Sacred Nature by Karen Armstrong review – back to the garden


The sun and the moon run their courses according to a fixed reckoning.
And the stemless plants and the trees humbly submit to His will.
And the heaven He has raised high and set up a measure,
That you may not transgress the measure.
So weigh all things in justice and fall not short of the measure. (Al Quran 55:6-10)

Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth glorifies Allah; and He is the Mighty, the Wise. (Al Quran 61:1)

Source: The Guardian

By PD Smith, who is the author of four non-fiction books, the most recent being City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, and is currently writing his fifth, on crime and the city. He has a blog and spends far too much time on Twitter.

In Laurence Sterne’s 1759 novel Tristram Shandy, the hero describes how his good-natured uncle Toby is plagued by a particularly large and annoying fly which “buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner time”. Eventually he manages to catch the offending insect, but instead of killing it, he releases it out of the window.

“Why should I hurt thee?” he says. “This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.” The novel’s hero is a child at the time, but this “lesson of universal good-will” leaves an abiding impression on him, setting, as he put it “my whole frame into one vibration of most pleasurable sensation”.

Karen Armstrong cites this act of kindness at the end of a chapter exploring the crucial role played by the ancient concept of ahimsa in Indian spiritual traditions. Meaning “harmlessness”, it prohibits any kind of injury to others and was one of the core principles that aspirants in yoga had to observe.

But ahimsa was taken most seriously by the Jains, whose religious tradition was founded by Vardhamana Jnatiputra in the fifth century BC. He taught that it was not only humans who had a jiva (soul), but also every animal, plant and rock, as well as water, fire and air. It followed that all these things should be treated with the same courtesy and respect that we would wish to receive. This radical empathy meant that Jains avoided killing any insect or plant, and twice a day they asked for forgiveness for any creature they might have inadvertently injured or destroyed: “May all creatures pardon me. May I have friendship with all creatures and enmity toward none.”

For Armstrong, the concept of ahimsa is one of many examples of how ancient spiritual traditions can teach us how to regain a sense of the sacredness of nature. This matters because, as she argues, the future of our species may now depend on cultivating a Jain-like awareness of the terrible damage and harm we are inflicting on the other inhabitants of planet Earth.

Armstrong was once a nun living in a convent entirely cut off from the outside world, without news or television. She and her peers were informed exceptionally of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, “but our superiors forgot to tell us when it was over, so we spent three weeks waiting anxiously for Armageddon”. It was around that time that she also discovered the works of the Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats – writers who also mourned humanity’s “broken relationship with nature”.

Read further

Additional reading

Sir David Attenborough named Champion of the Earth by UN

Does Islam Tackle the Crisis of Climate Change?

Categories: Climate, Environment, Quran

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