Islam teaches that environment is part of the universal web of creation. Its role is two-fold: to worship its Creator, and to be subjected to serve the exigencies of man, so that God’s vicegerent can smoothly and undeterred carry out his honorable task of managing earth.
– Islam and the Environment
This Islamic unique perception of man and his position on earth necessitated the formation of a compelling and comprehensive view of the natural environment as well. This is so because man totally depends on nature for his survival. Also, nature is a ground for man’s realization of his spiritual purpose on earth. Simply put, man is an integral part of the total natural setting. Man is nature himself, sustaining nature means sustaining his self, damaging nature means damaging his self and his prospects of a civilizational triumph. Owing to all this, Islam attaches so much importance to the subject of environment clearly expounding man’s rights over it and his responsibilities towards it.
Islam teaches that environment is part of the universal web of creation. Its role is two-fold: to worship its Creator (in ways suitable to it), and to be subjected to serve the exigencies of man, so that God’s vicegerent can smoothly and undeterred carry out his honorable task of managing earth.
Environment holds enormous potential and diversified resources meant only for the vicegerent of earth. They are to be seen as facilities which if rightly used facilitate each and every facet of man’s fleeting stay on earth. Environment is further to be seen by man as an “ally” or a “partner”, so to speak, in the execution of his earthly mission. After all, in order to create any piece of his built environment, which serves as a framework for his activities, man borrows diverse natural ingredients, such as space, water, clay, timber, stone and other substances, placing the newly created or built elements back into the existing natural contexts. In reality, built environment is in so many ways the natural environment which has been processed and manipulated.
According to a number of divine instructions, natural diversity and the forces of nature are to be the focus of man’s exhaustive scientific and contemplative attention. Diversity in humans: skin colors, languages, attitudes and cultures, are to preoccupy the cognitive faculties of men as well, thus trying to find a link between it and the former. In all natural phenomena a great deal of wisdom lies and waits to be unearthed.
In Islam, man’s rights over environment are rights of sustainable use based on moderation, balance and conservation. The rights of environment over man, on the other hand, are that it be safe from every misuse, mistreatment and destruction. Greed, extravagance and waste are considered a tyranny against nature and a transgression of those rights. (Abd-al-Hamid, 1997)
Islam teaches that all things have been created with purpose and in proportion and measure, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Nature’s resources and forces are gifts granted by God to man. At the same time, however, the natural environment is a field for man’s vicegerency mission. It is right there, while interacting with different aspects of environment, that people clearly demonstrate how strong, or how deficient, their relationship with God is. So significant is man’s relationship with environment in Islam that in some instances such relationship is able to take precedence over other deeds of man, placing him then on the highest or dragging him to the lowest level.
Furthermore, environment stands for a source of man’s spiritual enlightenment too, provided his treatment of it is apt and derived from divine teachings, in that environment in its totality is an expression of God’s presence, oneness, mercy and supremacy. By the power of reason and insight that has been accorded to him to subdue the forces of nature, man at the same time will be able to penetrate through and grasp properly nature’s countless mysteries and phenomena. Consequently, this will lead to a considerable enhancement of his physical well-being, as well as to expediting the process of his spiritual advancement.
Finally, environment, in a sense, participates in revealing Truth to man. It is in fact a revelation itself. Therefore, in addition to having the composed or written Qur’an (al-Qur’an al-tadwini) there is a cosmic or ontological “Qur’an” (al-Qur’an al-takwini) as well. Both revelations complement each other, as it were, in furnishing man with the necessary substance so as not to let him betray the trust of productively inhabiting the earth which he had wittingly accepted. It follows that those who fully submit to Divine Will and read, understand and apply the written Qur’an, they easily see upon the face of every creature “letters” and “words”, or messages, from the “pages” of the cosmic Qur’an. For this reason are the phenomena of nature referred to in the Qur’an as signs or symbols (ayat), a term that is also used for the verses of the Qur’an. (Nasr, 1997)
The following are some verses from the Qur’an on the discussed aspects of environment:
“Do not you see that to Allah prostrate all things that are in the heavens and on earth, – the sun, the moon, the stars, the hills, the trees, the animals, and a great number among mankind? But a great number are (also) such as unto whom the chastisement is justly due. And such as Allah shall disgrace, – none can raise to honor: for Allah carries out all that He wills.” (al-Hajj, 18)
“See you the seed that you sow in the ground? Is it you that cause it to grow, or are We the Cause? Were it Our Will, We could make it broken orts. And you would be left in wonderment… See you the water which you drink? Do you bring it down (in rain) from the cloud or do We? Were it Our Will, We could make it saltish (and unpalatable): then why do you not give thanks?” (Al-Waqi’ah, 63-70)
“O you people! Worship your Guardian Lord, Who created you and those who came before you that you may become righteous; Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith fruits for your sustenance; then set not up rivals unto Allah when you know (the truth).” (Al-Baqarah, 21-22)
“And He has subjected to you, as from Him, all that is in the heavens and on earth: behold, in that are Signs indeed for those who reflect.” (Al-Jathiyah, 13)
– The Importance of Built Environment
The implications of the concepts of God, man as the vicegerent (khalifah) and his interaction with nature for architecture are both ideological and practical. To begin with, humans are not the only creatures that build. Many a creature that we classify low down the hierarchy of the animal kingdom, such as bees and ants, build elaborate structures. However, it has been suggested that it is awareness and imagination that single out humans as superior to other animals in architectural output. (Parker & Richards, 1994) While the rest of creation act on environment instinctively with no reasoning or training, man does the same willingly and at his own discretion. Since his actions are preceded with thinking and rationalizing, man clearly demonstrates through acts of building — and through every other engagement of his — his philosophy of, and outlook on, life’s realities.
