Caring for God’s Creation: An Islamic Obligation


The practice of Islamic thinking in the contemporary world has often focussed on issues to do with matters pertaining to radicalism, terror, security, and how to engage with legacy of western imperialism and the emergence of modern science.[1] Writing in a Routledge Handbook Zainal Abidin Bagir and Najiyah Martiam have observed that ‘the issue of ecology does not occupy an important place yet’.[2] The pioneering work of Seyyed Hossein Nasr on an Islamic understanding for the care of creation over the last four decades has only occasionally stimulated further research.[3] Nasr has drawn upon the spiritual and metaphysical dimensions within the Islamic tradition while being highly critical of ‘the secularist ideology’ that governs western science[4] – and which has led to the desacralization of nature from the theological and ethical consideration.[5] In the intervening years, the global concern has shifted from a concern for sustainability and the loss of biodiversity to the urgent and serious threats posed by human-induced climate change.

Faced with this deepening crisis Muslim eco-activists and scientists have moved to release an Islamic Declaration on Climate Change. This particular declaration arose out of a symposium held in Istanbul shortly before the Paris climate summit in 2015. In terms of its content the Declaration mediates both the claims of climate science and relevant Qur’anic wisdom.[6]

The Declaration is divided up into several component parts.  Its preamble is deeply realistic about how ‘[t]he pace of Global climate change today is of a different order of magnitude from the gradual changes that previously occurred throughout the most recent era, the Cenozoic’. The Declaration is under no illusions: our species is called to be a ‘caretaker or steward (khalifah)’ in the new epoch in which we now live – the Anthropocene, the “Age of Humans”. The current rate of climate change cannot be sustained and ‘we are in danger of ending life as we know it on our planet’.  The nagging questions become ‘What will future generations say of us, who leave them a degraded planet as our legacy? How will we face our Lord and Creator?’[7]

The preamble gives way to a sequence of affirmations to do with Allah and His creation. Each affirmation is supported by a Qur’anic reference. The contrast is effectively drawn between the urgency of empirical studies of the Earth system science and the poetics of belief, balance, equilibrium, and submission. There is a stark acknowledgement of humanity’s failure to fulfil its role of khalifah and the effect of such abuse on the created order.[8]

The Declaration concludes with a series of calls. What these invocations bear witness to is a call to be accountable. There are specific policy-based calls to well-off nations, oil-producing states, corporations as well as the finance and business sectors. The Declaration concludes with a call made upon all Muslims ‘wherever they may be … to tackle habits, mindsets, and the root causes of climate change, environmental degradation, and the loss of biodiversity in their particular spheres of influence, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and bring about a resolution to the challenges that now face us’.[9]

The Declaration draws upon traditional insights from the Qur’an. It does so in a manner where texts are isolated to support the general direction of the argument but without mounting a sustained theology. The criticism Bagir and Martiam make of a turning to canonical texts like this is not entirely justified in this instance. They observed that such a strategy is inclined to be ‘defensive, if not apologetic’. Something else is required because, as they argue:

[i]t is anachronistic to think that a centuries-old tradition should be prepared with answers to any emergent question, especially questions that have not yet been asked, at least not in the magnitude of today’s environmental crisis.[10]

Bagir and Martiam are also mindful of how within Islam there is a plurality of interpretations – and so there is a need to establish a hermeneutical principle upon which to mount an argument. Those considerations, nevertheless, are necessary (though incidental) to a much larger concern facing any religion seeking to respond to climate change and the Anthropocene. Bagir and Martiam conclude that ‘this kind of overtly textual exposition does not go far enough to respond to new ecological knowledge and environmental problems’.[11] Here is where the Declaration is at its strongest. It embraces and describes the science of climate change as well as invoking Qur’anic claims.

A question arises then: What does Islam and its theology say about the environment, ecosystems and wildlife? The posing of this question is of a global significance given the percentage of the world’s population that is Muslim. There have been articles written on Islam and the environment but they have rarely, if ever, approached the question from a theological perspective. When Muslims discuss how they should protect the environment there is no all-encompassing theology that could feed into an ethical consideration. What theological perspective there is does not stimulate action motivated by religious obligation to protect the environment.

