CRUCIBLE: Two Birds in the Nest

(A Friday Khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman on 06 December 2013).

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/7 December)– There are some encounters we usually have that just fade unnoticeably from our memories; others got imprinted in our psyche that we hardly forget them. These encounters could range from ordinary to extraordinary.

Usually, we thought that it is extraordinary experience that remains vivid and gets stuck in our memories. There are times it is ordinary experience that becomes a source of our amazement and fascination.

A nest by the window

Six or seven years ago, I observed from the window of the house where we reside at the University Campus, two birds flying back and forth from the ground to the tree carrying twigs. They were busy building their nest. They did it intermittently until after few hours or the next day, there appeared a nest just three meters away from our window.

The two birds used to stay in the nest. After few weeks or months, we saw an egg; and, later, another egg. After months observing, the eggs were hatched. We heard the chirping of two little birds. My daughters were very much happy to see new creatures inside the nest.

But one night, there was a strong rain, a typhoon. I feared that the nest would be destroyed and the young birds would fall to the ground. I got a little restless that night. The wind and rain were so strong. By taking a peep with the silhouette of light in nearby electric light, I saw a nest scattered on the ground. I took my gaze for the little birds; they were neither in the nest nor on the ground. I thought they were washed away by the rain or eaten by cats.

Early the next morning while having coffee, I heard little sounds of young birds chirping quite aloud than before near our window. To my amazement and with my relief, the two little birds were safe after all. They were housed in another branch of the tree under our house’s ceiling.

What imprinted in my memory is: what brought the little birds to another part of the tree where they saved themselves? I thought their mother could not carry them and fly them to another branch of the tree. Birds, I thought, are not like cats or dogs that could carry little cats or puppies with their mouths from one point to another.

That experience remains my fascination, until reading some materials on nature and environment: that there is a connection of season and climate with the lives including developmental stages of animals.  For instance, the movement of the moon has certain effects on the sea (high tide or low tide) where mating season of fish and other animals have connection with monsoon or season. These are shown in many studies about birds, animals, and so on.

When those little birds transferred to another branch of the tree during the height of the storm, I could only assume that there was an exact calculation in terms of birds’ knowledge about the impending storm with that of their birth and developmental stages. So that when the storm came, they were already strong enough to transfer from their nest to another branch of the tree.

Unity of nature

This is the frame of Environmental Studies these days: the interconnectedness of nature and how such interconnection has been affected due to Climate Change, Global Warming, and so on.

One of the classics in Environmental Studies is the “Silent Spring” of Rachel Carson written in the early ‘60s. US Vice-President Al Gore, the man behind the “Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary about Climate Change, wrote a foreword of the “Silent Spring:” “It is a landmark book, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written arguments that change the course of history.”

Carson, describing a town in what she refers to as the “heart of America” writes:

“Lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.

Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides where places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring though in spring and fall people travelled from great distances to observe them.”

This describes a space pristine of its beauty in that part of America. Somehow, it also describes the multiple space and the rich inhabitants of nature living harmoniously with each other.

More than a thousand years ago, incidentally, the Holy Qur’an provided a more vivid description of creation when it says:

“The sun and the moon follow courses exactly computed and the herbs and the trees both alike bow in adoration. And the Firmament has He raised high and He has set up the Balance of Justice in order that ye may not transgress due balance. So establish weight and justice and fall not short in the balance. It is He who has spread out the earth for His creatures. Therein is fruit and date-palms producing spathes (enclosing dates) also corn, with its leaves and stalks for fodder, and sweet smelling plants. Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny? (Rahman: 5-13)

This timeless description of the Qur’an on the working of creation and the harmony in nature has been established since then. And it has been the feature, the understanding of the world until rather recently.  Yet, in around the ‘60s, a writer-environmentalist like Carson was still able to reflect the same wonder of creation in certain place in the United States.

COP 19

We raised this point in the context of the recently COP 19 (Conference of Parties) in Warsaw that was organized at a time when super Typhoon Yolanda or Haiyan struck the Vizayas. A year ago, the Doha Conference of Parties or COP 18 was also the time when another typhoon struck the Philippines.

This conference is an attempt to bring all countries into agreement to reduce carbon in compliance of the Kyoto Protocol, the Durban Platform, and many other conventions on Climate Change. They were agreed upon as ways to reduce the emission of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere.

There is urgency of the conference given the frequency of typhoons, earthquake and tsunami in many countries. What is significant is that, many countries, although in varied degrees, join the call to reduce their carbon emission. There are many ways into which countries, communities and international organizations are being encouraged to address the effects of Climate Change. These efforts are laudable, although unless viewed in the larger frame, questions are raised whether these are enough to reverse the effect of Climate Change.

As it is, the world today seems to have lost something. The issue of Climate Change is like a genie that has gone out of the lamp. The world is in search for a “magic word” to make the genie return to the lamp. And such “word” is so elusive that efforts on Climate Change hardly make any impact given the increasing lethality of disasters like the super Typhoon Yolanda.

We don’t want to carry pessimistic view about life. The nature of man is, he is essentially good and he is created for a higher purpose. The vision for him is more than the problem or difficulty he carries.

