I need to begin with a confession and clear statement of intent. I’d like to write about nature not from a distance, neither as an object of abstract study – a disengaged academic or critical exercise – nor as an occasion for the recital of well-worn platitudes or pieties gleaned from religious texts, but as a practitioner and passionate advocate who has spent a lifetime immersed in nature of one form or another. I don’t think that people are necessarily inspired to change their lives, break down barriers, activate and develop the full range of their faculties, or contribute in any active way to the hugely important enterprise of protecting the planet from environmental devastation, by being given religious texts, whether from the Qur’an, the Bible, the Torah, the Vedas, the Sutras, or any other, especially when those texts are not actually lived in any deeply experiential sense by those who repeat them for the edification of others.
For this reason, there is much in this issue that speaks of direct engagement with nature and authentic first-hand experience of the natural environment in its manifold living forms and landscapes. It can be seen through the creative imagination (in its deepest spiritual sense) of the metaphysician or mystic who can ‘read’ the rich tapestry of nature as the ‘displayed book’ of beautiful and majestic ‘signs’ that give overwhelming evidence of the existence and beneficent purpose of the Creator. And, as the Qur’an tells us, those signs are visible in the furthest horizons of the universe and within the soul of the human being (41:53) in his or her role as ‘vicegerent’ of God. It comes through in the empirical dimension encompassed by sensory experience, and the richly evocative and concrete images of the sheer splendour and riveting beauty of nature seen through the searching eye of the poet. It speaks to us through the aesthetic sensibility of the garden designer, through the work of practical environmentalism in Scotland and Palestine, and through recourse to well-researched studies which give ample evidence of the physical and psychological benefits of immersion in nature for children and adults. And we are given a preview of inspiring nature education designed to help children to create an intimate spiritual link with the natural world.
I grew up walking the coastline and sandy beaches around the Kentish seaside town where I was born, learning from a young age how to keep my balance as I strode out on the slippery, seaweed-strewn rocks to the water’s edge before the tide rolled in. As a twelve-year old living for a while in Bermuda and blessed by dark night skies, I borrowed a telescope from my local public library, and spent three months meticulously mapping the heavens. I remember well the sense of awe and wonder I felt when Saturn with its rings swam into view. Later, as a starry-eyed teenager, I paced the North Downs above my school, reciting the great Nature poets of the Romantic period. To this day, the famous lines of the Lakeland poet William Wordsworth written a few miles above Tintern Abbey – and so naturally and universally ‘Qur’anic’ in their vision of the all-encompassing Divine Presence in the whole of creation – are still etched on my memory:
… And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
And even now, at an age where some might expect me to be thinking of hanging up my walking boots, I walk longer distances than I have ever done before: most recently the 180-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path over twelve days (with a total ascent of 30,000 feet), and mountain tracks in the Pyrenees. When I walked the hills and crags of the Isle of Man, my father-in-law, a Manxman, used to tell me (with a deliberately playful air of mystery) to watch out for the Moddey Dhoo, a legendary black dog with long shaggy hair and eyes like coals of fire. Of course, I took this in the way it was intended, as a piece of colourful folklore, but I remember well the occasion when I dragooned a Muslim friend to venture half a mile with me into the wilds of Dartmoor. It was a bleak day, and he had the apprehensive look of a man who half-expected the hellish Hound of the Baskervilles to charge at him ravenously out of the mist and rend him limb from limb, or at the very least for him to sink without trace into a treacherous piece of boggy ground.
I cannot pretend not to be struck by how disconnected many of my British Muslim friends are from nature and the countryside. I have yet to meet more than a few who can locate where I live, and when I say that I live in Malvern, many respond with ‘What part of London is that?’, assuming that I must unquestionably be a city-dweller. This disconnection is confirmed by Zeshan Akhter in her essay describing the nature conservation work of Scottish National Heritage. Asserting that ‘ethnic minorities are lagging behind’, she goes on to explain that ‘public attitude surveys in Britain consistently find that people from Asian and Muslim backgrounds have the least understanding about nature and spend the least amount of time in it undertaking any kind of activity in the countryside, parks or other types of green spaces in towns and cities.’ Considered ‘hard to reach’, they seem largely immune to ‘mainstream efforts that aim to inform the public about the environment and to encourage them to spend time outdoors’.
