ABU DHABI // To many UAE residents, littering appears such a trivial matter it hardly warrants a second thought. But if those same people were to research the religious significance of the act, they might well think again.
Littering, according to Sheikh Musa Furber, a researcher and scholar of Islamic sciences with the Abu Dhabi-based Tabah Foundation, goes against one of the most important tenets of Islam: doing good for others. The subject is mentioned in one of the hadiths, of which about 60,000 are known to exist. Reported by Abu Hurairah, a companion of the Prophet, the hadith dictates that removing harmful things from pathways is an act of charity.
"The phrase also indicates that just as there is some reward for performing this action, there is a penalty for performing its opposite," said Sheikh Furber, an American who discovered Islam while earning a linguistics degree in his native country. Some scholars say the hadith is just one indication of many that environmental responsibility is deeply rooted in Islamic teachings, even if the concept is only just gaining traction.
In a June speech at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Britain's Prince Charles asked the audience to consider Islam's teachings on the subject. "The inconvenient truth is that we share this planet with the rest of creation for a very good reason - and that is, we cannot exist on our own without the intricately balanced web of life around us," Prince Charles was quoted as saying. "Islam has always taught this and to ignore that lesson is to default on our contract with creation."
The same month Friday sermons waded into the realm of environmentalism, reminding worshippers that conserving water was a religious duty. Sermons delivered at the UAE's mosques are drafted by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department. "Let us conserve water as it is an invaluable treasure, and the country is doing a great deal to conserve it so we should value these efforts by not wasting it," said the sermon.
Last November religious leaders gathered at Windsor Castle for Many Heavens, One Earth, an event organised by the United Nations and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation to encourage environmental action among a variety of faiths. The event helped create momentum for The Muslim Seven Year Action Plan On Climate Change (2010-2017). The plan, supported by muftis and scholars from a variety of countries including Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and launched back in 2008, seeks to "re-introduce Islamic rituals from the environmental perspective", take steps to create a "green Haj", build a prototype for a "green mosque" and work towards publishing the Quran on recycled paper.
The idea that everything on Earth is inter-related is contained in a concept known to Islamic scholars as "takaful". Although the concept is now applied mainly to insurance, where it refers to a sharing of risks, takaful also means a cosmic symbiosis or balance, according to Sheikh Furber. "What God created is a complex system of elements dependent on each other, they are inter-related and in balance," he said. "You cannot alter or play with that system without disturbing it."
Islamic scholars needed to go back to the original sources and use them to explain issues faced by people today, such as conservation or global warming, said Sheikh Furber. But some basic "green" tenets of Islam were universal and easily understood. Grand Mufti, Dr Ali Ahmed Mashael, said that another basic idea in Islam was that humans were custodians of the Earth. This concept, known to scholars as "khilafah", came with a responsibility for humans who needed to be compassionate to other creatures and to use resources carefully.
"The Prophet said it is forbidden to kill or hurt animals without reason," said Dr Mashael. "He also said that people should not harm themselves or others and this applies to animals as well." The Quran and hadiths made many references to being modest when using water, food or buying possessions, said Dr Mashael. "People should buy only what is enough for them," he said. "If they do not want it any more or they do not use it, they can donate."
In Islamic law, for a sale and purchase to be considered valid they needed to have "positive wholesome use", said Sheikh Furber. "It is about balance and limits," he said. "In cases where the item is useful, it is fine. But if we have too much, then no, there is a problem with that. There is a difference between having one TV set and having three or five, between driving one car and driving three or five."
A paper published more than a decade ago is considered to contain some of the best writing to date on the topic. Environmental Protection in Islam was written by four scholars from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq with support from Saudi Arabia's Meteorological and Environmental Protection Association and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. "Most Islamic nations are developing and must expand economically in order to meet basic needs," the authors argued. "Should this expansion pass through the same evolutionary cycle as prior industrial development, the environmental impacts could be disastrous."