The intention of this article is first to give an outline of an Islamic theology on the environment in order to illustrate how the environment is an extremely valuable divine artefact displaying infinite creativity of God. Everything in the natural world worships God in a unique way; animal and plant species in ecosystems form communities that have a right to live independently of humans. Secondly, it examines the relationship between humanity and the environment. So often human interaction with the environment is one-way. In a physical sense, humans only take from the environment but give nothing back. The act of taking creates an imbalance in the environment. The best humans can do is to help preserve the environment and not irreversibly upset the balance. Although humans are given right of usage of what the earth provides, they do not own the earth. It is entrusted to them by God and they have to return it undamaged. Humans are accountable at the court of God for betrayal of the trust if they irreversibly damage the earth. This trust is sometimes described by Islamic scholars as a ‘bestowed trust’.[12] Accountability to divine judgment in turn entails obligation to protect what is trusted. Thirdly is the need to build a case that caring for the environment is an Islamic religious obligation (fard). There is a dilemma to negotiate. Humankind must inevitably live off the resources and life forms on the planet. The theological urgency lies in how the collective human activity on earth is harming not only life on earth but the entire planet (Anthropocene). Hence Islam’s overriding principle of preventing harm before acquisition of benefit applies. The obligation is not only on every individual Muslim but on Islamic organisations and governments of Muslim majority countries.

Theological Perspectives on Life on Earth

The most obvious place to begin with is in an Islamic understanding of life and nature. Life is the most precious gift in the universe. If the universe is made analogous to a tree, life would be its finest fruit. The entire universe with its matter, energy, laws and activities are brought together to produce life. Life is nothing short of a miracle which makes the tiniest living creature comparable to a cosmic star. Life is the most extraordinary miracle of divine power connecting living creatures to every other being in existence. A tiny bee can claim ownership of a majestic mountain by virtue of its life and its connection with the natural world that supports its being. Not surprisingly, Islam gives immense value to creation and living beings. We only take care of things if we believe they are valuable. So, the first premise Islam asserts is to accord immense worth to the environment. All life is considered special and valuable for it is the life and the creative art displayed on each living creature that connects it to the Divine.

The Qur’an uses the word ayāt (signs) to refer to the actual verses of the Qur’an as well as the signs God has placed in the natural world for reflecting human minds: ‘…And it is He who spread out the earth and set thereon mountains standing firm and (flowing) rivers: and fruit of every kind He made in pairs: He draws the night as a veil over the Day. Behold, verily in these things there are signs for those who think and reflect’,[13] ‘It is He who sends down rain from the sky: from it you drink, and out of it (grows) the vegetation on which you feed your cattle. With it He produces for you corn, olives, date-palms, grapes and every kind of fruit. Behold, verily in these things there are signs (ayāt) for those who think and reflect!’[14] By describing nature as signs of God in the Qur’an, Muslims are encouraged to reflect on them to learn about God’s tawhid (unity), His divine attributes and about the inter-connectivity of life with the natural world and the universe. Linking the Creator with creatures as His wonderful creative works of art intrinsically makes everything valuable as distinct from an instrumental value. This linkage renders the natural environment and animal forms as sacred and valuable because they contribute to the belief in God and God’s unity.

Reflection on the natural world goes beyond an invitation to believe and instinctively leads to the worship of God. The Qur’an encourages its readers to see the spiritual dimension, hence worth, of the natural world by focusing on creation’s cosmic worship of God, ‘Do you ever consider that all who are in the heavens and all who are on the earth prostrate themselves to God, and so do the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the beasts, and so do many among human beings?’[15] This worship encroaches beyond the symbolism of the physical act of ‘prostration’ and includes the spiritual praise and glorification of God expressed in uniquely natural way, ‘the seven heavens and the earth, and whoever is therein, glorify Him. There is nothing that does not glorify Him with His praise but you cannot comprehend their glorification.’[16] These verses and others similar to them not only invite the reader to join in with the rest of the natural world in worshipping God, but they also evoke humans to see the natural world beyond its materialistic worth and utility.

One way to contemplate this act of glorification is that the cosmos and the creatures in the natural world praise God by becoming a mirror to God’s names and perfect attributes.[17] In addition to Qur’anic revelation, God is known through the universe and the natural world. In this respect, they serve to higher divine purposes and submit to God’s overarching plan through the laws He ordained in the universe.[18] All life is indeed valuable and worthy of reverence for they have spiritual value and purpose.  Natural world and the universe helps adherents not only connect with the Creator but also to understand Him.

Importantly, God’s plan for creation elicits a design of life on earth by establishing plant and animal worlds in ecosystems just as human beings develop interdependent communities. In the wake of Nasr’s earlier work one of the most important steps made in Islamic environmental thinking has indeed been in the area of its teaching and attitudes with regards animals.[19] The Qur’an clearly talks about living beings existing in ecological systems: ‘No living creature is there moving on the earth, no bird flying on its two wings, but they are communities like you.’[20] The comparison of animal species with human communities is significant. Since human societies are complex systems made up of numerous interdependent individuals, this comparison points to the modern concept of ecosystems. The expression ‘communities like you’ positions ecosystems in the same league as human societies. The existence of plural ‘communities’ leads us to the conclusion that there are many concurrently existing and independent ecosystems.  Not unlike human societies, responsible treatment of ecosystems and striving to avoid damaging or destroying them is part of the general Qur’anic prohibition not to cause corruption on earth.