Several years ago, in response to an essay on walking in nature I wrote for a Muslim lifestyle magazine, I was contacted by a number of Muslim readers (and still am to this day) asking me if it was ‘safe’ to go rambling outdoors in the countryside. One asked me if she might be ‘mugged’ if she did so, to which I gently replied that she was probably more likely to be mugged on the streets of North London where she lived than in the fells of the Lake District, in a coastal nature reserve in Norfolk or Northumbria, or on a ridge in the Black Mountains in Wales. Others asked me if I knew of a ‘Muslim Walking Club’ which offered that comforting communitarian sense of safety and belonging. I replied that I usually walked alone, as I found that more liberating and most conducive to deep reflection. If a group was preferred, I suggested that walking was a universal human activity which did not necessitate a distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims, and to my knowledge there was no special mode or style of walking which had somehow been ‘Islamised’ and thus rendered ‘halal’, any more than there were ‘Islamic’ bicycles which gave one a safer or smoother ride. Half-earnestly and half-jokingly I proposed to a Muslim friend that I might start a country rambling club for Muslims, perhaps initially limited to very modest walks of ten miles or less in unchallenging terrain. He laughed and said: ‘But you will never get any members. Muslims do not walk anywhere.’
Now, it’s all very well for me to occupy the high ground and question Muslim reluctance to step out of the city. There is, of course, a historical explanation for this preference by migrants for close-knit urban communities and the prospects for community solidarity and economic advancement that they provided. And I’m not likely to be the victim of anti-Muslim or any other kind of anti-religious prejudice in this country because of the way I look. After all, I am not someone ‘of Muslim appearance’, to use the infamous phrase repeated from a Whitehall source by the BBC political editor Nick Robinson in describing the suspected murderers of the soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013 – a phrase for which he quickly apologised. I am not of course denying that there are cultural issues, whether actual, assumed or imagined, when it comes to venturing too far beyond the confines (and perceived safety net) of a familiar heritage community. But we surely need, whatever our ‘identity’, to extend ourselves beyond the limitations, conditions, assumptions and fears we impose upon ourselves – or are imposed upon us by sensationalist media, group-think, peer group pressure, social conventions, or fixed ideas within communities – if we are to reap the inestimable rewards which await us through any kind of ‘venturing’ beyond familiar territory, whether cultural, environmental, or conceptual.
Despite the fact that Muslim communities may still be ‘hard to reach’ when it comes to getting them into the outdoors, there are some promising signs of change, especially amongst the younger generation. I discovered this two years ago when I was privileged to be asked to speak on the theme of ‘Spirituality and the Outdoors’ at an equity symposium on ‘Barriers to Participation’ at Haworth on the South Pennine Moors as part of the outreach programme organised by the British Mountaineering Council. This was in conjunction with MountainMuslim, an innovative organisation and website that aims to encourage and facilitate more active participation in the outdoors amongst the mainly urban Muslim communities in the UK. It was encouraging to encounter there an enthusiastic cadre of pioneering young Muslims, and most especially, intrepid young Muslim women from the surrounding industrial towns of Bradford, Keighley and Halifax, who were involved in outdoor pursuits ranging from rambling to hill walking and rock climbing, as well as health education, fitness training, and environmental activism. These young Muslims who are striking out in new ways to expand their horizons will surely be an inspiration to others.
