1. HUMANITY, MODERNITY, AND THE ENVIRONMENT
THE STORY WE call the environmental crisis is nothing more than a human crisis. If we pay attention, we will hear in it our own story, echoing back to us from a deep horizon. Learning to listen is so important now because, in a way, we have all recently been blinded.
Everyone learns to see the world through the lens of culture. For tens of thousands of years, those countless cultures—all of them—cultivated the natural curiousness of children about creation into knowledgeable adulthood. At their root, they taught people to see the environment as enchanted, brought to life by a Creator. Creation was not called ‘nature,’ or the ‘natural world,’ then. Nor was the immense knowledge of the world people acquired and passed on named ‘the natural sciences.’ Most importantly, cultures accumulated a continuous treasure of beneficial knowledge piled generation upon generation as a whole and recognized the living connection between everything on earth—beneath its soils, above its skies, and in its sweet and salty waters. They further connected this with the spirit of life that ran through it all from a Living Source beyond in the realm of the Unseen. Never would they flatten the multi-spherical cycle of creation into a one-dimensional chronological line. Never would they sever worldly creation from its other-worldly origin, splitting life in two, calling this part “sensible,” and therefore real, and that part “insensible,” and therefore irrelevant.
Because of their holistic understanding of the world—themselves in creation and creation in them, come to them from a Life-Source apart—they understood that they were to live in it, work from, with, and on the portion of it in their immediate grasp, and take care of it so that it would remain there for them and their children, grandchildren, and furthest descendants. They also knew that their offenses against creation were violations against the Creator and would inevitably be met with creational disaster directly affecting their vicinity, if left uncorrected. They called this Divine Judgment, or the Judgment of Heaven.
Such was the wisdom of man. In only the last few centuries, however, this most basic intelligence and outlook has been lost to us. Steadily, but abruptly, we have accepted to wear lenses that cut life from its Source and ourselves from our own environments. And because of this, we have generation-by-generation killed-off the native curiosity of our children and forgotten how even to live in our own localities. In the place of the continuum of human knowledge bequeathed to us by our predecessors, we have assumed an incapacitating reliance on mechanized world-spanning control systems…for the very bread we put into our mouths, the water we drink, the fire we kindle, the land we live on, the shelter we repose in, even for the cloth to cover our own nakedness. This humiliating dependence on collectivized, dehumanized enterprise has disabled our still-human hearts. For even if we claim belief in the Creator, we can no longer see the Provider as actually providing. We look on these interlocking control structures—what modern people have accurately called for short, “the system”—as giving us our provision.
This has proven a most fatal error, for it forfeits our prime human birthright: Freedom to verify the single thread of truth running through all reality: Tawheed, Oneness: That God is One apart, the sole Creator, who is Beauty; that all else is one fellowship of creation, serving, willingly or unwillingly, His purpose by design; and that God has made creation, including man, changeable so that he can make of himself, his society, and his environment a living witness to the commandments of the One. This is ‘ibada, man’s totality of worship, which thus encompasses all of his earthly activities, which in the end must cycle back into a continuous esthetic of beauty, reflecting the infinite splendor of the sublime Creator. Herein reside the two qualities upholding the delicate interlace of our earthly and heavenly human architecture: Dignity and rectitude.
To replace in our hearts faith in God, the All-Living, with a dead matrix is surely the ill-fated exchange which Surat Al-Kahf decries: “Now, behold! We [God] said to the angels: Bow [your faces] down to [receive] Adam [into life and honor him]! So they [all] bowed down, except Iblees [Satan], who was of the jinn. Thus he rebelled against the command of his Lord. Will you [human beings] then take him and his seed as patrons apart from Me [God] while they are an enemy to you? [How] woeful a substitute [this is] for the wrongdoers [who are godless in heart]!” [Surat Al-Kahf,18:50].
What a devilish transaction, indeed? It strips men of their mutual khilafa, or responsible vicegerency of God on the Earth in their turn, making lords of a few and slaves of the many, reducing us to the base exploiters and ravenous blood-letters the angels saw in us, perhaps on the pattern of the unknown, divinely destroyed vicegerents of the earth our kind may have succeeded, “Now, behold! Your Lord said to the angels: I am placing upon the earth a [human] successor [to steward it]. They said: Will You place thereupon one who will spread corruption therein, and who, [moreover,] will shed blood, while we ever exalt You with all praise and hallow You?” [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:30].
Believing that the system provides instead of God causes man to abandon his amana, his divine trust, to care for all creatures. It renders him unconscious that all beings on the earth—the animals, plants, elements, and minerals—the earth, mountains, and sky themselves—are consciously alive by the touch of the Divine, communicating and complying with the momentary command of the One Sublime, though we may perceive their discourse and actions not. “Indeed, We did offer the trust [of volitional faith] to the heavens and the earth and the mountains. But they refused to bear it and were fearful of it. Yet the human being bore it, [but could not uphold it]. Indeed, he was most unjust [concerning his own trust] and most ignorant [of the outcome]!” [Surat Al-Ahzab,33:72]
It tricks man into substituting mere crumbs falling from the lowly table of market-interest for the opulent grace of the divine, and thereby to upset the Heavenly mizan, the delicate balance of creation, that God originally set and then bequeathed to our care. “Thus it is He alone who has set the balance of all things, so that you might not transgress the just balance” [Surat Al-Rahman, 55:7-8].