While Islam treats the life of all creatures as valuable and recognizes ecosystems as communities worthy of protection, it gives a degree higher to human life. Humanity and, therefore, human life is distinguished from the rest of the creation in a number of distinctive ways. Human beings are the most elaborate integrated living compositions.[21] They have intellect and a capacity to learn. By reflecting on the universe they have a capacity to gain knowledge of God (Qur’ān, 2:31-33). Human beings have been ‘honoured with goodness’[22] in that men and women are created with the innate capability to recognise goodness and to respect virtue. Human beings are created with a sound ‘natural disposition (fitrah) of God upon which He has modelled the humans.’[23] Ultimately, human beings are created as a ‘vicegerent (khalifah) on earth’[24] with the power and privilege of exercising command over earth’s life forms and utilising its resources. But they are also charged with the responsibility of protecting the natural world and not causing ‘corruption on earth’[25] by destroying either its order or its beauty. Whenever, the Qur’an puts responsibility onto humans, it comes with an obligation to follow through with the responsibility and the resultant accountability before God. Hence, humans should expect to be judged on how they treat other living creatures and the environment.

Thus, an Islamic theological assessment illustrates that the environment is an extremely valuable artefact displaying infinite creativity of God; everything in the natural world worships God in a unique way, and animal species with the ecosystems they create form communities and have a right to live independently of humans. Humans are endowed with intelligence and ingenuity to exert power over the rest of the creation which is balanced with the responsibility and accountability of human treatment of earth, its living creatures and the environment. Hence, the life on earth must be preserved as an extremely valuable artefact and humans are charged with the responsibility.

The Unilateral Relationship of Humans with the Environment

The Qur’an tells us that human beings are created from an earthly essence[26] and, more generally, that every living being is created from water.[27] Humans do have a common physical existence with everything else on earth and need the environment to survive. There is, however, a profound difference between the way humans function in the common home we call the earth and that of animals and plants.On earth, every living being adds value to its ecosystem. Consider the vine plant for example. It sucks muddy water from soil and turns it into sweet and nutritious grapes. The sheep consume plain grass off the meadows and produce milk, wool and meat. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen thereby cleansing the atmosphere for animals and humans. Every animal and plant species add a measurable value to its natural environment, either by what they produce or by the functions they perform. Human beings, on the other hand, consume the best of what the ‘kitchen of nature’ has to offer and turn it into waste that is ultimately flushed away or dumped in the environment. If all humans packed up their bags and left on spaceships, the planet would rejoice and return to its pristine form. Humanity, in a physical sense, adds no value to the ecological environment. Humans produce nothing that is of value to other life forms and do not perform any function that is essential to the environment.

This observation has two important consequences. First, humanity is not part of any ecosystem in purely physical terms. Human beings are designed to live in nearly all ecosystems but have come from outside the system. Or, viewed from another perspective, they have become independent of ecosystems. Human beings take but contribute nothing physical to nature. The second consequence flows from the first. It is necessary to look beyond mere human physical existence to find a true purpose of human existence. A human being cannot compete with a bird in terms of survival but has a greater mental and spiritual capacity and this is where human potential and purpose manifestly lies. In spite of all human intellectual, moral, artistic and technological progress, nothing that humans do directly or indirectly contribute to the environment in a meaningful and value-added way.

So, unlike animals and plants, human interaction with the environment is essentially one way. Human beings consume and benefit from everything on earth but give nothing in return. The only contribution, in a physical sense, humans can add to the environment is its sustainable protection and preservation. Even in this respect, it is about minimising harm rather than adding value. Islam addresses repercussions generated by human existence on earth at five levels.

The first is to see the intrinsic value of life on earth, the natural environment and the whole planet as explained in the previous section. If humans see all living beings intrinsically valuable rather than mere resources to be utilised and consumed, they are more likely to protect it. In this way, a sensitive Muslim should be able to feel pain in the loss of animal species due to human activity and climate change, a loss of beautiful artefact of God.

The second level is the role given to human beings on earth. Although Islam treats the life of all creation as valuable, it gives greatest honour to human life and that the earth is at human disposal – ‘God made subservient to you the sea … that you may seek of His grace, and that you may give thanks. And He has made subservient to you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth.’[28] If left without further qualification, such human empowerment may be viewed as a sanction for humans to pillage the earth. With such verses, the Qur’an recognises the apparent human dominion over the earth. Humans will use the environment to their benefit whether the Qur’an says so or not. But as the central Islamic belief tawhid implies, the Qur’an signals that God is the owner and creator and owner of everything in the universe, ‘to God belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth.’[29] Hence, the Qur’an distinguishes natural resources as God’s favour and blessings so that humans are grateful for what they are bestowed with on this planet and transcend beyond the utility of life on earth and the natural resources it provides. This awareness is essential for humans to be motivated in the protection of the environment.