The heart of what I tried to express there was that ‘immersion in nature’ should not be restricted and reduced only to the sense of arduous and challenging physical adventure (and the ultimate inflation of that in the ‘conquest’ of nature and the adrenaline-fuelled world of ‘extreme sports’) but needed to embrace the greatest adventure of all, that ongoing holistic education and self-education, at once sensory, cognitive, affective, moral and spiritual by which we discover and nurture our whole being and develop the full range of our God-given faculties. ‘He has endowed you with hearing, and sight, and hearts, so that you might have cause to be grateful’ (Qur’an 16:78). And I use the English word ‘develop’ not primarily in the sense of ‘training’ or ‘learning’ or ‘acquiring skills’ but in its original sense derived from Old French des-voloper, ‘unwrap’ or ‘unveil’. This, too, echoes the Latin educere, ‘educe, lead forth, draw out’, the source of the intensive form educare, ‘rear, foster’. The idea of human development as one of the unfolding of divinely endowed faculties points also to one of the most fundamental concepts in Islam, that of fitra, often translated as ‘primordial disposition’, but more simply as ‘essential nature’, or in Akhter’s words, as ‘the divine spark with which we are born’. It is that inner compass and natural orientation – the criterion (furqan) which enables us to perceive the truth – that accompanies our innate awareness of our divine origin and ultimate place of return. The idea that human nature or ‘character’ is an innate endowment is also embedded in the origin of the word ‘character’ itself. It comes from Greek kharakter, a derivative of the verb kharassein, to ‘sharpen, engrave, cut’, and hence was applied metaphorically to the particular impress or stamp which marked one thing as different from another – its ‘character’. Human character is what is already ‘stamped’ or ‘etched’ upon us in accordance with the Divine Prototype or pattern, and as such it is nothing less than the repository of the sacred trust (amanah) accorded to the human being as khalifah, ‘vicegerent’. In his essay on Vicegerency in this issue, Munjed Murad outlines Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysical foundation of the role of the human being as steward, custodian and protector of the earth. Here, the primary responsibility of vicegerency, realised in the form of the Perfect Human Being (al-insan al-kamil), is to reflect the totality of the Creator within the human soul, to act as ‘Pontifical Man…the reflection of the Centre on the periphery and the echo of the Origin’, or to act as the microcosm (al-‘alam al-saghir) as the mirror of the macrocosm (al-‘alam al-kabir). Vicegerency is thus ‘the unique reflection of the synthesis and totality of the Names of God, the encompassment of all realities, the pupil to God’s eye in the world’.
The primary function of the human being to ‘reflect’ the totality of the Names of God also requires that he or she is faithful to the Qur’anic imperative to ‘reflect on’ or contemplate the natural order. This is made clear in Laura Hassan’s essay investigating the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ of God and Nature. According to one count, she explains, ‘words based on the root kh-l-q, ‘to create’, occur 248 times in the Qur’an. So prominent a theme is creation that as Izutsu puts it ‘the Qur’an may be regarded in a certain sense as a grand hymn in honour of Divine creation. The cosmos, animal life, plant life, and supremely, humankind, are all subjects of the Qur’an’s celebration.’
‘The immediate context of all Qur’anic references to the natural order’, asserts Hassan, ‘is the insistent call to worship pervading the entire Qur’an. Sky, clouds, rain, seas, beasts, birds, even bees and spiders all demand the hearer’s attention as evidence of God’s power and benevolence. That the natural order should point its inhabitants towards God is repeatedly and persuasively stated: “Truly, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variation of night and day there are signs (ayat) for those of understanding, those who remember God standing, sitting, and lying on their sides, and who contemplate the creation of the heavens and the earth: ‘Our Lord, you did not create this for nothing!”’ (3:190-191).
A particular purpose of my talk on ‘Spirituality and the Outdoors’ at the symposium on the Pennine Moors was to connect my theme to the British context and its rich literary heritage around nature and spirituality. The area is of course a famous place in British literary culture, the setting for Wuthering Heights, the famous novel by Emily Brontë. The word ‘Wuthering’ is a provincial term describing turbulent weather, and the moors are typically depicted as wild, bleak and desolate places, full of hazardous marshes and swamps, as well as even more fearsome, hair-raising and even supernatural menaces. But as much as the moors represent threat and danger, they are also full of mystery and mystical allure. Bleak as they may be, they are a source of inspiration and relief from the prison-like atmosphere of Wuthering Heights. To Cathy and Heathcliff, the lovers in the story, the moors exist as a supernatural, liberating region without boundaries. For them, to wander on the moors is the ultimate freedom, away from incarceration in the stifling artifice of society, with all its suffocating expectations, restrictions and conventions. The book was controversial when it was published in 1847, because it challenged strict Victorian conventions of the day, including religious hypocrisy, social class fixations, and gender inequality, and although society may be very different now for many of us from what it was at that time, we need to continue to ask what barriers still exist to be broken down and how individual freedom and adventure on all levels can be hampered within any community.
And let us be clear that such barriers are not confined to any particular community, even if they may be stronger in some. Barriers are not always a matter of established social convention or traditional cultural conditioning, but may shift with the times to encompass other impediments and restrictions. When I was discussing with a friend recently my intention to travel to Norway for some mountain trekking, he told me that his teenage sons don’t like going very far into the wilderness because they can’t get a wifi connection. Ouch, an hour’s separation from Facebook or Twitter, what torture!
