AN ISLAMIC/SUFI RESPONSE TO POPE FRANCIS
“Waste not by excess, for God does not love those who are wasteful.”
“It is wasteful to consume whatever one desires.”
(Ibn Majah, At’ima, 51)
“We have received this world as a gift from God, our Creator. The Earth is a
present to us. With discernment and with conscience, let us again bequeath
this abode to God, Who entrusted it to us in the Beginning.”
—Master Ahmet Kayhan
On June 18, 2015, Pope Francis issued a Papal Encyclical on climate change. An encyclical is considered to be the highest teaching of the Catholic Church, so it was met with acclaim worthy of its significance. Although previous popes had made statements regarding global warming and the ecological predicament, this is the first time a pope has come forth with a major, well-reasoned and well-articulated position paper on the subject.
The encyclical begins with the words of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Praise be to you, my Lord”. (Jorge Mario Bergoglio adopted the name of his favorite saint when he became Pope.) The title of the encyclical, Laudato Si’ (Praise Be), also happens to be the beginning of the Opening Chapter of the Koran: “Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds” (Al-hamdu... 1:1).
Here we shall not go into the possible Sufi affiliations of Saint Francis, which I have dealt with elsewhere (see the Prologue to The Teachings of a Perfect Master (2012), henceforth TPM). However, the encyclical appears to be mostly consistent with Sufi teachings: the Pope even quotes a Sufi writer (in footnote 159). I estimate that roughly 95 percent of the text is purely monotheistic in tenor. While Francis does mention the Trinity and the Eucharist (especially toward the end), how can we hold this against him?—he is, after all, the Pope of Catholic Christianity. Although the majority of the encyclical is addressed to every person living on this planet, Francis is surely entitled to a private moment or two with his flock.
Climate scientists were quick to point out that there were few, if any, factual errors in the scientific part of the document. The Pope has also had his critics. When those scarcely capable of distinguishing between social justice and Marxism brand the Pope a “Marxist,” they must have Gordon Gecko’s infamous motto, “Greed is good,” uppermost on their minds. (In their book, anyone who ever gave a coin to a beggar must count as a “communist.” Whatever happened to Christian charity?)
The pontiff appears to portray God as being both transcendent and immanent, a view also shared by Islam. God is both Inwardly Present (Bâtin) and Outwardly Manifest (Zâhir). Or, as the great Sufi sage Ibn Arabi described it, God is both Similar in some respects to His creatures (tashbih) and Incomparable in others (tanzih). (More below about these.)
The First Law of Ecology was formulated by Barry Commoner as follows:
“Everything is connected to everything else.”
This is a holistic view, and the medium for its occurrence is not just material but spiritual connectivity. This also ties in with the fundamental Islamic concept of the Unity of God (tawhid), or Ibn Arabi’s concept of Unity of Being (wahdat al-wujud): according to one way of understanding the latter, all things are interconnected to form one grand Unity.
The Pope has done a great service by sounding this wake-up call. “A good word is like a good tree,” says the Koran (14:24), and Pope Francis has planted that tree. An International Islamic Declaration on Climate Change has already been issued. In what follows, I will try to take a different approach.
For decades, nature has been giving signs that humans are pushing it to its limits, especially in terms of global warming. The danger is that a tipping point may be reached, beyond which total collapse is inevitable and recovery, impossible.
What, exactly, is global warming?
The Earth normally has a specific rate of heat exchange with its immediate environment. Energy from the sun warms up the Earth. Some of this energy is radiated back into space, and thus there is a net energy balance between the energy input and output. Note that this balance, like the balances of most processes in nature, is not static, but dynamic. The Earth's systems have a built-in resilience that allows them to accommodate this dynamism—within limits. If the increase exceeds 2 degrees Centigrade, it could result in drastic climate changes.
When human beings use fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), they liberate extra energy into the atmosphere that had been stored millions of years ago. Simultaneously, because these fuels consume oxygen and turn it into carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse effect is created (whence the term “greenhouse gases”) in which the liberated energy cannot escape, but is trapped within the atmosphere. This reduces the thermal energy output rate of the Earth, and our planet warms up. The CO2 concentration has passed 400 parts per million (ppm). 2 ppm is being added every year, and the planet has already warmed 1 degree Centigrade. Even the Siberian permafrost is thawing out.
Contrary to what might be expected, global warming does not result in a uniform increase in heat all over the globe: the interactions of Earth's weather systems are too complex for that. It can produce local hot spots as well as cold spots. Rather, it affects climate patterns, resulting in chaotic and sudden climate changes which become increasingly unpredictable.
The solution? Renewable, sustainable and clean energy resources, such as solar, wind and tidal power, which do not liberate additional energy into the atmosphere. Reduction of reliance on greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels. If possible, reduction of atmospheric CO2 concentration to (say) pre-1988 levels (less than 350 ppm).
As E.F. Schumacher pointed out many years ago, fossil fuels are like capital: once gone, they're gone forever. Renewable energy forms are like income: we can count on their indefinite replenishment. We are presently eating into our capital at an unprecedented rate. The average North American consumes 23.6 barrels of oil a year (as of 2012), which is the energy equivalent of 89 virtual slaves.
Although climate change and global warming have been on the agenda for many years, there are still those who doubt what lies in plain sight. Michael Shermer, an arch-skeptic in many things, has come around to the view that global warming is a reality, which he attributes to David Suzuki. Shermer now draws a distinction between skepticism and denial (see here). As David Robert Grimes has observed: “Evidence for climate change is overwhelming, confirmed by measurement, theory and experiment. Self-proclaimed climate ‘sceptics’ are nothing of the sort; they are rank denialists, deliberately refusing to accept the incontrovertible evidence that their position is untenable.”
Any economic gain that arises from human activities has to be judged against the ecological damage it causes. According to the 19th-century Ottoman codification of Islamic law, the Majalla, “averting harm takes precedence over securing benefits” (Introduction, Maxim 30). As conscious actors upon a submissive nature, we are responsible for taking precautions. When a companion of Mohammed neglected to tie up his camel, the camel wandered off and was lost. The owner complained of his loss to the Prophet, saying: “I trusted in God, but my camel is gone.” Mohammed replied: “First tie up your camel, then trust in God.”