Based on his free will, awareness and imagination, man builds edifices in various shapes and sizes and with various function patterns in order to facilitate, nurture and motivate his copious life activities. In fact, such is of the fundamental things that distinguish man from other animate creatures that share this earth with him. The existence of man cannot be imagined without the existence of a built environment. The relationship between the two is causal, man always being the cause and built environment the effect. Therefore, no phase of man’s presence on earth could be imagined to be devoid of building activities, irrespective of their scale, simplicity and sophistication.
This principle applies to all including the very first man and prophet on earth, Adam, who is said to have built the first House of worship, i.e., the al-Masjid al-Haram or Baytullah (the House of God). Exactly forty years following the completion of the al-Masjid al-Haram, either Adam himself or some of his descendants were instructed to proceed to a designated location (later Jerusalem or Bayt al-Maqdis) and build there the al-Masjid al-Aqsa’, the second mosque on earth. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Tradition No. 3172)
Ibn Khaldun (1987) rightly observed that building is a basis of civilization, and is of the most indispensable crafts which man ought to gain knowledge of: “This (architecture) is the first and oldest craft of sedentary civilization. It is the knowledge of how to go about using houses and mansions for cover and shelter. This is because man has the natural disposition to reflect upon the outcome of things. Thus, it is unavoidable that he must reflect upon how to avert the harm arising from heat and cold by using houses which have walls and roofs to intervene between him and those things on all sides. This natural disposition to think, which is the real meaning of humanity, exists among (men) in different degrees…”
Le Corbusier (1989) also remarked: “Architecture is one of the most urgent needs of man, for the house has always been the indispensable and first tool that he has forged for himself. Man’s stock of tools marks out the stages of civilization, the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age. Tools are the result of successive improvement; the effort of all generations is embodied in them. The tool is the direct and immediate expression of progress; it gives man essential assistance and essential freedom also…”
Sinan (2006), the chief architect of the Ottoman golden age, said: “It is obvious and proven to men of intelligence and wisdom and persons of understanding and vision that building with water and clay being an auspicious art, the Children of Adam felt an aversion to mountains and caves and from the beginning were inclined to cities and villages. And because human beings are by nature civilized, they invented day-by-day many types of buildings, and refinement increased.”
While erecting buildings for himself, God’s vicegerent on earth in fact creates a wide range of facilities which are aimed at smoothing the progress of the realization of his heavenly purpose on earth. Buildings are thus subjected to serve together with their occupants an elevated order of things and meanings. They are to be both the means and ground for worship, which is man’s principal task. Though serving him and his wants, God’s vicegerent on earth always sees his buildings in an additional light, not seen by those who are bogged down with and blinded by fervently pursuing some lowly material gains. He sees them as an extension of the existing universal setting, God’s physical realm, where all components, irrespective of their sizes, functions or positions, incessantly worship God. Buildings are thus seen as serving God rather than man. Their services to man even though genuine and real are rather relative. Because the whole universe constitutes a mosque (masjid) with everything in it, save a group of men and Jinns, voluntarily singing in unison God’s praises and celebrating His glory with neither fatigue not boredom ever befalling them, Islamic architecture aspires to add to this exhilarating set-up. It aspires to endorse the divine spiritual standards and expands them to the spheres of human influences, thus making them more easily approachable and perceptible by more people with different interests and aptitudes.
Hence, Islamic architecture apart from facilitating man’s vicegerency mission also promotes as well as spawns people’s interest in it.
