THE TEACHINGS OF
One characteristic of our technological age is that humans can now do things at a massive scale never before possible or even imaginable. This capability makes possible the achievement of some highly beneficial tasks but, if proper care is not taken, it can also inflict massive damage on living creatures including humans themselves, a damage from which it may be extremely difficult, if not impossible to recover. The pollution of air and water at a large scale with extinction or near extinction of some species and diminishing ozone layer with a potentially dangerous global warming make this point with particular clarity. To the extent that the survival of human beings themselves depends on a careful use of our technological and industrial power one would expect that we would be convinced of such carefulness without much difficulty. Yet in the past people concerned with the environment have encountered a great deal of insensitivity. This might be in part due to some inevitable ambiguity of the evidence used to point out the dangers to the environment but it was mostly due to some deep-rooted attitudes.
More recently there has been a healthy increase in sensitivity towards environmental consequences of decisions taken by businesses and governments, both among the public and the decision makers. But since human technological power is continuously increasing, the need for vigilance is ever present. In this connection the teachings of the major religious figures are relevant and helpful, for, they help humans to make responsible use of their powers. In this article I show such relevance in the case of two major religious figures: The Prophets Muhammad and Jesus.
The primary source for the divinely inspired teaching of the Prophet Muhammad is the Qur'an. There are some words and works of the Prophet found in Hadith but Hadith also contains words of later Muslims attributed to the Prophet. Hadith therefore should either be used critically or used as a source of how Muslims in the first two centuries understood and applied the teachings of the Prophet.
The Prophet's teaching on ecological questions can be divided broadly into two parts:
general principles that define outlooks with indirect but important ecological implications
specific rules with direct relevance to ecology. We examine the two parts separately.
General principles with ecological implications
Existing or potential ecological problems faced by humans in the present age, as indeed many other problems of humankind, have their roots in the following two attitudes:
Desire for short-term gain without due regard for long-term consequences. Connected with this is a narrow perspective which looks at different areas of life and the universe separately without sufficient effort to search for an integrated and unified outlook. Both attitudes can lead one to ignore important consequences of one's actions, especially those that take a long time to become visible, which is often the case with ecological consequences.
Overestimation or underestimation of man's position in the universe. Overestimation can lead humans to become insensitive to other forms of life and inflict unjustified and irreparable damage to other living creatures, and then as a consequence to themselves. Underestimation can prevent them from taking up their due place in the universe and play their role in the development of life. They can become unable to fully tap their creative and productive energies to create a cleaner, more comfortable and safer environment for themselves and for other forms of life.
The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad correct both these attitudes.
Long-term and unified perspective
To create in human beings a long-term, indeed, eternal perspective is one of the primary missions of the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur'an often calls people to belief in 'akhira, contrasting it with 'ajilah (also called dunya). It comments on a human weakness as follows:
But you love the 'ajilah and ignore the 'akhira (75:20-21)1.
The term 'ajilah means "the fleeting, the immediate, the short-term" while 'akhira refers to "the long-term, hereafter, the indefinite future". Indeed, in the Qur'an believing in 'akhira is one of the three universal conditions for salvation, the other two being faith in the one true God and good deeds (5:69). But in the Qur'an the immediate and the short-term is not rejected. One Qur'anic prayer often recited by the Muslims is:
O our Lord and Sustainer! Give us the best in this world (dunya) and the best in the hereafter ('akhira) and save us from the penalty of the fire (2:201).
Humans have a role to play in this world, here and now, and this cannot be achieved if this world is rejected. In the Qur'an this world and the hereafter form a unity, one strengthening the other. By belief in 'akhira, that is, by a long-term perspective, humans can act wisely in this world and by such wise actions can ensure their well being in the long term.
Connected with this unified perspective on time, Islam also presents a
unified perspective on the universe as a whole, which is reflected in a strong
faith in one God who has created the universe and who is in its complete
control. As noted by Nasr2,
Until now, modern science has succeeded largely by turning its back upon
the interrelation between different parts of nature and by isolating each
segment of nature in order to be able to analyse and dissect it separately. ...
Something has been gained through this method no doubt; but also something very
fundamental has been lost and neglected .... The traditional sciences of nature
exist for the express purpose of making known, rather than veiling, the unicity
of nature, which derives directly from the Unity of the Divine Principle, as all
the masters of Islamic gnosis have declared. In the case of the Islamic
sciences, the sense of Unity pervades all things and all forms of knowledge,
Unity (tawhid) being the central axis around which everything revolves in
the Islamic world-view (258, 260).
For humans to behave properly it is important that they should have a
proper estimation of their place in the universe. This estimation is reflected
in the way one views the relationship among God, the universe and human beings.
We therefore look at how the Qur'an views the relation between God and the
universe, between the universe and human beings, and between human beings and
God and the universe. According to the Qur'an, the universe (the heavens and the earth) is created by God. Today this conception is fairly widespread and well established in all the major religions but this was not always so. Before the advent of Islam, there existed a religious system known as Gnosticism, found in the Jewish, Christian, Greek and the Oriental world, according to which at least the earthly part of the material universe was created by evil powers (archons) opposed to the God of goodness and light. The Bible and orthodox Judaism rejects this view (see Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31, where the creation of God is described as tob, good and beautiful) and so does orthodox Christianity but the gnostic Judaism and Christianity continued to flourish until the advent of Islam.
According to the Qur'an God did not simply create the world once and then withdrew but is continuously involved with it. He repeats creation (10:4, 29:19-20, 30:11, 27, 85:13). He sustains and guides all life on an ongoing basis (13:17, 15:16-23, 20:50, 30:40, 43:11, 56:63-74).
The Qur'an states that God created the universe in truth and not in vain. The purposefulness of the universe is manifested in the final judgment:
"Do you then reckon that We [i.e., God] have created you in vain and that you will not be returned to Us?" (23:115).
The phenomena in the universe are signs of God on which human beings must reflect. The Qur'an refers to the stars which decorate the sky (50:6-8), to the majestic mountains which stabilize the earth (31:10-11), to the sun and the moon and their movements on their well-defined courses (36:38-40), to the fecundating role of winds (15:22), to plants that produce fruits and grains, each with a different taste (13:4, 36:32-35), to cattle out of whose bellies comes healthy milk from between blood and refuse (16:66), and to the bees and their production of honey, in which there is healing for human beings (16:69). The Qur'an invites human beings to reflect or think about these and other phenomena and about the nature of the universe as a whole:
This Qur'anic view of the universe as a creation, not of an evil deity, but of the holy God (al-quddus) towards a just end and as full of signs of God requires on the part of human beings a positive attitude towards it, like that of the mystic poet Sa'di when he declares: "I am in love with the whole universe because it comes from him".
Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and alteration of night and day there are signs for people of understanding, those who remember God, standing, sitting, and reclining and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying): O our Lord! You have not created all this in vain! (3:190-191).
Throughout history humans have worshipped the universe and its various parts -- sun, moon, stars, rivers, ocean, even some plants, animals and mountains. Islam rejects this practice completely by denying divinity to the objects of the universe (41:37 etc). But, as noted by other Muslim writers such as Parvez Manzoor, this de-divinization of the universe is not its de-sacralisation. The Qur'an changes the universe and all its parts from being objects of worship to being worshippers of God. In this way, the whole universe becomes a sacred place of worship, a kind of masjid (mosque) of a huge size. For just as in a mosque, people busy themselves glorifying God and prostrating before him in worship, so also in the universe everything is singing God's praises and prostrating before him:
The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein glorify him, and there is not a thing but hymns his praise though you understand not their hymn (17:44; also, 57:1, 59:1, 61:1, 62:1, 64:1).
Do you (O human being) not consider that before God prostrates in worship whosoever is in heavens and whosoever is in the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the hills, and the trees, and the beasts, and many among human beings (22:18; see also, 13:15, which implies that even human beings who do not bow down before God, unwillingly serve some purpose of God).
No doubt, there is in the universe an evil, destructive force, active
especially in the human world. But this force is ultimately weak, temporary and
in accordance with the will of God and under his complete control (15:26-44).
The universe and human beings. Islam gives an important position to humans in the universe but does not present them as its center. In some Qur'anic verses it is said that God sakhkhara lakum the universe or some parts of it. The phrase sakhkhara lakum is often translated as "subjected to you". But a much better translation is "subjected for you." For it is obvious that some parts of the universe such as the sun are not subject to man. The Qur'an, in fact, says so. It refers to an argument about God between the Prophet Abraham and a disbelieving king who claims to be God. Abraham challenges the king: "Lo! God causes the sun to rise in the east, you (if you are God) cause it to rise from the west" (2:258). In several verses, the Qur'an often uses sakhkhara (subjected) without lakum (for you) and thus clarifies the meaning of sakhkhara. One such verse states:
He makes the night to pass into the day and makes the day pass into the night. He has subjected (sakhkhara) the sun and the moon, each running unto an appointed term. Such is God, your Lord; and those unto whom you pray instead of him own not so much as the white spot on a date-stone (35:13; see also 13:2, 29:61, 31:29, 39:5).