The Qur’an goes further to assert that although humans do have the freedom to exert their power over the environment, such freedom of disposal is not absolute. Humans do not own the planet and cannot just do whatever they please with impunity. With freedom and empowerment comes accountability. This accountability is expressed in the key role given to humanity as the vicegerent (khalifah) on earth – ‘And when your Lord said to the angels: Lo! I am about to place a khalifah on the earth’,[30] ‘It is He that has made you khalifah over the earth.’[31] This role gives human beings authority. With this authority comes accountability as its natural consequence.

Being a vicegerent means having authority over the creation, but also accountability over their treatment of the environment. Prophet Muhammad said, ‘The world is beautiful and verdant, and God has appointed you as His stewards over it. He sees how you acquit yourselves.’[32] Whenever Islam sets accountability, it means actions are recorded for the judgement process in afterlife where nothing is overlooked, ‘whoever does an atom’s weight of good shall see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil shall see it.’[33] These teachings and emphasis would make every believing Muslim sensitive to their treatment of other life forms.

The third level rests on the Qur’anic concept of trust. As God’s vicegerents, humans are given a trust, ‘Truly We did offer the trust to the heavens and earth, and the mountains, but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it. But the human bore it.’[34] The fact that the Qur’an does not explain what this trust is renders it open to interpretation. Linking this verse with the concept of viceregency (and since the verse mentions the earth and mountains), one plausible interpretation is that humans are entrusted to look after God’s creation, to protect it, to maintain it and to ensure equal access to it for all humans and life forms. This responsibility is so great that other beings ‘declined to bear it’ meaning that only humans are charged with the responsibility for the protection of the trust, that is, the earth.

Importantly, trust implies the value of what is trusted. It would be pointless to trust something worthless. What is trusted is placed in the possession of those who are trusted so that it is returned unharmed, else the trust would be violated. It also means that the one who trusts has confidence in human capacity to fulfil the requirements of keeping the trust, otherwise the act of trusting would be futile. So, humans as God’s deputy, steward and trustee, must not feel entitled to nature, but rather feel obliged towards protecting and returning the earth trusted to them in pristine form for future generations and other life forms.

Given that humans only take from the nature and give nothing, the duty of trust can only be delivered through the Qur’anic principal of balance, which is the fourth level. The Qur’an emphasizes that God created the universe and the natural world in perfect balance and proportion, ‘Verily, all things have We created in proportion and measure.’[35] Humans are instructed to remain within the balance and warned not to disturb it, ‘And the sky has He raised high and has devised (for all things) a balance, so that you might never transgress the balance: weigh, therefore (your deeds) with equity, and do not upset the balance’.[36] The unilateral relationship of humans with the environment infers that human activity is always in the direction of deviating from the balanced-state of the environment. Since humans must inevitably use the resources of the planet, the only way to preserve the balance is if the usage is sustainable. Muslims, therefore, must live in harmony with the environment and only use what is necessary for survival in a sustainable way. They cannot participate in exploitative industries that upset the balance e.g. land clearing, deforestation or any unsustainable use of finite resources.

A key action that upsets the balance is excess and waste which sit at the fifth level of Islamic emphasis to minimise human harm on the environment. In terms of waste management, The Qur’an states, ‘O Children of Adam! … Eat and drink but waste not in excess, for God does not love the wasters.’[37] While Islam encourages people to enjoy the blessings of life it clearly lays down as a precondition that there be no waste. Notably, the verse does not limit its address to ‘Muslims’ or ‘believers’ but the whole of humanity is engaged with the proclamation ‘O children of Adam!’

The determination of Islam to minimise waste is taken to a higher level in the words of the Prophet Muhammad who asked his followers not to overuse water even when the ablution for prayer takes place on the banks of a flowing river.[38] While this recommendation is aimed at waste minimisation, it implies that waste minimisation should not only be confined to times of shortage but, more importantly, even  when there are resources in abundance. Why? Because waste usually occurs when there are more resources than are immediately needed. There is not much to waste when there is a shortage. The Prophet also said that the sewerage should not be dumped in still waters[39] and the lowest manifestation of belief in a person is that one should remove harmful objects standing in the path of people.[40] Since it is good to remove waste and harmful objects, it is better not to litter in the first instance. In a well-known saying, the Prophet recommends that people ‘plant the sapling you hold in your hand even if it is the Last Day’[41] on earth. In this saying, Muslims are encouraged to plant trees for the benefit of future generations even if there is no immediate benefit. Any benefit from the tree including the portion of ‘wild animals and birds’ are regarded as charity.[42] So, in Islam, not only is there a strong discouragement of wastage and pollution, but also sustainable human interaction with the environment concern for wild life are equally encouraged.

