Islamic Perspective On Going Green
by Adi Setia
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I. Neither in jest nor in vain

Among the approaches for nature conservation are renewing resources, eliminating waste altogether and even transforming waste to wealth. Now the last approach is really interesting, not only from the pragmatic technoeconomic point of view, but more importantly, from the intellectual, ontological point of view.

If waste can be transformed into something useful that can generate wealth, then it must mean that the concept of “waste” is just that, a mental concept that does not correspond to any physical reality in the real world. Waste is purely a matter of subjective thought not objective fact. In other words, what we call waste is merely a product of an arbitrary judgement on our part. Let’s cite a simple example to press home this profound point:

I was lecturing about Islamic Science in a hotel in Jakarta last July. In front of me on the table was a glass of water cover by a nice round piece of paper boldly inscribed with the hotel’s logo, Hotel Shariah, in graceful cursive letterings. So very good, Islamic Science in Hotel Shari‘ah---what can be better?

To illustrate a point I was trying to make, I told my audience that as long as I do not uncover the glass and drink from it, that nice piece of paper will be considered useful because it will continue to be covering the glass. But once the glass is drunk, there’s no longer any need to cover the glass and hence that (still very nice) piece of paper will be deemed useless and cast away into the “waste”-paper basket. But is there any physical change in the paper? Is it soiled by the mere action of me removing it from the glass and putting it on the table? No, of course, but the cleaners will come and discard that (still nice) piece of “waste”-paper, all the same.

Another example, when we print on only one side of the paper by not setting the printer or copier on duplex mode, we arbitrarily condemn the other side to waste, though physically there’s simply nothing wasteful about that side. It was just unlucky enough to escape being printed on.

The computer age which rendered obsolete the old fashioned typewriter was supposed to usher in a brave new world of paper-less office management culture, but it did not reckon with certain problematic aspects of human nature. The computer and the printer allowed people to write carelessly without facing the daunting prospects of retyping the whole thing from scratch. Mistakes are simply considered as just so many drafts and corrections can be easily be keyed in. At least with the typewriter, people get to realise and respect the fact that typing is an artful skill and paper precious, so the typists of yore normally get it right the first time.

Today most of the “waste”-papers produced by “efficient” offices consist of draft copies of shoddy typing and writing skills. So when something is made too easy for people (overly user-friendly), they take it for granted, and when they take it for granted, they waste it. Another reason, people don’t like to read and store stuff in soft copies; they like it hard and solid, so the temptation to go from soft to solid to waste is always there (that’s why computers makers are also printers makers). So computers create soft copies which are printed out onto hard copies which use up paper which is discarded as waste. The paper trail doesn’t end in the computer age; if anything, it only grows longer and wider.

and that’s just the downstream problem. If we take the trouble to follow the paper trail upstream to its very source then we’ll see the polluting pulping factories, then the loggers logging in plantation or virgin forests. Wasting paper is good for business because it makes the paper and pulp industry grow in double digit figures annually which lead to the wasting of biodiversified rainforests transformed to monoculturized, chemical intensive plantation forests for making pulp for tissue paper, paper sachets and paper cups and plates, of all things. Can’t people learn to do with washable hankerchiefs, sturdy ceramic cups and plates and to take sugar the old-fashioned from proper ceramic bowls of sugar? Now with the ubiquity of the internet, they can also learn to read the news online for free instead of buying newspapers. If they learn to do that, then they will contribute to the eventual scrapping of the Acacia plantation project along the East-West Highway bisecting the Belum-Temengor rainforest in northern Malaysia.

So we see how the paper and pulp industry as a whole feed into the vanity and nihilism of consumer society and the economics of prodigal consumption, which in turn is the biggest factor in the desolation of nature and the resulting depletion of its resources. But Muslims aren’t suppose to be vain or nihilistic or prodigal, but then we find all these in Hotel Shari‘ah of all places. By the way, the concept of the “Islamic Hotel” is a very good idea, but we need to put real substance into it, then it will really sell! Maybe someone can organize a conference to explore that idea in detail within the framework of an Islamic philosophy of travel (rihlah).

To resume, that’s how “waste” papers (other types of “waste” included) are created, in hotels (including Shar‘i ones), in offices, in universities (including Islamic ones, I know, I’m working in one), in conferences (including Islamic ones), namely, created from a sterile, insensitive imagination that is heedless of the truth that nothing in nature has been created in vain (ma khalaqta hadha batilan), or in jest (la‘ibin), but everything in truth (bil-haqq) and perfection (ahsana/atqana kulla shay’).

