Is Islam Eco-Friendly?

Before I get into this topic, I have to repeat, we are talking about Islam as principles, the ideal towards which we aspire. Aspirants run the gamut from eco-destroyers to eco-preservers, as in any religion. I was just reading about Kristiane Backer who is an “Eco-Muslimah promoting the green message of Islam.”

She recently launched the “Inspired by Muhammad campaign.” I agree with her that that Muslims have a poor record of environmental preservation. They just have not seen the bigger picture. We’re heading on a path of destruction and until and unless we do something about it, things will continually get worse. This is also about process ethics. We are facing environmental problems much, much bigger than any one person, any one nation-state, even any one religion can resolve in one lifetime. The results of our actions will affect more than just our own “in-crowd.” There is no one solution, so we need multiple strategies at multiple levels.

In Indonesia I lived in a community that could still be classified as a suburb of Jakarta. One distinguishing feature from its surrounding neighbor “villages” kampong, was that we actually had a paid garbage retrieval system. In the village, trash collected in a heap until some one set it afire. There were other interesting sights: people slept outside but were not strictly speaking homeless. The heat and perhaps the crowded in-house conditions meant it was just as good to put out the bedroll on porches or raised platforms that hark back to the days of loose snakes and lions, and sleep with the canopy of the stars above. I loved walking early enough to see these sleeping people awakened for their day, or not.

There are fruit trees aplenty. I loved walking under banana trees, jack fruit trees, papaya trees, and fruit I don’t know the name of. I had a mango tree in my front yard. I once asked about fruit trees that grew in fields not self evidently on the property of any particular house. My friends assured me that every one knew who the owner was. When the fruits were in season, they also became community property. It was a question of the process. For example, when my mango tree was ripe, my maid and a local handyman worked together to down as much fruit in one session, and put them into plastic bags. These were distributed amongst my neighbors. It made no sense to just take a few fruit on each occasion. No one family could actually eat all of the ripe fruit.

In my early morning walks, I crossed paths with women and men hauling a fiber bag checking out the garbage for recyclable goods. I used to refer to them as the recycle people. There was no recycling system like I have here in Northern California, so the trick was to get what was salvageable before the trash was collected.

Now, the trash collector was only a person who took a rake and removed the trash manually. This was then dumped in a cart and pushed away. That was it. Better than the kampong fire system I guess. In every neighborhood that had such a system, the recycle people would come earlier to salvage. Once I caught onto the system, I put my recyclable out on the curb. I saw no need for them to go through all my trash just to get those salvageables.

The first time I did that my neighbors rang the bell, afraid some transient was trying to get away with something so I learned I should mark it with “sampa” or “trash” and there was never a question. It would be gone before the trash was collected.

Well, the other morning when I was walking I saw the same recycle persons here in Northern California. Only they have big plastic bags, shopping carts or old baby strollers and they too check before trash pick up. We have really nifty recycle containers in blue or grey. In fact, the cost of trash pick up is related to the size of your actual trash containers, in brown. I always had the smallest ones because I’ve been a maniac about recycling for more than two decades.

My children grew up in a house where every time something recyclable was put in the wrong container, I would take it out, hold it in the air, and repeat the same speech, “This is a recycle house. Look, my generation won’t feel this as much as yours, you know. I’m doing this for you.”

As a public lecturer, when I was handed a styrofoam cup I made the same speech: “these things do not bio-degrade, you know?” I had repeated it more than once in the same place when once, a Muslim sister said to me, “keep saying it; they’ll get it eventually.” Someone was paying attention. Soon the word got out, and people would scrounge around to find a washable cup rather than hear me repeat that speech!

Like Kristiane, I consider care for the environment inherent in our faith. Saving resources and respecting all of nature is part of pleasing Allah. The Qur’an considers the human being as a khalifah, an agent. Part of our agency is caring for each other and caring for all of nature. There are hundreds of passages in the Qur’an that turn our attention to nature. We are enjoined to observe these as ayat, signs from God. Careful observation is in fact part of faith.

We never had that separation between science and religion in Islam, and all of the statements in the Qur’an about nature—even after 14 hundred years—have been substantiated by scientific discovery. There are no inconsistencies. There are innumerable references to these benefits of nature, like the dark liquid from the belly of the bee, honey; like the separation between the salty and the sweet waters: the ocean and the rivers, respectively; like the animals whose milk we drink, and some which we eat. A world of beauty and its benefit surrounds us.

One of my favorite passages explains how Allah even notices the pattern a leaf makes when it falls to the ground. I am in awe of both the natural world itself and of the Qur’anic references to it. The Qur’an says this world is subject to us. We are stewards of the earth and must take care about how we use her resources.

Fazlur Rahman, a modern Islamic scholar, used to say that Allah’s greatest miracle is all of nature. But most of us forget to observer and to be grateful unless there is some suspension of her calm. The earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions humble us, when all of nature should humble us.

At the same time as we enjoy this miracle we should take care to preserve it. That is part of our trust with God.

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