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Moving beyond Petroleum - Imam Zaid Shakir

Moving beyond Petroleum - Imam Zaid Shakir

Issue 69 June 2010

At a recent closed-door session with members of the US government, representatives of the oil giant BP revealed that upwards of 60,000 barrels of oil have been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, daily, with no relief in sight. The ecological magnitude of the disaster and its political consequences has led various actors to begin playing the ‘blame game.’

Many are looking at BP as the responsible party. The company has one of the worst records in the industry. Over the past decade it has been responsible for more industry deaths in the US than any other company. It is responsible for the largest oil spill on Alaska’s North Slope. The 2005 explosion at one of its Texas refineries, which resulted in the deaths of 15 workers, was one of the worst industrial accidents in the US in the past two decades.

Others are blaming Halliburton, the services giant that had finished cementing the Deepwater Horizon rig just before it exploded on 20th April. The cementing process seals the hole around the pipe of a recently drilled well. Studies reveal that almost half of all oil rig explosions are caused by faulty cementing. If the procedure is not done properly, gas can rise up into the rig causing an explosion. Halliburton is currently being investigated in association with another explosion that occurred on a rig in the Timor Sea off the coast of Australia last August.

Yet others are implicating the US government for bowing to the pressure of oil industry lobbyists to deregulate an industry with such an immense public and environmental impact. That deregulation has led to the government not requiring acoustically-triggered automatic shut-off mechanisms that could have prevented the spill now threatening the economy and environment of a particularly fragile region.

The real finger of blame should point at each of us. We know the environmental, political, and social consequences of the oil-based civilisation we have allowed to evolve. Yet we have done little to stop it. We Muslims are not exempt in this regard. It is a shame that people associated with the ummah of Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, are responsible for the largest oil spill in history. In January 1991 the Iraqi government, attempting to thwart the imminent American Desert Storm operation, intentionally leaked upwards of half a billion gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, creating a four inch deep oil slick that covered almost 4,000 square miles. To put that into perspective, enough petroleum was spilled to cover the entire metropolitan London area in two feet of oil.

These manmade disasters should alert us to the ecologically and politically unsustainable nature of the global oil-based economy. The ecological implications of that economy are clear, and they are accentuated as more oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico with each passing day. However, the political implications are just as harmful.

Oil has arguably been a significant factor in several recent conflicts. Those conflicts range from well known inter-state ones, such as the 1991 Gulf War, to lesser known intrastate conflicts such as the ongoing strife in the Niger River Delta area. Access to the largely untapped reserves of the Sudan has been one of the unmentioned factors fueling the conflict in Darfur. Oil has also been a factor in the ongoing American venture in Iraq, initially labeled Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL), as the politics surrounding the drafting of the Iraq Oil Law clearly reveal. 

As Muslims we are called on to be a community of conscience, and as such we should be leading the cries urging a cessation of this madness. The Qur’an is a book of nature that alerts us to the importance of our lives being integrated into the natural world given us by God to nurture and sustain us.

One of the reasons the message of the Qur’an is so penetrating is that it calls us to reflect on the sky, the clouds, the stars, the sun and moon, the mountains, the trees, the oceans and their mysterious depths. These are not abstract concepts accessible only to the philosophically astute; they are the realities defining the world that itself is so instrumental in defining us.

The Qur’an also charges us with taking the responsibility to be compassionate guardians of nature, to take from it what is essential for our survival, but avoiding waste – for those who waste are identified as the brothers of Satan (17:27).  One of the sad realities associated with oil is that its extraction, refining, transporting and use all involve great waste, and most of that waste is toxic. To execute our responsibility as guardians of other forms of life that God has graciously made subservient to us we have to take personal measures and work for public policies that reduce and help to eliminate that toxicity.

At the personal level we can drive less and walk more. When many of us “old folks” were younger we regularly walked to school, even in the rain. Now we feel obliged to drive our children to school even though their schools in most instances are only a few blocks away. Safety considerations may prevent us from sending the children out on such treks alone, but nothing stops us from sharing the walk with them or a few other children from the neighbourhood.

Likewise, we can remember walking to the shops and then lugging three or four bags of groceries home. That was part of our regular routine and we cherished the stroll as it provided us time to slow down, reflect and to enjoy a personal and close up commune with nature. Even in urban communities, concrete and steel could not repress the flowers pushing up through the concrete and asphalt, or the birds, bees and butterflies periodically gracing our personal airspace. The slimmer waistline that was a natural and free byproduct of the practice was also appreciated, even though we probably took it for granted.

We can also begin a practice that many of our parents were quite familiar with: organic backyard gardening. By growing, canning and preserving our own fruits and vegetables we help reduce the volume of oil required to produce the fertilisers needed by large commercial farms. We also help to reduce the fuel needed to power the tractors that till the ground and the trucks that ship the food to market. We may think that our little plot cannot possibly make a difference, but when millions of people are engaged in such a practice the difference is huge.

Finally, the Qur’an not only encourages a large degree of ecological consciousness and enlightened practices, it also warns us of the consequences of our neglect. We read: Corruption has appeared in the land and sea because of what the hands of humans have wrought. Thus, that He may give them a taste of what they have perpetrated, in order that they return. (30:41)

The eminent companion, Ibn ‘Abbas, mentioned that one of the meanings of this verse is that the sea would cease yielding its harvest because of the sins of humans. We live in a time when we have already seen a precipitous decline in the yield of the sea. The evolving crisis in the Gulf of Mexico threatens to destroy the seafood industry of that region. This decline can be attributed to our sins in both the metaphysical and physical sense.

Metaphysically, our sins are an expression of ingratitude to our Lord, just as our worship is an expression of gratitude. When the Prophet, peace upon him, was asked why he was standing in prayer at night until his feet were swollen and cracked, he replied, “Should I not love to be a thankful servant?”

Physically, our crass disregard for the environment has reached such proportions that it undermines the rights of others. Companies will dump toxins in nearby lakes, rivers or streams, or ship them to be dumped in the coastal waters of poor countries like Ghana or Somalia if that is cheaper than properly processing them. The rights of those whose lives may depend on those bodies of water are totally disregarded.

Unfortunately, we will not be able to reverse the damage we are doing to ourselves, our environment and our fellow humans until we are able to take control of our lives and reconnect with the beauty and power of nature. That reconnection should not be viewed as an end, but rather as a means that draws us closer to our wise and merciful Creator.

That process of reversal begins by slowing down, walking, taking time to sit in bucolic environs. If we do not take steps to enhance our appreciation for our environment we will never be inspired to work to preserve it. It also begins with prayer, fasting, litanies and other practices wherewith we express our gratitude to our Lord. Gratitude, as the Qur’an reminds us, is a means for the perpetuation and increase of blessings.

One of the greatest blessings we have is this earthly home. However, if we don’t appeciate it, it will become a curse.


To check out Imam Zaid Shakir's other articles, click here


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1 Comment



27 May 10, 23:07

Amen, excellent reflection - challenging, but so true. I pray all of us take it to heart.

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