Here sakhkhara is clarified by
the statement that the sun and the moon are bound by some pattern of movement.
The meaning of the word must be understood in the same way in relation to other
parts of the universe (cf. 13:8, 15:21, and 54:49, where it is stated that God
has created everything according to a measure or he sends down everything in
appointed measure). The subjection of everything to a certain order is for
man because this order enables man to exist as a living being. When the
Qur'an says that "God has sakhkhara
lakum all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, (all being)
from him" (45:13), the meaning is that the whole universe is a unified
order which in its entirety is a cause of your existence as living, conscious
and willing beings. The medieval Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyah, commenting on
the verses where different parts of the universe are said to be for humanity,
says: "In considering all these verses it must be remembered that Allah in
His wisdom created these creatures for reasons other than serving man, for in
these verses He only explains the benefits of these creatures [to man]."It
is significant that the Qur'an does not say that the universe has been subjected
only for man, although that may be assumed by us in view of our own
anthropocentric presumptions. The Qur'an states, in fact, that at least some
things have been created not only for man but also for other creatures (25:49,
where water is said to be for many a beast as well as human beings; 55:10, where
the earth is said to be established for the creatures in general; cf. also
80:32). In a sense every part of the universe can be said to be subjected for
every other part, although it is more so in case of living creatures, especially
human beings, because of their consciousness and will. That in the Qur'an human
being is not the center of the whole universe is shown also by the fact that the
Qur'an presents human being as God's khalifah
or vicegerent on earth (2:30) and not in the whole universe.
Another relevant verse in the Qur'an is 32:9, which states that God
created man from clay and breathed into him his spirit. However, it must not be
assumed that man is the only creature with God's spirit in him.
For the statement that God breathed into man his spirit is probably
connected with what follows: "and made for you hearing and sight and
hearts" that is, God's spirit is manifested in man's ability to be
conscious, to think and to feel. Since animals also possess to some degree all
these things it would seem that the spirit of God is also manifested in them in
The maximum level to which the estimation of human beings rises in the
Qur'an is seen in the verses where it is said that after creating man or
breathing his spirit into him God commanded angels to bow before him (2:30-34,
7:11-18, 15:26-43, 38:71-85). However, outside this story the Qur'an does not
pursue the idea. It does not, for example, tell us how angels' prostration
before man expresses itself in man's existence in the universe. This suggests
that the story should be understood only in a limited context. It may be more
about obedience to God than about the superiority of man over angels: regardless
of what God commands his creatures, they must obey him, even if it is to bow
before someone created from clay. But the fact that beings made from fire are
asked to bow before a creature made from clay may have a deeper meaning. Fire
may represent energy while clay may represent matter. The meaning then would be
that energy must be channelled through matter. The fact that evil entered the
creation when Iblis (devil) refused to
bow before a creature made from clay means that the source of evil is loose
energy that is not channelled through matter according to rules established by
God. In any case, the Qur'an elsewhere makes clear that the story does not mean
that man is superior to all creatures, for in 17:70 it says: "We
have indeed honored the children of Adam ... and preferred them above many of
those We have created with a marked preferment". Here man is said to be
preferred above many and not above all of God's creatures.
In connection with the verses in the Qur'an honoring or praising human
beings it should also be kept in view that in these verses it is really God who
is given the credit for whatever honor or goodness or ability that humans
possess or are capable of possessing. The point is how God created from dust and
from a despised fluid someone like human being (77:20-24) who was at one time
nothing to be mentioned (76:1) but who by his creative power and grace comes
into existence as a conscious being (76:2-3). All this should make humans
thankful to God and to serve his will (32:7-9).
In view of the passages from the Qur'an cited above it seems clear that
there is no overestimation of the position of the human beings in the
universe in Islam. It is even clearer that there is no underestimation.
Such underestimation of themselves by human beings has usually been associated
with an overestimation and worship of some other objects in the universe. As we
have seen earlier the Qur'an rejects worship of the universe or any of its
parts. It views all objects in the universe as fellow worshippers of God. None
possesses any real mastery over the other. None can harm or benefit except with
the will and permission of God and none is a manifestation of him to a degree
that it deserves to be worshipped. Humans should neither behave as masters of
other objects nor let them be masters over them. Each should, and in a way does
(13:15), function in the universe according to the will of God, the Lord and
Master of them all.
The ecological consequences of underestimation of humans can be just as
negative as that of overestimation. Compared to other creatures on earth, humans
have been blessed by God with higher level of consciousness and intelligence,
language and skilful hands. These abilities can serve life in many ways. In
particular, humans can by God's will use them to foresee and prevent some
disasters that could destroy many or all forms of life on earth. If humans were
around with their present level of technological development at the time when
some catastrophe destroyed the dinosaurs, it is at least possible that the
disaster could have been foreseen and prevented or its effect reduced. But for
humans to put their God-given abilities to such good use they have to take
responsibility on the earth which they cannot do if they grossly underestimate
their position in the world.
God and human beings. Human beings' true position in
the universe in the Qur'anic view gets clarified fully when we examine the
relationship between them and God. The Qur'an presents human beings as purely
creatures of God who are nothing except what God has made them and who possess
nothing except what God has given them. Although, they in some sense (see, A.
Shafaat, "Islam and Determinism") possess "free" will, they
are bound by certain "limits of God" which they cross only at their
own peril. This relationship between humans and God is further elaborated in the
Qur'an by two key concepts: humans are God's vicegerents on earth, and
they are his slaves, both concepts chosen to correct earlier ideas; one
correcting their underestimation of themselves and the other overestimation.
The meaning of human vicegerency on earth is to be understood in three
First, it recognizes the evident fact that the subjection of the
universe to a certain order and human beings' God-given physical and mental
abilities enable them to exercise a great deal of control over the elements of
the earth. The concept of vicegerency implies that this position of the human
beings on earth is in accordance with the will of God and is to be viewed
positively. The concept also implies an honor for humankind and stands in the
way of any underestimation of humans.
Second, in earlier times the kings used to be regarded as God's
representatives on earth; the Qur'an gives this role to humankind as a whole.
Third, it underlines that God and not human being is the master and owner
of the earth, as he is of every thing else (2:116, 16:52, 20:114, 21:19, 23:84,
116, 31:26). For a vicegerent simply executes the wishes of the one who appoints
him. The Qur'an reminds humankind that it is God who made them vicegerents on
earth (6:165) and if they played any role in it, that role was one of unjustness
and foolishness (33:72). The Qur'an also stresses that they have not been
appointed as vicegerents of God just to be left alone. They will be held
accountable for what they do in this capacity on a future day of
"accounting," and sometimes even in this world (6:165, 10:13-14, 1:4,
38:26, 49-53, 40:26-27).
Another way in which the Qur'an teaches human beings to remember who is the real master and lord of the heavens and the earth is to tell them that although they are his vicegerents on earth and hence they serve some important purpose of his, he is not dependent on them. If they fail to act with gratitude and responsibility he could replace them by other creatures without any difficulty:
Do you (O human being) not consider that God has created the heavens and the earth in truth? If he will, he can remove you and bring a new creation. And this is nothing hard for God (14:19-20). If you show ingratitude, you and others on earth, God is free of any need (of any of you), worthy of every praise (14:8). O humankind! It is you who are needy. God is free of any need, worthy of all praise. If he so pleases, he could blot you out and bring in a new creation (35:15-16, cf. 3:97).
There is thus a form of modern ecological concern with which Islam does
not agree. It is believed by some that if human beings did not do something to
take care of the environment, life may forever be destroyed and the universe
return to the mindless, pointless state that it had before the emergence of life
and of human beings. Such a view is a manifestation of the same overestimation
by human beings of their own position in the universe which is the cause of
ecological problems in the first place. According to Islam, God is in complete
control of the universe and the purposes for which he has created it cannot in
any way be frustrated by what human beings do or do not do. If humans do not
move in a direction he wants them to, he could easily blot them and achieve his
just purposes through other means. In Islam, therefore, ecological concerns
cannot proceed from the idea that life has somehow emerged in the universe by
chance and now its survival or otherwise rests in the hands of human beings.
Rather, they proceed from the view that we have been honored by God to be his
vicegerents on earth and that one day we will stand before him to answer how we
The idea that as vicegerents of God human beings are subject to the will
of God is further stressed by the designation of humans as "slaves of
God". This means that they cannot follow their own will in disregard of the
will of their real master. The term "slaves of God" corrects an
earlier overestimation of the humans, for it is in part chosen in opposition to
an earlier description of human beings as children or sons of God. The term,
however, in no way implies that God loves human beings any less, for God is kind
and merciful to his slaves (2:207, 3:30, 2:143, 22:65). The term is meant only
to reduce our sense of self-importance, self-centeredness and to increase our
sense of responsibility and accountability.
