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Ibrahim ÖZDEMIR, Ph.D

The challenge of environmental crisis caused a response in the mainstream of the world religions to construct an environmental ethics, based on religious values. As a result of this awareness, studies about the religious and sacred aspects of nature and its relevance for environmental ethics increased in recent decades. Accordingly, a lively interest in the Eastern, Indian and Far Eastern religious traditions and cultures also has been observed in the recent literature on the subject.  [1] These and other relevant views which try to develop an environmental ethics on somehow religious foundations regarded as eco-theology as well as ecosophy.  [2]

Here, the Islamic view of nature and its relevance for an environmental ethics will be discussed. The Islamic understanding of the natural environment, including other things which may be called Islamic, has its roots in the Qur'an, the very word of God, the central teophany of Islam.  [3]

Therefore, the Qur’an has always influenced and still influences our view of the place we occupy within the ecosystem. For the main purpose of the Qur’an, according to M. Iqbal is "to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his manifold relations with God and universe".{NOTE4}[4]{/NOTE4} The Quranic perspective of environment and of man-nature relationship has been studied in recent decades by Muslim scholars.  [5] Nevertheless, I will restrict myself here to a few notes on some important passages of the Qur’an about nature and the place of human beings within it, and then point out the implication of this understanding for the possibility of developing an environmental ethics within an Islamic context. When the Qur’an is carefully studied from an ecological point of view, the following points may be observed. First of all, the Qur’an regards not only nature but all universe as the creatures of God, while the former being regarded as the prime miracle of God. Therefore, nature has a metaphysical significance on the one hand, and an order which maintains in itself on the other. Nature, according to the Qur’anic perspective, may also point to what is beyond itself; in this sense, the role of nature is similar to that of a mirror which reflects the power, beauty and wisdom of its Creator.

Therefore, according to the Qur’an everything in the natural world is a sign (aya) of God and as such it is continuously praising Him. In short, the natural world as presented and described by the Qur’an, as will be mentioned below, is a living, holistic, orderly and perfect world, populated by angels, jinn, human beings and animals. Above all, the universe, with all its causal processes, is the prime sign (aya) and proof of its Maker.  [6]

So, when we look at the Qur’an’s general attitude towards the universe, natural resources, and the relation between human beings and nature we find out that: The main purpose of human beings is nothing else but to serve God, to be grateful to Him, and to worship Him alone. Nature exists for human beings to use it and benefit from it for their own ends. The utility, serviceability, and exploitibility of nature by human beings are spoken of in numerous verses. However, human beings are invited to use this opportunity for the good and not to "corrupt the earth" [fasad fi’l-ard], a phrase often repeated in the Qur’an.  [7]

Thus, when we look at the natural world, animate- inanimate, we see that even rocks and mountains have given special roles and responsibilities according to the Qur’an. The creation of the universe, however, was a serious affair, not a sport or a fancy. According to Rahman, for example, nature is regarded as the grand handiwork of the Almighty, but it does not exist just to show off His might and power. It is to serve human beings by meeting their vital needs.  [8]

As this point is very important with regard to human being-nature relationship, it deserves further elaboration. Although human beings are at the top of the great chain of being, they are not the owner of nature, for the sole aim of nature is not only for human beings and their ends. Muslims deduce from the above-mentioned Qur’anic principles that "although the various components of the natural environment serve humanity as one of their functions, this does not imply that human use is the sole reason for their creation."  [9] Both some classical and contemporary Muslim scholars have interesting views on this matter. Ibn Taymiyah, a classical example of this understanding, when commenting on those verses of the Qur’an which state that God has created the various parts of the natural environment to serve humanity, underlines this point:

In considering all these verses it must be remembered that Allah in His wisdom created these creatures for reasons other than serving man, because in these verses He explains only the benefits of these creatures [to man]. [10]

Said Nursi, a contemporary Muslim scholar, [11] on the other hand, draws a parallel conclusions from the Qur’an and argues that the wisdom in the existence of all things, and the aims of their natures, the benefits in their creation, and the results of their coming to being are of three sorts:

The first looks to each thing itself and to man and his affairs.

The second is more important; it is to set forth for innumerable readers the meanings of all things, each of which is like a sign, a missive, a book, an ode of conscious being to study, a sign making known the manifestation of the Glorious Creator’s Names.

