The seven heavens and the earth and whatever is in them exalt Him. And there is not a thing except that it exalts [Allah] by His praise, but you do not understand their [way of] exalting. Indeed, He is ever Forbearing and Forgiving (Quran 17:44)
According to the economist, Hernando De Soto, Western capitalism’s triumph rests upon legally enforceable and definable property rights. As such the legislative instantiation of both common and civil law frameworks throughout the world – largely a product of colonialist legacy – has made property rights a central and enforceable right. Those with property ownership, from land to chattel, can rest assured that a centralised court will protect their ownership. Only in countries with rabid corruption will this right be encroached upon; thus developing nations that find themselves in the throes of endemic poverty only has itself to blame for not enforcing property rights.
This is perhaps true; but increasingly as the world confronts rising inequality particularly in Western nations, there are questions to be asked about the moral responsibility upon those whp own property, or rather a lot of property. Every other day, leftist media laments the allocation of the world’s wealth to a smaller and smaller coteries of individuals, all of whom are likely to have acquired wealth largely through legal means. Anti-trust rumblings about Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft are not at the heart about the legality of their wealth accumulation; rather it is about the legal monopilsation of property rights. Property rights can be a panacea at the beginning of a country’s quest for development, but it is not clear that it is beneficial in the long run.
Yet, as capitalism strives to spread property rights as a necessity, there is another type of inanimate right (i.e. non-human right) that is rarely, if ever, considered. Property rights refer to the position of man’s ownership of an aspect of nature. What we forget – some may declare it cloying – is the rights of nature.
What does this even mean? In 1972, the legal academic, Christopher Stone asked the question ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’. Property rights enables man to access the courts when there has been an violation. Nature does not have that fortune, but maybe it should. Nearly 50 years later, Stone’s question is even more pressing to answer. Climate Change, Environmental Degredation, Pollution, Deforestration, Holocene Extinction reflect man’s apathy or nonchalance to nature’s screams.
Natural rights would limit individuals and companies exploitation nature for their own ends. Rights would grant nature the ability to withstand the nonchalant encroachments often done in the quest for man’s insatiable appetite for goods. The irony is that nature does not have a voice. It requires man to be its defender.
In this there is a conflict between property rights and natures rights. De Soto views the key to capitalism as being upholding property rights. Today’s capitalism rests upon growth and growth requires extracting resources. Ergo, in growth, nature’s rights have to be trammelled upon to enable property rights.
For Muslims this equation has to change, but it is not a consideration that finds itself in more activist declarations of the righteousness of Islamic Law. Purveyors of Islamic Finance and the Halal Economy declare the moral superiority of the two as it abides by God’s law. But Muslims rarely connect Islamic law to Nature’s rights. Fulminations against the financial system or the current economy will refer to the destruction of nature, but this is contextualised as a consequent of failing to follow Islamic law on say interest. In other words, Muslims do not see nature as an independent body with its own rights
We see this clearly with the large scale consumption of meat, considered acceptable merely because it has the imprimatur of halal. The industrial production of slaughtered meat in the name of halal have made Muslims comfortable even as the extremities of the process are a reflection of the worst excesses of capitalism. Chicken with rights holds a whole new proposition to how we consume meat and more importantly how Muslims consider nature.
The protection of nature’s rights as a legal responsibility on Muslims is not regularly (if at all) discussed in the weekly jummahs, the roundtables, and seminars, and the Global this and that conference.. This is not to say there is no original Muslim thought. The philosopher, Seyyed Hossain Nasr, has been warning about environmental devastation and the Muslim responsibility since the late 1960s. But efforts and the Muslim investment on this issue is limited, moving more towards charity, fintech, entrepreneurship, fashion, food.
The Quran is obscure on the relationship between man and nature, but it is clear that nature is vibrant, living. Insofar as this is a reality, then is not the role of man as a God’s deputy on this earth a protector of the rights of nature?