The recent unexplained mass death of birds – almost 3,000 by some estimates – and then of around 100,000 fish on New Year's in Arkansas has got everyone talking. Experts have claimed the birds could have died either because of lightning or because of shock from New Year's fireworks, neither of which explains the death of the fish. What is worrisome is that drum fish are somewhere at the bottom of the food chain. If the hundred thousand fish died of disease, they got it off eating other fish and creatures swimming about. Of course, the deaths also spurred a lot of conspiracy theories of weapon tests and the like. But it all boils down to one thing: man's interactions with nature and the environment.
Global warming may be a myth derived by the democrats, or it may actually be a real threat. What is a fact is that man's interactions with nature bring about reactions, both positive and negative. Recently, our capitalist-driven approach to natural resources has led to the excessive exploitation of the natural environment. Many argue that the only way to get man to make use of nature responsibly is by bringing theologians and philosophers back into the equation.
So it makes one go back to the question of how green Islam really is.
The general Islamic view is that the earth – with its fertile plateaus and woodlands, with its deserts and flowing rivers – is a gift for mankind. It was created for us to make use of, for us to inhabit, for us to eat and drink from. Allah gave us the guardianship of the earth, He sent us down as His representatives on earth.
But the role of man goes beyond simple ownership of the world. It comes with strings attached. Man's interactions with his environment are guided by the very Khilafat (guardianship) that was bestowed upon us.
The Qur'an refers to creation or the natural world as the signs of Allah, the Ayaatullah. We are instructed to look upon nature to recognize the Lord and His attributes. As the Qur'an says, "There are certainly signs in the earth for people with certainty; and in yourselves. Do you not then see?" (51:20-21)
Perhaps the most significant of all is how Islam views these signs of Allah. It applies a holistic approach, reaffirming the interconnectedness of the natural order of the Lord's creations, man included. Every insect, plant, celestial body has a place and is not only connected to everything else, but also depends on their existence and well-being. As inhabitants of the earth, we are instructed to uphold and respect that delicate and sacred balance. It is for man to recognize the Unity of all creation, of which we too are an integral part, and the dynamic purpose of Allah's design. "What is in the heavens and the earth belongs to Allah: He encompasses everything." (4:126)
As Allah's representative on Earth, as a guardian ordained by the Creator Himself, what Islam also stresses upon is the relationship between the Creator, man and creation. The power of guardianship invests man with a moral responsibility to nature and his environment: a responsibility to maintain the natural order. Being a part of the sacred design, the natural balance in which everything has been created, man alone holds the power to go against Divine Will as he pleases to exploit the resources at hand for his own benefit, falling short of fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to him. We have been commanded to be just while exercising our power over nature. Man has been ordained as the trustee – a trustee that safeguards and protects until the next generation of trustees can assume the responsibility.
The Islamic view of environmentalism is very different from the contemporary definition, as it isn't derived from a reaction to our excesses. Instead, it lays down norms and safeguards to prevent the very situation we find ourselves in today. It defines limits for human behavior and interaction to curb the excesses that plague our societies today.
Over the years, interpretations of Islamic environmentalism have evolved – but have not been fully implemented – to meet the challenges of the modern world, such as the anointment of special reserves to be used as conservation zones. Grassroots movements are waking up to the consumer-driven ideologies that continue to exploit natural resources under the slogan of individualism, where the well-being of the community as a whole is side-stepped for short term benefits. Although the challenges posed by our environmental crisis are not usually considered a Muslim problem, many Muslims are turning to Islam in search for answers to deal with our environmental concerns.
Environmentalism by itself is fundamental in Islam to understand man's place in the universe and amongst Allah's creations. Thus, as green as Islam really is, we need Muslims today to engage in the debate concerning the environmental crisis the world is facing, as the area does indeed hold limitless possibilities for Muslim activism.
"You who have faith: be upholders of justice, bearing witness for Allah alone, even against yourselves or your parents and relatives. Whether they are rich or poor, Allah is able to look after them. Do not follow your own desires and deviate from the truth. If you twist and turn away, Allah is aware of what you do." (4:134)