Addressing the roots of our sustainability crises By Dr Zahid Parvez

Centre for Islam and Sustainable Development (CISD) Sponsored by Penny Appeal

In light of the recent UN climate change summit (held on 23 September 2019), Dr. Zahid Parvez, from the Markfield Institute’s CISD, delivered a thought-provoking presentation on the serious contemporary crisis humanity is facing and the urgent need for a collective response. Key to his argument was the urgency to understand and address the root causes rather than simply reacting to the symptoms of this phenomenon. He argued that the dominant approach appears to be responding to the ecological, economic, and governance symptoms of the crises through formulating economic/technological/administrative solutions/innovations in a fragmented piecemeal manner rather than addressing the root issues in an integrated way.

Dr. Parvez argued that the environmental, economic and social dimensions of the current crisis are deeply entwined creating a need to elicit and comprehend the common underlying root causes. A failure to apply holistic analysis and solutions can, therefore, possibly create further problems in other seemingly non-related dimensions. Thus, a fresh perspective that traverses conventional economic, governance and technological frameworks is required to address our crises. Sustainable development scholars and professionals urgently need to reflect on the root cause of global warming and consequential rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, the rapid loss of many species, loss of biodiversity, the erosion of soil, and the destruction of natural habitats, and so forth. Illumination of the common factors which underpin these indicators is directly required.

The Qur’an provides assistance in the search for root causes confronting us. It invites us to a paradigm shift in our thinking and approach to enable us to uncover and analyse the root issues. Once this is achieved we will be able to formulate more creative, integrated and long-lasting solutions. A Qur’anic approach shifts attention away from ecological, economic, governance and technological considerations monopolising current debates on sustainable development. By contrast, the Qur’an places our humanity (our human-ness, or Insaanaiyya) at the centre of critical analysis, discourse and devising solutions. Human agency is a vital factor, both in the causes of environmental, economic and social problems and in finding and implementing solutions to these. Once our humanity and human nature are preserved and sustained, a just, peaceful and sustainable future becomes possible. So the focus and starting point of the Qur’anic paradigm is centred on a critical analysis, building and preserving our ‘human-ness’.

The Qur’an contends that human arrogance, uncontrolled greed, and selfishness are significant contributing factors in creating human crises. The drive for efficiency, growth, material progress, profit maximisation through exploitation, materialism and compulsive consumerism, extravagant lifestyles, and personal and collective indifference to the accumulative waste that results,, are the consequences of ignorance, arrogance, greed, selfishness, and the desire for immediate gratification driven by flawed economic models. In addition, current economic and technological development models need to be interrogated as significant factors contributing to the concentration of wealth, increasingly siphoned off by an elite and miniscule minority, and the creation of gross social disparities, which result in national/social tensions and erode the social fabric of society. The same factors causing environmental problems may lie behind the erosion of collective life and social capital, and nurture individualism and a consequential increase in loneliness and heightened rise in mental illness.

A key argument central to the Qur’an purports that the sustainability of societies and the world is dependent on maintaining our ‘human-ness,’ recognising the oneness of creation, our indivisible unity, and connection to each other. We cannot behave as the masters of the earth and plunder its resources at will. In contrast, societies and the world are destroyed when humans rescind their ‘human-ness’. This is why the Quran guides us to preserve and sustain our ‘human-ness,’ through appealing to our reason and conscience to promote kindness, care and compassion (rahma) towards each other and the natural world, and making responsible, ethical choices in daily life. It draws our attention to achieving primary societal objectives to preserve and promote our ‘human-ness’, which include social justice (al-‘adalah al-ijtima’iyyah), public interest (Maslah), Equilibrium (balance - mizan), moderation (wasatiyyah) and wisdom (hikmah) in all affairs including policy-making and development planning. Once we learn and become deeply committed to such societal objectives, our environment, economy, and social life can be sustained. However, when our ‘human-ness’ is lost, humanity is debased and imperilled, descending to a destructive force on earth whereby corruption arises on land and sea and creates destructive imbalances in the natural order.

“Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return” (Qur’an, Surah Rum 30:41).


The Qur’an focuses our attention on our ‘human-ness’ as a starting point of analysis. To preserve our ‘human-ness’ the Qur’an appeals to us to strive to remove arrogance, contain our greed and selfishness, and mitigate negative attributes by channelling them in a positive direction. Humanity must endeavour to become God’s khulafaa’ (embodying  stewardship and responsibility); to live as moral ethical beings (Ikhlaaq); to radiate mercy (rahmah - through providing social support and charity (sadaqah and zakah)) to all  beings and the natural environment; preserve the “natural state” (fitrah) of all living creatures and life forms ; enjoin social justice, human rights and well-being; and be committed to equitable distribution of wealth, sharing and service (khidmah).

With these foundations, strategies and policies that preserve the natural order can emerge – allowing balance (mizaan) – the equilibrium between the economy, society, and the environment; and the balance between satisfying current and future needs to arise. The Qur’an focuses attention on developing policies that guide the reduction of waste and extravagance (Israaf) and promote sustainable consumption. Decision-making processes must consider the future consequences of our present-day actions, thereby facilitating sustainable futures, for which we will be held accountable in the Akhirah (afterlife).