In practice, the vicegerency of humans on earth and their slavery to God
are manifested as follows:
A consequence of 2) is that any serious harm to the environment is
morally wrong, while 3) means that it is possible, staying entirely within
Islamic teachings to use legal and political means to prevent or undo serious
harm to the environment.
Teaching with direct ecological
In addition to providing the above general perspective which enables
and obligates human beings to treat the environment with sensitivity and
responsibility, the Prophet Muhammad also imparted some specific teaching which
more directly contribute to the achievement of that objective. This type of
teaching can be divided into three parts: 1) prohibition of waste; 2) concern
for non-human forms of life; and 3) references to land, air and water.
One source of damage to environment is wastefulness, which the Qur'an strongly condemns:
(Believers are) those who, when they spend, are neither prodigal nor grudging, but (take a course) which is between the two (25:67). Give the kinsman his due, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and squander not in wantonness. Lo! the squanderers are brothers of the devils and the devil is ingrate to his Lord (17:26-27). O Children of Adam! Look to your adornment at every place of worship, and eat and drink, but be not prodigal. Lo! He loves not the prodigals (7:31).
In this world God has put a limit on the amount of resources available to
living creatures (15:21). The above passages teach that we should be neither
niggardly nor wasteful in the use of these resources and any surplus should be
shared with others so that all the inhabitants of the earth may have what they
need, although not necessarily what they want. There will come a time when
unlimited resources will become available to the humans and probably other
creatures, so that they will be able to have what they want (39:10, 40:40,
41:31, 43:71). But until such a paradise comes into being the limited resources
must be used efficiently, responsibly, and without waste. Indeed, paradise is
only for those who show necessary restraints in this world (26:88-91 etc).
Concern for non-human living creatures
The large scale destruction of forests and massive pollution of water and
air are the products of the modern technological age and therefore sources of
Islam do not deal with such problems in a direct way. Animals, however, have
always existed in close proximity to human and so both the Qur'an and Hadith
have a great deal to say about them. And what they have to say gives value to
animals and enjoin sensitivity towards them. Thus the Qur'an says that God is
not disdainful of giving the similitude of even one of his small creatures like
a gnat (2:26). Another verse states that animals are "peoples" like
human beings: "There is not an animal in the earth, nor a flying creature
flying on two wings, but they are peoples like unto you" (6:38). Also, God
takes care of each of his creatures: "There is no moving creature on earth
but its sustenance is in God's care. He knows where it resides and where it is
deposited (at the time of its death). Everything is written in a clear
record" (11:6). In the story of Solomon, who was able to communicate with
these "peoples" from the animal world, they, along with humans form
something like a single kingdom in which they contribute to the realization of
Solomon's prophetic mission (27:17-28). The story makes the point that all
creatures, human and non-human, are linked together in a single divine plan,
whether we can perceive this or not. The Qur'an describes the Prophet Muhammad
as mercy to al-'alamin, this word
being understood by some commentators as the different creatures that inhabit
the sky, the land, and the sea (see Tafsir Ibn Kathir on Qur'an 1:2). Many
surahs or chapters of the Qur'an are named after the animals mentioned in them:
surah 2 (The Cow), surah 6 (The Cattle), surah 16 (The Bee), surah 27 (The Ant),
surah 29 (The Spider), surah 105 (The Elephant).
The Qur'an allows killing of some animals for food but requires that such
slaughtering be done after recitation of the name of God, which signifies that
human beings do not have any inherent right over these creatures of God. They
become lawful food only by God's permission (6:121). That God has granted us
power and permission to consume some animals as food should make us thankful to
him and caring towards those who are less fortunate than us: "So mention
the name of God over [sacrificial cattle] ... Then when their flanks fall, eat
thereof and feed the poor who is contented with his lot and does not beg as well
as him who is forced to beg. Thus have We made them [the cattle] subject for
you, that you may give thanks" (22:36).
Hadith3, which contains some authentic words of the Prophet as
well as words which reflect prevalent interpretations of his teachings in the
Muslim community, mostly in the first two centuries of Islam, has many
traditions about the treatment of animals. However, we are presented with an
apparently varied picture. A few traditions seem to give a blanket permission or
even command to kill harmful or undesirable animals such as certain varieties of
snakes or dogs or lizards. But most of the other traditions in the same
collections of traditions prohibit hurting or killing other creatures including
dogs and snakes. Thus one tradition says that the Prophet at one point
prohibited the killing of snakes in "the houses" (which is understood
to be houses of people but it could also mean houses of snakes). This is
reinforced by another tradition, according to which a snake came out of his hole
as the Prophet and his companions were sitting in a cave. As people rushed to
kill it, it returned to its hole before people could catch it. The Prophet said,
"It has been saved from your evil and you have been saved from its
evil." Likewise while one tradition seems to give permission for killing
dogs another says that a prostitute was forgiven by God, because once when she
passed by a panting dog about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, tied it
with her head-cover and drew some water from a well to save the dog. In case of
relatively harmless creatures like cats and ants, there are no two opinions in
Hadith. A prophet from among the prophets was rebuked by God for destroying an
ant colony. He was taking rest underneath a tree when an ant bit him. He ordered
his things removed from under the tree and the dwelling place of the ants set on
fire. God expressed his disapproval, saying, "(If you had to burn) why not
just the one ant that bit you," and in an another version, "It is
because one ant bit you, you burnt a community that glorifies God?" It is
also related that a woman entered the fire of hell because she tied a cat and
let it starve (Bukhari, Vol. 4, 330-340, kitab bada' al-khalq, bab qawl allah
wa baththa fiha min kulli dabbah and the two following chapters; Muslim Vol.
5, 402-411, kitab qatl al-hayyat wa ghayraha, Vol. 6, 240-241, kitab
al-birr wa al-silah wa al-adab, bab tahrim ta'dhib al-hirrat wa nahwiha min al-haywan
alladhi la yu'dhi). This last tradition is mentioned in Muslim in the
chapter entitled, "Prohibition of causing pain to animals such as cats that
do not cause any harm," which sums up the hadith teaching about the
treatment of animals.
Although killing of animals for food is allowed, this killing is to be
done in such a way as to cause as little pain as possible. The Prophet
reportedly said regarding the slaughtering of animals for food: "God has
indeed prescribed goodness (ihsan) in
all things. Therefore, if you kill, kill well, and if you slaughter, slaughter
well. Let each of you (who intends to slaughter an animal) sharpen his blade and
let him spare suffering to the animal he slaughters." In other traditions
God and the Prophet are said to curse those who tie a bird or some other animal
and then target it either to kill for food or for practice or for fun. It is
also prohibited to kill an animal by hitting it repeatedly by small pebbles or
to cut any part of it while it is still alive (Muslim Vol. 5, 209-210, kitab
al-sayd wa al-dhiba'ih, bab al-amr bi ihsan .. and the following chapter;
Bukhari, Vol. 7, 306-308, kitab al-dhiba'ih wa al-sayd, bab ma yukrahu min
al-muthla wa al-masbura wa al-mujaththama).
How, then, are we to understand the traditions where killing of certain
animals is permitted or commanded? There are very few such traditions and even
these are either contradicted by other traditions or can be understood as
abbreviated traditions which have to be elaborated by other traditions or common
sense. One such tradition, found in both Bukhari and Muslim is that one Um
Sharik was ordered by the Prophet to kill house-lizard. But both books also
record 'Aisha saying that she never heard the Prophet ordering to kill
house-lizard, although he described it as a mischief-doer. Since, as the
Prophet's wife, 'Aisha lived with him for years, she would have known if he did
indeed thought that house-lizards should be killed, unless we assume that there
were no lizards in his house. Another tradition says that the Prophet ordered
that dogs should be killed. This is clearly an abbreviated tradition like
another tradition in Muslim in which it is said, without any qualification
whatsoever, that the Prophet prohibited the killing of snakes. Just as
prohibition of killing snakes is to be understood in the light of other
traditions and common sense, the order to kill dogs is also to be so understood.
(Some scholars apply the prohibition only to rabid dogs, but even that is to be
further qualified). Probably we should understand in a similar way the hadith in
which it is said: "It is not sinful of a person (even) in a state of ihram
(when prohibitions against killing any creature intensify) to kill any of these
five animals: The scorpion, the rat, the rabid dog, the crow, and the
kite". In any case, what is really significant about the prophetic
traditions is that they regard the question of treatment of animals as a
religious and moral question. Consequently, they aim to establish some
guidelines as to when and how one can kill animals and they do so with the
understanding that a wrong way of treating animals can lead to hell while a kind
way can lead to heaven. In the traditions, the earlier Muslim community is
clearly using some authentic teaching of the Prophet Muhammad to try
conscientiously to reconcile at a religious and moral level the demand of man's
needs, such as the need for food and safety, and the reverence for all life
including that of animals. In our age we have much more information about
animals which shows that many animals are not as harmful as we thought and that
we can often protect ourselves from harm without killing them. In the spirit of
Hadith it would be clearly necessary for us to use this knowledge and safeguard
our interests without killing or hurting any animal whenever possible.