It transforms man’s constructive impulse of ‘imara, inspired improvement and facilitation of the wholesomeness of the earth, into greed-driven development that ruins creation and destroys its naturally paired state of beauty and utility. Thus in the place of human sharaka, what the Prophet called the believers’ shared partnership in the earth’s abundantly free flowing water, game and vegetation of the wilderness, and air, the multitudes are subjugated by the monopolies, cartels, and interest-based financing of the few. The result is the inversion of the divine gift of taskheer, the rendering by God of all things in the land, sea, and sky as cultivable, serviceable, and utile for the express purpose of the renewable benefit of man in his brief worldly sojourn. Instead of the princes of God on earth, we human beings become the subjects of the material, time-bound, and valueless, indentured in the servitude of a “bruteocracy,” a network of modern-day vampires who live on the blood of common victims.
We have willingly turned ourselves over to the care of unseen people. So the Creator in the Unseen has willed to turn us from His meticulous care to their ruthlessly methodical exploitation and carelessness. The modern world has told us the greatest fairy tale in history, that we no longer have to worry about the Judgment of the Creator in the world for our trespasses because “rational” men have recently learned to take away His Life and the wise men of ‘natural’ science now control the world and shall find an answer to every problem, including death.
But alas for the words of men. How often they are empty, like their hearts, and how easily they are deceived. So corruption prevails in the land and the sea. Nor even have the spheres of the heavens been saved from all the evil that the hands of humanity have earned. This, God has allowed, so that He may cause them to taste something of that which they have done. Yet even so, this test for man is no mere punitive measure from God. Rather, it is so that they may return to their proper posture of vicegerency in penitence to Him (30:41).
For the results of man’s wholesale assault on creation (especially our oppression of our own selves) remain grievous violations against the Creator. And though our ways must change, His Way does not. Erupting mountains, quaking lands, melting glaciers, burning woods, tidal destructions, breached skies, and breaking levees—these catastrophes of creation are happening everywhere and with increasing rapidity because such is the Judgment of God. And even as our unnatural human behavior is no longer local but global—and, true to the understanding of the ages before our modern one—so to the ensuing creational disaster remains commensurate with the environs of our corruption. Steadily, they are engulfing the whole earth.
Whose Crisis Is It?
The mainstream media presents the dimensions of our impending environmental disasters as a “natural” outcome of a system of human life now so “advanced” as to be hopelessly intricate, complex, and overwhelming. This is no accident. This message is meant to make us throw up our arms and ask: How can a common person like me work outside the system?
Yet this question is itself telling of a deeper problem. We exist in such a state of disconnection—with creation, with one another, with the sacred, with God—that we falsely see the system as separate from ourselves; in fact, that we see ourselves as existing either outside of it or able to enter and exit it at will; that we come to see the system is an inevitable Leviathan of history; that we submit to the notion that power properly belongs to the system almost metaphysically; and that we personally are spiritually separated and emotionally divested of the system so that there is nothing we can or ought to do to change it. On the contrary, even we Muslims are now increasingly telling one another that we can bend the system, through clever political activism, to our interests, if we are “smart” like others have been.
This is more than nonsense. It is delusional. The truth is, we Muslims, we human beings, are now profoundly steeped in our disconnections, nearly totally dislocated from the sacred, disoriented about our mission in the world, disengaged from the orphan and widow of war, detached from the wretched poor, and derelict in our divinely appointed vicegerency over soil, sea, and air, and the life and forms they support. The Qur’anic verses and Prophetic statements detailing man’s responsibilities—not as cheap splintered activism but as rich integrating belief—as God’s earthly deputy are too numerous to utter here. But it is even now being evermore widely perceived by those who have the courage of their knowledge.
“Materialism and reductionism engender the idea that humans are disconnected from, and above, nature,” says Bruce Lipton, author and cell biologist. Let me whisper the horrifying truth in your ear: It is true. We have been reduced and disconnected, even as the ethos of the times has reduced and disconnected all things from their natures (read: fitra) and meanings—unjoining what Allah, the one and only Creator, has Himself joined, the necessary result of which is to become accomplices in desecrating the planet—a crime, says the Quran, that makes failures of us all. “Ungodly are all those who break the covenant of God after it has been solemnly pledged [before Him]; and who cut [off the relationships] that God has commanded to be kept joined; and who spread corruption in the earth. It is such as these who are the losers [of an everlasting Paradise]” [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:27]. How egregious an offense is our acceptance of this division that desacralizes the earth. “There shall be no altering of God’s creation. That is the upright way of religion, but most people do not know it” [Surat Al-Rum, 30:30]. This is nothing more than the plan of Satan against man, to cause us to sever creation from its sacred nature, and thus cut ourselves off from the blessing of God in all things. Satan swore: “And I shall, most surely, lead them astray. Moreover, I shall, most surely, fill them with fancies. Thus, I shall command them: And they shall slit the ears of cattle [in false ritual]. And I shall command them: And they shall [seek unnatural] change [to] the creation of God.” But whoever takes Satan as a patron, apart from God, has most surely suffered a manifest loss” [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:119].
