An Ecological Reading of the Qur’anic Understanding of Creation
by: José Abraham
Jose Abraham is Lecturer in the Department of Religion and Culture at
the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. This article is from
the book Bangalore Theological Forum, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, published by
the Untied Theological College, 2001. This material was prepared for
Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
are on the brink of a frightening ecological disaster. The earth is
being destroyed at an alarming speed. It can no longer sustain the rate
of our use of its resources. So our relationship with the rest of
creation is seriously out of balance. The manifestations of this
situation include air, water and soil pollution through toxic, chemical
and radioactive waste, soil erosion and salinizaton, desertification,
deforestation, extinction of plant and animal species, global warming,
exorbitant energy consumption and nuclear obliteration. If this process
is not controlled effectively, the next generation of living beings will
have no livable earth to inherit. Also, as there is an organic link
between destruction of environment and socio-economic and political
injustice, even though all are affected by the ecological crisis, the
life of the poor and marginalized is further impoverished by it. Thus
there has been a growing concern, expressed globally, to address the
issues of environmental degradation.
There are various responses to the growing ecological crisis.
Scientists, sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists made various
responses from different perspectives. The ecological crisis as a
complex issue includes various problems such as poor technology,
economic and developmental model. So any response to the ecological
crisis depends on the problem, which is being addressed. For instance,
for a scientist, if poor technology is the reason for the ecological
crisis, then it can be solved with the right use of technology. The
various responses to ecological crisis are important because it address
various dimensions of the crisis.
The perception of creation is a major factor, which decides the attitude
of people towards nature. So perception of creation is an important
issue in the ecological discussions. On the one hand, if nature is
understood as created only to serve human beings, then it may justify
exploitation of nature without any limitation. On the other hand, if the
nature is understood as having its own value, then it may be respected
and used properly. Since I am a student of comparative religion and of
Islam, the intention of this work is to formulate an Islamic response to
the growing ecological crisis, by taking the issue of perception of
Doctrine of Creation in the Qur’an
Qur’an uses a number of words for ‘creation’ such as khalq, bara,
sawwara, ja ‘ala, bada ‘a and farara. Khalq is the noun form of the
verb khalaqa2 and it is used 249 times in the
Qur’an3. According to Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon, the word
khalq indicates the act of measuring; determining, estimating and
This word is used in the Qur’an to denote the act of creation and
creation in its entirety. In the classical language of Arabs, khalq
is considered as an act of God and Al-khaliq, the Creator, is
one of the names of God in the Qur’an5. The word khalq
also carries the meaning of making smooth and polishing without cracks
and fracture6. Thus the act of creation, according to the
Qur’an, is a process and not a momentary activity. God is always active
and continue the act of creation by developing all beings from one stage
another word used in the Qur’an for creation and it means, "to form, to
fashion or to shape."8 Arabs generally use this word to
denote the act of shaping of a reed for writing, or of an arrow, or of a
stick or of a piece of wood.9 Al-ban, one who shapes,
is one of the names of God in the Qur’an10. This word has
similar meanings as that of khalaqa, such as fashioning and
shaping. Sawwara is used in the Qur’an11 to denote
creation and it means "to form, to shape, to fashion, to sculpture, to
picture" etc.12 Al-musawwir, ‘the Fashioner’, is one
of the names of God in the Qur’an. He fashions the creation by giving it
form and colour and bestows each creature with "every details of its
complicated spiritual and physical existence"13. Everything
is being fashioned uniquely so that each fits perfectly into the rest of
The word Ja‘ala is used 345 times14 in the Qur’an to
denote creation and its meaning is "to make, to render, to form, to
create, to prepare" etc.15 It is used in the Qur’an with the
sense of giving new shapes, forms, dispositions etc. So according to the
Qur’an, the act of creation also includes the process of giving colours,
form, physical stature, assigning specific roles and conditions to
fulfil these roles16. The word Bada’a occurs fourteen
times in the Qur’an17 and it means "to originate a thing, or
to bring in to being or existence, or to make or to produce for the
first time"18. Thus this is used in the Qur’an to designate
the creation of a thing after no pre-existing similitude. Al-badi’,
which means the Originator, is another name of God in the Qur’an19.
