Sustainable Development in Islam

Dr. Iyad Abumoghli


A huge number of verses in Qura’n and several sayings of the Prophet Muhammad indicate the great importance that has been given to environmental concerns and the responsibility of man to the environment. The concept of sustainable development in Islam can be defined as “The balanced and simultaneous realization of consumer welfare, economic efficiency, attainment of social justice, and ecological balance in the framework of a evolutionary knowledge-based, socially interactive model defining the Shuratic process”. The Shuratic process is the consultation or participatory ruling principle of Islam.

The over arching principle in the use of nature is derived from the prophetic declaration that states: "There shall be no damage and no infliction of damage". The right to benefit from the essential environmental elements and resources such as water, minerals, land, forests, fish and wildlife, arable soil, air and sunlight is in Islam, a right held in common by all members of society. Each individual is entitled to benefit from a common resource subject to establishing the degree of need, (needs have to be distinguished from wants) and the impact on the environment.

Earth is mentioned 61 times in the Qura’n. According to Islam, the universe has been created by Allah (God) with a specific purpose and for a limited time. The utilization of natural resources (ni‘matullah - the gifts of Allah) is a sacred trust invested in mankind; he is a mere manager and not an owner, a beneficiary and not a disposer. Side by side, the Islamic nation has been termed as) ummatan wasatan) the moderate nation in the Qur’an, a nation that avoids excesses in all things. Thus, Muslims in particular have to utilize the earth responsibly for their benefit, honestly maintain and preserve it, use it considerately and moderately, and pass it on to future generations in an excellent condition. This includes the appreciation of its beauty and handing it over in a way that realizes the worship of Allah.

The utilization of all natural resources – land, water, air, fire (energy), forests, oceans – are considered the right and the joint property of the entire humankind. Since Man is Khalifatullah (the vicegerent of Allah) on earth, he should take every precaution to ensure the interests and rights of others, and regard his mastery over his allotted piece of land as a joint ownership with the next generation.

Land Reclamation:

Prophet Muhammad said, "Whosoever brings dead land to life, for him is a reward in it, and whatever any creature seeking food eats of it shall be reckoned as charity from him". The Prophet in another occasion said, "There is no Muslim who plants a tree or sows a field for a human, bird, or animal eats from it, but it shall be reckoned as charity from him"; and, "If anyone plants a tree, no human nor any of the creatures of Allah will eat from it without it being reckoned as charity from him". This testifies the importance the Prophet in the early days of Islam has given to reclamation of land and the equal rights of all God’s creatures to benefit from the resources of earth.

The Qura’n has also stressed the importance of water for agriculture and land reclamation. “It is “He” who sends out the winds, bringing advance news of “His” mercy. And “We” send down from heaven pure water so that it can bring a dead land to life and give drink to many of the animals and people “We” created, (Al Furqân 25:48-49). “A Sign for them is the dead land which “We” bring to life and from which “We” bring forth grain of which they eat. “We” place in it gardens of dates and grapes, and cause springs to gush out in it” (Yasin 36:33-34).

Natural Reserves

Wildlife and natural resources are protected under Shariah (Rules of Islam) by zoning around areas called “hima”. In such places, industrial development, habitation, extensive grazing, are not allowed. The Prophet himself, followed by the Caliphs of Islam, established such “hima” zones as public property or common lands managed and protected by public authority for conservation of natural resources.

The First Biosphere Reserve in Islam:

“I declare Madina to be sacred throughout the area between its two mountain paths, so that leaves may not be eaten off except for fodder”. The game in Madina is not to be molested not its fresh herbage cut”. This declaration, fifteen centauries ago, is a testimony of the importance of biosphere reserves in Islam, Prophet Mohammad recognized that Abraham established the first reserve in Mecca.

Water Rights:

In the Shariah, there is a responsibility placed on upstream farms to be considerate of downstream users. A farm beside a stream is forbidden to monopolize its water. After withholding a reasonable amount of water for his crops, the farmer must release the rest to those downstream. Furthermore, if the water is insufficient for all of the farms along the stream, the needs of the older farms are to be satisfied before the newer farm is permitted to irrigate. This reflects the sustainable utilization of water based on its safe yield. According to jurists such as Malik and Ibn Qudamah, these same principles apply to the extraction of groundwater. A person has no right to adversely affect his neighbor’s well by lowering the water table or polluting the aquifer.

Public Participation:

The Shura is taken here to mean the evolving decision making process at all levels of the Islamic society. It applies universally to the decision making on ecological matters as on political ones. Such a treatment of Shura is closer to its meaning in the Qur'an: “Wa amruhom shura baynahum” (Lead by consultation).