The prophetic traditions do not just prohibit causing pain to the
animals. Some encourage positive acts of kindness towards them. In Ibn Ishaq we
read a report in which Suraqa bin Malik describes his acceptance of Islam and
then says: "Then I remembered something which I always wanted to ask [the
Prophet]. All I can remember now is that I said, 'Stray camels used to come to
my cistern which I kept full for my own camels. Shall I get a reward (in the
hereafter) for having let them have my water [a very precious commodity in
Arabia]?'. 'Yes,' he said, 'for watering every thirsty creature there is a
reward.'" A tradition in Muslim describes how a man gave drink to a thirsty
dog and was thus forgiven by God. The Prophet is then asked whether there is a
reward even for doing good to the beasts. He replied, "For (doing good) to
every creature with wet liver there is a reward" (Muslim, Vol. 5, 410, kitab
qatl al-hayyat wa ghayraha, bab saqyi al-baha'im wa it'amiha). A
similar tradition is recorded by Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani (4:40): The Prophet was
asked whether charity shown to animals will be rewarded by God. He replied:
"For each creature which has a wet heart there is a reward (for showing
charity)." (A creature with wet heart or liver evidently means a living
creature which can feel pain. According to another tradition, the Prophet said,
"All creatures are God's dependents and the best among them is the one who
is most useful to God's dependents" (al-'Ajluni, 1:458).
As in the Qur'an, animals are considered in the prophetic traditions as
creatures valuable in the sight of God. Consistent with the Qur'anic verses that
everything in the heavens and the earth hymns praises of God, they are viewed as
creatures obedient to God and possessing some knowledge about him. Thus it is
said in one tradition: "The only reasons that God does not cause his
punishment to pour over you are the elderly, the suckling babes, and the animals
which graze upon your land" (al-'Ajluni, 1:213). We have already cited the
tradition which describes ants as a community praising God. Some traditions of
late documentation, often mentioned in books about the sirat or life of the Prophet show the trees and animals aiding the
Prophet during his flight from Makkah while being pursued by the pagans. A
barren goat produces milk to quench the thirst and hunger of the Prophet and his
companion Abu Bakr. While they hide in Cave Thawr a tree bends its branches to
cover the entrance to the cave, a spider builds its net and a pair of pigeons
lay eggs and start warming them, all in order to divert the attention of the
pursuers from the cave (see Manazar Ahsan Ghilani). In another interesting story
a companion of the Prophet, Ahban bin Aus, was led to Islam by a wolf. Ahban is
reported to have related: "I was amongst my sheep. Suddenly a wolf caught a
sheep and I shouted at it. The wolf sat on its tail and addressed me, saying,
'Who will look after it (i.e., the sheep) when you will be busy and unable to
look after it? Do you forbid me the provision which God has provided me?'"
Ahban added, "I clapped my hands and said, 'By God, I have never seen
anything more curious and wonderful than this!' On that the wolf said, 'There is
something more wonderful than this; that is, God's Messenger, in those palm
trees, inviting people to God.'" (cf. the story of Solomon in Qur'an
27:17-28, where Solomon is able to communicate with animals and they help him in
his prophetic mission.) The narrator then adds that Ahban went to the Prophet
and informed him of what happened and accepted Islam (Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani,
7:23). This story seems to have existed in some form quite early, since a
tradition in Bukhari in all probability refers to it (Vol. 3, 298, kitab al-mazari'ah,
bab isti'mal al-baqar li al-hiratha).
These teachings of the Qur'an and Hadith are reflected in the practice
and thinking of Muslims. They as a rule avoid injuring or killing animals except
for food or prevention of harm. There are also stories In Muslim folklore and
literature presenting animals as valuable creatures worthy of good treatment.
One such story4 relates that a murder was committed in a town. Two
men were apprehended as suspects, one innocent and one guilty. While awaiting
judgement by the court the two men prayed in the prison. The prayer of the
innocent man was: "O God, do justice". The prayer of the guilty man
was: "O God have mercy on me!" When the judgement was passed by the
court, the innocent man was found guilty and hanged while the guilty man was
pronounced innocent and released. A man of God was following all this and asked
God what was the significance of this judgement. The answer revealed to him was
as follows: The guilty man asked for mercy and I treated him with mercy,
granting him forgiveness of his crime and release from prison. The innocent man
pleaded for justice and I judged him justly, for once sitting by the bank of a
river he was playing with ants. He let one of the ants climb on a straw and then
put the straw in the water, thus killing the ant without any cause. For me all
my creatures are valuable and so I took his life for the life of the ant.
It is not only the sentient beings about which books of Hadith have
something to say. They also contain traditions about trees and plants. The
Prophet is said to have enjoyed gazing at greenery and running water (al-'Ajluni,
1:387). Bukhari records the saying of the Prophet: "Some trees are as
blessed as the Muslim himself, especially the palm tree." Another tradition
reports the prophetic saying: "If anyone cuts down a lote tree, God will
lower his head in hell." After recording this tradition Abu Dawud says that
this is an abbreviated saying (recall our earlier comments on the tradition
ordering the killing of dogs or prohibiting the killing of snakes) and then
clarifies that it is only when the tree is cut down wrongfully, unjustly, and
with no benefit to the person and when the tree provides shade for travellers
and animals that its cutting will lead to hell (al-Tibrizi, 634). If some
traditions condemn the cutting of trees, others encourage their planting. One
tradition says: "When doomsday comes if someone has a palm shoot in his
hand he should plant it" (al-Bayhaqi, 3:184). Suyuti reports that 'Umar ibn
al-Khattab once saw that Khuzaymah ibn Thabit, an old man, had neglected his
land. 'Umar asked why he was not cultivating his land. Khuzaymah replied that he
was an old man and could die any time. 'Umar insisted upon cultivation of the
land and joined Khuzaymah in doing so.
When we think of ecology we also think of air, water and land and the
need to prevent their pollution. There is little doubt that a large-scale
pollution of the environment is prohibited in Islamic law, even if such
prohibition is not found explicitly in the primary sources for the reason noted
earlier. The sanctity of life in all its forms which is taught in Islam requires
that water, air and the land be not polluted, for such pollution inevitably
causes death and injury to untold number of living creatures which is
The Qur'an and Hadith have several statements about water, air and earth
(al-ard, which is used in three senses: the planet earth, land,
soil/dust). Although not directly relevant to ecology, it seems interesting to
briefly review these statements.
The Qur'an often points out that human actions are preserved in the
universe and will one day be manifested again for judgement. In one such
statement the Qur'an focuses on the (planet) earth and talks about her as if she
is a living entity. Whatever ever happens on her or is done to her is preserved
by her like so many well-kept secret chronicles which will one day come forth:
When the earth is shaken with her (utmost) convulsion;
And (when) the earth yields up her burdens.
And the human being says, What is the matter with her?
That day she will relate her chronicles.
Because your Lord will have inspired her.
That day humankind will issue forth in scattered groups to be shown their deeds.
Whosoever has done good of even an atom's weight will see it then,
And whosoever has done ill of even an atom's weight will see it then (99:1-8).
The Qur'an says that human being is a growth from earth (17:17-18) or is created from dust (3:59, 22:5, 30:20, 35:11, 40:67). In Hadith earth (in the sense of soil, dust) is said to be purifier. Thus the Prophet is reported to have said: "The earth is made for me (i.e., through me as a prophet for all humanity) as a place of worship (masjid) and a purifier" (al-Bukhari, Vol. 1, 199, kitab al-tayammum). This refers to the fact that Muslims can pray anywhere on earth and can use dust to ritually clean themselves (tayammum) when water is not available (for wudu, ablution), as mentioned in the Qur'an (4:43, 5:6). Of course, human being is also said to be created from water and water is also a purifier. We read in the Qur'an:
And We [i.e., God] made from water everything that is living (54:49). It is he who has created human being from water ... (25:54). He causes rain to descend on you from heaven to clean you therewith (8:11).
In addition to frequent references to rain, the Qur'an also refers to the sea and rivers:
It is he who has made the sea subject, that you may eat therefrom flesh that is fresh and tender, and may extract therefrom ornaments to wear; and you [O reader] see the ships therein that plough the waves, that you may seek thus of the bounty of God (through fishing, trade etc) and may be grateful. And he has set up on the earth mountains standing firm, lest she should shake with you, and rivers and pathways, that you may find your ways (16:14-15). And it is he who has spread the earth and made thereon mountains standing firm and rivers (flowing). He made fruit of every kind in pairs, two and two. He draws the night over the day. Surely in these things there are signs for people who think (13:3; see also 27:61).
The references to air in the Qur'an always occur under the term "the winds" (al-riyah). Three functions of winds are mentioned in the Qur'an: fecundating, raising and moving clouds, and providing energy for transportation by ships.