It is time we call this massive attempt to change the sacred nature of creation and divide man from his own spirit by its proper title. Separation, thy name is secularism! This is the root of our moral crisis, the unspoken cause that is undoing the ecology, after it has succeeded to undo us—and, yes, I do mean us Muslims.
Yet it is the blessing of God, that society is not some separate, solid mass (nor are we, for that matter, claim physicists). Educator Paulo Freire describes the critical thinker as one who “perceives reality as process, as transformation, rather than as a static entity.…one who does not separate [his] thinking from [his] action…without fear of the risks involved…[for] the continuing transformation of reality, in behalf of the continuing humanization of men.” This is important as far as it goes. But the Quran adds to this state of constant deployment of one’s intellect and action in the world, an overarching vision of the true reality, the Hereafter, and the implications of one’s ultimate humanization there, before Allah, and in Paradise.
As far as how we can work outside the system, the answer requires a paradigm shift: Working on ourselves is working “out-side” the “system.” Once we understand the problems as systemic, we must admit the obvious: We have seen the system, and it is us! Together, we are the system. So changing ourselves is changing the system. And even so says Allah: “Indeed, God does not change a people’s condition until they change what is their souls” [Surat Al-Ra‘d,13:11].
It is an ayah, a divine sign, that the greatest of people after the prophets, the Sahaba, or Companions of Prophet Muhammad were not above criticism, nor infallible, nor did they always make sound decisions. Nevertheless, a just civilization, unprecedented in recorded history, grew at their hands—because they followed this Divine imperative to change what was in their hearts, and because through their inner work they reworked their intentions to impeccable sincerity. Hence, regardless of their mistakes and imperfections, God, as He promised—and promises still—changed their environment, gave them victory, until Islam spread its sanity, security, and fecundating mercy across the globe.
2. MISSING THE MUSLIM PARADIGM, OR VIEWING THE WORLD AND SEEING IT
GOD MADE ISLAM for the precise mission of empowering man to rekindle his sacred inner light and then resacralize the earth. That is the paradigm Islam still offers us in this time of environmental crisis. This comes into clear relief when we consider the basic principles prevailing in the West today that have unraveled the ecology, and since the West is where most of the consumption and pollution in the world is taking place and where most of the initiative to counter its disastrous impact has begun.
A defining premise underlying most environmental conversations today is the idea of “scarcity,” the notion that the earth and its resources are insufficient for man, that it cannot support 7 billion people in an advanced stage of civilization. This is in sharp contrast to a raft of studies (as well as Islamic history), both of which show that small scale but diverse agriculture is not only highly productive and sustainable, but, in fact, superabundant and virtually perpetual.
Obviously, a paradigm of scarcity engenders vastly different attitudes among people, and consequences, than one of abundance, upon which Islam rests; namely, that God is all-generous Giver of plenty, “To each—those [who are hasty for the world] and those [who strive for God]—We extend something of your Lord’s bounty. Yet never is the bountiful gift of your Lord confined” [Surat Al-Isra’,17:20]. In fact, the violence that has characterized Western history stems largely from a fear of economic scarcity relentlessly propagated in the culture. This is well represented today in the barbaric idea of the need for enforced population control of the “other,” which is gaining currency.
The perception of “limited” resources is actually false since all resources are renewable, but on varying time scales. Some may take ages to build up, but they are nonetheless renewable. Earth’s problems are not with its resources but with the way commercial interests abuse them, which betrays a thoroughly corrupted two-fold premise:
The first assumption is that the only socio-economic value is increase of wealth, measured as profit and loss, or GDP (gross domestic product). This is the impulse that enslaved science to the profit motive, giving us technology that is completely wasteful because in the capitalist paradigm waste (planned obsolescence, for example) increases production and consumption. Polluting technology is economically productive in this model, for the same reason: They generate more backend “industry” (to clean up toxic by product, for instance). This is why the motor engine has had no significant evolution (beyond combustion, for example) in a century. Our homes, offices, and schools are toxic boxes that guzzle energy in the same way our cars do, and so on. The technologies behind them all are scientifically completely primitive, though their production technologies (eliminating the role of paid employees) have evolved enormously. This stark dichotomy is economically productive for a few.
