Cultivating Recognition (ma’rifa) in the Quest for Environmental Justice
Khutbah: Claremont Main Road Masjid – 21 August 2015
These are affecting quality of life, threatening to destroy the very material basis necessary for human existence. We see the impact of climate change in rising temperatures, melting ice caps in the North Pole, and rising sea levels.
Humans are being affected on a daily basis by an increase in diseases related to air pollution, and dwindling food resources as a result of desertification of agricultural land and fast exhausting sea resources.
This issue now confronts us as Muslims as a matter of urgency. We have to persuade ourselves of the need for an appropriate response, based on a proper recognition of the nature, depth and extent of the crisis.
This khutbah is an attempt to lay out the terms of such recognition. I start out with an admission that such recognition will not come easily, and it is my suggestion that we have to confront our ecological fragility at multiple levels.
No one is apparently going to die spectacularly, immediately and directly as a result global warming. The issue does not seem to conjure enough alarm to get people focused.
Unlike incurable diseases like cancer, HIV / Aids, and even certain strains of TB, the immanence of death by environmental pollution and climate change is not apparent. This lulls us into a kind complacency, and yet the danger is imminent.
Recently, the Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis released an important papal encyclical, which is a kind of letter to bishops and priests, concerning Catholic doctrine, in other words, what is regarded as the most urgent issues for religious, civic, social, economic and political action.
The Pope’s moral stance is based on the fact that the devastating climate change over the last 100 years is the result of human activity, and that humans are now called upon to display the moral responsibility to adopt behaviour that will avoid untold destruction and misery.
What is remarkable about the Pope’s view is that he suggests that ecological problems are not just environmental problems. He also pays attention to the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable and poor in the world. He calls attention to the devastating consequences of industrialisation, pollution and waste. The Pope is severe in his criticism of the role of unbridled capitalism in the destruction of our earth.
How has the urgency around climate change been taken up by Muslim communities around the world?
It certainly seems as if this is not priority among Muslims the world over, mired as they are, for example, in the Middle East in conflicts and wars of destruction and distraction, which is the consequence of devastation visited on them by US and Zionist empire – motivated war mongering in its neo-imperial guise.
It is the consequence, too, of governments and power brokers in Muslim majority societies who fail to embrace Science, Technology and Education as a means of developing ethical, political and economic institutions and practices to respond to the challenges posed by climate change.
In other words, what has not emerged in the Muslim world is a cohesive galvanising approach able to respond to climate change as one of the main ethical challenges confronting the universe today. Our ethical compass or qibla, is profoundly misaligned with these and other core challenges for human survival.
In this light, recently, in August 2015, an important initiative convened by Islamic Relief with participation by the SA – based World For All Foundation, brought together a range of Muslim civic actors and leaders in Istanbul. This Foundation’s work was born out of the Muslim democratic experience in South Africa. It produced what is called the Istanbul Declaration on Climate Change, which declared that,
We are in danger of ending life, as we know it on our planet. … This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, and the earth’s fine equilibrium (mizan) may be lost soon. … What will future generations say of us, whom leave them a degraded planet as our legacy? … We particularly call on the well-off nations and oil producing states to lead the way in phasing out their greenhouse emissions as early as possible and no later than the middle of the century.
The Need for Urgency
The Istanbul declaration has obtained support from Muslim leaders all over the world. The declaration speaks with clarity and urgency in calling for a coherent response from the Muslim world to address climate change.
Muslims, however, collectively and individually, seem not to understand this urgency, nor are we prepared to radically adapt our lifestyles and economic platforms to mitigate and address the dunya ’s (earth’s) sustainability.
My suggestion is thus that most people, communities and nations suffer from a failure to recognize the impending ecological disaster that have been coursing its way into the very fabric of our lives, affecting how we now live and die, the quality of our existence, the scarcity of resources for human survival, where droughts and floods affect our livelihoods, causing famine, forced human migration and wars.
What then should a Qur’anic or Islamic response be in the face of such denial?
What is needed to confront this crisis are the following: a) a need for proper recognition, based a redeeming attitude in responding to our worst excesses and complicities in the drama of ecological fragility, b) an educational and literacy struggle to combat our global and local ecological fragility, and c) and becoming productive in areas of research into new science and technology that can mitigate environmental challenges.
In other words, we have to come to terms with our (mis)recognition, and, simultaneously, consider how we develop new terms for actively work across these three areas of response: that is, proper recognition (ma’rifa); redemptive or corrective practices, on-going literacy, information and educational practices; and the productive use of our Allah – given human ingenuity, via scientific research, to respond to the many dimensions of this crisis?
In other words, once we recognise the depth and extent of the crisis, we have to work out how to get busy addressing this crisis.
We have to consider how we establish productive practices (`amal-al-salihat), how we engage in Allah’s call for us as humans to be his khalifatullah fil ard, his vicegerents or human agents for good on this earth.
Things are out of Place (Zulm)
With regard to recognition (ma’rifa), it is clear that something about our existence is deeply ‘out of place’. Human practices, in the pursuit of economic gain, have over the last 200 hundred been based on the unadulterated exploitation of Allah’s earth. Humans seemed to have behaved as if there will be no hisab (accountability), no reckoning with the impact of our behaviour, without much of a consciousness of our ecological sustainability and that we will run out of material resources.
