Wholistic Approaches: An Analysis of Islamic and Indigenous Environmental Ethics

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1. Introduction

While many in the past have discussed specific environmental concerns and proposed their fair share of solutions, one may note that many of the suggested solutions are individual fixes. Although the application of these solutions addresses relevant problems, it does not provide a comprehensive mindset that inculcates within society the individual’s role towards and within[1] nature; the kind of perspective that would permeate every facet of their lives and allow them to make responsible decisions which consider the surrounding ecosystem. Hence, I argue that it is necessary for a wholistic solution to environmental crises to consider a reconstruction of society’s anthropocentric capitalistic ethos to a more inclusive communitarian view through an analysis of multiple Indigenous and Islamic ethics, and an exploration of a different economic lens that upholds social gain over individual gain. Appropriating ethical concepts of widening our community to the larger ecosystem, and providing acknowledgement and gratitude towards nature will permit us to respect nature, thus being cognisant when utilizing natural resources.

2. The Twofold Conundrum of Individual Solutions: Potential Risks and a Lack of Structural Change

Mainstream environmentalists battle on specific fronts, and seek remedies for specific problems. The activist battling environmental injustice in a certain region proposes their solution e.g. enhanced and scrutinized supervision of industry factories and their wastes, regulations addressing health concerns for inhabitants nearby, etc., while the environmentalist countering animal agriculture suggests their fix e.g. lowering mass consumption of animal by-products, legal intervention in unethical treatment of animals, etc. In the case of an assumption of success in either scenario, they would merely be solutions for those specific types of environmental concerns. Furthermore, the individual who becomes aware of such an environmental concern would possibly alter some decisions and behavior to address that problem, while being completely unaware of another ecological issue thus making irresponsible choices in that facet. This is demonstrated in many areas of environmentalism; as a passing example, one may bring to recollection the protagonist in “Cowspiracy” where he holds meetings with multiple large environmental organizations that are unaware or reluctant to address the issue of industrial and animal agriculture (Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, 2016). Moreover, some technological solutions have possible detrimental implications. For example, some solutions to managing excess carbon in the atmosphere were suggested. Amidst them is carbon capture and storage, which is the idea of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it within the Earth’s layers in porous rock and sand beneath impermeable rock layers that would not allow the carbon to resurface. However, the energy and monetary costs required for carbon storage are significant (The New York Times, 2014). And as intuitive as CCS sounds, the risks of such a solution are unknown. Would the carbon remain underground in the case of a powerful earthquake? Are there other causes that could release it from its subterranean location? In the case of a mass release of carbon from beneath, how disastrous would the effects be? These are merely some questions posed to one of many suggested technologies. Hence, this solidifies the need for a wholistic solution that would not only solve being reactive to environmental crises, but also being proactive to them by adopting ideologies that prevent behaviours causing harm to the environment.

By the same token, employing technical fixes would not aid with the structural changes needed to uproot environmental issues. The inherent nature of capitalism is that it requires never-ending growth for its own survival. As Robbins, Hintz, and Moore state: “… accumulation is necessary to the continued expansion of the capitalist system. The more owners, earn, the more they can put back into production and the more surplus value they can appropriate.” (Robbins, et al., 2013, pp. 104). Such overaccumulation can only exist if there is increased production and industrialization. In turn, increased production leads to overuse of environmental resources. One may observe that the more a nation is successfully capitalist, the more exponentially their carbon emissions rise. Hence, it is unsurprising that developed countries in the Global North like Canada, the United States, and Britain mainly form the 20% that are responsible for 75-80% of historical emissions creating the climate crisis (Klein, 2010, pp. 57). Capitalism is the root cause for the overuse of natural resources creating environmental concerns on multiple fronts. Because the overuse of natural resources is inherently tied to capitalism, it would come to a stop when an alternative inclusive, unselfish, non-anthropocentric economic ethos is appropriated.

3. An Alternative: Structural Changes in Ethos and Ideology

In contrast, when some ethical viewpoints of the Indigenous peoples are analyzed, one can see that interaction and even consumption of nature is done with cognisance, gratefulness, and consideration (Kimmerer, 2013). Thus, an individual adopting such a moral worldview would find it difficult to misuse or overuse natural resources. Similar notions of gratefulness, minimalistic use of resources, consideration of animals and nature in general are inculcated in Islamic ethics. Moreover, both ethical viewpoints offer similar approaches in viewing oneself as a part of the ecosystem rather than different or superior to it.

