Iran Analysis Quarterly

Volume 1 No. 4 – Fall (September-November) 2004

A Publication of the Iranian Studies Group at MIT


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the Iranian Studies Group.


Homayoun Kheyri is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Molecular Biology at Griffith University in Australia. He received a M.S. in Marine Sciences from University of Marine Science & Technology-Tehran, Iran, and a B.S. in Zoology from Shahid Beheshti University. He is active in radio and television documentaries on popular science and has served as director, cameraman and writer for numerous science documentaries in Iran, Malaysia, Brazil, Cyrpus and Australia. Prior to his Ph.D. studies, he served as the Director of the Youths Council of  Jam-e Jam TV Network of the Iranian Broadcasting Organization, in Tehran, Iran.







Homayoun Kheyri

Ph.D. Candidate, Griffith University, Australia





All the religions see nature as having varying degrees of intrinsic value, and all religions offer correctives to the exploitation and destruction of the environment that threaten the globe today.  The spiritual disciplines of meditation upon nature in the religions are designed to keep this awareness front and center in human consciousness.  Thus, a common basis of respect for nature and humans is occurred.


According to Nasr (1994) most world religions fall into one of the following categories based on their view on creation and on the natural environment.  First, there are the primal religions still followed by indigenous people in Africa and Australia.  They believe that the world is alive; that it is en-souled, and the phenomena of nature are not only symbols of higher realities, but also is essentially identified by it.  They believe the destruction of their natural ambience implies the destruction of their religion.  The second category includes the Far-Eastern religions.  Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism are the best known of this category.  These religions are based on a view of nature in which the laws of nature and the laws of human existence are the same.  The third category comes from the vast world of India.  Hinduism, Buddhism, Sankara and Vedanta are some schools in this category.  In these religions there is no form of nature, which does not participate in the sacredness of life.  At the extreme form of these religions, they believe that one should not interfere with nature; one should just leave nature as it is.  And the fourth category includes Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  These three Middle Eastern Abrahamic religions have had historical and theological views concerning nature, which bear certain similarities to each other.  For them nature is not the ultimate reality, and the Divine Law is not only used for human beings, but is also employed to mean the laws of nature.  All three have strong links with the environment and their leaders get their inspirations from their surrounding natural environment.  Islam in particular has emphasized the necessity of protecting the environment in many of its rules.  Efficient use of water and protecting it from pollution has been emphasized in many verses of Qur’an for example the verse of “And with water we have made all living things” (Hillel, 1980, p 21)


Coward (1995) pointed out that Islam has a strong potential for expanding the concept of protecting nature because it sees nature as created by God for the benefit of humans, but not for their selfish use.  Yet, Islamic countries, like Iran face economic pressures and conflicts between idealism and realism of protecting nature and state objectives with discrepancies in function and aim.  The state of environmental crisis in Iran is very similar to other developing countries.  Air pollution, contaminated water, deforestation, desertification, high population growth, severe economic disparities between rich and poor, and the lack of proper legislation to protect natural resources are examples of environmental problems in Iran and most other developing countries that are collectively called the “Third World”.  However, there are some notable differences between Iranians and other nations in developing countries mostly in social trends and religious beliefs with respect to the conservation of nature.  It seems that both of these factors are in fact barriers to environmental protection.  The majority of environmental problems in Iran come from the national economic constraints and contents of educational programs that influence the social concern about environment.  The result is the retardation of national development process, something that is happening in Iran now.  The UN Human Development Report of 1999 (HDR1999) has reported similar concerns with respect to the environment.


Analyses of top sources used in HDR1999 also show the emerging of a new gap between the real direction of national development program and the expected direction.  Although, the initial patterns for the national development program were covering the environmental issues, the current direction is deviating from environmental protection issues.  Also, current acute political conflicts in Iran between conservatives and reformists prevent people from focusing on environmental difficulties which gradually surrounding their life.  These political conflicts combined with low economic income have changed the mission of Iranian Department of Environment from a protective agency to a merely advisory organization.  Therefore, contrary to international commitments in preparing the appropriate basis for achieving sustainable development, Iran is fast moving through political channels toward the environmental unsustainability.  It seems that for reviewing the environmental crisis of Iran, first of all it is necessary to review some parts of economic sectors that form the basis of the emerging national concepts.  Secondly we may have the conflicting concepts between politics and religion to find out the social trends of a nation.  In the end, we will explore the roots of environmental protection ideas in religious thought.   


