First came God, and then the Environment
02 April 2016 | Source: MLTIC News
Recently, an article caught my eye. Published in several online portals, it was reported that the Perlis Fatwa Committee had made a new ruling. This one was deemed as the first of its kind (unless you consider the earlier Fatwa by the Terengganu Islamic Authorities against poaching) as the general edict issued makes it ‘haram' (forbidden) for Muslims to pollute the environment given that any harm caused to the ecosystem was deemed to be harm to living things. State Mufti Associate Professor Dr Mohd Asri said that "Islam is a religion that calls upon its followers to preserve the well-being of human life and the universe, and not perform harmful acts."

While fatwah's are not legally binding, it does have a strong influence on the conduct of individual Muslims. It is not applicable to non-Muslims.

Religion and the Law

Malaysia is a secular state and has approximately 31 million people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds and recognises Islam as its official religion.

Under Article 74(1) of the Federal Constitution, Federal Parliament has the power to "make laws with respect to any of the matters enumerated in the Federal List or the Concurrent List". The State Legislature has a similar power under Article 74(2) of the Federal Constitution. These ‘matters' indicated under Article 74 are as enumerated under Schedule 9 of the Federal Constitution. Under Schedule 9 Paragraph 1 of the State List it is established that Syariah Courts have extensive jurisdiction over persons professing the religion of Islam and with respect to matters spelled out in the Constitution. The Syariah Courts however have no jurisdiction over non-Muslims.

Yet, Islamic principles and its way of life have affected and influenced, to an extent, attitudes and social norms within our society. This is not uncommon as many nation states have legal systems that share common features of morality or ethics with existing or past religious beliefs and doctrines. Whether the beginnings of a state were influenced by Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other belief systems much of the law, as with its religious life, is shaped by its religious teachings. The English legal system, as an example is not spared from religious influence. It is well documented that much of the English legal system is imbued with common law notions of morality and equity, concepts that had its beginnings in biblical principles. Principles of Duty of Care from the famous quote by Lord Atkins in Donoghue v Stevenson (1932) UKHL 100 utilised biblical principle of ‘love they neighbour' which included ‘do not harm your neighbour'. Philosophical texts primarily those of St. Thomas Aquinas, speak of divine and scriptural laws, advocating that the origin of all natural laws is based on God's eternal purpose for mankind. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England confirm this, that much of English common law is based on the principles and spirit of natural law.

From the brief discussion above, it is clear that religion has influenced the development of legal systems in Malaysia and the United Kingdom; this can also be seen around the world should a more detailed study be undertaken. Similarly there is also a link, an influence, between religion and the environment.

Religion and the Environment

In Islam the primary sources of law (also known as Shariah) is derived from the Qur'an and the Sunnah (the traditions) of the Prophet Mohammad. While the Qur'an is the revealed word of God through the Prophet, the Sunnah is a compilation of the sayings of the Prophet, his deeds and approval of specific practices. There are also other secondary sources of Islamic law. Muslims believe that God created the earth and that all creation has been brought forth under a divine purpose and that man must not only exploit it for his own benefit, but that as the environment is a source of life, man therefore must take on the attitude that it is his/her duty to care and conserve nature and its resources; to strive towards sustainable development and to shun abuse. Indeed, every individual is a Caliph or steward for Allah and has an obligation to protect the environment. This duty is bound tightly to the belief that the earth and everything in it is a creation of Allah, therefore both the state and the individual are enjoined as part of their ethical and religious duty to protect and take responsibility for the environment. [See: Mawil Y. Izzi Dien, "Islamic ethics and the Environment", Islam and Ecology, Fazlun M Khalid and O'Brien, Joanne (eds.), (New York: Cassell, 1992), 25-35]

Similarly the Old Testament contains prescriptions for sustainable agricultural practices and distribution of justice:

"For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove" (Exodus 23:10).

The Judeo-Christian faith also traditionally recognises that God gave the earth to his people and their offspring as an everlasting possession, to be cared for and passed on to each generation (Genesis 1:1-31). Ancient belief systems also record links between the earth or the environment and religious beliefs. The ancient Greeks worshiped the Earth Goddess, Gaea. Animistic belief systems and practices demonstrate that nature and all her elements were worshiped. Good harvests were indicative of blessing and the wrath of God is often manifested through agricultural calamities or natural disasters. Much of it remains today in East Malaysia amongst the aboriginal peoples groups.

In Hinduism, specifically in the Atharva Veda (Bhumi Sukta) it was declared that "the Earth is our mother and we are all her children." In fact Hindu's believe that God's presence is first perceived through nature. The natural forces that govern their daily lives are but manifestations of the creator Brahman. As a result, to please God mankind must live in harmony with nature. Nature is taken to incorporate animals, plants, mountains, rivers, the sun, moon and basically everything that forms part of the universe. Given this divine position, much of nature is revered and its qualities worshiped. There are also very specific teachings on environmental matters recorded in the ancient text; two examples of these are - "Do not cut trees, because they remove pollution" (Rig Veda, 6:48:17) and "Do not disturb the sky and do not pollute the atmosphere" (Yajur Veda, 5:43).

Chinese folk religion is practiced alongside Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism by the Chinese people throughout the world. Chinese folk religion retains aspects of ancestral worship and traces of Neolithic belief systems which include the veneration of the earth. In particular the god of the earth, Tu Di Gong (土地公, tǔ dì gōng), who protects specific physical locations. By virtue of this connection to the earth and as such, all precious minerals and buried treasure, he is also deemed the god of wealth.

Our Response

From these examples, it is clear that a relationship exists between the teachings of (various) religion(s) and the environment. How much of its influence can be found within our body of laws (or if it has been successful) is an article for another day. However, what can be generally surmised here is that any particular legal system that governs a body of people influenced to an extent by religious beliefs would very likely contain notions of religion; and given that religion and the environmental share similar objectives, the duty to protect and manage it well, is also likely to be present.

While religion in general advocates consideration and compassion to the living environment, and with it a duty to respect and protect - there is nevertheless a clear difference between a religious obligation and a legal one. Primarily, one is based on a sense of duty and obligation, while the other, on legal rights and legal obligations. Duty-based environmental ethics cannot stand alongside rights-based environmental protection. The earlier is based on persuasions and while its influence may achieve a degree of success, it can by no means produce the results that an express environmental right can. Indeed, I am not advocating for one or the other; I am advocating for one and the other.

As such, while fatwah's do not bind every Malaysian citizen, perhaps in this instance it is beneficial to all to consider the spirit behind the edict: to preserve and protect the environment and not to do anything that could harm her.

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