1000 Years Amnesia: Environment Tradition in Muslim Heritage

In a seminar organised by the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies in 11 January 2005, aimed at brain-storming the topic of Islam and the Environment, Professor Al-Hassani presented a short overview on the environment issue in Islam as seen from its sources and from history of Muslim practice over a 1000 years of planning and management of natural resources. The following article expands on earlier lectures and contributions made by Professor Al-Hassani including his participation in the conference "Islam and the Environment: Muslim 7 Year Action Plan to deal with Climate Change" held in Istanbul 6-7 July 2009.

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Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Central Concepts, General Principles and Guidelines
2.1 Central Concepts
2.2 General Principles and Guidelines

3. Examples from History
3.1 Environment Design in Sinan's Architecture
3.2 Wind Catchers and Wind Towers

4. Environment Issues in the Islamic Medical Writings
4.1 Early contributions by Al- Kindī and Qustā ibn Lūqā (9th-10th cent.)
4.2 Al-Rāzī, Ibn al-Jazzār and Al-Tamīmī (9th-10th cent.)
4.3 Abū Sahl al-Masīḥī and Ibn Sīnā (10th-11th centuries)
4.4 Alī ibn Ridhwān, Ibn Jumay' and Ya'qūb al-Isrā'īlī (11th-12th cent.)
4.5 Al-Baghdādī, Ibn al-Quff and Ibn al-Nafīs (12th-13th cent.)

5. Islam and Integrated Development
5.1 Conceptual Framework
5.2 Islamic Conception of Welfare
5.3 Care for Animals as Flagship of the Islamic Respect to Creation

6. The Muslim Seven Year Action Plan (M7YAP) on Climate Change
6.1 Istanbul Conference and Declaration
6.2 Istanbul Declaration

7. Acknowledgements

8. References and further reading
8.1 Articles on MuslimHeritage.com
8.2 Links related to Istanbul conference and declaration
8.3 General references and further resources
8.4 References

Figure 1: World map of seas and oceans. A continuous body of water encircles the Earth covering 71% of the Earth's surface and divided into a number of principal areas: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, and Southern

1. Introduction

Although the Muslims today are becoming increasingly part of the new world order, which believes in economic growth as the vehicle to human happiness, they were previously a leading example in constructing environmentally and ecologically friendly societies which were guided by principles and ethics totally different from those adopted by the present industrialised world. The dangerous problems of overpopulation in concentrated areas and the resulting increasing consumption and waste accumulation, water (both soft and sea water) pollution, destruction of other species including micro-organisms, which are an essential part of the life cycle, change of the chemistry of the atmosphere with its associated problems of global warming and the insatiable appetite of technology to dominate social and economic order, with its consequent demand for energy and material, are the most apparent features of the crisis of environment and the economic model that governs world affairs today. Increasing are issues of great importance to human existence and warrant the utmost attention by all the citizens of the world.

Figure 2: The retreat of Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps (situation in 1979, 1991 and 2002), due to global warming. Photograph in the public domain.

In this context, all cultures and communities are concerned. Consequently, uncovering the 1000 years of Muslims response to environment will serve to give a good example to present day Muslims to derive lessons from their successful past so that they may contribute positively with the rest of the world in its struggle to handle this titanic problem, which besets humanity. It will also enlighten non-Muslims - particularly those in Europe and America - on the position of Islam –as religion, culture and civilisation- on environment, and thus will generate a positive response and create a better image of Islam and Muslims and perhaps triggering process of common areas of interest and collaboration.

Figure 3: World map showing desertification vulnerability. (Source)

Before highlighting the missing history of environment in Islam, it is appropriate to examine some conceptual aspects and follow them by a review of the principles and guidelines, which produced the environmental friendliness attitude of Muslim societies in the past.

Figure 4: This Landsat satellite image reveals sand dunes advancing on Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. (Source).

2. Central Concepts, General Principles and Guidelines

The main sources of knowledge about the position of Islam on environment are the Quran, the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad PBUH), Sirah (documented life of Prophet Muhammad), and the life of his Companions and the ways in which the Muslim societies have conducted themselves when upholding the principles of Islam and facing the challenges of production of goods for maintaining human life and building economic growth as well as progress in civilisation.

Figure 5: Physical map of Islamic countries showing the variety of physical geographies and natural environments. The geography of Islamic lands imposed an early interest in nature and how to preserve it. Source: Malse Ruthven and Azim Nanjl, Historical Atlas of Islam (Harvard University Press, 2004, pp. 18-19).