3.1 A Focus on Communitarianism Vis-A-Vis Humans and The Ecosystem

Capitalism in its intrinsic nature is selfish; it survives by the growth of the self’s accumulation of wealth, leading to industrialism as one needs to industrialize the production of commodities to sell larger quantities. On the contrary, philosophies that prioritize the community promote collective growth, reducing the want for industrialism. Thus, considering humans as one’s own community leads one away from harming nature. A step beyond that is including nature and the entire ecosystem as one’s own community, which is an ethic found in both Indigenous and Islamic ethics.

3.1.1 Community and Interdependence in Indigenous Peoples

The ethical notion of communitarianism is deeply engrained in the Mohawk people. Albeit the Mohawk were composed of different clans, they were unified even in times of difficulty. Upon the death of a clan member, other clans would arrange the funeral ceremony and would take over the duties of the impacted clan provisionally, supporting them through the bereavement (Bonvillain, 1992, pp. 24).  This community-oriented mindset was noted by Europeans. Father Simon Le Moyne in the mid-1650s stated: “No hospitals are needed among them, because there are neither mendicants nor paupers as long as there are any rich people among them… A whole village must be without corn before any individual can be obliged to endure privation” (ibid., pp. 46). Amongst Indigenous peoples, the idea of community extended not merely to other clans and peoples, rather to nature and the ecosystem itself, as can be observed in the Skywoman’s story. When she fell from the sky, the geese flew beneath her to break her fall until she reached the water. The geese could not hold her above the water for long, thus the animals formed a council, and a great turtle offered its back to rest her upon. They soon realized that she would need land to live on, hence the loon, otter, and others endeavoured to dive beneath the water to find land. They worked tirelessly until the muskrat sacrificed its life, drowning in the endeavour but resurfacing with a handful of mud. Thereafter, Skywoman spread the mud on the shell of the turtle and danced thereupon as a thanking gesture towards the animals. The land grew wider and wider as she danced, and thus the Earth was made. “Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude.” (Kimmerer, 2013). This folklore portrays the unity of animals, humans, and nature as it narrates the story of the Earth’s genesis by a concerted effort of all three.

3.1.2 Communitarianism and Economics in Islam: A Response to Capitalism

Communitarianism is an overarching ethic is Islamic tradition. Thus, one is encouraged to always consider others. In an authentic report with an unbroken chain of narrators[2], Muḥammad stated: “A believer is to another believer like an edifice; parts of it solidify other parts.” (Al-Bukhārī, 1997, Ḥadīth 2446). Furthermore, communitarianism is a central ethic in Islamic law (fiqh) in general, but in Islamic financial law especially. “The Islamic economic philosophy underlying Islamic banking and finance prioritises social welfare above individual gains… On this basis, individual satisfaction stems not only from the utilisation of resources for his/her own benefits but also from transferring the resources to others.” (Ibrahim, et. al, 2018). This is evident for anyone acquainted with the Islamic legal corpus and legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh). Excessive price markups by businesses are prevented by the law against “ghaban fāḥish”, which is excessive profiteering when the item is being sold at an exorbitant price above its cost price (Al-Qudūrī, 2010). Exploitation through risk-free profits is eliminated via legal maxims (qawāʿid fiqhiyyah) such as “al-ghunm bi’l-ghurm”, a legal principle that states that profit-earning is legal only by risk-sharing (Al-Marghīnānī, 2006). Even in marketing, “the Islamic approach emphasizes value-maximization in view of the greater good of the society rather than selfish pursuit of profit maximization” (Saeed, et al., 2001). Marketing ethics are based on empathy towards the Creator’s creations which implies refraining from harming others, thus preventing unethical practices (Niazi, 1996). Hence, a portion of Islamic finance promotes a gift economy through the Qurʾānic doctrines of cooperation (ta‘āwun), partnership (mushārakah), generosity (karam), and communal fraternity (ukhuwwah).

In culmination, one of the biggest structures of exploitation of the poor in capitalism is eliminated by the prohibition of interest-bearing transactions. The nature of interest is to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. As the needy borrows and the rich lends, interest ensures that the needy pays even more for borrowing, becoming poorer, and the rich receives more, becoming richer. Hence in Islamic law, any loan granted with the slightest profit in return is one of the weightiest crimes; one indulging in such a transaction has declared war upon the Creator (Qurʾān 2:279). Rather, encouragement is given towards forgiving loans (Aḥmad, 2001, Ḥadīth 8711). Thus, money cannot generate money in Islamic economics. It is unsurprising therefore that the role of the bank is not to accumulate profits, nor to multiply wealthy clients’ savings. Rather, it is to support entrepreneurship and local development (TEDxTalks, 2014). Its ethical practices make Islamic finance more resilient to economic crises than capitalism (AIMS Education, UK, 2020; University of South Australia, 2013). Alternating from the current exploitative economic structure to an ethical considerate economy would promote wholistic changes in society, leading to the removal of overexploitation of nature.