Balance of Natural Resources:

The Qur'ân advises us to maintain the balance as the world was created in balance. “We did not create heaven and earth and everything in between them as a game. If we had desired to have some amusement, “We” would have derived it from “Our” presence, but “We” did not do that”, (Al-Anbiyâ 21:16-17). “He created man and taught him clear expression. The sun and the moon both run with precision. The stars and the trees bow down in prostration. He erected heaven and established the balance, so that you would not transgress the balance. Give just weight do not skimp the balance. “He” laid out the earth for all living creatures”, (Ar Rahman 55:3-9).

Knowledge and Education:

The teachings of Islam have an ethical notion that guides Muslims to care about the environment; knowledge that helps them perfects their duties. “He taught Adam the names of all things. Then “He” arrayed them before and said, tell “Me” the names of these if you are telling the truth”, (Al Baqarah 2:31). This verse describes how and why humankind was given the ability to know the names of creation. It is an important symbol of knowledge given only to the human race from among all the other creatures including angles.

Therefore, using religious education to convey the messages of Sustainable Development is an excellent tool as religious values are more accepted for Muslims than sophisticated jargon of new scientific terms.

Environment Protection

The rights to benefit from nature are linked to accountability and maintenance or conservation of the resource. The fundamental legal principle established by the Prophet Muhammad is that "The benefit of a thing is in return for the liability attached to it.” Much environmental degradation is due to people's ignorance of what their Creator requires of them. People should be made to realize that the conservation of the environment is a religious duty demanded by God. God has said. “And do good as Allâh has been good to you. And do not seek to cause corruption in the earth. Allâh does not love the corrupters”, (Al Qasas 28:77.(

Waste Generation:

Islam calls for the efficient use of natural resources and waste minimization. God says in Qura’n: “Eat and drink, but waste not by excess; “He” loves not the excessive”, (Al-A'raf 7:31). "And do not follow the bidding of the excessive, who cause corruption in the earth and do not work good”, (Ash-Shu'ara 26: 151-152). “And do not cause corruption in the earth, when it has been set in order”, (Al-A'râf 7:56).

Importance of Water:

The word water occurs 66 times in the Qura’n which contains many such verses that speak of the life-giving properties of water: “Do you not see that Allah sends down water from the sky and then in the morning the earth is covered in green? Allah is All-Subtle, All-Aware”, (Al Hajj 22:63). Water is the most important molecule in the life of an organism. That life originated from water is a fact mentioned in the Qura’n: “We made from water every living thing”, (Al-Anbiya’ 21:30). “Allah created every animal from water. Some of them go on their bellies, some of them on two legs, and some on four. Allah creates whatever “He” wills. Allah has power over all things”, (An Nur 24:45). Thus water is an important commodity that has to be conserved and sustainably utilized.

Water Pollution:

Water also plays another socio-religious function: cleaning of the body and clothes from all dirt, impurities, and purification so that mankind can be presentable at all times. Only after cleaning with pure (colorless, odorless and tasteless) water, Muslims are allowed to pray. One can only pray at a place that has been cleaned. In light of these facts, Islam stresses on preventing pollution of water resources. Urinating in water (discharging wastewater into water stream) and washing or having a bath in stagnant water are forbidden acts in Islam. The Prophet said: "No one should bathe in still water, when he is unclean”.

Efficient use and Conservation of water:

The teachings of Prophet Muhammad emphasize the proper use of water without wasting it. The Prophet said: “Don’t waste water even if you are on a running river”. He also said: “Whoever increases (more than three), he does injustice and wrong”.

Sustainable Use of Biodiversity

God has created biodiversity for the benefit of mankind who is requested to protect it from degradation and pollution and is responsible for its sustainable use. God says in the Qura’n: “We sent down a measured amount of water from heaven and lodged it firmly in the earth; and “We” are able to remove it. By means of it “We” produce gardens of dates and grapes for you, in which there are many fruits for you and from which you eat, and a tree springing forth from Mount Sinai yielding oil and a seasoning to those who eat. And there is certainly a lesson for you in your livestock. “We” give you to drink from what is in their bellies and there are many ways in which you benefit from them, and some of them you eat; and you are conveyed on them and on ships as well”, (Al Muminun 23:18-22). “He Who has spread out the earth for you and threaded roads for you therein and has sent down water from the sky, with it “We” brought forth diverse kinds of vegetation. Eat and pasture your cattle; in this are signs for men endued with understanding”.

