By Francesca De Chatel*
There is no one among the believers who plants a tree, or sows a seed, and then a bird, or a person, or an animal eats thereof, but it is regarded as having given a charitable gift [for which there is great recompense]. (Hadith)
The idea of Muhammad as a pioneer of environmentalism will initially strike many as strange. Indeed, the term “environmentalist” and related concepts like “ecology,” “environmental awareness,” and “sustainability” are modern-day inventions, terms that were formulated in the face of the growing concerns about the contemporary state of the natural world around us.
And yet a closer reading of the hadith, the body of work that recounts significant events in Muhammad’s life, reveals that he was a staunch advocate of environmental protection. One could say he was an “environmentalist before his time,” a pioneer in the domain of conservation, sustainable development, and resource management, and one who constantly sought to maintain a harmonious balance between man and nature. Based pm accounts of his life and deeds, we can read that Muhammad had a profound respect for the fauna and flora, as well as an almost visceral connection to the four elements — earth, water, fire, and air.
Muhammad was a strong proponent of the sustainable use and cultivation of land and water, proper treatment of animals, plants and birds, and the equal rights of users. In this context, the modernity of Muhammad’s view of the environment and the concepts he introduced to his followers is particularly striking; certain passages of the hadith could easily be mistaken for discussions about contemporary environmental issues.
Muhammad’s environmental philosophy is first of all holistic — it assumes a fundamental link and interdependency between all natural elements and bases its teachings on the premise that if man abuses or exhausts one element, the natural world as a whole will suffer direct consequences. This belief is nowhere formulated in one concise phrase; it is rather an underlying principle that forms the foundation of all Muhammad’s actions and words, a life philosophy that defined him as a person.
The three most important principles of Muhammad’s philosophy of nature are based on the Quranic teachings and the concepts of the oneness of Allah (God), vicegerency, and trust.
The oneness of Allah is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith. It recognizes the fact that there is one absolute Creator and that humans are responsible to Him for all his actions:
To Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth, for Allah encompasses everything. (Quran 4:126)
Muhammad acknowledges that Allah’s knowledge and power covers everything. Therefore abusing one of his creations, whether it is a living being or a natural resource, is a sin. Muhammad considered all of Allah’s creations to be equal before Allah and he believed animals, but also land, forests, and watercourses should have rights.
The concepts of vicegerency and trust emerge from the principle of the oneness of Allah. The Quran explains that humankind holds a privileged position among Allah’s creations on earth — man was chosen to be vicegerents and to carry the responsibility of caring for Allah’s earthly creations. Each individual is given this task and privilege in the form of Allah’s trust. But the Quran repeatedly warns believers against arrogance saying that they are no better than other creatures:
No creature is there on earth nor a bird flying with its wings but they are nations like you. (Quran 6:38)
Surely the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of man; but most people know not.” (Quran 40:57)
Muhammad believed that the universe and the creations in it — animals, plants, water, land — were not created for humankind. Humans are allowed to use the resources, but they can never own them. Thus, while Islam allows land ownership, it has limitations — owners can, for example, only own land if they uses it, once they cease using it, they have to part with their possession.
Muhammad recognized man’s responsibility to Allah but always maintained humility. Thus, he said:
When doomsday comes, if someone has a palm shoot in his hand , he should plant it.
Here, he was suggesting that even when all hope is lost for humankind, one should sustain nature’s growth. He believed that nature remains a good in itself, even if humans do not benefit from it.
Similarly, Muhammad incited believers to share the earth’s resources. He said:
Muslims share alike in three things — water, herbage, and fire,”
He also considered it a sin to withhold water from the thirsty:
No one can refuse surplus water without sinning against Allah and against man.
Muhammad’s attitude towards sustainable use of land, conservation of water, and the treatment of animals is a further illustration of the humility of his environmental philosophy.
Sustainable Use of Land
The earth has been made for me as a mosque and as a means of purification.
With these words, Muhammad emphasized the sacred nature of earth or soil, not only as a pure entity, but also as a purifying agent. This reverence towards soil is also demonstrated in the ritual of performing dry ritual ablutions which permits the use of dust in the performance of ritual purification before prayer when water is not available.
Muhammad saw earth as subservient to man, but he also recognised that it should not be overexploited or abused, and that it had rights just like the trees and wildlife living on it. In order to protect land, forests, and wildlife, Muhammad created inviolable zones known as protected and forbidden zones, in which resources were to be left untouched. Both are still in use today — forbidden areas are often drawn up around wells and water sources to protect the groundwater table from being over-pumped. Protected zones apply particularly to wildlife and forestry and usually designates an area of land where grazing and woodcutting are restricted, or where certain animal species are protected.
Muhammad not only encouraged the sustainable use of fertile lands, but he also told his followers of the benefits of making unused land productive — planting a tree, sowing a seed, and irrigating dry land were all regarded as charitable deeds.
Whoever brings dead land to life, that is, cultivates wasteland, for him is a reward therein.
Thus, any person who irrigates a plot of “dead” or desert land becomes its rightful owner.
Conservation of Water
In the harsh desert environment where Muhammad lived, water was synonymous to life. Water was a gift from Allah, the source of all life on earth as is testified in the Quran:
We made from water every living thing. (Quran 21:30)
The Quran constantly reminds believers that they are but the guardians of Allah’s creation on earth and that they should never take this creation for granted:
Consider the water which you drink. Was it you that brought it down from the rain cloud or We? If We had pleased, We could make it bitter. (Quran 56:68-70)
Saving water and safeguarding its purity were two important issues for Muhammad — we have seen that his concern about the sustainable use of water led to the creation of forbidden zones in the vicinity of water sources. But even when water was abundant, he advocated thriftiness. He recommended that believers perform ritual ablutions no more than three times, even if they were near to a flowing spring or river. The hadith collector Al-Bukhari added:
The men of science disapprove of exaggeration and also of exceeding the number of ablutions prescribed by Muhammad.
Muhammad also warned against water pollution by forbidding urination in stagnant water.
The Treatment of Animals
If anyone wrongfully kills even a sparrow, let alone anything greater, he will face Allah’s interrogation.
These words reflect the great reverence, respect, and love that Muhammad showed towards animals. He believed that as part of Allah’s creation, animals should be treated with dignity, and the hadith contains a large collection of traditions, admonitions, and stories about his relationship to animals. Some stories showed that he had particular consideration for horses and camels — in his eyes they were valiant companions during journey and battle, and he found great solace and wisdom in their presence as the following tradition reveals:
In the forehead of horses are tied up welfare and bliss until the Day of Resurrection.
Even regarding the slaughter of animals, Muhammad showed great gentleness and sensitivity. While he did not practice vegetarianism, the hadiths clearly show that Muhammad was extremely sensitive to the suffering of animals, almost as though he shared their pain viscerally. Thus he recommends using sharp knives and a responsible method so that animals will die a quick death with as little pain as possible. He also warned against slaughtering an animal in the presence of other animals, or letting the animal witness the sharpening of blades — to him that was equal to “slaughtering the animal twice” and he emphatically condemned such practices as “abominable.”
It is impossible to do justice to the full scope and significance of Muhammad’s environmental philosophy in this short article. His holistic view of nature and his understanding of man’s place within the natural world pioneered environmental awareness within the Muslim community.
Sadly, the harmony that Muhammad advocated between man and his environment has today all too often been lost. As we face the effects of pollution, overexploitation, desertification, and water scarcity in some parts of the world and floods and violent storms elsewhere, it is perhaps time for the world community as a whole, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics to take a leaf out of Muhammad’s book and address the current environmental crisis seriously and wisely.