The awareness of the sacred, this reverence for the manifestation of the Divine in the beauty and majesty of Nature, is accessible to us in so many ways, whether in the sublime view from the highest mountain peak in the wilderness or in the fragrant sanctuary offered by a beautiful garden in the place where we live. The outdoors is for everyone, young and old, male and female, physically active or disabled, members of faith communities or not, and whatever our ethnicity. Mountains may often be the sites of divine inspiration and revelation in many spiritual traditions, but is not paradise so often depicted as a garden? In Zen Buddhism, the maintenance of gardens is considered an elevated spiritual practice. In her essay on Islamic gardens, Emma Clark envisions these gardens as sacred art, not only as a vehicle for spiritual illumination but also as an opportunity for re-awakening our profound connection with nature – largely eroded by our predominantly urban existence.
The outdoors is not a masculine preserve dedicated solely to prodigious feats of muscularity and daring. It is not only stark exposure to the wildness of the elements and to nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ but also a haven for peaceful contemplation and the nourishment of the soul. It encompasses both the grand and the intimate, the starkly majestic and the ravishingly beautiful.
In his contribution to this issue, Charles Upton captures the contrast between Beauty and Power (Jamal and Jalal), the two categories of Divine qualities manifested in creation. ‘The Beautiful and the Sublime (or Infinitely Powerful) are the two essential qualities of the natural world: the still reflective lake and the erupting volcano; the dove and the cobra.’ But, as he explains so evocatively, the two qualities are also profoundly complementary:
Without the Sublime, nature would be stagnant and cloying; without the Beautiful it would be horrendous, too much to bear. This is why a balanced relationship to the natural world – and to life itself, for that matter – requires both rigour and rapture, both war and peace, the relaxant of calm pleasure and the tonic of danger and struggle. If it’s all peace, we become effete; if it’s all struggle, we become barbaric. There is also Sublimity in Beauty – witness the stallion – and Beauty in Sublimity – witness the tiger. God, too, manifests as both Beauty and Sublimity, both Mercy and Rigour (or Majesty) – which is why the integral vision of nature is the primary support, outside of divinely-revealed religion, for the contemplation of God.
Within such an integral vision, it can well be argued that the correct balance needs to be restored between the worship of the incomparable and unknowable Uniqueness of God (‘Utterly remote is God in His limitless glory, from anything to which men may ascribe a share in His divinity!’ – Qur’an 59:23) and the loving awareness and knowledge of God’s merciful Presence (‘He is closer to you than your jugular vein’ – Qur’an 50:16). The over-emphasis on tanzih, the majestic, incomparable, remote and transcendent aspect of God, can remove us from tashbih, the intimate and immanent aspect of God’s presence in the diversity of the created world. It can incline us disproportionately to justice, severity and singularity at the expense of beauty, mercy and diversity. In its most extreme form, such imbalance gives rise to oppressive religious bigotry, intolerance, and rigid legalistic severity. After all, His Mercy will prevail over His Wrath, so it could even be upheld that the balance is itself loaded in the direction of tashbih.
The treasury of poems contributed by Paul (Abdul Wadud) Sutherland and Michael Wolfe is replete not only with pellucid images of the beauty, refinement and splendour of the natural world, but also with that ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused’ which breaks through in flashes of awe, wonder, spiritual yearning, and utter bewilderment (hayra). Thus:
‘…I still do hope
One day to see Your face, if just an instant…..’ (Wolfe),
and Sutherland, in observing birds of prey, as one ‘billowed its feathers’, confesses:
‘I looked long, drove slow but never understood.’
There are resonant Qur’anic allusions here, from ‘wherever you turn there is the face of God’ (2:115) to the verses which tells us that ‘it is God whose limitless glory all creatures in the heavens and the earth extol, even the birds as they spread out their wings’ (24:41). Each worships God in its own way, ‘though you fail to grasp the manner of their praise’ (17:44).
