THE OPENING CHAPTER OF QUR'AN- ITS ECOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION
By Asghar Ali Engineer
Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai
[Asghar Ali Engineer is an Indian Muslim and an Islamic scholar, reformist-writer, and activist. Internationally he is known for his work on liberation theology in Islam, his leadership of the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement, and his action against ethnic violence in India and South East Asia. He is an advocate of a culture of peace, non-violence and communal harmony, and has lectured all over the world. He is the founder and head of 'Institute of Islamic Studies' and 'Centre for Study of Society and Secularism.]
Divine scriptures are capable of variety of interpretation and specially
those verses, which are not specific commandments of dos and don'ts. The
first chapter of Qur'an has seven verses and is in the form of prayer by
human beings to Allah. Allah Himself has revealed this prayer to His
Prophet (PBUH) so that Muslims could pray to Him. This opening chapter is
of utmost significance in Qur'an and Muslims repeat it in every raka'
(unit of prayer). This prayer is rich in symbolic language and has been
interpreted in various ways by different commentators.
Here I am attempting it yet in a different way to save the world from
ecological disaster, which our world is heading to, if no attempts are
made to check rising temperature on earth - what has been called global
warming. It is beauty of the revealed scripture that even if interpreted
to tackle contemporary challenges, it does not in any manner, loose its
original meaning and significance.
Maulana Azad in early twenties of the last century interpreted this
chapter in his multi-volume commentary of Qur'an to prove unity of whole
humanity by emphasizing importance of the words rabb al-'alamin (i.e.
nourisher of the whole universe) Maulana's contribution is indeed very
important and will remain of great significance for long time to come.
Maulana's learned interpretation is very different from any earlier
interpretations. It thus also shows that succeeding generations has every
right to understand Qur'an in different ways to seek Divine guidance to
solve their problems. This chapter being in the form of prayer, provides
To seek inspiration from this opening chapter is very very important as
world's ecological balance, on which depends survival of humanity, is at
stake. According to The Hindu of 28th May 2009, which quotes from Guardian
Newspaper, "Senior doctors in the U.K. recently published a report warning
that climate change is the biggest threat to global health of the 21st
century Rising global temperatures would have a catastrophic effect on
human health, the doctors said, and patterns of infection would change,
with insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever spreading more
This is just on health side. Other effects like shortage of water, an
essential commodity for life, would be equally disastrous. There is
complete unanimity among scientists that glaciers, even on North Pole are
melting and melting of glaciers will have disastrous effects in more than
one ways. It would result even in rise of sea levels submerging many
coastal cities causing great disaster. Sea levels along some coastal towns
have already risen causing worries to its people.
Faced with such disaster to human survival we have to seek inspiration and
succor from Allah's own words, the creator of this universe. The opening
chapter of the Qur'an begins with invocation which Muslims use before
beginning of any work i.e. "In the name of Allah Who is the Beneficent,
the Merciful." Beneficent and Merciful are translations of Al-Rahman and
Al-Rahim. Both are very significant words. Rahm in Arabic signifies
tenderness requiring the exercise of beneficence (see Imam Raghib's
al-Mufridat). Thus rahm comprises ideas of love and mercy, Al-Rahman, also
a noun, is intensive form and thus indicates greatest preponderance of the
quality of mercy.
Thus Allah is greatest benefactor and merciful. The Prophet is reported to
have said: Al-Rehman is the Beneficent God Whose love and mercy are
manifested in the creation of this world, and Al-Rahim is the Merciful God
Whose love and mercy are manifested in the state that comes after. (Bahr
al-Muhit Commentary by Imam Athir al-Din al-Undalusi)
Now the first chapter right in the beginning says, "Praise be to Allah the
Lords of the worlds i.e. Rabb al-'Alamin. Here both the words Rabb and
'Alamin have to be emphasized. Rabb in Arabic means, according to
Arabic-English Lexicon by Edward William Lane, not only fostering,
completing and accomplishing. Thus rabb conveys the idea of evolution of
things from the crudest state to that of highest perfection.
