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What is the Islamic Viewpoint of the Universe and Natural Environment?


By Ali Unal


Everyone talks so much today of the danger of war and the pollution of air and water that peace and ecology are the most fashionable words in people's tongues. But the same people who are expected to diagnose these problems wish to remove them through further conquest and domination of nature. The problem lies in the destruction of the equilibrium between man and nature as a result of the modern materialistic conception of and a corrupt attitude toward man and nature. Most people are reluctant to perceive that peace in human society and with nature is possible through peace with the spiritual order. To be at peace with the Earth one must be at peace with himself and this is not possible without being at peace with Heaven.


The roots of the ecological problem

The dangers caused by man’s domination over nature are too well known to need explanation. Nature is no longer regarded as something sacred by modern man as it was by man of the medieval ages, and it has become devoid of any meaning. The void caused by the disappearance of this indispensable aspect of human existence has continued to exist within the souls of men to manifest itself in many ways, sometimes violently and desperately.

It is largely the domination of nature which has caused the rise of many problems such as the congestion of modern city life, the exhaustion of natural resources, the destruction of natural beauty, and the abnormal rise in mental illnesses. It is the same domination of nature together with giving complete freedom to the animal nature within man that has made the problem of war so crucial.

The present day encounter of man with nature, and all the modern problems connected with it, carry within themselves elements connected with Christian civilization. When Christianity came to replace or to save the civilization of Antiquity, it found itself in a world in which naturalism, empiricism and rationalism were prevalent. Knowledge of a human order had become sanctified in this world, and an excessive attraction to nature seemed to the Christian eye a blasphemy that blinded men to the vision of God.

Christianity, therefore, reacted against this naturalism and emphasized the boundary between the supernatural and the natural. Christian theologians neglected the theological and spiritual significance of nature. They believed that nature could not teach man anything about God and is therefore of no theological and spiritual significance.

Although some writers such as W. Temple, probably in order to apologize to human reason and knowledge for the Inquisition, claim a close relationship between Christianity and science by alleging that Christianity is able to dominate matter precisely because, in contrast to other religions, it is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions, Christianity has shown much negligence regarding knowledge and certainty. The centuries beginning with the Renaissance have witnessed endless controversies between Christianity and science, and it is due to the Christian opposition to human reason and knowledge and its depriving nature of its spiritual significance that science has developed as a fatal instrument in materialistic hands.


Islam and nature

As for Islam, it is the middle-of-the road religion. One finds in Islam an elaborate hierarchy of knowledge integrated by the principle of Divine Unity (al-Tawhid). There are juridical, social and theological sciences; and there are gnostic and metaphysical ones all deriving their principles from the source of revelation which is the Quran. Then there have developed within Islamic civilization elaborate philosophical, natural and mathematical sciences, each of which has its source in one of the Beautiful Names of God. It is the Name the All-healing that shines on Medicine; Geometry and Engineering depend on the Names the All-just, the All-shaping and the All-harmonizing, and Philosophy reflects the Name of the All-wise, and so forth. On each level of knowledge nature is seen in a particular light. For the jurists (fuqaha) and theologians (mutakallimun) it is the background for human action. For the philosopher and scientist it is a domain to be analyzed and understood. On the metaphysical and gnostic level it is the object of contemplation and the mirror reflecting suprasensible realities.

Moreover, the study of nature has never been separated from gnosis, or the metaphysical dimension of Islam throughout the Islamic history. This is the reason why so many Muslim scientists like Avicenna, Nasir al-Din Tusi and Jabir ibn al-Hayyan were either practicing Sufis or were intellectually attached to the gnostic schools. In Islam observation of nature and contemplation of it has always represented a very important aspect of the spiritual journey of a Muslim. Furthermore, there has been in Islam an intimate connection between the sciences and other fields of Islamic studies. This connection is to be found in the Quran itself, which, as the Divine Scripture of Islam, corresponds to the macrocosmic revelation which is the Universe. That is why Islam is also the name of the Divine system of the Universe. The Book of Islam is ‘the recorded Quran (al-Qur’an al-tadwini)’ and the Universe, as a whole, is the ‘Qur’an of the creation (al-Qur’an al–takwini)’. Likewise, man is also a Divine Book corresponding to the Quran and the Universe. It is because of this that the term used to signify the verses of the Qur’an or ayat also means events taking place within the souls of men, and phenomena in the world of nature. Man’s life is so mysteriously interrelated to the natural phenomena that one who discerns these phenomena can draw hundred-percent-true conclusions about the future of the world; that is to say that the laws of history can be deduced from what is going on in nature. To cite an example, the Qur’an says:

Surely your Lord is God, Who has created the heavens and the earth in six days - then mounted He to the Throne, covering the day with the night, which pursues it urgently - and the sun, and the moon, and the stars subservient, by His command. Verily, His are the creation and the command. Blessed be God, the Lord of all being. Call on your lord, humbly and secretly; He loves not transgressors. Do not corruption in the land, after it has been set right; and call on Him fearfully; eagerly - surely the grace of God is nigh to the good-doers. It is He Who looses the winds, bearing good tidings before His grace, till, when they are charged with heavy clouds, We drive it to a dead land and therewith send down water, and bring forth therewith all the fruits. Even so We shall bring forth the dead; haply you will remember. And the good land - its vegetation comes forth by the leave of its Lord, and the corrupt - it comes forth but scantily. Even so We turn about signs for a people that are thankful. (7:54-58)

The verses above are apparently about some natural phenomena, yet they mention the Resurrection and the importance of prayer. Corruption in the land is also forbidden in the verses above and man is warned that the command of everything is God’s only and He has no partners either in the creation or the command. Thus, the main principles of faith, that is belief in the Oneness of God and the Resurrection, are emphasized together with man being reminded once more that his function or duty on the Earth is, as the Vicegerent of God, prayer and to establish justice on the Earth, avoiding any kind of corruption whatsoever and transgression of the Divine law.