The third concerns the Glorious Maker and looks to Him. While the benefits and results of everything that look to the things themselves are one, those looking to the Glorious Maker are myriad. [12]

Here, in order to show this intrinsic and metaphysical dimension of natural world as created by God in due proportion and measure -both quantitatively and qualitatively- we shall cite some verses from the Qur’an, according to which everything celebrates and declares His praise. These verses also show the way the Qur’an sees the whole universe:

We created not the heavens, the earth, and all between them, merely in (idle) sport. We created them not except for just ends: But most of them do not understand.  [13]

Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah sends down from the skies and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth; (here) indeed are signs for a people that are wise. [14]    

He has created the heavens and the earth for just ends: far is He above having the partners they ascribe to Him!

He has created man from a sperm drop; and behold this same (man) becomes an open disputer!

And cattle He has created for you (men): from them ye derive warmth and numerous benefits and of their (meat) ye eat.

And ye have a sense of pride and beauty in them as ye drive them home in the evening and as ye lead them forth to pasture in the morning.

And they carry your heavy loads to lands that ye could not (otherwise) reach except with souls distressed: for your Lord is indeed Most Kind Most Merciful.

And (He has created) horses mules and donkeys for you to ride and use for show; and He has created (other) things of what ye have no knowledge.

And unto Allah leads straight the Way but there are ways that turn aside: if Allah had willed He could have guided all of you.

It is He Who sends down rain from the sky: from it ye drink and out of it (grows) the vegetation on which ye feed your cattle.

With it He produces for you corn olives date-palms grapes and every kind of fruit: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought.

He has made subject to you the Night and the Day; the Sun and the Moon; and the Stars are in subjection by His Command: verily in this are Signs for men who are wise.

And the things on this earth which He has multiplied in varying colors (and qualities): verily in this is a Sign for men who celebrate the praises of Allah (in gratitude).

It is He Who has made the sea subject that ye may eat thereof flesh that is fresh and tender and that ye may extract therefrom ornaments to wear; and thou seest the ships therein that plough the waves that ye may seek (thus) of the bounty of Allah and that ye may be grateful.

And He has set up on the earth mountains standing firm lest it should shake with you; and rivers and roads; that ye may guide yourselves;

And marks and signposts; and by the stars (men) guide themselves.

Is then He Who creates like one that creates not? Will ye not receive admonition?

If ye would count up the favors of Allah never would ye be able to number them: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most . [15]

The seven heavens and the earth, and all beings therein, declare His glory: There is not a thing but celebrates His praise; and yet ye understand not how they declare His glory! Verily He is Oft-Forbearing, Most Forgiving.  [16]

Here, another important Qur’anic notion to be noted about the universe is that "everything was created by measure" and therefore is "dependent upon God, and whenever a creature claims self-sufficiency or independence (istisqhna’, istikbar), it thus claims infinitude and share in divinity (shirk). When God creates anything, He places within it its powers or laws of behavior, called in the Qur’an "guidance", "command", or "measure" whereby it fits into the rest of the universe:

He gave everything its creation and then guided [it,] [17]

He who created [things and (created them) well, and who measured [them] out and thus guided [them]. [18]

Lo, to Him belong both creation and commanding. [19]

Indeed, We have created everything with a measure. [20]

Moreover the Qur’an speaks frequently of the perfect order in the universe as proof not only God’s existence but also of His unity. That is known as the "cosmological evidence of God’s existence" in the philosophy of kalam. [21] According to Iqbal, " no doubt, the immediate purpose of the Qur’an in this reflective observation of nature is to awaken in man the consciousness of that of which nature is regarded a symbol." [22] Above all, the Qur’an regards the whole universe as Muslim because everything therein (except man, who may or may not become Muslim) has surrendered itself to God’s will. [23]

According to the Qur’an, even stones can serve to express the aspects of Divine Wrath. Moreover, when the Qur’an refers to the "stoning" of disobedient people, employs an allegorical language, which implies some moral principles and lessons to be taken from the natural world in general, and from the stones in particular:

Thenceforth were your hearts hardened: they became like a rock and even worse in hardness. For among rocks there are some form which rivers gush forth; others there are which when split asunder send forth water; and others which sink for fear of God. And God is not unmindful of what ye do. [24]