Air Pollution:

“It is Allâh who sends the winds which raise the clouds which “We” then drive to a dead land and by them bring the earth to life after it was dead. That is how the resurrection will be”, ( Al Fatir 35:9). The Prophet discouraged or prohibited activities that result in offensive smells and odors, from taking place in certain public places. He said: "He who eats garlic or onion should stay away from us". The period that one should stay away is limited to the duration of the smell. By analogy, anything that pollutes the air and is detrimental to the health should be prohibited.

Sustainable Forestry:

Islamic legislation on the preservation of trees and plants finds its roots in Qura’nic teachings of Prophet. They include the following: “Whoever plants a tree and looks after it with care, until it matures and becomes productive, will be rewarded in the Hereafter” and “If anyone plants a tree or sows a field and men, beasts or birds eat from it, he should consider it as a charity on his part.

He is also reported to have encouraged tree planting as a constructive practice, saying that even if one hour remained before the final hour and one has a palm-shoot in his hand, he should plant it. Even at times of war, Muslim leaders, such as Abu Baker, advised their troops not to chop down trees and destroy agriculture or kill an animal.

Poverty Alleviation

There are a number of terms describing poverty and poor people in Islam. Faqir (poorest of the poor) and Miskin (whose legitimate needs exceed his means]) are the two basic classifications of poor in Islam. The Islamic way of poverty alleviation focuses on developing human resource and providing relevant job opportunity. The institutions identified for financial assistance to the poor are assistance (kifalah) by: the nearest kin; the neighbors under neighborhood rights; others in the form of mandatory charity like (Zakat), obligatory contribution; and through temporary and permanent endowments. Moreover, an Islamic State is bound to provide sustenance to its citizens irrespective of their religion. The State meets this responsibility by collection of Zakat, other emergent charities and raising taxes. The extent of such relief to the poor under Islam cannot be disputed. Zakât and Bait-ul-Mal (public treasury) are the two institutions, which, if used properly, can address the problem of poverty to a great extent. The institution of Bait-ul-Mal has tremendous potential for reaching the poor and helping them to escape poverty. Other systems like “Mudaraba” (partnership in labor and capital) and sharing profits “Musharaka” (partnership in capital and sharing profits) are Public Private Partnership tools used in Islam to alleviate poverty by providing income-generating activities for the poor in a partnership scheme.

Good Governance:

The Qur’anic term “fasad” includes destruction of both the environment as well as man’s own destruction. What Muslims understand by development is providing self-esteem, freedom and physical security to every individual with a certain minimum quota of food, clothing, shelter, education and health facilities. Representing the concept of Good Governance, God said in the Qura’n: “Do not do mischief on earth after it has been set in order”, (7:85). Corruption is a serious matter in Islam where it represents the mismanagement and destruction of the balanced system God created. The Prophet has requested Justice, as part of a good governance system, in several occasions: “If you rule people, rule in justice”.

Cultural and Ethnic Values:

The spiritual, racial, cultural and ethnic diversity of the human family should be recognized as being the will of the Almighty and as such, as something to be cherished rather than as a cause for hostility. God says in the Qura’n: “We created you peoples and tribes to meet, the best of you to God is the most devoted to God”. Devotion here means not only paying religious dues, but also responding to all teachings of Islam.

Environment Impact Assessment and Mitigation

The interests of the Islamic nation and the society as a whole take priority over the interests of individuals and various groups when they cannot be reconciled. Some juristic principles of Islamic law are: “Priority is given to preserving the universal interest over particular interests”, and “The general welfare takes priority over individual welfare”. From this basis is derived the principle that: “A private injury is accepted to avert a general injury to the public”. Similarly, sacrificing private interest for the purpose of achieving and protecting the common interest of the public is related to the juristic principles that “The lesser of two evils shall be chosen”. Severe damage shall be removed by means of lighter damage”. If one of two opposing detriments is unavoidable, the more injurious is averted by the commission of the less injurious”. Social goods or interests are to be assessed according to their importance and urgency. The above represent the basic principles of Environmental Impact Assessment and mitigation of adverse impacts by selecting the less harmful option if an action is unavoidable. In Islam, necessities (daruriyat) which are absolutely indispensable needs to preserve religion, life, reason, and property; and needs (hajiyat) which if unfulfilled will lead to real hardship and distress; and supplementary benefits (tahsiniyat) which involve the refinement of an option are more or less the same concepts of EIA.

Responsibilities toward Disabled and Poor (Unprivileged Communities)

Consideration is to be given to the abilities of various groups to secure their welfare. The governing authorities are obliged to protect and care for the disadvantaged and less influential groups in accordance with the juristic principles that: “The averting of harm from the poor takes priority over the averting of harm from the wealthy”.

