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Islam and the Environment - Hassan Choudhury

Written by: by Hassan Choudhury :: (View All Articles by: Hassan Choudhury)
The threat is real All forms of life on Earth face a grave threat from the effects of climate change. The facts are alarming. In 2000 there were an estimated 150,000 deaths globally due to climate change and 28,000 died in Europe alone in 2003 in its hottest summer in five hundred years. The Arctic ice cap has reduced in size by 40% since the 1970s with major cities and islands facing flooding. It is also true that a warmer and wetter world will be more susceptible to infectious tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Much more could be said and debate still rages about whether the crisis is partially or largely due to human actions but the point remains; there is a clear and present danger to us all. Momentum is building globally with campaigners and activists urging everyone to get involved in saving our planet. The key question now is on how to proceed. Worldviews Our fundamental view of life affects our responses to problems. A fitting example would be of a capitalist who views life through the lens of secular, individual self-interest. Capitalists are secular as they banish the influence of religion or spirituality from the decision-making process. Capitalists are individualistic since they believe everyone looking after themselves and their families leads to the improvement of society despite this leading directly to a mentality of 'survival of the fittest' or even 'everyone for themselves'. Finally the capitalist aim in life is to maximise the amount of benefit and minimise harm at the expense of every other consideration, motivation or goal including morals, the welfare of others or the environment. Someone acting on the basis of this mindset would act in a certain way that would mark them out as a capitalist. Since we are on the brink of an ecological catastrophe because of this mindset then it is clear we need an entirely new way to approach this issue and life itself. Muslims propose Islam as a way of organising both the individual and society since it is an entirely new way to approach this issue and life itself. While Islam has become one of the most popular topics of discussion and news content in recent years it is perhaps one of the most misunderstood. In order to clarify matters a brief outline follows on Islam's approach to the environment in the hope that it can spark further discussion on Islam as a complete way of life that is relevant to the problems of modern living. To begin Muslims follow Islam in an organic manner. It is not about rigid 'dos' and 'don'ts'. Blind belief is condemned and contemplation about life is encouraged. Muslims are urged to learn and abide by the elements of Islamic Law that relate to their everyday activities. Since this can often involve detailed study it can appear daunting. However Islamic jurists carefully derived and developed very simple principles that can help us all to appreciate the Islamic mindset. Islamic Principles The first principle to examine is Allaah (Arabic for The God) is the Creator, Sustainer and Owner of everything. This means Muslims do not consider themselves to own anything independent of Allaah. Muslims believe they are accountable for how they use or maintain all the things they have been provided by Allaah. In reality this means Muslims believe they merely hold things in trust and ultimately will be accounted. Another principle is that the balance of nature was also provided to us. This means we agree we all have a responsibility to ensure that the inherent balance of the environment we live in is protected. Islam determines that we have common resources whether that's clean air, sunlight or water and that we have communal rights on these resources. They cannot be privately owned if they are essential to community life e.g. if the community would have to search far and wide to locate a suitable alternate source. The resource would be designated as public property, maintained by public companies and the revenue streams they generate would be held for the public good. Of course the designation of some property as public does not mean there is no private property. Islam defends the right to hold private property (imagine not being able to possess your own toothbrush, mobile phone, iPod or laptop!) but some resources are so important to community life they become public with communal access for the citizens of that region. Islam's view on citizenship means anyone of any faith, race or gender can be a citizen as long as they reside in the land and all citizens are equal before the law, which protects the rights of minorities. Aversion of harm is a fundamental principle. Therefore the right to benefit from a public resource is held by all citizens unless and until a citizen violates that right by damaging or impairing the resource (e.g. polluting a reservoir). If so, then the liability for that damage falls upon that individual as all other citizens have had a right impaired. Breaching such safeguards invalidates one's right to hold that private property or, in the case of a public resource, exercise the right to benefit as the rule is that there can be no harm or reciprocation of harm. Mechanisms must exist to resolve disputes as conflicts between competing interests will always occur, especially when the communal resource is over-subscribed but the principles of Islamic jurisprudence also deal with this. In cases where no party has a clear right then Islam provides solutions to enable reconciliation to take place. So Islam views certain interests as indispensable, others as very important but not essential and others as merely beneficial. If this scale