Thus, the nature of human interaction with the environment is a unilateral benefit-harm relationship. Humans only benefit and inflict harm whereas environment benefits nothing from human existence. In a physical sense, humans only take from the environment but give nothing back. The best humans can do is to preserve the environment and not irreversibly upset the balance by using the resources of the environment in a sustainable way and minimising excess and wastage. Although humans are given right of usage of what earth provides, they do not own the earth. It is trusted to them by God and they have to return it undamaged. Humans are accountable at the court of God for betrayal of the trust if they irreversibly damage the earth.

The Vital Necessity of Curbing Human Caused Harm on the Planet

If the natural world has intrinsic value and humans are charged with the responsibility over the earth, what ought to be the Islamic ethical ruling on the level of Muslim responsibility and accountability to protect the environment? While the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change calls for action on individuals and governments, this chapter goes a step further and sets caring for the environment as an Islamic obligation (fard) for every individual Muslim, Muslim organisations and Muslim nations and governments.

The main premise behind this contention is that harm caused by human activity is at a critical level in that it has an irreversible negative impact on the Earth’s climate, its life forms (extinctions) and the entire life structure of the planet. The human production of energy produces tremendous amount of carbon dioxide at a rate the natural systems are not able to clear. The rate of carbon dioxide production is ten times faster than any other period in the last 66 million years.[43] Carbon dioxide production is approaching the critical irreversible threshold of 400 parts per million and since the Industrial Revolution carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 45%.[44] As carbon dioxide causes the green-house effect, the average temperature on the Earth has been on a steady increase since the time of the Industrial Revolution. The report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013 stated that ‘each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850’.[45] Temperature increases have an irreversible impact on the melting of glaciers, rising the sea levels and changes in climates across the globe. Ice sheet melting in Antarctica increased by 77% since 1973 and half of the melting occurred between 2003 and 2009.[46] Climate change and other human activity such as land clearing and habitat destruction is causing the sixth mass extinction of life forms on earth. Since 1970, more than 50% of animal populations have been reduced.[47] If present levels of extinction continue, 75% of species will disappear within a century or two.[48] The human caused pollution of the environment is also at an unprecedented level. Human produced plastic is dumped on the land and the sea to such an extent that, unless reversed, there will be more plastic by weight in the sea than fish by 2050.[49] Microplastic is traceable from oceans to fish and from there to humans. The harm cause by human activity on the environment is measurable and at such a scale that humanity is currently the primary geological force shaping the planet. The Earth is now entering into a new human influenced geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

With this dire state of the environmental catastrophe in mind, the Qur’an’s warning echoes down through time: ‘Corruption and disorder have appeared on land and in the sea because of what the hands of people have (done and) earned. Thus, He causes them to taste the consequence of some of what they have done, so that they may return (to the right way)’.[50] Climate change and related ensuing disasters not only harm the whole planet, but actually possess a boomerang effect – they return to harm human life as well. Since this verse of the Qur’an links the environmental disaster to human actions, only human action can reverse the catastrophic consequences.

There is an obligation to stop the harm caused to the environment based on the higher objectives of Islamic law reflected at two levels. In the first instance, protection from harm and subsequent suffering is one of the peak aims of Islamic law. According to the renowned Muslim jurist, Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d. 1388), the teachings of religion, its commands and prohibitions laid out in the revelation by the Divine and put into practice by the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad serve an ultimate higher purpose – that is, ‘to promote good and to benefit human beings and to protect them from evil, from harm and from subsequent suffering’.[51] Al-Shatibi bases this definition on the Prophetic saying, ‘No harm should be sustained or incurred upon others’. He emphasizes the way in which the hadith calls for the removal of harm: such removal includes the prohibition of subjecting oneself to harm (darar) and causing harm to others (dirār).[52] All juristic opinion must serve this overarching purpose. The prevention of harm is so important that it has been recognised in the competing need to acquire benefit with the famous Islamic legal maxim – that is, the prevention of harm takes precedence over the acquisition of benefit.[53] This principle is expressed as ‘repelling of corruption (mufasid) is preferred to the acquisition of benefits’ in the Majalla, 19th century Islamic legal codes compiled by Ottoman Empire.[54] Hence stopping harm to the environment should precede the right to benefit from it especially at the present time when the harm far outweighs the benefit necessary for survival.