The experiential dimension of the human relationship with nature is also central to Daniel Dyer’s contribution ‘Nature for Children’ which gives a taste of his forthcoming children’s resource, The 99 Names of Allah. This aims ‘to help children build a spiritual link to the natural world, making them aware that God communicates to us through nature in the most beautiful, awesome, playful, sublime, and subtle manner.’ It also shows children that ‘they can learn spiritual and ethical lessons from nature, that they may draw sustenance, peace, and inner calm simply by being witnesses within it, and that outside of the human soul, it is nature that is the ultimate playground for the manifestation of Allah’s Names.’ In highlighting the complementary aim of building ecological awareness through the resource, Dyer makes the important point that although ‘mainstream secular education is at pains to educate our children on our responsibilities in the face of environmental crisis’, and ‘much good work is being done in schools’, yet ‘the nature that is generally presented to children is one divested of meaning: it is a nature held at arm’s length, a superficial thing separate from us and without spiritual significance.’ ‘Intimate spiritual connection’ through immersion and contemplation is absolutely germane to an understanding and personal realisation of nature which is not merely theoretical and abstract, and to the development of real and meaningful ecological awareness – what Dyer calls a ‘spiritualised ecology’.
In detailing his ‘radical political dynamics of the Prophetic model’ towards ‘a public theology of social activism’, Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed has identified several core environmental principles: Sustainable Development for Social Welfare, Cosmological and Ecological Balance, Respect for Animal Life, and Environmental Conservation. To paraphrase some of his important reflections, the Qur’an conveys not only a sense of wonder at the beauty and majesty of nature, describing the natural order as a single, living, sentient system in a constant state of reflection on the Divine Reality, but also repeatedly clarifies that the entire universe, from the cosmos to all life on earth, is inter-related and in a state of natural balance that should not be altered or corrupted. Further, every life-form is described as belonging to a community, a social order, that is comparable to that of human life. Numerous verses also suggest that environmental and social corruption are a consequence of human activity that disrupts the ‘due measure and proportion’ and the faultless order invested in the whole of creation. The Qur’an explicitly states that ‘corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought: and so He will let them taste some of their doings, that haply they might return’ (30:41). In his note to this verse, Muhammad Asad refers to ‘the growing corruption and destruction of our natural environment, so awesomely demonstrated in our time’ as an outcome of ‘that self-destructive – because utterly materialistic – inventiveness and frenzied activity which now threatens mankind with previously unimaginable ecological disasters.’
The only antidote to the looming ecological disasters, notes Naomi Foyle in her essay on ‘Palestine and (Human) Nature’, is ‘a powerful but humble sense we are all one, interdependent, and dependent on all of creation’. Connecting this philosophy to ‘the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity’ and ‘the natural world as the ground of all sharing’ expressed by the term ‘Ubuntu’ in Southern Africa, she affirms that for her the concept has ‘a deeply spiritual dimension’:
The notion of universal sharing flies in the face of the materialist conception of human nature as fundamentally driven by biological imperatives to feed, mate and reproduce our “selfish genes” and pack loyalties, and goes far beyond the concept of altruism, which evolutionary psychologists primarily understand as self-sacrifice in favour of younger generations. People inspired by universal consciousness are willing to act on behalf of others they are only very tenuously related to.
And, as Foyle points out, for ‘the growing eco-Islam movement’, the signal message of unity, the doctrine of Tawhid, gives expression to the fact (emphasised also by many contemporary Christian and Jewish scholars) that ‘everything in the world is part of creation and is related to everything else, which makes the entire world significant, valuable, and worthy of protection.’
In line with Foyle’s own description of the practice of permaculture in Palestine, Zeshan Akhter identifies one very practical way in which a vision of the sanctity of the natural order might be revived through environmental activism rooted in Islamic principles. In the light of her own work in the protection of the jewels of natural landscape and their precious flora and wildlife in Britain, she invokes the concept of hima, those protected areas established by the Prophet, and considered as public property or common lands, where development, habitation, or extensive grazing were proscribed. Such zones ‘were reserved for forests in which cutting of trees was forbidden, grazing was restricted to certain seasons, and the whole zone was managed for the welfare of the community.’ In fact, ‘the community itself was responsible for its protection and conservation.’ Both hima, and a second kind of inviolate zone, haram, were an integral part of the Shariah, and any historic Muslim cities, such as Fez in Morocco and Aleppo in Syria were built around them. But, as Akhter laments, ‘all this is history’. Tragically, in modern times, the ‘inviolable sanctuaries’ of Mecca and Medina are ‘the last places where we might expect to find the environment treated with respect’. Nevertheless, she is hopeful that the concepts of hima and haram may be revived in contemporary times, and identifies the Birmingham-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES) as one positive indication.
