Islam and Environment*

18 February 2023 by
Islam and Environment*
Ömer F. Gürlesin
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Question: In terms of Islamic belief principles, how important is environm​ental ethics? In this context, what are the responsibilities that Islam imposes on individuals?

I believe that we can discuss environmental ethics in Islam by focusing on three main concepts: Tawhid, Caliphate, and the afterlife. With your permission, I will try to clarify the meaning of these concepts.

Tawhid, in addition to meanings such as unification, counting, and merging with Allah, also implies seeing, knowing, wanting, and having concern for everything because of Him. In this sense, tawhid requires the unity of existence, including humans, animals, plants, and even minerals, while valuing creatures for their existence itself. In contrast to modern human, according to us, plants and stones are also alive. The Caliphate is the duty of stewardship on earth that Allah has bestowed upon humanity. The caliph does not rule according to his own desires, but according to Allah's commands; since he has submitted his own will to the divine will, he can represent Allah. Therefore, he is called Allah's servant (‘abd allah). In this capacity, he is responsible for respecting the divine, not exceeding the limit, and protecting it. The belief in the afterlife reminds us that we will be held accountable for our actions in this world. Any harm we cause to the environment encompasses both the rights of the servant and the rights of Allah. A believer with this belief refrains from violating this right. I think that the fact that these basic concepts, which we associate with environmental ethics, also constitute the foundation of our beliefs explains how much importance Islam attaches to this issue.

Question: Despite environmental ethics being central in Islam, it seems that the situation in Islamic countries, particularly in our country, is not much different from that of other countries in the world. How do you explain this contradiction?

This problem is a problem of homo economicus, or modern man. In the last moments of the universe's five billion years of life, we were introduced to environmental problems with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. During this period, colonialism based on social Darwinism, the mission of superior culture, civilization, and the use of weapons of mass destruction in wars were considered as part of the norm. For the first time, Western societies emerged with the ideal of wealth. Consumption for luxury, pleasure, and status replaced consumption for needs. While the "superior races" that make up 20% of the world controlled 80% of the world's resources, the vast population that makes up 80% of the world faced hunger and poverty.

For example, the damage caused by the annual population growth of 1.75 million in the United States to the ecological system is greater than the damage caused by the annual population growth of 85 million in developing countries. In other words, today's environmental problems are not a result of population growth or a misinterpretation of sacred texts. The root cause of this problem is the Western secular economic values that have been implemented for a long time. Can believers who hold the title of Allah's Caliph fulfill their duty in this process? Unfortunately, our answer to this question is negative. We have competed with each other to integrate into modernity due to a backwardness psychosis and we have considered the adaptation of these values to our beliefs as a thinking activity. Our guiding moral values have been substituted with what are seen as "secular modern values." This shift has been so profound that even the month of Ramadan, traditionally a time of spiritual reflection and self-restraint, has become notorious for generating large amounts of waste. We also joined the consumption frenzy.

Question: Have religious people not fully fulfilled the requirements of their beliefs?

Instead of emphasizing the difference between faith and action, I would like to point to an awareness problem. In order for a believer to repent from his sin, he must first be aware of his sin. I believe that today's Muslims are not aware of such a sin. For example, harming animals and plants, polluting air and water, and wasting resources while meeting the needs of food, drink and shelter are not among our shameful sins. Although environmental problems in our country have become a threat to life, they are not among our priority problems. We have more important agendas. In a survey I conducted among university students in 2009, when I asked them to rank problems such as terrorism, political instability, unemployment, environment and education from most important to least important, 80% of the participants placed environmental problems last. This shows that our short-term problems are enough to keep us busy.

This situation reminds me of the boiled frog syndrome. Which refers to the phenomenon where a frog placed in boiling water will immediately try to jump out, but if the frog is placed in water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The frog's nervous system is programmed to respond to sudden changes, not gradual ones. Similarly, the gradual deterioration of the environment can lead people to become desensitized to the problem and not take action until it reaches a critical point.

Here, the verse "Man is hasty by nature" from the surah Enbiya should be remembered. In this aspect, humans can easily get lost in the superficiality of current events and immediacy. They forget about their fate and the afterlife amidst the daily hustle and bustle. They can't see the bigger picture and are not aware of what they can't see. If you are deprived of the masters of gnosis, the perfect human, who can recognize and cure your myopia, then the famous saying of Sufism, “hamdım, piştim yandım” - I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned-** will occur in the same way as the frog example.

Question: Where do you think we should start as Muslims in order to live in harmony with the environment again?

By apologizing to our flowers.

*This text was written on the occasion of an interview.

**In English, the saying can be translated as, "I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned." It is a metaphorical representation of the spiritual journey of a Sufi seeker. The first stage, "hamdım," refers to the state of being raw or uncooked. This represents the initial stage of the seeker's spiritual journey, where they are inexperienced and unaware of the true nature of reality. The second stage, "piştim," refers to the state of being cooked. This represents the stage where the seeker has gained knowledge, experience, and wisdom through spiritual practice and has become more aware of their true self and the divine reality. The third stage, "yandım," refers to the state of being burned. This represents the stage where the seeker has undergone a complete transformation, where their ego has been burned away, and they have become one with the divine reality. Overall, the saying represents the Sufi concept of fana, which is the idea of annihilation of the self or ego in order to achieve unity with the divine.

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