The word fatara is used twenty places in the Qur’an.20
Like bada‘a, it also means to bring or to produce something for
the first time.21
According to the Qur’an, all things have their origin by the
command of God, "Be" (kun) 22. God’s commands
are the expression of His will, plan and intention and so it is part of
His being. It implies that creation is originated not in accidence but
by the definite purpose of God. He never created anything in vain or in
"play"23 but with a serious purpose (haqq) 24.
It brings value and importance to creation.
In the Qur’anic perspective there is a definite relationship between God
and His creation. The doctrine of tawhid, the belief in the
oneness of God, is a cardinal principal in the Qur’an.25
Tawhid affirms and acknowledges that God is one and the only
Reality. Then creation is part of the Essence of God and it manifests
Him. It "teaches that all life is essentially a unity as the creation
which proceeds from the Divine oneness".26 This affirms the
wholeness and holiness of the creation and thus it brings value to
creation. It also rejects all forms of dualism, which separates human
beings from nature, so nature is considered as evil and to be
subjugated, that have contributed to the ecological crisis27.
God is described in the Qur’an as muhit, which means all
encompassing, all pervading, and that which surrounds all.28
This term also used in Arabic to denote ‘environment’.29 So
as muhit "God Himself is the ultimate environment which surrounds
and encompasses man."30 So Nasr believes that since the
environment is not an ontologically independent order of reality, which
is divorced from the Divine Environment, the environmental crisis "has
been caused by man’s refusal to see God as the real Environment."31
According to the Qur’an, God made provisions for the sustenance
and growth of countless varieties of creatures from microorganisms to
the largest animals. These provisions are made available to meet their
needs in every situation and stages of life. As we have seen earlier,
God created everything for a specific purpose. So there is nothing that
exists which does not serve some purpose or other. It means that
everything fits into one supreme scheme of life32. Everything
is put together in wisdom and unity. It emphasizes that everything has
its value to life.33 Existence of each and every thing,
whether it is small or big, is important for the continuation of life.
So each species is unique and makes its own specific contribution to the
totality of life. This negates the superiority or importance of one
species over against the other. Thus in the holistic perspective human
being is "not a supreme being but a part of the web of nature coexisting
with other denizens of the cosmos"34
Dignity of Non-Human Creation
According to the Qur’an the world is tilled with signs (ayah) of
God35. The Arabic word ayah means "a sign, token, or
mark, by which a person or thing is known or can be perceived."36
The word ayah is used almost four hundred times in the
Qur’an37 and every creature is referred as ayah of God
(ayat allah).38 The above meaning of ayah
is relevant for our discussion because if nature is ayah of
God, then those who perceives it perceives God39.
According to the Qur’an everything -- inhabitants of the heavens (sun,
moon, stars) and the earth (animal, trees, hills) -- praise Allah40.
"There is nothing, but celebrates His praises"41. Everything
that is created by God prostrates before Him and recognise their
submission to His will and commands. Thus the whole creation is regarded
in the Qur’an as ‘muslim’42. It perfectly obeys
the will of God and behaves in accordance with the laws established by
Him. But today nature is perceived as created only to serve human
beings. This attitude justifies exploitation and domination of creation.
The spiritual life of a Muslim is in tune with nature. To perform ritual
worship (salat) 43, a Muslim must have a
special relationship with his/her outer environment since the specific
times of the ritual prayers are based on the position of the sun 44.
