Can you explain the role of “khalifah” (vicegerent) attributed to man by the Quran from an ecological point of view?

The Details of the Question
Can you explain the role of “khalifah” (vicegerent) attributed to man by the Quran from an ecological point of view?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Man is the vicegerent of Allah on earth (al-Baqara 2/ 30) and he is not left uncontrolled (without purpose) (al-Qiyama 75/ 36) according to the statements of the Quran. What is meant by the word vicegerent is to improve the world for and on behalf of Allah, to rule people, to apply the orders and recommendations of Allah among people, animals and non-living things.   

The wise power that created nature created all of the means in it abundantly enough to meet the normal needs of all of the beings. “And He giveth you of all that ye ask for. But if ye count the favors of Allah never will ye be able to number them: verily, man is given up to injustice and ingratitude.”1

The only being that can consume things beyond his needs excessively without knowing any limits in extravagance is man. On the one hand, the Sublime Creator gave man an ambition of excessive consumption in order to test him but on the other hand, He gave man the duty to limit his desires in accordance with his needs through the mind He gave man and the light of the religion He sent. As a matter of fact, while meeting his needs, man paid attention not to disturb the balance of the living and non-living nature that surrounded him and even tried to protect it as long as he used those two means properly; thus, he became mercy for his environment. However, in the communities where science and technology have developed unprecedentedly, religious life and the feeling of deep responsibility gained through religion have weakened; on the other hand, in this period, which is called “the age of intelligence”, the mind has been seen as a simple tool for serving man’s desires of domination and hedonism; man has been blinded to such an extent that he cannot see that the conditions for man’s existence are being eliminated. Therefore, man cannot notice that his vital connections with nature are being cut off. Consequently, man has dragged the world into disasters from global warming to environmental pollution and to the destruction of species in order to satisfy his excessive desires that have been freed from religious and ethical bonds and his desires of consumption and domination.

When it is taken into consideration that the ecological balance was disturbed, that the environment was destroyed and that living species were made extinct in a very short time, 30-40 years, due to the desire of excessive consumption, it is clearly understood how valuable the importance that religions give to restricting desires is in terms of both environmental ethics and other issues and how vitally important it is in terms of nature and humanity. As this main problem exists, that is, as long as man sees satisfying his desires as the first goal in life and as long as the systems, arrangements and rules regarding man are designed in such a way to encourage him to reach that devastating goal directly or indirectly, the positive effects of all of the other measures taken for the environment will be temporary and misleading; such unproductive measures will perhaps prevent real measures from being seen.      

When the Islamic teaching and its manifestations in the civilization of Islam are studied thoroughly, it can be said that this teaching has established a trilateral relation between man, nature and environment and therefore man is burdened with responsibilities from three sides toward nature.

1. Ontological relation

It is necessary to look for the basic approach and principles of Islam regarding the environment in the relationship that it proposes to be established between Allah, man and nature. Islam is a religion of unity, as it is widely known. Ontologically everything is based on One (Allah). According to its deep expression in sufism, everything consists of the manifestation of His attributes of jalal (majesty) and jamal (beauty). Therefore, nature is the “signs of Allah”, the indications and evidence of His existence and power. He is the owner of man, nature, the environment, the skies and the earth, and the reason of existence for everything.  Therefore, those who harm the things we have just mentioned are regarded to have harmed His works. Since all of the beings are his “signs”, what breaks off the existence breaks off Him; what breaks off Him breaks off the existence. As Ghazali examines and explains in the chapter allocated to love in his immortal book “Ihya Ulum ad-Din”, in the real sense of love, a person who loves Him loves the beings and a person who loves the beings loves Him. All beings go to Him; therefore, all loves go to Him, too. Man becomes a part of unity when he establishes his connection, which exists ontologically, with Him and the beings ethically. The issue is expressed as follows: in a hadith: “Show mercy to those on earth so that those in the sky will show mercy to you.”2. The origin of man is soil; the one who created man is Allah. Then, man needs to love the Creator, the soil, the beings on and in the soil and in the world. He needs to show this love by his attitudes and deeds that show respect to Allah and mercy to the beings around. Islamic scholars gather all of the orders of Allah in two principles: “respect to the orders of Allah and compassion for the beings that Allah created.”

That short explanation shows that unlike the approach of the modernist mentality that breaks off the ontological bond between man and nature and therefore eliminates the ethical responsibility of man toward nature, the spirit (man) that the Quran educates does not regard himself outside nature and as an alien or enemy that he declares war against and tries to conquer, invade and use as he wishes and as an enemy that he punishes when it does not obey him. On the contrary, in his opinion, nature is a friend that he shares the destiny of being a slave, 3 a guide that takes him to the secret of the existence of Allah.4 Therefore, he has responsibilities toward nature. The greatest unluckiness of the last few centuries has been the development of the science and technology in conditions and media that are away from such a noble and ethical spirit.

2. Administrative relation

As we have stated in the beginning, the Quran states that man was created as “the vicegerent on earth” 5 and this expression is usually interpreted as “being the vicegerent of the Creator, that is, ruling the world in compliance with His laws”. The attributes of the Creator mentioned in basmala, which is the first verse of the Quran, and in the chapter al-Fatiha, which is the first chapter of the Quran, are “ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim” (the All Merciful, the All Compassionate); those two words tell us that His mercy and compassion encompass all of the beings. Accordingly, the first duty of the vicegerent, which means “the being in charge of executing His laws on earth” is – as it is pointed out in a hadith 6 – to take that encompassing mercy and compassion and reflect it on the beings. This is the fundamental mission of man on earth and what beautifies man, makes him effective and makes him “created in the best mold” as it is expressed by the Quran and “the most honorable creature” as it is mentioned in the Islamic thought is the same mission. The superior faculties like the mind and intelligence that distinguish man from all of the other living and non-living beings were given to man so that he will understand and execute this mission correctly. There are many verses in the Quran that point it out and that criticize man because he does not use those faculties correctly.

