Islam and nature today: Insight into traditional discernment
Seen for its environmental situation, the Islamic world today provides the onlooker with a paradoxical self-portrait. It, on the one hand, has a long history of reverence of nature, evidenced by its traditional productions, from its ethics of scientific studies of nature to its elaborate gardens. On the other hand, it is also home to some of the most polluted landscapes--Tehran, Cairo, Lahore, and many others--whose environments are some of the most threatened today. Retrospectively, how has such a meeting of extremes come to be? Prospectively, how may the Islamic world regain a sustainable equilibrium? Finally, is there something that we in the West can learn from this particular paradox facing the Islamic world today? I seek to a) survey the Islamic world’s history of reverence for the natural environment; b) recount the history of the environmental issues of the Islamic world’s territories, with particular attention given to their beginnings; c) analyze the paradox between the results found thus far; and d) propose answers to questions pertaining to the conclusions of this investigation into a nexus of history, sociology, religion, and ecology from which we in the West may learn.
The Islamic world’s environmental degradation has its historical roots in a particular attitude towards modernism. With a sense of inferiority to Western technology, it accepted all that came from modernism without a critical eye for dangers in application as it had previously done. This constituted a loss of a discernment that the Islamic tradition itself had, regarding what was harmonious with the environment and what was not. When others noticed the harm in such applications of technologies, the Islamic world largely remained determined to maintain its new efforts in the pursuit of economic growth. The civilization that for centuries harbored and perfected sciences that came to be known as chemistry, algebra, and geometry today--having done so with a discerning eye for what maintained equilibrium in the environment and what did not--surrendered its discernment, taking as impetus this sense of inferiority and a new need for economic growth and technological progress. We can learn from the Islamic example the need for a discerning eye and that religions’ wisdom traditions--particularly ones that propelled the study of nature and yet also maintained a balance with nature--have something to teach us today as we ourselves attempt that very same thing: the thriving of science and a balance with nature.