Assumption two of our corrupt commercial paradigm is the belief that life is a zero-sum game. Thus for one person to win, another must lose. This premise is factual only in a socio-economic system in which there is an elite exploiting all others. True sustainability amounts to a negative profit for mega-industries whose philosophy is perpetual growth for the purpose of consolidating power in structures that subsume the governance apparatus of people and all their institutions. And just as history witnessed the principle-based and sustainable agriculture of the Muslims competitively undo vast land monopolies and liberate millions of serfs, transforming their fiefdoms into small-scale farms owned by their laborers, so today sustainability can undo the system of perpetual growth and channel its resources into the justice of liberated and sovereign people and communities.
True sustainability and justice, a win-win cooperation, is a realistic model as centuries of Islamic civilization have demonstrated. And for those who don’t know, this was a highly scientific, technologically advanced, ecologically and economically sustainable, and global civilization. For those not familiar with the 900 plus years of Islamic civilization that was inherited by the West, there is currently an abundance of “fringe” science (not supported by academics or industry) demonstrating that we can be sustainable and just without returning to the Stone Age.
The Qur’anic Cornerstone of Haya’ or Pious Shyness
All religions have their essential trait, and haya’, or pious shyness, the Prophet said is the defining character of Islam. Part of this shyness is the internal disposition of “refraining” (istihya’), or holding oneself back from doing something. From this character comes trove of good qualities that Islam builds in the psychology of its followers, including modesty, reserve, humility, and reticence. But from the font of haya’s positive traits, one in particular emerges as a central Islamic ethic: Moderation, the disposition to limit, control and restrict one’s soul from wandering into a state of extremeness or slipping into excess. This gives rise to perhaps the most fundamental of all human ecological principles: Conservation, which is of the very essence of the Islamic worldview. Creation, with all its natural and cultural resources is to be preserved and managed with utmost understanding and care.
It is for this reason that our predecessors in faith demonstrated the greatest humility and restraint in preserving languages, cultures, and the learning of others. What I have found unique about the Muslim civilization is not its science, technology, or agriculture, all of which are still unprecedented in recorded history. Such activities are, in any case, basic to humanity and evidence abounds with the great achievements in these fields of long past civilizations. Nor is military power exclusive to any one civilization, as empires have risen and fallen with a regularity that ought to chasten us all. Rather, it is the paradigm of conservation that is distinctive in Muslim civilization (though this characteristic of ours has nearly disappeared under the global hegemony of Western culture).
Muslims conserved everything good, as it formed part of their perspective: Water, land, soil, ecosystems (words, pleasure, beauty) were dealt with extensively in establishing laws to ensure both their conservation and social justice beginning 1400 years ago. And do not succumb to manipulated statistics and manufactured implications of the fact that the global population is at its highest ever. There are historians, such as Andrew Watson, who have put forth evidence that the cities of the Muslims matched our major city populations of today. Although the world population may have been less then, keep in mind that their numerous highly populated cities were each solely supported by a sustainable yet abundant local agriculture coming from their well-to-do (not impoverished) rural sector (which also engaged in global trade). Yet today we have a global agricultural sector—whose families are impoverished and whose monolithic corporate model is unsustainable—mainly supporting a fraction of the global population.
Languages, cultures, religions, autonomous communities and families—Muslims preserved all of this as a part of God’s creative diversity, not man’s—whereas the West, in its manifestation as a Christian and then a secular civilization has not only been responsible for turning communities worldwide into corporate factory plantations, but for successfully wiping away fully 3,000 of our 6,000 global languages in just a few centuries. Our Muslim predecessors, on the other hand, recognized that preserving peoples and their cultures was conserving knowledge. Thus they kept them free for all people to learn.
History, the conservation of man’s story, was, in fact, turned into a rigorous discipline by the Muslims, who developed meticulous systems of recording. No other civilization that we know of has conserved on the scale of Muslims, eco-logically and intellectually, historically and esthetically, and, above all, spiritually (everything from the Quran, to the Prophetic way of life, to humankind’s primordial religious rites, to marriage and family hierarchies, to the devout technologies of spiritual elevation, to dress, to ablution and hygiene—all from Allah, the actual Preserver). Even though Muslims had all the corruption that is part of human nature, abundance and conservation (not scarcity and wastage) were the premises of their—our—worldview.
Diversity was respected and cultivated by Muslims, whereas today’s civilization is defined by mono-cultures in every respect from agriculture to education. Mono-culture, the utilitarian reduction of diverse and complex systems to hegemonic and controllable systems, is a core issue at the very foundation of the environmental disaster.
Eco-systems thrive because of abundant diversity. Languages and cultures exist(ed) abundantly, when they formed themselves naturally out of their localities (for people are part of eco-systems, even if it is as a destructive force): That is, languages, say, of Alaska and the Amazon, have to be very different, for they communicate very different “environments.” Each language embodies a unique world-view and nurtures a singular culture that then cultivates a people’s special knowledge, attesting to the infinite knowledge and abundant creative diversity of God. In other words, language, among other things, connects people to their land and holds the wisdom of how to survive and thrive as part of their eco-system harmoniously and sustainably. Thus, every language that goes extinct is an environmental disaster of the first order because it takes with it unfathomable amounts of knowledge that may be as old as the rainforests we are bulldozing for monocropped corn and soy.