If that is the reality in nature, then why do we find so much that is in vain and in jest in the reality of our culture? Aren’t we supposed to imitate the Divine attributes (natakhallaqu bi khuluqiLlah), that is, harmonize our personal ethics with the divine ethics as manifested in the cosmos, in the biosphere and in our very own selves? So there is a need for the ethics of the psyche to be in tune with the ethics of the cosmos.

Not only is the modern economy predicated on prodigal consumption, but also on prodigal flippancy, i.e., on the art of making container loads of money from the creation of ever new ways of having fun, of indulging in multifarious entertainments of heedless abandon. “Do you deem then that We had created you in frivolous play, and that you would not be returned to Us?”

Let’s take the multibillion dollar Formula One racing industry. It is supposed to be a sporting industry, but one that thrives by convincing millions of essentially non-sporting spectators that passively watching cars roar about in circles is fun. Let’s take the multibillion cell-phone industry which makes billions by brainwashing people into believing that endless chatter is fun, even though the believers are those “who shun vain conversation.” Let’s take the multibillion advertising industry without which newspapers, magazines, television stations and even the internet will have to close shop. What do they advertise? You’ve got it, a prodigal lifestyle of consumption and vanity with not a thought about the physical and spiritual wasteland left behind.

It’s just incredible how much money can be made out of a vacuum, the spiritual vacuum in the hearts of people who “know only what is manifest of the life of this world, while of the Other Life they are heedless,” oblivious, clueless, indifferent. Just take a look at the economic underbelly of Dubai, then you’ll get the idea. Doha is a much better place, maybe because Shaykh Yusuf Qardawi lives and teaches there.

Thus the life of this world for the heedless is nothing but play and vanity, but Muslims are asked to transcend that situation by being remindful of the fact that the world is the seedbed of the Hereafter (al-dunya mazra‘at al-akhirah). It is the economics of the prodigal and the heedless (the economics of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses writ large generating the disease of “affluenza” ) which we have slavishly copied from the West that produces so much waste and flippancy in Muslim societies, including in Malaysian society. Muslims should disentangle themselves from that physical and psychological morass.

For us, it will have to be a counter-economics of spiritual mindfulness of the fact that the cosmos and the earth were neither created in vain nor in jest. The word economics originally refers to the norms, the standards and the rules of the home and these are meant to preserve the physical and spiritual welfare of the household and all its members. The earth is in a way our household writ large and our duty as stewards of the natural order/norm/standard of the earth is to promote the welfare of ALL its inhabitants, inanimate, animate and human, for the Prophet, sallaLlahu ‘alayhi wassalam, was sent as a mercy to all the worlds (rahmatan lil-‘alamin), and we are followers of this august Prophet, and not of the nihilistic West.

The whole world, including the conscientious of the West, is looking at us for a way out of this maelstorm of self-destruction for we are the nation of the golden mean bearing witness over all mankind, and we shall surely be answerable for our neglect of this civilizational duty.

Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only then will man find that money cannot be eaten.

Cree Indian prophecy

II. Stewards, guardians and trustees of the earth

In the third part of Professor J. R. R. Tolkien’s engrossing trilogy The Lords of the Rings, we are brought to the realm of Gondor ruled by a long line of stewards who could only govern in the name of the true heir to the throne, awaiting the eventual “return of the king” to his rightful rule over the land of the free. Now, the last Steward of Gondor was overtaken by a false sense of superiority to lay claim to a royal right that was not his to claim. He could not bring himself to accept and submit to the iminent return of the king and hence doomed himself to a fiery death from a lofty height.

Though the author himself had denied it, yet in many ways the Lord of the Rings can be read as an eloquent and captivating allegory of the sorry state of western civilization in the world war decades of the 20th century, rendered compellingly real to reader’s imagination by one who had himself fought deep in the foul, muddy trenches of the Western Front and survived to express his experience of those dark and bloody years in the novel of the century, but we shall not go further into that.

What concerns us here is the twin notions of stewardship (khilafah) and trusteeship (amanah) and the manner of creative as oppose to dogmatic understanding of their meaning and significance in a way that can have real immediate impact on improving our private and public interaction with nature. If man is considered the vicegerent of God on earth, then it should follow that he is not only a steward responsible for safeguarding the rights of man but also the rights of nature, and especially so if preserving nature impacts, either directly or indirectly, on human welfare.

