CBC Ideas: Is Islam the 'green' religion?

Digging beneath the headlines, scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr makes the case for Islam's environmental credentials on CBC Ideas.

Scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr makes the case for Islam's environmental credentials

Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr says there is a case to be made for Islam as the greenest of the world's main religions. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters)

Recent headlines from the mainstream media around the world highlight how the words "Muslim" and "Islam" are often mentioned in the context of terrorism.

But according to a world-renowned scholar, there's another word that should be associated with Islam — environmentalism.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, believes Islam is more disposed toward environmental stewardship than other faiths, and should probably be regarded as the "green" religion.

At the same time, he allows that Islamic governments have often put economic progress ahead of the environment, and many Islamic societies expect the West to find some technological solution to the woes of the planet.

Still, as Nasr told CBC Radio One's IDEAS, "Christianity in the West has had a tremendous problem: how to come to terms with the environment at a time when its most devout followers have not shown much interest in the environment."

As he points out, "If you take all the verses of the New Testament, there is no reference to nature."

Born in Iran, Nasr holds undergraduate degrees in math and physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master's degree in geology and a PhD in the history of science from Harvard.

As for the greening of Islam, he says "the Qur'an addresses not only human beings, but also the cosmos. It is much easier to be able to develop an environmental philosophy.

"Birds are called communities in the Qur'an ... it is so easy to develop an authentic Islamic philosophy of the environment."

Nasr's interest in science, religion and the environment spans five decades. He's published dozens of books including Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man.

In it, he compares how Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, particularly its Sufi expression, see humankind's relationship with the environment.

"As long as men lived according to religion there was no environmental crisis," says Nasr.

"St. Francis of Assisi wrote, 'Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.'"

But Christianity's sensitivity to the natural world changed in the 1600s, he argues, with the trials of Galileo (for suggesting the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than the other way around as the Bible had it)

As a result, Catholic and Protestant Christian theologians became less interested in thinking about the cosmos and the world of nature.

And the ensuing scientific revolution in Europe "left nature in the hands of two forces: modern science where the meaning of nature is totally irrelevant and, of course, greed."

For its part, "Islam was never secularized as Christianity was," says Nasr. "Muslims did not lose faith in the same way that happened in the Christian West.

"You had a very different dynamic in the phenomenon in what has to do with nature."

Nasr's views have been both celebrated — and censored.

A Saudi man walks past a field of solar panels at the King Abdulaziz sciences and technology research station. Saudi Arabia is also, of course, one of the world's top oil producers and greenhouse gas emitters. (Reuters)

He acknowledges that there's a considerable rift between his understanding of the Islamic faith and what's actually practised in Islamic nations.

"In almost every Islamic country, what the preachers preach on Friday is ordered by the government," says Nasr. "One of the things these governments do not like is anything that will stultify what they believe to be economic progress. So there is a very strong opposition to environmental issues."

He says "the Islamic world — like the rest of the world —  was simply trying to catch up with the errors of the West."

Nasr says that when he talks about pollution in countries like Pakistan and Iran, he hears people say that the West will somehow find a solution.

"That is the attitude of most people with an inferiority complex," he says.

Nasr has crisscrossed the globe speaking to religious and environmental leaders, trying to build consensus on how to best raise awareness about what he calls a "worldwide crisis" in our handling of the environment.

"We human beings cannot be happy without the happiness of the rest of creation," he says. "We have killed enough, massacred enough of God's other creatures.

"God will judge us in the future on whether we are able to live in harmony and peace with the rest of his creation or commit suicide," he says. "There is no third choice."

Listen to the full Ideas audio documentary, Islam and the Environment, featuring Seyyed Hossein Nasr on CBC Radio One's Ideas. 


David Gutnick is a documentary producer with CBC Radio One's Ideas. He is based in Montreal, and has covered stories all over the world.