Asthma. Obesity. Cancer. Depression. Advances in industry and technology have manifested in the phenomenon we call ‘diseases of civilization’, and they go far deeper than constricted bronchioles and excess fat. We are ill within and without. Mental illness, spiritual illness, rapidly depleting natural resources, fast-paced lifestyles, and suffocation amidst the fumes and crowdedness of our cities.
We bathe in, consume and inhale chemicals, insert them into our bodies, and then wonder why we struggle. Our eyes are more accustomed to the light of our screens than the light of the sun, and constant entertainment, stimulation and instant gratification characterizes our evolving state. The beautiful, steadfast patience required to plant and nurture a seed and wait for it to grow, has been stolen from us, and replaced tragically with dopamine hits from social media ‘likes’ and followers, with quick, convenient and never-ending. The subsequent impact this has on our souls and character is immeasurable. Our relationship with the natural world is in crisis.
A fast and furious lifestyle is more desirable than any other, and speed of action, thinking, the pace of day, of travel and communication, is increasingly seen as necessary for progression and success. On this path, we have prostituted our planet. Violently abused her solely for our own gains with no regard or responsibility for her welfare in return, and while doing so, plunged our souls into a state of disrepair.
Children grow up in concrete jungles, nurtured not by the sight of flowers and the feeling of soil or sand beneath their feet, instead, it is through the caress of polymers and metals and synthetic cloth. Playgrounds are tarmacked and more time is spent on Playstations than playing in the branches of trees. E numbers and artificial preservatives define our diets and the first and last thing we see each day is a screen. Our bodies, that are made from the earth, that will return to the earth, and that are fundamentally linked to the earth in many ways. We drive to the artificially constructed gym, (usually an artificially lit, electrically charged atmosphere pumping with music) to exercise our bodies.
Those same bodies that crave the light of the sun, the caress of rain on our skin, the wind invigorating our limbs, is drowning. When they cry out for help, in the form of disease and illness, we quickly medicate with more chemicals.
We are in a terrible state of disrepair. Modern developments combined with a capitalist, consumption-driven society have snowballed into what is fast becoming a disaster.
On the rare occasions when the motives with which we interact with the earth are not economical, for example, crude oil for your car or straighteners or kettle or laptop, they remain in pursuit of a superficial mystique. We lack the patience and resilience to climb spiritual mountains and when we climb physical mountains it is with the attitude of conquering the earth, of emerging superior, dominant, rather than a meditative, humbling encounter. We stick flags in the ground at the peak and count the ascension as a profound achievement. If only we knew of the true potential for real ascension accompanying every encounter with God’s creation.
When we visit places of natural beauty it is so we can take impressive pictures for Instagram, and more time is spent thinking up captions and getting filters right than absorbing the atmosphere and internalising the incredible details.
In developing countries, the mindset is also visible; farming, residing in villages and not being up to date with technology is seen as backward and undesirable. Those who call for protection and honouring of the planet are generally labeled hippies and it is only when the general public sees a photo of a dying polar bear or starving seal pup that anything stirs. Any stirring does not last any longer than a few minutes or go beyond a trendy campaign before our insatiable lifestyles kick back in and we choose to forget again.
I was raised with a sense of environmental consciousness, and remember feeling very strongly about turning the tap off while brushing my teeth, recycling plastics and boycotting unethical brands even at primary school, but have slowly realised how complex the issue truly is. It is not a case simply of our degradation of the earth and unnatural lifestyles resulting in us developing physical and mental diseases. It begins before that. The very fact that we are ABLE to abuse our planet shows that we are diseased. Humanity has turned outwards, despite the fact that the purpose for our existence is to discover and be nourished with what is within. The destitution of our souls and our lack of inwardness is manifested in the ferocious destructive force we have set forth on the earth. The filth and darkness we have unleashed on the oceans, the forests, the air and the soil is actually a reflection of the filth and darkness within you and me.
The only place God uses the word ‘Ayat’, literally meaning ‘Signs’, other than regarding the verses of His book, is when referring to the natural world. The honour and elevation afforded to the planets and trees and rivers are unrivaled in our existence, not only are they provided with this unique status, but throughout the Holy Book and tradition, the earth and its creatures are sworn by and protected. The very structure of the cosmos itself contains spiritual meaning for humans and our lifestyles undermine the purposeful sanctity woven into our universe.
We must learn to recognise the universe as the 3-dimensional topographical manifestation of Quran i.e. Divine Speech. The natural world and all its wonders are almost like the pop-up part of the pop-up book, tangible illustrations of the profound message sent unto us.
The most sacred thing in existence as we know it, is the timeless speech of our Lord, and now we know that the place He chose to be direct reflections of His blessed words is the natural environment, we must learn to treat the oceans and animals and mountains and plants with due respect. Not only does this mean that if we disrespect or abuse the earth, we are disrespecting God, but we also forego perhaps the single most powerful and significant route to attain nearness to God. Allah swt weaves His reality into original creation, and the potential this holds for us is demonstrated by the fact that the Prophet SAW reached awareness of and nearness to God before prophecy, through immersing himself in natural creation. Pondering the wondrous creation of God and retreating from the artificial world set the scene for the descending of the revelation to our Beloved.
It was after spending extremely long periods of time in the cave of Hira that the Prophet SAW was made ready to receive the Quran. The purifying effect on the soul and the bestowal of clarity on the mind that seclusion in nature alone can bring is not seen anywhere else.
There are signs in this for you and I, that proximity to God cannot be reached simply by reading the pages of the Book. The Book is intrinsically linked to the physical universe, and the streams, the valleys, the clouds puffing through the sky all offer unique paths to access The Divine. Reading of the Quran must be accompanied by devoted and meaningful engagement with and reflection on the original creation. The Creator is suffused into His Creation, but we cannot see it. In occupying ourselves with everything manmade and artificial, instant and unnatural, we have forfeited the most potent and necessary pathways for the success of our souls.
We claim to seek God fervently, yet in our actions and attitudes deny the very existence of the treasure map He provided us with. We are lost.
In Part 2 we will look at the Prophet SAW as an environmentalist, the concept of meditation, seclusion, and slowing down in Islam as well as how we can begin to change ourselves and those around us to heal, reconnect and discover the Creator through Creation.
Hiba Noor Khan is a children’s author, her books include The Little War Cat, Inspiring Inventors and One Home. She has two titles to be published in 2023, including her first novel – Safiyyah’s War. Her books have been listed for national awards and translated into Swedish, Korean, Turkish, Breton and counting. She secretly wants to be an explorer, and is happiest surrounded by nature, especially near the ocean.