Also, Islamic calendar follows the moon and it is utilised to determine
the proper time for fasting and performing the pilgrimage to Makkah
(Hajj). Thus a Muslim is forced to follow the movements of the sun
and the moon as part of his/her religious practice. Nature is the
sanctuary of God for the performance of salat and a mosque does
not create a "super natural" space for prayer 45. Thus nature
is an ally of human beings in their quest for God, not an adversary.
In the Qur’anic perspective, all things that God created are
‘communities’ (ummah) like (mithal) that of human
community (6:38). Thus God is concerned about all communities and he
preserves and provides for all creatures 46. As Yusuf Ali explains while
commenting upon this verse (6:38), "In our pride we exclude animals from
our purview, but they live a life, social and individual, like
ourselves, and all life is subject to the plan and will of Allah"
47. So creation has value in itself without reference to human
Subservience of Non-Human Creation
According to the Qur’an, all things in heaven and on earth have been
created for use of human beings. 48 The Arabic word
Sakhkhara is used in the Qur’an to define the relationship between
human and non-human.49 Sakhkhara means to constrain or
compel a servant or a beast to do what it does not desire. Thus it also
means to bring into subjugation, or to make manageable and tractable, or
to make something unable to free from constraint. 50 The
Qur’an considers Sakhkhara as an activity of God (14:33). As we
have seen earlier, non-human beings have value in itself and there is no
evidence in the Qur’an to prove that it is created only to serve human
beings. So scholars reinterpreted the word Sakhkhara differently
from its literal meaning, i.e., subservience.
According to Iris Safwat, the Arabic word Sakhkhara does not mean
‘to subject’ rather it means ‘to turn to profitable account’ or ‘to
utilise’ 51 Abd-al-Hamid affirms this meaning and says that,
the relationship between human and non-human is not of domination or
exploitation but that of the trust (amanah) placed with human
beings by God. If ‘subservience’ of everything to human is taken as a
right to dominate and exploitation, then it is mockery to Allah. 52
Nasr explains the meaning of the term by seriously taking into
consideration the responsibility of human beings as God’s vicegerents.
So according to him, Sakhkhara does not mean the conquest or
exploitation of nature rather it should be a kind of relationship in
accordance with God’s laws and responsibility of the human beings as
vicegerents of God. 53
These insights imply that we cannot treat nature just as an object
of human activity. So a subject-object relationship with nature is
unjustifiable. 54 If nature is treated just as an Object,
then it is likely to be appreciated "not for its intrinsic value, but
for its instrumental value for humans."55 So a just
relationship between human beings and other creatures is a
subject-subject relationship. A subject-subject relationship with nature
implies that we have to respect the nature, which will finally lead to
protection and proper use of natural resources.
Freedom and Responsibility of Human Beings
According to the Qur’an, human beings are the highest form of all living
creatures. "We have indeed created man in the best of mould (‘ahsani
taqwim)."56 Taqwim is the Arabic word used
to designate ‘estimation’ or ‘erection’ or ‘setting up’ 57.
By using the superlative form ahsan, the Qur’an suggests that the
estimation or stature of human being is the best. It includes both the
internal and external composition of the human being.
In the Qur’an, three words such as Adam, bashar and insan
are used to denote the human beings. According to Muhammad Iqbal, the
Qur’an uses the word bashar or insan to denote the origin
of human beings as living beings or social animals. The word Adam
is used more as a concept than as the name of a concrete human
individual and is reserved for the human beings in their capacity of
God’s vicegerent on earth 58. Riffat Hassan, a Muslim
feminist, used this insight to prove that in the Qur’an, the word Adam
"is used as a symbol of self-conscious humanity" 59
According to the Qur’an, after fashioning Adam in the proper
proportions God blew (nafakha) of His Spirit (ruh) into
the human being 60 The breathing of the spirit made them so
unique, with their faculty of knowledge and freedom of choice, that even
angels are ordered to prostrate before them. It is the breathing of the
spirit, which differentiates human beings from other creatures 61.