The House That Fell Down
There was once a man who owned a house. He was quite satisfied with it. Many years passed. Finally, the house began to show signs of disrepair.
First, the wall paint fell off. The man ignored this.
Then the wall cracked. The man ignored that.
Then the roof began to leak. The man ignored that, too.
After many such incidents, which were all ignored by the owner, the house finally collapsed.
The man came to his senses.
He sat down among the rubble in tears, and lamented: “You and I had such a good relationship. What happened that you had to go and collapse like this?”
That's when the rubble was endowed with the capability of speech.
It said: “My master, of course you're right. But I sent you so many signs. You ignored them all. You disregarded the wall paint, you took no notice of the cracks, you didn't even think to mend the roof. Is it any wonder that we're now in the present state of affairs?”
Only then did the man understand what had happened. But by then, it was too late.
Now the house of humanity is Planet Earth. When it begins to send out distress signals, shouldn't we carefully remedy their causes?
The Bane of Consumerism
We have reached a stage in our development where your economic value is judged by the extent to which you consume. And this leads to overconsumption.
The causes of overconsumption are multifarious. People want to earn money, and if they can’t sell you their stuff because you don’t need it, they will create a need for it artificially. This is called “manufactured demand.” One way to achieve this is advertising. The latest model of the xPhone or the i-box is only slightly better than the last one, yet savvy marketing leads us to believe that a veritable revolution has occurred from one model to the next. As a consequence, we simply have to get the latest.
Then there’s the technique of planned obsolescence. Many things could be built to last. But in that case, you wouldn’t need a new radio for the next fifty or hundred years. Hence, flaws are artificially and intentionally introduced into products, so that, sooner or later, you will be forced to have them repaired or, better, buy a new one. This is all part of the strategy to maximize profits. In other words, investors and manufacturers are culpable in creating much of the waste around us. So if you are one of these, you could try to develop an approach that may not be so lucrative, but would also be less costly to the environment. Because your profit comes at the expense of the latter.
Another problem is unrecycled packaging. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1969-1970 in boats made of papyrus, Thor Heyerdahl witnessed clots of oil in the middle of the ocean that had congealed from oil spills. But today, the problem is far more grave: great patches made up of tiny pieces of plastic swim in the middle of the ocean. One of these rubbish soups, off the coast of California and called the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, weighed a hundred million tons in 2010, and covered an area six times the size of Great Britain. (It doubled in size in the first decade of this century; today it must be even bigger.)
We also know that plastics, in addition to being nonbiodegradable, are made from oil, and that there’s a limit to the oil on this planet. Either a different way of packaging has to be invented, or packages have to be recycled, like people used to return glass milk bottles for a small deposit not so long ago. The throwaway culture wins out because moneywise, it’s the cheapest method. But it’s not cheap environmentally, for we’re throwing away the resources of our children and grandchildren, plus polluting the earth and seas to boot.
Precious little has been achieved since the environmental crisis first reached widespread public awareness, the 1992 Rio convention and the 1997 Kyoto protocol being notable exceptions. Rich countries try to blame poor countries and shift the burden on them, even while poor countries are the most impacted environmentally due to the consumptive habits of rich countries. From 1990 to 2013, global CO2 emissions have increased from 22.7 to 35.3 billion tons —an increase of 56%. It is no secret that the greed for unlimited growth is wrecking our planet. As the Koran says, “God does not change the state of a people until they change themselves” (13:11). Hence, until a real awakening occurs and effective steps are taken towards real change, we may expect more of the same.
Harmony or War?
In several places, the Pope underlines the importance of living in “harmony with God, with others, with nature and with [one]self.”
The origins of modern environmental consciousness can be traced to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Islamic philosopher as well as a Traditionalist, gave a series of lectures in 1966 that were later published in book form, as (The Encounter of) Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (1968). Note that Nasr’s lectures predate even Lynn White’s seminal article (“The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155:1203-7), published in the journal Science in 1967 (indicting Christianity as the cause of the ecological crisis). It was in 1969 that environmental awareness first hit the mainstream media. And in 1972, the Club of Rome’s much maligned—but so far, still basically accurate (see Figure 1 below)—report, The Limits To Growth, appeared.
Before all of these, Nasr was claiming that the ecological crisis is basically a spiritual problem. Nasr’s book concluded:
in both the state of war and peace man is waging an incessant war upon nature. The official state of war is no more than an occasional outburst of an activity that goes on all the time within the souls of men, in human society and towards nature. It is no more than a chimerical dream to expect to have peace based upon a state of intense war toward nature and disequilibrium with the cosmic environment. It is only the complete ignorance of what man’s relation to nature means that could allow such views to be entertained. Whether one pollutes water resources in a single bombing or does so over a twenty-year period is essentially the same; the only difference is the matter of time. The net result does not differ in the two cases because in both instances man is waging war against nature.
Perhaps the answer to the burning question of how to avoid war and also of how to preserve human dignity in face of the threat of total war, lies in coming to peace with nature. But the development of this peaceful accord depends in turn upon the re-discovery of the spiritual significance of nature...
In the end what we can say with all certainty is that there is no peace possible among men unless there is peace and harmony with nature. And in order to have peace and harmony with nature one must be in harmony and equilibrium with Heaven, and ultimately with the Source and Origin of all things. He who is at peace with God is also at peace with His creation, both with nature and with man.
(Nasr, Man and Nature (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968), pp. 135-6.)
In a later book, Religion and the Order of Nature (1996), Nasr called for people of faith to come together and pool their spiritual resources focusing on the sacredness of nature. Nasr has continued to this day to voice his concerns.
And now, a word to the reader:
You know in your heart that this boils down to you and me. The politicians are not going to take the right steps, at least not in time. Moreover: “The problem seems to lie with issues which require widespread changes in everyone’s behavior.” (Ugo Bardi, The Limits to Growth Revisited, New York: Springer, 2011, p. 103.) And this can’t be solved politically, it is a question of ethics.
