use of its fruits.
The Prophet recounted two meaningful cases: a cruel woman was punished by God for starving to death her cat while a prostitute went straight to paradise for giving water to a dog about to die of thirst. Asked whether there is a reward for mankind in serving animals, god answered “yes, there is a reward for serving any animate being”.
Cruelty against animals is clearly prohibited and compassion and kindness towards them is rewarded, hence the detailed technical prescriptions to avoid physical as well as psychological suffering during the Islamic slaughter of the sheep (the knife must be sharp enough, the animal must not see it, and other animals should not witness the slaughter…). Even the lives of insects such as spiders, bees and ants are valued in different Quran Surahs. Also, the Quran prohibits hunting during four months of the Islamic calendar. Based on these texts, Islam ended up developing and codifying what can be called animal’s rights.
In Mecca and Medina, the sacred cities, cutting trees, killing animals and shedding blood in general are strictly forbidden.
Jurisprudence and institutions related to the protection of the environment
The Sharia, the Islamic law, developed over the past 14 centuries a rich and complex body of rules dealing with concrete aspects of land property, water, natural resource and waste management. We will limit ourselves to a brief summary of the elements most directly related to environment in terms of principles and institutions.
1- The Principles
Most of the general principles of Islamic jurisprudence are well suited to the realm of environment protection. This is particularly the case with property rights and the principle of responsibility.
In Islam, the concept of property is limited by many religious and social boundaries: first, the earth has been entrusted temporarily to men who can enjoy its usufruct, but Allah remains the ultimate owner of everything. Second, the abuses of rights are prohibited; third the collective interest must prevail over individual property rights in certain specific cases (regulation of scarce resources, collective property areas around the cities).
The rich tradition of Islamic ruling regarding the notion of responsibility offers a comprehensive set of concepts that correspond mutatis mutandis to most of the modern rules of environmental law.
For instance, the Polluter Pays Principle can be linked to the general principle that anyone causing damage to a resource should pay for the prejudice he caused to the community.
Some argue that the precautionary principle already lies in the Islamic principle “relieving hardship takes precedence over promoting benefit”.
Finally, the concept of responsibility without fault, key notion in the field of pollution regulation for instance, is also present in the early stages of Islamic law.
2- The institutions
The Islamic nations developed over time traditions and institutions to protect the environment, prevent its degradation through sanctions and, most interestingly, create incentives to promote its fructification.
Different categories of natural reserves were established to protect certain sensitive areas: sacred zones around the Mecca and Medina, inviolable sanctuaries (al-harim) near water sources, protected natural areas where private exploitation was limited for the better interest of the community.
Traditionally, those who revive an abandoned land are rewarded with the right to own it: this creates a strong incentive to not only prevent destruction but to regenerate life itself, a concept environmentalists have been very recently promoting.
Finally, Islam encourages charitable donations. Among the different possibilities is a quite interesting model suggested by the Prophet to the Calipha Umar Ibn al-Khattab: an acquired fertile land can be made into a charitable foundation that would distribute its usufructs to the most vulnerable members of the community.
To enforce the principles of Islam in the medieval everyday life, a civic authority was established, the “hisbah” which was headed by a recognized expert in Islamic law, the Muhtassib.
This civic institution acted as a real “public regulation agency”, ensuring the application of different rules in the fields of trade, contract, hygiene and environment. This respected public figure had a wide array of powers, ranging from the control and onsite inspections of markets, farms, protected reserves, to the determination of individual sanctions and fines. Similar to our modern independent regulation agencies, the Muhtassib would cumulate the powers to supervise, judge and enforce the Law.
This article is but a brief overview of the richness and depth of the connections between Islam and environment at all levels, spiritual, legal, and institutional. Many recognized Clerics, research institutions and environmental organizations have been exploring this field for the past 30 years. Meanwhile, a vibrant community of grassroots Muslims concerned with the future of our planet has been flourishing. The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES) is only one of them; many others have seen the light in the industrialized world as well as in the developing countries, mostly in Asia.
Islam managed to craft over time a delicate balance between individual property and public good, conservation of natural reserves and development of the economic potential of natural resources, individual initiatives and solidarity with the poor. It has thus major assets to propose sustainable solutions for the development of the region.
A promising field of applied research lies ahead of us as we need to come up with new models that would leverage “the intimate relation between the efficiency of the law and the depth of its cultural roots” (A.A. Bagader). We believe our efforts should be three-folded: 1/reviving the sense of environmental responsibility in the Arab public opinions while at the same time 2/proposing new mechanisms to channel Islamic finance towards more sustainable investments and 3/ exploring the job creation opportunities a greener economy would bring to the MENA region.
 David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 1821
One might conversely wonder what destroying a forest amounts to.
Quoted by Dr. Bagader as an authentic Hadith by Al-Bukhari.
Environmental protection in Islam / Abubakr Ahmed Bagader … [et al.], UICN environment policy and law paper
Islamic Foundation for Science and the Environment (New Delhi, India), Heritage Trust (Penang, Malaysia)