Regional disparities in Iran have been growing at an alarming rate leading to serious problems including migration with its associated problems from backward provinces to the more affluent ones.  According to PBOUN (1999, Table 2.4, p.21) appendix1 the Human Development Report of the Islamic Republic of Iran 1999 (HDR, 1999) reveals vast regional disparities within 26 provinces of Iran in terms of HDI (Human Development Index, which is the annual publication of the UNDP since 1990) and its gender adjusted indices and the human poverty index.  After dividing the provinces into higher, medium and lower groups according to the value of their HDI the report highlights the extent of regional disparities and the need to deal with them.  The report (1999, Map 2.1, p.19) appendix 2 shows that the level of deprivation seen in the third group [lower group in terms of HDI] and the vast areas covered by the provinces in the second [medium] group suggest that special disparity-reducing measures need to be taken.


Gender adjusted indices of Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) also reveal significant regional differences.  In the case of GEM it ranges from 8 to 15 per cent in the higher group and from 21 to 27 per cent in the lower group.  These gaps are traced back to adult female literacy rate, and the report (1999, p.20) suggest: “ It follows that the adoption of policies aimed at raising the female adult literacy rate in provinces with lower human development will greatly contribute to the reduction of disparities in the human development index adjusted by gender”.

The value of the index is 3.5 times worse for the poorest province compared with the richest province.  Extending these observations to the level of the constituent indicators of these composite indices reveals a more detailed picture.  As Table N.25 (p. 155) appendix 3 shows Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita in the poorest region is about a third of that of the richest region and less than 60 per cent of the national average.  The adult literacy rate (Table P.1, p. 156) appendix 4 for the poorest region (48 per cent) is far behind that of the richest (85 per cent) and far below the national average (73 per cent).  Life expectancy (Table P.1, p. 156) is also revealing significant disparities.  Gender related indicators (Table P.5, p. 160) appendix 5 illustrate the same picture of alarming disparities.  Female primary education enrolment ratio for the most backward province is 2.5 times less than that of the best.  The corresponding figures for the female secondary level enrolment ratios are even worse, with a difference of 42 per cent.  The human poverty profile (Table P.4, p.159) appendix 6 in terms of regional differences is worryingly skewed.  The percentage of people not expected to survive to age 40 in the most backward province is 2.5 times greater than in the best province.  In terms of access to safe water and sanitation (Table P.4, p. 159), infant mortality rate and poverty the disparities are even more striking.  Nearly 14 per cent of populations in the poorest province have no access to safe water as compared to only 0.2 per cent in the richest province.  As for the percentage of population having no access to sanitation the corresponding figures are 62 and 15 per cent.   Figures for infant mortality rates (per 1000 live births) (Table P.7, p. 162) appendix 7 vary from 66 for the worst province to 27 for the best province.


The HDR1999 (1999, p.141) reflects such disparities and reiterates that one of the major human development policies in the country’s Third Plan is to pay attention to the spatial planning as a long-term framework for social justice and regional balance.  Where are such problems coming from?  Are they coming from the conflicts between different directions of social spheres?  Are they coming from religious beliefs on social affairs?  Or, are they rooted in social behaviors?  How is the relationship between religious beliefs and social behaviors and environmental crisis?  How does Islam influences people’s attitude towards the environment?  I try to answer these questions in this article.



Conflicts between politics and religion


The nature of a particular society is determined by its sociocultural structure, and it seems that religion is one of the most influential factors in this structure.  Of course, there are always human beings operating within this structure, and although one would not want to assert that human actions are merely derived from social structure, nevertheless this structure need to be examined and analyzed to provide any sure footing for determining the nature of the human beings who live and act within them.


