Tarik M. Quadir. Traditional Islamic Environmentalism: The Vision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Lanham: University of America Press, 2013.
Is it God’s fault that we are destroying the earth? In a famous lecture from 1966 Lynn Townsend White, Jr. argued that once God told Adam to “dominate the earth” in Genesis, “no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” The result was catastrophic for the environment, because “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” A flood of objections to White’s position appeared almost immediately, among them one from the Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1933- ), who today teaches philosophy at George Washington University. Nasr argued that it was not Christianity that was hell-bent on destroying the earth, but Western modernity. “Neither Christian Armenia nor Ethiopia nor even Christian Eastern Europe gave rise to the science and technology which in the hands of secular man has led to the devastation of the globe,” he wrote. The idea that humans should dominate the earth, rather than being “the custodian and guardian of nature,” Nasr argues, emerged when the Industrial Revolution began treating nature like an object rather than appreciating it as part of God’s unified creation.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is well-known as an environmental theologian and a historian of science. “The ecological crisis is only an externalization of an inner malaise,” Nasr maintains, “and cannot be solved without spiritual rebirth of Western man.” Nasr published his arguments in favor of an Islamic eco-theology in The Encounter of Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (1968) and Religion and the Order of Nature (1996), but for the first time, Tarik M. Quadir shows us how Nasr’s ideas flow out of his broader understandings of philosophy, cosmology, and the environment. Traditional Islamic Environmentalism (2013) is Quadir’s doctoral thesis, and it reads like one. Once one comes to terms with the heavy footnoting and dry academic prose, the book is valuable because it lays out clearly and systematically presuppositions that are obscured in Nasr’s own writings. The result is a much less poetic and romanticized theology, and one which, to my mind, is disappointingly simplistic.
Nasr adheres to the school of perennial philosophy, which maintains that all “authentic” religions believe in “1) the unity of the Supreme Principle, 2) the hierarchic structure of reality, and 3) the ultimate meaningfulness or purposefulness of all things in the universe.” The first of these ideas resonates with the notion of Tawhid in Islamic thought – the idea that God is One. Nasr is also a Sufi, and several important metaphysical principles flow out of the Sufi interpretation of Tawhid. To begin with, the same word – aya – refers both to the verses of the Quran and to nature itself, meaning that nature is part of God’s self-disclosure, or theophany. The poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273) explained:
Consider the creatures as pure and limpid
water, within which shine the Attributes of the Almighty.
Their knowledge, their justice, their kindness –
All are stars of heaven reflected in flowing water.
All thou beholdest is the act of the One.
In solitude, but closely veiled is He.
Let him but lift the screen, no doubt remains:
The forms are vanished, He alone is all.
God fills all of nature, and as the Quran says, “wherever you turn there is God’s countenance” (2:115). Humans are part of the cosmos as a whole. Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) wrote that “the whole cosmos is the differentiation of Adam, while Adam is the all-comprehensive book. In relation to the cosmos he is like the spirit in relation to the body … through bringing together all of this the cosmos is the “great human being,” so long as the human being is within it.” According to Nasr, this “traditional” view of Islam sees humans as an inseparable part of nature, and “because of the intimate connection between man and nature, the inner state of man is reflected in the external order.” As Western European society became increasingly secularized, it abandoned the “traditional” man-nature unity Nasr values and humans began to dominate nature without thinking about the consequences.
As Western Europe expanded to dominate the rest of the globe politically, economically, and culturally, Islamic societies also fell under the influence of Western rationalism. Islamic reformers as different as the Salafi Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) and the Wahhabi prophet Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab ( -1792) all praised modern science and argued that it was perfectly compatible with Islam. Both Salafis and Wahhabis also marginalized Sufism and the role of mysticism in epistemology. Nasr writes that “one of the effects of modernism upon Islam has been to reduce Islam in the minds of many to only one of its dimensions, namely the Shari’a, and to divest it of those intellectual weapons which alone can ward off the assaults of modern thought upon its citadel … the intellectual challenges posed by modernism in the form of evolutionism, rationalism, existentialism, agonosticism, and the like can only be answered intellectually and not juridically.” Modern science denies the reality of Tawhid because it emphasizes that the whole can always be divided into many parts – every body has microorganisms, every molecule atoms, and every atom sub-atomic particles. This is the very definition of Takhir, or in Nasr’s words, a “plunge in sheer multiplicity.” The universe of science no longer points to God’s unity because nothing points beyond itself and nothing is anything but the sum of its parts. This way of looking at the world is compounded by our use of technology, which Nasr says “itself imposes upon man a type of worldview. It changes man to a machine in many ways.” Only a return to “traditional” ways of knowing that emphasize things as copies of universal (Aristotelean) forms and that embraces “traditional” artisan crafts can hope to save the earth.
An environmental theology, according to Nasr, can only be based on an Islamic approach to science, meaning “an authentic metaphysical knowledge, embracing knowledge of the Divine Principle and all Its levels of manifestations, as the framework for both science and religion, understood in the ordinary sense of the term, so that the two would share common principles.” These principles must “be drawn from the haqiqah, which lies at the heart of the Noble Qur’an and hadith as expounded and formulated by the traditional commentators, as well as Islamic metaphysics, cosmology, the doctrinal and intellectual aspects of Sufism, and the Islamic sciences, themselves.” What this might look like can be seen in Mulla Sadra’s (1571-1640) notion of “substantial motion,” which involves things changing “from potentiality to actuality” and thus moving toward perfection over time. Quadir writes, “since the being (wujud) of an entity is particularized as such by the Being of God, ultimately, it is the Being of God which is the principle of all change.” Only thus can we explain the evolution of living organisms or creation ex nihilo.
What has Seyyed Hossein Nasr achieved with this vision of Islamic science as a solution to the current environmental crisis? Not much. To begin with, this is an argument only likely to persuade Muslims. As Nasr admits, “for a humanity turned towards outwardness by the very process of modernization, it is not easy to see that the blight wrought upon the environment is in reality an externalization of the destitution of the inner state of the soul of that humanity whose actions are responsible for the ecological crisis.” The very best Nasr can hope for is, in Quadir’s words, “to confront the environmental crisis by rendering contemporary Muslims free from scientism, and by making them more mindful of their religious purpose and of the spiritual significance of nature in fulfilling that purpose.” Nasr’s only practical suggestions are to return to medieval artisan crafts and production techniques, which is something that even he has not embraced in his day-to-day life. Unlike when he first began writing in the 1960s, today the situation is so dire that simply rethinking our approach to technology is unlikely to produce the radical change we need. Perhaps crisis and the collapse of entire empires is ultimately the only thing that will make people take seriously the sort of religious science Nasr suggests. As the Quran says, “corruption has appeared on the land and in the sea as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought: and so He will let them taste some of their doings, so that they might return [to the path of God].” (30:41).