As is seen, the Quranic approach to nature and rocks is always note-worthy. One may even ask, "what is the significance of discussing and explaining certain natural states of rocks which are commonplace and everyone knows about as though they were the most important and significant matters? A contemporary Muslim scholar points out and reminds that the Qur’an is also a book of guidance for both educated and ordinary people. Therefore, it employs a simple and somehow concrete language to guide people to the universal truths and profound and general principles. [25] According to Nursi, the main purpose of the Qur’an while referring to the stoning of hearts has moral implications and lessons to be taken therein. [26] He, thus, derives conclusively certain moral implications form the same verse:

O Children of Israel and Sons of Adam! What happened to you that your hearts have become harder and more lifeless than stone? For do you not see that those extremely hard, lifeless, huge rocks formed in vast strata under the earth are so obedient and subjugated before the Divine commands and so soft and tractable under Dominical works that to whatever degree the Divine Disposals occur without resistance in the formation of trees in the air, well-ordered water channels and veins, like circulation of blood in veins, occur with the same ease and order and with perfect wisdom in those hard, deaf rocks under earth.

O Children of Israel and Sons of Adam! What sort of heart do you bear within your weakness and impotence so that with its hardness it resists the command of such a One? Whereas how perfectly and obediently the huge strata of hard rocks carry out their delicate duties in the darkness before His commands. They display no disobedience. Indeed, those rocks act as treasures for the water of life and other means of life of all living creatures above the earth, and are the means for their division and distribution. And they do this with such wisdom and justice that they are soft like wax or air in the Hand of Power of the All-Wise One of Glory; offering no resistance, they prostrate before His mighty power. [27]

In the Qur’an mountains are also regarded as obedient to Divine orders so that they keep the earth stable.

Seest thou not that to God bow down in worship all things that are in the heavens and on earth,-the sun, the moon, the stars; the hills, the trees, the animals; and a great number among Mankind?  [28]

Thus, mountains are, like other creatures, signs of God’s omnipresence; they prostrate themselves before God along with all other creatures. [29] Although, the sight of mountains, as Schiemmel argues, has always inspired men's hearts, and mountains have often been regarded as seats of devils all over the world. In fact, teaching such an idea within the Qur’anic framework is impossible. [30]

Water also occupies a central place and role in the Qur’anic teaching. Water, for example, regarded as the source of life:

We have created alive everything through water. [31]

He has sent down water from the sky....  [32]

Accordingly, the similar verses about rains, rivers, wind and other natural phenomena can be found in the Qur’an and all of them have been regarded as the signs of God. While rain was sent down to quicken the dead earth  [33] the wind, which comes as a promise of His Mercy  [34] is responsible to announces the arrival of rain. It also so obedient to God’s Will and Power it carried Solomon’s throne. [35] However, the icy wind, sarsar, destroyed the disobedient cities of ‘Ad and Thamud.  [36] So, according to Schimmel, Muslims see the two aspects of God’s activity, the manifestation of His Jamal, kindness and beauty, and His Jalal, majesty, and wrath, in the two aspects of the wind which destroys the infidels and is a humble servant to the prophet Solomon. The sun, moreover, as a symbol of God, manifests both majesty and beauty; it illuminates the world and makes fruits mature.  [37]

It is these Qur’anic principles which shaped and regulated human-nature relationship in the course of Muslim civilization. The aforementioned Qur’anic perspective is reflected in thoughts and philosophies of many Muslim thinkers received a special emphasize by the Muslim mystics. For example, Jalâ l al-Din Rumî , the great Muslim poet and mystic of 13th century painstakingly underlines from a Qur’anic context and draws attention to the orderliness of nature as an organic being and how this related to human being and how it speaks about its own Creator:

The world is frozen: its name is jamad (inaimate). Jammid means "frozen," O master.

Wait till the rising of the sun of Resurrection, that thou mayst see the movement of the world’s body.[**]

Since God hath made Man from dust, it behoves thee to recognize the real nature of every particle of the universe,

That while from this aspect they are dead, from that aspect they are living: silent here, but speaking Yonder.

When He sends them down to our world, the rod of Moses becomes a dragon in regard to us;

The mountains sign with David, iron becomes as wax in his hand;

The wind becomes a carrier for Solomon, the sea understands what God said to Moses concerning it.

The moon obeys the sign given by Mohammad, the fire (of Nimrod) becomes a garden of roses for Abraham.

They all cry, "we are hearing and seeing and responsive, though to you, the uninitiated, we are mute."