To preserve our human-ness the following recommendations are offered for consideration by governments and development agencies:

  1. Consider enhancements to the current indicators of human development: The HDI (human development index) initially developed by Mahbub ul Haq for the UNDP (UN Development Programme) are limited to measuring the material factors of human development such as life expectancy at birth (as an index of population health and longevity), education and standard of living (as indicated by the GDP). In light of Qur’anic guidance it is suggested that these indicators are supplemented by other tangible and intangible indicators that measure some aspects of ‘human-ness’ such as the following:
  • Moral/ethical state (Ikhlaq) of a society measured through indicators of the quality of social relations (trust, reciprocity, social support), social capital, collectivism, and social atomisation/individualism, etc.;
  • State of social support/care measured through indicators of the safety-net provision in a society - such as indicators of social and collective care provided for the disabled, orphans, unemployed, homeless people, and state of volunteering for social service/support, etc.
  • Administration of social justice measured through law and order, and equality of opportunities;
  • Distribution of wealth in society through taxes, charitable spending and other voluntary social funding made available (sadaqah, zakah and waqf);
  • Stewardship (investment in ‘green’ solutions, consumption and waste produced by society)
  1. Investing in value-based education and social development of citizens: In addition to the development of conventional knowledge and skills that are so much emphasised by scholars in the field, there is a need for investing in a value-based education of citizens and future leaders. Religious, social and civic institutions that are working for this objective must be supported. Islam emphasises ‘balance’ (mizaan) in the development of people – the development of conventional material knowledge must go hand in hand with the spiritual and moral development of people. Future sustainability requires people who understand the material reality as well as are morally upright, understand stewardship and service, and are future-oriented.

Education policies and national curriculums need to move away from an amoral education designed to develop knowledge and skills for serving the needs of the economy alone, towards including fundamental moral values, civic responsibility, stewardship, and sustainability education, that enable the younger people to grow as responsible citizens. By advancing the understanding of our ‘human-ness’ and potential through a moral-based balanced and enriched curriculum, we will realise the enormous positive as well as negative powers inherent in ourselves. This will contribute to our ability to develop innovative sustainable development frameworks that draw on our human qualities rather than just relying on economic and technological resources and innovations to address our crises.  The Quran provides us with the tools to critically analyse our ‘human-ness’ (how human are we) by providing a range of concepts and values already discussed above.

  1. Enhancement of conventional problem-solving frameworks to include the development of “moral and social” solutions to address our crises: Our deeper understanding of ‘human-ness’ will enable us to move beyond the current economic and technological development frameworks towards exploring and devising ‘value-based, morally-based and social solutions’ to our crises. History appears to suggest that value-based and social/cultural solutions tend to be creative, integrated and have long-term positive impacts and are much less burdensome on the environment.

Many of our problems such as poor governance, poverty and homelessness, excessive waste, racial tensions, inequalities/discrimination, rising mental health, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and the plight of the orphans, unemployed, the elderly, etc., can be better addressed through appealing to and drawing on our inner  ‘human-ness’ resources and generating social solutions such as rebuilding and strengthening family life and ties of kinship (sustainable family life), developing social support/care systems through religious/community centres and nurturing social capital (sustainable communities), sharing of social resources, encouraging the distribution of wealth through charity and supporting the poor and needy (sadaqah and zakah), and promoting innovative ways of social funding (e.g. waqf and endowments), etc. Innovative social solutions built on a caring/sharing culture (as opposed to expensive environmentally unfriendly solutions) that promote peace, social cohesion and security can be developed by drawing on our inner qualities of ‘human-ness’.

  1. Strategies and policies to be future-oriented: Individually and collectively we must consider the long term implications of current decisions and actions on sustainability, justice, peace and cordial relations between people and nations. Future-oriented thinking rooted on compassionate, sharing and caring attitudes is the need of our times. Policymaking processes need to ‘balance’ short-term (immediate) needs with future considerations through assessing the impact on future generations and all stakeholders.

Islamic scholars have derived a number of primary objectives that society must try to achieve (for individual and collective life) from the Glorious Quran to enable the preservation of our ‘human-ness’ and future sustainability of society and world. The core objectives of Islam include:

  • Social justice (al-‘adalah al-ijtima’iyyah) to ensure the protection and preservation of life and property/monetary or people;
  • Consideration of public interest (Maslaha) to ensure protection of Din (way of life, law and order, religion), human reason (aqal - intellect) and lineage (through supporting, protecting and promoting family life);
  • Equilibrium (balance - mizan), moderation (wasatiyyah) and wisdom (hikmah) in all affairs including policy-making, development efforts, and economic planning.

Thus, in addition to educating citizens, there is a need to adjust our education, economic, governance and social systems to ensure sustainability. In light of Qur’anic guidance, we must seek to develop God-conscious and morally upright individuals and channel our energy and abilities towards creating a peaceful, just, inclusive, socially responsible, prosperous and sustainable society and the world, where all humans can live in peace, dignity, and security.

A sustainable future is within our reach. Are we willing to change and restore our ‘human-ness’ to achieve this?