And when thy Lord said to the angels, ‘I am placing a vicegerent upon the earth,’ they said, ‘Wilt Thou place therein one who will work corruption therein, and shed blood, while we hymn Thy praise and call Thee Holy?’ He said, ‘Truly I know what you know not.’ And He taught Adam the names, all of them. Then He laid them before the angels and said, ‘Tell me the names of these, if you are truthful.’ They said, ‘Glory be to Thee! We have no knowledge save what Thou hast taught us. Truly Thou art the Knower, the Wise.’ He said, ‘Adam, tell them their names.’ And when he had told them their names He said, ‘Did I not say to you that I know the unseen of the heavens and the earth, and that I know what you disclose and what you used to conceal?’
The Qur’an, 2:30-33
He it is Who appointed you vicegerents upon the earth and raised some of you by degrees above others, that He may try you in that which He has given you. Truly thy Lord is Swift in retribution, and truly He is Forgiving, Merciful.
The Qur’an, 6:165
Humanity is the vicegerent of God on earth and thus the steward of nature. This paraphrases one of the main rallying cries of today’s environmental movement in the Islamic world, paralleled to a significant degree in other religious traditions. That humanity is both vicegerent and steward implies a specific trifold relationship between God, humanity, and nature. In other words, it implies a metaphysics, which is what I seek to expound here.
The leading voice in today’s Islamic intellectual response to the ecological crisis, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, has provided the following definitive summary of the status of the human being in relation to God and the world from an Islamic perspective:
Pontifical man is the reflection of the Centre on the periphery and the echo of the Origin in later cycles of time and generations of history. He is the vicegerent of God (khalīfatallāh) on earth, to use the Islamic term, responsible to God for his actions, and the custodian and protector of the earth of which he is given dominion on the condition that he remain faithful to himself as the central terrestrial figure created in the form of God, a theomorphic being living in this world but created for eternity.
In order to fully appreciate the significance of this statement and of the aforementioned slogan of the Islamic environmental movement, we must examine their origins. We can say with confidence that Qur’anic verses, such as those quoted above, and Prophetic teachings are at the heart of all of this. We are in need, however, of recourse to Islamic intellectual literature for a deep understanding of what these statements mean and of their implications for the contemporary Islamic perception of the ecological crisis. Thus, in this paper, I turn to ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240), the Great Master (al-Shaykh al-Akbar) of Islamic metaphysics, for a detailed exposition.