The struggles and conflicts in our world take the shape of regional formations on all levels of economics, politics, and cultures of a given s ociety.  The core of these conflicts is the challenge between the dominant scientific-technological Western European culture and the preindustrial non-Western cultures, which enjoy only a very low degree of mastery over nature.  Furthermore, the economic, cultural and political structures of Eastern societies were severely shaken by Western colonial penetration, and the process of structural disintegration continues even today.  Old structures, as in the case of Iran, have crumbled and no new ones have appeared to take their place.  Therefore, structural heterogeneity emerged from illogical Westernization of the Third World.  One of the famous examples for the structural heterogeneity is the discovery of oil in the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th century.


Tibi (1981, p115) has stated that: “What occurred was not industrialization in the sense of the development of society toward a higher level, but rather industrialization in the sense of an industrial exploitation of raw material (oil) and its distribution in the metropolis”.  Changing the feature of cities to oil camps influenced the preindustrial local traditions to accept a new non-industrial and pseudo-Western behavior.  This new behavior brought a new series of social contradictions between society and oil workers, for example heterogeneity between local cultural trends and new language, new clothes, and new social objectivities.  Although The West could not influence the old generations, its academic opportunities attracted new generations, which they assisted to obtain power to compare their local political and cultural situations with their Western experiences.  As Tibi (1981, p105) has pointed out: “That the Iranian students in Europe and America played an important role in the fall of the Shah’s regime can be assumed with considerable certainty”.


It seems indisputable that the new waves of Iranian university students who have studied abroad broke through some traditional barriers for social progress and development. Nevertheless, they could not establish new structures for new social expectations.  One of the barriers that resisted against social development was religious belief.  As a result of this resistance, for the past hundred years, Iran has always been facing a question of Islam or state, which one has priority?  Although, the former Shah [King] of Iran tried to change the social trends to the state, this trend was reversed with the revolution of 1979.  The new Islamic government of Iran absolutely refused this duality and put both of them in one definition.



Conflict between state and religion: A case study


The challenge between these two agents of political power, Shah versos clergy has occurred many times before in Iran.  A well-known conflict happened eighty-seven years before the ending of the last Shah’s era.  In December 1892, women in Shah Naser al-Din’s harem stopped smoking obeying Ayatollah’s ruling and against the Shah’s wishes.  It was the ultimate result for a long challenge between Qajar Shahs and the Ayatollahs.  Haji Mirza Hassan Shirazi, one the most influential Iranian grand Ayatollahs, forbade smoking tobacco by a fatwa (a religious precept) for the Shiites Muslim, in 1892.  Nasr (1989, p301) says: “Shirazi set in motion the Tobacco Rebellion, the culmination of almost a century of confrontations between Qajar Shahs and the ulama’s (the clergy) active stance against monarchial despotism and foreign imperialism, in the early twentieth century.


In Iran, during the past 1400 years, it has been a belief that the clergy were stood to support people against the Shahs.  The clergy was always the winner of any conflict that took place between them and the Kings, two well-known symbols of religious and political power.  In fact, Ayatollah Shirazi’s fatwa was a reaction against the Shah Naser al-Din’s granting of the tobacco concession right to a Britain company in 1890, for only ₤1500.  Browne (1989, p302) has said: “At the beginning of December, 1891, a letter arrived from Shirazi, who at that time was living in Iraq, enjoining on the people the complete abandonment of tobacco until the concession was repealed”.  After this letter Shah Naser al-Din faced a personal as well as a national problem.  He had many wives in his harem and was father to hundreds of princes and princesses.  The first attack to his authority on this issue appeared by his harem and children.  Because according to this religious fatwa issued by Shirazi, if he did not repeal the tobacco concession his wives would not be lawful to him.  Shirazi had announced that if anybody smokes tobacco his/her marriage would religiously be annulled, even if that person were a King.  Browne (1989, p302) says: “Throughout the month of December, 1981, matters continued to get worse”.  In the end, King Naser al-Din who claimed to be a Divine judge, and God’s shadow on the earth, was forced to withdraw the tobacco concession right on December 28, 1892.  


