Science and Technology

Islamic Perspectives on Sustainable Development

Economic progress in the twentieth century has been spectacular by common Statistical standards. Along with this enviable record have come two important realizations: the immense material wealth has not made people happier than they were before, and it has resulted in a gradual depletion and, in some cases, an outright destruction of scarce ecological and other resources. This has forced many social scientists to rethink the necessity - even the desirability - of indiscriminate economic progress. No other single topic of discussion seems to manifest these concerns more than that of sustainable development.

This paper looks at sustainable development from an Islamic perspective. Its theoretical arguments proceed as follows: Islam means peace and harmony and, therefore, the Islamic way of life entails living in peace and harmony. An active promotion of the harmonization of individual, social, and ecological interests would ensure sustainable development. The discussion is then framed in the context of the ordained role of human beings as God's trustees. Under this arrangement, God is the real owner of all resources, and humanity is allowed to use them to its advantage as long as this trust is not violated. The paper concludes that in a truly Islamic society, sustainable development is a logical outcome of a normal life and that there is thus no need for a separate strategy of sustainable development. The rest of the paper deals with the concept of sustainable development and highlights its multifaceted nature, explains the endogeneity of sustainable development in Islam, examines the Islamic characterization of the role of human beings and shows how such a role conform to the requirements of sustainable development, and ends with some concluding remarks.

What Constitutes Sustainable Development?

For a long time, the issue of economic development was an exclusive domain of the sphere of positivist ideology within the field of economics. In fact, economic development and economic growth were treated as synonymous, which usually meant an increase in some measure of national income and/or concomitant increase in the standard of living. The subsequent development of the so-called Basic Needs Approach to economic development represented a significant advance in positivist thinking: for it shifted the emphasis from income growth to the delivery of goods and services to specified groups of people in society. Thus, for the first time, people became relevant to this paradigm. After this advance, there were numerous attempts to construct composite indices that sought to improve the concept and meaning of economic development (i.e., Morris 1979; United Nations 1970; and Adelman and Morris 1967.

Even with this shifting emphasis, the positivist approach to development remained entirely economic. For the most part, the pursuit of self-interest was relied upon not only for the achievement of individual well-being but also of social well-being. Adam Smith's invisible hand was there to see to that. Broader ecological questions were either downplayed or treated as peripheral. As the less-than-perfect record of mainstream economics in this regard has been a topic of much discourse, there is no need to go into details.

As a result, many scholars took exception to the positivist approach to development. The discussion began to revolve around such concepts as "authentic" and "sustainable" development. Literature on the normative approach to development is quite extensive (Goulet 1988) and its review is beyond the scope of this paper. However, its two most important, but not mutually exclusive, relevant features are the following. First, the fact that development is a value-laden issue is now being recognized more than ever before. According to Denis Goulet (1971):

Development is above all a question of values. It involves human attitudes and preferences, self-defined goals, and criteria for determining what ate tolerable costs to be borne in the course of change. These are far more important than better resource allocation, upgraded skills, or the rationalization of administrative procedures.

Second, it is being recognized that development is a multifaceted concept. Goulet (ibid.) expresses it the best when he says:

  • This total concept of development can perhaps best be expressed as the "human ascent" - the ascent of all men in their integral humanity, including the economic, biological, psychological, social, cultural, ideological, spiritual, mystical, and transcendental dimensions.

That normative approach to development has many more dimensions than just the economic is abundantly clear from Goulet's observations. For the sake of brevity, however, we will limit our discussion to three main dimensions: economic, social, and ecological. Of course, the core requirement for any development has to be an improvement in the economic conditions of individuals in a given society. In this sense, the positivist approach to development forms an integral part of the normative approach. But a broader dimension is that of social justice. Since we all prefer to live in a society, our sense of well-being is influenced by the way others live in that same society. Similarly, other people's well-being is influenced by our own way of life. This interdependence of our wellbeing is a type of externality that cannot be ignored if a society is to achieve meaningful development. While the interdependence in welfare has been widely recognized (Veblen 1934; Duesenberry 1949; Arrow 1951; Bergson 1954; Scitovsky 1954; Hirsch 1976; Easterlin 1980; and Frank 1985), its analysis has been largely outside the purview of the positivist approach.

Finally, our actions both as consumers and producers have ecological implications. The overarching emphasis on attaining efficiency in resource allocation within the positivist framework has led to unprecedented levels of pollution and ecological disaster. Such externalities are usually treated as peripheral in mainstream economics. And yet our well-being, even our existence, is inextricably embedded in the quality of the ecological conditions within which we live. The second law of thermodynamics, commonly known as the law of entropy, presents a compelling argument for the need to include ecological considerations in any meaningful development (Georgescu-Roegen 1975, 1977).

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