“Monoculture” is an act of violence against people and the earth. For to wrest people from their languages, as was done to colonized peoples, is to sever them from their dignity, knowledge, culture, and roots. This is precisely how free peoples are enslaved mentally, before they are enslaved economically or even physically. To monocrop land not only strips bare an eco-system and destroys the land, but it also allows for imported work-slaves or immigrants to labor the land, as it requires no knowledge on the part of the worker. Monoculture is a paradigm of consolidation and control, and is a defining tool of the secular worldview in its quest for lordship of man over man.
What Is the Environment Telling Us?
To break out of the secular worldview, a most important question to ask is what does it mean to say “environment”? Does the environment start outside our front door? Does it start where we end? And where might that be? If it is as the Quran tells us—that at the moment of our death the angels remove our souls from inside our bodies. Then could one not say that we inhabit our bodies, therefore making our bodies an environment?
And how does the materialist idea that the environment is “out there” lead to a different set of attitudes than the Qur’anic principle that we are all connected by virtue of a common divine language? These “ayat,” or signs, of Allah, the Quran tells us, are not merely outside of us, extending to the horizons, but are also inside of our bodies, within our very souls. “We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves—until it becomes [utterly] clear to them that this [Quran] is, indeed, the [divine] truth” [Surat Fussilat, 41:53]. As the pendulum of Western Civilization swings between its poles of Christianity and secularism, nature never recovers inherent meaning, and life’s meanings always remain subjective. People go from the extremes of dominating and exploiting nature to “saving” and worshiping it.
The Islamic paradigm holds the environment—that is creation as the whole universe and everything in it—as a language of symbols not much different than the sounds and shapes that form spoken and written languages. God compares both the Quran and creation as Books of Revelation that we must read and reflect on. This language is translated as “signs” (or ayat, meaning the verses of the Quran and the clues of the created world). These divine indicators, coming from the Arabic word ayah, do not stop at our physical beings, but penetrate deep into our own souls. And so it is that we ourselves are as much a part of nature, that is creation, as our souls are part of our bodies.
Then let us observe nature, or the environment, as a guide, and seek a lesson in its activity, or reaction, keeping in mind that this can be done both by meditative reflection and scientific deliberation. Although we are a society that claims to be scientific, discovery has moved on, while society remains stuck in the dogma of an antiquated material reductionism, everything being brought down to some disconnected bit of matter. Quantum physics, however, has now shown us quite clearly that the whole universe is actually interconnected and immaterial, in fact, and thus our beliefs actually do affect the universe.
Moreover, photography has illustrated the magnificent reality that the structure of a brain cell is the same as the structure of the universe. We are the microcosm. The universe is the macrocosm. We may not be able to see our effects far into the universe, but we can certainly see how our beliefs impact and affect the world we live in. On the one hand, we are an intimate part of eco-systems, and play either a harmonious or a destructive role. There is no neutrality as long as we are in the world. On the other hand, the environment is a mirror of us, and we must see that it is telling us that we are spiritually corrupted and destroying ourselves. In the end, the earth (through our corruption and by Allah’s command) can very easily wipe us out of existence, with the earth eventually rebalancing itself and continuing on. In other words, the earth does not need fixing. We need fixing.
The Quran itself brings forth many lessons of past environmental disasters, from local to global scale crises. What it communicates to us is that anytime there was an environmental disaster, it was, in fact, brought about by people’s own hands, inspired by their false beliefs—regardless of how wealthy, powerful, or technologically remarkable the society was. “And very truly, We had established them in [prosperity and power] as We have not established you. Moreover, We had endowed them with [the faculties of] hearing and sight, and hearts [to comprehend]. Yet neither their hearing, nor their sight, nor their hearts availed them in anything [good], for they were [set on] disavowing the signs of God. Thus, the [very punishment] at which they used to mock whelmed them from every side” [Surat Al-Ahqaf, 46:26]. When the Judgment of God comes down, and the very earth revolts against man at God’s command, it does so because of what a people’s hearts and hands have sent into the world. There is much, in particular, to be learned by all of us, East and West, regarding the moral complex of environmental catastrophe from the Qur’anic account of Prophet Noah, who said to his people, which the West now foolishly takes as but an invented tale. Allah says: “Seek forgiveness from your Lord. Indeed, ever is He most forgiving. He shall [avert drought and] send [rain from] heaven upon you in abundance. Moreover, He shall provide you with wealth and children, and make for you gardens, and make for you rivers that run” [Surat Nuh, 71: 11-12]. Yet, the Quran tells us, they belligerently kept to their ignorant ways at the behest of their elites— “Do not ever leave your gods! So they were drowned” [Surat Nuh, 71:23 and 25].