Ascend from materially into the world of spirit, hearken to loud voice of the universe,

Then thou wilt know that God is glorified by all inanimate thins: the doubts raised by false interpreters will not beguile thee. [38]

More recently the same point has been touched upon by Said Nursi in his general interpretation of the Qur’an for a modern world. According to him, for example, everything in the universe is a sign which shows and points to a transcendental being, i.e., God: "light, as its other wise duties show, shines in order to proclaim and make known the Divine creatures on the face of the earth, with the permission of its Sustainer. This means that light is employed by a Wise Maker; by means of it, He makes manifest His antique works of art in the exhibitions of the market of this world." [39] He goes on pointing the very environment around as:

Now consider the winds! According to the testimony of their other wise, generous benefits and duties, they are hastening to extremely numerous and important tasks. It means that that movement in waves is a being employed, a being dispatched, a being utilized by an All-Wise Maker; it is a working expeditiously to carry out speedily the commands of its Sustainer.

Now consider the springs, the streams, and the rivers! Their welling-up out of the ground and out of mountains is not by chance. For it is demonstrated by the testimony of their benefits and fruits, the works of Divine Mercy, and by the statement of their being stored up in mountains with the balance of wisdom in proportion to need, that they are subjugated and stored up by an All-Wise Sustainer, and that their flowing forth is their conforming exuberantly to His command.

Now consider all the varieties of stones and jewels and minerals in the earth! Their decorations and beneficial properties, the wise benefits connected to them, and their being prepared in a manner appropriate to human and animal needs and vital necessities all show that they are made in that way through the decoration, arrangement, planning, and forming of an All-Wise Maker.

Now consider the flowers and fruits! Their smiles tastes, beauties, embroideries, and scents are each like an invitation to and menu for the table of a Most Munificent Maker, an All-Compassionate Bestower of Bounties; they are given as various menus and invitations to each species of beings through their different colours, scents, and tastes.

Now consider the birds! A certain indication that their twittering and chirruping is an All-Wise Maker s causing them to speak is the astonishing way in which they express their feelings to one another with those sounds, and state their intentions.

Now consider the clouds! A definite indication that the pattering of the rain is not a meaningless sound and that the crashing of thunder and lightening is not a futile din is that those strange beings are created in empty space. Also drops of rain like the water of life are milked from the clouds, suckling the living creatures on the earth so needy and longing for them. These facts show that the pattering and crashing are most meaningful and full of wisdom. For at the command of a Most Generous Sustainer, the rain calls out to those longing for it: "Good news! We are coming!" They express this meaning Now look at the sky and consider carefully only the moon out of all the innumerable bodies in it! That its motion is at the command of an All-Powerful and Wise One is demonstrated by the important instances of wisdom connected to it and concerning the earth.  [40]

Thus, according to Nursi, the universal elements which have been enumerated from the light to the moon open up in large measure a most broad window. They proclaim and show the Unity of a Necessarily Existent One, and the perfection of His Power, and grandeur of His sovereignty. As we see, man-nature relationship cannot be understood without reference to the basic teachings and principles of the Qur’an and its influence on the subsequent Muslim generations as well as Muslim communities. Accordingly, when these basic principles are studied carefully, it would be appreciated that man is not here as a dominator and master over all other creatures. First of all, man himself is a part a greater system physically and spiritually.

Although man is a distinct and special part of the universe and has a very distinctive standing and rank among all other change of being, this distinction does not provide him with the power to dominate and destroy the natural environment. On the contrary, this distinction gives man a high sense of responsibility. This responsibility, at least, has two dimensions. First, the responsibility of reading/comprehending the real and true meaning of natural order and then constructing a moral obligation which necessarily arise from the Qur’an and nature per se. For, when the Qur’an points out the orderliness and especially that everything created with measure and that there is a measure in the universe which to be observed and studied, it also underlines the importance of measure and observing it in social and daily life. Thus, the maintenance of measure in both sphere is in the responsibility of human beings. A good example of this point can be found in the following verses:

Ye people! Adore your Guardian-Lord, who created you and those who came before you, that ye may have chance to learn righteousness. Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith fruits for your sustenance; then set not up rivals unto God when ye know (the truth). [41] The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed. And the herb and trees-both (alike) bow in adoration. And the firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the balance (of Justice) in order that ye may not transgress (due) balance. So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance. [42]

