Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Revitalizing Islamic Ecological Ethics Through Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_540


For a growing number of environmental thinkers, the social and ecological malaise afflicting people and the planet remains among the defining challenges of the twenty-first century and presents a spiritual and moral, rather than a technological, conundrum (Tucker and Grim 2001; Gottlieb 2003). Religious traditions, for many the world over, still offers “the primary form of cultural conversation outside the modern story of economic growth and technological fixes” (Oelschlager 1996, p. 47) and represent a way of imagining (and living) an ecological future.

Religious traditions present a range of worldviews, metaphors, rituals, knowledge conceptions, educational approaches, and a lived spirituality – of relevance to the environment. By way of its demand for radical transformation, religion could also “become a powerful alternative to modernizing and a powerful help for ecologizing, provided that a connection can be established (or rather re-established) between religion and Creation” (Latour 2009, p. 464). Engagement with the environmental narratives of religion – or its ecotheology, produces both ethical and educational visions which respond to the ecological question.

The theocentric ecoethics of Islam presents an environmental imaginary based on the sovereignty of the Creator, the responsible trusteeship of humankind and the intrinsic value of creation. Drawing upon these ecoethics, Muslims across the world are actively voicing their concern for the environment and harnessing the educational landscape of Islam as one of the primary conduits for environmental action.

Ecological Ethics in Islam

Muslim scholars and practitioners, while approaching the environmental question from different angles, refer to the relationship between humans and the environment as an ethical one (Nasr 1996; Ouis 2003; Özdemir 2008; Llwellyn 2003). The Islamic view on nature is neither ecocentric nor anthropocentric, but is essentially theocentric (God-centered) and is drawn from “dissected parts of Islamic theology, law and ethics, in outline form” (Izzi Dien 2000, p. 81).

Concern for the environment is deeply rooted in all fields of Islamic teaching and culture (Foltz 2005). Theological concepts, such as tawḥīd (unity), khilāfah (trusteeship), and ‘adl (justice), have been drawn upon to illustrate the Islamic ecotheology. Islamic ecoethics generally involves the extension of these broad principles regarding the nature, meaning, and value of the world and its creatures to the human-environment relationship (Izzi Dien 2000; Khalid 2002; Ouis 2003). The ecoethical principles discussed below foreground the fundamental aspects of the environmental narrative of Islam.

Tawḥīd is often put forward as the key principle underlying the ecoethic of Islam (Khalid 2002). According to Manzoor (1984), this principle is the sine qua non of the Islamic faith and asserts that God is the absolute source of all values and also the Owner and Originator of the universe. All discussions of ethical conduct in Islam proceed from this concept since an understanding of the principle of unity impresses upon the hearts of Muslims “what moral conduct or normal behaviour should consist of” (Irving 1979, p. 2) and affirms the interconnectedness of the natural order, the creation of One God. Indeed, it is the principle which gives the religion of Islam its distinctive morphology and makes the ecoethic of Islam wholeheartedly theocentric. This principle, which centers upon the Oneness of the Creator, spells out clearly that the Owner, Creator, and Sustainer of the entire universe is Allah. This principle has profound implications for the relationship between humans and nature since it “liberates the human mind from the false sense of autonomy or dominion over the Earth’s natural resources” (Goolam 2003, p. 266).

Humans have been appointed as trustees on Earth, holding it in usufruct, answerable for the just and responsible discharge of this trusteeship in accordance with Divine Laws. Trusteeship or khilāfah is further shaped by the belief that humans, in their servanthood, are accountable for everything in their care. True khilāfah is thus not about dominion, mastery, or control over any part of creation, but is centered on responsible trusteeship, cherishing and carrying out the capabilities entrusted to human beings with humility and obedience to the laws of the Creator as expressed in His Books and in creation. This principle, as discussed by Muslim environmental scholars, portrays men and women as trustees or stewards, who are provided with bounties that should be enjoyed within limits (al-Hamid 1997; Izzi Dien 2000; Özdemir 2003). Khilāfah is located within the framework of Divine Sovereignty, encapsulated in tawḥīd and requires humanity to care gratefully for the environment that belongs to Allah and serves His Will (Timm 1990).