3.2 The Interconnection of Acknowledgement, Gratitude, and Respect of Nature

In Islam, gratitude is a vital aspect as it is profoundly connected with a sense of respect and one’s cognisance of their place in the universe. Expressing gratitude is necessary both towards the Creator and the creation. Muḥammad says: “He who is not grateful to others is ungrateful to God” (Abū Dāwūd, 2008, Ḥadīth 4811). In the introductory verses of the Qurʾān, gratitude towards the Creator is the primary theme (Qurʾān 1:1-7). Furthermore, throughout the day, one is to acknowledge their usage of natural resources, be grateful for them, and use them in moderate quantities. Acknowledgement, gratitude, and moderate use are interrelated as one preserves that which they value and are grateful for, and gratitude only occurs when acknowledgement exists. Thus, moderation in the use of natural resources is a core tenet in Islamic law; wasting is sacrilegious. “Eat, drink, and do not be wasteful” (Qurʾān 7:31) is stated as legislation by the Creator. Interpreting this passage, the classical legal-hermeneutic scholar al-Qurṭubī (d. 1273) states “A form of wastage is that one consumes after their fill” (Al-Qurṭubī, 2019, 4:141). Alpay, Özdemir, and Demirbas interpret the “eating and drinking” in this verse as all the resources required for the continuation of our lives, not merely food and drink (Alpay, et. al., 2013). Such moderation is also to be observed in water usage. In a historic report, Muḥammad passed by Saʿd while the latter was washing his limbs prior to worship.[3] Seeing his use of water, he remarked: “What is this wastage, Saʿd?” Saʿd asked “Is it wastage [if used] in ritual washing?” He replied in the affirmative, adding; “Even if you are taking from a flowing river” (Aḥmad, 2001, Ḥadīth 7065). Hence, in Islamic ethics, consuming from nature more than one needs is seen as a form of disrespect towards nature and its Creator.

 Likewise, gratitude is an essential ethical notion embedded in Mohawk cultural practices. This is displayed in the Thanksgiving Address, a speech addressed to others at gatherings as a spiritual way of displaying gratitude to all parts of the natural world by recognizing the important status of each part. Every section of it that addresses a part of nature is opened with teyethinonherá:tons or tetsitewanonhwerá:tons meaning “we send him/them our greetings and thanks”. It addresses the waters, plants, vegetables, animals, fish, celestial bodies, the people, and the Creator. The verbiage of the address is eloquent and filled with humility; addressing the fish, it states: “We turn our thoughts to all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food.” The last sentence depicts that the fish are acknowledged, their consumption is recognized, and gratitude is expressed towards them. This is a much humbler ethos and viewpoint than the anthropocentric behavior exhibited in consumption found in mainstream Western society. This humility allows the individual and society to be cognisant when consuming from nature.

The practice of expressing gratitude in both beliefs instills a sense of humility and respect. This allows one to understand that their place in the world is among the creation, coexisting interdependently with the natural world and their fellow inhabitants.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, our society and infrastructure would benefit from reconstructing the current mainstream anthropocentric capitalistic worldview. Adopting alternative ethical notions from Islamic moral philosophy and Indigenous ethics would aid us to more wholistic approaches to environmentalism inasmuch as it is a proactive solution to change societal behaviour, rather addressing environmental disasters post facto reactively, making it more efficient. As much as technical fixes are relevant, a concerted effort utilizing technical solutions merged with a more inclusive egalitarian ethos between humans and nature would generate structural, thus long-lasting solutions.

Works Cited

Abū Dāwūd. 2008 Sunan Abu Dawud. (N. Al-Khattab, Trans.). Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers and Distributors.

AIMS Education, UK. (2020). Financial Crisis and Islamic Finance – Reasons of Resilience | Aims (Uk). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dNAgmWObNI.

Al-Bukhārī. 1997. Sahih al-Bukhari. (M.M. Khan, Trans.). Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers and Distributors.

