Earth, Responsibility, & Islam

By Kyle Ismail

​​“(Remember) when your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am going to place a successive (human) authority on earth.’ They asked (Allah), ‘Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while we glorify Your praises and proclaim Your holiness?’ Allah responded, ‘I know what you do not.’” [Qur’an 2:30]


In the primordial story of creation in the Qur’an, the angels question God about what it means for human beings to be on Earth. Will the presence of human beings inevitably lead to chaos? While it seems so on the face of it, God cautions the angels that He is creating a “khalifah” — a human steward on the Earth whose vicegerency is passed from one generation to another. It is a God-appointed role. And as such, there is an amaanah, a trust and responsibility to the earth. Unfortunately, instead of being responsible custodians, a history of extracting resources has become overtly prevalent. 

In “A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an” by Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Imam al-Ghazali points out how the earth was created, made inhabitable and provided with sustenance necessary for humankind. As custodians living off the earth’s goodness — food, water, clay and wood for shelter — it is an obligation to “control, harness, and manage the material resources of the world for the good of humanity.” He also highlights how often the Qur’an encourages reflection of the earth that humankind is living on and makes choices based on the belief in or rejection of God. 

A refocus on stewardship, of human beings being responsible custodians of our own environment, who pass this knowledge of reciprocal living on to the next generation, is needed. But a wholesale transition of human behavior must occur, encompassing both technology and self-perception. Just as capitalism and the abuse of resources was based on a context of secularizing God, and in turn, disregarding the natural environment as His creation, reversing this must be attended by repairing that notion. And shifting toward environmental stewardship will require nothing short of a spiritually driven awakening.

On his recent trip to the edge of space, actor William Shatner shared his awakening in the October 6th issue of Variety magazine: 

“…The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna…things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral.”

Shatner’s experience is what religion scholars call mysterium tremendum — a moment of the ineffable majesty and awe-inspiring dread of a greater reality, of God. A return to seeing this on a minute scale is desperately needed but the manufactured and manicured modern reality blocks us from the mundane beauty of creation Shatner beheld from space. The public’s lack of connection with the urgency of climate change is the product of this contrived existence. As Shatner found himself removed from human’s materiality and was confronted with God’s creation, he became acutely aware of the discomfited state of reality of the environment. 

“Just as capitalism and the abuse of resources was based on a context of secularizing God…reversing this must be attended by repairing that notion. And shifting toward environmental stewardship will require nothing short of a spiritually driven awakening.”


Core to Islam’s sacred law is the protection of what Andalusian scholar, Ash-Shaatibi, called the five necessities (Darurah) — the protection of Religion, Life, Intellect (the mind), Lineage (progeny) and Property. Previously articulated by the luminary al-Ghazali, Ash-Shaatibi’s five necessities should reframe our discourse on the environment because none of these sacred objectives can be achieved outside of the context of a sustainable environment (see Green Deen by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin). Failure to address climate change is a dereliction of religious duty. 

The Prophet said, “If a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for them.” [Bukhari]

Climate change is already impacting Muslim-majority countries and regions. From Turkey and the Middle East, to the Niger Delta and the increasingly intense droughts to the floodplains of Bangladesh and Indonesia, and most recently, Pakistan, Muslims are feeling the pain of climate change disproportionately. But many Muslim-majority countries have contributed to this by burning fossil fuels such as coal in massive amounts. Are they willing to change given their massive investment in fossil fuels? Oil production in Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia accounts for most of their global economic participation. What would divestment mean? Muslim leaders and scholars have occasionally signed on to important symbolic agreements, but Islam should serve as a reminder of the commitment to the environment with more than rhetorical gestures. 

Ninety-nine percent of us will never get to peer into the galaxy from the edge of our atmosphere. But we can see glimpses of the Creator’s majesty on a bike path or a beach. Our current failure to address climate change stems from the neglect of this connection. Governments shackled by political realities and limited imagination will always find ways to avoid making bold decisions to make a difference on climate change. However, as Muslims we are all endowed by God to be stewards of the environment. 

On an individual level, we can take the following actions:

  • Reduce the consumption of factory farmed meat, especially beef, or replace it with halal and organic options until the current structure of factory farmed meat is eliminated 
  • Use less water and plastics 
  • Bring reusable bags for shopping
  • Work with local municipalities in recycling efforts, as well as increase our recycling efforts at home and in our workplace
  • For homeowners who are able, install solar panels in our homes

On a community-based level, we should work together to: 

  • Install solar panels in our mosques — most states and municipalities have subsidies and incentives for switching to solar  
  • Advocate with state and local officials to ensure that transportation systems will adopt clean transportation, including creating and maintaining bike routes and adding clean buses to the fleet.
  • Implement water reduction strategies and build water saving infrastructures in our wudhu facilities
  • Educate religious and civic institutions on the urgency of climate change for ourselves and future generations. 

The past 200 years since the industrial revolution has seen the ascendance of human beings as takers and conquerors. In short order, we will achieve the chaos that was foreseen by the Angels in the creation narrative. We can only be comforted by God’s response — “I know what you do not.” 

Kyle J. Isma’il is a writer and community volunteer from Chicago, IL who spent a decade in executive leadership roles in Muslim community-based organizations. Currently Kyle is a senior manager for the Department of Energy.  

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