This act gave them their ability to distinguish right from wrong, their
power of reasoning and their faculty of speech 62. The gift
of knowledge makes human beings more responsible towards other
creatures. We have to use our knowledge in such a way that it is causing
only a minimum damage to the environment. This is possible only when we
develop science and technology, which accepts the value of creation and
responsibility of human beings.
In order to get guidance, the Qur’an advises human beings to turn to the
nature in which they are created (30:30). It implies that only the
original nature of human beings (fitrah) can lead them to the
straight path. According to Yusuf Ali. "just as the nature of a lamb is
to be gentle and of a horse is to be swift", in true nature (fitrah),
"man is innocent, pure, true, free, inclined to right and virtue,
and educated with true understanding about his own position in the
universe and about Allah’s goodness, wisdom, and power".63 In
other words, God has created in human beings a natural bias towards
good, and a bias against evil. A natural bias toward good and against
evil demands promotion of good (ma’ruf) and elimination of
evil (munkar) in all aspects of life. So according to Wyn
Davies fitra implies a moral and ethical sense. Thus if it is
exercised in full consciousness, human beings can organise different
facets of life in to a harmonious balance. 64 Such a
harmonious state also includes the right relationship with nature. The
doctrine of fitra is important in relation to challenge posed by
ecologists that we should live with an understanding of the
interconnectedness of everything in the creation. 65
Qur'anic Understanding of
word khalifa and its plurals occur nine times in the Qur’an.
66 Khalifa is derived from the verb khalafa meaning,
"he came after, followed, succeeded or remained after, another, or
another that had perished or dead" 67 So khalifa is
some one who succeeds another or who takes the place of another after
him/her in some matter. Thus a ruler is called khalifa when "he
replaces the one who was before him, and takes his place in the affair,
and is his successor (khalaf)".68 There are
many contemporary thinkers who opine that human beings are the
vicegerents (khalifa) of God on earth. Abd-al-Hamid, 69
Muhammad Iqbal, 70 Mustansir Mir 71 , George
Koovackal 72 Safia Anbir 73. Seyyed Hossien Nasr
74, Al-Birnni 75 and Soumaya Pernilla Ouis 76
are few who translated khalifa as God’s vicegerent or
Human beings are vicegerents of God not in the sense that they succeed
and replace God. They are vicegerents because God subjected (sakhkhara)
everything to us and gifted us with free will, knowledge and a bias
towards doing good. These gifts made human beings responsible towards
other creatures. This power and responsibility of human beings is termed
vicegerency on behalf of God and implies the prudent use of things but
not their exploitation.
As khalifa, human beings are not proprietors or owners of
creation, God is the owner and everything belongs to Him. Human beings
are God’s vicegerents (khalifa’ Allah) and God’s servants (abd
‘Allah). Human beings should use their authority as
khalifa within the limit of the servants of God. "Nothing is more
dangerous for the natural environment than the practice of the power of
vice-gerency by a humanity which no longer accepts to be God’s servant,
obedient to His commands and laws." 77 So human vicegerency
needs to be interpreted in relation to the sovereignty of God, not
God created everything by accurate measurement, there is a purpose
behind every act of creation. Each species is having its own role to
play in the over all plan of creation. Thus everything is interrelated
and contributes to the whole life of universe. If one species is
eliminated, it affects the whole creation and disturbs its balance. It
implies that every creature should be protected. We have seen that
non-human creation is part of the beings of God and continuously praises
Him. As signs of God, they manifest God and as being in the state of
By assisting human beings in their spiritual journey, they become part
of a sacred activity. Also by creating them as communities, God is
equally concerned about their providence and life as of human community.
Thus non-human creation is having its own value and it implies that the
Qur’an rejects an anthropocentric view of creation.
We have also noted that it is God who made everything subservient to the
use and benefit of human beings. Thus the subservience of non-human
creatures is part of the purpose of creation. So subservience cannot be
interpreted as the right to exploit creation by dominating it.
