For ages it has been said: “The Earth is of the Lord” (Psalm 24:1). However, only a few of us actually meditate upon the import of this timeless Biblical truth.
Reverence to our Mother Earth has always seemed to me the cardinal, the paramount, and the most distinctive noble attitude worthy of a man. One of the things that inspire me the most in the Quran is when it admonishes man to walk humbly on earth. These Biblical and Quranic teachings, to me, spell out the basic framework in which any man must view his role on earth. The humanity in man rises to a high level of excellence when he treats the Mother Earth with reverence and devotion. The man who, on the contrary, is irreverent and walks proudly on earth is ungrateful to the very abode in which he must live and have his being.
Man’s complete dependence on earth is not only physical and biological but also aesthetic and spiritual and is too obvious to be stressed here. We depend on earth for everything – for the supply of food, drink, and air as well as for all our materials and tools. Any significant atmospheric and thermal changes in our ecology can be fatal. Man is too close to earth and has no conception of his life without his earthly abode. Therefore, it is only ungrateful to forget our extreme dependence on earth. One of the greatest examples of treating earth with respect and with love is that of the renowned mystic Basher Ibn e Haris who always walked barefooted on earth. When asked: “why don’t you wear shoes?” he said: “I was barefooted the day when I made my peace with God and ever since I feel ashamed to wear shoes. As God says He has made earth a carpet for us, it is not fit to tread with shoes on the carpet of kings”. As Fariuddin Attar explains in his book ‘Tazkaratul Aulia’, Basher stands out as one of noblest sons of human race who expressed symbolically his reverence to Mother Earth by refusing to wear shoes.
While earth can live without man, man cannot live without her. She has existed long before man turned up on her bosom and will survive the disappearance of the human race. The earth is of the Lord and man, as the Quran explains, has been appointed as successor to earth, which is considered a living being – aware and pulsating with life.
“When the earth is shaken with her shaking
And the earth brings forth her burdens
And man says what has befallen her?
On that day she will tell her tidings.”
Earth is, therefore, a designated witness to tell, before the Lord of Creation, that which man has done to her and upon her to his fellow beings. Only if man could be constantly aware that someone so close as the very earth he treads upon is a vigilant witness to what he does, his life would become a lot more meaningful for him. Earth is not lifeless matter to be trodden upon, but a living presence to be reckoned with, loved, and respected as the very cradle of man’s nurture and evolution. As ‘successor to earth’ man consummates a process in his evolution which was initiated with the making and fashioning of earth itself within the universe. Man’s evolution is to be regarded as continuation of the creative process reflected in the very creation of earth. Only when he places value on earth can he place some value on himself and can willingly take upon himself the burden of furthering the evolution of life. Without that man is condemned to servitude to his lower passions by going down the way of all flesh and thus failing the entire purpose of evolution. As Rabindranath Tagore teaches us, when a man ceases to be man, he becomes worse than an animal. People like Einstein show us that it is possible for man to develop his inner resources to a point where visiting the higher truth of universe becomes a concrete and a tangible reality.
The modern world speaks a lot of man’s dignity and his right to be respected for what he is and not to be treated merely as a means. These claims only gain more weight if man is regarded as successor to earth and is made to observe his limits. When the abuse of freedom or power by man takes place then the dogma of the dignity of man in the abstract serves no real purpose. It is man’s destiny to inherit all that is available on earth for his use and his duty to fight evil at its own plane. The evildoers are the trespassers to and usurpers of the gifts that can be offered by the earth. Morality is the nature of things and, in the final run, all power is durable only on a moral basis.
Earth is man’s abode, ensures his sustenance, and helps the development of his physical and mental powers. She is our guide and governess. Man has learnt to triumph over seas from how the fish swim in water and to fly from the way the birds fly. Nature has led man to inventions and discoveries and through reflective thought man endeavoured to harness her forces to accomplish the very purpose the nature is trying to pursue. Man’s gifts of comprehension and creation are endlessly inspired by the splendour of earth displayed by its beautiful landscape formations such as mountains, valleys, fertile plains, deserts, rivers, lakes, and springs; spectacle of the incessant pageant of day and night; the cadence of seasonal changes; the mystery of precious resources in the bowels of the earth; the phenomenon of clouds and precipitation; and the majesty of sea and its powerful waves.