The second level of legal imperative is drawn from the five basic protections or fundamental rights identified by Muslim scholars. Those areas of protections cover life, intellect, property, religion, lineage. Governments (and the laws they pass) should respect and preserve these immutable individual rights for the sake of a safe and free society. These rights and protections place immense value on human life and in so doing convey substantial responsibility as well. For this reason, the Qur’an equates killing a person with the murder of all humanity and saving a single life with the saving of all humanity: ‘He who kills a soul unless it be (in legal punishment) for murder or for causing disorder and corruption on the earth will be as if he had killed all humankind; and he who saves a life will be as if he had saved the lives of all humankind.[55]

While the principle of protection of life is usually made with respect to human rights, it is possible to expand this principle to protection of all life forms. The place of life, and the duty to protect it, is so significant that saving lives becomes a necessity and might even temporarily suspend certain divine prohibitions.[56] By way of example, if there is nothing to eat and a person’s survival is at stake, Muslims may eat pork meat.[57] If alcohol is the only medicine available for a serious illness, it can be consumed. In both instances, Muslims would be mindful of the injunction against pork and alcohol but these may be set aside if life hangs in the balance. Since necessity is forcing a person to enter the realm of prohibitions, Islamic law stipulates that the allowance must be made but only for the period of necessity– no more and no less.[58]  A Muslim cannot use the excuse of necessity and feast on pork or get drunk with alcohol when non-prohibited food and drink exists.

Most importantly, the door of necessity (dharura) can only be opened to save lives or to meet the most basic necessities of life, such as food, shelter and clothing. It cannot be used as an excuse to end life or to damage the necessities of life. Even in the two exceptions that are made in verse 5:32, ‘unless it be for murder [capital punishment] or for causing disorder and corruption on the earth’, the principal vision is to save more lives. In effect, the injunction always and everywhere is to choose the lesser of two evils. The principle of necessity is so important that humans are allowed to slaughter animals by permission in order to survive. But this allowance for survival should not be in constructed in such a way as to wipe out entire species and ecosystems. It should be done in a sustainable way.  If our use of the environment is not done in a sustainable way, the principle of necessity works the other way – that is, limit human activity for the necessity of saving living species. It could even be argued on the principle of necessity that human activity should be limited to protect the planet and the environment in order to preserve human existence itself as there is no other planet like Earth for humans to reside.

Caring for the Environment is an Islamic Obligation                                            on Individual Muslims, Muslim Organizations and Governments

If the harm caused by human activity on earth is at a critical degree and at a global scale and, according to Islamic law, containing the harm is a necessity: it is a priority. Caring for the environment must be at a level of obligation (fard) for Muslims, Muslim organisations and governments. In its conclusion, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change makes an emphatic call for action to heads of states and governments of Muslim countries, Muslim organisations and activists. The call for action covers educating minds, establishing eco-friendly habits and tackling root causes of Climate Change and the ensuing challenges facing humanity and the planet. This call would be taken to the next level of significance if caring for the environment is pronounced as an obligation (fard) from an Islamic ethical perspective.

There are two types of obligations in Islamic law: fard al-‘ayn (individual obligation) and fard al-kifaya (collective obligation) in which case if a group of Muslims fulfil the duty, the obligation is lifted from the rest of the Muslims. If there is no one or insufficient numbers, then every Muslim is accountable. In a way, caring for the environment can be considered as fard al-‘ayn (individual obligation) and fard al-kifaya (collective obligation) at one and the same time.

One important related concept is amr bi’l-ma’ruf nahy ‘ani’l-munkar.[59] It represents a calling to do good and actively promote what is right, while forbidding and preventing evil. It  is strongly emphasized in the Qur’anic verse 3:104 as a key function of promoting what Islam stands for: ‘There must be among you a community calling to good, and enjoining and actively promoting what is right and forbidding and preventing evil …’. Even though this verse refers to the role of social and ethical activism, by analogical reasoning (qiyas)[60] it can apply to environmental protection as well. They are religious duties upon the whole community, require substantial investment of time and require sufficient numbers of people without which duties cannot be fulfilled to satisfactory levels. There must also be a group of Muslims to carry out environmental activism.

From the perspective of activism, the possibility of environmental protection can also be covered by the concept of jihad especially for individual Muslims and Muslim organisations. In the Islamic religious sense, jihad is an important umbrella concept that encompasses all personal struggles that one has to overcome in order to achieve success despite hardship and adversity. Jihad always involves some form of struggle by an individual Muslim even when that struggle is part of a collective action. The result sought has to be positive and constructive, such as ending suffering, injustice or foreign occupation. In all cases, the circumstances must be so difficult that extraordinary effort is required in overcoming the destructive forces that are at the source of the adversity. If one dimension of jihad[61] means struggle against harmful forces for a virtuous outcome and cause, environmental activism becomes a form of jihad. Peaceful activism launched against sources and forces that cause harm to environment, all living beings and consequently all humans including Muslims is a legitimate form of jihad that would be rewarded by God in the afterlife, as Islamic beliefs would propose.