Domination goes against the purpose of creation. We have also noted that
in their natural state (fitra), human beings have a bias
towards good and against evil. Harmonious living with the rest of
creation is the best thing human beings can do amidst the ecological
crisis. Since God is the Creator, as one of the creatures, human beings
do not have authority over creation except through God. Given that God,
continues the process of creation by recreation, there is no possibility
to think that God has granted authority to human beings to misuse it and
thus to destroy it. Vicegerency does not make human beings owners or
proprietors of creation. As vicegerents of God our responsibility is to
protect creation and to be part of God’s recreation process. We cannot
be idle while the creation is being destroyed. We have to eliminate all
kinds of evil, which causes destruction of creation.
As a student of Religions, I want to note that various responses to the
ecological crisis are already given from the perspective of different
religious traditions. Even though the theological and philosophical
bases of these responses are different, one can discern a common growing
concern for our own home (universe) and brothers and sisters (non-human
creation). This concern can lead us to have further dialogue between
various religious traditions to see various theological and
philosophical foundations for ecological concerns. To respond to the
ecological crisis it may help us to go deeper into our own religious
tradition to see different bases other than what we already found. The
dialogue between religious traditions not only helps us to live
peacefully with the rest of creation but also helps us to live
peacefully with people of other faiths. Thus ecological discussions can
lead us to new way of life.
I also want to notice that the ecological insights can lead us to a new
spirituality. Since there is continuity between God and the creation,
this spirituality will see the presence of God in creation. So it
seriously takes into consideration the intrinsic value of creation. This
spirituality is holistic and committed to protect and preserve creation.
It is the result of gratitude and thankfulness to God for the strong
felt presence and power of God in creation. It tries to understand
creation as a blessing of God entrusted to human beings to take care of
it. So it is less anthropocentric and does not justify domination over
creation. Thus this spirituality resists any ideology, value or life
style that distorts and destroys God’s creation. It is a spirituality
that actively participates in upholding justice, freedom and life
inherent in the created order.
The author in his Master of Theology thesis, submitted to the Senate of
Serampore College in March 1999, debates most of the things discussed in
this article and it is available for reference at the libraries of the
United Theological College, Bangalore and Henry Martyn Institute,
2. R. Amaldez, "Kitalk," Encyclopedia of Islam, edited by Evan
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3. Muhammad Fawad Abdul Baqi, ed., Al-Muajam-al-Mufahir’s Li-Alfazil
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4. E. W. Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon, Vol. 2 (Beirut-Lebanon:
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5. Ibid. p. 802.
6. R. Arnaldez op.cit.980, Halok is the corresponding Hebrew
7. See the Holy Qur’an 29:19; 10:4; 30:11.27.
8. E.W.Lane, VoL 1, op. cit., 197; See also 59:24; 57:22;
6:94,98: bara is its Hebrew equivalent.
10. 2:54; 59:24.
11. 40:64 (two times); 64:3 (two times); 7:11; 3:6; 82:8; 59:24.
12. E. W. Lane, Vol. 4, op. cit., 1744.
13. Yunus Negus, "Science Within Islam: Learning How to Care for Our
World," in Islam and Ecology, edited by Fazlun M Khalid and
Joanne O’Brien (New York: Cassell Publishers Limited, 1992), 40.
14. Muhammad Fawad Abdul Baqi, ed., op. cit. 170-175 .
15. E. W. Lane, Vol. 2. op. cit., 430.
16. For details, see Abul Kalam Azad. The Tarjuman Al-Quran.
Edited and translated by Syed Abdul Latif, Vol. 3. (Hyderabad: Syed
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17. 12:76; 29:20; 32:7; 7:29; 9:63; 21:104;90:4;10:34 (two times);
27:64; 30:11; 30:27; 29:19; 34:49; 80:13.