Man has mastered nature only after bowing in humility before its majesty to make himself her pupil. The modern science regards the operations discernible in the great laboratory that is earth as going on in keeping with the same involuntary principle. Biological evolution and origin and variation of species are explained by the fortuitous intervention and their survival is justified in terms of successful mechanical adaptations by the species to the varying conditions in their environment. For example, the phenomena of ‘imitation’ and ‘protective resemblance’ exhibited by various species in the interest of their survival. The great Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky explains the formation of this remarkable identity between the species and their environment in terms of nature’s tendency to try always to adorn herself and not to be just herself. In Ouspensky’s words: “All the time she is dressing herself up, all the time changing her costumes, all the time turning before a mirror, looking at herself from all sides, admiring herself, then again undressing and dressing. Her actions often appear to us as accidental and aimless, because we always try to attribute to them some utilitarian meaning. In reality, however, nothing can be further from nature’s intentions than a working towards ‘utility’. Utility is attained only by the way, only casually. What can be regarded as permanent and intentional is the tendency towards decorativeness, the endless disguise, the endless masquerade, by which nature lives.”
Much of medieval European literature and philosophy is imbued with the view that man as such is more important than the totality of the cosmos and is the measure of everything. This is a false notion. I will borrow Dandemis’s words to describe the man’s psychology of vanity, egotism, and arrogance. “Man, who is truly but a mote in the wide expanse, believes the whole world to have been created only for him; he thinks the whole frame of nature is only interested in his wellbeing. As a fool, when the images tremble on the face of water, thinks that the trees, towns, and the whole wide horizon are dancing to his pleasure, so also man, while nature performs her destined course, believes that all her motions are but to entertain his eye. While he counts the rays of the sun to warm him, he supposes that it was made only to be of use to him, and while he traces the moon in her nightly path, he thinks she was created simply to entertain him. Man is not the cause why the world holds its course; for him only were not made the vicissitudes of summer and winter. No change would follow even if whole human race would cease to exist: man is but one, only one of millions of species that are placed in the creation.” Words of sobering wisdom, aren’t they? Man must work humbly on earth, constantly reminding himself that he is not necessary for earth’s survival although he himself cannot survive without earth for his abode.
We of this age have no right to treat the earth as it was our exclusive property. Such as, infusing it with excessive fertilizers that, over time, will diminish its reproductive capacity. Our generation, after all, is no more than a link in the long chain of mankind and has therefore to be loyal to the claims of total life of humanity on this planet. We are only here as trustees and must strive to put the earth to minimum misuse. No generation has the right to tamper with the delicate equilibrium of life’s forces on earth and expose the human race to dangerous consequences of its reckless actions. Our nuclear arsenals and explosions are a rash attempt to irritate our Mother Earth. It is a practical possibility that this reckless enterprise of modern man may eventually go so far as to reach a point of no-return.
I have always strived, in my humble way, to become more aware of and better acquainted with the personality of earth to be able to relate to its maternal touch. I feel anyone who is out of touch with earth becomes, to borrow the language of psychology, an alienated individual pulling away from his natural habitat. All culture and all art draw nourishment from indigenous sources as all great cultures have had their nourishment and support from the earthly surroundings in which they took their form and shape. Whatever our creed and faith, it is clear that God loves the earth and has appointed man for servicing the needs of the earth and to make it a fit place for best of the creatures to live in. Anyone who aspires to be a great soul in heaven has to begin by being a great soul on earth. That’s why Keats called this earth “the valley of soul-making”. My travels round the countries have taught me that life is so earthbound that it has no option but to respond to the call of earth-spirit (Zeitgiest, as Germans call it). In my wanderings on earth I have realised that the great structures built by man have a lasting meaning and beauty only if they contextualize with their earthly setting, exuding a kinship between earth and man’s creation on it. Shifting landscapes, fauna and flora, languages and customs, races and manners have led me to believe that earth herself must a beautiful person indeed to be able to put on fancy dresses with every change of places, the sunset and sunrise, and the seasons. The soul of man provides her with the mirror to see herself in. As explained by Al Ibn Abi Talib, it is in the inner life of man that nature reaches the apex of creative vigour and sublimity. This has now been borne out by the modern genetic sciences. I believe that the interaction between earth and man is a mode of transcendental experience, a sort of fusion in oneness, a confluence of life, and the beauty that animates Mother Earth and man, who is after all her child. The rotating and revolutionary motions of Mother Earth are in reality her dance, a wonder whose tempo sustains our life. Like the ancient Pythagoreans, I believe in the music of the earth. Can you hear it?