Creation (khalq), a term used to refer to the natural world here, is a reflection of divinely arranged structure and order. The value of the natural world in Islam can be condensed into three primary functions: Firstly, all of creation has intrinsic value and is regarded as signs or āyāt of Allah, worshipping and glorifying Him, even though humankind cannot perceive this. Secondly, nature has an ecological value as an integral part of the whole ecosystem, created in measure and balance (mīzān) by Allah. And finally, nature has an instrumental value to humans who hold it in usufruct. The Qur’an states that the natural world has been “subjected” (taskhīr) or “constrained” by Allah for human use, but this does not entail domination, exploitation, or control of nature, but rather use of the Earth’s natural resources within the ethical mandates of Islam. Lubis (1998) considers these three functions in a hierarchical fashion with the intrinsic value of nature, as āyāt of Allah, as the raison d’être for its protection and conservation. The view that nature possesses value solely for human use has also been challenged by both traditional and contemporary scholars, and the primary reason for conservation of the natural world is often put forward as the sanctity of creation (Bagader et al. 1994; Izzi Dien 2000; Özdemir 2003).

Fasād features prominently in the ecoIslamic discourse. Translated as destruction, corruption, or mischief, fasād is said to apply to the realm of the environment as it does to any other part of life. It is the result of transgressing the limits as ordained by God – including those limits in the natural world so cogently captured in recent scientific thinking on planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009). Fasād results from humanity’s “unwary interference with the natural laws and environmental systems” and “[e]nvironmental pollution, which is tantamount to the disruption of natural balance, is the main form of corruption on the earth” (Ghoneim 2000). This interpretation, of fasād as environmental pollution and destruction, is prevalent among many Qur’anic commentators. The environmental crisis is thus framed primarily as a failure of human trusteeship, where nature becomes the index of how well a particular society has performed (Ouis 2003; Setia 2007).

Corruption prevails in the land and the sea because of all the evil that the hands of humanity have earned―so that He may cause them to taste something of that which they have done―so that they may return in penitence to God. (The Byzantines 30, p. 41)

Humankind is called, in the above verse, to desist from polluting and destroying the earth. They are encouraged, in the same chapter, to turn back from evil toward their “innate” goodness, or fiṭrah, the primordial nature of humankind. Fiṭrah, the concept of original goodness and belief in One God, incorporates not only “passive receptivity to good and right action, but an active inclination and natural innate predisposition to know Allah, to submit to Him and to do right” (Mohamed 1996, p. 21).

So set thou thy face steadily and truly to the Faith: (establish) God’s handiwork according to the pattern [fiṭrah] on which He has made mankind: no change (let there be) in the work (wrought) by God: that is the standard religion: but most among mankind understand not. (The Byzantines 30, p. 30)

When living in her original state of fiṭrah, a human being becomes the perfect khalīfah, believing in and submitting to her Creator and His Laws (Mohamed 1996). What implications does fiṭrah have for environmental concern? Fiṭrah is considered to be the natural state of humankind which is one of being in harmony with nature. Muslim ecotheologians argue that what is required is a “return” to this natural way of living – embodied in the teachings of Islam. The notion of fiṭrah is therefore in sync with the call by environmentalists to live with an understanding of the interconnectedness of everything in nature (Ouis 2003) – in accordance with their deepest human nature which is beautiful, harmonious, and right (Khalid 2002; Chishti 2003).

Boasting an extensive and growing educational establishment, both traditional and modern institutions, are playing a vital role in the educational life of Muslims the world over, including education about and for the environment. Environmental education, which assists in the actualization of the ethical mandate of khilāfah, is now regarded as a central component of Islamic education since it equips Muslims with the knowledge required to fulfill a religious obligation, environmental care (Al-Naki 2004; Haddad 2006; Abu-Hola 2009).

Ecoethics and Pedagogy in Islam

Among the definitive purposes of the educational process in Islam is to facilitate the trusteeship of humankind, who are charged with living in accordance with Divine Laws and securing the common good, justice, and welfare of creation, maṣāliḥ al-khalq. Knowledge, which will assist humankind in exercising this vicegerency, reflecting the highest ethical values, is therefore required. These ethical horizons incorporate both the human and nonhuman worlds.

The acquisition of knowledge, regarded as an obligation and an act of worship which garners reward, must also manifest itself in action (‘amālalihāt). Wan Daud (1989, p. 74) defines ‘amālalihāt as “all those actions that emerge out of and in conformity to, the Islamic worldview” and include “ritual obligations and other religious duties as well as efforts of personal or social significance,” including environmental care and action. This action-oriented epistemology and life-affirming spirituality of Islam necessitates the importance of being in history, concerned with securing the well-being of all creation (Kazmi 2000; Ramadan 2009).

Muslim educationists face the task of developing reflective and critical engagement with all knowledge (ta‘līm); nurturing mindful individuals who undertake responsible action (tarbiyyah); and inculcating the spirit of social activism (ta’dīb) which epitomizes the action-oriented flavor of Islamic pedagogy. Several writers have identified these three terms as central to the educational process in Islam (Cook 1999; Hussain 2004; Waghid 2010). In the discussion below, these terms are conceptualized in relation to environmental education.

