Guest Blog: Guest blogger Mouna Mana reflects on the wisdom shared by Dr. Fred Denny at a guest lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the topic of environmental protection and Islam.
By Mouna Mana
A few weeks ago on April 10, Dr. Fred Denny, professor emeritus from University of Colorado-Boulder spoke at UW-Madison’s campus as a guest on the topic of environmental protection and Islam. The title of the talk drew me in, “Ecology and Islam.” I cannot pretend to know much about ecology, but I care enough to want to know more. Was he going to explain how ecology appears in Islamic texts, or was he going to talk about Muslims’ work (or lack thereof) in ecology? Was he going to raise any critiques or questions? Would I discover something new and insightful about the topic?
I was intrigued and decided to leave the questions at the door and just listen. As I was to discover, the talk focused not so much on Muslims’ practices in environmentalism, but on the Islamic perspective towards nature and the environment.
Dr. Denny began his lecture after all the introductions by highlighting the framework within which Islam approaches the topic of ecology, which is a faith-based stewardship of earth with humans designed to serve as stewards and carry out stewardship. This system, built on the idea that the purpose of human creation is to worship Allah and to return/are to be returned to Allah, God, makes the matter wholly about the human-divine relationship. So the notion in Islam, as Denny explained, was that Earth and everything in it belongs not to humans but to God.
Throughout his talk, Dr. Denny made clear that the notion of stewardship in Islam differed slightly, but not totally, from the one in the Judaeo-Christian tradition— nuanced in the sense that Islam included no concept of dominion of humankind over the earth and that “Tawheed”, or observing the Oneness of God serves as the root of trusteeship and responsibility for the earth, and that this encapsulates the pillars of environmental ethics in Islam.
Animals are in communities (ummam)
Denny opened after the introduction with a reference to the Qur’anic verse (below) which declared animals to be “ummam” or communities, nations, “amthalukum” (like you). The word “ummam”, as Denny explained was the plural of the word “ummah”, which Muslims also use to refer to believing communities wherever they may be and whatever their background.
It is also, I observed, from the same tri-letter root word as the word for “mother” and “destiny” perhaps even invoking notions of origin or source and future. Denny further explicated that this personification of animals as being communities places us as readers of the Qur’an in a paradigm of interconnectedness. Communities necessarily interact with one another, and we as followers of Islam are enjoined by the Qur’an to view the animal world not merely as parallels to us and organized into communities with their own networks, but that the very existence of these “ummam” signals an interconnectedness between their existence and well-being and our own as no community on earth exists in isolation of others, and what affects one community ultimately affects other communities.
I had certainly read and knew the verse Dr. Denny quoted. He brought home more clearly, however, the spiritual injunction the verse addressed. My understanding of the verse was somewhat superficial perhaps; that Islam via the Qur’an, considered animals as organized similarly to our human ones, “y ya”, end of story. It does not take any stretch of the imagination, however, to understand that the verse serves as a divine invitation to take on the ethos ecologists and many indigenous traditions have: honor, preserve and do not abuse nature “that is made into communities like you”. Denny pointed to how profound this verse from Chapter/Surah 6, Verse/Ayah 38 really was for an ecology framework in Islam.
How does one interact with these “communities”?
So the implication, Denny continued, is that creatures, as worldwide communities are not merely passive objects for our own use and amusement, but active societies and as such to be interacted with as we would other communities. The question then becomes how does one interact with these “communities” of beasts and birds. Islam broadens what constitutes an “ummah” with this verse, so the boundaries of what human ethics should consider becomes much wider in Islam than in many traditions, and much wider than what most would attribute to a faith-based approach to environmental ethics.
In addition to the notion of interconnectedness indexed in the previous verse, Denny went on to discuss Islam’s perspective on the natural resources that sustain these communities. He quoted a famous verse on water which says, “..and We created from water every living thing” Chapter/Surah 21, Verse/Ayah 30. By identifying the foundation of life, the verse leaves one with no doubt that the preservation of water is paramount to the natural order found on Earth. He explained that the attention to water was so high, that Prophet Muhammed (Peace be upon him) codified in his hadeeth (tradition) four categories of water and what rights humans had in relation to each:
1) Ocean and sea water: No one’s private property, belonging to all on earth like the moon, air, and sun
2) Large rivers/lakes = No one’s property, should not be restricted to an owner
3) Water which several people share (wells…etc.) = property of those who share it and must be fairly shared by the parties who have a shared ownership.
4) Waters which are preserved in vessels/containers…etc. = property of a sole individual, but may be taken if no other water exists and life is in jeopardy
Rights to water, as outlined by the hadeeth, entails that the advantage be in favor of what sustains life. Other hadeeths, Denny said, with strong chains of narration, indicate that that denying water to those in need when others have it in excess incurs God’s wrath on the day of judgment to those who do not share it, and that humans are partners in 3 things: water, herbage, and fire (sources of energy). In a world where water is predicted to be the future source of conflict, and where access to clean water is increasingly imbalanced, this hadeeth drives home a point: sharing is not just caring, it is part of an environmentally and humane existence.
Denny’s lecture did not center on Muslims’ work around the world on environmentalism. His focus remained on the scriptural foundation for an environmentally-conscious lifestyle. However, he did briefly mention two significant efforts. He talked briefly about Green Deen, a book published on the topic by a Muslim here in America on localized efforts of living a “green” lifestyle, meaning not only a lifestyle that is in accordance with environmental protection but in accordance with Islam’s ideal of stewardship on earth and indexing the color green which is often considered holy in Muslim cultures.
Secondly, he described an event in 1986 organized by Prince Phillip and where Muslim scholars took part. Leaders of many faiths together with conservationists drew up declarations on nature and the relationship with nature. The one written by the Muslim leaders included the concept of Tawheed, Unity, as a central to the notion of unity between humankind and nature. “Unity cannot be had by discord”, so the Muslim scholars referenced scripture that provided both both broad guidelines as well as set rules to avoid discord with nature.
Denny ended with a remarkable observation. He shared that it has been repeatedly noted that Islam does not have a festival or holiday of harvest or bounty or thankfulness, and that Muslims emphasize thankfulness for bounty around the year. Yet, upon reflection, he continued, the Muslim calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar calendar and based on the moon’s cycles, so holidays (example Ramadan) are experienced according to different seasons and have a different impact on believers each year.
Islam, he asserted, prefers an ongoing observance and practice of thanks throughout the year coupled with seasonal experience of spiritual experience rather than solar worship. Islam preaches solar respect, but not solar worship. This last point of the lecture brought the topic full circle to the notion of Tawheed being at the heart of the relationship between humanity and the natural world.