And if we praise to that Lord of all the worlds who is Rabbi i.e. Who
evolves things from crudest state to its highest perfection, the praiser's
duty is to be of assistance in achieving this stage of perfection. What
are we praising the Lord of the worlds for? For his function as Rabb and
hence we cannot act contrary to that. Our acts should also reflect the
function of evolution towards perfection, not its destruction.
He is not only Rabb al-'Alamin but also Al-Rahman and Al-Rahim i.e. one
Who is Beneficent and Merciful, shows tenderness of love and mercy towards
His creation in addition to taking it from various stages of perfection to
ultimate perfection. And this not only for our world wherein we humans
exist (but also all biological forms of existence, mountains, water
streams, oceans, all forms of primitive life, animals and trees. All of us
who praise Allah, have to dedicate themselves as agents of beneficence,
mercy and perfection.
And, Allah, as this opening chapter says, is Rabb, not only of our world,
our earth but of everything in this universe, of planets, stars, moons,
black holes and whatever exists in this universe, visible or not visible
to us or even of various planets to be discovered and which have not yet
been so far discovered.
Adam's story in Qur'an is also very significant in this respect. According
to the Qur'an Adam lived in paradise along with Eve and was provided with
every thing but was prohibited from eating fruit of a tree. Adam would not
have lost paradise, if he had not defied his Lord and ate the forbidden
fruit. However, Adam was tempted to eat the fruit and was expelled from
What was that paradise? A perfect balance of needs and supplies and by
eating the fruit Adam (representing human race) destroyed that balance
through his greed to defy the Lord and violate the ban and that ban was
also for human benefit only. It is very close to what human beings are
doing with the earth they live on. They are trying to eat that forbidden
fruit i.e. violating the balance of nature.
Allah is highly Beneficent and takes care of all the needs of human beings
He has created. Humans were living in the paradise. Paradise, here, is not
a fixed place there in heavens but right here on earth. Maulana Muhammad
Ali a translator of the Qur'an, says, ".paradise, according to the Holy
Qur'an, is not a place for simple enjoyment or rest; it is essentially a
place of advancement to higher and higher stages: But those who keep their
duty to their Lord, shall have high places, above them higher places,
built(for them)" (39:20)
"This shows", Maulana says, "that not only does paradise admit the
righteous to high places, but it is, in fact, the starting point for a new
advancement, there being higher and higher places still, and it is in
accordance with this that they are spoken of as having an increasing
desire for attaining to higher and higher excellences, their prayer in
paradise being: 'Our Lord, make perfect for us our light' (66:8)"
Thus if we have this understanding of paradise (quite in keeping with the
verses of the Qur'an), on earth too, we can create paradise by being
obedient to the laws of our Lord, the laws He has made for us. Had we
observed these laws and there is no change in these laws of the Lord.
"(Such has been) the course of Allah that has run before, and thou will
not find a change in Allah's course."
Thus Allah has fixed course of His creation. Anyone who defies this course
pays for it. Today we are disobeying our Lord and His fixed course and
destroying the ecology of our earth, meant to be our paradise, if we
faithfully obey the laws of nature, of our Lord. We have eaten the
forbidden fruit (over using resources of earth, polluting it and
destroying its ecological balance.)
It is by these actions that we have been expelled from the paradise and
converting it into hell. In the fourth and fifth verses of opening chapter
we say "Thee do we serve and Thee we do beseech for help." This we say
every day in our five times prayers but are we indeed observing it in
practice or saying so merely ritually? Obviously we say so only ritually.
While we say this in our prayer we continue to violate course fixed by
Him, we violate laws of nature on every step.