So, when everything has been created for human beings, the use of all these things limited and restricted by the Qur’an itself as an ethical ground which stresses mutual rights and obligations in the relationship between humans and nature. From this general observation we can deduce the following points: First, the fact that everything has been created by measure and has an order and then that everything is interdependent with everything else implies that humans should/must take into account this interconnectedness when dealing and interacting with the natural environment. Second, the Qur’an itself declares that "Eat and drink, but waste not by excess; verily He loves not the excessive", [43] "and do not cause corruption in the earth, when it has been in order. [44]

Thus, in short, as God has created this world and entrusted it to human beings alone, they are not the owners and masters of the natural environment. They are only trustees, stewardships on earth.  [45] More importantly, this stewardshipness includes the maintianness and utilization of the natural environment in accordance with what God created these things for, and to take into account the order and the ecological balance of nature on the other. Iqbal underlines this point eloquently as follows: "it is the lot of man to share in the deeper aspirations of the universe around him and to shape his own destiny as well as that of the universe, now by putting the whole of his energy to mould its forces to his own ends and purposes. And in this process of progressive change of God becomes a co-worker with him, provided man takes the initiative: "Verily God will not change the condition of men, till they change what is in themselves (13:12)." [46]

To conclude, it seems that an environmental ethics can be developed from the Qur’an itself. What is needed is that the Qur’an as a whole should be studied from an ecological perspective as well.

* This article is based on the author’s book and reprinted by permission: The Ethical Dimension of Human Attitude Towards Nature, (Ankara: Ministry of Environment, 1997), pp. 175-189.
* At the Resurrection, i.e. when, either here or hereafter, God lets us see things as they really are, we shall know the material world in its inward aspect, which is the world of spirit and everlasting life.

1.J. Baird Callicott - Roger Ames, T. Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989)
2.Nasr, Religion and The Order of Nature, p.192; Arne Naes, Ecology, Community and lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy, trans. David Rothenberg,(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 182-189.
3.About the Islamic view of Nature see, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, \"On Nature\", in The Flashes Collection, trans. Sukran Vahide, (Istanbul: Sozler Nesriyat, 1995)pp. 232-252
5.Nasr, \"Islam and the Environmental Crisis\", Journal of Islamic Research, vol.4, no:3, July 1990, pp.155-174;
6.76:3-4; 27:88, See also, Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of The Qur’an, (Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980), pp. 68-69.
7.Rahman, ibid, pp.78-79; Nursi, The Words, p.255.
8.Rahman, ibid, p. 79
9.Izzi Deen, Mawil Y. (Samarrai), \"Islamic Environmental Ethics, Law, and Society\", in Ed. J. Ronald Engel ve Joan Gibb Engel. Ethics of Environment and Development. Global Challenge, International Response. (London: Belhaver Press, 1990), p. 189.
10.Quoted in Samarrai, ibid, p. 190
11.Sukran Vahide, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Sozler Publications, 1995\'
12.Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, The Flashes Collection, translated from the Turkish by Sukran Vahide, Sozler Publication, 1995), p. 446
13.44:38-39 and also see 2:1641; 6:97-99; 25:45-46; 88:17-20; 30:22; 3:190-191; 29:20; 24:44; 31:20; 16:12.
15.16: 3-18.
16.17: 44; also see, 57:1;59:1; 61:1; 24:41.
20.54:49; cf. 15:21
21.21:22; 27:60-64.
22.Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 14.
23.3:83; see also Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of The Qur’an, p. 65.
25.Nursi, The Words, p.255
26.G. Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. II, Chicago, 1974, p.137 quoted in Sardar’s The Touch of Midas, p. 154.
27.Nursi, The Words, pp. 255.256.
29.See, 27:88 and 70:9.
30.See Schimmel, p.4.
32.See:13:17. and also see Martin Lings \"The Qur’anic Symbolism of Water\", Studies in Comparative Religion 2, 1968, pp.153-160.
36.69:6 et al.
37.Schimmel, p.11-14.
38.Reynold A. Nicholson, Rumi, Poet and Mystic, (London: George Allen and Unwin ltd., 1950), p.119.
39.Nursi, The Words, p.701.
40.Nursi, The Words, p. 701-702.
45.For a somehow different view of the vicegerancy of man see, Jafar Sheikh Idris, \"Is Man the Vicegerent of God?\", Journal of Islamic Studies 1 pp.99-100.
46.Iqbal, The Reconstraction of Religius Thought in Islam, p.12.

Item ID: 469
Item Name: An Islamic Perspective of Environmental Ethics
Item Authors:
Ibrahim Ozdemir
Publish Date: Unknown
Nur Web Pages Publish Date: 13.01.2007

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