2.1 Central Concepts

From these sources, we derive the following environmental concepts:

  • God (Allah): Oneness of God is central in Islamic faith; He is The Creator and His attributes are manifested in His creation (the seen and the unseen environment, including all the universe);
  • Man (Male and Female): The only being created as vicegerent on Earth until the day of judgement;
  • Environment: All that which constitutes the universe (seen and the unseen) are subservient to Allah who sustains and maintains them through laws and principles, which He will not break. The Earth and all its assets are for Man to utilise in a responsible manner according to general principles and guidelines revealed through Messengers, the final of whom is Muhammad.

The Quran contains numerous verses highlighting principles and guidelines which were enforced and explained by the sayings and tradition of Prophet Muhammad and demonstrated by the lives of the Companions and followers on the utilization and protection of the environment. Some of these are given below:

2.2 General Principles and Guidelines

Adl (Justice): This principle governs inter-human relationships and in an indirect way to other creatures including animals;

Mizan (Balance): This principal governs the inter-human social and economic relationships but also the environment in that one should not upset the equilibrium of nature, use of resources (air, water and energy) and life cycle of all species; this principle also affects design of buildings, towns and cities;

Wasat (Middleness): This principle comes in all relationships; choosing the middle way between extremes in economic planning, social conduct, scientific pursuits, ideological views, material, water and energy consumption (not excessive nor miserly);

Rahmah (Mercy): This governs all aspects of human relationships and treatment of all living animals, plants and insects including micro- organisms;

Amanah (Trustworthiness and custodianship): Just like a person holding the property of another in trust, Man is considered to be a trustee on all earth's assets appointed by the owner (Malik), Allah who created all;

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Figure 6: Drawing of the wudhu' machine designed and described by al-Jazari in his Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (Al-Jami' bayn al-'ilm wa-'l-'amal al-nafi' fi sinat'at al-hiyal) completed in 1206. This hand washing device is an elaborate machine of ingenious engineering intended to prevent waste of water. Source: Salim al-Hassani (Chief Editor), 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World (Manchester, FSTC, 2006, p. 20).

Taharah (Spiritual purity and Physical cleanliness): Spiritual purity generates contented individuals conscious of the presence of Allah, resulting in a balanced society living in harmony with the environment; cleanliness generates healthy society devoid of air and water pollution and generates a clean economy devoid of usury and deceitful marketing techniques;

Haq (Truthfulness and Rights): Truthfulness in all dealings whether with other individuals or with institutions and the recognition of the right of others (humans, animals and plants) generates honesty and trust with consequent reduction of crime and cruelty to animals.

Ilm Nafi' (usefulness of knowledge and science): Knowledge, whether theological, scientific or technological, must be useful to others (individuals and society) including future generations; this affects all educational and research programmes.

To these basic general principles, are appended other principles that have the status of guidelines in current life. Some of these practical guidelines that should govern human conduct in society and vis-à-vis of Nature, we mention:

  • Iman (Faith) is demonstrated through useful deeds and good actions ('Amal Salih); useful here refers to society and environment;
  • Water, Air and fire (Energy) belong to all;
  • Killing or elimination of creature is forbidden unless by sanction from the Creator (hence the word Halal meat; animal killed by permission).[1]

3. Examples from History

Numerous examples exist of how Islam has influenced people in creating environmentally friendly societies and this influence is corroborated by a quasi infinite number of examples from the history of Islamic civilisation.

3.1 Environment Design in Sinan's Architecture

In construction for example, we can refer to Sinan's architecture (smoke filtering and its use as ink, also use of Ostrich eggs to drive spiders out) and to the spread of courtyard houses (as optimum environmental design). In water resource management reference may be made to water raising machines (including automatic animal water feeding, wind and water mills, qanats, dams, etc.)

Mimar Sinan (d. 1588) was the chief Ottoman architect and civil engineer for sultans Suleiman I, Selim II, and Murad III. He was, during a period of fifty years, responsible for the construction or the supervision of every major building in the Ottoman Empire. Benefiting from the long Islamic and Turkish traditions of architecture, building design and civil engineering, Sinan used ostrich eggs in the centre of the chandeliers that dangled from the dome to chase away insects which were attracted by candles or oil lamps.

At the centre of the circular frame that holds the numerous candles and oil lanterns in Ottoman mosques, there is usually a strange egg shaped object as if made of marble (see fig. 8). The object is actually an ostrich egg . Through research over many years, the Ottomans discovered that these eggs secrete chemical substances into the atmosphere, which repel spiders and mosquitoes away. Hence, due to these eggs there are no spider webs in Ottoman mosques.[2]

Figure 7: Ottoman architects used to put ostrich eggs on the chandeliers in the mosques (here in The Sultanahmet Mosque known as the Blue Mosque built between 1609 and 1617) to repel spiders, hence avoiding cobwebs inside the mosque.