Ta‘līm is derived from the Arabic word ‘ilm and encompasses several meanings including knowledge, learning, and intellection. As described in the Qur’an, ‘ilm delineates a broad spectrum of knowledge, revealed and non-revealed. The Qur’an also uses a variety of terms to denote the various methods of knowing such as “listening (in the sense of understanding), observing, contemplating, reasoning, considering, reflecting” (Guessoum 2009, p. 64). Islamic thinker, Al-Farābi (d. 950), suggests that ta‘līm incorporates student-centered learning and is an interactive process that involves both the teacher and the student, in which the teacher facilitates the student’s journey toward knowing, comprehension, and conceptualization (Günther 2006).

Ta‘līm is thus conceptualized as “deliberative and reflective engagement” and entails socializing the learner into an inherited body of knowledge, revealed and non-revealed (Waghid 2010). However, it also requires, of necessity, the cultivation of critical thinking, independence, and courage as demonstrated in the prophetic pedagogy. The implications of ta‘līm in constructing the ecological narrative of Islam thus requires that Muslims reflect and deliberate upon the inherited body of knowledge, the ecoethical principles in the Qur’an and Sunnah, the legal instruments and institutions oriented toward environmental care, and critically engage with ecological knowledge in constructing an ecoethic which responds to social and ecological injustices.

The second concept, tarbiyyah, is derived from the Arabic root rabā which means to make or let grow, to raise or rear up, or to educate and teach a child. The derivative term tarbiyyah is said to refer to pedagogy, instruction, and education. Tarbiyyah, in the educational sense, is frequently used in reference to “nurturing and caring for children” and teaching them not about Islam, but what it means to be Muslim – the beliefs, values, principles, rights, and responsibilities and attitudes which a Muslim should uphold (Tauhidi 2001). The importance of tarbiyyah, seen as the social and moral development of the Muslim personality, is echoed by Hussain (2007, p. 300) who regards the “quintessential goal of moral education the awakening and proper situating of the inner being within a person.” Waghid (2008) also assigns to tarbiyyah the meaning of responsible action. As it relates to the ecological knowledge of Islam, tarbiyyah thus extends the process of engaging with the ecoethic of Islam (ta‘līm) toward actualization of this ecoethic in practice.

The concept of ta’dib, as elaborated by Al-Attas (1979), denotes the final and critical aspect of Islamic education – social activism, the vital link between knowledge (‘ilm) and good actions (‘amāl ṣalihāt). This concept entrenches the transformative objectives of Islamic education. Ta’dīb is drawn from the concept of adab, meaning “a custom or norm of conduct passed through generations” (Douglass and Shaikh 2004, p. 14). It also refers to the recognition and acknowledgement of the right and proper place of all things and beings – manifest in the condition of justice (Al-Attas 1979). Ta’dib, according to Al-Attas, entails not only having the knowledge of the right and proper place of all beings in the universe, its fiṭrah and mīzān, but to strive to be in harmony with the entire cosmos – to not only live in a state of justice but to be active and willing participants in achieving this state. Waghid (2010, p. 246) argues that ta’dīb, as social activism or good action, has “emancipatory interests in mind, which can be made possible through a just striving which takes into account [and assures] the rights of others,” human and nonhuman.

These concepts constitute the basic tenets of introducing the ecoethics of Islam in the educational process: reflective engagement with all ecological knowledge (ta‘līm), the Words and Works of the Creator; cultivating the qualities required to undertake responsible environmental action (tarbiyyah); and effecting meaningful and positive change (ta’dīb) for the environment in one’s self and in society.

The growing ecoIslamic movement is slowly moving toward reflecting the liberating ecotheology of Islam which affirms that environmental care is a religious obligation, an act of spiritual obedience, and requires action to right environmental aberrations. It is beginning to evince the holistic epistemology which requires critical engagement with all existing knowledge, revealed and non-revealed, to understand and formulate a response to the ecological question of our time. And while it displays greater success in highlighting the need for responsible environmental action (tarbiyyah), it needs to improve both the knowledge acquisition (talīm) and social activism (ta’dīb) components of the environmental learning process (Mohamed 2012) in Islam.


As the world faces mounting environmental challenges, developing a response which directs humankind toward just and responsible action is imperative. Islam plays a pivotal role in shaping the worldview of more than one billion people in the world today. Its environmental narrative presents not only an understanding of the natural world – an ethic which promotes just, respectful, and responsible interaction between humans and nature – but an educational philosophy which could propel Muslims to harness the transformative force of their faith to right the environmental aberrations in society.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Stellenbosch UniversityStellenboschSouth Africa