This is not meant to imply that political solutions are futile and should not be pursued. On the contrary, we need as much help as we can get. But meanwhile, there are things that you, I, and billions of other human beings can do, regardless of whether politicians, committees, and governments are able to get their acts together. Collective human behavior is what really counts in the long run. And this calls for an alteration in our worldview, for any change in ethical behavior is not possible without a change in worldview, in our metaphysical presuppositions about reality.
The Prophet of God has said: “I came to perfect your ethics.” Since perfect ethics has to be all-comprehensive, environmental ethics, or eco-ethics, must be present as a subset within perfect ethics. It is with this in mind that we can begin to probe Islam and Sufism for the ecological insights they may yield.
Sufism and Ecology
According to the Koran, God has created nature as a gift to humanity. Nothing in nature is created in vain (3:191), nor in jest (44:38); it is full of signs of God that are useful to human beings (16:65-9). “It is God who created the heavens and the earth, and sent down out of heaven water wherewith He brought forth fruits for your sustenance” (14:32).
All living systems, including humans, are predicated on four physical factors: air, water, sun, and soil. Master Kayhan characterized these as “poles” and “givers,” saying that they all gave without taking, and that whoever became like one of these would become a Sufi saint (friend of God). This is why a saying attributed to Rumi (with greater likelihood, to Luqman) reads in part:
In grace and mercy, be like the sun;
In generosity, be like running water;
In modesty, be like the earth.
According to Pope Francis, “human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.” In the Preface to his first book, Man and Universe (1989), Master Kayhan said:
Man and universe are like the two sides of the same leaf; they are inseparable. But when we consider the situation of man and universe, they have set love aside, they consume each other in fierce enmity. What we see from Adam onwards to the end is that two intimate friends have become enemies. By eating, drinking and clothing, humankind is trying to finish our world, with its gold, its silver, its minerals, water and soil. Man upsets the universe, which should be his beloved. In turn, the universe and the earth consume man. Both consume each other in enmity, and neither is ever sated. No-one is aware of this perversity.
Whoever beholds this friendship and enmity of man and universe, seeing two sides of the same leaf in them, becomes a sage.
Elsewhere, he said: “If we are good, everything will be good. If we’re good, the universe is good. If we see the universe as bad, this or that, know that we’re bad. When man is corrupted, the entire world becomes corrupt.” (TPM, p. 55.)
In the “hidden treasure” Holy Saying, God has stated: “I was a hidden treasure, and I desired/loved to be known. Therefore, I brought Creation into being.”
Human beings, endowed with intelligence, consciousness and self-consciousness, are the only creatures capable of fulfilling this purpose of creation. This is why God says: “I created all beings for you, and you I created for Myself”—not for overconsumption, not for exploitation of other beings, and especially not for being heedless of God.
According to Sufism, a person who succeeds in worshiping/knowing God to the fullest extent, becomes a Perfect Human Being (insan al-kâmil). Such a person becomes the axis of the universe and is called a “pole,” for this person unites heaven and earth. Bearing the universe within, s/he represents totality. This is the one who can rightfully be called Vicegerent (khalifa) or Trustee (amîn), and is worthy of bearing the Trust (amana). Such persons pass beyond the merely human and become infused with the divine. It is possible to state this, but what it really means remains incomprehensible to ordinary mortals. As humans, however, we all share the same potential to become like that: it is built into us. And for this reason, we are all trustees, we have all been entrusted with the Trust: that of safeguarding nature, and the Earth that sustains us. We have been endowed with the intelligence and wherewithal to succeed in this task.
According to Sufism, God created the universe through His Names, which reflect His Attributes. Hence, every being is a constellation of these Attributes, manifesting this or that subset of them. To study nature, as the early Muslim scientists well knew, is to study the Way (or ways) of God (sunnah Allah). Every being, if viewed with the eye of wisdom, has its own profound story to tell: the trees, the fishes, the rivers, the oceans, the rocks, the bats, the cats. As Walt Whitman wrote, “a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of idiots.” It is only to the human, however, that the potential to manifest all Attributes has been granted.
The Book of God (the Koran) and the Book of Creation (nature) mirror each other, in a manner that is fully comprehensible only to God. The verses of the Koran and the creatures in nature are both called “signs” (ayah). The verses bear testimony to the Unity and uniqueness of God. And every creature, in its own way, is a sign or signifier (perhaps “symbol” would be a better term) that points beyond itself, where the signified is God.
In the Sufi perspective, God is both transcendent and immanent: He is both within all things, and above all creatures. This is not expressed by the terms “transcendence” and “immanence,” however, but by the closely related concepts of “similarity” (tashbih) and “incomparability” (tanzih). God is similar to His creatures in some respects, but radically differs from them in others. For beyond all manifested Attributes, there is the unmanifest Essence (Dhat) of God—beyond all limitations and finitude. God is the Center of the universe, and that Center is everywhere, within each one of us, as well as without. “God is in the earth, He is in heaven, He is in the rock, and He is with us wherever we are” (Ibn Arabi).
In order to truly realize this, humility of the utmost sort is necessary: one must humble oneself before the smallest ant. According to Ibn Arabi, the most exalted of all human beings, the perfect human being, is also “the perfect servant,” that is, the most abased of all creatures before God. In becoming nothing, one becomes everything. The obstacle of the ego or Base Self is then removed, and one becomes totally transparent to God. One becomes a true guardian of nature, helping God in the maintenance and repair of the universe. And because all humanity has been given the Trust (33:72), we all participate as the custodians or guardians of nature. We all have our parts to play in repairing the world (called tikkun olam in Judaism).
This brings us to a cardinal concept of Sufism: courtesy (adab). This is not simply morals or ethics, but a refined way of treating all beings that is superior even to ethics: treating all beings with loving-kindness. This is the attitude that needs to be fostered in this age of ecological crisis. As Master Kayhan said, we should be mindful of and considerate towards even what we eat:
You’re walking in your house, you see a breadcrumb. No harm in stepping on it, but there is one harm. You eat it, you consume it, why step on it? If it were a scorpion, a wasp, you couldn’t step on it, you’d be scared. (TPM, p. 105.)
