The Environment, Quran and the Burden of Scholars
Bismillahir Rahmaanir Raheem
IT HAPPENED IN the Masjid of Madinah, the Mosque of the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam. Those who made Salatul-Maghribthere would mostly come together to listen to the weekly lecture in tafseer from well-known mufassir (commentator on the Qur’an) and major scholar of Islam, the late Shaykh Muhammad al-Ameen Ash-Shinqiti (d.1973). He recited the verse he was going to explain, ayah56 of Surah al-‘Araf, or The Heights. As he read “Nor shall you spread corruption in the earth after it has been set aright (by God)“ the Shaykh choked up and began to sob. He tried to continue, but could not utter a word. To the astonishment of those present, for he was not one known for emotional display, he went on crying inconsolably- until it was time for the salah of isha, as a matter of fact. He was never seen experiencing anything like this before or after.
Qur’anic commentators throughout time have all stated that this verse refers to, and seeks to focus the attention on, the fact that man’s actions, in general, because of ignoring or deviating from God’s teachings which He revealed through the various prophets and messengers from Adam to Muhammad, Allah’s peace be upon them all, tend to harm and corrupt life-all its aspects and everything in it, including man himself.
In their discussion of what that means in realistic terms, most commentators explain that guidance from Allah points man to his role and purpose in this life, and His commands provide him with the principles and laws that, when honored, would undoubtedly make his existence on planet Earth sensibly and comfortably livable. Further, many expound and discuss the fact that man, believers included to varying degrees, manage to ignore God’s revealed guidance and introduce mischief into all walks of life which induce damage that has proven to be, in certain situations at least, immeasurably vast and absolutely irreversible. Yet only a few commentators have discussed man’s impact on the nature, that is creation, as environment from a perspective we deem relevant today.
Commenting on the phrase ba’ada islaheeha, “After it has been set aright (by God),” in the aforementioned verse, Imam Fakhruddin ar-Razi (d. 606 AH), for example, said: “It is possible that this means after (Earth or the Universe) was set aright by making it suitable for man to inhabit it, populate it.” (The Grand Commentary, 14:133). He then mentioned that it may also possibly mean that the Earth was set aright spiritually by Allah’s guidance. What is not clear from this quote is whether ar-Razi knew about the now-certain geological fact that it took the Earth and its atmosphere billions of years, literally, to cool down, stabilize, and change into an environment that is suitable and conducive to habitation by man. Yet, it could be concluded from his comment that such an understanding is quite likely. This should even be clearer by considering ar-Razi’s commentary on exactly the same phrase, “Éafter it has been set aright (by God),” but in a different verse of the same surah, verse 7:85. He said: “They (scholars of tafseer) have differed as to what this means.
It was said: after Earth became right with the advent of Prophet (Muhammad, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam). For it was corrupt before this, and he commanded them to end this [corruption] and it became right. It has also been said: What this means is do not corrupt it after Allah set it aright by increasing (His) bounty (and blessings) in it. This is the essence of the five responsibilities (the so-called Five Ultimate Objectives of Shari’ah), which is rooted in two principles: (1) Glorifying Allah and His commandments, which means bearing witness to the truth of tawheed and the prophethood (of Muhammad, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam), and (2) Caring for (and loving His) creation (on this Earth, human and all else), which means no apathy, no corruption, and thus no harming. It is as if Allah is telling us that while being useful (and good) to everything (all creation) may not be possible, refrain from harming any [My creation]” (The Grand Commentary, 14:174).
To Imam ar-Razi, there is no doubt that ba’ada islaheeha referred to setting aright the physical environment of the Earth, which initially lacked the ability to support human life. This interpretation should be an acceptable part of the correct tafseer of these two verses, especially if considered in light of the guidance inherent in many other verses in the Qur’an, as well as the teachings of the Sunnah, that absolutely prohibit causing harm and spreading mischief in the land. There can be no doubt that this may be construed to mean, in today’s terms, that man is obliged to protect the environment by, at least, not causing harm to it and in it.