Some other meanings, though inner, are also hinted at in the verses above. The day and the night symbolize the happy moments and misfortunes respectively, which alternate in both a man’s and a nation’s life. Second, since it is the symbol of the Divine Grace, rain is mentioned in the verse as the grace of God which is nigh to the good-doers. Thirdly, winds bearing the good tidings that rain is about to come correspond to pioneers or leaders of a national revival. The message with which they have come is likened to heavy clouds of rain. Hearts without faith and minds devoid of good judgment and sound reasoning are like dead lands which need rain to be made fruitful. Just as the vegetation of good land comes forth by the leave of its Lord, so hearts and minds propitious to be fertilized by the Divine Message will certainly be the sources from which faith, knowledge and virtues radiate. There will, however, always be some minds and hearts like deserts which receive little rain to produce any vegetation, and which never benefit from the grace of Heaven.

Finally, the verses in question console the believers who constitute a small oppressed minority amongst a corrupt, wrongdoing community, with the good tidings that victory is near to them so long as they keep striving for God’s cause and seek help in patience and prayer.

Thus, revelation to man is inseparable from the cosmic revelation which is also a book of God. Islam, by refusing to separate man from nature, has preserved an integral view of the universe and sees in the arteries of the cosmic and natural order the flow of Divine grace. From the bosom of nature man seeks to transcend nature and nature herself can be an aid in this process provided man can learn to contemplate it as a mirror reflecting a higher reality, as stated in the Qur’an:

Surely in the creation of the heavens and earth and in the alternation of night and day there are signs for men possessed of minds, who remember God and mention His name, standing and sitting and on their sides, and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Our Lord, You have not created this for vanity. Glory be to Thee! Guard us against the chastisement of the Fire. (3. 190-191)


Man’s position in existence

Man occupies an especial position in this world, and is at the axis and centre of the cosmic milieu. By being taught the names of all things, he is given the keys to knowledge of all things, and thus gains domination over them, but he has been given this power only in his capacity of being the Vicegerent (khalifa) of God on the Earth, not as a rebel against Heaven.

In fact man is the channel of grace for nature; through his active participation in the spiritual world he brings light into the world of nature. Because of his intimate connection with nature, man’s inner state is reflected in the external order. This explains why, when man’s inner being turns to darkness and chaos, nature is also turned from harmony and beauty to disequilibrium and disorder. Man sees in nature what he is himself, and penetrates into the inner meaning of nature only by being able to delve into the inner depths of his own being. Those who live only on the surface of their being can study nature as something to be manipulated and dominated; only he who has turned toward the inward dimension of his existence can recognize nature as a symbol, and come to understand it in the real sense.

This very concept of man and nature and the presence of a metaphysical doctrine and the hierarchy of knowledge enabled Islam to develop many sciences which exerted the greatest influence upon Western science without their disturbing the Islamic intellectual edifice. A man like Avicenna could be a physician and Peripathetic philosopher and yet expound his ‘Oriental philosophy’ which sought knowledge through illumination. A Nasir al-Din al-Tusi could be the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day and the author of an outstanding treatise on Sufism. Muhy al-Din ibn al-‘Arabi could be a leading personage in the most esoteric dimension of Sufism and yet told about the expansion of the Universe and the motion of objects. The Sufism of Jabir ibn al-Hayyan did not prevent him from being the founder of al-Gebra and Chemistry. And Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, who is one of the most outstanding figures in Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh), History and Qur’anic Interpretation (Tafsir), wrote eleven centuries ago about the winds’ fertilizing clouds so that rain would fall. Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum, a well-known Sufi master of the seventeenth century, was a brilliant astronomer and mathematician of his age as well as a blessed specialist of the occult sciences. The examples could be multiplied but these suffice to demonstrate the principle of a hierarchy of knowledge and the presence of a metaphysical dimension within Islam which have satisfied the intellectual needs of men so that they have never sought the satisfaction of their thirst for causality outside the religion as has happened in the West.

Islam is the universal order, the integral religion of harmony and the unique system which is able to harmonize the physical with the metaphysical, the rational with the ideal, and the corporeal with the spiritual. All dimensions of man’s earthly life have particular places of their own within the matrix of Islam in such a way that each can perform its own function and enable man to be at peace with himself, his community and nature, and ultimately to gain happiness in both worlds.



Sayid Hussein Nasr, Man and Nature, London, 1968

Three Muslim Sages, London, 1964

Science and Civilization in Islam, London, 1987

Said Nursi, Sozler, (‘The Words 1, The Words 2’), Istanbul, 1958

Lem’alar, Istanbul, 1986

Mektubat, (‘The Letters 1, The Letters 2’), Istanbul, 1990

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, London,1972

Scognamillo Giovanni, Batinin Inanc Temelleri, Istanbul, 1972

Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, (Turkish trans. Hurriyetten Kacis, 1982.)