Just as faith traditions may provide a crucial inspirational element for activists in tackling poverty, social and economic injustice, abuse of human rights, and environmental degradation, the same goes for animal welfare and ethical consumption. Here too, respect for nature might be reclaimed from Islamic principles. For example, Ruth Helen Corbet has argued persuasively how the principle of tayyib (what is good) might humanely be applied so as to go beyond that of halal (what is permitted). One has to ask why, at Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, Muslims actively collude in cruelty to animals through the mass importation of sacrificial sheep from Australia and New Zealand? Are there no Islamic standards of compassion to animals? How can one justify the horrendous conditions reportedly endured by the four million sheep and 770,000 cattle per annum transported in filthy conditions from Australia alone, packed onto ships 100,000 at a time, subject to trampling, disease, starvation, trauma and heat stroke during their month long journey, and a high percentage of deaths in transit?
Of course, it is easy to point to the ‘hypocrisy’ of Westerners who condemn ritual slaughter and yet consume vast quantities of meat derived from industrialised, mass slaughter while evading any personal responsibility for taking the life of an animal. True as that may be, it does not shed much light on what has become a pressing controversy amongst Muslims themselves. We cannot keep wagging our fingers at the assumed hypocrisy of others any more than we can keep shouting ‘Islamophobia’ as a means of stifling self-criticism. Every individual and every community have to deal with whatever is in their own bag.
And how convincing today is the argument that mass sacrifice originally provided many valuable services to the Muslim community? Did it not inculcate, for example, a sense of sacrifice and compassion in the giver, who had to give up an animal, an important source of livelihood in times gone by? Did it not also serve a worthy social purpose in providing meat, one of the few protein-rich foods in early Islam, to the poor, who ate it only on the occasion of the two Eids? Indeed, but how relevant are these circumstances for many Muslims in today’s world?
Shahid Ali Muttaqi questions the necessity of performing the traditional Eid al-Adha sacrifice, maintaining that ritual slaughter in Islam is merely customary, and derives from the norms and conditions of pre-Islamic Arab society, and not from Islam. Pre-Islamic blood sacrifice, by which pagan Arabs sought to propitiate a pantheon of Gods and attain favour and material gain, is specifically qualified in the Qur’an: ‘It is not their meat, nor their blood, that reach God; it is only your taqwa (consciousness of God) that reaches Him’ (22:37). The Jews also sought to appease the One True God by blood sacrifice and burnt offerings, and it is worth noting that the word ‘holocaust’ comes from Greek holos (whole) and kaustos (burnt) and originally meant ‘a sacrifice consumed by fire’. Even the Christian community felt Jesus to be the last sacrifice, the final lamb, in a tradition of animal sacrifice through which one’s sins were absolved by the blood of another. Muttaqi points out that the notion of ‘vicarious atonement for sin’ is nowhere to be found in the Qur’an. Neither is the idea of propitiation or gaining favour or material gain through the sacrifice of a life. All that is demanded as a sacrifice is one’s personal willingness to submit one’s ego and individual will to Allah. Is not self-surrender, after all the essential meaning of islam?
Foyle’s recognition of the new dynamism within exemplars of ‘eco-jihad’ confirms the heartening promise of change I observed amongst the enthusiastic cadre of pioneering young Muslims engaging with nature on the Pennine Moors. By the same token, it is important to reiterate the point that although disconnection from nature is still pronounced in urban Muslim communities, we should be aware that it is a growing problem in every section of society. In fact, I would fervently claim that the spiritual crisis of our times is most clearly reflected in our relationship with Nature.
In his influential book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv identifies what he describes as ‘the staggering divide between children and the outdoors’ which he aptly labels as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ (NDD). He directly links the disconnection from nature in the lives of today’s wired generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. In her contribution to this issue, Lali Zaibun-Nisa refers to the strategies recommended by Louv for reconnecting people (children especially) with nature, including ‘direct contact in the form of wilderness immersion practices such as forest schooling, and indirect contact in the form of increased visual access to the natural world’. She goes on to refer to well-researched studies cited in Louv’s later book The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age which detail the positive impact of these strategies: for children, marked improvement in their psychological health, including a reduction in the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); increased attention span; improvement in test scores, scholastic ability and motivation; enhanced self-esteem; and even improved conflict-resolution and cooperation skills.