In the same work, Rachel Carson could not help but identify “the history of interaction between living things and their surroundings” and how this relationship has been disturbed in recent time. She wrote:

“The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and habits on the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evils it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible.”

This description of Carson is what the proponents of Environmental Studies and advocate of Climate Change are saying these days like the need to reduce carbon emission. Yet, there is a bigger issue behind the destruction of the environment and that it has to be included in understanding Climate Change including the ways to address it.

Holistic view

In one of his lectures, “Islam and the Environment are in Full Harmony,” Prince Charles said on 12 June 2010:

“My understanding of Islam is that it warns that to deny the reality of our inner being leads to an inner darkness which can quickly extends outwards into the world of Nature. If we ignore the calling of the soul, then we destroy Nature. To understand this we have to remember that we are Nature, not inanimate objects like stones; we reflect the universal patterns of Nature. And in this way, we are not a part that can somehow disengage itself and take a purely objective view.

From what I know the Qur’an again and again describes the natural world as a handiwork of a unitary benevolent power. It very explicitly describes Nature as possessing an “intelligibility” and that there is no separation between Man and Nature, precisely because there is no separation between the natural world and God. It offers a completely integrated view of the Universe where religion and science, mind and matter are all part of one living, conscious whole. We are, therefore, finite beings contained by an infinitude, and each of us is a microcosm of the whole. This suggests to me that Nature is a knowing partner, never a mindless slave to humanity, and we are Her tenants; God’s guests for all too short a time.”    

We could only express our thanks to such view by a prominent person like Prince Charles. It has been shown that it is generally developed countries and mostly countries in Europe, US, China and others that are the major sources of carbon emission. We could only hope that concerned countries would listen to the wisdom of Prince Charles; for he identifies precisely the unity, the interconnectedness of creation and the harmony of living and non-living creatures working together to form what we refer to as nature. This should be enough to temper our pessimism, as there is already a new realization in the West to take a holistic view of nature.

Hossein Nasr, one of few Muslim scholars who wrote about modern man and his environment has, in fact, dissected the beginning of bifurcation between Man and Nature, in certain juncture of history. He writes:

And precisely because there exists such a world—namely the modern world, which had its exclusive home in the West until the last century but has now spread to other continents and which bears the primary responsibility for the global destruction of the environment—we have sought to delve into a historical study of both philosophy and science in the West that, beginning with views similar to the philosophies and sciences of other traditional civilizations, developed in what can only be called an anomalous manner from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onward. It moved away from the almost universally held view of the sacredness of nature to one that sees man as alienated from nature and nature itself as no longer the progenitor of life (the very root of nature being from the Latin nascitura, meaning to give birth), but rather as a lifeless mass, a machine to be dominated and manipulated by a purely earthly man. It also divorced, in a manner not to be seen in any other civilization, the laws of nature from moral laws and human ethics from the workings of the cosmos.”

Beyond “magic word”

It suggests that the world should not only search for a “magic word” to bring back the genie into the lamp. It needs, no less, to re-examine our worldview, our lifestyle, the way we look at life, the way we look at nature, and the way we look at the future.

We had already underscored this point some years ago. But the pessimism about life is also not new. When it was declared that Allah (SWT) would create a vicegerent (Khalifa) on earth, there was an entity – the Angels – that expressed opposition or raised question by saying: “will you place therein one who will make mischief and shed blood?

In other words, the Angels had already foreseen how man would squander his role as a Khalifah and engaged in mischief and bloodshed, and by extension, even to destroy his own environment.  This is the foundation of pessimism about life. While we believe in the wisdom of the Angels now being resonated by advocates of those calling to reduce the impact of Climate Change for good reason, we see precisely the worsening crisis of environment today.

Yet, there is that aspect that the Angels had not seen in the creation of man. Probably our search for the “magic word” should go beyond simply the search to look for answer and address the problem of environmental degradation. It is, no less, the search for understanding man’s real purpose, the reason of his being so that by acknowledging such purpose and the thrust (amanah) he was given then he would be prodded ipso facto to address the problem he posed on the environment.

In other words, it is not simply addressing the cause of Climate Change; it involves, more fundamentally, the need to reconnect to the lost source that the West had previously started to divorce from. It is the loss of what Nasr referred to as “sacredness of nature.” Incidentally, there was a requirement extended before the first man and his wife for them to become the legitimate Khalifah on earth, and by extension, their descendants. That is, as they play the role of being Vicegerents, they also have to shoulder their immense responsibility (mas-uliyyah). Most importantly, they have to submit (aslama) to what Prince Charles referred to as the unitary benevolent power so that they would be able to know and become responsible in acting as Khalifah.

Problem with man since then and until these days is that, we all want to become Khalif or vicegerent, but we hardly carry the responsibility and to bring the thrust of submission so that we become real holders of Vicegerency. Hence, while all efforts to reduce the impacts of Climate Change are important, there is a need to address foundational issue – that is, the need to reconnect to Higher Purpose, to Highest Cause, and to allow man understand himself in relation to Nature; that he is an entity not separate from it and that s/he should work in harmony with the rest in creation. [MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].