And We send the fecundating winds (15:22). Among his signs is that he sends the winds as heralds of good tidings as a taste of his mercy, that the ships may sail by his command and you may thus seek of his bounty in order that you may be grateful (30:46). It is God who sends the winds, and they raise the clouds, which, We then drive to a land which is dead, and thus revive the earth after its death. Even so (will be) the resurrection (of the dead) (35:9). Behold! ... In the sailing of the ships through the Ocean for the profit of humankind; in the rain that he sends down from the skies, and the life which he gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts 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 who are wise" (2:164; see also 7:57,25:48, 27:63, 30:48, 45:5).
When one reads such statements one feels as if it is the will of God that we should keep the land, the air and water clean so that worshippers of God can always find abundant clean water to purify themselves, the rain may always bring life-giving water to enough pollution-free land and forest for all the forms of life that God has created to stay in existence and flourish, and the sea may always be a source of fresh and tender food. This understanding is summed up in the following tradition:
The Prophet said: "God is beautiful and loves everything beautiful. He is generous and loves generosity and is clean and loves cleanliness" (al-'Ajluni, 1:260).
Some comparative observations
There is hardly an idea found in one old enough tradition which cannot be
parallelled in every other old enough tradition. The distinguishing character of
a tradition is found in the way it combines various ideas and the emphasis it
puts on them. Thus it is hardly surprising that we can find in other traditions
statements such as those found in the Islamic tradition as reviewed above. But
the emphases and therefore the whole spirit is different in the Islamic
tradition. I would conclude the exposition of the ecologically relevant teaching
of the Prophet Muhammad by bringing out what is substantially unique about his
teaching by comparing it with Christianity (which will also be examined in
greater detail further below), Buddhism, Hinduism and Atheistic or Agnostic
Science and Philosophy.
The statements that natural phenomena are signs of God and that human
being is a vicegerent of God who is under moral constraints which should make
him treat the environment and various forms of life well are found in the
writings of some church fathers5. But in Islamic tradition they are
found in the Qur'an and Hadith, the most authoritative sources in Islam.
Moreover, within the context of the Christian tradition at large, which is very
ambiguous in the matter of ecology (see further below) these statements by
church fathers get diluted. In Islam, on the other hand, there are not many
other statements that dilute, tone down or nullify their message. Thus
ecologically relevant teaching in Islam has far greater authority and
consistency and therefore are potentially far more effective.
On another issue we saw above that from very early times in Islam,
probably on the authority of the Prophet himself, there is a clear prohibition
of injuring or killing any animate things except for food and self-protection
and even for these latter purposes any killing or restraining of sentient beings
should be done with a minimum of pain. Violation of this prohibition is declared
a sin which may be punished by God even by hell fire. In Christianity it is only
in the modern era that some churches have declared polluting the environment and
harming life on earth a sin. Furthermore, in Islam once any course of action is
clearly recognized as wrong, there are principles whereby such an action can be
stopped. One such principle is a very basic one of enjoining what is good and
prohibiting what is bad ('amr bi al-ma'ruf
wa nahi 'an al-munkar). This principle would impose a collective duty on the
Muslims to try to stop any action that does serious harm to the environment.
Also, although Islam is not a law-centered religion like Judaism, it does give
law its due place in religious life. This means that in Islam moral and
spiritual principles can be made effective by legal instruments. This
combination of law and morality can ensure that actions harmful to the
environment can be effectively prevented. In contrast, in Christianity, under
the influence of Paul, there is a negative attitude towards law which deprives
it of one of the means of being effective. It has to leave any effective legal
action to the prevalently secular system which is not guided by it.
Turning from Christianity to oriental religious traditions such as
Hinduism and Buddhism, we find that in these traditions a great deal of value is
given to living creatures. Both religions contain proscription against injuring
living beings (ahimsa). Moreover, this
proscription occupies a very central place in these two religious traditions. In
Buddhism, for example, it is the first of the Five Precepts (Panca Sila) which define the minimal moral requirements for all
Buddhists. This prohibition is much more absolute than is the case in Islam,
since killing or injuring sentient beings is, in principle at least, not allowed
even for food, and should be completely avoided. In some forms of traditional
Hinduism, a brahmin should avoid even products of agriculture since agriculture
"hurts" the earth and kills many creatures in the soil. In the last
stages of his life he should not eat or drink anything and live only on water
and air until he dies. Yet all this
concern for the living creatures does not have a great deal of ecological value,
since like Christianity, both Hinduism and Buddhism lack effective legal
instruments and dynamic and authoritative socio-political principles such as 'amr
bi al-ma'ruf wa nahi 'an al-munkar whereby ahimsa
can be translated into an ecologically useful course of action at a massive
scale when needed. Moreover, both in Hinduism and Buddhism ahimsa is more about individual spiritual development of human
beings than about what happens to the creatures. For, at least in Buddhism,
unless one directly and intentionally injures or kills an animal, one is not
violating ahimsa. It is for this
reason that ahimsa did not lead in
Buddhism to vegetarianism, since one can eat the meat of an animal if one had
nothing to do with killing it. It is thus not of primary importance whether an
animal suffers and is killed. What is more important for a Buddhist is that he
does not kill the animal for the sake of his spiritual development or for
avoiding retaliation in the after-life. But then one must ask how does ahimsa
contribute to spiritual development, if not by teaching sensitivity to the pain
and suffering of other beings. And if such sensitivity is a key element in
spiritual development, it cannot be selective: we cannot be sensitive to the
pain that we might inflict on a sentient being and not be sensitive to the pain
that they may inflict on one another. Ahimsa
can be translated into an ecological principle only if some of its focus shifts
from the spiritual development of the person in this life or well being in a
future life to what happens to other forms of life. But then ahimsa will require that we should try to eliminate from nature not
only the suffering and death that humans inflict on living organisms but also
the much more frequent pain and death that the living creatures inflict on one
another; this in turn would require a massive interference with the natural food
chain, a very un-ecological thing to do!
In Islam death and suffering is part of life on this earth and serves
some positive purpose. Many living organisms kill and consume other living
organisms to sustain themselves and to evolve. Human beings are part of this
process and therefore sometimes they can kill and hence inflict suffering on
other forms of life. Islam does not set before us the impossible task of
changing the entire system of life that has evolved on earth, which it regards
not as a product of chance, whatever that means, but in accordance with the will
of God. However, it creates enough sensitivity to other creatures for us to
pursue our human interests with kindness to animals and without seriously
harming other forms of life.
An ecological approach of Atheistic or Agnostic Science and Philosophy is presented by Brian Swimme. He suggests that the modern theory of a universe beginning with the Big Bang will one day determine human attitude to other creatures. They will know and experience that since we originate from the same mass that flared forth fifteen billion years ago all creatures share the same flesh. Also, they are informed by the same genetic language. The Qur'an will agree with most of these statements, since it views the universe as a unified order that was once a single mass:
Do not the unbelievers consider that the heavens and the earth were once joined together and then We clove them asunder. And We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe? (21:30)
This verse clearly confirms the Big Bang. A further confirmation of this
theory is provided by 57:27, where iron and other things are said to be sent
down using the same word (anzala)
which is used of the rain fall and also of the descent of revelation from God.
This statement about the iron can also apply for other elements (15:21) and is
best understood if the earth was once joined with the heavens.
The Qur'an also states that human being has grown out of the earth like other creatures:
God has caused you to grow (anbata) as a growth from the earth. Afterward he makes you return to it and he will bring you forth again, in another way (17:17-18; see also 20:55). It is he who has produced you from the earth and settled you therein. So ask forgiveness of him and turn to him; for my Lord is always near, ready to answer (11:61).
The word anbata used for
"grow" in 71:17 is ordinarily used of plants and trees (but see 3:37
where it is used of Mary). It seems to stress the idea that human beings have
grown out of the same earth from which other forms of life have emerged. And
since the earth and the heavens were once joined together, all living creatures
share the same "flesh". But while the Qur'an agrees with the facts
of modern science, it goes much beyond them. It views the Big Bang as a sign
pointing towards God. After mentioning our growth from the earth it exhorts us
to turn to God in forgiveness and points to a future resurrection. Other
phenomena in the universe are often mentioned in the Qur'an to evoke gratitude (7:10, 16:78, 22:36-37, 25:50, 36:73, 45:12).
Many of the Qur'anic references to creation occur in the context of
arguments that God who created the world and human beings for the first time can
raise them from the dead and bring them to account (19:66-67, 17:51, 98-99,
22:5, 46:33, 50:2-11).
It is highly doubtful that mere realization that humans and the other
creatures, both animate and inanimate, share the same matter and animate
creatures share the same genetic language can by itself lead to effective action
to solve ecological problems. After all, the members of a family are well aware
that they are the same flesh and blood and yet this does not often by itself
help them to develop a harmonious relationship. The spiritual dimension that the
Qur'an adds to the facts of modern science is essential.
Science/technology and the Qur'an are both needed for humankind to build a
future based on harmonious relationship among themselves and with their
environment -- science/technology for solving practical and particular questions
of immediate importance and the Qur'an for a universal and eternal perspective.