Zaibun-Nisa goes on to describe how ‘for adults too the gains are immense, both psychologically and physically: a reduction in the symptoms of mental health conditions and recovery for otherwise intractable conditions; an enhanced ability to cope with stress; faster recovery from illness and injury; better pain management in conditions such as heart disease; enhanced immune resistance; and improved mood and self-esteem.’
Further research, reported in the journal Nature last year in an article entitled ‘The Myopia Boom’, has identified an increase in time outdoors as a major factor in reversing the short-sightedness which is reaching epidemic proportions in East Asia. Sixty years ago, the article reveals, 10–20 per cent of the Chinese population was short-sighted, but, today this has risen to an astounding 90 per cent amongst teenagers and young adults. In Seoul, a whopping 96.5 per cent of nineteen-year-old men are short-sighted. ‘Other parts of the world have also seen a dramatic increase in the condition, which now affects around half of young adults in the United States and Europe – double the prevalence of half a century ago. By some estimates, one-third of the world’s population – 2.5 billion people – could be affected by short-sightedness by the end of this decade.’
Old ideas about the causes of the disorder tended to associate it with the ‘bookish child’, and it is true that its striking modern escalation mirrors a trend for children in many countries to spend more time reading, studying or – more recently – glued to computer and smartphone screens. This is particularly the case in East Asian countries, where the high value placed on educational performance (increasingly reflected in high global school rankings) is driving children to spend longer in school and on their studies. An OECD report last year showed that the average fifteen-year-old in Shanghai now spends fourteen hours per week on homework, compared with five hours in the United Kingdom and six hours in the United States.
That said, the most recent research is challenging the ‘bookishness’ theory, and is instead coalescing around a new notion: that spending too long indoors is the real problem. ‘We’re really trying to give this message now that children need to spend more time outside,’ says Kathryn Rose, head of orthoptics at the University of Technology, Sydney. Three or more hours of daily outdoor time is now recommended, and this is already the norm for children in Australia, where only around 30 per cent of seventeen-year-olds are myopic. These three hours ‘need to be under light levels of at least 10,000 lux, which is about the level experienced by someone under a shady tree, wearing sunglasses, on a bright summer’s day.’ In stark contrast, a well-lit office or classroom is twenty times dimmer, at usually no more than 500 lux. Sadly, a new report in March this year entitled Play in Balance (as part of the ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign) on the lack of time spent outdoors by children in the UK, has revealed that three quarters of British children aged between six and twelve spend less time playing outside than the sixty minutes a day recommended for prison inmates. ‘Let’s be clear’, asserts an article in The Times entitled ‘Why nature is better than Netflix’, ‘they weren’t asked how often they climbed mountains or trekked into unadulterated forest. Just how often they played in a local park, a garden … anywhere in the fresh air’. Nearly eight out of ten parents admit that their children often refuse to play without some form of technology or ‘screen-time’ being involved, and this can pose an obvious barrier to spending more time outdoors. A similar number report that their child prefers to play virtual sports on a screen inside rather than playing ‘real’ sports outside.
I’ve been careful to question the false assumption that outdoor pursuits have to be adrenaline-fuelled, time-pressured exploits or extreme sports testing the limits of human daring and endurance if they are to offer a real sense of achievement and personal fulfilment. This does not actually contradict the value of those awesome physical and mental feats that may be needed for great exploits of exploration any more than it devalues the many examples of physical privation, austerity and asceticism within the wilderness as elements of spiritual training and practice in many spiritual traditions. It was, after all, the regular retreat, seclusion and fasting of the Prophet Muhammad in a mountain cave near Mecca, which prepared him to receive the first revelations of the Qur’an. In Hinduism, the third of the four traditional stages or ashrama of life is the stage when one’s own children have grown up, and one renounces all material pleasures, retires from social and professional life, and goes to the forest as a hermit to live a simple life of spiritual devotions. And then there is the tradition of Christian hermits and ascetics in the wilderness, including the desert Fathers, and monasteries on mountain-tops and other hard-to-reach places. Some Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist monks took asceticism to the limit by meditating on mountain tops in sub-zero temperatures. There is even a yoga called the ‘yoga of the psychic heat’ practised by these monks which reputedly enabled them to generate their own heat from within so that they could engage in such austerities without freezing to death.