3. Interest relation

In many verses, it is stated that many natural beings and happenings were given to his service, that is, they were created in appropriate way for him to use. However, man is asked to pay attention to two criteria while making use of them. The first one is to make use of nature in a legitimate way; the second one is not to act like a harmful creature to break and harm the order that Allah has established in nature. This issue is emphasized in many verses and hadiths mentioning that man needs to check his desires, not to deify his soul, to avoid extravagance, to try to feel contented and not to go to extremes.

The global environmental problems that are seen today show clearly how important those Islamic principles that we have tried to present briefly are for global issues like natural balance and healthy environment. In the past, there were some periods when some human communities violated those principles, deviated from the mission of vicegerency, disobeyed Allah and harmed human beings, other beings and the natural environment. However, because of Western modernism and its encompassing effect on all of the cultures in the process of globalization through positivist man, who is a product of Western modernism, and his approach to the world, for the first time in the known history of man has man entered into a process of breaking off the bond of oneness between him and nature and Allah. He claimed that he would dominate, overcome and use nature as he wishes to the extent that he is freed from the domination of Allah. In parallel with this, he broke off all of the ethical bonds that the divine law imposed for his benefit and discarded them. Thus, he claimed that he would be free by disobeying Allah and that he would prove his power by using nature as he wished and oppressing his fellow beings that were weaker than him. He idolized his soul and started to be a slave of his soul and worship its desires and wishes; he made it the sole goal of his life to satisfy the desires of his soul, to establish domination and take pleasure. As a philosopher puts it, the fetishistic characteristic of goods enslaved today’s man. A disease of addiction that put man into the service of goods and made him inferior to goods has encompassed man. 

Modern man uses the achievements that he thinks he has gained against nature in order to satisfy two coarse feelings: domination and pleasure, from which the real ethical problem of man regarding nature originates. The Quran attracts attention to this problem of man by using the definition, “takes his desires for his god” 7. Thus, man has become the only earthly being that is at odds with nature because of deifying his desires.  He dared to fight against nature by using the scientific and technological achievements that he has gained; in this war that is still going on, man is burning, destroying, polluting, consuming, killing and eliminating his environment to the extent of his power in order to satisfy his desires of domination and pleasure.

The natural disasters that we call as environmental problems are the harbingers of the fact that, on the one hand, man is being enslaved though he thinks “he is becoming a master” and the fact that, on the other hand, he is approaching defeat though he thinks “he is overcoming nature”. “Mischief has appeared on land and sea because of (the meed) that the hands of men have earned that (Allah) may give them a taste of some of their deeds: in order that they may turn back (from Evil).” 8

In the main interpretations of this verse regarding “mischief appearing on land and sea” in tafsir resources, the increase in misfortunes like land becoming infertile, water being polluted, spring waters diminishing, famine, fire, flood and deaths, the disturbance of the natural balance and the consequent problems related to the environment and health are mentioned. There are also some interpretations that the mischief and corruption in the society are meant by the verse. It is possible to deduce both meanings from the verse. All of them are an inevitable result of the unheeding and even rebellious attitude of man against Allah and the ethical and moral laws and values imposed by Him and  the consequent excessiveness like the desire of consumption.9 “If the Truth had been in accord with their desires, truly the heavens and the earth, and all beings therein would have been in confusion and corruption” 10

While interpreting this verse, one of the scholars the century XI, reminds us that if each man (or community of man) had been able to attain his personal desires, the order of the world would have been upside down due to those selfish desires – since other people would have wanted to be rich, to hold the highest ranks and to have limitless property in the world.11 The same author reminds us that the fundamental mission of man, who was created as the vicegerent on earth, is not to cause mischief on earth but to improve it, that is, to preserve the balance in the living and non-living nature and therefore to maintain his consciousness of slavery and heed the warnings of the Quran.12


1) Ibrahim 14/34.

2) Abu Dawud, “Adab”, 58; Tirmidhi, “Birr”, 16.

3) The verses stating that the heavens and the earth, and all beings therein, declare His glory, prostrate Him, that is, they share common things with man in terms of worshipping (see 16/49; 17/44; 22/18; 55/6; 57/1; 62/1).

4) Many verses showing several natural events and happenings as proof for the existence and power of Allah (for instance, see al-Baqara 2/164; Aal-i Imran 3/190; al-An’am 7/133; ar-Rum 30/20-25, 46; Fussilat 41/37-39; ash-Shura 42/29, 32; al-Jasiya 45/4-6).

5) For instance, see al-Baqara 2/30; al-An‘am 6/165; Fatir 35/39.

6) Bukhari “Adab”, 19; Muslim, “Tawba”, 17.

7) al-Furqan 25/43; al-Jasiya 45/18.

8) ar-Rum 30/41.

9) see Kur’an Yolu, Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı Yayınları, Ankara 2006, IV, 322-325.

10) al-Mu’minun 23/71.

11) az-Zari‘a ila Makarimi’sh-Shari‘a, Cairo 1985, p. 108.

12) ibid, p. 249-250.

Mustafa Çağrıcı/ Mufti of İstanbul

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