Beginning with an exploration into what the current pandemic can teach us about our relationship with the natural world, I had a rich conversation with Tarik Quadir – a scholor of Islamic ecology who, despite living in the West for years, remains deeply connected to the land of his origins, Bangladesh.
Some background: The South Asian nation of Bangladesh is one of the most densely inhabited countries on earth with a population of 162 million (that's half of the US population) in an area that matches the size of Illinois (or less than half the size of Italy, for the Europeans reading this)! Bangladesh is one of the countries most severely affected by the global climate crisis and frequently experiences devastating floods, cyclones and other environmental disasters.
What does Islam teach about our relationship to the natural world? What needs to shift so we can live on Planet Earth in a sustainable way? What is lacking in our debate around climate change? What can we learn from a Bangladeshi village about holistic living? And how does Islamic environmentalism look like?
Tarik M. Quadir is an independent scholar of Islam and the Environment Crisis, and committed to interreligious understanding and harmony. He was educated at the George Washington University, Harvard University, and at the University of Birmingham (UK). Until 2019, he taught in several Turkish universities in Konya and Istanbul. He has published several articles and a book titled Traditional Islamic Environmentalism: The Vision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Currently, he lives in the United States.
What do you think has the pandemic come to teach us?
I see the pandemic as a warning from God not to mess with nature too much and as an opportunity to realize a few things. First, disasters like this or much greater ones can strike us suddenly and all our technological progress may prove inadequate against them for long stretches of time. Second, it is important to realize that if we had not invaded the habitations of wild lives and exploited them as mercilessly as we have, we probably would not have come in contact with this virus. Even if this coronavirus was partly manipulated in the laboratory, as some have speculated, the same holds true. Third, if we had not chosen fast-paced lifestyles as we have, the virus would not have spread as far and wide as it has. Fourth, we have to realize that other life forms on this planet have a right to its resources. They all have important purposes, even if we are not aware of them yet. The diversity of species makes nature more resilient which benefits us directly — either we will share the world with them equitably or we will jeopardise our own lives more and more.
How have you been using the extra time during the lockdown?
Since the beginning of this pandemic, I have spent some time seriously studying how we might protect ourselves from the coronavirus in a way that supports the environment. In my childhood, my mother Shireen Quadir, daughter of a homeopathic doctor, treated us through homeopathy as well as leaves, herbs, fruits and vegetables, along with teaching us certain healthy eating habits as preached by the Prophet Muhammad.
My homeland Bangladesh offers a much wider variety of vegetables and leafy greens than what I have seen in any other country I have visited. After college, I was drawn to traditional ways of healing such as Chinese Traditional Medicine.
Since the pandemic, I have discovered the orthomolecular and functional Medicine approaches. Though both of these approaches grew out of modern medicine, they reject the usual practice of therapy by drugs. Both of these approaches believe that the human body has an immense potential for healing itself from almost any disease or infection so long as it is provided with an adequate supply of vitamins, minerals, and a balanced diet.
These approaches teach us to prefer nutrient-rich foods grown and produced through old traditional methods over those grown and prepared by modern industrial agricultural methods which degrade the soil, produce nutrient-poor foods, and cause chronic diseases. They treat various health conditions through right food and right natural supplements at a fraction of the usual cost of treatment by drugs and surgery. They have a long record of numerous scientific proofs of successes that the mainstream modern medical establishment with active lobbying by immensely rich pharmaceutical companies chooses to ignore.
For instance, orthomolecular doctors across the world have proven over and over again that high amount of vitamin C taken in divided doses along with adequate intake of vitamin D3 and zinc can prevent a coronavirus infection from taking a dangerous turn. I hope people across the world pay heed to these cheap but effective approaches to overcoming the coronavirus instead of spending billions on modern medicines and waiting for a vaccine that in itself might turn out to be a health hazard for many. Turning away more and more from industrial agriculture and big pharma would be a very positive step for nature, our health and our financial well being.
You have done substantial research in the field of Islamic ecology. What does Islam tell us about man’s relationship to nature?
The Qur’an tells us that every entity in nature is a sign of God (16:10-17), every species is a community like us (6:38), every entity (except many human beings) is ceaselessly praising God (17:44; 22:18), and everything is created with a purpose (44:38; 21:16; 23:115) and in balance (15:19; 54:49; 13:8) which human beings must not upset (55:7-8; 7:55-6). In fact, the Qur’an states that “the creation of the heavens and the earth were greater than the creation of mankind” (40:57).
Human beings were created as God’s representative on earth (35:39) and thus we are charged with the responsibility to take care of the planet. Being God’s representative does not give us free reign to exploit nature. The gifts of the earth are to be shared by all living creatures ( 80:24-32; 25:48-49; 79:31-33). In other words: we should treat nature as the place which reveals God, a place that is filled with creatures that ceaselessly praise God.
We should say also that tawhid (Divine Unity), the most important foundational principle of Islam, also implies that God/Truth/Reality (al-Haqq) is One (al-Ahad; al-Wahid). As such we are all in God and are intimately related to every other. What we do to the least of God’s creation, we do to ourselves. In addition the Prophet Muhammad perfectly exemplified through his words and examples how one should treat nature.