Sustainable Development Institutions:

Among the prerequisites for effective conservation of the natural environment are appropriate institutional arrangements. A number of resource management institutions have been created in Islam including; Hisbah, Haram, Hema, Waqf, and Ihya.

(a) Land reclamation or revival (ihya'): Normally, in Islamic law, any person who brings life to un-owned land by undertaking its cultivation or reclamation or otherwise putting it to beneficial use acquires it as his private property. Only those actions that bring new life to the land confer ownership. Ihya' gives people a powerful incentive to invest in the sustainable use of the land to provide for their welfare and the welfare of their families and descendents.

(b) Reservs: Lands in which development would be injurious to the general welfare are not acquired through ihya'. The governing authorities have the right and obligation to prevent the development of vacant land wherever such development would result in environmental damage, or remove an indispensable resource from public access. This includes all lands which are set aside as reserves (hima) for the general good.

(c) Zoning and land use planning (haram): Involves protecting water resources and other utilities, communal pasturelands and woodlands pertaining to villages, and lands containing resources that are indispensable to the welfare of the community.

(d) Public Lands (Iqta’): The governing authorities have the right to make grants (iqta') of un-owned land for purposes of reclamation such as agriculture, horticulture, building, and other kinds of development, so as to channel such developments to suitable locations and away from unsuitable locations.

(e) Leased Lands (ijarah): The governing authorities have the right to institute the lease (ijarah) of state- owned lands or to grant their use or reclamation (iqta' manfa'at al-ard or iqta' al- istighlal) and to specify the kinds of improvements to be undertaken or the crops to be grown, and the management practices and techniques of fanning, building, and so forth, to be employed.

(f) Sustainable Development (Charitable) endowments (waqf): Islam encourages individual Muslims to participate in the conservation and sustainable development of natural resources through various gifts, inheritance, and loans. The most important institution of Islamic law in this regard is the charitable endowment (waqf), which constitutes the major avenue for private contribution to the public good. The waqf may take the form of a land trust dedicated in perpetuity to charitable purposes such as agricultural and range research, wildlife propagation and habitat development, a village woodlot, or a public cistern, well, or garden; or it may take the form of a fund or endowment for the financing of such projects. The governing authorities may set provisions and standards for such waqf lands and funds, and for the qualifications of their managers, so that the benevolent objectives of such projects may be effectively fulfilled.

The Mandate of the Governing Authorities:

The primary duty of the ruler and his assistants, whether they are administrative, municipal, or judicial authorities, is to secure the common welfare and to avert and eliminate injuries to the society as a whole. This includes protection and conservation of the environment and natural resources. Historically, many of the responsibilities of environmental protection and conservation have come under the jurisdiction of the office of the hisbah, a governmental agency that was charged specifically with the establishment of good and eradication of harms. The muhtasib, who headed this office, was required to be a jurist thoroughly familiar with the rulings of Islamic law that pertained to his position. He was responsible for the inspection of markets, roads, buildings, watercourses, reserves (hima) and so forth. Among his duties were supervision and enforcement of regulations and standards pertaining to safety, hygiene, and cleanliness; the removal and disposal of wastes and pollutants; the prevention and elimination of hazards and nuisances; the protection of reserves (hima) from violation and trespass; and the prevention of abuse and treatment of animals. He was responsible for assessing damages and imposing fines and other penalties. In addition, he had wide discretionary authority to take necessary measures to ensure the public welfare.

The Mandate of the Individual:

The protection, conservation, and development of the environment and natural resources is a mandatory religious duty to which every Muslim should be committed. This commitment emanates from the individual's responsibility before God to protect himself and his community. God has said, "Do good, even as God has done you good, and do not pursue corruption in the earth. God does not love corrupters”.

Social Responsibility

The ethical system that governs socio-economic policies in Islam is hinged around four main principles. They are: 1) Unity (Tawhid) in which individual actions must conform to an integrated whole; 2) Equilibrium (Al’adl wal ihsan) in which individuals have the freedom to act, but must do so with bearing the general well-being of the present and future generations; 3) Free will (Ikhtiyar) by which individual freedom is guided by a broader framework of duty to community or societ; and 4) Responsibility (Fardh) by which individuals and society have the responsibility to use and dispose of possessions and wealth in a responsible way. The above ensure that individuals and communities have a social responsibility towards others. To institutionalize the social responsibility, Islam has created zakat, sadaqa, and the inheritance system. The Baitul-mal (treasury), as a State institution would then redistribute the collection of zakat to two categories of poor, the fuqara (poor from Muslim communities) and masakin (poor from non-Muslim societies).


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