Human stewardship of earth cannot only be about rendering judgement of truth (al-hukm bil-haqq = to judge by the truth) to humans but it is also, by extension, about being just to all inhabitants of earth, for “the earth He has spread out for His creatures (al-anam).” Therefore the earth is not only for man but also for nature, and hence true stewardship means to maintain an equilibrium between the needs of man and the rights of other creatures to live their life on this earth, for “He has set the balance that you exceed not the balance, and therefore observe the balance strictly and do not fall short thereof.”

To press home this point, one can cite, for instance, the example of Sayyidina ‘Umar, may God be pleased with him. He certainly did not see himself as the steward (khalifah) responsible only for implementing the divine law with regard to human interactions with humans (mu‘amalah al-nas anfusahum) but also with regard to human interactions with animals (mu ‘amalat al-nas al-anam):

Caliph Omar, one of the most distinguished of the Prophet's (p.b.u.h) companions demonstrated exceptional compassion towards animals. In fact he would deal strongly with those who overloaded their 'beasts of burden'. He would actually go to the extent of concealing himself from view and check that people were treating animals well. On one occasion he passed his hand over the wound of a camel intending to help heal the beast, saying, "I fear God may seek retributions from me for the pain you suffer”.

How many kings, presidents, ministers and high officials of the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference today can claim to have shown such heart-felt personal concern for animal welfare as an integral part of their public duties as stewards (khala’if) over the inhabitants, both humans and non-humans, of their realms? If there is among them even one, then he should straight away write about it that others may learn from him and set aside more lands as inviolable wildlife refuges, and thus revive the traditional Islamic environmental conservation institutions of hima and haram. That’s definitely one of the more effective ways to upgrade from the maqam of “Oh, I see,” to the maqam of “Yes, I do,” at least in the domain of conservation of the natural heritage of member countries.

One of the great paradoxes of the modern age is that in many instances peace and war are not what they seem. In war nature is left in peace, in peace nature is attacked. During the fight against the communists, the Belum-Temengor region was a security area off-limits to all forms of encroachment and the wildlife and the indigenous Orang Asli were left alone. But now, with the communists defeated for good, the area is exposed to all manners of encroachment in the name of development and economic progress. As an unexpected consequence of of war, the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia has now become a refuge for tigers and elephants and Korea’s demilitarized zone a sanctuary for flora and fauna not found elsewhere on the peninsular. Because of years of civil war resulting in the depopulation of the region, southern Sudan is now teeming with antelopes, eland, gazelles, giraffes, elephants, lions and leopards so much so that the country could turn out to be “Africa’s new Serengeti.” I believe that the OIC have a role to play to encourage and help the Sudanese people to appreciate, conserve and manage this invaluable natural heritage in a naturally and culturally sustainable manner based on the Islamic concept of hima’.

To resume, one has to say that the desolation of the natural world is a clear indication that man has failed in his stewardship of the earth and its inanimate, animate and human inhabitants. He has clearly betrayed the divine trust (amanah) which has been placed upon him and which he has freely accepted by virtue of being endowed with a rational soul (nafs natiqah) capable of choice (ikhtiyar), i.e., capable of seeing in advance the consequences of his actions and hence capable of acting accordingly and being responsible for them before God.

The word amanah is intricately connected with notion of aman = security, in both its physical and spiritual sense. By betraying the duties of trusteeship, man not only endander the security of those entrusted to his care, but he also forfeits the right to his own physical and spiritual security in this world and in the next. So is it any wonder that the age of economic prosperity coincides so nicely with the age of insecurity and anxiety?

Now this is one reason why a secular Gaian ethics of the environment is going to fail to compel true heartfelt caring for nature, at least among the majority of mankind, for to whom shall the mortal transgressing man be answerable? To abstract, impotent history? To his children and grandchildren though he be long gone? To his own dead non-existent self? Does it really matter how history or posterity will judge him when he is long dead and gone and not very likely to return to personally face the music? One answer is that man can be answerable to his conscience while alive in this world, but the fact is that man simply does not fear his conscience. What is his astral conscience going to do? Whack his body? Shut down his brain? and anyhow, the pull of the immaterial conscience is not very strong in most people, hence it can be ignored, for the attraction of the sensual pleasures of the material body is stronger still.