The reason most scholars of the past did not mention the damage man can cause to the environment in the way we experience it as a matter of course today is that their tendency was to remain as close to the core message of all the revealed Books of Allah, which is to say staying mainly focused on man’s disobedience to his Creator as the root cause of all that plagues him and his surroundings. It’s opposite, therefore, holding true, that obeying Him establishes the balance and harmony needed for sensible human-to-human and human-to-environment relationships. In addition, the fact that man’s devastation to the environment took a dangerous new course-and that keeping track of the damage was easily understood and predicted-only recently, constitutes another reason why the scholars did not explicitly discuss environmental catastrophe.
As a rule, the scholars warn against danger, in general terms only, whenever that suffices, and delve not in the particulars of a negative outcome unless it is clear that such an outcome is inevitable. And there is wisdom in such an approach, for warnings and criticism can turn into a means of killing creativity by inviting restriction, pessimism, and negativity. Hence our historical scholars who kept to these principles in their commentaries were ingenuous within the particular context of the set of verses in which ba’ada islaheeha is introduced, as well as in respect to emphasizing the general approach of the Qur’an in prohibiting all forms of harm. Contemplating the Qur’an and Allah’s commandments and honestly interpreting them in relationship to the realities in question is, indeed, one of the fundamental roles of scholars and of the very essence of the burden of acquiring knowledge in Islam.
THE SHARI’AH’S ULTIMATE OBJECTIVE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
What do these verses say about the environment and man’s relationship to it? What is the Ultimate Objective(s) or maqsad (maqasid) that Islam seeks to establish as the basis for this relationship?
Let us read a few of the verses which precede and succeed the one we are discussing. Allah says in [7:54-58]:
“Indeed, your Lord is God, who created the heavens and earth in (the span of) six days. Then, (befittingly) He settled Himself over the Throne. He causes the night to enveil the day, pursuing it incessantly. And the moon and the stars are subjugated by His command. Most surely, to Him belongs all the creation and all the command. Blessed be God, Lord of (all) the Worlds. 
(O believers!) Call upon your Lord, in humility and privately! Indeed, He does not love the transgressors (who violate God’s commandments). 
Nor shall you spread corruption in the earth after it has been set aright (by God). So call upon Him, in fear and hope. Indeed, the mercy of God is (ever) near to those who excel in (doing) good. 
For it is He who sends the winds bearing glad tidings before (the rain-showers of) His mercy-until when they lift heavy clouds (aloft), We drive them to a lifeless land. Then upon it, We send down water. Then We bring forth with it fruits of every kind. Thus do we bring forth the dead, so that you may become mindful (of your own resurrection).
As for the wholesome land-its plants come forth by the permission of their Lord. Yet as for that (land) which is befouled-they come forth (from it) only meagerly. Thus do We transform the signs (of God) for a people who are thankful.“
This is neither the only place where the Qur’an discusses man in terms of his environment nor is the prohibition of harm the only principle it seeks to teach man about. Moreover, it should be obvious that serious discussion of the issues at hand may not be possible without the full study of all Texts in the Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, pertaining to the environment, as well as to man’s proper outlook upon it.Yet, for the purpose of our discussion here, we will assume it to be sufficient to allude to these points and note them briefly. Here are the observations various scholars have mentioned concerning the revealed knowledge one might come to in the contemplation of verse [7:56].
1. Earth was not inherently or originally suitable for man to inhabit. Then Allah changed its inhospitable condition by setting it aright, a perfectly furnished habitation for life, and specifically for man.
2. After Allah has made the Earth eminently habitable, man is not to abuse it or cause any harm in it or in any way corrupt it. That is, he is neither to destroy life or being upon it recklessly, nor damage its habitability.
3. Invoking Allah’s blessings and praying for His help is necessary for surviving while living on earth, not just because this enhances our relationship with Allah and with creation, but, more importantly, because man will surely be mischievous on Earth, and therefore a corrupting influence, and without Allah’s mercy our fate upon the Earth is ominous.
4. Man should not lose hope in Allah’s mercy because He is merciful; He is watching what we do; and He is well aware of all that we do. Yet for us to really be in His mercy at all times, we have to do good and definitely refrain from disobeying Him.
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