“The Prophet of Islam: Muhammad and Environmental Activism” by Ozgur Koca

Muhammad, like every other important controversial historical figure, is what we choose to remember of his legacy. Current studies on the Prophet of Islam “choose” to remember the highlights of his life, such as his wars, diplomacy, and statesmanship. In this literature the Prophet of Islam appears to be a political leader, a conflict resolver, and a military leader. No one can deny the importance of studying such aspects of his life, however, there seems to be several problems with this highlight-based approach. First, focusing too much on the highlights necessarily leads one to lose sight of the more specific details. This is especially true when one deals with the life of Muhammad, for his wars, military leadership, and political activism occupy only a small portion of his prophetic career. For example, his wars take up only about three months of his twenty-three-year career. Thus a highlight-based approach leads to a highly distorted understanding of Muhammad, for it misses the totality of his life. Secondly, in the religious universe of Islam, what Muhammad did in the rest of his life is equally, if not more, important. Moreover, one cannot properly understand political and military aspects of the Prophet of Islam without taking the details of his life into consideration, for a part is properly understood with an eye on its relationship with the whole.  And, on a practical note, this task of exploring the details of Muhammad’s life is not a difficult task since his life is so well recorded.

With these caveats in mind, I will attempt to examine a relatively unknown aspect of Muhammad’s life: his interaction with the biophysical environment. The prophetic tradition (hadith), as it is narrated by the most authoritative sources, shows that the Prophet of Islam aimed to instill a deep sense of environmental consciousness in the minds and hearts of his followers. With a close look at Muhammad’s biography, we encounter an environmental activist. Utilizing examples provided by such authoritative hadith collections as al-Bukhari, Muslim, at-Tirmidhi, and Ibn Majah, I will first focus on how the Prophet of Islam interacted with the surrounding biophysical environment. Then I will attempt to outline some general principles that will help tie together seemingly disparate teachings and examples of the Prophet of Islam and contribute to the construction of an authentic Islamic environmental ethics.

Muhammad’s refraining from overconsumption, luxury, and lavishness is a lesson on how to be in tune with the realities of the ecosystem. It is a well-known fact that over-consumption leads to inevitable and gradual degradation of natural resources. Although it is impossible not to consume, it is possible to consume sensitively with an eye on limited natural resources.  Consider the following prophetic passage that appears to exhort Muslims to adapt a lifestyle of which sustainable consumption is part and parcel: “No human ever filled a vessel worse than the stomach. Sufficient for any son of Adam are some morsels to keep his back straight. But if it must be, then one third for his food, one third for his drink and one third for his breath.”[1]

The very lifestyle that Muhammad chose to live is an example of wise use of resources and minimization of waste. The following examples indicate the highly ascetic lifestyle Muhammad chose to conduct his life: 1) He lived in a small hut made of mud that did not have a proper door, roof, and bed.[2] 2) His dietary habits were strict and austere; he ate very little and fasted very often.[3] In addition, Muhammad maintained these habits not only when he was a shepherd boy, but also when he was equal to the kings. Overall, he chose a sustainable lifestyle that harmonizes with the quranic injunction: “Eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for God loves not the wasters”  (Qur’an 7:31).

Muhammad exhorts Muslims to treat animals with compassion and not to abuse them. He proclaims that animal species are an ummah, a community with rights to exist alongside with man.[4][5] Placing animals in the category of community allows him to ground a meaningful articulation of the rights and treatment of animals. This is a truly noteworthy form of discourse in a society where mistreatment of animals was a norm. He forbade beating animals,[6] branding them on the face,[7] having animals fight each other for human entertainment,[8] and overburdening domestic animals. He also did not tolerate recreational hunting, scaring animals, targeting animals for shooting, and so on.[9] Overall, Muhammad felt that animals should be well treated, protected, and not abused or degraded.

The following are some examples of Muhammad’s sayings (hadith) inculcating a deep sense of ethical responsibility towards animals:

“While a man was walking on a road, he became very thirsty. Then he came across a well, got down into it, drank and then came out. Meanwhile he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. The man said to himself: ‘This dog is suffering from the same state of thirst as I did.’ So he went down the well (again) and filled his shoe and held it in his mouth and watered the dog. Allah thanked him for that deed and forgave him. The people asked, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! Is there a reward for us in serving the animals?’ He said, ‘There is a reward for serving any living being.’”[10]

“Allah the Merciful mercy the merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth so that those in the heavens mercy you.”[11]

“Allah will ask those who kill a sparrow unfairly on the Day of Judgment.”[12]

“A lady was punished because of a cat which she had imprisoned till it died. She entered the fire because of it, for she neither gave it food nor water as she had imprisoned it, nor set it free to eat from the vermin of the earth.”[13]

The rest of the article is located here.

(Image from Wikimedie Commons, author Andyso.)

[1] Muhammed ibn Isa Al-Thirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, (Istanbul: Cagri, 1992), Zuhd, 47

[2] Suleyman ibn Ash’ath Abu Dawud, Sunan Abu Dawud, (İstanbul:Cagri, 1992), Jihad , 2675

[3] Muhammad Ibn İsmail Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, (Istanbul: Cagri, 1992), Sawm, 193

[4] Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Birr, 1489

[5] “There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.” Qur’an 6:38

[6] Al-Hajjac Muslim, Sahih Muslim (Istanbul: Cagri, 1992), Book 21, 2595

[7] Ibid, 2117

[8] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 10, 2556

[9] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Book 21, 2595

[10] Al-Bukhari Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 73, 8

[11] Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Birr, 16

[12] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Sayd, 57

[13] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 56, 689

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One thought on ““The Prophet of Islam: Muhammad and Environmental Activism” by Ozgur Koca

  1. Waging war in order to take over and control land and people is over consumption. Taking for himself a dozen wives can also be seen as consumption. Having an entire tribe of Jews enslaved or killed because they do not want to follow you is far from being conscious of the environment, the human environment. Just like you don’t want people to focus only one a small portion of Muhammad’s life, you are doing the very same. Taken in totality, his life does not exhibit great environmental or human consciousness. He was concerned about himself, his tribe, and his own power.

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