The Prophet says:
God is beautiful, He loves beauty;
God is generous, He loves generosity;
God is pure, He loves purity.
In order to comply with another Saying of the Prophet, “Adorn yourselves with the ethics of God,” we too must love purity and beauty. This will lead to actions that will prevent nature from becoming polluted, and will help preserve its pristine beauty.
This is a true story: Someone I know was visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He and his wife were admiring the paintings. At one moment, he reached out toward a painting with his finger in order to point out a detail in the brushwork to his wife. Suddenly, a watchful guard interrupted: “Sir, do not touch the paintings.”
Now nature is the artwork of God (under His Name of “the Artist”). You can see this in the simplest thorn or blade of grass. There is no guard to interrupt you when you want to pick a flower. But if we protect the art produced by humans in that way, purely from an aesthetic point of view, shouldn’t we be at least a bit careful about protecting the art created by God?
So where do we draw the line between protection and utilization? The answer lies in another Koranic verse: “We have made you a middle people” (2:143). The Prophet always advised moderation, saying: “Who goes to extremes is ruined.” If we content ourselves with what we need, instead of the Base Self’s wants which are never-ending, we shall be able strike a balance that also mirrors the balance of nature. This is where the Koranic concept of mizan/tawâzun (balance/moderation/equilibrium/harmony) comes in: “He has set the balance so that you do not exceed the balance, and therefore observe the balance strictly and do not fall short thereof” (55:7-9). “Do no corruption (fasad) in the land after it has been set in order: that will be the best for you, if you have faith” (7:85).
“Be neither a miser nor a spendthrift, or you will become blameworthy and destitute” (17:29). Although money is what first comes to mind here, we can also think of wealth as the natural resources at our disposal (which we can purchase, and as the word “commonwealth” suggests). This verse, then, is telling us to conserve and husband our resources, not to squander them prodigally. In the same vein, “Do not squander (your wealth) in the manner of a spendthrift” (17:26). Here, too, the reference may be understood in a more general sense than money. Wealth (resources) should also be given to the poor and needy: it should “not be a thing exchanged only between the rich among you” (59:7).
The Ottoman Example
The Amazon rainforests evaporate eight times the amount of water from a patch of ocean of equal area. Forests are thus potent rainmakers. The preservation of forests was a cardinal issue in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, when a decree by Mehmed II (“the Conqueror”) stated: “Whoever cuts off a branch from my forests, off with his head.” It was due to a fundamentally ecological sensibility that Ottoman civilization protected animals and birds. There were foundations dedicated solely to this purpose. There was an endowment that would deliver carrion to wolves in the mountains when winter came: not just to prevent attacks on towns by wolf packs, but to ensure that their species did not become extinct. (It would have been easy to hunt them down otherwise.) For wolves, although bad news for their unfortunate prey, take only the weak and sick, preserving the health of the species they prey upon. This is to preserve the balance of nature.
Now contrast this with the extinction of species in our day, estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate, or between 10,000 and 100,000 species each year, or at least 27 species per day. 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those causing habitat loss, global warming, etc.
Of course we have to consume, but to what extent? If we put our minds to it, we will discover that we are able to get by with much less. The First Rule of Economics says:
The needs of human beings are unlimited.
But a little reflection will show this to be false. Human beings have finite stomachs, and you can eat only so much at a single sitting. Greed, however, is insatiable: you can satisfy a stomach, but there is no end to human greed. Worse, greed is born from an otherwise quite valid human need: it is a displacement reaction.
A displacement reaction occurs when a need cannot be met in the normal way by normal channels. It is a substitute. Now human beings are amphibious beings: they inhabit two realms. One is the material realm, the other is the spiritual realm. The needs of each dimension have to be satisfied in the realm proper to it. But today, we have shut off our spiritual side. Sartre spoke of “the God-shaped hole” in the human soul. Only a spirituality that truly slakes our thirst will satisfy us. When that is not available, we try to substitute satisfactions from the material world. But even an infinite amount of material satisfaction cannot fill that hole.
When we are spiritually as well as physically sated, on the other hand, we will find that we can do with much fewer material things. This is where greed arises from: it is like trying to substitute food for the lack of water, or water for the lack of oxygen.
The Koran says: “We have come from God, and we shall return to Him” (2:256). It is the purpose of religion to help us find God while still in this world. If that path is blocked, our spirits will remain hungry, and will try to seek out satisfaction in other things—but in vain.
This craving for God has been placed within human beings by God Himself. God says in the Koran that He created human beings only that they should worship Him (51:56). When this basic drive is displaced by something else, such as money or overconsumption, human beings may try to satisfy themselves, but in the end will succeed in satisfying neither themselves, nor God. That “God-shaped hole” can be filled only by God Himself.
Ecology and Sociology
One of the key sentences of Francis’s Encyclical occurs in para. 175: “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.” With these words, the Pope links ecological issues with social concerns. This is only to be expected, given his South American origin with its backdrop of liberation theology. This is not a passing theme, but one to which the Pope returns again and again. Among ecological writers, this approach was adopted by Murray Bookchin, who maintained that human maltreatment of nature followed from human maltreatment of other human beings. In this view, environmental and social problems are inextricably interconnected. But how, exactly?
According to Sufis, the problem lies with the Base (or “commanding”) Self (nafs al-ammara, which “always commands to evil,” 12:53). As the repository of all blameworthy traits, such as greed, egotism, pride, jealousy, anger, and covetousness, the Base Self determines our interactions not only with other human beings, but also with nature.
It has become customary of late to first dehumanize and then demonize those whom we consider as enemies. This we do to salvage and soothe our own consciences. Formerly, human beings did not have this attitude: even an enemy was a human being, one with whom we would eventually make peace, and worthy of respect. But now, the understanding has become entrenched that we must kill all whom we consider enemies, down to the last baby in its cradle. This take-no-prisoners approach also precludes the possibility of ever achieving peace; indeed, the thought of peace someday does not even enter our minds. And that is why we give up our right to receive mercy when our turn comes.