If we serve Him and saying so again and again, should we pollute His
earth, should we overdraw from its resources? Can we still beseech Him for
help? Can we deserve that? Certainly not? Are we not sinning against Him
and still seeking His help? If we are serving Him we must obey all His
laws, the course fixed by Him and then only we can beseech Him for His
Allah, in this opening chapter Sura-i-Fatihah is described as Master of
the Day of Requital." i.e. yawm al-Din. Din, according to Imam Raghib
means recompense, requital. And yawm (day) in the Qur'anic terminology is
any period of time from a moment (55:29) to fifty thousand years (70:4)
i.e. from indefinitely small to an indefinitely large. So if we violate
Lord's laws for a small amount of time to a large amount of time, we will
be recompensed accordingly on that Day of Judgment.
We have been violating these laws to fulfill our greed and disturbing the
ecological balance. It is true Allah is Ghafur al-Rahim (Forgiver and
Merciful) but we can be forgiven only when we repent sincerely and never
repeat our mistakes. The earth even today produces in abundance for our
survival but if give up our greed and check our consumption and reduce
pollution of earth to minimum, rising temperature will come down and our
earth will become paradise again.
As we pray to Allah as taught to us through this sura-i-Fatihah we say to
Allah "Guide us on the right path. The path of those upon whom Thou has
bestowed favours, Not those upon whom wrath has brought down, not those
who go astray." Allah is our Lord, our Sustainer and if we seek our
sustenance from Him we have to follow the right path shown by Him and pray
to him to show us the right path. What is this right path (sirat
It is the path devoid of greed and over consumption and Allah by
forbidding Adam to eat the fruit of a tree in the paradise showed us this
right path and as long as we follow this path our paradise will remain
intact and Allah's bounties will continue to be enjoyed by humankind but
we should not do anything to earn His wrath and follow the path of greed
and over-consumption that will lead us astray.
This path of Allah's bounties had been available to whole of humankind as
long as we followed sirat al-mustaquim (right path) of modest consumption
of earth resources and keeping earth pure tayyib and did not over pollute
it. Can we now say we are following the same path - sirat al-mustaquim? We
have to reflect on this serious question. We have violated this law and
gone astray in number of ways.
The poor of the earth whom Allah calls mustad'ufin (weaker sections) and
favors them have been deprived of their just consumption by those whom
Allah calls mustakbirun (the powerful, the rich) who have been unjust and
monopolized over-consumption and have over-polluted the earth. As we know
the developed and rich nations are consuming more than 70 per cent of
earth's resources and polluting it in that proportion.
How correct is Qur'an's pronouncement when it says, "And when We wish to
destroy a town, We send commandments to its people who lead easy lives,
but they transgress therein; thus the word proves true against it, so We
destroy it with utter destruction." (17:16). What Allah says in this verse
that those habituated to easy life (i.e. the rich) do not hear the words
of wisdom and continue to violate it in sheer arrogance (what the Qur'an
calls istikbar) and then Allah destroys them.
The rich of the earth forgetful of final consequences of their life style
continue to ignore all the warnings and ultimately face the doom. Are the
rich nations of the west, particularly USA, not ignoring all the warning
of rising temperature of earth and pushing us all closer to the disaster?
They insist the poorer nations and developing countries reduce their
consumption and not they. The G-8 nations which are all developed nations
in their recent conference in Italy once again did not agree to reduction
of their consumption of earth resources.
Qur'an repeats this warning when it says, "Nay their hearts are in
ignorance about it, and they have besides this other deeds which they do.
Until, when We seize those who lead easy lives among them with
chastisement, lo! They cry for succour." (23:63-64) Do we not find
precisely same behaviour on the part of rich nations of the west? Are they
not refusing to mend their ways and reduce their consumption of earth
resources? Will they not push our earth to the brink of disaster by
ignoring the warning?
Technological progress is most welcome but it can be boon or curse
depending how this progress is used by the rich and powerful. The weaker
sections and poor nations are, after all, totally helpless and their voice
is never heard. But warning has to be repeated as Qur'an says to the
Prophet to warn as he has been sent as warner (nazir). If people listen to
him they will be rescued, if not, they will face doom.
The technological progress has enabled human beings to consume more and
more and also to pollute the earth too more and more. But this ability has
to be used with wisdom. It is reason which enables us to discover new
horizons and know more about our universe and again it is reason which
enables us to discover more and more natural resources below and above
ground and use them.
