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Environment and the Muslim Heritage

Notes for speech to the Muslim Heritage Awareness Group of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization. The Royal Society, 14 July 2009.

The environment is the heritage of us all, and this has long been recognized in Islam. As has been well understood, notably in China, there is a paramount need to achieve harmony or balance between the human species and the rest of the natural world. Respect for the environment and conservation of natural resources, in particular water, is emphasized throughout the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

The health and harmony of the natural world are our own health. We need sometimes to remember that humans are an infinitesimal part of the living world (0.00007 percent of estimated living species), and that each of us has ten times more bacterial than body cells.

I now turn to the specific vulnerabilities and hazards facing the Islamic world. I believe these were examined at a conference of Islamic scholars in Istanbul last week. Islamic societies as well as others have risen and fallen in the past. There are seven main hazards all with direct impacts on the Islamic world:

Few of these issues are unfamiliar to the Islamic world. Careful management of water resources and the need for conservation are already deeply rooted in Islam. According to Islamic teaching, humans have obligations of stewardship over the environment and the other species within it, and have a duty to look after resources, in particular water, with specific legal attitudes towards ownership, sharing and communal responsibility. There is, I understand, a new initiative, led by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, to look into carbon offsets. Another meeting on the subject is to be held in this country in November. In the recent past the great Islamic traditions of science have not been well maintained, and understanding of the issues is limited within the Islamic world.

At present international institutions hardly measure up to the scope and implications of environmental problems. This shortcoming will be particularly evident if the Copenhagen conference in December reaches strong practical conclusions. Hence my own interest over the years in promoting the idea of a World Environment Organization to be a partner of other UN bodies, and bring together the many limited and often overlapping international agreements relating to the environment. This would be a world forum in which the particular hazards faced by Islamic communities could be more widely appreciated and action taken to avoid the worst results.

I end with a quotation from Carl Sagan who once described the Earth as "a pale blue dot" in space:

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us ... The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived here - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

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