Evil (sins and disobedience to Allah) has appeared on land and sea because of what the hands of men have earned (by oppression and evil deeds), that He (Allah) may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order that they may return (by repenting to Allah and begging His Pardon). (Ar-Rum; 30 – 41)
Man has been paying the cost of the damage he has inflicted on his surroundings and nature for centuries. Passion for more money, sloth, and irresponsibility have made the man blind to the fact that he is part of his natural environment and that the damage he causes will inevitably affect him. The development of environmental consciousness in man, as a result of damage of his own doing, is a recent phenomenon, after 1970.
The reference made in the Qur’an to the corruption caused by man in land and sea, which was revealed at a time when environmental awareness cannot be said to have existed, offers a lesson.
We translate the Arabic word “bahr” as “sea” (However, it may also designate a large lake, reservoir, inland sea, waterway, etc.). We are advised not to dispose of nature’s bounties as we like, otherwise, we shall have to pay for it. We are also informed that the damage caused by man to his environment will also affect the land and sea beyond his reach.
Therefore, nobody is allowed to say, “I am on my own. No one can meddle with what I do.” Nature is our common heritage and it is everybody’s duty to contribute to checking its transgression.
The industrial revolution in the 19th century greatly contributed to the growth of pollution. It is, however, incorrect to say that this was the beginning of environmental pollution, which has been going on since ancient times. What is new, however, is the development of ecology and ecological consciousness. To begin with, the burning down of forests has been going on for ages. The forest fire was the principal cause of such diseases as anthracosis that man often suffered. These pyromaniacs had certainly no inkling of what they were perpetrating with their own hands.
During the Middle Ages, environmental pollution seems to have been an important problem. In the England of 1345, people who tossed feces out of their windows were fined two shillings. In the 12th century, Philippe Auguste of France was the first king to ordain the collection of abominable waste littering the streets of the city. The public who disposed of their waste by channeling it into waterways polluted the springs they drank from. The first law on pollution that we know about was passed in 1388 by the British parliament; this law prohibited the throwing of waste into the streets and waterways. Transgressors were to be reported by the people residing in the precincts to the private secretary to the king. Only after it reached extraordinary proportions was the pollution made the subject of the law.
The situation became even graver during the industrialization period in the 19th century. Metallurgy and iron and steel works polluted the land, water, and air. This is reflected in the novels of Charles Dickens and the writings of Friedrich Engels that describe the pollution in London. In 1930, 63 people died of pollution in the Mosa Valley in Belgium. The situation in London, in 1952, was even more serious. Four thousand died of upper respiratory tract diseases because of man’s ravages of nature.
The situation at present is hardly any rosier. There may not be such mass mortality, but according to the World Health Organization, more than one billion people are under threat from pollution. It is impossible to evaluate the degree of damage the public has suffered from throwing garbage and waste into the sea. This habit is still going on. Sea pollution that threatens marine fauna and flora, and the settlement in their tissues of noxious substances, is thought to be the cause of many illnesses, including cancer. Carbon dioxide emissions from cars and factories also contribute to the so-called “greenhouse” effect, and it is feared that drastic changes in global climate are causing catastrophic disasters.
Environmental pollution is one of the greatest dangers for humankind. This reference to pollution in the Qur’an at a time when there was no environmental awareness is remarkably interesting. The Qur’an was not penned like books that are products of the human mind under the influence of social and sociological realities in due consideration of the current issues. It was sent by God, Lord of all times and beings. Knowledge unavailable at the time of its revelation, problems of the past and of the future, are all present in the Qur’an.
Man is the author of his own destruction. The verse serves as a warning to redress his wrongdoings. The more we expand efforts to counteract our past shortcomings, the better we can protect ourselves against catastrophes. Ecology must be our common concern.