Issue 77 / September - October 2010
Belief and Our Treatment of the Environment
Ayse Meva Nur
Everywhere I look, I see citizens polluting, communities mistreating and nations exploiting the earth.
I watch them as they misuse and abuse this sacred place, as if it was theirs.
What they fail to remember is that this earth is the same earth the first man and woman called home. It is the same earth countless prophets, saints, and scholars called home. It is the same earth my Ottoman ancestors called home. It is the same earth my country's natives, the Aboriginal people, called home.
But I could almost see this earth diminish before my eyes. My heart aches with uncertainty of what lies ahead.
What have we left to offer the future generations? What have we done? What have we become?
Everything God created in this world and beyond has perfect order and balance, for He is the Most Powerful and All Wise. So it cannot be He who is responsible for the world's current state of affairs.
This earth is like a hotel, a guesthouse which is continually filled and emptied by the living and dead. Despite this constant entry and exit, this guesthouse remains totally pure and clean. There is nothing unnecessary, nothing exists without having any benefit or purpose, and not a random piece is put out of place.
If it was not for this remarkable cleaning, in a short amount of time, thousands of animal and plant species would have been suffocated on the face of the earth.
God's orderliness is everywhere the eye reaches.
Carnivorous animal species clean the seas by gathering up the corpses of other sea-creatures that die every day by the millions, preventing the sea from becoming polluted.
Ants collect the corpses of tiny creatures and small particles and fragments of bounty, preserving them from waste and uselessness.
Flies clean away poisonous substances and microbes which breed diseases that are invisible to the naked human eye, thus preventing the spread of many contagious diseases.
His command is obeyed everywhere by everything, from eyelids cleaning the eye and flies brushing their wings.
Therefore, there is magnificence and harmony in every creation in every corner of the world. With varieties of beauty spread in a myriad of colors and forms, it is so splendid that imaginations are pushed to the limit when trying to imagine anything more beautiful.
It is such a pity that this wonderful world, which God has bestowed upon humans to observe and study free of charge, is no longer given any more care than is given to a heap of junk.
"How deplorably and awkwardly we have treated plains and residential places, which we have changed into deserts and heaps of ruin. How deplorably and gracelessly we have treated seas and rivers, which we have polluted. Again, how deplorably and awkwardly we have treated air and water, and fields, forests, and gardens, which we have made unfavorable to any life. Truly, by changing this Paradise-like world to a hell, how deplorably and awkwardly we have treated ourselves!"
In our eagerness to "progress" and "develop," we have lost sight of the finite and delicate nature of our world and of humanity's place in it. So it is when humans improve the condition of this world whose order they have destroyed and polluted, and restore it to its prior balance and beauty, only then will they be able to live a healthier and happier lifestyle.
Guardians of the Earth
The origins of global environmental problems lie in humankind's deliberate rejection of the physical laws governing environmental management and a persistent disobedience to God's spiritual laws.
"And do good as God has done good to you. And desire not corruption in the land. Indeed, God does not like corruptors." (Quran 28:77)
The Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, contain instructions to assist humanity in preserving its environment. In the Quran God declares, "It is He who has appointed you viceroys (guardians) in the earth" (6:165). Through this verse it becomes evident that humans have a special place in God's scheme. They are more than friends of the Earth; they are its guardians.
Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, lived up to this verse best as a guardian of the earth. He was an "environmental pioneer" who lived with the philosophy that there is a fundamental link and interdependency between all natural elements and that if humans abuse one element, the natural world as a whole will suffer the direct consequences.
For instance, the Prophet pointed out the many benefits in planting trees which he said will last until the Day of Judgment. He said, "If the Hour is imminent and anyone of you has a palm shoot to plant in his hand and is able to plant it before the Hour strikes, then he should do so and he will be rewarded for that action."
Furthermore, the Prophet recommended and warned that shaded spots where people could rest and spaces under fruit trees should not be dirtied. He also emphasized that there should be no spitting on roads and places of worship, and objects that could injure people should be removed from the roads and put to one side. All of these principles are essential for every person to implement in ensuring a healthy environment and in respect to protecting and keeping the environment clean.
The Quran also emphasizes not harming other living creatures on earth. God declares, "And there is no creature on or within the earth or a bird that flies with its wings except that they are nations (communities) like you." (6:38)
Recent statistics show that over 60,000 animal species have gone extinct, over 4 million hectares of forests are lost, around 1.8 billion liters of water are used up, and around 10 million tons of toxic chemicals are released into our environment by industries each year. These are massive amounts of waste and destruction that humans have brought upon themselves.
The environmental devastation encapsulating this planet is thus a direct result of these physical laws being broken. These statistics illustrate the results of our law-breaking catching up with us.
The Ottomans: Sultans of Sympathy
The Ottoman era was a period during which an extreme emphasis was placed on the regulation and protection of the environment, such that had legally enforceable consequences. This meant that there was zero tolerance towards any misuse of the environment.
It is possible to see the value, importance, and respect given to the environment by the Islamic world during fifteenth century through the will of the great Ottoman Sultan Mehmet, Fatih the Conqueror. The will reads:
"I, the conqueror of Istanbul, humble servant Fatih Sultan Mehmet, donate 136 shops which I personally and rightfully own in Taslik suburb of Istanbul with the following conditions:
I have assigned two persons for every street in Istanbul to be paid from the profit earned from these shops. These persons are to walk along these streets at specific times of the day with a bucket in their hands which contains limestone and coal powder. They are to conceal any spit found on the streets with these powders and be paid 20 ak├že (Ottoman currency) per day.