Alpay, S., Özdemir, I., & Demirbas, D. (2013). Environment and islam. Journal of Economic Cooperation & Development, 34(4), 1-22. http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fenvironment-islam%2Fdocview%2F1518511203%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D14771

Al-Qudūrī. 2010. The Mukhtaṣar of al-Qudūrī. (T.M. Kiani, Trans.). London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd.

Al-Marghīnānī. Al-Hidāyah: The Guidance. (I.A.K. Nyazee, Trans.). Bristol: Amal Press.

Al-Qurṭubī. 2019. Al-Jāmiʿ li aḥkām al-Qurʾān. Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Misriyyah.

Auliawati, N., Prabarayi, L., Damroni, R., & Handajani, J. (2019). Effect of salat (prayer) activity on salivary status and cortisol level. Majalah Kedokteran Gigi Indonesia5(2), 51–54. https://doi.org/10.22146/majkedgiind.36959

Bonvillain, N. (1992). The Mohawk. New York: Chelsea House.

COWSPIRACY. 2016. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. [online] Available at: http://www.cowspiracy.com/ [Accessed 21 March 2021].

Holy Qur’an. 2001. (A.Y. Ali, Trans. & T. Griffith, Ed.). Woodsworth.

Ibrahim, M., & Alam, N. (2018). Islamic economics and Islamic finance in the world economy. World Economy41(3), 668–673. https://doi.org/10.1111/twec.12506

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass. First edition. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions.

Klein, N. (2010, February). Paying Our Climate Debt. David Lewis Memorial Lecture. Delivered at David Lewis Memorial Lecture, Toronto, Canada.

Mohammad Saeed, Zafar U. Ahmed, & Syeda-Masooda Mukhtar. (2001). International Marketing Ethics from an Islamic Perspective: A Value-Maximization Approach. Journal of Business Ethics32(2), 127–142. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1010718817155

Niazi, L. (1991). Islamic law of contract. Research Cell, Dyal Sing Trust Library.

Robbins, P., Hintz, J., & Moore, S. A. (2014). Environment and society: A critical introduction. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.

TEDxTalks. (2014, July 31). The Islamic perspective of banking | Wojciech Gajewski | TEDxWroclaw. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPeIesugF14.

The New York Times. (2014, July 23). Carbon Capture Explained | How It Happens [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/kigGiWQw8E8/ Accessed 21 March 2021].

University of South Australia. (2013). The rise of Islamic finance – Knowledge Works. YouTube. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_cVuLpD_rs.

[1] One may consider that while the first i.e. the human’s role towards nature (the responsibilities one bears towards the environment while still not viewing oneself as part of it), is very well understood and discussed, the latter i.e. the humans role as a mere part of the larger ecosystem, is less acknowledged. Thus, the notion of “wilderness” was born, perceiving nature either as the “frontier” or the “sublime”. See Cronon, W. (1995). The trouble with wilderness: or, Getting back to the wrong nature. New York: Norton.

[2] This refers to the isnad system for the verification of historic reports. Using the isnad system, one narrates a report mentioning its direct source (whom they heard or transmit from), so forth mentioning each narrator until the earliest narrator to the original source. Each narrator is thereafter evaluated biographically for reliability. For example, when quoting Einstein orally, the authenticity of such a quote using the isnad system would be evaluated by its chain of narrators to the earliest direct source who transmitted it from Einstein, while evaluating each narrator in the chain. This is a genial method that was developed by Muslim historians and traditionists to preserve their tradition. This marks a significant difference in epistemic weight between Islamic sources and other Judaeo-Christian sources. On the epistemic rigour of historical reports using the isnad system in Islamic intellectual tradition especially in the ḥadīth genre, see Siddiqi, M. (1961). Hadith literature: its origin, development, special features and criticism. Calcutta University, and Aʻẓamī, M. (1978). Studies in early Hadīth literature: with a critical edition of some early texts (2nd ed.). American Trust Publication. On the stringency in the ethics of reporting or even resharing tweets in Islam, see Abiya Ahmed. (2018). “Fake News” and “Retweets”: News Reporting and Dissemination Ethics in the Qur’ān. Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, 3(2), 61–84. https://doi.org/10.2979/jims.3.2.05.

[3] In Islamic theology, one is required to wash limbs that are commonly used such as the hands, feet, and face prior to worship, a practice known as wuḍū. For the medical benefits of this practice, see Auliawati, N., Prabarayi, L., Damroni, R., & Handajani, J. (2019). Effect of salat (prayer) activity on salivary status and cortisol level. Majalah Kedokteran Gigi Indonesia5(2), 51–54.

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