Al Mizan, an Islamic covenant for the earth

March 25, 2024 by
Ömer F. Gürlesin


One of the notable differences between Islam and Christianity is Islam's decentralized structure, which contrasts with the central authority observed in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly through the Papacy's role in shaping environmental discourse with documents like "Laudato Si'" and "Laudate Deum." These encyclicals have profoundly influenced Christian communities, fostering debates on faith's relationship with environmental stewardship. In contrast, Islam has lacked a unified document addressing the environment, leaving me, until recently, referencing scattered writings when asked about an Islamic equivalent by my colleagues from both faiths.

The introduction of "Al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth" has changed this dynamic, offering a specific text that encapsulates Islamic environmental ethics. Positioned as a potential unifying force, Al-Mizan illuminates environmental concerns from an Islamic viewpoint. Its current state, the product of diligent efforts by a select group of academics, hints at its future significance. I hold hope for Al-Mizan's ability to become a foundational work for Muslim scholars and the broader community, advocating a collective Islamic voice on environmental care.

Formation of Al-Mizan

Al-Mizan, which metaphorically represents "The Balance" in Islamic theology, is conceptually rooted in the emphasis on balance and harmony within creation as delineated in Surah Ar-Rahman (Chapter 55 of the Qur'an), referred to as 'The Merciful' in English.

The Most Merciful,
Taught the Quran
Created Humankind
Taught him Eloquence
The sun and the moon move in precise calculation
and the stars and the trees prostrate
and the heaven He raised and imposed the balance (Mizan)
That you not transgress within the balance (Mizan)
and establish weight in justice and do not make deficient the balance (Mizan)
(Quran 55:1-9)

The development of Al-Mizan commenced significantly at the Eighth Islamic Conference of Environment Ministers in 2019, a gathering that underscored the essential role of cultural and religious perspectives in fostering environmental protection and sustainable development. This pivotal event catalysed the call for a strategic document that could articulate the Islamic environmental ethos, leading to the formation of a collaborative effort among Islamic scholars and various organizations, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Faith for Earth Initiative.

This collaborative endeavor brought together entities such as the Islamic World Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ICESCO, with headquarters in Rabat, Morocco), the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (Birmingham, UK), Üsküdar Üniversity (Istanbul, Turkey), the Qur’anic Botanical Garden (Qatar), and the College of Islamic Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (Qatar). United by a common purpose, these organizations embarked on the ambitious task of drafting a document that not only confronts the contemporary environmental crises but does so by rooting its principles deeply in Islamic theology and teachings, aiming to create a guide that resonates with Muslims globally and encourages a unified approach to ecological preservation.

Key Themes in Al-Mizan

Al-Mizan is structured around five main chapters, each addressing a distinct aspect of Islamic environmental ethics and stewardship. It begins with "An Appraisal of the State of the Earth," addressing critical environmental challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecological degradation. It emphasizes the impact of human activity on these issues and calls for shared responsibility and urgent action, all within a moral and ethical framework.  Following this, "Signs of God in the Heavens and the Earth" explores the Islamic perception of nature as a manifestation of divine balance and harmony, highlighting Tawḥīd (the Oneness of God) and presenting nature as an Āyah (sign) of God’s creative power and wisdom. This section underlines the concept that every element of creation is a vital part of the divine balance (al-mīzān) and merits dignified treatment and care.

Subsequently, "The Ecological Ethos and Ethics of Islam" delves into the ethical dimensions of Islamic teachings on environmental stewardship. It outlines the concept of Khalīfah (stewardship), designating humans as caretakers of the Earth with the duty to protect its balance. This part of the text also stresses Raḥmah (compassion) towards all creation and details Islamic ethical principles guiding Muslims towards a sustainable and harmonious existence with the environment.

Following this, "Equity, Fairness, and Justice in Sharing the Sources of Life," is integral to the discourse, focusing on the Islamic principles of equitable distribution and fair access to life’s essential resources. This segment asserts the necessity of justice and equity in the utilization and sharing of the Earth’s resources, ensuring that environmental stewardship is practiced in a manner that is fair and beneficial to all parts of society. It reinforces the idea that sustainable living and environmental conservation must be approached with a commitment to fairness and justice, ensuring that the benefits of the Earth's resources are accessible to everyone, thereby preventing exploitation and inequality.

Culminating in the exploration of tangible solutions, "Principles and Practices for Tending the Earth" offers practical guidance for environmental conservation from an Islamic perspective. It links theological ethics with tangible actions, advocating for sustainable agricultural practices (Ḥalāl and Ṭayyib), water conservation, and the implementation of Sharī‘ah-based environmental policies. This section serves as a comprehensive blueprint for Muslims to actively engage in the conservation and restoration of the Earth’s ecological balance, concluding the holistic approach of Al-Mizan to intertwining Islamic faith with environmental ethics and action.

A Potential Unifying Document

The absence of a centralized religious authority in Islam has often resulted in diverse interpretations and practices. However, Al-Mizan emerges as a potential unifying force, drawing upon the rich tapestry of Islamic teachings to address contemporary environmental challenges. Similar to how Papal Encyclicals have guided the environmental discourse within the Roman Catholic community and beyond, Al-Mizan seeks to galvanize the Muslim ummah (community) towards a common cause – the care of the Earth. By grounding its environmental ethos in the Qur’ān and Sunnah (the teachings and practices of the prophet Muhammad), this document offers a shared platform for Muslims around the world to engage in ecological preservation, transcending cultural, geographical, and sectarian divides.

Al-Mizan has significant potential to shape Islamic discourse on environmental stewardship, representing a notable stride in integrating religious teachings with practical environmental action. However, its reception within diverse Islamic communities may vary, due to differing interpretive traditions, cultural contexts, and levels of environmental awareness.

The challenge lies not only in garnering acceptance for the theological arguments presented in this text but also in translating its principles into actionable strategies across various social and economic landscapes. Bridging this gap requires not only raising awareness but also developing resources and platforms to facilitate community-led environmental initiatives. Al-Mizan underscores the importance of actionable guidance, evident in its discussions on water conservation, sustainable agriculture, and ethical consumption, offering tangible avenues for engagement with environmental sustainability.

Despite these challenges, Al-Mizan presents valuable opportunities for deepening Islamic engagement with environmental issues. It provides a framework for discussing ecological stewardship within Islamic education, potentially enriching religious curricula in schools and universities. Additionally, this text can serve as a catalyst for interfaith dialogue on environmental sustainability, highlighting shared values and mutual concerns among different religious traditions. It also offers a reading for Muslims to reflect on their connection with nature and on the intrinsic value of the environment.

The month of Ramadan holds significant importance for Muslims worldwide. It is a time for purification, reflection, and spiritual renewal. The final days of Ramadan, the time of ʿitikāf—a dedicated period for profound spiritual introspection and isolation—offer a chance for individuals to reflect on their being and reevaluate their connection with the natural world. In this context, Al-Mizan provides a unique opportunity, guiding us to deepen our understanding of Islamic ecological ethics. It encourages both individuals and communities to engage with our environment in ways that are mindful and sustainable, fostering a profound connection with the natural world that resonates with the spirit of Ramadan.

Ömer F. Gürlesin March 25, 2024
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