Thus the essential difference between Islam and many other systems is
that the teaching of Islam regarding sanctity of all forms of life and moral
demands for treating all living creatures well and keeping the environment
healthy are: (a) far more unambiguous, (b) are far more firmly rooted into the
sources of highest authority in Islam, and (c) are far more capable of being put
into effective action to prevent and correct ecological problems that humankind
is presently facing or may face in the future.
Before examining the teachings of Jesus it is necessary to note that both
from the modern critical point of view and from that of Islam we need to make a
distinction between what Jesus thought and taught and what later New Testament
writers attributed to him or said in interpreting him. In the following
discussion I will maintain this distinction. The reader may have noticed that I
have applied the same principle in case of the Prophet Muhammad, since in using
the Qur'an as representing authentic teaching of the Prophet I am following
widely recognized historical fact while in using Hadith I have not assumed
complete identity between what is attributed to the Prophet in Hadith and what
he might have actually taught. This pursuit for authenticity is not simply an
expression of historical curiosity. It is something on which the salvation of
humanity may depend. For it can not only bring each of the two big religious
groups --Christians and Muslims -- closer to the truth but also to each other.
Thus, for example, it is significant that as a rule the words and deeds of Jesus
which pass some reasonable criteria of probable authenticity have great affinity
with the teachings of Islam while teachings improbably attributed to him or
admittedly of later origin without any such attribution often conflict violently
If we use the Bible without regard to the authenticity of its revelation it is found to be problematic for ecology, as has been pointed out by several writers since 1967. In that year Lynn White wrote a short but influential article in which he argued that modern ecological crisis has its root in the Western Christian concept of human being and nature and the relationship between them which in turn were derived from the Bible. He in particular alludes to the following passages in Genesis:
Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth (Gen 1:26).
[After putting man in the garden of Eden, God said,] "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he will call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God [took a rib from the man] and made it into a woman and brought her to the man.
In reference to these passages, White says: "God had created Adam
and as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the
animals, this establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this
explicitly for man's benefit and rule; no item in the physical creation has any
purpose save to serve man's purposes. And, although man's body is made of clay,
he is not simply part of nature; he is made in God's nature. ... . Especially in
its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world
has seen. ... [It] not only established a dualism of man and nature but also
insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper end. ...
By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in
a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects."
Other writers such as Arnold Toynbee blame monotheism generally for the
pollution of the environment. They argue that by placing God above nature
monotheism removed the restraints that earlier form of pagan religion placed on
man by the belief that nature was divine. Toynbee also refers to the command in
Genesis to subdue and master the earth. Historian Roderick Nash blames the
church for the abuse of nature. H. Paul Santmire suggests that two motifs are
found woven together in Western Christian theology. In one motif the end of
human existence is either to transcend nature or to humanize it. In the other,
the end lies in community with nature based on an appreciation of nature's
blessings and its value apart from its usefulness to human beings. The result is
a profound ambiguity in Christian attitudes towards nature. In the modern period
the negative side of this ambiguity became prominent when the anthropocentrism
implicit in the first motif was increasingly secularized as a result of progress
in science and technology. McDaniel concurs with the views of Santmire and then
proceeds to propose a creation-centered theology adequate for the ecological
age. He describes his approach as "liberal Protestant" and recognizes
that it is one of many approaches being developed at the present time by
Christians from many different perspectives: biblical, feminist, first world,
third world, mystical, political, cosmological, existential, Catholic and
Not surprisingly many Jewish and Christian writers, instead of granting
the views of White, Toynbee, and others their due and then developing a new
ecological theology, have preferred to argue against them. Thus Susan Power
Bratton and Robert H. Ayers attempt to refute the views of White and Nash from a
Christian perspective while Helfand, expressing the Jewish point of view,
criticises the views like those of Toynbee, describing them as
One can certainly say against some of the environmentalists that
monotheism by itself could not have led to the present ecological crisis, for it
is not relevant to the way human beings treat nature where man places God but
rather where he places himself in relation to nature. As we saw earlier, it is
possible to de-divinise nature without desacralizing it. The Qur'an turns nature
from being an object of man's worship to being man's fellow worshipper of God
and the same is to some extent true of parts of the Old Testament (Psalms
148:3-10, cf. Isa. 55:12). The question therefore is whether any given
monotheistic religion places man too much higher than or too much apart from
nature to be the source of ecological problems. In this connection, however, the
environmentalists' claim about Genesis are not baseless and the refutation by
more traditionalist writers is not convincing. The main point that the
traditionalists make is that the dominion given to man in Genesis is not
unqualified but rather it assumes that man is to serve God. This point may be
granted, for, it is unlikely that the editors of Genesis meant that man can do
to the earth or to the creatures on it as he pleases. But once again the issue
is not whether monotheist man is subject to some restraints but rather whether
the Bible puts him under sufficient restraints when it comes to treating the
environment. When the question is clarified in this way, it becomes evident that
the answer is in the negative in the case of the Bible.
Referring to the passage where man is commanded to subdue the earth,
Susan Bratton points out that the Hebrew words rada
and kabas which according to Gerhard
von Rad imply treading down and trampling and thus have dominating overtones
should be understood in the light of Gen 2:15 where God puts man in the garden
of Eden "to till it and keep it" using the words abad and shamar which can
also be translated as "to serve" and "to preserve". Quoting
James Barr, she then suggests that "nothing more is to be read into the
dominion passage than 'the basic needs of settlement and agriculture'".
Even if this is accepted, a similar device cannot be used to dismiss the passage
where it is stated that all the earthly creatures were created for man and then
presented to him for naming.
Helfand, argues on the basis of the Old Testament and the Talmud that
Judaism places sufficient restraints on man in connection with his treatment of
the environment. Thus he refers to Deuteronomy 20:19 where the destruction of
trees by an army besieging a city is prohibited. However, he ignores the command
in 1 Sam 15:1-17 to slay not only man and woman, infant and suckling, but also
"ox and sheep, camel and ass." His use of the Talmud is similarly
selective. Still it may be granted that Judaism by and large was able to develop
laws and traditions that showed some care for nature and animals and encouraged
harmonious coexistence with them. But the same cannot be said of Western
Christianity. This is because the overestimation of man's place in the universe
which is present in the Old Testament is carried to ultimate heights in the
books of the New Testament that were the favorite in Western Christianity:
Pauline letters and the Gospel of John. The surprising thing is not that some
ecologically conscious writers like White, Toynbee and others have been able to
see that the Bible has contributed to an overestimation of man's place in the
universe and hence to the modern ecological crisis, but rather that they use so
little of the Bible and even of the book of Genesis in their support6.
For example, they do not seem to note that the villain in the drama of man's sin
is the animal serpent, who in Christian understanding is identified with Satan.
Outside Genesis, in Mark 11:12-14, 20-24 (= Matthew 21:18-22) Jesus curses a fig
tree because it did not provide fruit when he was hungry, even though it was not
a season for figs. The curse kills the tree and this is seen as a demonstration
of the power of faith. Much more significantly, in some hymns in Pauline letters
and in the Gospel of John Christ is considered a pre-existent heavenly being, a
sinless second Adam, or the uncreated logos. As the Son of Man and the second
Adam Christ is a representative man, so that what is said of Christ is
transferable to man. Thus both Paul and John describe the believers as sons of
God (John 1:12-13; Rom 8:15-16, 2 Cor 6:18, Ephes 1:5, cf. 1 John 3:1-3). In
centuries after Paul and John, Christ is further glorified to become one with
God. To the extent that these later doctrines declare Christ "fully
man" and "fully God," they too say something about man. And this
could only be that God became man and Man became god, thus making man the center
of the universe. The importance of man is carried to extreme when it is said
that God came as a sacrifice to redeem man. Not only the creation but also the
creator is in the service of man. Of course, we can put all these aspects of
Biblical teachings in different light by referring to other passages in the
Bible. Thus in the idea of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ one can see,
and some Christians have seen, an affirmation of the positive value of this
created world. But to the extent that God comes into the world as a man and only
to effect man's world, the anthropocentric emphasis of the Christian tradition
is not thereby changed. In other religions where incarnational beliefs are
found, God or Gods can incarnate as animals but as a rule in the Christian
tradition it is only the devil who takes animal forms. Thus, as already noted,
Christian tradition sees the serpent as Satan in the story of Adam and Eve. In
the book of Daniel, a favorite book for Christians, the Son of Man = Man stands
for the rule of the righteous or a righteous ruler while the Gentile evil
empires are represented as beasts. In the Book of Revelation Satan is a dragon.
An exception is the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus in the form of dove. But
this exception is not known to inspire any widespread kindness towards animals.
The truth is that the main thrust of the Christian doctrines is anthropocentric
and the main thrust of a teaching often does assert itself, despite
interpretations devised to soften it.
How Genesis 1-3 and other parts of the Bible with an anthropocentric thrust could have created in Western Christianity an attitude of arrogance and insensitivity towards nature can be seen by looking at how the passages about women were actually used in the New Testament and subsequently led to the mistreatment of women. Referring to Genesis, First Timothy says:
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission, I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (1 Tim 2:8-15).