Thus Noah’s message represents the lesson for us as a global civilization on the brink of disaster, and the solution: Break the humiliating and oppressive shackles of servitude to men who cannot even create a flea, and return to the humble but dignified servitude to the One who Created us. If we do, the earth shall flourish and us in it. If we continue our abuse, the earth, loosed at Allah’s command, shall destroy us.
What we should remind ourselves of is that the environmental crisis is a human crisis and that it stems directly from the wrong relationships we hold with God, and one another and other creatures vis-à-vis God’s Divine Law. Shirk, associating anyone with the divinity of God, is equivalent to oppression as the one who rejects his own origins, nature, and truth is only oppressing his own soul. Hence, we are left with an obvious question: How can goodness emanate out of one who is oppressed by his or her own hands?
III. THE SOLUTION ENVISIONED
WE ARE A people filled with emotional baggage, psychological confusion, and spiritual degradation, suffering from a plethora of physical symptoms. And yet fixing ourselves is the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps that is why we choose to ignore our own spiritual work, abandon our parents, send our children to be raised by strangers, alienate or divorce our spouses and instead focus on other people’s problems, decontextualizing political, social or environmental issues.
How can we, who have no sense of our own or our children’s holistic health and deep well-being, fix the problems in the world? We cannot. Instead we become attached to our work, our organization, our own selfish success. Our principles get lost somewhere in between working within the economic and political confines of the system and the overpowering drive for gratification, competitiveness, and control.
The prescription to this malady requires first of all that we re-establish our rightful relationship with God, as He has revealed it to His prophets, and not as arrogant humans have conjectured. Out of this relationship, we are required to re-establish harmonious relationships with each other as families and communities and with our eco-systems. There is great wisdom in the realization that the globe is one huge eco-system made up of many localized eco-systems. We must learn from this and follow the Middle Way: Embrace diverse, localized eco-communities even while being one global community. What follows is some of what it will take.
Sustainability in Thirds?
It is no under-statement to say that local communities form a third of the solution to the globe’s problems today. We must return to the Middle Way as a global civilization built of functional families and empowered communities. Do not assume that technology and globality are at odds with locality and sovereignty. Again, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom in the idea of local communities.
Hakim Archuletta, a Muslim healer, speaks to the medicinal properties of local plants when he reminds us how the health world is remembering that eating a predominantly local palette is conducive to better health, honey being the best example of a food filled with specifically effective antibiotic properties for myriad local sicknesses. Aside from the imperative function of local languages and cultures, we are relearning that the divine meaning of ‘neighbor’ is the living connection between the people around you. For the suburbs have shown us only too well that proximity has nothing to do with neighborliness. Rather, neighborliness is a relationship that God has enjoined, and by reinstituting it we address poverty, alienation, and conflict in the most powerful and effective way. No way of life exalts the neighbor, and raises the human conscience to the connection between man’s sustenance and the fruit of earth and the work of his own hands, as does Islam—and these twin imperatives are intimately related and not merely spiritual or altruistic.
Agriculture is neighbor power and, thus, communal free-dom. For it is the economic force of a local community. Without a local agricultural sector, a community has no economic grounding. It may be, in part, for this reason that our Prophet instructed us never to give it up: “Should the Hour of Doom come, and one of you has a palm shoot in hand, let him [continue to] plant it.”
Agriculture is also the most effective means for not only slowing down climate change, which is industry’s insidious profit goal, but it can rebalance the environment and bring back abundance. Where Al Gore dreams of a “low-carbon” or even “carbon-free” world, a truly enlightened environmental activist, like Indian physicist Vandana Shiva, pines for a “car-bon-rich” future—one in which agriculture systematically builds organic matter into the soil, capturing it from the atmosphere. Furthermore, and don’t be deceived by the simplicity, when a people own the land and resources they live on, they will care for it.
This points up the problem of proposals like the highly touted Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that sells clean poor-world sources to the rich, industry-run north. Shiva sums up the proposals of people like Gore and the government-industry alliance this way: “Climate treaties and such discussions take place in the stratosphere—in congressional committees, exclusive global confabs peopled by CEOs of vast business empires…[who] operate under an industrial paradigm—and the solutions they concoct…mimic and don’t challenge that paradigm.”
Another third of the problem comes when eco-communities form and then find that they must arrange hierarchies of their own. They require local courts and laws covering a complex of social issues. All this must either come from man’s myopic, limited, fallible desires and conjectures, or from Divine Guidance.
Islam’s socio-economic principles establish a foundation of justice, freedom, equity, and very importantly, a license to creatively form unique communities that diversely manifest a crucial handful of harmonious and foundational divine principles (as opposed to endless, contradicting top-down regulations). This mirrors the rest of God’s creation, abundantly diverse yet founded on a few sound principles. In other words, there is not only one desirable form of government, one functional economic system. We don’t have to settle for the “least of evils” between the three materially-based social systems of the West, two of which are now defunct. Look to past Muslims as an example and remember how to think for yourself.
