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Islam and Ecology 141
S. Nomanul Haq
Islam and Ecology:Toward Retrieval and Reconstruction
S. Nomanul Haq is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
CONSIDERATION OF THE QUESTION of Islam and ecologyought to begin with one fundamental observation of ahistorical kind: in the construction of what we call the
modern world, Islam has had only an indirect role to play. Tobe sure, one cannot possibly imagine, nor meaningfully speakof, the phenomenon generally known as the scientific revolu-tion, or that which we refer to as the Renaissance, withoutkeeping in view the formidable intellectual influence of Islam onLatin Christendom. But this legacy was appropriatedandhere we see the complexities and ironies of the historical pro-cessin ways that often were alien to the world of Islam itself.The reception in both the Islamic and Christian worlds of thework of the towering giant Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham, d. 1038),or that of the great Avicenna (Ibn S2n1, d. 1037), constitutes acase in point. Alhazen, who revolutionized the field of optics,was ignored in the Islamic world even as he became a centralscientific figure in the West. Avicenna, an outstanding philoso-pher and physician, was the medical authority in Europe wellinto the early seventeenth century; but his system was devel-oped on highly abstract mystical-spiritual lines in Islam, wherehe was often seen more as a Visionary Reciter1 than aHellenized rational thinker. Indeed, it is the Latin career ofthese figures that endured in the modern world, not the elabo-ration of their thought by latter-day Muslims.
I use the term modern world in its standard sensesigni-fying both the world-system and the worldview that began
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their joint career in Western culture after the passage of theEuropean Dark Ages, and which, after going through a highlycomplex process of development, came to full maturity duringwhat we call the Enlightenment. This modern world is markednot only by a set of spectacular scientific and technologicalachievements, all of which were cultivated and produced in theWestern milieu; it is marked also by a set of attitudes, a Weltbild,that has become in our era the dominant global framework ofour collective life, the only framework we recognize as definingthe terms of our contemporary discourse. This Weltbild hasgiven us its views of human nature, its economic theories, itsgovernmental system, its lifestyles, and its secular ideology.
At the same time, there always lurk on the horizon of themodern worldview politically charged questions of power andcontrol: this Weltbild, it has been feverishly argued, was coer-cively imposed upon the larger part of the globe we call thedeveloping world. Here, operating in a strictly historical ratherthan moral perspective, one phenomenon ought to be throwninto sharp relief: we do see disappearing from the developingworld practically all indigenous systems and institutionsadisappearance brought about in the recent past largely bydirect European colonization, effected as a matter of deliberatecolonial policy, and sometimes attended by fierce local resis-tance. These days, the destruction of indigenous systems islargely a result of Western market forces whose reach has nowacquired staggering global dimensions. The developing worldsmilitary apparatus and technique, the dress and lifestyle of itsmajority, its industries, economy, banking and finance, systemof education, public-health practices, bureaucratic agencies andorgans of government, and, above all, its print and electronicmediaall these entities and institutions have, in general, beentaken from the Western world or have been constructed inemulation of Western models.
The dependence of the developing societies on the Westernworld inevitably raises the overwhelming question of sheersurvival. Take, for example, the issue of public health. We notenot only that indigenous institutions of health and healing haveeither died or been irrevocably marginalized; we note as wellthat modern life has brought with it illnesses, epidemics, and
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injuries that could not possibly be handled by these institutionsas they stood, or as they stand on the periphery today. Thismeans that the developing world desperately depends on West-ern pharmaceutical industries and medical establishments; andthis in turn means a need for hard currency to buy drugs andequipment and to train doctors and health professionals; andthis then weaves an intricate web of need, dependence, frustra-tion, fatalities, and political machinations.