is not enough then other principles are utilised. If an action produces harm and benefit in equal measure then the aversion of harm will always supersede the provision of benefit. The right of the poor and disadvantaged will always supersede the right of the wealthy and privileged as the weak are less able to secure their rights. The greater good or right of society surpasses the right of the individual and so on according to Islam. Another important principle is the statement of the Prophet of Islam (SAW) who said (to the nearest meaning) that: 'None of you truly believe until you want for your fellow human being what you want for yourself'. Muslims do not believe in secular, individual self-interest as a virtue and must think of the needs and rights of all others just as we would for ourselves. Viewing life as a series of selfish individual decisions means we abandon any opportunity to live together harmoniously. When we examine this mindset in relation to other Islamic principles we can see a unique collection of views but a discussion on more detailed policies are required for us to accept Islam as a fully-fledged system able to deal with modern-day issues. Specific policies Islam places great emphasis on citizens to enjoin all that is good and forbid all that is evil. The pinnacle of this effort is to hold the ruler to account. Specific policies are useless in the face of a lack of strong and effective governance. Any state or authority applying Islam is charged with the duty to intervene in matters relating to the greater good. The state has the mandate to ensure that all basic needs are met and all harms minimised. Government intervention will never go out of fashion since it is the basis of the Islamic State so Big BusinessTM will always be restrained from over-powering civic institutions and the running of the economy. Corporations would not be recognised by an Islamic State let alone allowed to drive the economy. It is regarded as an illegitimate company structure. Islam encourages entrepreneurs and the formation of companies but there are no concepts of artificial legal entities or limited liability to hide behind. Corporations have many ill effects on society one of which is that market forces often affect the provision of goods and needs. Without effective governmental control goods such as gas-guzzling cars and out-of-season fruit imported from thousands of miles away could continue to be marketed to generate demand for them despite the impact on the environment from the direct pollution or excess food miles. Islam allows for a policy of tax and subsidy for the public good as well as limitations on types of advertising. The Office of the Hisbah has jurisdiction for ensuring public welfare. This agency has a particular type of judge, the Qadi Muhtasib, who is responsible for inspection of the environment, conservation, commerce, animal welfare and more across society. The Qadi Muhtasib would also enforce the law. Some of the specific policies that have been used through the history of Islamic rule include: - Land reclamation or revival (ihya'al-mawat) - Grants (iqta') of unowned land for purposes of reclamation - The lease (ijarah) of state- owned lands or to grant their usufruct (iqta' manfa'at al-ard or iqta' al- istighlal) for the purpose of reclamation - Reserves (al-hima) - areas set aside for public good e.g. conservation areas etc. - Inviolable zones (al-harim) - The two inviolable sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina (al-haramaayn) are examples of best practice - Charitable endowments (awqaf) - the major avenue for private contribution to the public good (cf. Bagader et al, 1994). If a state were to emerge in the Muslim world with a purely Islamic basis there would be no doubt it would have both the authority and political will to implement these policies as its mandate must be derived from the consent of the people. Its goal would be to implement Islamic solutions while promoting Islam to the wider world. The strength of its civil society, where private citizens voluntarily play a role in public life, would mean there was a real connection between people and policy. This would be aided by an independent judiciary, an accountable ruler and the rule of law. Such a state would have to reckon with the people if it strayed away from Islamic principles so it would inevitably encourage recycling and ethical consumerism, while research into new forms of energy (e.g. hydrogen) would not be left in the hands of the private sector. There would be intervention on the absurdity of thousands of unnecessary food miles and unclean transport. By leading the way in social and environmental change Muslims would be able to assure the world of the applicability of Islam in the modern age. Conclusion Climate change may already be irreversible but that does not mean we don't have to make changes. The point is that living an unsustainable life with no thought for the future makes no sense. The mindset and system that bought us to this point contains within it the seeds of its own destruction; whether that is economically, socially or environmentally. If left in place it will also destroy the planet. A new way is required and Muslims call others to consider Islam, if not as a personal belief, then as a set of solutions by which humanity can solve common problems. Hassan Choudhury 1st November, 2006 Endnote Bagader. A et al. (1994) ‘Environmental Protection in Islam’ (Second Revised Edition). IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration (MEPA) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. IUCN Environmental Policy and Law Paper No.20 Rev. Retrieved 20th October, 2006 from http://www.islamset.com/env/contenv.html

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