Hence we find the general tendency in Gaian ethics (as in the “think Gaia” approach of multinational corporations like Sanyo) for superficial techno-fixes in order to sustain the economics of indulgent consumption (only now coloured green with recycleable consumer goods) instead of truly aiming to restore and sustain environmental health by means of a thorough, radical rethinking of political economics, social culture and personal attitude. Most businesses hop onto the green bandwagon simply because they see it as a growing social trend that could generate new markets for new products. So it is still business as usual but now under the banner of green or ecocapitalism, of which ‘natural capitalism’ is a rather compelling, and, I would say, even fruitful, offshoot. But suppose going green turns out to be seeing red, instead improving the bottom line, then what happens? Sack the CEO and get a new one who can go all the way back to pitch black. Without digging deeper into the soul, the greening of the world will be less than skin deep.

The rise of ecological psychology in the West is in recognition that the superficial, even hypocritical, market economics and techno-scientific approaches (such as carbon trading) are not going to work. The solution is to be found at a deeper level by rekindling the innate human affinity and respect for nature that has been suppressed by two centuries of consumerist industrial civilization premised on indefinite growth, development and progress. Instead of the present-day dogmatic economic mantra of limited resources chasing after unlimited wants, a new economics of the future will have to be formulated, namely, one that is premised on the unlimited bounties of nature more than fulfilling the very limited needs of man, “for if you count the blessings of Allah, you will not exhaust them.”

For man by nature (fitrah) is inclined to gratitude, to giving thanks for favors shown, but how can he be grateful and hence be contented if he is brainwashed by the economics of consumerism to believe that his material needs, wants and desires shall always grow and outgrow ever diminishing resources? If all his time is spent on material growth how can there be time for spiritual growth, and how can nature be given time to regenerate its resources for itself and for man? If this material growth is realised at the expense of nature, how can he be a true steward, a true guardian of the natural, fitri order? How can he keep and fulfill his solemn oath of trusteeship? and if he betrays his trust, how can he be secure in his conscience and in his spirit, and hence be at peace with himself, with fellow humans, with nature and with God?

Ecopsychology is in a way a deep-level perspective on going green by transforming people’s outlook toward the meaning of life and happiness through reconnecting them with nature. But unless it involves a heartfelt notion of personal responsibility before a personal God of justice and mercy, the Creator of both man and nature (as exemplified in the case of Umar above), it is unlikely to be truly transformative for most people over the long term. It will be too abstract, too speculative or too emotive and sentimental rather than cognitive, intellectual and spiritual. It will go the way of other forms of modern holistic psychology like gestalt, humanistic and transpersonal psychologies. Already it is reported that Ken Wilber, a prominent proponent of transpersoanl psychology, has detached himself from the field to move on to what he thinks to be a more “integral” psychological approach. It certainly will not be compelling to Muslims who sincerely believe in personal responsibility before a personal god whom they will most certainly meet on “that day when wealth and children avail not anyone save him who brings to Allah a sound heart.”

For environmental concerns to engage the active involvement of more Muslims (especially Malaysian Muslims ), a contemporary Islamic deep-ecology will have to be systematically formulated by drawing upon the rich and still very much alive spiritual psychology of the sufis which is premised on the concept and practice of ihsan, which is what tasawwuf is all about, namely, the beauty, excellence and perfection of one’s actions, inwardly and outwardly, both with respect to one’s ownself, to others and to God.

To illustrate this point, one may invoke the psycho-spiritually touching story of the sixteenth century Turkish Sufi, Sunbul Efendi, who “sent out his disciples to bring flowers to the convent. While all of them returned with fine bouquets, one of them, Merkez Efendi, offered the master only a little withered flower, for, he said, ‘all the others were engaged in the praise of God and I did not want to disturb them; this one, however, had just finished its dhikr, and so I brought it’.” Needless to say, he went on to become his master’s successor as head of the convent (zawiyah).

So this story, among countless other similar ones gleanable from our sociointellectual history, goes to show to the heedless, environmentally indifferent Muslims of today how traditional Islamic spiritual training and discipline has succeeded in imbuing believers’ hearts with a very palpable sense of the transcendent reality of the meaning implicit, nay, explicit even, in the verses like, “There is not a thing but hymns His praise” ; “The stars and the trees adore” ; “All that is in the heavens and earth glorify Him” ; and “He is Whom all who are in the heavens and earth praise, and the birds in their flight (praise Him too).”

