The study of the Quran makes it clear that it is the duty of man to respect the environment, and also understand that all the components of the universe perform their role just as man does.
As argued and demonstrated in other columns of this series, the Quran is the word of Almighty Allah, the sole objective of which is the construction of a human being who is in harmony with the commands of the Lord and, of course, with the whole of the universe. The Quran preaches peace, stability, harmony, goodness, kindness and beauty in both literal and metaphorical sense; in other words, the Quran teaches ‘ihsan’ (beauty) and develops it through a system of education which includes: 1) nourishment of soul and mind through various daily mandatory actions and prayers; 2) nourishment of human conduct and behaviour through a codal procedure which restrains human actions from crossing certain boundaries; 3) development of a worldview which teaches due concern for rights and duties with regards to fellow human beings and other living organisms; and 4) initiation on a beautiful path of life where the soul is in complete submission before Allah.
While putting man (and woman) on the journey to discover the purpose of life, Allah instructs, guides and teaches through different internal and external sources: Books, Prophets, Conscience, Natural Phenomenon, etc. In today’s column, I am going to invoke some ayats of the Quran which teach and guide humans towards the right path in all aspects of life, including in relation with the natural environment. In these ayats, Allah invokes natural objects and phenomenon, and demonstrates through them the essence and core meaning of human life, which humans willingly or unwillingly ignore most of the time.
As every student of the Quran knows fully well, the Quranic text has two types of chapters: Makkan and Madani. Makkan chapters/ayats were revealed upon Prophet Mohammad (SAW) when he was in Makka. Most of the Makkan chapters are reflective and contemplative in nature. The method of teaching, remembrance, reminder and instruction in most of these chapters/ ayats is both deductive and inductive. The contemplative and reflective nature of these chapters/ ayats, therefore, seeks the attention of the readers/ target audience towards the internal as well as the external phenomena of human life/ universe, hence the patterns of invoking nature again and again with reference to themes of tawhid, messengerhood, or life after death.
The invoking of nature for teaching and instruction in Makkan chapters may be grounded in the reason that while the ayats were being revealed upon the Prophet, Arabs as a whole were living in deserts. In desert areas, people are by and large reflective and contemplative; the reason being that desert people would watch stars without the intervention of flood lights of cities and towns; they would travel in deserts while taking the guidance of the route from the starlit sky; the same would happen when they would go for a trip in oceans; therefore, such adventures in deserts and oceans would turn them reflective and contemplative. Allah, when starting to reveal the Quran on Mohammad (SAW) at the cave of Hira in Makkah, chose the same reflective and contemplative style of address. Moreover, Makkan people at that time were known for their poetry and command on language; therefore, Allah chose the same poetically powerful language and style to liberate them from the clutches of slavery of false gods and desires and lusts of their own making. Hence, there is a different style of language and address in the Makkan ayats as a whole.
Needless to mention, all these ayats, like other parts of the Quran, are directed towards education, emancipation and uplift of the human soul by engaging with questions that derive their significance from the world of nature and its phenomenon. There are, according to an estimate, around 750 ayats in the Quran wherein nature in its different aspects has been invoked by God for conveying one or the other message to mankind.
After studying the Holy Quran, what one can conclude is that it builds a holistic approach of education on the basis of three very important principles: The Principle of Unity, The Principle of Balance, and The Principle of Responsibility. All these principles aim at developing moderation in human conduct and behaviour, within and among themselves and with other forms of life under the sun.
What the Principle of Unity shows is that “nature is a whole, complete, and complex system, the components of which support and protect each other. If one of the components is affected, it disturbs the order and formal function of the entire system of nature”, argue Valentina-Mariana Manouiu, Madani Azzezddine and Ertan Duzgunes in their paper “Environmental Education in the Quran” (2016). They further argue that “The billions of galaxies in the universe, the billions of creatures on Earth, everything that has ever been created, from the smallest particle of the atom and up to the biggest of galaxies, they are all part of a perfectly-created system where all the elements find themselves interdependent, influencing each other in a positive or negative way. Each being has its predestined function, which must remain undamaged and respected…. The Universe exists in perfect balance and proportion, both qualitatively and quantitatively”.
In this regard, the following ayats of the Quran serve as guiding principles and beacons of light. Allah says, “Eat and drink of the sustenance provided by Allah, and do not go about acting wickedly on earth, spreading mischief” (2:60); at another place, it is said, “And to Madyan, we sent forth their brother Shoaib who exhorted them: O my people! Serve Allah, you have no god but Him. Indeed a clear proof has come to you from your Lord. So, give just weight and measure and diminish not to men their things and make no mischief on the earth after it has been set in good order” (7:85); at yet another place in the Quran, Allah says, “And know that we did not create the heavens and the earth and everything in between them for sport” (21:16); and, He says, “Believe in Allah and in His messenger and expend of what He has entrusted to you…” (57:7).
The study of the Quran makes it clear that it is the duty of man to respect the environment, and also understand that all the components of the universe perform their role just as man does. Man, according to the Quran, has to act as a wise user of all things and has to also perform the role of a protector; otherwise, his actions would lead to imbalance and disaster on earth. Allah has, in fact, time and again shown and talked about the balance with which all the natural objects in the universe perform their duties; there are scores of ayats that show natural objects as witnesses of Allah’s creative power and balanced and systematic way of managing the universe. It is to this effect that Allah says: “The Sun is witness and the way it engulfs the world by light” and many more ayats of this category.
As man is not the master of the material and non-material resources found in the world, he is supposed to use the materials available on earth responsibly and with due regard to the principle of balance, simply because his Creator and the ultimate Master of these resources commands him so. It would be in accordance with the Quranic teachings to state that man does not live in the world but rather lives with the world. There are ayats which ask man to be just, compassionate, and not to be a transgressor, oppressor or agent of anarchy. Such ayats are applicable to both socio-economic and political aspects of human life and equally applicable to conservation/ preservation of environment and its responsible use.
It won’t be out of place to mention once again that the Quran is a book the sole objective of which is the education and emancipation of the human soul. The moment one starts reading the Quran from this point of view, every single ayat become light, guidance, and a source of liberation. As the Quran calls man the vicegerent of Allah on earth, this status demands a more responsible conduct and behaviour from man not only among fellow human beings but also with other living organisms. The vicegerent of Allah cannot act as a coloniser of fellow human beings and other forms of life as has been the tendency with tremendous scientific developments and inventions. Man as the vicegerent of Allah has to behave with the whole environment with compassion and moderation, which the Quran emphasises again and again in different contexts and situations.
As the references to natural objects and phenomenon abound in the Quran, it simply indicates that the Quran sees life in its varied forms as a whole and demands from man a responsible and compassionate attitude towards all things. Allah tells man, “wa la tuksirul mizan” which means, “Do not disturb the Principle of Balance”. He further instructs, “wa waza’l mizan”, which means “He has put the system of balance in it.” In the forthcoming column, an attempt shall be made to talk about the specifics of the Quranic approach towards nature and environment.
To be concluded…
Note: This article is the summary of a paper titled “Quran: An Ecocritical Reading” that this author presented at a three-day international seminar organised by Department of English, University of Kashmir, in 2018 on Literature and Environmental Studies.