Sustainable Development: Myths and Realities

In a world that is increasingly being driven by the vested material, tangible, interests of a few nations, poverty and lack of concern for human rights violations as for the preservation of nature are fast becoming norms that the hapless victims will have to endure, writes BIJU ABDUL QADIR

“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).” (The Qur’an 30:41)


Discussions Unending, Goals Unyielding

The last World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, brought to the fore more questions rather than answers for the problems confronting the world community. For many, the summit provided for an introspection that questioned the very need for, or efficacy of, such mega conferences when little was being done after each of these ‘get-togethers’ of world leaders. With the next World Summit on Sustainable Development projected for 2012, the questions asked in 2002 remain unanswered, unattended.

It was Thabo Mbeki, the then-President of South Africa, who put in the questions at the 2002 summit on behalf, as it were, of the underprivileged of the world:

“Why are there so many who cannot read or write when, every day, human intelligence breaks through to the seemingly unknowable parts of knowledge? Why does the accumulation of wealth produce human misery? Who and what is to blame? What shall we do? What should we do? A message must come from this original home of all humanity that we are ready and prepared to be judged not by the number of resolutions we adopt but by the speed and commitment with which we implement our agreements.”

Mbeki’s words mark the sense of frustration and futility that has been associated with summits on developmental issues, for in a world that is increasingly being driven by the vested material, tangible, interests of a few nations, poverty and lack of concern for human rights violations as for the preservation of nature are fast becoming norms that the hapless victims will have to endure. Even when such grave issues are addressed, one issue will, more often than not, be treated at the expense of the other. In this – in this lack of prioritization – the Johannesburg summit was hardly different from the Rio de Janeiro meet, held a decade earlier in 1992.

Few amongst the 72 leaders who came together at the 2002 summit offered concrete guidelines or a plan of action to bridge the wide divide that exists between the rich and the poor in today’s world but, on the other hand, there were many who pleaded for action to save the planet from near certain doom. Those at the earth summit held ten years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had taken a solemn vow to protect and preserve all nature right from ‘the humblest algae to the majestic elephant.’ It also sought to understand that the precarious position of the climate on earth called for drastic measures of protection before global warming rose to unbearable levels.

While little was done towards the attainment of these stated goals of the Rio summit, the burden of the Johannesburg meet seemed apparently to be charting out of a path of action towards that end – a path of action that would also attend to the need for lifting out the millions that are mired in poverty. However, these issues, important as they are, are, by no means, the only grave issues confronting humanity at this critical juncture of its history.

The Islamic Prescription

What is needed today is not the false promises and vain hopes that are put out for the offering by the ‘developed’ countries of the world. What is needed at the present time is a vision that can be implemented in practical terms – a vision that seeks, as it ultimate objective, not the superficial material gains of this world whatever the cost, but the real and lasting bounty that is to be had both in this world and the Hereafter.

In what is the Islamic scheme of nature and the universe, man, as the highest of God’s creation, occupies the most prominent place. It is for him that the whole of nature has been made subservient and, as such, he is destined to master it and to handle it with care. Indeed, it is a trust upon him that he dare not employ other than with a sense of responsibility, for his very existence on this planet depends upon it. While relegating to man the dispensation of being the Vicegerent of God in nature, God has also required of him the maintenance and care of nature and has instructed him to use it as a trustee, who is bound within the limits dictated by his trust.

The prophet Muhammad, upon whom be blessings and peace, had reportedly stated thus: ‘The world is beautiful and verdant, and verily God, be He exalted, has made you His stewards in it, and He sees how you acquit yourself…’ The fourth Caliph of Islam, Ali b. Abi Talib, once said to a man who had toiled to develop and reclaim land that was abandoned: ‘Partake of it gladly, so long as you are a benefactor, not a despoiler; a cultivator, not a destroyer.’ This statement has, in essence, outlined the vision of Islam towards the use and development of the earth’s resources.

As was mentioned earlier, the need of the times is for a vision that is comprehensive, all encompassing, in its endeavor for the betterment of human life. This holistic approach, so much sought after in other ideologies, is but the way of life envisaged by Islam. As in its approach towards the relationship between man and nature, so also in its approach towards the relationship that must prevail between man and man, it posits the view that man’s salvation ultimately lies in a conduct of life that is benevolent to his own as well as to the other species on earth.

Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be blessings and peace, is reported to have said that, ‘Created beings are the dependents of God, and the creature dearest unto God is he who does the most good to God’s dependents.’ As one Muslim researcher, Karem S. Ghaneim, has so aptly pointed out:

‘….all created beings are created to serve the Lord of all beings by performing their ordained roles so as to best benefit each other. This leads to a cosmic symbiosis (Takaful). The universal common good is a principle that pervades the universe, and a potent implication of God’s unity, for one can serve the Lord of all beings only by working for the common good of all.’

Poverty, or the lack of basic amenities, can, thus never be condoned in the Islamic vision for society. Indeed, Islam seeks to eradicate this evil by calling for a purification from the side of the ‘haves’ of this world – a purification first of their hearts and then of their wealth. They are thus required to give off, to the deserving, the right of the poor and the needy, which is an integral part of their earnings.

Charity has always existed in tandem with religion in history but the Islamic system of Zakat, or the poor tax, has revolutionized the concept in that it recognized the share of the underprivileged not as charity or dole outs but as their legitimate right that has to be obtained for them even if it be through the use of physical force.

Mbeki’s introspective questioning, his soul-searching, at the last earth summit can be answered fittingly only through the Islamic solution which sees poverty in a dual light. For, the existence of want and suffering in this world constitutes only the external face of poverty; its inner side has always been the evil in man.

As humanity rushes headlong into the twenty-second century of the Christian era; into times when the scientific advancement of man has scaled such great heights, two thirds of all mankind remains undernourished. Has this been due to a lack of resources or to a dearth in human feelings?

Islam’s agenda for world reformation is not one of mere theorization. It goes well beyond in that it has offered a practicable scheme provided that mankind, even at this late stage, is willing to listen and to take stock of the gravity of the issues posed by God in the Qur’an – issues that call for the acceptance of a reality that is, sooner or later, set to unfold itself on an ill-prepared world.

About YMD

Past Issues