When Mawlay Idris decided to build the city of Fas (Fez) in northern Africa (Morocco), having sketched the ground-plan of the city and before construction got underway, he recited the following prayer: “O my Lord! You know that I do not intend by building this city to gain pride or to show off; nor do I intend hypocrisy, or reputation, or arrogance. But I want You to be worshipped in it, Your laws, limits and the principles of Your Qur’an and the guidance of Your Prophet to be upheld in it, as long as this world exists. Almighty, help its dwellers to do righteousness and guide them to fulfill that. Almighty, prevent them from the evil of their enemies, bestow Your bounties upon them and protect them from the sword of evil. You are able to do all things.” (Moustapha, 1986)
– Peaceful and Sustainable Coexistence between the Environment, Architecture and Man
The Islamic notions of God and His Oneness (tawhid), man as the vicegerent on earth and the natural environment as the field of man’s vicegerency mission, give Islamic architecture its conspicuous identity. It also creates in Muslims an unprecedented spirituality-loaded outlook on building activities so that the highest level of compatibility between buildings and their users exists. Islamic spirituality ensures that Islamic architecture and Muslims forge a productive, peaceful and sustainable alliance. They all originated from the same source and serve the same ontological purpose. The character of Islamic architecture is such that it tries its best to disguise its mundane naturalistic factors and features that may hinder a beholder’s focus pointing in turn to a higher order of expression and meaning. The beholder’s attention is directed towards the desired end by various ingenious artistic and structural ways and methods which are meant to yield an intuition of the real essence of the Transcendent and its divine infinity and perfection.
Since God is the Creator and Lord of everything, including man, He too is the actual Owner of everything. To God belongs everything in the universe. As far as man is concerned, though being elevated to the degree of God’s vicegerent on earth and to whom all things have been subjected, he still possesses nothing. Everything around him has been loaned to him so that he in a responsible and unhindered manner can carry out his duties of vicegerency — no more than that. Even his very self, i.e., his life, man does not own. It belongs to his Creator, and if needed he is to sacrifice it for Him and His cause.
No sooner does man come into this world than he sets out to display his inherent readiness to take from this world: to breath, to wear apparel, to drink, albeit without possessing anything, save his very self, to give away in return. Man is therefore born as an insolvent consumer. Not only does he own nothing, but he also remains forever short of enjoying a power of bringing into being anything without making use of the available raw materials and elements created for him in nature. Creating ex nihilo (from absolute nothingness), as a sign of genuine richness, sovereignty and might, is the right and power of God alone. Indeed, everything that man invents, conceives, concocts and creates is possible only thanks to the unbounded bounties and munificence from God which man only discovers, manages, processes, uses and reuses in different ways most convenient and efficient for him. The upshots of man’s myriad civilizational pursuits on earth are never really his own possession and, as such, by no means could be solely utilized for returning the debt of creation and existence to God. Hence, being prudent, modest and grateful when dealing with God’s gifts that grace existence, as well as when dealing with one’s own accomplishments, are some of the virtues most appreciated, and the opposite is some of the vices most detested, in man. As far as the built environment is concerned, this translates as sustainability and sustainable development. God is thus to be acknowledged all the time and in every interest of man as the final end, as the ultimate object of all desire, as the ultimate source of all goodness, of all value. It is God Who makes every other good; He is the highest good for the sake of Whom every good thing is good. (al-Faruqi, 1995)
God says on this in the Qur’an: “They say: “Allah has begotten a son”. Glory be to Him. Nay, to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth: everything renders worship to Him. To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a matter, He says to it: “Be,” and it is.” (Al-Baqarah, 116, 117)
“Do you not know that Allah’s is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and that besides Allah you have no guardian or helper?” (Al-Baqarah, 107)
“A revelation from Him Who created the earth and the high heavens. The Beneficent Allah is firm in power. His is what is in the heavens and what is in the earth and what is between them two and what is beneath the ground.” (Ta Ha, 4-6)
God explicitly says that he is the Creator and thus the Owner of everything including people and whatever they are able to make. People’s creations and possessions are in fact God’s: “And Allah has created you and what you make.” (Al-Saffat, 96)
This philosophy is strikingly clear also in the field of architecture.
Whenever an architect embarks on designing an edifice, he carves out the space needed for his project. The Muslim architect, worthy of his profession, will approach space with reverence, not arrogance, as it is God’s physical realm. According to al-Faruqi (1981), “if it (space) must be cut for man to have a dwelling, such would have to be done in humility and with ease, harboring no might, no self-assertion and no defiance.” The Muslim architect, therefore, will always strive to exhibit through his creativity and skills that the buildings designed by him interact with space, flow into and become part of general space, instead of separating itself from it. Buildings remain connected with outside space by the open inner court and windows. Toward the same end, the edge of an Islamic building is often crenellated, the skyline sometimes multiplied, and the vertical edges recessed or protruded with broken surfaces designed to lessen the impact of the cut-off in space. (al-Faruqi, 1981)
When creating an edifice, the Muslim architect and structural engineer charged with the vicegerency spirit are first and foremost concerned about how the end result of their efforts will stand out when juxtaposed with the existing universal setting, a result of heavenly artistry, in terms of both function and outward appearance: will it complement or contrast with it; will it go well with it, or will it appear as if something of a misfit, oddity, or even offensiveness; will it be sustainable?
Also Check Out Part I Here
Stay tuned for Part III
By: Dr. Spahic Omer
Assoc. Prof. Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
Jalan Gombak, 53100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Posted on: July 7, 2011