In Iran, Kings were symbols of political power, although as Tibi (1981, p107) remarked: “In Islam the state is the political incarnation of religion”.  This idea comes from the role of Muhammad as the founder of religion and a politician, so his followers, as Muslim, must only hear and obey.  Shirazi’s act not only presented the power of religion in a country, which is backed on religious law, but also proved the religion’s power to control tobacco as a resource and prevent it from being given to foreigners.  Although Shirazi tied a political issue to a religious thought, similarly it will be a protective action if other issues like environmental crisis can be attach to religious beliefs.  Nasr (1994, p2) has explained that the reduction of nature to a mere material object caused “the loss of the sacral or sacred understanding of nature”.  Thus, again religion can revive the concepts of sacred nature. 


Tobacco Rebellion in Iran and Shirazi’s reaction is a perfect model in conflict between religion and state.  This case brings to light the potential power religion can play in reducing environmental problems.  More significantly, it seems that among the Western religions Islam has conceptually put more emphasis on nature, although it is hidden behind the thick curtain of severe religious regulations.  Coward (1995, p4) has explained this unique aspect of Islam: “First, there is no separation between humans and nature, [and second] there is the concept of a natural, cosmic Islam, in which stars and molecules, plants, animals, and human all worship God by confirming to the laws of their own being”.  Yet, the radical Islamic interpretations of environment, natural resources, and generally about human being and its responsibilities on the earth have caused that the last significant issue to be tackled, in Islamic countries, is usually the environmental crisis. 


Islam and the Environment


All religions see nature as a Divine gift that is carrying the Holy Messages from God to the earthy human.  Coward (1995, p3) says: “The Jewish tradition sees nature as having been created by God to give pleasure to humans, who have the responsibility to be careful stewards”.  Also he explains that: “Islam sees nature as created by God for the benefit of humans, but not for their selfish use” (p4), and “Christianity views humans and nature as created by God, with nature’s purpose being, at least partly, to provide for human needs” (p5). Even Hindus, Buddhists and Aboriginal traditions have holistic interconnections with nature.


For Muslims, it is a common practice to assess or judge everything, and apply in their personal and social life their Holy text, the Holy Qur’an.  In addition, there are three other religious sources that guide Islamic believes.  These are the Prophet’s sayings, Hadiths, the Prophet’s Actions, Sunnah, and the jurists’ decision, Sharia’h.  However, in different branches of Islam, there are other texts to search for appropriate interpretations or solutions.  The words of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in 610 A.D. and following during twenty-three years.  The revelations are divided into two parts.  He first part was revealed in Mecca, and the second part was revealed in Medina.  Ammar (1995, p125) says: “The Meccan revelations, generally, address more theological/religious injunctions, while the Medina revelations address social, political, economic, and environmental practices”.  In comparison with other Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Shinto, which don’t put man as representative of God above all other living things, Ammar (1995, p126) says: “The Quran, the Hadith, Sunnah, and the Sharia’h determine the parameters of Knowledge and information in Islam” and let humans to be God’s vice-regent (al-Khalifah) in making decisions about the world and its resources.  Therefore, Islam allows human to make decision on nature as well as themselves.


Although Ammar (1995, p129) has said: “The role of Khalifah (Islamic Ruler or Islamic King) is more like a manager’s than a proprietor’s, more like a beneficiary’s than a disposer’s”, the real facts in Islamic world suggest that Khalifah has an unlimited authority on the natural resources, and it changes the role of Khalifah to a powerful proprietor.  More importantly, it would be serious if a particular Khalifah took this the political stand and gets a leadership position on a nation.  Arkoun (1988, p60) has explained about the authority of Khalifah and misrepresenting the true process that has aimed: “To maintain the adhesion of people to an idealized image of legitimacy”.  In fact, the management of natural resources is a part of Khalifah’s authority, which incarnates itself in the governmental orders.  However, out of governmental field of power there are other attractive relationships between humans and nature.  The Sufism-sphere is one of those fields.