The author of this passage is not interpreting the story of the sin of
Adam and Eve in a symbolic way nor is he concerned with the fine distinctions of
the type made by Bratton, Ayers and others in case of the references to the
dominion of man over nature. He draws the simple conclusion from the Genesis
story that women have a secondary, subordinate, and morally inferior position as
compared to men and then formulates a practical rule for the church. This type
of interpretation of the Genesis passage about women did have serious
consequences for them: until the beginning of this century they were denied most
of their basic rights in Christendom.
Another example is provided by the blame that the New Testament puts on
the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. One can justifiably see these passages in
the light of others which say that the crucifixion was foreordained by God as a
positive event which made salvation possible and therefore the Jews were simply
playing a role in this gruesome drama of salvation. But this is not how they
were understood by Western Christians in their dealings with the Jews. As a
result the Jews living in the West suffered.
A third example is provided by the Old Testament idea that Israel was a
chosen people of God who will one day subjugate the whole world or eliminate
other nations and/or enlighten them. It is probable that the Western nations
applied this view to themselves as if they were each the new Israel and went
about in this and the last century to colonize the world as ruling nations, all
but annihilating some native populations and imposing their culture on others in
order to "civilize" them.
In view of the above examples, it is quite probable that, as White and
others have suggested, the passages about man's dominion over the animals and
nature were understood by many Christians, especially in the West, to mean that
"man and nature are two things and man is master." And just as in the
previous centuries women suffered in large measure because of what Genesis says
about Eve, and Jews suffered in large measure because of what the Gospels say
about the role of the Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus, and "natives"
and other nations suffered because of what the Old Testament says about Israel
as a chosen race, similarly, in our century nature suffered because of what
Genesis, Paul, John and some church fathers said about the relation between man
and nature and man and God7.
Any text can be misunderstood and misused by some of its readers. What we
need to do is to promote correct and faithful understanding of the sacred texts.
But I think in case of the Bible this will not be enough. We need to assess
whether the words and deeds reported there are authentic words and deeds of the
prophets to whom they are attributed.
This brings us to the teachings of Jesus in their relevance to the
subject of ecology. The task of recovering from the gospels Jesus' teachings on
any subject is a complex one and this is not the place to deal with it in all
its difficulties. Here it will suffice to note that the primary canonical
sources for the teachings of Jesus are Q and Mark (Q referring to the set of
traditions known both to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark). Although some
noncanonical sources such as the Gospel of Thomas are also early, here I will
limit myself to the canonical sources.
For the original form of the Q material I will use scholarly
reconstructions such as those given by John Kloppenborg and Burton L. Mack.
Mark was written around 70 C. E. while Q was in existence around 50 C. E.
Mark was written by a Gentile author outside Palestine while Q was produced in
Palestine by Jesus' Jewish followers. Since Mark is further removed from Jesus
both in time and place than Q, it is obviously to be considered
less reliable of the two sources.
Teachings of Jesus may be divided into two parts: wisdom teaching and
teaching about the kingdom of God. Scholarly opinion is divided as to which part
dominated Jesus' teaching. Since Albert Schweitzer's book, The
Quest for the Historical Jesus, it was generally held that Jesus was a
thoroughgoing apocalyptist who proclaimed a future kingdom of God conceived in
the manner of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. More recently, however, on the
basis of the studies of Q and the Gospel of Thomas a number of scholars have
concluded that Jesus was a thoroughgoing teacher of wisdom. The truth, as often,
is somewhere in the middle. Jesus did teach wisdom but at the same time he
proclaimed the kingdom of God, although his view of the kingdom of God was not
as similar to that of the Jewish apocalyptic as previously thought.
On the subject of ecology, there are no sayings of Jesus with direct
relevance such as we can find in the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. We can,
however, find an outlook in his teachings with implications for ecology. These
can be discussed under the same two headings as in the case of the teachings of
the Prophet Muhammad:
Jesus and the kingdom of God. According to Q, Jesus told his followers to proclaim: "The kingdom of God has come near to you" (Luke 10:9 = Matt 10:7). Mark also sums up Jesus' own message in similar terms: Jesus came to Galilee preaching the good news of God [or, of kingdom], and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." Examination of other reliable sayings of Jesus sheds some light on Jesus' idea of the kingdom of God. In what is described by some scholars as Jesus' most reliable saying, he says:
But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you (Luke 11:20=Matt 12:28).
The expression "finger of God" (Matthew has "spirit of
God") means something like the power of God (Exodus 8:10; Deuteronomy
9:10). "has come" provides the most natural translation of the
underlying Greek word ephthasen. This
of course means that the kingdom has already arrived, a statement seemingly at
odds with other sayings of Jesus according to which the kingdom of God is near
but in the future. As a result some scholars have translated ephthasen
as "has drawn near". But it is not necessary to resort to such an
unusual translation to develop a consistent picture of Jesus' teaching about the
kingdom. For it seems that in Jesus' view there is not a single coming of the
kingdom. Any manifestation of divine power is a coming of the kingdom. This
allows us to reconcile the above saying with those talking of a future coming of
the kingdom and understand it as follows: By the very fact that Jesus' exorcism
are performed by the power of God, the kingdom is manifested and hence can be
said to have come. In other sayings Jesus makes it clear that it is not just his
exorcisms that proceed from the power of God. Thus in a controversy recorded
both in Q (Luke 11:14-18 = Matt 12:22-26) and Mark (3:22-27), some unbelieving
Jews accused Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul, "the ruler of the
demons". Jesus answered in effect that the ruler of the demons will not
assist anyone to act against his own kingdom by allowing his own agents to be
cast out. This means that for Jesus exorcism by its very nature has to be from
God since it is an act against Satan. Does that mean that the exorcisms
performed by other exorcists were also of divine origin. Jesus' answer seems to
be in the affirmative. As part of his answer to his accusers, Q records the
following saying: "Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do
your sons (who exorcise) cast them out? [Obviously by divine power.] Therefore
they will be your judges" (Luke 11:19 = Matt 12:27). Thus for Jesus the
kingdom of God is manifested by any exorcism no matter who performs it.
Jesus also clearly looked forward to a powerful future coming of the
kingdom, that is, manifestation of divine power. Thus he can pray to God:
"your kingdom come (in the near future)" (Q: Matt 6:10 = Luke 11:2) or
look forward to drinking in the kingdom of God in the future: "I will never
again drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the kingdom of
God" (Mark 14:25). Or, promise the reversal of fortunes of the poor and the
downtrodden at a future time in the kingdom: "Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you
will be fed. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh" (Q: Luke
6:20-21 = Matt 5:3, 4, 6). How can one understand this future coming of the
kingdom of God or the manifestation of his power? We need to think in terms of
two kingdoms: a kingdom of God and a kingdom of Satan. At present the two
kingdoms coexist with the kingdom of Satan manifested in disease, poverty etc
and the kingdom of God manifested in healing and well being. Sometimes in the
future the kingdom of Satan will be completely destroyed so that only the
kingdom of God will remain. This is the future coming of the kingdom of God
"in power" (Mark 9:1, cf. 1 Cor 4:20). Jesus makes no real distinction
between the kingdom of God which is manifested at present in exorcisms and the
kingdom of God as it will be manifested in the future, even though this future
manifestation brings something fundamentally new.
Jesus sometimes explained his view of the kingdom of God using parables. Of these the following two not only have the greatest claim to authenticity but are also among the very few that expressly mention the kingdom of God:
What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches (Q:Luke 13:18-19 = Matt 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Thomas 20).
To what should I compare the kingdom of God. It is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened (Luke 13:20-21 = Matt 13:33; Thomas 96).
These parables have been interpreted in a variety of ways. One probable
interpretation is that the kingdom of God is a manifestation of God's power
which works and was working in Jesus' time in a hidden way such as is also
manifested before our eyes in nature: a small mustard seed growing into a big
plant or a large quantity of flour being leavened by a small amount of yeast. To
fully appreciate this interpretation we should keep in mind that in the common
way of thinking in ancient times a process was not often imagined between two
events such as the sowing of a seed and the emergence of a plant or the mixing
of yeast with flour and the flour getting leavened. The power of God was thus
seen to be much more directly responsible for such phenomena than is the case in
our way of thinking. It is the same power of the same God which is active in
these phenomena in a hidden way is also active presently and will be manifested
in the future as the kingdom of God. Jesus does not identify the power of God
manifested in nature as a manifestation or coming of the kingdom of God; this
expression he seems to use in reference to manifestations of divine power within
the human world. But these parables imply some similarity and continuity between
the supernatural or spiritual kingdom of God and the power of God manifested in
The ecological significance of the above teaching about the kingdom of
God is that the Prophet Jesus, like the Prophet Muhammad, calls people to an
eternal and heavenly perspective in life, which as we saw earlier is an
essential perspective if humans' have to properly use their tremendous
technological power and hence to survive and flourish. Jesus teaches that man
should seek an eternal kingdom of God and not be too concerned with the
immediate needs of the day (Luke 12:6-7, 12:22-31 = Matt 10:29-31, 6:25-34; see
further below for quotations). This does not mean that Jesus was not concerned
with the well being of humans here and now. His undoubtedly historical interest
in healing the sick shows that he did not believe in simply waiting for the
kingdom of God and doing nothing to improve one's lot here and now, although
some sayings may suggest that. Also, recall that for Jesus there are comings of
the kingdom of God that can take place here and now.