We have a wealth of wisdom to excavate from Islamic civilization and to learn from so as to apply the Sacred Texts to our lives today. That knowledge-trove covers every aspect of life, from politics, economics, education, and the sciences to agriculture. Listen, again, to Haq:
Diffused throughout the body of a single hadeeth collection, one finds concerns, expressed with a degree of urgency, pertaining to the natural environment, its status, its relation to human life, and what we may call environmental ethics. These concerns do not appear as isolated issues in their own right, to be sure; rather, they are fully integrated into a host of naturalistic, moral, and practical principles that form the core of righteous conduct. [There are] separate books on animal sacrifice, agriculture and land cultivation, medicine, hunting, and water and irrigation. The “Book of Agriculture” is rich in material concerning the environment, speaking of the nobility of sustainable cultivation of land and encouraging it with moral force. Issues of land irrigation and the strict law of equal sharing of water are found in the “Book of Distribution of Water” …. Also, spread all over one finds a very large number of reports concerning the treatment of animals and pasture, as well as what one may call animal rights. And in the “Book of Generalities” …one finds a reference to the important principle of hima—land protection and consecration—which is there linked, in its very essence, to the question of social and economic justice.
The Last Third: How to Get There from Here?
The final third of the solution must be aligned with the way of the prophets, asking for neither rewards nor recognition from people or society. When we expect no monetary assistance, awards or gratitude, we will not have to compromise our principles. Often, the prophets received the opposite for their efforts; namely, poverty and rebuke from the people. But these are the tests that build our character and purify us. Good character and courage do not come about just by thinking or talking it. They grow by exercising those muscles against the resistance of adversity. Yet we Muslims have become a sedentary people, both physically and spiritually, and we are forcing our children to follow suit, for which cause we see much rebellion among them. “Do people think that they will be left simply to say: We believe! And they will not be put to the test? Yet very truly, We have tested all those who came before them. Thus God shall, most surely, distinguish those who speak the truth about their belief. And He shall most surely distinguish the liars” [Surat Al-‘Ankabut, 29:2-3].
Here are four practical, personal actions we can all take to ultimately change our conditions and that of our community and environment.
1. Cultivate Self-Awareness
We must start at the beginning within the sphere of our control, personal and family activism, following the wisdom of the Prophet who was commanded to begin with himself and then his family. “Moreover, enjoin the Prayer on your family [O Prophet], and persevere patiently with it” [Surat Ta Ha, 20:132] Beginning with ourselves, as with this example of the Prophet requires a reconnection to our bodies. Archuletta, the Muslim healer, explains this in detail. The gist of it is that we must become aware of our bodies and be present in the moment, which requires practice, for this is how we learn self-control and how we can develop quiet introspection so as reconnect to our inner voice.
Scoff not at this as some hippie-dippie prescription. Rather, cultivating self-awareness brings us down to intention, and that is truly where the environment, and its rescue, begins, inside us. “O you who are mantled! Rise and forewarn! And your Lord thus extol! And your garments thus purify! And shun thus idolatry! Nor shall you give anything in search of self-gain. Moreover, with the commandments of your Lord have patience” [Surat Al-mudaththir, 74:1-7].
I am reminded of a very insightful saying: “Children are our teachers.” They teach us to be patient, selfless, present, thoughtful and many other things that we have grown very deficient in. All are very difficult things to do—and they get more difficult as we age. But these are all things that are required for good character—and cultivating people with good character is our goal here, for nothing else will rid us of the earth’s impending global catastrophe, except Allah ridding the earth of us!
2.Re-Embrace Our Children
So instead of giving our children up to be raised by a “system,” we must embrace them fully with all the challenges and hardships this embracing entails. This is necessary for both our spiritual development and because every new generation represents hope for a new opportunity for change. We must allow them the opportunity and freedom to be whom they choose out of their own experiences and the call of their hearts under the guidance of Islam, trusting in the watchful Eyes of Allah. This is far better than our current fashion of imposing on them our shallow expectations of prestigious careers and fears of social rejection. I am not talking about choosing between a “useless” liberal arts degree and “get-rich” medical school. I am talking about expanding our horizons to see the moral integrity of creating the things we use, cultivating land, and investing in real connections with each other beyond socializing, by which I mean the glue of lush economic connections. Expanding our children’s horizons will allow them to think in ways we have been unable to (or don’t want to) break through to. They may well be the ones to live the life we are unable (or don’t want) to live. Maybe they will understand and implement the Islamic imperative to take what is good and leave what is bad.
