The imposition of an uneven, forced modernization, on the one side; the retribution of archaic, systematic violence, on the other. In the Islamic world, a third way between these two extremes is slowly taking shape, a path that combines respect for the environment as taught by the Qur’an with the potential for cultural and economic rebirth driven by an emphasis on the reuse of resources, minimization of waste, attention to efficiency, and social stability. Its proponent is Yahya Sergio Pallavicini, Vice President of Co.Re.Is. (Comunità Religiosa Islamica, the Italian Islamic Religious Community) and Chair of the ISESCO Council for Education and Culture in the West.
You speak of two extremes, but the brutal expansion of the Islamic State demonstrates a sort of underlying synthesis, a hidden truth illustrated in Nascita di un format, the documentary by Riccardo Mazzon, Antonio Albanese, and Graziella Giangiulio that examines two years of video clips put online by the foot soldiers of the black flag. On the one hand, there is a Caliphate that wants to turn back the clock on 1400 years of history, erasing the progress and evolution of cultures and sensibilities achieved over these 14 centuries and flaunting its disdain for the modern world. And on the other hand, there is also a Caliphate that uses propaganda techniques copied from the United States, employing more than one hundred Western media experts: the very essence of the modernity that the Islamic State claims to want to destroy.
“In any case, from a theological point of view the Caliphate has no legal or spiritual legitimacy,” Pallavicini responds. “The word shares the same root with khilafah, which literally means vicar, or guardian. Man has been put on Earth to administer a land that is not his, but God’s: he is God’s vicar and the guardian or steward of the Earth. This is important because it precludes the possibility that man may pursue activities that damage a precious resource that does not belong to him: if he does this, he has failed at his task.”
This concept is very similar to that of the Catholic Church, which sees man as a guardian of all creation.
“This is true. I would go even further: on environmental questions there is a substantial degree of consensus among many faiths and the lay world. We saw this just last year, with the march organized in Rome to urge the signing of an agreement at the UN conference in Paris in December, which will discuss the future climate of our planet.”
You have said that the Caliphate has no legitimacy, but its leaders claim to be fulfilling a tradition.
“This tradition runs from the time of the Prophet to the beginning of the 20th century, until the First World War. With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the co-existence of temporal and spiritual power – to use the terms also employed by the Catholic Church – was no more. And so the Muslim sages declared the era of the Caliphate to be definitively over.”
Let us grab the bull by the horns: A significant portion of the Islamic world feels oppressed by a modernity that rained down upon them from outside, and that in many cases has exacerbated social divides rather than accelerating the creation of a middle class. In addition, throughout the Middle East this forced modernization appears to have a single, indisputable driving force: Oil. Is its use – or rather, its abuse, in terms of quantity – reconcilable with the doctrine of the Qur’an?
“The traditional Islamic world found itself unprepared for the consequences of the rapid modernization you mentioned. The process revealed contradictions that cannot be ignored: there are entire generations that were born and live in anger. The power of money has prevailed over that of faith, and has created a natural world that barely resembles the original state of nature. This type of industrial revolution has demonstrated an arrogance that must be reined in because of its impact on both society and the environment. We must return to the teaching that views man as the steward of the Earth, by slowing our consumption of resources and returning to a less artificial way of living.”
In your opinion, are the Arab countries ready to reduce oil consumption? There are a few signals in that direction: investments in solar energy, for example, which constitutes an abundant resource at those latitudes, or pilot experiments like the city of Masdar, a jewel of green technology under construction 17 km outside of Abu Dhabi. And yet the drills haven’t slowed their pace.
“It’s true, we are witnessing the damage caused by a shrivelling of consciences and a neglect of our mission in the world. Nevertheless, in the non-Arab part of the Muslim world, where the vast majority of the faithful reside, there is a perceptibly greater sensitivity and closeness to nature. And on the other hand in many Christian countries, too, the environment has also suffered greatly. This is why the moment has come for a great alliance of all the faiths – the three monotheistic religions, as well as Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism – to defend the planet. This is an ecumenical model that we all can agree upon.”
Abu Dhabi Mosque
What role can Islam play in this dialogue?
“A very important role, I hope, with a significant push from European Muslims to trace a scenario in which modernity can play a positive role. In any such scenario the environmental question occupies centre stage.”
The environmental question is an expression that needs to be fleshed out these days. Declarations of principles must be accompanied by concrete decisions: there are choices that can no longer be avoided because the acceleration of climate change is becoming obvious and alarming. One frequently hears talk of renewable energy sources and energy savings, which is a central axis of the cultural and technological revolution that is underway, but there needs to be a greater emphasis on the recovery and reuse of materials, the need to put a limit on the mining that is devastating half the planet while filling the other half with heavy and frequently toxic wastes. Are there parts of the Qur’an that speak to this issue?
“In the Islamic world everyone thinks of the Qur’an in terms of verdant images of paradise, with an abundance of wellsprings to satisfy the thirsts of the blessed. Water as a sacred element. Justly so. But few remember that in the ritual ablutions that a good Muslim completes five times a day before prayers, we are asked to take great care to avoid spilling even a single drop: this care comes directly from the teachings of the Prophet. The same rule applies to food: We must eat not as much as we can, but as much as we need, filling one-third of the stomach with food and one-third with water. The final third should be left empty. These are teachings designed to avoid excess, and to provide a proper sense of proportion.”
In the era when the Islamic faith was coming into being, the concept of waste existed, but not that of recycling: it was something that was taken for granted. Today this is no longer so.
“For the Bedouin there was no such thing as waste. Everything had to be recycled. Minerals were used and reused to make weapons, utensils, and implements for tending to their herds. Every vegetable fibre found multiple uses that changed over time until the fibres were completely used up. And the life cycle of plants, such as the olive from tree to fruit to oil, had and still has a great symbolic value.”
A culture that limits waste is a culture that has a sense of its limits.
“‘I can’ does not necessarily mean ‘I must’: it is not wise to translate every possibility into practice.”
Let us conclude this conversation with an exchange. I’ll remind you of a popular Arab tale that describes the origins of desertification, and you recount one to me that offers hope. Here is mine. “In the beginning the entire world was a flourishing garden. Allah, creating man, said: ‘Every time you perform a bad act I will drop a grain of sand upon the earth.’ But man, who was wicked, paid no heed. What did one, one hundred, even one thousand grains of sand mean in such an immense flourishing garden? Years passed, and the sins of man grew: torrents of sand flooded the world. And so deserts were born, which grew larger and larger every day. Still today Allah warns man by saying, ‘Do not reduce my flourishing world into an immense desert.’”
“Very good. Here is mine: ‘Children of Adam! Wear resplendent clothing to every time and place of prayer: eat and drink. But not to excess, because Allah does not love those who waste.’ Buona giornata!”
Stato Islamico: nascita di un format (Islamic State: Birth of a Genre), a documentary by Riccardo Mazzon, Antonio Albanese, and Graziella Giangiulio (produced by Todos Contentos Y Yo Tambien and Magnolia).