What, from an Islamic perspective, are the deeper causes of our environmental crisis?
From the Islamic point of view, the loss of this sacred vision of nature over the last 200 years is the deepest cause of the environmental crisis. Many Christian saints in the Middle Ages also spoke of nature in similar terms.
With the advent of modern science in the 17th century, Europe gradually rejected traditional Christian reverence for nature in favor of a purely materialistic view of nature. How we view things and entities determines how we interact with it. This shift in worldview from a sacred to a purely material one is at the root of modern capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, both of which were launched almost simultaneously in the second half of the 18th century.
In the case of Christianity, the command to "subdue the earth" has been criticized for legitimizing environmental destruction. What’s your take on this?
I think it is wrong to place any blame on Christianity for the environmental crisis. Christianity, like Islam, preaches against greed and cruelty. There would be no environmental crisis if greed were not given almost free reign under the prevalent economic system of modern capitalism. Our modern scientific worldview reduced the vision of nature as being a unique divine creation to that of being matter alone, ready to be used by man in any way he sees fit. So the environmental crisis is not a product of faith, but rather the product of our unbridled greed in forgetfulness of God. Never in human history did we face a global environmental crisis until now in this secular age.
To make the topic of ecology a bit more tangible, is there any natural place you have a special relationship with?
I strongly believe that the best way to ensure a sustainable environment would be to return to a simpler way of life consciously and intelligently. I have memories of two models from my childhood which inspire me because they taught me that people can indeed live in total harmony with nature.
As a small boy I spent nine months in a typical Bangladeshi village called Mohishkhola (Jessore district) with my parents. There I observed how people lived simply and in an intimate relationship with the natural elements. For instance, people lived mostly in huts built with mud, locally sourced wood planks, bamboos and clay tiles. The leaves of palm or coconut trees and straw were used in functional and aesthetically beautiful ways to make the roofs.
The floors were swept every day, and once a week the floors in the house and the courtyards would be covered with a thin layer of cow dung (an antimicrobial) mixed in water. The floors would dry within an hour or two and feel wonderfully fresh and clean. These houses were cool during summer and comfortable during the short winter season of that region.
Nothing was wasted, and domestic animals like cows and goats were treated like they were family members. Kitchen waste was used as a fertilizer for plants or trees around the house. Cow dung was used as a fertilizer on the crop fields or dried and burned as firewood in the kitchen. Some tube wells or ponds were sources of drinking water and people would bath in the river. Other than the tube wells and some bicycles, all the technologies used were traditional ones that had been in place for centuries. People ate vegetables grown in the fields and fish caught in the rivers, they prayed in the homes and mosques, chatted in the courtyards after the evening prayers and soon went to bed. You never heard of pollution in the lands, food or the water.
The last fifty years of ‘development’ have made things much worse. Now fields and water sources are much more polluted with chemicals. After the arrival of electricity and television, people began to forget the traditional way of life that was with love and in harmony with the natural elements and cycles. Many left the villages for cities, and sickness became more common.
Though all is not lost yet. It seems impossible now to expect the world at large to return to the life of Mohishkhola, but it is infinitely preferable to a foreseeable environmentally ruined planet.
What about the town you grew up in?
If I look back to my home town, Jessore, in the late 1960s and the 1970s, very few owned cars, refrigerators, or phones, but every home had electricity and a radio. Within the town you could travel in the ubiquitous rickshaws or ride a bike. If you had to go a few miles outside the town, you could take a bus plying between towns. The produce, fish, and meat were all relatively fresh and at least as good as what we call ‘organic’ in the West today. For most people, life provided the usual dramas though they were not as intertwined with modern technologies as they are today.
But life of an average person was more secure and not any less interesting in its own way than what you find in a modern Western town. Everyone I knew was familiar with the West only through pictures and imagined it to be much better somehow, a kind of fantasy world far away.
Only later after having lived in the West and observing it for many years, did I realize that our imaginations of life in the West were more like mirages. Of course, each nation has its own Mohishkholas and Jessores of the 20th century to look back on and rethink their future course.
Scientists tell us that if the industrial conditions could be limited to where the world was in the mid 1970s, the world could continue sustainably. However, if the world were to contemplate a return to a simpler way of life, the more industrially advanced countries would have to return to conditions equivalent to that of Jessore of 1970. To be honest, if most people were to realize where the world environmental conditions are headed, they would choose the Jessore model without the slightest hesitation.
Most environmental voices today operate within a secular framework. Can we save the earth without God?
If you are asking if we can escape the impending environmental chaos within decades without reviving a sacred view of nature, I would say that by purely secular solutions we can only delay the disasters. It is not only greenhouse gases that we should be worried about. We are polluting the water, the land and the air by numerous other means continuously. We are rapidly depleting the underground freshwater supply, causing loss of biodiversity on land and in water at an extremely alarming rate, turning large tracts of fertile lands into uncultivable lands through industrial agriculture, which is also poisoning our bodies and altering our minds with antibiotics like pesticides and herbicides. Without turning our energies on the path of God/Reality, the Sacred Source of all, the flame of greed fanned for over 200 years cannot be sufficiently controlled by mankind.