Those of us who have watched and been touched by the beautiful film documentary on the 300,000 hectares Belum-Temengor rainforest complex will remember forever afterwards the graceful flight of the hornbills, a veritable poetry in motion, inviting us to share in their freedom and reach for the heavens and strive for “what we can be instead of what we are.”

But sadly, only the northern part of the forest complex is officially protected while the southern half, where most of the ten species of hornbillls make their homes, are still left wide open for desolation through the ‘developmental process’ of logging, both legal and illegal.

Isn’t it amazing that despite our much vaunted natural and social sciences and our so-called “knowledge economy,” we still haven’t attained to the liberating wisdom of thinking out of the conventional, western inspired “development-in-tandem-with-destruction” box? As Dato’ Seri Azmi Khalid puts it, “If Belum Temengor can be gazetted, it will be a big milestone for Perak and for will be for the good of Perak and for the good of the nation....” and, I dare say, for the good of the Ummah.

If there are to be any positive outcomes of this august gathering of intellectual luminaries from all corners of the Islamic world, then surely one of them must be the immediate gazzetting, on the part of the highest political authorities of the realm, of all of the Belum-Temegor rainforest complex as a national park, a national hima, or better still, as an international hima of the Ummah, to be held inviolate for all posterity, from now till doomsday. For surely we cannot allow ourselves to be among those who “say what they do not,” and “who would want to be praised for what they have not done,” and especially so when the Creator Himself have designated Muslims, His vicegerents, His khulafa’, to be “Guardians of the Natural Order.”

So the choice lies before us as people of choice: either we act humbly in the name of the Lord, the True King, or we act haughtily in our own names as usurpers of the Royal Right and of the rights of His creatures entrusted to our care, in which latter case, we shall be cast down from the lofty heights of our arrogance, “reduced to the lowest of the low,” and the fiery doom of the Steward of Gondor shall soon be our lot!

III. “...but they are peoples like unto you”

The problem of the conflict between man and nature has been one of the intellectual concerns of that remarkable group of independent thinkers in the public interest called the Ikhwan al-Safa’ (Fellowship of the Pure-Hearted), a veritable Club of Basra comparable in their self-critical altruistic idealism to the present day Club of Rome.

They lived ten long centuries ago yet their thoughts remain inspiringly fresh and alive to us who seek a light out of the present dark age of the Ummah and of Humanity in general.

They penned an ecological fable entitled The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn. Here we find elaborate allusions to the concepts of the “balance of nature,” of “ecosystems” and “econiches,” of “biodiversity” of the communities of plants and animals greater than the diversity of the races and nations of man, of “ecological sucessions,” and of “nature’s economy” manifested in the symbiotic “web of interdependencies” between species as reflective of “divine economy and plan.”

They deem it “self-evident that it would be an evil for any species, even snakes, to be obliterated from the earth” before its ecological life-span has run its course.

After an elaborate and fair trial in which long, eloquent arguments were delivered, heard and considered from both parties, the King of the Jinn, ruled, in the end, in favor of mankind, but only because that among them were “saints of God, the choice flower of his creation, the best, the purest, who are God’s elect, and that these folk have noble attributes, fair characters, pious acts, diverse sciences, sovereign insights, royal traits, just and holy lives, and wondrous ways...” who fulfill their duties of stewardship over nature under the overseership of God, to whom they “will be accountable when his epoch of stewardship is at end.”

Though nature serves the needs of man, they also in their own way serves a higher end, an end which they partake of in communion with mankind, for “there is not an animal in the earth nor a flying creature flying on two wings, but they are peoples like unto you,” and “unto Allah pays adoration whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is in the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the hills, and the trees, and the beasts, and many of mankind...,” namely, the common end of adoring God and hymming His praise.

and as for those of mankind who desire otherwise, “unto them the doom is justly due.”

What is man without the beasts?
If all the beasts were gone, man would die
from a great loneliness of the spirit.
For whatever happens to the beasts
soon happens to man. This we know.
All things are connected.
Man does not weave the web of life.
He is merely a strand in it.

Chief Seattle


note: this is part of a paper presented at a conference recently.

This text has been revised and is also in pdf:
< The inner dimension of going green: articulating an Islamic deep-ecology by Adi Setia >

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