Since damage to the environment is increasing and existing level of activism is not reversing the situation, it becomes an individual obligation (fard al-‘ayn) on every Muslim. The theology and Qur’anic evidence discussed in this chapter impresses this obligation on every Muslim. Every individual’s actions have a direct bearing on the environment. Every individual and household have a measurable carbon footprint. Their actions to care for the environment equally accumulates in order to create a positive impact. Unless individuals take action to reduce their carbon footprint, the harm caused on the environment will not reduce: it will get worse.

The obligation on individuals does not mean that the obligation is lifted from organised groups of Muslims who have greater resources, funding and organised capability to do something to reduce harm to environment. In addition to Islamic organizations specifically established for environmental awareness and protection, every Islamic organization and institution must be involved in environmental protection to some degree. At the very least, every organization can reduce their carbon footprint by having a deliberate, eco-friendly operation and educate their staff and community they serve on the need to care for the environment and yet, even these would not be sufficient. There is an obligation on governments of Muslim majority countries because cultural and economic policies of a country have a major influence over a nation’s carbon footprint. Since harm on the environment is at a global scale and all nations will suffer from the consequences of environmental catastrophe, every Muslim nation should seek to actively reduce their carbon foot-print, implement economic policies friendly to the environment, and enact educational and cultural programmes to educate their people on the need to take care of the environment. Muslim countries can also influence global policies through international organisations.

Clear pronouncements in the Qur’an and the example of Prophet Muhammad have given Muslims in the past the impetus to preserve the environment and to protect wildlife and domesticated animals. During the Ottoman reign (1299–1923), for example, comprehensive waste and environmental management regulations were stipulated as early as 1539. In 1502, local government legislation regulated the loads that animals could carry and the number of days they could be worked in a week. There were even organisations dedicated to treating storks injured on their annual migration. Centuries before similar regulations were introduced in the modern world, hunting was regulated on the basis of need and no hunting was allowed during the breeding season. When mosques were built, the architects provided covered nesting areas for birds under the facades.[62] Certainly Muslims can achieve the same objectives in line with the pressing issue of our time of climate change and environmental protection.


This chapter first argued the case for an Islamic theology of environment in order to illustrate that the environment is an extremely valuable artefact that displays  infinite creativity of God: everything in the natural world worships God in a unique way, and animal species with the ecosystems they create form communities and have a right to live independently of humans. Hence, life on Earth must be preserved as an extremely valuable artefact. Second, it examined the human relationship with the environment and sought to show that human interaction with the environment is one-way. In a physical sense, humans only take from the environment but give nothing back. The best humans can do is to use resources of the planet in a sustainable way to preserve the environment and not irreversibly upset the natural balance therein. Although humans are given right of usage of what Earth provides, they do not own the Earth. It is entrusted to them by God and they have to return it undamaged. Humans are accountable at the court of God for betrayal of the trust if they irreversibly damage the Earth. Third, the chapter proceeded to build a case that caring for the environment is an Islamic religious obligation (fard) as the collective human activity on Earth is harming not only life on Earth but the entire planet (Anthropocene). Hence Islam’s overriding principle of preventing harm before acquisition of benefit applies. The obligation is not only on every individual Muslim but on Islamic organisations and on governments of Muslim majority countries. Caring for the environment is fard al-‘ayn (individual obligation) and fard al-kifaya (collective obligation) at the same time.

The environmental teachings of Islam make it easier for Muslims to be concerned with natural flora and fauna and to take measures that will arrest climate change even if such measures do not benefit them directly or immediately. In order to protect the environment, Muslims and non-Muslims must make sacrifices. They need to consume less and produce less waste. Through its theology of the environment and the power of its ethical stance, Islam, along with other religions, can facilitate this critical outcome.

[1]  Note the omission of ecological concerns in the following recent publications: Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought, (Malden: Blackwell, 2006);John L. Esposito (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Omid Safi (ed.), Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism, (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003).

[2]  Zainal Abidin Bagir and Najiyah Martiam, ‘Islam. Norms and Practices’, in Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology, (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2017), 79-87 at 79.

[3] Tarik Massud Quadir, ‘Modern Science and the Environmental Crisis: The Traditional Islamic Response of Seyyed Hossein Nasr’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2011.

[4]  Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis’, in William Chittick (ed.), The Essential Seyyed Hosein Nasr, (Bloomington: Word Wisdom, 2007), 29-39.

[5]  Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘God is Absolute Reality and All Creation His Tajali (Theophany)’, in John Hart (ed.), Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Ecology, (Hoboken: 2017), 3-11.

[6] Islamic Declaration on Climate Change,, [Accessed 1 June, 2018].