Modern science has taught us many things about the causes of climate change. Do we know enough to halt climate change?
Yes and no. We have the technology to harness solar, wind, and geothermal energies that with bold political initiatives and financial support can replace fossil fuel as the source of global energy demand. We may also be able to build more efficient machines that consumes less energy than what exists today, though such technological changes will take time to manifest even if there is political will.
However, excess of the greenhouse gasses is not the only problem that threatens the environment. We are polluting the land, water and air in numerous other ways which cannot be reversed with technology alone. Our current debate almost exclusively focuses on the need to get out of using fossil fuel for global energy need. It rarely ever questions the prevalent materialistic values that drive consumerism across the world and fails to see that while modern science is good at measurements and thus able to tell us much about what is wrong outwardly, its purely materialistic worldview has misled our souls and thus it is at the root of developments that have generated the environmental crisis in the first place. There is an urgent need to understand the consequences or the limitations of the modern scientific view of nature.
How can Islam, in particular, play a role in changing people's attitudes towards the environment?
Muslims must become aware without delay how grave the current environmental crisis is. Then they must discover how the Quran and the Prophet want us to treat nature. Those who profess to believe in the Quran and the Prophet, must take heed and act accordingly with kindness to earth: “The servants of the Compassionate [God] are they who walk upon the earth humbly, and when the foolish address them, they say ‘Peace!’” (25:63). Thus, Muslims may set an example of kindness to nature for others to follow.
Why aren't more Muslims today promoting environmentalism more actively?
The Islamic world has been too preoccupied with issues stemming from a need to adjust to social, political, economic, cultural, and military agendas set by the West over the last two hundred years. Nevertheless, most Muslims are at fault for not knowing what their tradition teaches about nature.
In addition, since industrialisation and modern capitalism began and spread in the West long before it happened to the same extent elsewhere, the environmental crisis became ‘visible’ in the West first. So, there is an erroneous tendency in the Muslim world to think that just because the environmental crisis began in the West first, it is the West’s responsibility to fix it. Muslims must remember that all of humanity is in the same boat, this Earth. If we don’t learn to save it together, we will ‘sink’ together. Muslims must do their part.
Can you give an example of a successful Islam-inspired environmental leaders or movements?
Every traditional Muslim, Christian, or Jew who knows that being a good human being in the eyes of God is the primary purpose of life and acts accordingly, is also an environmentalist because he/she is unlikely to be wasteful, unjust, or exploitative. There are plenty of simple Muslims in almost every Muslim country who live that way. Take this story of a simple faithful rickshaw puller in a small town in Bangladesh who has been planting one tree a day for fifty years now. Another example is the movement of eco-pesantrens in Indonesia, Islamic boarding schools that focus on ecology.
As a Bangladeshi, how do you see the future of your own country in the face of environmental threat?
The situation in Bangladesh is really bad, fundamentally for the same reason that it is very bad in most Muslim or non-Muslim countries. The Bangladeshis, like all ‘developing’ nations are trying to catch up with that model of development which has been successfully advertised globally by the West. However, many non-Muslim countries that are doing more in terms of projects to reduce carbon emissions or by recycling are also burning more fossil fuel and producing more goods that go on to pollute the earth. For instance, Bangladesh’s carbon footprint would pale in comparison to that of England, France, Germany, or Japan, though it has a much bigger human population.
What can Bangladeshis do to protect their country from natural disasters?
Bangladeshis, like people elsewhere, need to pay attention to what they are doing to their natural world, and realize that the current course of ‘development’ is seriously jeopardizing the lives of their children now and those of the future generations, and defying their religious obligations towards nature as well. Every ‘developing’ nation needs to question what it means to be truly ‘developed’.
They need to take bold actions and set examples for others. They need to have regular discussions on the causes and consequences of the environmental crisis by harnessing the power of schools, media, and the mosques. Accordingly, they need to ban all mega development projects, promote traditional ways of agriculture and manufacture wherever possible, and save their rivers from the ‘developers.’ They need to discourage the glorification of wasteful lifestyles in the media and ban deceptive advertisements, especially those that target children. They need to plant trees on every available space, especially in the coastal areas. They must turn to wind and solar energy as much as possible. To suppose that such proposals are not realistic is to not understand the gravity of the environmental problem Bangladesh and the rest of the world face. Bangladesh and other ‘developing’ nations must take such initiatives and not wait for the West to lead them on this path.
Many of us feel helpless when we read the facts about impending climate change. Can you suggest some things we can do to contribute to a more beautiful and liveable future?
Be careful about what you acquire. Try to limit your possessions to your basic needs as much as possible. Be rich in thoughts, manners and culture. Live kindly, simply, and in gratitude for everything you have. It is easier to do this if we can realize how intimately we are connected to every other by believing in a common Creator, or by believing in One underlying, universal, and eternal Reality from which everyone and everything emerges and returns to after a brief sojourn of life in this world.