As Saint Francis says in the famous prayer attributed to him, “it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” Or as the Prophet said, “Show mercy to those on earth, and those in heaven [God and His angels] will show mercy on you.” We may think we’re so special that we are exempt from divine law. In our arrogance and heedlessness, we may think a day of reckoning will never come for us. We will surely be sorely surprised when it does.
Callousness toward the misfortune of other human beings is reflected in our attitude toward other living beings: we unconsciously choose to assume that they are already dead. “Well, since they’re dead anyway, there’s no harm in making them really dead...” With that assumption, the way is opened to the unbridled exploitation of all that exists. In Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber’s terms, we forsake an “I-Thou” relationship with other humans and living beings, and substitute an “I-it” relationship in its stead. Without hardness of heart, we would not be able to treat even the least creature that way.
This is where the link between the social and the ecological is to be found: in ourselves, in our own selfishness, our own lack of compassion and tenderness. Man shorn of ethics becomes an infernal, demon-like being, bent only on self-service at the expense of all else. William Chittick has rightly observed: “An impoverished and flattened universe is the mirror image of an impoverished and flattened soul. ... Ecological catastrophe is the inevitable consequence of psychic and spiritual dissolution. The world and the self are not two separate realities, but two sides of the same coin, a coin that was minted in the image of God.” (Chittick, “The A nthropocosmic Vision in Islamic Thought.”)
As I wrote in my first book:
The containment of the egotistical self has taken on an added urgency in our day. Thanks to the spin-offs of science and technology, even the humblest person now enjoys privileges undreamt of by the pharaohs and emperors of yesteryear. “Magical boxes” bring voices and images from the other side of the globe; “self-propelled carriages” transport even the poor at speeds no king ever achieved in a lifetime. An African Bushman can communicate with the four corners of the planet. This progressive equalization of previously unheard-of opportunities and goods can only be applauded, and one can hardly think of it as bad.
Yet there is a catch. For the containment of the egotistical self is easy in conditions of scarcity, but difficult in an environment of affluence. Because of the tendency of the inferior self to mushroom in such circumstances, our very luxury may prove our unforeseen undoing.
An ecological perspective is germane here. Not maximal, but sustainable consumption; adherence to the principle of the Golden Mean; taking no more than one’s needs even when standing beside a vast ocean—this is how we can keep the commanding self at bay, sustain our standards of living, and contribute to the further democratization of available resources (sharing with others the common wealth of our world) in the midst of plenty.
(The Station of No Station (2001), pp. 118-9.)
Whatever you do, you do to yourself
The Koran says (with the Talmud): “Killing a human being is like killing all humankind” (5:32). We read a statement like that, and we think we understand what it means. But do we, really? Do we also understand that “torturing a human being is like torturing all humanity,” or “mistreating a human being is like mistreating all human beings”? If we do, then we could perhaps be said to have understood something of it.
One of the key insights that Sufism provides us is that whatever you do, comes back to you. What goes around, comes around. This does not involve just human beings. As Newton knew, to every action, there is an equal and oppositely directed reaction, and this involves the whole universe.
Think of the entire universe as a giant mirror. If you smile at it, it smiles back. If you frown at it, ditto. If you kick it, it will kick back. Perhaps the returning kick will not come back from exactly where you kicked it, nor immediately. But it will come back eventually, of that there is no doubt. Just like a light beam that circumnavigates the universe before returning to its point of origin. Substitute nature for universe, and the rule still holds.
To be continued...
Maurits C. Escher, Puddle (1952)
“Do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands.”
“Do not harm yourself or others.”
(Ahmad, Ibn Majah)
The Spiritual Ecology of Sufism
While it is true, as the Dalai Lama pointed out, that taking care of the earth is not different from taking care of your house, we have to understand that ecological ethics makes the most sense if we are talking about a spiritual ecology. That is, we need to consider every living being as infused with spirit, on loan from God.
The classical Islamic thinkers believed that there were four kinds of spirit: human, animal, vegetable, and mineral. Yes, they believed that even inanimate matter had spirit!—though it was a static one. The whole of nature was alive. Ibn Arabi, for example, phrased this as follows:
Even though the rational thinkers and the common people say that something in the cosmos is neither alive nor an animal, in our view... Each is alive and speaks rationally in glorifying its Lord. The faithful perceive this through their faith, and the folk of unveiling perceive it in its [actuality].
That the whole world was infused with a world soul, anima mundi, was not an idea confined to Islam alone. Almost every tradition of antiquity had a similar concept. The American Indians, in particular, had an unsurpassed sense of kinship with all living beings and with the Earth. Listen to Black Elk, a medicine man of the Lakota Sioux:
The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.
The Great Spirit is everywhere; He hears whatever is in our minds and our hearts, and it is not necessary to speak to Him in a loud voice.
Perhaps you have noticed that even in the slightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in different ways.
With sentiments such as these, one cannot hesitate to think of Black Elk as a Moslem of the American Plains. And with the following quote, we may well consider him a Sufi:
Of all the created things or beings in the universe, it is the two-legged men alone, who if they purify and humiliate themselves, may become one with — or may know — Wakan-Tanka.
We now approach one of the main injunctons in the Koran dealing with ecological matters. But first, an observation: the Chapter of Sincerity (Chapter 112) occurs towards the end of the Koran. It comprises four short verses. Yet the Prophet has said that this chapter is equal to “a third of the Koran.” Now how can this be? It is equal to a third of the Koran in importance, because it deals with the Unity of God.
From this, we understand that some verses in the Koran are more significant than others. Brevity is no obstacle to the import of a message. Therefore, here is another verse that is very brief, yet tremendously important:
“Eat, drink, but do not waste”
So says the Koran in Verse 7:31, and continues: “God does not love the wasteful.”
Needless to say, eating and drinking can be taken to mean consumption in a more general sense. God wants us to “walk lightly on the earth” (25:63), as opposed to walking (and consuming) arrogantly. Or, as Don Juan tells Carlos Castaneda, “Touch your world lightly.” “Sparingly eat, drink, sleep, speak”—that is the motto of Sufi sages.