All these issues rap at our doors when we take up the ques-tion of Islam and ecology. In the Islamic world a whole rangeof attitudes has developed in response to what is generallyreferred to as Western hegemony, a highly loaded term. In thesocial spectrum of the contemporary world of Islamwhoserulers and high officials typically belong to a small Western-educated eliteone finds crude apologetic attitudes on the oneextreme, bitter resentment against whatever is perceived asWestern on the other, and all manner of Islamic revivalist andreformist tendencies lying somewhere in the middle.2 Thus,much literature is found among contemporary Muslims claim-ing that all intellectual achievements of modernity, all success-ful present-day scientific theories and technological ideas, intheir most minute detail are to be found in the Qur1n, if onlyMuslims were to search. Considering Islamic and Western so-cieties to be incommensurable, this literature teaches that theenvironmental problems of todays world result from the hege-mony of the Westthe control of the world fell into the wronghands. At the same time, other Muslim writers place the blameof the ecological crisis squarely upon Western science andtechnology, entities conceived to be distinct from Islamic sci-ence and technology, distinct both in substance and in morphol-ogy. This second line of argument, compared to the first, isrelatively moderate; but it happens to be intractably problem-atic nonetheless.
Here lies a profound irony. Some seventy years ago, SirHamilton Gibb articulated a fundamental historical fact: Islamin its foundations belongs to and is an integral part of the largerWestern society. He put it strongly: Islam cannot deny itsfoundations and live.3 In other words, a conscious recognitionof the fundamental fact of Islams community with the West is
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essential to its very survival. Like al-B2run2 in the twelfthcentury, and reflecting the spirit of the Islamic modernist move-ment of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Gibb arguedthat Islam stands side by side with the Western world, incontrast to what he called the true oriental societies, those ofIndia and East Asia.4 This was because Islam had found itselfand had creatively and consciously made itselfheir to Classi-cal Civilization. Moreover, in many ways that are nontrivial,Islamic culture can indeed be characterized legitimately asembodying Hellenism. Sir Hamilton had expressed it morepicturesquelythe two civilizations of Islam and Europe, hewrote, were nourished at the same springs, breathing the sameair . . . , [only] artificially sundered at the Renaissance.5
Notwithstanding the specific details of Hamilton Gibbs the-sis, we have here an outline of a constructive methodology; infact, it is a methodology that flows from the ideas of many amodern Muslim thinker. So we note that even though Islamsrole in the construction of the modern world is indirect, in itshistorical foundations this world descends directly from anIslamic intellectual milieu. It is more obscuring than illuminat-ing to suppose that there is an inherent incompatibility betweenIslam and the Christian West, or a total historical break be-tween them. But once the intellectual community between Islamand the modern world is acknowledged, we may recognize theIslamic roots of contemporary ideas, preoccupations, and insti-tutions. At the same timeand this speaks to a more urgentneedwe may see that the intellectual resources for under-standing some of todays pressing global concerns can be foundin the Islamic tradition itself. Indeed, given the durability of theclassical Islamic civilization that Gibbs thesis brings into focus,one may legitimately seek ideas from Islam to guide the struggleagainst the environmental problems that threaten our globetoday.6
We face an enormous task. It requires, inter alia, a grasp ofboth the complexities of the contemporary world and the sub-stance and the historical context of the Islamic legacy; and itinvolves much reconstruction, adjustment, and revision. In thecase at hand, the task becomes all the more daunting due to itsreal as compared to purely theoretical nature.7 The issue cannot
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be handled meaningfully if its real dimensions are glossed overin the glow of a sophisticated theoretical discourse. The ques-tions of power and control, distributive justice, economics andfinance, the currents of market forces, policy-making and tac-tical politics, lifestyles and social valuesthese are all directlyrelevant here. And this means that the issue belongs in a com-plex manner to several disciplinary domains at once: socialsciences, ethics, and religion among them.
Still, it ought to be noted that this essay is essentially con-cerned with theoretical matters; and even in this domain, it isconcerned narrowly with the normative sources of the Islamicreligious tradition. Indeed, its scope is narrower still: it under-takes only to reconstruct doctrinally certain Qur1nic concepts,to expound certain imperatives of what is known as the Pro-phetic Tradition, and to a