[7]  Ibid., 1.3

[8]  Ibid., 2.1-8.

[9]  Ibid., 3.6

[10]  Bagir and Martiam, ‘Islam. Norms and Practices’, 80.

[11]  Ibid.

[12]  Richard C. Folz, Frederick M Denny and Azizan Baharuddin (eds.), Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, (Cambridge: Center for the Study of World Religions, 2003).

[13]  Qur’an, 13:3.

[14]  Ibid., 16:10-11.

[15]  Ibid., 22:18.

[16]  Ibid., 17:44.

[17]  Ibid., 59:24.

[18]  Ibid., 3:83.

[19]  Richard Folz, Animals in Islamic Traditions and Muslim Cultures, (London: Oneworld Publications: 2014); Al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad Masri, Animal Welfare in Islam, (Markfield: The Islamic Foundation, 2016); Sarra Tlili, Animals in the Qur’ān, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[20]  Qur’an, 6:38.

[21]  Ibid, 95:3-6.

[22]  Ibid., 17:70.

[23]  Ibid., 30:30.

[24]  Ibid, 2:30.

[25]  Ibid., 2:27, 5:32.

[26]  Ibid., 7:11, 17:61.

[27]  Ibid., 21:30.

[28] Ibid., 45:12-13.

[29] Ibid., 4:126.

[30]  Ibid.,2:30.

[31]  Ibid., 6:165.

[32]  Muslim, Tawba, 155.

[33]  Qur’an, 99:7-8.

[34]  Ibid., 33:72.

[35]  Ibid., 54:49.

[36]  Ibid., 55:7-9.

[37]  Ibid., 7:31.

[38]  Ibn Majah Tahara, 48.

[39]  Bukhari, Wudu, 68.

[40]  Bukhari, Iman, 3.

[41]  Bukhari, Adab, 479.

[42]  Ibid., 28.

[43]  Damian Carrington, ‘Carbon Emission Release Rate “unprecedented” in Past 66m Years’, The Guardian, last modified March 22, 2016,, [Accessed on 16 July 2018).

[44]  Michael Slezak, ‘World’s Carbon Dioxide Concentration Teetering on the Point of No Return’, The Guardian, last modified May 11, 2016,, [Accessed on 16 July 2018]

[45]  ‘The Planet’s Temperature is Rising, Union of Concerned Scientists, [Accessed 16 July, 2018,

[46]  J. Mouginot, E. Rignot, and B. Scheuchl, ‘Sustained Increase in Ice Discharge from the Amundsen Sea Embayment, West Antarctica, from 1973 to 2013’, Geophysical Research Letters,, [Accessed on 16 July, 2018].

[47]  Damian Carrington, ‘Earth Has Lost Half of its Wildlife in the Past 40 years, Says WWF’, The Guardian, last modified October 1, 2014,, [Accessed on 16 July, 2018].

[48]  Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction an Unnatural History. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

[49]  Graeme Wearden, ‘More Plastic than Fish in the Sea by 2050, Says Ellen MacArthur’, The Guardian, last modified January 20, 2016,, [Accessed on 16 July, 2018].

[50]  Qur’an, 30:41.

[51]  Tariq Ramadan, Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 67.

[52]  Muḥammad al-Ṭahir ibn ʿAshur, Ibn Ashur: Treatise on Maqasid al-Shari’ah, (London: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2006), 57.

[53] ‘The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam: The Qurʼānic Principle of Wasaṭiyyah’, 126,, [Accessed on 16 July, 2018]/

[54]  C. R. Tyser (trans.), The Mejelle: Being an English Translation of Majallah al-Ahkam-i-Adliya and a Complete Code on Islamic Civil Law, (Kuala Lumpur: Other Press, 2007), 7.

[55]  Qur’an, 5:32.

[56] ‘The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam’, 127

[57]  Qur’an, 2:173.

[58] ‘The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam’, 126.

[59] Qur’an 3:104. See also 3:110, 3:114, 9:112.

[60] Analogical reasoning (qiyas) is an important legal tool to apply verses of the Qur’an to analogous situations not directly included in the Qur’an.

[61]  Jihad has three distinct dimensions. The first is the inner struggle to find inner peace and balance in spite of evil inclinations, carnal impulses and satanic voices from within. The second is social and religious activism motivated by a desire to stop human suffering and improve society in spite of poor leadership, opportunist politicians and powerful interest groups. The third is just war which is a commitment to participating in a campaign to achieve peace and security for one’s people (or others suffering persecution) in the face of an aggressive foreign military force.

[62] Ahmet Akgunduz & Said Ozturk, Ottoman History: Misperceptions and Truths, (Rotterdam: IUR Press, Rotterdam, 2011).