This month continues Dharma Deen Alliance’s exploration of the role of Nature and the importance of respecting God’s creation. Part 1, published in November explored the Hindu perspective, and this month Part 2 will discuss the Islamic perspective.
Part 2: Signs in the Universe and in the Soul: The Qur’an and Environmentalism
The Qur’an is replete with references to the natural world, so much so that concern with the environment stands as one of the most important Qur’anic themes that runs throughout the Islamic scripture What is revealed through careful reading and contemplation of these verses is a clear mandate for humankind, as representatives of God on earth [khalifa], to preserve and honor the outer world as a precious gift from that Divine Source. We are called to look to the visible world around us, especially the beauty, intricacy and cycles of nature as a means to know ourselves, and as the Prophet Muhammad famously said, “One who knows their self, knows God”.
Inseparable from the Natural World
The Qur’an explains the creation of man as a fusion of “clay” and Holy Breath. God molded the primordial form of humanity from the same substance as the planet, and more accurately from the substance of the universe. Modern science echoes this by explaining how cosmic matter comes from that same point commonly known as the big bang. There are two components to each of us: the material and the spiritual. Each of the elements of creation found in our body are mirrored in physical existence. Though humanity can reach a level of exultation through spiritual development, surpassing even the angels in state and station, the Qur’an reminds us that on the physical level, the universe is greater than all of humanity:
The creations of the heavens and the earth is indeed of greater magnitude than the creation of mankind; but most men do not understand.
Our egos want to be at the center of everything, yet the vast cosmos is not simply a backdrop in the human story. Every life depend upon it for survival. Our planet cannot be abused haphazardly according to the Qur’an. Not only that, other beings must be regarded as communities in their own right, given the rights and respect owed to them just as all human communities must be given rights and protected. Animals are also part of God’s universal chapters [ayat] mentioned above:
There is not a thing that moves on the earth, no bird that flies on its wings, but has a community of its own like yours. There is nothing that We have left out from recording. Then they will all be gathered before their Lord.
– Quran 6:38
Do they not see the birds above them flying wings spread out or folded? Nothing holds them aloft but God. All things are within his purview.
God created every moving thing from water: One crawls on its belly, one walks on two legs, another moves on four. God creates whatsoever He wills. Indeed God has power over every thing.
Far from legitimizing the excuse that we are free to exploit this world as we see fit, the Qur’an makes it explicit that everything exists in the universal book of God, the Qur’an of the cosmos. Just as we treat the Qur’an itself with the utmost respect, similarly we should treat all beings that exist within its pages with that level of utmost care. As the most repeated names of God other than Allah in the Qur’an, Mercy [Rahman] and Compassion [Rahim] must be at the very center of all our intentions and actions.
Contemplating Divine Signs
There are signs in the earth for those who are firm in their faith, and within yourselves. Can you not perceive?
The term ayat, or signs in Arabic designates both the individual verses of the Qur’an and also “verses” from the book of the universe that surrounds us. And just as one studies the Qur’an and other sacred scriptures as a means to gain knowledge and spiritual nearness, this very world provides the same opportunity for those who “see”. This is a deeper seeing that must encompass the unseen, the great depths of mystery pointing towards God’s all-encompassing Unity. To look with clarity beyond a dogmatic materialism into this spiritual component of the world is what the Prophet prayed for when he asked God to “show him things as they truly are”. It is like the story of the man in the dark touching a rope that he is convinced is a snake.
Our own perceptions, when coming from the ego are distortions of truth. We must use a heightened “seeing” when studying this world. This type of seeing is about looking very deeply, using the sword of wisdom to delve into what Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan calls “that which transpires behind that which appears”. That means looking beyond the material into the great mystery.
A spiritual journeyer [suluk] uses his or her subtle wisdom to open the book of the natural world. This can start with the cyclical processes of night and day,
the movement of the stars, thunder and the movement of lakes into oceans for example. All of these awe inspiring natural processes are mentioned in the Qur’an, effectively presenting contemplative tools to experience nature more completely. It is related that the Prophet Abraham [Ibrahim a.s.] experienced the Oneness of God after carefully studying the natural world. He saw that the sun, moon and stars all passed away. The only thing that did not was the Source from which they came.
Contemplation of the sky, a theme found the world over in traditional societies and religions, is used to awaken reverence:
It is God who raised the skies without support, as you can see, then assumed His throne, and enthrolled the sun and the moon (so that) each runs to a predetermined course.
It is He who makes the lightning flash for fear and hope, and raises massive clouds. The thunder sings his praises, and the angels too, for awe of Him.
Have you not seen that God drives the clouds, then joins them together and puts them fold on fold. Then you see the rain fall through them; and He sends down hail from the sky where there are mountains of it, and strikes those with it whom He will, and wards it off from whomsoever he please.
