Centering God in Environmental Sustainability

How Muslim Organizations are Making Real Change

By Dalia Rakha

Sept/Oct 2023

Environmental sustainability and its execution have been greatly debated across the globe. From discussions on waste management and restoration techniques to health concerns and global disasters, the sustainability movement has attempted to define the ideal relationship between humans and the natural world. Yet, these definitions have only gone as far as physical manifestations, detailing the how but not the why.  More than 1400 years ago, Islam filled the gaps through the revelation of a single verse.

“And it is He who has made you successors upon the earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you” (Quran 6:165). 

The God-given responsibility of being His vicegerents on Earth and emulating His Divine traits of mercy, justice, and wisdom is at the core of how Muslims look at their relationship with the natural world. Islam offers a unique perspective on how and why taking care of this planet is important not only for one’s physical well-being, but also to the well-being of the soul and to fulfilling the fundamental purpose of life. Deeply spiritual, God-centric, and ethically founded, the Islamic worldview on environmental sustainability is a rich tradition being actualized through various methods in Islamic organizations across North America.

Zaytuna Modeling Vicegerency 

In the U.S., Zaytuna College is on the front lines of a movement towards self-sustainable agriculture and reconnecting with the natural world. As the first accredited Muslim American college, Zaytuna has used the Islamic lens to not only inform its academic curriculum but also its experiential learning initiatives through the Zaytuna College Center for Ethical Living and Learning (ZCELL). 

“ZCELL is a place to model methods of actualizing Muslims’ vicegerency on Earth,” said Rhamis Kent, a scholar-in-residence and instructor for Zaytuna’s Permaculture Design Certificate Course. “As a modern human society, we have accepted unexamined lives where we no longer take responsibility for our existence. We have outsourced everything that makes our lives possible to someone else, merely consuming what is grown and produced by others and never truly connecting to its origin.”

Kent is also the co-founder of the IGE-PEARL (Islamic Gift Economy — Program for Ethical Appropriate and Regenerative Livelihoods). He believes one of the most important ways of connecting to the Earth, to ourselves, and to God is through the cultivation of land. Kent shared that in the Islamic tradition, what we eat is often tied to our spiritual state. As modernity has deprived us from connecting with the Earth and fulfilling our responsibility to it, he believes that this has also resulted in a disconnection with each other, for the deepest bonds come from struggle and self-sufficiency as a community. His work aims to empower Muslims to retake this essential responsibility, knowing it not only reconnects humans with each other and all of creation, but most importantly with the Creator.  

Muslims and Indigenous Communities in Canada

The Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) is a charitable grassroots organization aimed at helping Muslims revitalize their faith to better serve society. It promotes local community building and education through various programs, all within Islamic ethical frameworks. One of MAC’s directors, Memona Hossain, focuses on community-based learning initiatives to help Muslims reconnect with nature through the lens of Islam.  She is also a lecturer at the University of Toronto and a current PhD candidate in Applied Ecopsychology.

Through conversations with Indigenous peoples, Hossain has come to learn that the centralization of God in the way Muslims see the world is what often allows Muslims and Indigenous communities to relate to and connect with each other. She has had opportunities to engage in dialogue with and to learn from Indigenous communities across Canada to understand how this Creator-centric worldview fundamentally changes conversations on environmental sustainability, as well as in the ways justice is addressed and perceived. 

While secular worldviews often face these issues with a sense of despair, Hossain noted that because a Muslim’s understanding of justice and success are not limited to worldly outcomes, it is profoundly hopeful. Muslims believe even the smallest of acts do not go unnoticed by God. It is this hope that distinguishes Islam’s understanding of the world, and according to Hossain is one of the most beautiful gifts Muslims can bring to the sustainability movement.

Environment in the Quran

In both of these examples, it is clear that the most essential part of the Islamic environmental worldview is its connection to God. Throughout the Quran, God mentions the miracles of creation as proofs and reminders of His existence, signs of His perfection and mercy, and expressions of His love and generosity. Verses that describe the life-giving properties of rain (16:65), the marvel of milk (16:66), and the healing of honey (16:69) are all examples. This creates a much deeper relationship with the land, a profoundly spiritual bond. God revealed in the Quran that humans are made from clay (15:26) and water (21:30), a reminder that human beings and the Earth are intimately related. Thus, in understanding the natural world, humanity is better able to understand and connect with ourselves.

Kent emphasized that when Muslims emulate the life of Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), it is at its core “modeling a behavioral pattern that permits us to benefit everyone and everything.” The way Muslims treat all of creation is based upon this lens. This seemingly small shift in worldview fundamentally alters everything. Instead of looking only at preventing harm, Muslims are asked to heal, to mend, and most importantly, to improve conditions. Muslims have been given a rich and deeply rooted tradition in building and maintaining relationships with the Earth and all that is in it. 

The world is in desperate need of alternative methods to connect with each other and all of creation. Islam provides a beautiful example centered around God and His attributes, rooted in ethics and sustained with soul. It is a gift too precious not to be shared. 

Dalia Rakha holds an MS in environmental engineering from UC Davis, is a graduate of Tayseer Seminary, and is pursuing a career in water quality and health within a spiritual framework.

Tell us what you thought by joining our Facebook community. You can also send comments and story pitches to Islamic Horizons does not publish unsolicited material.