The fact that some sayings suggest that Jesus thought of the kingdom of
God as near does not mean that we cannot describe his perspective as
"long-term". For very definite references to how near was the kingdom
of God may not go back to Jesus. Moreover, the kingdom to which he looked
forward was an eternal kingdom and that implies a very long-term perspective
even if the interval between now and the coming of the kingdom is short.
Jesus also seems to have a unified outlook. The future kingdom of God,
the present possibilities of divine power such as those realized through
exorcisms, and the phenomena of nature are linked together. One God is behind
every event. God forgets none of his creatures and has numbered all things
including hair on everyone's head.
Jesus and his own person. In Mark 10:17-27 it is reported that a man ran up to Jesus, knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus, perhaps not approving this kneeling before him, replied, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone ...." Here Jesus clearly regards himself as a man who like other men has no goodness in himself except what God has given him. A similar refusal by Jesus to hear any glorification of his own person is found in Q:
As he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you." But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it" (Luke 11:27-28, believed by scholars to be in Q, but omitted by Matthew or used in Matt 7:21).
Here Jesus rejects even a very mild form of glorification of his own
person and stresses rather obedience to the will of God, which is close to what
the Qur'an calls al-islam. And
nowhere else in Mark or Q Jesus utters a word that can suggest that he considered himself God in flesh, as the later church came to believe. In fact, traditions in both Mark and Q present Jesus as a prophet and teacher of wisdom not unlike John the Baptist:
For John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He has a demon"; the son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, "Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children (Q, as reconstructed by scholars from Luke 7:33-35 = Matt 11:18-19).
John and Jesus come in different styles but they are both viewed as
teachers of wisdom with little difference assumed in their natures. Likewise, in
Mark 11:27-33 Jesus is asked by what authority he does "these things,"
referring possibly to all his activities such as teaching and healing miracles.
Jesus indirectly answers by a question: "Did the baptism of John come from
heaven or was it of human origin?" One of the implications of this answer
by a question is that Jesus' authority was of the same type as that of John the
Baptist who was a prophet.
Indeed, it is quite likely that Jesus thought of the Baptist as superior
to himself. This is strongly suggested by the fact that he went to be baptized
by him and that he considered John to be the greatest of those who were born of
women, that is, of all human beings who ever lived, at least upto Jesus' time.
These facts were found embarrassing by the early Christians to the extent that
they felt obliged to add words reversing the relative position of John the
Baptist and Jesus. Thus accounts of Jesus' baptism were modified by statements
put in the mouth of John in which he declares himself vastly inferior to Jesus.
And Jesus' own statement that John was the greatest human being who ever
lived was modified by the addition of the words: "the least in the kingdom
of God is greater than he" (see A. Shafaat, The
Mysterious Disappearance of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity, Chapter
Thus Jesus provides no basis for the later deification of his person or for the overestimation of humankind's place in the universe. We do not possess extensive enough and authentic enough information about his teaching to be able to say in what way he understood Genesis account of man's creation. We can only say that although he considered human beings as creatures of the greatest value in the sight of God he also considered other creatures having a great value, as we see from the following sayings:
Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7=Matt 10:29-31).
Consider the ravens; they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you add a single hour to your span of life? And if then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. ... Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well (Luke 12:22-31 = Matt 6:25-34).
Here non-human creatures have value in the sight of God independent of
their use for humans, for the three species mentioned in the above passages
(sparrows, ravens, and lilies) are not particularly useful for humans. It is
assumed that human beings have much more value than animals, and, although the
nature of the difference between the two cannot unfortunately be clarified on
the basis of any extant sayings of Jesus, the above passage allows the
interpretation that the difference is one of degree and not nature.
In some contrast to the above sayings, the story in Mark (followed by Matthew but not Luke) of the fig tree which withered as a result of Jesus' curse reflects a singular insensitivity to at least one form of life. But this story is not historical, not only because it has no attestation independent of Mark but also the story reflects a typical perspective of the Gentile church. The fig tree that did not produce fruit represents Israel which more or less rejected the Christian message. The tree's destruction symbolizes the destruction of Israel (presumably by the Romans in 70 C.E.) and its presumed replacement by the new Israel -- the Christian Church . This theme is typical of Gentile Christianity and is not found in the earlier Palestinian layers of the gospel tradition. The conclusion drawn in Mark from the destruction of the tree -- that with faith miraculous things can be done -- is secondary and seems to be inspired by an independent saying of Jesus, a version of which is found in Q:
If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it would obey you (Luke 17:6=Matt 17:20; Matthew has changed the mulberry tree to a mountain, probably under the influence of Mark 11:23 which Matthew reproduces but Luke does not).
Here there is no destruction of the tree. The tree is simply moved by the
power of faith, and even that hypothetically. Mark, by combining a version of
this saying with the symbolic story of the destruction of the fig tree has
inadvertently created the monstrous suggestion that one of the fruits of faith
is unjustifiably destroying life.
In the light of above evidence it thus appears that in Jesus' own view
his person is no different in nature than other human beings. He believed that,
like John the Baptist, he was healing and teaching with divine authority and
wisdom, but there is no evidence that he thought of himself any more divine than
John the Baptist. And as for human beings generally, they do
have more valuable in the sight of God than other creatures on earth but
these other creatures also have value in the sight of God and the difference
between them and human beings is one of degree and not of nature.
In summary, like other events in the universe, human
actions have consequences. These can become serious if the actions are large
scale in any of the following senses: actions are repeated by a large number of
people, or over a long period of time, or involve massive forces unleashed by
technology. Such large-scale actions have consequences for environment and hence
for human and other forms of life.
The orientation of our large-scale actions is to a great extent
determined by the way we answer certain ultimate questions about the nature of
life in general and about the place of human beings in relation to the rest of
the universe, questions which are a proper domain of religion. This makes such
questions and hence religion relevant to ecology.
Of particular relevance to ecology is whether we view life as a long-term
project involving whole of humanity and other forms of life or whether we live
for our own individual short-term gain. Also, relevant is the degree to which we
overestimate or underestimate our place in the universe. The authentic teachings
of both the Prophets Muhammad and Jesus balance our immediate concerns with an
eternal and heavenly perspective on life. Both of them also teach us that human
being is simply a creature of God, in nature no different from other creatures,
who is required to surrender to the will of God and is accountable before him.
They also acknowledge the special favors of God on humans and view them as
possessing a position of responsibility on earth. In this way they neither
overestimate nor underestimate the place of human beings in the universe.
The teaching of the Prophet Muhammad further contains some injunctions
directly relevant to ecology, e.g., the prohibition of wastefulness and of
mistreatment of animals, that is, inflicting any injury on them except for food
or self-protection. It also contains principles which obligate effective legal
and political action to prevent or correct serious harm to the environment.
1 Numbers in parenthesis refer to passages in the Qur'an.
2 Writers are quoted from works cited in the references.
3 References to the books of Hadith are by page numbers in the particular printings I have used (listed under References). For readers using other printings I have provided references by kitab and bab.
4 I have often personally heard this story, especially in Sufi circles.
5 See note 7 below.
6 The reason that many ecologically conscious writers avoid mentioning these examples evidently is that they do not want to directly confront basic Christian beliefs. They know that their mostly Christian readers will be much more accepting if faults are pointed out in Genesis rather than in a fundamental Christian doctrine.
7 As might be expected a very positive and sensitive attitude towards
nature and non-human creatures is not absent from the Christian tradition,
especially extra-biblical tradition. Saint Basil (329-379) talked about kindness
and gentleness towards animals and called them "our brothers". John
Chrysostomos (347-407) wrote that saints were very kind to everyone including
the animals. Origen (185-254) described nature as another "scripture",
although elsewhere his views are such that Santmire places him among those
Christian writers for whom the end of human existence is either to transcend
nature or to humanize it. Francis of Assissi had a view of animals very similar
to that of Islam, possibly due to influence on him of Islamic mysticism.
"Legends of saints, especially the Irish saints, had long told of their
dealings with the animals but always, I believe, to show their human dominance
over creatures. With Francis it was different. ... His view of nature and of man
rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inanimate,
designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator ... " (Lynn
White, 1207). (Cf. the Qur'anic verses where everything in the universe is said
to hymn the praises of God).
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First published in Journal of the Muslim Research Institute, vol. 3, no. 2, Canada in 1999. Copyright © Dr. Ahmad Shafaat. The article may be reproduced for Da'wah purpose with proper references.