This was echoed in Ernst F. Schumacher's title, Small Is Beautiful (1973). More precisely: “man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful.” Schumacher emphasized that “the aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well-being with the minimum amount of consumption.” The need for this kind of attitude has recently emerged in calls for “voluntary simplicity”—a way of life in which “people choose to restrain or reduce their material consumption, while at the same time seeking a higher quality of life.” That, in the Sufi view, is the mark of Sound Judgment (aql al-salim).
This is about leaving a small ecological footprint on our world. By lessening our impact, we ensure that other species thrive and that our own does not run out of options. Although the world is vast, it is still finite—in astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s terms, a “pale blue dot”—as seen at right with the moon (image by the Cassini spacecraft from Saturn). (Kenneth Boulding was the first to call it “Spaceship Earth” in an ecological context). We cannot keep on recklessly squandering our planet’s resources.
Moreover, study after study—both between nations and between different income groups within nations—has shown that increasing income makes an impact on happiness and well-being only at lower income levels. Beyond a surprisingly modest level (say, $10-15,000/yr), increasing income begins to play less and less role in people's satisfaction and happiness. This stands to reason: according to the law of diminishing returns, the addition of $1,000 to the income of a $4,000-income family means an increase of 25%; to that of a $20,000-income family, only 5%. Were he alive today, psychologist Abraham Maslow would have been the first to make sense of these study results. According to his hierarchy of needs, once the basic needs of life are met, human beings begin to crave other things that have little to do with money. This means that the so-called “1 percent” derive comparatively little happiness from the immense wealth at their command. This is the “income-happiness paradox”—more wealth does not automatically translate into greater happiness.
Hence, being a slave to consumerism and overconsumption is not the solution. Energy-intensive societies need to move from runaway growth toward a steady-state economy, in which both material and energy resources can be conserved and used more rationally.
As the Prophet advised: “Don’t waste water, even if you’re beside a flowing river” (Sunan Ibn Majah, 425)—or indeed, beside an ocean. I’m reminded of the German industrialist who, despite being the owner of a factory and of great wealth, willingly chose a lifestyle not much superior to that of his workers.
Master Kayhan was a role model in this regard. He insisted that every scrap of paper be used to the full before being discarded, and took his ablutions and bodily ablutions with the least amount of water. The ecological motto, “Think globally, act locally” had its counterpart in the words of Master Kayhan, who said, “I always think in general terms” (that is, consider the generality).
Islam comes with a built-in ecological sensibility. “Do not take life, which God has made sacred, except for a just cause” (17:33). Some of the Prophet’s most famous Traditions deal with the rights of nonhuman living beings. According to the Prophet of God, animals are like humans: a good deed done to an animal is like a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as cruelty to a human being.
Reynold A. Nicholson, for one, was very impressed by Muslims’ treatment of animals. In his book The Mystics of Islam, we find the following story:
Bayazid [a famous 9th century Muslim mystic] purchased some cardamom seed at Hamadan, and before departing put into his gabardine a small quantity which was left over. On reaching Bistam and recollecting what he had done, he took out the seed and found out that it contained a number of ants. Saying, “I have carried the poor creatures away from their home,” he immediately set off and journeyed back to Hamadan—a distance of several hundred miles.
Though Master Kayhan did not forbid it to his followers, he discouraged eating meat, which also turns out to be important for sustainability. In what follows, he elaborates on the rights of animals and plants.
Do not consciously step on an ant. Don’t step on it. They’re all a gift from God. Don’t cut the branch, the root of a living tree. They’re all serving us. Be very careful.
You’re passing by, a kitten, a puppy has fallen into the mud. Raise it out, put it aside. If you feel mercy for a kitten, a puppy, how can you fail to have mercy on human beings?
Don’t throw stones at animals. Don’t even tap them with your finger. Love them, fondle them. They’re your life and soul.
My last testament to you, don’t deal in living things. For feeding them, for killing them, don’t deal in living things. Don’t buy or sell animals, do some other job.
A colonel had a vow to keep. He asked me: ‘What should I do?’ I was crossing the Galata Bridge [in Istanbul] twenty years ago. They’re frying fish alive on a fire. Bestial!
I said, ‘Buy as many live fish as you can and throw them back in the sea.’ He went, he couldn’t find any there. He went to the other end of the bridge, he found some there, freshly caught but dead. He threw them in the sea. That’s useful too, they’ll be of use to the fish in the sea.
I told him: ‘Don’t go hunting,’ he didn’t listen. He had two fingers blown off, only then did he give up. Every kind of hunting is bad. It hurts the animal. What would you do if they killed one of your children? Well, these animals are your children, too.
Hunting is Forbidden. If one causes hurt, he himself will be hurt someday. Or else his child will be hurt. Hunting is banned. I was banned from it myself. Do you know for whom hunting is Allowed? The poor, they don’t have anything to give their children. Hunting is Allowed for them. If he has a need, he can shoot one and feed his children. Otherwise, if you’re going to follow your whim, then everything becomes Allowed.
Comment: Ants devoured part of my harvest.
The remaining crops are enough for you. I visited a brother of mine twenty years ago. He’s finished his harvest, he’s standing there like a statue. ‘What are you waiting for?’ I asked. He replied: ‘For the wind to blow and winnow the wheat from the chaff.’ The winds blow strong over there, and the next day a wind blew away everything – wheat, chaff and all.
I said, ‘Of course, I can compensate this for you. But you’re in error here. Can you guess what it is?’
He thought and thought, he finally discovered the reason. There are ant colonies surrounding the place of harvest. The ants haul wheat into their nests after the harvest is done. They gather other things, too, but this is their main food. I know because I too have done that kind of work. He had taken DDT [insecticide] from his house and poured it into the antholes. All the ants had perished. ‘There,’ I said, ‘that’s your fault.’
Whether good or bad, every responsibility depends on a cause. You can’t escape that blame.
(TPM, pp. 106-7.)