Another innovation regarded air purification, mainly in mosques. For instance, in the Süleymaniye Mosque, built by Mimar Sinan on the order of Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent between 1550 and 1557, there is a soot room on the main gate in Suleymaniye mosque. The oil lamps and candles that were used in large numbers to lighten huge buildings would generate smoke and burn oxygen. To solve this problem, Sinan and his followers made use of aerodynamics to drive the smoke to a filter chamber. The soot was then collected and used for making ink. In turn, clean air was driven to the outside ensuring sustainability. Soot obtained from the candles is one of the raw materials in the making of ink used for calligraphy adding with stirring. This ink protects the books from the book worms. This system filters the air pollution inside the mosque bad air that comes from candles and people breathing. In this example, we have a sustainable system, which is also environmentally friendly. The same device exists in Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, built between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I by the royal architect Sedefhar Mehmet Ağa, a pupil and senior assistant of Sinan.[3]

Figure 8: Candles the in Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul. The architect of the mosque, Sinan designed an ingenious system to resolve the problem of stale air during times of the crowded attendance at prayer worship on winter nights by adding a room over the entrance for ventilation. What is most remarkable is the ink made from the soot collected in this room.

These two examples, the use of ostrich eggs and the air purification by collecting soot and its recycling for the fabrication of ink, are evidently environment friendly. Such research reminds us of the numerous discoveries in medicine such as the discovery of the catgut (the suture from the intestine of the cat used in internal surgery) by Al-Zahrawi which was found to be acceptable by the human flesh and is dissolved a few weeks after surgery.

3.2 Wind Catchers and Wind Towers

Another example is the wind catcher (Bâdgir in Persian or Barjil in Arabic). It is a traditional architectural device used for many centuries to create natural ventilation in buildings. It is not known who first invented the wind catcher, but it still can be seen in many countries today. Wind catchers come in various designs, such as the uni-directional, bi-directional, and multi-directional. Examples of wind catchers can be found in traditional architecture throughout the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Figure 9: Illustration of use of wind tower and qanat for cooling (Source); used in many parts of the Middle East.

The countries of the Middle East have a large day-night temperature difference, ranging from cool to extremely hot, and the air tends to be very dry all day long. Most buildings are constructed of very thick ceramics with extremely high insulation values. Furthermore, towns centred on desert oases tend to be packed very closely together with high walls and ceilings relative to Western architecture, maximizing shade at ground level. The heat of direct sunlight is minimized with small windows that do not face the sun.[4]

Figure 10: Al-Barjeel or Al-Kashteel, traditional wind towers in the United Arab Emirates (Source); used in many parts of the Middle East.

The wind-tower, or burj al-hawa', as it is still called today in the Arab Gulf countries, is designated in the United Arab Emirates Al-Borj Al-Kashteel. It is existent in certain traditional buildings in the Gulf region. It is a tall structure with vertical openings in all directions, with internal walls arranged diagonally so that any breeze is forced downwards and up again before it can escape. This creates a circulation of air in rooms used in summer. Rooms used in winter were not provided with wind-towers.

Figure 11: Old-fashioned air-conditioning with wind-towers in Qatar (left (Source) and Dubai (right Source); used in many parts of the Middle East.

Wind-towers were square in plan, showing an X configuration of interior planes. They were built around an armature of wooden poles, which stabilize and reinforce the structure, and whose projecting ends were usually left to serve as scaffolding for cleaning and maintenance.

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Figure 12: The wind catcher of "Dowlat-abad" in Yazd, Iran, one of the tallest extant wind catchers (Source); used in many parts of the Middle East.

The top half of the wind-tower was an enclosed funnel that accelerates the descending air into a room below. Al-Barjil became a symbol of architecture in the Gulf region. It provided a satisfactory solution for bringing air inside the rooms while being protected against the harmful sun.

The use of wind catchers in classical Islamic architecture in hot and arid regions is just an example of the environment oriented measures taken by architects and builders. This long tradition of building constructions which are environment compliant needs to be promoted and revivified. We need to rediscover the merits of traditional Muslim houses (courtyard houses), building designs and town planning so that we use their energy efficient designs and building materials in our modern buildings so that we reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint. Instead of scrapping these and build totally new high rise glass boxes, we only need to use modern technology to enhance and improve them to make them more efficient and compliant with modern style of living.[5]

4. Environment Issues in the Islamic Medical Writings

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Figure 13: Front cover Māddat al-Baqā' (The Survival Material) by Al-Tamīmī al-Maqdisī (Cairo, 1999), a medical treatise dealing in