(Rumi. 13th century. Hunting Scene – Illuminated Manuscript of Poems [1663]. Walter Art Museum.)

4. Islam and Nature

Section
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
Chapter
1.10 Spiritual Responses
Page
1.10.4

Below is an extraordinary new building in Cambridge, England: Cambridge Mosque. I was in Cambridge for a year in 1979 and if you’d told me then that in 2021 there would be a grand mosque, with capacity for 1000 people, on the Mill Road, I would have thought someone had slipped something into your Fitzbillies’ sticky bun!

(Morley von Sternberg. Cambridge Mosque)

Not only is it a surprise to find a mosque in Cambridge, it is explicitly an ‘eco-mosque’: “The mosque is committed to sustainability: its advanced eco-design gives it a near-zero carbon footprint, honours natural forms with sustainable timber vaulting, and reminds the visitor of our connection to Nature.” Environment – Cambridge Central Mosque . The beautiful timber vaults are meant to symbolise trees and the whole building is run on ‘green-building’ principles for waste management, heating, cooling, water, etc…

The website goes on to say that “Muslims feel a strong imperative to protect the environment, as it is a gift from the Divine”. Is this claim more widely supported by Islamic texts and practices? A strong case for the affirmative is given by Mohammad Shomali in an article on the British Jesuit website, Thinking Faith: Aspects of Environmental Ethics: An Islamic Perspective | Thinking Faith: The online journal of the Jesuits in Britain . In it he states, amongst other things, that:

  • “There is no joy in life unless three things are available: clean fresh air, abundant pure water, and fertile land”1;
  • “The Qur’an states that all natural phenomena have awareness of God and glorify God;”
  • “The earth is as a mother for human beings: ‘Preserve the earth because it is your mother’; 2
  • “Islam highly recommends planting trees and urges people to protect them to the extent that planting a tree is considered an act of worship”. And, in addition:“Unless you are compelled, do not cut down a tree”(ibid);
  • “Humans are invested with special status and responsibility of stewardship and trust (al-amaanah) by God in order to care for and serve as a channel for the blessings of God to all creation”.

There certainly appears a foundation here for a strong human-Nature relationship, so one wonders why many Islamic countries exhibit such severe environmental degradation. Undoubtedly this is due to a host of factors, be it the duration of agriculture in places like the Middle East and North Africa, the aridity and environmental fragility of many countries and associated climate change, and recent rapid population growth, but beyond that it seems there are real problems with ‘the Nature relationship’. It seems that, just as with Christianity, there can be significant problems with, and misinterpretations of, the stewardship role, of dominion, that can spill over into disregard and exploitation and the ignoring of Nature’s intrinsic existence. This negative framework could arise from statements such as:

  • “Farm and plant…; The best occupation is farming; The great alchemy is farming”1;
  • “The Qur’an clearly states that God has created them (natural phenomena) such that man can dominate and benefit from them”: ‘He it is that has created for you all that is in the earth’2;
  • “God created the earth and laid it out for humanity. He also made the earth manageable and tractable. God has made for people a means of their livelihood in the earth. Human beings shall utilise the earth and construct upon it”.
(Garden outside Cambridge Mosque)

This is very much the language of ancient agricultural civilisations in desert lands (e.g. the language of the Tanakh, the Bible and the Qur’an) and if, taken in isolation, it were to be applied literally, then Nature and the natural world is reduced, again, to little more than a garden, a farm, to domestic plants and animals.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with these things per se, but if they are conceived as the whole, as the rightful conversion and state of all Nature ‘in service’ to humans, then inevitably problems follow.

Some Muslims and others have sought to strengthen Islam’s green orientation through a championing of Sufism. This ancient strand of Islam has been described as3: Initially rising out of a reaction to materialism and over indulgence resulting from excess wealth and power, Sufis are mystics at heart, lovers of the natural world inclined toward heterodoxy in a culture in which ego and possession is the norm. The key aim of any Sufi is to separate themselves from the material and seek enlightenment by way of serving God, achieved through an internal process that shifts perspectives away from ego to and toward the divine.” Websites, such as Green Prophet – Sufis Are Islam’s Eco Guardians – Green Prophet – see this as a very important vehicle for better environmental outcomes in Islamic countries, as well as a potential bridge between Islamic nations and their neighbours as regards environmental care.

Sufis believe that physical and mental processes can help bridge the divide between the soul/God and the alienated and fallen human form, such as through intense and ecstatic ‘dancing’ or whirling, hence Whirling Dervishes, and through poetry that celebrates love and Nature. As to the latter, there has been somewhat of a vogue of late for certain Sufi poets, most notably Rumi and Hafez, and their fascinating works are explored in the Soul Search podcast of June 2020 – https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/soul-search/rumi-hafez-sufi-poetry-broken-hill-samia-khatun/12070568 .

Whether there is sufficient strength in the Sufi – Nature relationship to justify the hope attached to it, or whether Sufism is sufficiently respected within the wider Islamic faith to carry this message, I do not know, but it is encouraging to see people attempting to build, re-build or energise the presence of Nature within Islam.

 

1 Imam Sadiq. 8th century. Bihar al-Anwaar (a compendium of hadith).

2 Abu l-Qasim Payanda. 1957. Nahj al-Fasahah (hadith from the Prophet).

3 Qudosi, S. 2009. Sufis Are Islam’s Eco Guardians. www.greenprophet.com

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1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
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