The Day of the Scorpion
According to Sufis, it is wrong to kill even a potentially harmful animal, unless it is harming you. If it’s minding its business, you should mind your own. Master Kayhan explains:
Fifty years ago, I went to visit my Master. I saw two people of his age sitting there, he’s sitting on the couch across the room. The distance was from this couch to over there. I kissed his hand. They were his fellow disciples from Othman Badruddin. They’re talking. I got to know those two men later, they’re learned men. A tall man came in, kissed their hands and sat down. I’m listening like this.
Suddenly, something very light brushed across my face, it was like the wind but it didn’t go away. It felt like a fly had alighted on my upper lip. I took it in my hand, it was a black scorpion, this big! I’m telling you exactly as it happened. It’s trying to sting me, but I’ve grabbed it in such a way, by the head part, that it can’t strike. I set it down on the ground beside me. Things like this must have endeared me to him.
It got down from there, it headed straight for those two scholars. I’m watching. As soon as it appeared before them, one of them was named Hajji Mehmet, he jumped to his feet, pow! he stomped on it with all the force of his foot, with the sole of that thick peasant’s sock.
‘Master,’ he said, ‘are you going to train us with this? We can’t stand things like this. Where did you bring this vermin? I almost died! If this had stung me, I would’ve died right here. Under Divine Law, it’s permissible to kill it.’ I’m laughing.
The man who killed it went and brought a shovel full of ashes, he sprinkled the ashes on it. ‘Did I make a mistake?’ he asked.
‘Yes, Hajji Mehmet, you made a mistake,’ said Hajji Efendi. ‘It’s permissible to kill it, but it didn’t touch you. Don’t touch anything that doesn’t touch you. It wanders on the face and lips of others, it doesn’t do anything. Is it going to sting you just because it comes in front of you? What’s the matter with you?’ He had his back turned to me when that happened, yet he’s saying this. This is precisely what happened. ‘These are on duty, they don’t sting anyone unless God orders it,’ he said. ‘They always come on orders, what blame does the animal have?’
(TPM, pp. 447-8.)
Our story regarding plants begins one early morning on February 2, 1966 in New York. Cleve Backster, a lie detector expert, decides to hook up a polygraph to a houseplant in his office. Having watered it, he is curious to see how fast the water will move up to the leaves. Let’s leave the word to Backster (1997):
I noticed something on the chart that resembled a human response on a polygraph: not at all what I would have expected from water entering a leaf. Lie detectors work on the principle that when people perceive a threat to their well-being, they respond physiologically in predictable ways. For instance, if you were conducting a polygraph test as part of a murder investigation, you might ask a suspect, “Was it you who fired the fatal shot?” If the true answer were yes, the suspect would fear getting caught in a lie, and the electrodes on his or her skin would pick up the physiological response to that fear. So I began to think of ways to threaten the well-being of the plant. First, I tried dipping one of its leaves into a cup of warm coffee. The plant, if anything, showed boredom — the line on the chart kept trending downward.
Then, at thirteen minutes, fifty-five seconds chart time, the thought entered my mind to burn the leaf. I didn’t verbalize the idea; [being fifteen feet away] I didn’t touch the plant; I didn’t touch the equipment. Yet the plant went wild. The pen jumped right off the top of the chart. The only thing it could have been reacting to was the mental change.
Next, I got some matches from my secretary’s desk and, lighting one, made a few passes at the leaf. I realized, though, that I was already seeing such an extreme reaction that any increase wouldn’t be noticeable. So I tried a different approach: I removed the threat by returning the matches to the secretary’s desk. The plant calmed right back down.
I immediately understood something important was going on. I could think of no conventional scientific explanation. There was no one else in the lab suite, and I wasn’t doing anything that might have provided a mechanistic trigger. From that moment on, my consciousness hasn’t been the same.
Backster then widened his search to other organisms, going down to the single-cell level. He termed the response “primary perception,” since it was occurring in the absence of normal sense organs and a nervous system. He found that human cells could respond to their owner from a distance of up to a hundred miles.
Other scientists tried to replicate Backster’s findings, and failed. They accused him of not using adequate controls. He retorted that they had neglected two crucial points of his experimental protocol: nonmonitoring by the experimenter (the need for automated recording) and spontaneity.
Needless to say, the jury is still out to lunch regarding the Backster Effect, where it will remain until some unexamined assumptions of Western culture (and one of its offshoots, positivistic science) are re-examined.
Even if we deny credence to paranormal abilities in plants, however, the fact remains that they exhibit purposive behavior, despite their lack of a brain, a central nervous system—indeed, even a single neuron. Observe:
For the first time, scientists at Exeter University have now captured on film the process by which plants alert each other to possible dangers. When a plant is under attack, it releases a gas that warns neighboring plants to protect themselves. It was already known that plants will secret[e] a quick-acting toxin to help ward off herbivores seeking to consume them. Now, scientists at Exeter University who made the new discovery have likened their observations to “listening in on a conversation.” Upon release of the “warning” gas by a plant that is under attack, other plants nearby begin to react in a way that shows they are preparing for an “attack,” after coming into contact with the gases released by the initial plant. Following this remarkable study, scientists are now wondering if there could literally be, “a chatter between plants all around us.”
Modern science is slowly coming around to the notion that plants act with will, choice, and intention—all attributes of consciousness. Interestingly, during the Ottoman period in Anatolia, people going into forests to fell old trees used to hide their axes in a swath of cloth. Their reason was this: trees have a life force we are unaware of. The axe in the hand of the woodcutter would be sensed by trees as though they had the faculty of vision. This would cause them to secrete a fluid that was poisonous to the sap in young saplings.
The soul of plants
In a way, plants are like immobile animals. Plus, they also operate on a different time scale, much slower than we do. Time-lapse photography, however, reveals much that we are unaware of. Movies taken at the rate of one frame per ten minutes exhibit amazing activity on the part of plants (watch here or here).
We have become so conditioned to associating consciousness (and/or intelligence) with a nervous system and a brain that we immediately go into denial when we are faced with its presence in their absence. Yet consciousness is a property of the spirit, not of physical neural mechanisms. Otherwise, anesthetized patients on operating tables could not be conscious of watching surgeons operating on their physical bodies from six feet above (out-of-body experiences or OOBEs). Hence, “plant neurobiology” is a misleading term, if not actually a misnomer.
