Viewpoint: Natives, Nature and Islam
By Eric Walberg *
Ramadan is a good time to reflect on what Islam has to say about two of Canada’s burning problems—our penchant for environmental destruction and Prime Minister Harper’s attempt to return to a blatant assimilation policy for Natives.
Canada has become an international embarrassment from an ecological point of view. One of Harper’s most shameful acts was formally withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord in 2011. The greatest ecological crisis facing Canada is without a doubt the Conservative’s relentless pursuit of the tar sands project and the accompanying massive Keystone, Northern Gateway and Transmountain Pipelines. The environmental damage from the insane project to ‘wash’ oil from sand deposits is indescribable, poisoning land, air and water—a crime by any standards, subsidized and promoted by ‘our’ government.
The usually timid EU labels such oil extraction as “highly polluting” and has threatened to boycott any Canadian oil extracted from the tar sands. But the Canadian government takes well-meaning Euro-criticism, intended to help Canadians, as an affront, and works closely with the oil lobby, whose sole interest is in making profit, come hell or high water, to promote the project.
What does Islam say about how humans should relate to the environment? Even if the valiant campaign against the tar sands, which has been taken up by people around the world, miraculously succeeds, the American writer Abdul-Matin argues in Green Deen (2010) that the environmental movement today, restricted by its secular, legalist approach to problems—pass enough laws and you can curb the negative practices of business and consumers—is still lacking. He interprets Islam’s focus on one Creator as giving “humankind the opportunity to be one and to have a common purpose”, to bring back ethical principles into our daily lives.
He points to six principles which underlie Islam and shows how they relate to our relationship to the environment: understanding the Oneness of God and His creation (tawhid); seeing signs of God (ayat) everywhere; being a steward (khalifa) of the Earth; honouring the trust we have with God (amana) to be protectors of the planet; moving toward justice (adl); and living in balance with nature (mizan).
For Abdul-Matin, there is no conflict between religion and science—as stewards blessed with intelligence and reason, we have a responsibility towards the rest of God’s creation. He points to the verse, “Corruption has appeared on the land and in the sea because of what the hands of humans have wrought,” as proof that God warned people about their possible harmful impact on the planet, “a taste of the consequences of their misdeeds that perhaps they will turn to the path of right guidance”. (30:41)
These are all principles by which the native peoples lived for thousands of years on the continent we now call North America (named to honour Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci). Comparing the Old Testament and Native creation stories in The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative (2012), Thomas King notes:
*Genesis creates a particular universe governed by a series of hierarchies—God, man, animals, plants—the celebrated law, order and good government, while in our Native story, the universe is governed by a series of cooperations—an array of spirits, animal helpers and humans—that celebrate equality and balance.
*We begin in a perfect world (Eden) but when we gain knowledge, we suffer the Fall, losing the harmony and safety of the garden, and are forced into a chaotic, hostile world. The Native story begins with water and mud and through the good offices of Charm (a kind of primal Eve), her twin offspring and animal helpers, move by degrees from a formless world into a complex world, rich in diversity.
*Genesis depicts a world at war - God vs the Devil, humans vs the elements, all terribly competitive. In the Native story, the world is at peace, and concerned not so much with the destruction of evil, but with the issue of balance. “Trying to destroy evil is misguided, even foolish ... and risks disaster.”
King sees in the Genesis story the source of the West’s hierarchical, martial religion, the triumph of egotism and self-interest. We cut forests not to enrich the lives of animals but to make profit. We tolerate poverty not because we believe adversity makes you strong, but because we’re unwilling to share. ‘I love you,’ God could have said, ‘but I’m not happy with your behaviour. Let’s talk this over. Try to do better next time.’
In King’s telling, the Native vision of creation has much more in common with the Quran than with the Old Testament. Satan (a kind of Trickster, part of Creation) did not come to Adam and Eve in the form of a snake and can never be totally defeated, though he must be resisted. Like Charm in the Native story, Eve in Islam is by no means weaker or less important than Adam, and is not guilty of tricking man into disobeying God. In the Quran, eating the fruit of the tree was a mistake committed by both Adam and Eve. They bear equal responsibility. And it was not the “original sin” spoken about in Christian traditions, resulting in expulsion into a world of chaos. The descendents of Adam are not being punished for the sins of their original parents. They made a mistake, and God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, forgave them both, telling them to ‘try to do better next time.’
This strong parallel between Native religions and Islam has been recognized by Islamic scholars such as the Swiss Frithjof Schuon (1907--1998), who wrote extensively about the parallels between Indian and Muslim religious outlooks -which he called ‘primordial religions’. Schuon and his wife were adopted into the Sioux family of James Red Cloud, and in 1980, they emigrated to the US to live with the Sioux.
Palestinian writer Elias Sanbar wrote, “We had the habit of saying: The Palestinians are the Israelis’ Jews. But what if, in reality, they were their Redskins?”, drawing the parallel between Americanism and Zionism.
When Mohawk writer Beth Brant writes, “We do not worship nature. We are part of it,” she could be quoting the Quran. Men and women are viewed as God’s vicegerents on Earth. (2:30) God created Nature in a balance (mizan) and humanity’s responsibility is to maintain this fragile equilibrium through wise governance and sound personal conduct. The believing men and women are those who “walk on the Earth in humility.” (25:63) Scholars have interpreted this verse, and others like it, to mean that Muslims are to protect Nature’s many bounties given to them by the Almighty. Preservation is therefore more than a good policy recommendation—it is a commandment from God.
As depicted by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826), the Indian is either friendly (assimilated) or savage, instinctual, the view that lies behind imperialism over the centuries, and that is justifying Canadian policy towards the Natives today (and towards Muslims as well, who are, in the eyes of Western governments such as Canada’s, either compliant with the West’s agenda or are savage and must be fought and subdued). The Native belief in the spirituality of Nature, and the need to leave it as pure and inviolate as possible, as in the Quran, fundamentally contradicts the belief that producing profit and exploiting man and Nature is the supreme goal of government (stewardship), to which all other considerations must bow.
The ongoing Idle No More movement of Canada’s Natives was sparked last year (refer to Canada’s First Nations: Expect Resistance) by a new stage in the government’s ‘final solution’ of assimilation of the Natives, the Harper government’s omnibus bill C-45, which abrogates the Indian Act, ending Native sovereignty.
Canada’s Natives desperately need a genuine ‘new deal’ to overcome centuries of abuse to reconstruct some semblance of the multicultural nation that ‘North America’ once was. But twisting compliant Native leaders’ arms to allow corporations to build, say, liquefied natural gas terminals on the west coast, chromite mining and smelting projects in the James Bay “Ring of Fire”, not to mention the horrendous tar sands, paying off Natives with dollars, is not the answer. What ‘benefits’ are there for people who revere Nature in oil exploration, coal mining, dam construction, clear-cut logging, and nuclear waste storage?
* Eric Walberg is author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization. A version of this appeared at Presstv.