I could understand "do not drink the water." Or even "no swimming—polluted water." But "do not touch the water"!? Something about that sign, and the reality it pointed to seemed deeply, irrevocably wrong. The fact that it was the nearest campground to Disneyland somehow made the whole situation even creepier.
The memory of that toxic waste dump campground remained with me for years. I gradually realized that the place was not just the perfect anti-campground, but also an image of anti-paradise: a place where the flowing water is too filthy to be used to purify ourselves before prayer, and where the natural plants and creatures are poisoned and dying. The Quran tells us that the Paradise promised to believers, is a garden with rivers flowing beneath. It is filled with fruits and flowers and growing things, offering nectar better than the finest earthly wine, and beauties and pleasures beyond earthly imagination. While we can never create such a perfect paradise on earth, Muslim architects, land-use planners and artists have sometimes used this image as a model for their efforts to preserve and celebrate the natural beauty of creation. Why not? The Quran tells us that all of nature is a sign of Allah, reflecting some of His mercy and magnificence.
Indeed, all of nature, in the Islamic view, is in a state of continuous worship. Trees and grasses, fish and animals, are all bending in a sweet, invisible breeze that wafts their worship back toward their creator. Human beings can learn from this process and seek harmony with it by joining creation in worship of the Lord of all worlds and creation. Or else, they can obstinately rebel, imagining themselves cut off and self-sufficient, and persist in transgressing the bounds that Allah has set for them until the inevitable payment comes due.
In contrast to the prevailing view of nature in the West as a savage, fallen chaos that must be tamed by conquest, Islam insists that nature is respected and invites humans to learn from it and join it in harmonious coexistence.
The polluted-campground experience awakened me to the fact that something is very wrong with the way of life that produced such a place, and that Islam holds the keys to understanding the root causes and solutions of our current environmental dilemma. It convinced me that we Muslims should be putting Islamic environmental activism at the very top of our social and personal agenda. Our planet is in a state of environmental crisis, and as Muslims we are the custodians of Allah's last revelation, a revelation that gives humanity the knowledge and inspiration it needs to live in peace and harmony—in this life and the next.
The Quranic solution to the problem of environment is, in a word, holistic and comprehensive. Living a truly Islamic life requires avoiding the evils of extravagance and the insanity of materialism, and that we attain harmony with our surroundings and have compassion for other creatures.
It all begins, however, with the right orientation towards life: complete submission to Allah, The One Creator of all, and that this submission should be marked by pious awe, loving gratitude, inner peace, the struggle to do good, and the constant awareness that Allah is greater than any aspect of His creation. The Quranic orientation provides the key to restoring the lost balance between humans, nature, and Allah The Almighty The One Who created all.
Materialists and atheists say that nothing is sacred, which implies that there are no limits to what humans can do to gratify their material desires. Materialist culture, as my wise humanities professor once said, has two distinguishing characteristics: A tremendous drive to achieve more and more control over the natural world, and an equally energetic drive to re-make and perfect human society.
Humans as trustees and keepers of the Earth
Islam teaches that we are the successors and trustees of Allah on this beautiful earth, not prisoners in a flawed world that needs to be radically re-made. As successors, our task is to preserve and appreciate the beauty and goodness we find, in grateful submission to its Creator. All of our planet's scientists are needed for a more obvious and simple task: Taking care of the planet Allah has given us, and taking care of our fellow human beings. This means finding ways to live, and live well, while expending far less physical energy, and making far less obtrusive changes to our physical environment, than is customary today. It means finding ways to redistribute the planet's wealth more equitably, in the environment of zero economic growth or even negative growth that will surely be upon us in just a few short years, when oil production peaks and starts to decline.
Allah loves not the wasters
So, too, is the court injunction that Allah Says (what means): "Waste not!" Both Quran and Sunnah make it absolutely clear that avoiding waste and prodigality is a matter of the highest importance. For example, Allah Says (what means) : "Do not be extravagant, for Allah does not love the wasteful" [Quran, 6:141]. And again Allah Says (what means): "But waste not by excess, for Allah loves not the wasters" [Quran, 7:31]. And in yet another verse Allah Says (what means): "Squander not in the manner of a spendthrift. For wasters are the brothers of the Satan, and the Satan is to his Lord ungrateful" [Quran, 17:26-27]. Here we see that the root of wasting is ingratitude: those who respond to the marvelous beauty and bounty of Allah with gratitude and amazement are happy with a little, while the ungrateful one is never satisfied no matter how much he has, so he abandons himself to an ever-increasing cycle of consumption and waste. If humanity is to survive, it will have to move from the spiritual state of ingratitude to gratitude and give up its wasteful ways, as the Quran urges.
Conserving food and water
Along with this Quranic teaching, the Sunnah (prophetic tradition) provides us with the best example of living in a state of gratitude and avoiding waste. The Prophet Muhammad was famous for his attention to conserving and avoiding waste. He was careful not to waste a crumb of food, licking the last morsel from the utensils so that nothing would go to waste. He urged believers to avoid using more water than necessary when performing an act of worship like ablution. If we must be careful not to waste a drop of water in our ablutions, how much more necessary must it be to avoid waste in less-important activities.
Unfortunately the dominant way of life among well-off people everywhere, especially in the West, is marked by unbelievable waste and extravagance. We eat more than what is good for us, buy things we do not really need, throw away things that either still work or could be repaired, buy over-sized large vehicles and drive short distances instead of walking or bicycling, build larger houses than we need and heat and cool them far beyond minimal comfort standards, waste huge amounts of water maintaining herbicide-sprinkled lawns and golf courses, and so on. In perhaps the single most absurd display of extravagance in all history, we are, at the USA, currently burning up fossil fuels at a rate that will ensure that our economy, our environment, or both will completely collapse in the near future. (See: peakoil.com for details.) This lunatic way of life, whose seductive pleasures and comforts disguise its utter madness, its complete lack of sustainability, was not developed by Muslims.
To be true to our religion, we must change our ways, and make an effort to conserve, educate, and build alternative institutions to mitigate and help cope with the coming economic and environmental meltdown, preserve and strengthen of our Islamic communities and institutions, and think about how they can be of service in the struggle to help humanity exercise responsible stewardship over our corner of creation.