Furthermore, I have assigned 10 surgeons, 10 doctors, and 3 nurses. They are to walk through the streets of Istanbul on certain days of each month, knock on each and every door and find out whether there are any sick people in that household. If there are, they are to treat them. If this is not possible at the time, they are to be transferred to Dar├╝laceze (nursing homes/hospitals) and be treated there.
Additionally, the families of the soldiers who are fallen martyrs and the poor people of Istanbul are to be fed in the soup kitchen which I have built. However, those who are not able to personally come and eat there or collect their food will be provided with alternative service. Their food is to be sent to their homes in concealed containers after sunset without it being seen by others."
Another royal document regarding environmental care comes from sixteenth century Sultan S├╝leyman the Magnificent titled Nisan-i H├╝mayun. Some important points to note in this document include:
"All homes, shops, and their surroundings are to be kept clean or to get cleaned. Those in charge should identify citizens who litter and get those who are responsible to clean their own litter.
Owners of oxcarts should not disturb local residents by leaving their animals near houses or courtyards. They are to collect and dispose of the dung from their animals to appropriate places outside of the city. People are to be prevented from throwing the carcasses of horses, sheep, etc. onto the streets. Those who refuse to comply with this rule are to be punished publicly.
Used water containing detergent and soap are not to be thrown out onto the streets. No individual has the right to prevent these rules from being implemented and will closely be monitored by law enforcement agencies."
It is clearly evident that in royal documents like those mentioned above, the leaders took necessary precautions and showed sensitivity towards the implementation of the matters regarding the protection of spiritual and physical wellbeing of the people and the cleanliness of public places.
Animal rights are a contemporary issue that came to public attention only quite recently. Unfortunately, in today's society, many governments are still struggling with human rights issues, let alone dealing with animal rights.
Ottoman sultans implemented legal measures on the protection and the treatment of animals. In doing so, the care and proper treatment of animals were bound by legal measures and are not left to the individuals' own judgment.
The Ottoman Empire was known for its vak├Żf, or foundations, which were first set up to meet the needs of certain groups of people within society but later became an integral part of the Ottoman lifestyle. The most interesting of these vak├Żf were those dedicated to animals. These foundations were places where generous people would donate certain amounts of money to bakeries and butchers so that they could provide bread and meat for street animals.
Moreover, the sultans did not just stop at providing food for animals, they also made sure that if these animals fell ill, there were specialized hospitals for them to be treated in and looked after.
Ricaut, a British clerk who worked at the British embassy in Istanbul during the Ottoman period (d. 1700) said how impressed he was by the respect and value the Ottoman people had given animals and the importance they had shown towards their nutrition and protection.
"There were not only people, but also cats and dogs that ate from the soup kitchens. In some cities buildings were made for cats, foundations were established for their nutrition, and expenses were paid for the allocation of servants to meet the needs of these animals."
Aboriginals: The Key to Land Management
Until quite recently the human race, whether in small self-governing native communities or vast empires, functioned instinctively within natural, unwritten boundaries. When these old civilizations died, the forest and natural environment just grew over them. They left no rubbish, pollutants, or waste.
Similarly, Aboriginal tribes of Australia moved around their land for tracking shifts in the availability of important resources. Their respect for the native flora and fauna meant using techniques to ensure their survival.
They actively managed their land through prescribed burning regimes handed down from their ancestors. Aboriginal people burnt to hunt, to promote new grass, to make their land easier to travel through, to clear their land of spiritual pollution left after a death, to create firebreaks for later in the dry season, and for a variety of other reasons whose sole aim was to "bring the land alive again."
They also had such deep respect for the animals on their land that, for instance, they would slaughter a kangaroo to eat only if the total number of kangaroos in a specific area had reached a certain amount. So until then, they could not touch the kangaroos even if it meant staying hungry and finding something else to eat. Their overall respect for the plants and animals of their land is one that was extremely sacred, one they felt liable to take care of and pass on in good condition to the generations to come.
Today, however, man has much more to offer the world, intellectually and technologically, when compared to the past. Despite having the upper hand in areas such as science and technology, the environment is still struggling and suffering. Who has control over whom? Why is it that tribes, clans, and empires in the past with little advancements had more control over the environment, and today with all the technological breakthroughs, people are still struggling?
Sadly, the harmony that the Prophet promoted between man and his environment has been lost. As we face the effects of chemical pollution caused by industrial wastes, visual pollution caused by rubbish dumping; noise pollution caused by unnecessary sounds, and thought pollution caused by pointless and disorganized overflow of information, it is perhaps time for the world community as a whole, regardless of faith or background, to look into Prophet's teachings and address the current environmental crisis wisely.
The fundamental solution to these crises lies in humankind respecting the physical laws and embracing the spiritual laws designed by God.
Only then can there be true health, happiness, and healing.
Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said. 2008. The Gleams, NJ: Tughra Books, p. 429.
Gulen, Fethullah. 1996. "The Nature We Have Destroyed," The Fountain, No. 15.
Bukhari Volume 1, Book 8, Number 406.
Muslim Book 004, Number 1126.
Worldometers, "World Statistics updated in real time," http://www.worldometers.info/, Accessed 1 June 2009.
├ľzdemir, Ibrahim. "Osmanl├Ż Toplumunda ├çevre Anlayisi" T├╝rkler, edt. H.C. G├╝zel and K. ├çi├žek, Ankara: Yeni Turkiye Yay├Żnlar├Ż, c. 10. http://www.ibrahimozdemir.com/Makaleler/Osmanl%C4%B1ToplumundaCevre.pdf, Accessed 21 May 2009.
Northern Land Council: Caring for the country, "Land Management" http://www.nlc.org.au/html/care_fire.html, Accessed 1 June 2009.