18. E. W. Lane, Vol. 1, op. cit., 163
19. E. W. Lane, Vol. 1, op. cit., 166.
20. Muhammad Fawad Abdul Baqi, ed., op. cit., 522-523.
21. Ibid., 2415.
22. The creative command of God is explained eight places in the Qur’an.
36:82; 2:117; 16:40; 6:73; 19:35; 3:47, 59; 40:68.
23. 44:38; 21:16; 23:115; 38:27; 3:191; 45:22; 15:85: 44:39; 46:3; 10:5;
14:19; 16:3; 29:44; 6:73; 30:8; 64:3.
24. In Arabic, the word haqq is used primarily to explain the
idea of permanence or fixity. Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam,
1974 ed. s.v. "Hakk", 126; Abul Kalam Azad. Op.cit. 66-68.
25. 112:1-4; 2:163; 6:19;16:22; 23:91-92; 37:1-5; 38:65-68.
26. Soumaya Perrilla Ouis. "Islamic Ecotheology Based on the Qur’an"
Islamic Studies 37 (Summer, 1998): 153.
27. In the West, during the Age of Enlightenment, Cartesian (philosophy
of R. Descartes, who was a 17th century French philosopher) dualism
contributed to the development of ecological crisis. See. Soumaya
Pernilla Ouis, op. cit., 152. In 1967 Lynn white Jr., a professor
of History, University of California, argued that by destroying animism
(the belief in supernatural power that organises and animates the
material universe.) Christianity made it possible to exploit nature. And
in 1989 Alastair M. Taylor and Duncan M. Taylor tried to prove that
dualistic nature of Semitic religions paved the way for ecological
crisis. See. A. R. Agwan. "Introduction," in Islam and the
Environment, edited by A. R. Agwan. (Delhi: Institute of Objective
Studies, 1997), IX, X.
28. 4:108, 126; Soumaya Pernilla Ouis, op. cit., 163.
29. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "Islam and the Environmental Crisis," in
Islam and the Environment, op. cit., 18.
32. Azad termed this as Takhliq-bil-Haq. See Abul Kalam Azad.
34. A.R.Agwan, "Introduction," Islam and the Environment, op.
35. 2:164: 3:190; 13:2-4; 16:10-13; 27:86; 29:44; 30:20-25; 41:37;
36. E.W. Lane, Vol. 1, op. cit., 135.
37. Sachiko Murata and William C Chittick. The Vision of Islam.
(New York- Daragon Home, 1994) ,52.
38. Ibid., 54.
39. Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an. (Minneapolis:
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E. Timm, "The Ecological Fallout of Islamic Creation Theology," in
Worldviews and Ecology: Religion. Philosophy, and the Environment.
Ecology and Justice Series, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A Grim
(Maryknoll. New York: Orbis Books, 1994), 86.
40. 22:18; 21:79; 55:6; 57:1; 59:1; 61:1; 62:1; 64:1:59:24; 24:41;
42. 3: 83
43. Ritual worship (salat) is one of the pillars of Islam and a
Muslim has to pray five times a day.
44. Soumaya Pernilla Ouis, op. cit., 170.
45. S. H. Nasr. ‘The Cosmos and the Natural Order" in Islamic
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46. Baidawi.Anwaral-tanzil-wa-asraral-Ta’wil. (Egypt: Maimaniya
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48. 14:32-33; 16:5-8.
49. 45:12-13; 14:33-34.
50. E.W.Lane, Vol. 4. op. cit., 1324.
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60. 15:29, 32:9, 38:72. A similar action can be seen in 21:91 and 66:12
when God blew (nafaka) of His spirit (ruh) in to Maryam
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61. Qur’an. op. cit., 1227, 979.
62. Soumaya Pernilla Ouis, op. cit., 157.
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65. Soumaya Pernilla Ouis, op. cit., 158.
66. 38:26:10:14; 2:30; 7:69:7:74; 6:165; 2:255; 7:169
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76. Soumaya Pernilla Ouis, op. cit., 154.
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