3. Reconnect with Creation
Another essential ingredient is to reconnect with “nature” so as to develop in our children (and maybe ourselves) a natural “bodily” reverence for life that many of us are only able to intellectualize. But this must be guided by sound belief in the Oneness of God, and by inculcating them with the principles of the Quran and the prophetic way of His Messenger. For if we conserve no befitting servitude to God, we shall preserve no wholesome care for His creation. The two are inseparable, our observing the rights of God and the rights of God’s handiwork, the environment. Put another way, if we behold not the beauty of God, we shall behold not the beauty of the creation He fashioned for us and all “others.” Or we may say that God is the Truth who created all things with the truth. To violate His Truth with falsehood is to necessarily corrupt creation.
We can nurture our children’s connection to nature by giving them the toys of creation instead of planting consumerism’s seeds in them from birth. Have them spend a significant amount of time outdoors playing with mud, sticks, trees, water, and animals, and keep them away from media. We must cultivate in our children a love for work, such as making things by hand. This can also be integrated into a curriculum and at home. It is a great deficiency and point of criticism that we Muslims have come to see ourselves “above” the labor of self-sufficiency, valuing instead desk servitude, jobs that may give the delusion of social prestige but contribute nothing to our communal well-being.
We can learn about creation by cultivating the land. We can develop life-skills by learning how to make and mend our own things. These skills move us from brainless consumer to original human. They give us an authentic sense of creativity, independence, purpose and connection. The Quran speaks profusely and profoundly about earth, vegetation, and animals. Hadiths abound about cultivating land and the rewards it brings in this life and the next. Past Muslims were scholars and they cultivated land. Today, we look at farming as we do the labor of making and fixing things, as lowly. And yet it is these very activities that liberate people from wage slavery to autonomy.
Said the Prophet: “There is none among the believers who plants a tree, or sows a seed, and then a bird, or a person, or an animal eats thereof, but he is regarded as having given a charitable gift [for which there is great recompense].” Another hadith tells us that these rewards extend from this life to the next.
4. Reconnect Our Education with Life, Namely, the Quran
Our education must be reconnected to life. Our learning must become contextualized so that we move from learning “facts” to critically understanding the world we live in and being able to function in the world with wisdom and integrity.
We must address the needs that come with our life as spiritual beings not fully of this earth. Humans are always looking for upliftment, for a high, for power and control to give them purpose and meaning. Even though we kill our hearts from a young age, we are driven for a need to “feel,” which comes from our increasingly adrenalin-driven activities and furious search for wealth and worldly status. What we are really searching for is transcendence, truth, spiritual fulfillment.
So most importantly we must read and reflect on the Quran. There are dozens of Quran classes online and probably at most mosques, but we need, in addition to learning meanings and commentary of the Quran, to program our own implementation of it, as our scholars have detailed it for a millennium and more. Yet this will only be consolidated and meaningful if we add to this our own reflection on its meaning in our lives, times, environment, and the universe—with wide-open creativity.
I have begun a program where we read a few ayat, look some words up in the dictionary, and then reflect and ponder on them. We then write and share a few paragraphs about our own reactions and thoughts. It has been most enlightening and enjoyable. Two important things come from this program: (1) It exercises and strengthens muscles we don’t much use, namely, our reflective ones; (2) it strengthens the minds of our hearts, for when we reflect on the awesomeness of creation, and experience that feeling of awe, it slowly pumps the life back to the heart—the very modus operandi of the Quran—so that we can know how to feel awe of Allah, the Exalted. “Rather, this [Book] is but a [revealed] Reminder and a clear Quran—to forewarn whoever is [truly] alive [of the nearing Judgment]—and so that the word [of God’s torment] against the [inveterate] disbelievers is fulfilled” [Surat Ya Sin, 36:70].
This kind of program ought to become a family priority, along with the normal studies of Quran, Hadith, and Arabic. Contextualizing Islam into our lives—something that we are not currently doing, but which can be done very easily through critical dialogue with each other. Family and friends can share their reflections and discuss them. Challenging each other is very important in the dialogue to move it past chit-chat to discovering our own deep-seated beliefs and allowing our ideas to grow and change. In addition, we should set goals to achieve together—for Allah tells us to compete in good works: Examples are memorization, keeping a Quran Reflection Journal, fasting, praying nights, and giving regular charity from the things we ourselves grow and make, and countless other things. For in the end, it is spiritual upliftment and good character that will help us to stand strong for justice and plant seeds for real change.
Islam tells us that all the prophets were shepherds, a job most of us now look down on with contempt. But as a scholar once said, he came to understand through years of observation, reflection, and cultivation of land, there is a profound wisdom in the healing of the earth as the cure for a world filled with horrifying human oppression.
Our challenge is to learn to see ourselves, the animals, plants, minerals and all the beings of the earth again, as they truly are, fellow creatures worshipping the same, sole God who created them and us, and who sustains us. That is why it is so important that we once again learn to listen. For, as we have seen, it is only the words of the Quran that can put life back into our hearts and cure our blindness. Then, when we look into its unfailing mirror, we shall, indeed, see clearly the fairest of creation.