It’s also clear that many of the virtues of character developed through adventurous exploits in the outdoors may well have great value for the development of spirituality. For example, the virtue of perseverance, endeavour and patient endurance (sabr in Islamic tradition), the virtue of intrepidity and courage, the virtue of decisive intention and aspiration (himmah), and the chivalric virtue of heroic generosity (futuwwah) which puts others before oneself. I remember with great affection an incident recorded in a television programme about the Coast to Coast Walk when the presenter Julia Bradbury encounters a walker somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales about half way through the 190-mile trek. He was an eighty-three-year-old American undertaking the hike for the seventh year in succession. He said, ‘If I should collapse, I only hope that I do not block the path.’ We can see here the beautiful virtue of resignation and natural spiritual courtesy, a completely self-effacing respect for others. We tread here on the path of what is described in Islamic tradition as adab, a level of exemplary courtesy and decency which is a fundamental aspect of excellence of human character. In spiritual traditions, excellence is not simply about mastery, achievement and success, but always includes a moral and spiritual dimension.
There is robust research which has shown that students who participate in adventure programmes do indeed show long-term improvement in their problem-solving abilities, leadership skills, social skills and independence. But, perhaps above all, young people benefit enormously from simple immersion in the spaciousness and tranquillity of nature without any necessary goal-directed activity. One of the recognised problems I have seen in schools and within families is too much emphasis on controlled and organised activities, and not enough on creative play, which by its very nature has no definable objective. Walking with a child on the beach does not have to involve the specific quantitative educational objective of collecting, identifying and naming ten different kinds of shell or pebble. Education in nature is not essentially about ticking boxes; it is a holistic and qualitative state of freedom and immersion through which we let the full range of our faculties unfold in a natural way.
A rather common lack of independent thinking and imagination is only too evident in the popularity of ‘bucket list’ books like 100 Things to Do before you Die, or 100 Places to Visit before you Die, which perpetrate the absurdly conformist fallacy that you’re falling behind if you haven’t conquered iconic hotspots like Mount Snowdon, or met the ultimate challenge of climbing Mount Everest without oxygen, or walked on a tightrope from one hot air balloon to another at 10,000 feet and taking a selfie doing it. There are regular pictures in the newspapers on August bank holiday of hundreds of people queuing on their way up Snowdon and at least thirty crowded on the summit, many trying to take pictures of themselves. Similar pictures taken on Mount Everest regularly depict climbers crowded together as they queue for up to two and a half hours on their way up to the summit.
A young man who had discovered the joys of walking recently announced to me that he had decided to do the ‘Three Peaks Challenge’, climbing the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales (that is, Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) in twenty-four hours, even though he has not yet climbed one of them. Of course, I expressed my approval of such a venture, not wanting to dampen his enthusiasm, but part of me yearned to say to him: why don’t you climb just one of them and just sit on the top in silent contemplation and awe, reflecting on the beauty and majesty of the view, and forgetting about the time pressure to rush to the next peak? Why not deeply consider and ponder what the exquisite and awesome signs of nature tell us about the beneficence of the Creator, the wonders of the created universe, and your place within it? Why not contemplate in stillness the perfection and sublimity of the natural order, as expressed not only so pervasively in the Qur’an, but also in so many fine words in the English cultural tradition, such as those of the eighteenth century English theologian and mystic William Law: ‘this world’, he wrote, ‘with all its stars, elements, and creatures, is come out of the invisible world; it has not the smallest thing or the smallest quality of anything but what is come forth from thence’. Mahmoud Shabistari (1288–1340), mystic poet of Iran, wrote:
know that the whole world is a mirror; in each atom are found a hundred blazing suns. If you split the centre of a single drop of water, a hundred pure oceans spring forth. If you examine each particle of dust, a thousand Adams can be seen.
And that is exactly the message of our own poet William Blake when he wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Finally, let me say that in my experience there is an inverse relationship between time and space. We live in such a frenetic and hyperactive contemporary culture, subject to declining attention span and under constant pressure to do more and more in less and less time, and one of the best ways to escape the tyranny of time pressure is to get into space. When you walk in nature, the expansiveness of space somehow dissolves time and enables you to be fully present in the moment. That physical spaciousness is like a reflection of the limitless and timeless space within our own being, at the very centre of ourselves, within our heart.
I wish for you all the expansion of that inner space in the great outdoors.