“A group of men set out to collect the fruits of a garden, but before doing so, they failed to acknowledge that their labors were dependent on God’s will In sha’ Allah. For this, they were punished with a terrible storm that destroyed the garden. When they saw the desolate garden, they said, ‘We’ve surely lost our way.’ But one of them, a relatively just man, said, ‘Did I not say to you, why don’t you glorify God?’ They all said, ‘Glory to our Lord! We have really done wrong!’”–Quranic parable (Q. 68:17-33).1
It’s odd that, in the current public discourse about Islam, very little is said about Islam’s relation to nature. After all, it is increasingly argued that the Syrian crisis can be traced to a severe drought in the region in 2006-2010.
But what was it about that particular drought that made it so devastating? After all, Syria is largely arid desert or steppe, and droughts form a structural part of the climate. In the fifty-year period from 1961 to 2009, Syria experienced a total of nearly twenty-five years of drought.
In a well-managed desert ecosystem, the vegetation naturally adapts to droughts and wet periods. Think about it: mankind has been living in the Levant since practically the dawn of civilization. This long history would not have been possible had there not been systems in place to manage the limited resources sustainably.
One such system, laid out in the Quranic Hadiths, is hima, under which land normally used for grazing is cordoned off and access is prohibited until it regenerates, i.e., the plants reach a certain height, or after they flower and bear fruit. The land is administered by local tribes, who also specify and enforce the terms and conditions of use.2
With the establishment of the modern state in Syria, central planners armed with the latest scientific methods took over the management of these lands. The traditional hima system was replaced by intensive agriculture via irrigation and massive overgrazing. The result was an ever-increasing desertification, which compounded the effects of the drought.
Hima is just one of many ways in which Islam considers natural resource management, hardly surprising given its origin in a land of scarce resources.
In fact, according the to the scholar Toshiko Izutsu, “The Qur’an may be regarded in a certain sense as a grand hymn in honor of divine creation.”3 To contemplate nature is to contemplate its creator, and investigations into the workings of nature—what we would call science—are one and the same with theology.
And while nature can and should be used by humans to their benefit, humans must remember, “to God belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth.” It is a view that is neither anthrocentric (man at the center of the universe) nor biocentric (nature having value independently of man), but theocentric (the divine at the center of nature).4
Humans are the vice-regents (khilafa) of the divine on earth. They have been given custodianship over nature. Thus, humans have a moral imperative not to disturb the balance in the cosmos (mizan) or the due measure of things (qadr).
The above principle is neatly illustrated by this simple fable from the Prophet: While a man was riding a cow, it turned to him and said, “I have not been created for this purpose of riding; I have been created for ploughing.”5
With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see then, how for Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the great Islamic philosophers of our time, the modern separation between science and religion is dangerous. Nasr, who studied physics at M.I.T. and holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard, has often argued that science is but one way of looking at the world. Bringing religion or a sense of sacrality into the picture would provide a criterion for judging and regulating the sciences.6
This wouldn’t necessarily mean subjecting science to superstition in the brutish, stupid way of fundamentalists (who, although they denounce modernism, accept its foundations, especially science and technology).
Rather, it would extend man’s religious duties to the whole of creation, including nature and the environment. So, “[o]ne must not only feed the poor but also avoid polluting running water. It is pleasing in the eyes of God not only to be kind to one’s parents, but also to plant trees and treat animals gently and with kindness.”7
It is, I think, a worthy blueprint.