So let’s start from basics.
Spirit is that which animates the body. Today we have lots of devices that work on electricity, but they won’t work without it. Similarly, spirit is like the electricity of living things. (By this, I do not mean bioelectricity, which is the tiny measurable voltage or current produced by an organism.) You might call the spirit “God’s electricity.” Put another way, the physical body is the hardware of the spirit. The only difference is that you can’t reanimate a body that has become decoupled from its driving spirit. But then, electrical or electronic appliances, too, can’t be made to work again if they’re broken beyond repair.
From this viewpoint, the Islamic thinkers are seen to be right in their division of spirit types into vegetative, animal and human. The spirit serves not only as the animating electricity, it also functions like the software. The more highly developed the type of organism, the more sophisticated the software is, with a more evolved operating system and suite of application programs. In such a model, the brain would be the “interface hardware” for interactions between the body and the spirit.
Now conceive, if you will, of all these spirits—mineral, vegetable, animal, and human—as sheaths. Within these sheaths is still another Spirit, and It is One. Just as the spirit animates the body, this Spirit animates the spirit itself. In Ibn Arabi’s words, It is “the Spirit of spirit, not the spirit of receptacles (bodies)” (Futûhat Intro. 1.9). The universe has a body which can be seen, and a spirit that cannot be seen—just as you yourself have a body that we can see, and a spirit we cannot see. Thus it is that the One Spirit animates the entire universe.
This knowledge, if digested properly, calls for a radical realignment of our stance towards other living beings, the Earth, and God.
As William Chittick in particular has pointed out, the Arabic word for “environment” is muhit. Now one of the Names of God is “the Encompasser” (al-Muhit), as in “God encompasses all things” (4:126, 41:54). This implies that our environment is, ultimately, God Himself. Moreover, God is both the Inward (Bâtin) and the Outward (Zâhir)—God surrounds us inside and out. This is why God says: “We shall show them Our Signs in the horizons and in themselves” (41:53). This means that we should show a little more respect, and gratitude, for the bounties He has provided us.
A Symphony of Invocation
“The seven heavens and the earth and all therein extol His limitless Glory. There is nothing that does not glorify and praise Him, but you do not understand their praise” (17:44, also 24:41, 55:6, 59:24).
How may we attempt to understand that praise?
The entire universe is an orchestra, and it plays a grand symphony—or you can think of it as the symphony itself. Each creature—and especially living ones—invokes (dhikr) God’s Name. Every rhythmic sound or movement is a repetition: “Oh, God, oh, God” (Allah, Allah). Our hearts beat with this rhythm, around 80 times a minute. Starting from this, it is possible to see the lapping of waves on a shore, the inhalation and exhalation of human beings and animals, the succession of day and night, and of the seasons on a larger scale, all as rhythms of this sort. All beings in the orchestra constantly make music together.
For a Sufi who can actually perceive this fact, and not just understand it intellectually or theoretically, all living beings are constantly Invoking God.
Which leaves us face to face with a fundamental criterion of modern science: the possibility of a repeatable experiment in the field of Sufi ontology. These Sufis have accessed a state of consciousness where this reality becomes perceptible.
Similarly, when Mahmud Hudayi’s master asked his disciples to slaughter chickens where no one could see them, Hudayi brought his chicken back without slaughtering it. His reason: “I couldn’t find a place that can’t be seen by God.” (p. 328.)
For those endowed with such refined perceptions and sensibilities, it becomes impossible to violate any living part of nature.
But this Invocation is not confined to living beings alone. As the Koran states, “each one knows its own mode of prayer and praise” (24:41, also 22:18, 55:6, 61:1). Let Ibn Arabi again elucidate:
As for the people of unveiling (ahl al-kashf), they can hear the utterances of all existent things, be they inanimate objects, plants or animals. The contingent [that is, the human being] hears it with his own ears in the world of sense perception, not in the imaginal world, just as he hears the utterance of someone speaking amongst humans and the sound of that which makes sounds. For according to us, there is nothing in existence that is silent at all. Everything is speaking in praise of God.
(Futûhat 2.77, question 54)
Every planet has different lengths of revolving around itself (its own day) and around the sun (its own year). Further, every oscillation is an Invocation: the crest and trough of each wave, parts of a single Invocation. For sound waves, the rate of Invocation is between 32 and 16 thousand times per second. For electromagnetic waves used in telecommunications, it extends from thousands to billions of times a second (kilo-, mega- and gigahertz). As for visible light, it has a much greater frequency: hundreds of trillions of times per second (4-8×1014 Hz).
One who can—with an enlightened intellect—comprehend that all things are ceaselessly Invoking God’s Name, stands in awe before the vast orchestra/symphony that is the universe, the handiwork of God, both proclaiming and veiling the glory of God in every instant. That kind of appreciation leaves little room for the ruthless exploitation of nature.
The Role of Man
It all boils down to an inner struggle. The changes that are necessary, we need to make within ourselves. To resist the seductions of consumerism, to be selective in what we accept and the degree to which we accept it, we have to rein in our whims, our temptations. That is, we have to restrain the Base Self. In the words of the Prophet, this is to “go from a lesser war (armed combat) to the greatest war (the struggle against the self).”
The Earth's ecosystem is like a rug beneath the feet of human beings, a rug that supports and nourishes them—their life-support system. If you harm that rug, you harm human beings. And if you pull that rug out from under their feet, you commit a crime, not just against the ecosystem, but against all human beings.
“God has appointed you vicegerents upon the earth...” (6:165). Here, “vicegerents” is best understood as stewards, caretakers or trustees. In this sense, the Prophet has said, “The world is beautiful and verdant, and God has made you His stewards in it...” “It is He who has created for you all things that are on earth” (2:29). “God has made all that is in the heavens and the earth subservient to you, and has lavished on you His blessings, outward and inward” (31:20). This does not, however, make our duty on Earth one of domination, pillage, and rapine, for in the end, “the Earth belongs to God” (7:128). Thus, as Pope Francis has rightfully highlighted in his encyclical, all human beings share a responsibility for the upkeep, maintenance, and repair of the world we live in.