Other passages turn our attention to the physical terrain of the earth:
It is He who stretched the earth and placed upon it stabalizers and rivers; and made two of a pair of every fruit; (and) He covers up the day with the night. In these are signs for those who reflect.
The earth was spread out as a prayer carpet for humanity to live in a state of perpetual prayerfulness. Unlike Islamic ritual prayer, where the focus of direction [qibla] is towards Mecca, in contemplating the spiritual significance of the earth, the qibla is an inner orientation towards God.
Natural in Constant Praise
On the most mundane level, we see prayer as something we deicide to do, perform and then finish. It has a beginning and an end. The Prophets, Messengers and Awliya Allah [Friends of God] challenged the way we compartmentalize prayer, explaining how every action can be transmuted into a sacred act. Prayer is not just asking God for help or blessings on a planetary or even universal scale. Everything in nature is actually constantly praying to God without pause:
Have you not seen that all those who are in the heavens and the earth, and the birds on the wing, sing the praises of God. Each one knows its obligations and duties, and God knows whatever they do.
Even inanimate objects pray to God in their own way:
Do they not see the shadows of all things God has created incline to the right and the left, bowing in obeisance to God?
From the smallest rock, insect, bird or tree up to the heavenly spheres; the cosmos as a whole is prostrated to the Divine:
Ar-Rahman (the Merciful) Bestowed the Qur’an, created man, And taught him to express clearly. The sun and moon revolve to a computation; and the grasses and the trees bow (to Him) in adoration. He raised the sky and and set the Balance…
If all things- animate and inanimate, big and small- pray without thinking of praying, and without ceasing at all, then it follows that humanity also, on the deepest level of our spirit is also constantly communing and praying to God. Though the great Sufis and other Islamic sages say that this is the case, we can also choose to turn away from this innate nature by not joining the symphony of praise being echoed, even if we ourselves are a part of it without knowing it. It is the conscious decision to become ordinary in a sense, to become a true human [insan kamil], and that means becoming linked with the natural world that is always in communion with the Divine.
We have not created but with reason the heavens and the earth and all that lies within them.
Islam does not accept any dualistic perception of the world where falsehood or evil hold any real power. It is Truth alone that sustains all life. What is false is an illusion, since God created everything as a tool for transformation and realization. Suffering exists, and from a purely materialistic point of view it defines existence, but spirituality dictates that Truth is central, even if we do not understand how and why things are as they are.
Simply saying that Truth is the basis of the world is hollow without realizing that if we are to know Truth inwardly and with complete certainty, we must carry the responsibility it entails. The Qur’an explains how humanity was presented with a sacred trust, which we accepted: We had offered the trust (of divine responsibilities) to the heavens, the earth, the mountains, but they refrained from bearing the burden and were frightened of it; but man too it on himself.” (33:72)
God is aware of what is being done against the earth and the inhabitants therein. The Qur’an gives a prescription to remedy this short sightedness and callousness- That is to “Walk on the earth in humility” (Quran 5:63). There is no other way to align ourselves with nature’s signs.
Nature Points Towards Unity
Finally, it bares repeating that the natural world in which we are born, and in which we shall one day die is not at all separate from who we are. And who we are is a single soul appearing as a multitude of distinct individuals. And in the highest sense, that soul is not even humanity as we understand it but everything that is. Nature points towards Unity because Unity is the only thing that is real. All else is illusion. La ilaha ilAllah- Only God is Real.
The Qur’an mentions that as our vision expands, we will see the signs manifested in our souls and in the Universe as a whole: “We will show Our signs to them in the horizons of the external world and within themselves, until it becomes clear to them that it’s the truth.” (Q 41:53)
The Truth that the Qur’an came to renew, through the revelations brought to the Beloved Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.s., is that La ilaha ilAllah, that Divine Oneness that is a bridge linking the material and spiritual worlds- actually tearing apart the divisions we imagine between these.
The Qur’an came, like all the revealed scriptures before it, as a gateway, paradoxically spiritual language- God’s words, filtered through the human tongue. Similarly, nature itself as a vast Qur’an that surrounds us at all times, reverberating in its sacred hymns without end, is a link between worlds. By studying it with a pure heart full of love, awe and God-consciousness [taqwa], this Qur’an reminds us that we do not own the world. Our arrogant ambitions and passing whims are a veil between us and the Creator, Allah. Humility is surrender [islam], and as a Muslim [one who surrenders], as well as all people of faith, to given yourself to God is to walk lightly on the earth.
And all that is in the heavens and the earth belong to God; and everything is well within the compass of God.
– Quran 4:126
Part I: Ecology according to Hinduism