Let me illustrate this with an example: almost the entire Middle East has been engulfed during the last hundred years by its oil industry. These countries’ entire livelihoods, their economic development, educational, social and cultural modernisation have been founded on the exploitation of a natural non-renewable resource, a fossil fuel, the production of which gave these countries untold riches and prosperity. But, it has also created the world’s dirtiest air per square kilometre, leading to many diseases and health challenges.
What is not in place is responsible and forward looking economic development sensitive to the surrounding ecological systems, clean air technologies, etc. These countries have only now awoken to the impending disaster on their shores, in their water, and on their agricultural lands.
Zulm as Human Malpractice
The Qur’an uses the term ‘zulm’ or darkness to refer to such human malpractices. This concept, in exegetical terms, means ‘to put something out of its rightful place’.
‘Zulm’ is a reference to the path trodden by people who deny the haqq (veracity) of Allah, and his creation, who, through their daily behaviour violate Allah’s mizan (balance).
‘Zulm’ is a Qur’anic concept that captures human beings’ complicity in violating Allah’s creation, of putting the natural order of things out of alignment, of upsetting the balance.
Such ‘zulm’, or transgression will earn Allah’s wrath. By maintaining these transgressive practices we jeopardise our long term survival, as in the case of oil pollution for economic gain and material wealth, oblivious to the deleterious impact on the environment.
These transgressive human actions are governed by a consciousness of immediate gratification and not awareness, taqwa (Allah Consciousness), based on the long view, the recognition that our behaviour has consequences beyond our lifespan.
An environmentally aware consciousness or taqwa, now requires that we cultivate the ability to recognize the impact of our behaviour well into the future and cultivate the necessary capacity to adjust our behaviour accordingly.
In Surah al-Zumar (The Groups)[39:53], Allah, the sublime, offer one key way of laying the basis for responding to this human – induced ‘zulm’. Allah declares:
Say: “O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah. for Allah forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful”.
The emphasis in this ayah is on ‘asrafu ‘ala anfusihim’ – which refers to recognizing one’s ‘transgression against one’s own souls, against one’s own being, one’s own existence’, whether this is a recognition of one’s transgression against one’s body when one overeats, breaking traffic rules and putting oneself in danger, recognising one’s transgression against one’s wife, children, fellow workers, or neighbour for not honouring them as people with their own rights over us.
We transgress our own nafs via our consumption choices, in acquiring fuel-guzzling cars, overspending on weekly groceries, and the failure to cut our electricity use.
More broadly, as a nation, we transgress again our nafs (our human survival) when we cannot use cheaper, cleaner energy sources, when we cannot become a nation that recycles garbage, conserves water, or promotes hardy indigenous plants that does not need much water.
At the smaller, individual and communal level, we transgress against our nafs when we provide too much food at our liturgies, our seven, forty and hundred night commemorations of our deceased, or our weddings and birthdays.
We transgress when we load our food with fat and sugar, and are unable to change our diets to mitigate the common diseases among us such as diabetes, sugar, cholesterol and heart failure.
And, we transgress, committing what the fiqh calls a ‘makruh’ (a reprehensible act), when we are unable to address our addiction to smoking, causing illnesses such as lung cancer and emphysema, which are an enormous drain on our health system.
Redressing our Transgressions
The Qur’an’s view is that it is only when we redress these transgressions, big and small, that we place ourselves in the position to obtain Allah’s rahmah, his infinite mercy. We then place ourselves in a position to address our myriad of environmental and ecological challenges to restore the balance through our human conduct, based on an environmentally aware taqwa or Allah consciousness.
We would then be able to restore the natural balance established by Allah, who declares in the holy Qur’an in Surah Ali–`Imran (3, 190-1):
“Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day- there are indeed Signs for people of understanding who celebrate the praises of God, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth (with the thought): Our Lord! not for nothing have You created (all) this! Glory be to You! Grant us salvation from the torment of fire”.
Let me end of with a comment on the importance of water in Islam, which emphasizes the importance of a responsible and responsive approach to our environment and our contemporary challenges to restore an ecological balance and to establish sustainable livelihoods. A beautiful hadith recorded in Ibn Majah, emphasizes this environmental consciousness:
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) passed by his companion Sa’ad, who was performing his wudu’ (ablutions), and said: “What is this wastage, O Sa’ ad? “Is there wastage even in (such a sacred act as) washing for prayer?” asked Sa’ad; and he (the Prophet) said, “Yes, even if you are by a flowing river!”
In a few words, nabi Muhammad (pbuh) provided a fundamental principle regarding environmental sustainability. That is, even if we supposedly have abundance, we are forbidden to waste resources.
Water, of course plays an enormous part in the human existence. The Qur’an affirms this when Allah declares in Surah al-Anbiya (The Prophets), chapter 21, verse 30:
“We made from water every living thing”.
Water is so much more important in an arid desert context, where the early Muslims under Muhammad (PBUH) made their way in establishing Allah’s tawhid. The early Muslims must have had an acute understanding of the limitations of their geography, the impact of desert conditions and the scarcity of water on their functioning as a community.
The early Muslims’ survival in the face of human, material and ecological adversity is a source of deep inspiration for current day sustainable living. It provides a principled platform to guide us in our 21st century quest for sustainable living in light of our ecological challenges in a world fast running out of its ability to sustain its growing population.