But reason is, let us be clear, a double-edged sword, a mere tool, which
could be used or misused. It is because of reason that we have progressed
tremendously from primitive to advanced human beings, from caves to
skyscrapers but then it is this reason which has given us tools to destroy
our planet through over-consumption and over-pollution which is leading us
What is needed is what Qur'an calls hikmah (wisdom) and what is wisdom?
Wisdom is reason plus values and experience. Without combining with values
reason can play very dangerous role also as it did in Europe through
weapons of destruction finally resulting in making all destructive nuclear
weapons and in Hiroshima and Nagasaki it killed more than two hundred
But if reason is used with values like justice, benevolence and
compassion, it can prove to be a great boon and that is what Qur'an
advocates. According to Qur'an there are five key values: haq 'adl,
ihsan, rahmah and hikmah i.e. truth, justice, benevolence, compassion and
wisdom. These are Allah's names also. Allah's names are Haq, 'Adil,
Muhsin, Rahman and Hakim i.e. Allah is Truth, Just, Benevolent,
Compassionate and Wise. These values are extremely important for balanced
progress of human beings.
Qur'an gives great deal of importance to hikmah (wisdom) and hikmah is
most fundamental value in human progress. Qur'an goes on to say that "And
whoever is granted wisdom, he indeed is given a great good." (2:269).
Unfortunately human beings use reason for selfish ends and push us to the
brink of destruction. But those who use wisdom behave according to the
values of justice, benevolence and compassion and became savior of
Thus the path of wisdom is indeed path of bounties and of divine
blessings. When we pray to Allah to guide us to that path on which He has
showered His bounties, it is the path of wisdom. So if our prayer has to
have any meaning we have to follow this path of wisdom and save our earth,
created by Rabb al-'Alamin and He has perfected it gradually until all
forms of life appeared on it.
It took millions of years for perfect conditions for human life to appear
but now because of our irresponsible behavior we are destroying it and if
do not restrain our overdrive for consumption human life may become
extinct due to destruction of ecological balance. And this is not
exaggerated statement in any way. This is already being predicted by
scientists. But mutrifun (those addicted to easy life) refuse to take
As we say we go to hell because of our sins. What is hell? It is not
something located out there on high heaven. It is around us, consequence
of our own sins of over-consumption and destruction of our earth's
ecological balance. Qur'an describes Muslims as ummatan wasantan
(community of middle path) and as believers in divine revelation contained
in the Qur'an it is their duty to lead the world in reducing consumption
of oil which results in emission of carbon resulting in climate warming.
The oil wealth is also hidden below deserts in Muslim countries of West
Asia and they can certainly ration oil production in such a manner as to
reduce carbon consumption. It is they who pray five times every day to
Allah to guide them to the right path and thus it is for them to act in a
responsible manner so as to compel the western nations to reduce their
This will surely save our earth from impending disaster. It is true it is
extremely difficult and complex problem. There is every danger that
western countries led by USA may invade the countries with oil resources
as they did in Iraq. But then they can convene conference of all
developing countries and seek their cooperation. Of course it is easier
said than done but one has to find solution to what all of us know is sure
Surely, those who possess rich oil resources can play some responsible as
well as creative role in the matter. We posses Qur'an and Qur'an shows us
path of wisdom. Are Muslims going to use this wisdom specially as they
also possess the oil wealth? So far indications are not very encouraging.
The Muslim nations hardly have courage to confront USA as they depend so
much on it for technology and for weapons of destruction.
If we keep on praying five times every day and this prayer does not
reflect in any meaningful way in our conduct, our social responsibilities,
what is the use of such mechanical prayers? The quality of our faith
(iman) depends in our action which promotes good of whole of humanity.
After all believers have been charged with the responsibility of what
Qur'an says amr b'il ma'ruf i.e. enforcing what is good and nahi 'an'il
munkar i.e. fighting against evil. Is climate warming an evil or not and
if it is evil should we not struggle against it?