Nasr (1992, p89) has explained that: “In a Sufi interpretation, God himself is seen as the ultimate environment”.  This emphasis has come from a verse in the Qur’an (4:126) that says: “But to God belong all things in the heavens and on the earth, and He it is who encompassed (Muhit) all things”.  It seems that the nature of the Sufi orders let Sufis to be the best environmentalists among the huge diversity of Islamic branches.  Particularly, as Nasr (1997, p3) has pointed out: “within the world of Sufism itself, the traditional teachings were transmitted from generation to generation going back to the origin of the revelation”.  Therefore, the chain of Sufi generations has been a continued source of Islamic guardians for the environment and natural resources.  One of the best-known examples for the environmental guardianship of Sufism is the famous Persian metaphysical poem Gulshan-i raz (The Garden of Divine Mysteries), which its author is Shaykh Mahmud Shabistari (687/1288-720/1320).  Nasr and Matini (1997, p341) has explained that: “In answer to seventeen questions on different aspects of Sufi doctrine and practice sent by the Khurasani Sufi Sayyid Husayn Hirawi, Shabistari composed a mathnawi [a style for Iranian poem] of 993 verses entitled Gulshan-i raz.  The main core of this book is the emphasis on the Unity (tawheed) between humans and nature; however, the relationship between humans and nature is clearly illustrated in the poems.  Therefore, that is to say, in Islamic world, Sufi is prior to protect nature rather than Khalifah.


The Islamic texts always talk about covenants between God and humans.  The majority of the covenants are about nature, as Ammar (1995, p129) has stated: “All humans are entitled to the use of the earth equally without discrimination, abuse, corruption, or coercion”.  In case of covenants, humans who play the role of God’s vice-regent distinguish about natural resources by the scale of good and evil.


Ammar (1995, p130) according to the Qur’an (91: 7-8) says: “When God declared that human will be his vice-regent, the angels asked: wilt thou place therein one who will do harm therein and will shed blood? The Qur’an answers that humans can distinguish between good and evil”.


Finally, according to the concepts of good and evil in Islam, I may clarify the following question: Although the International commitments force the governments to keep bio-diversity in their geographical territories, why then is bio-diversity in Islamic countries decreasing?  In Islamic thought the concepts of good and evil (bad) point to the religious extremes, something like white and black.  Although Islamic interpretations can increase or decrease the social sensibility on particular cases, generally changing from bad to good is a hard job.  For example, among animals the dog is a bad and unclean creature, so according to Islamic orders no Muslim is allowed to keep a dog in their house.  Also a pig is a filthy animal, thus neither Muslims eat bacon nor keep pigs in farms.  Ammar (1995, p130) says that Islamic ethics on nature come from the respect to God and “It demands this respect because nature is the creation of God”.  Of course, according to the religious rules, Muslims do not kill animals, even pigs, but if such bad animals are in the edge of extinction, they will not get any help to survive, only because they have stood at the bad side of the religious interpretations.  Dog, pig, snake, shark and some other animals, also some plants are at the black side of Islamic thought.  Therefore, nobody gives attention to the extinction of them, even if International commitments force to do it.




Islam declares that the environment or nature should be used in a manner that does not disturb its order, balance, and function.  This declaration is a clear religious value found in Qur'anic revelations and the other sources of Islam.  Yet, the conflict between governmental and religious sectors of Islamic communities and harsh economic realities of today do not allow people to adhere to these rules and protect their environment.  Therefore, Islamic countries are fast losing their natural resources despite having strong religious laws for protecting them.  As long as the duality between good and evil, two symbols of religious idealism and realism in Islam, have not been resolved it seems that the environmental crisis in Islamic countries will not meet any solution.  Also it seems the main key for solving this crisis is in the hands of the clergies rather than scientists or the secular authorities.  However, the current generation of Iranian youth has different interpretations of the scientific and religious issues, although the effect of religion on Iranian community is still strong.  Therefore attracting the top Ayatollahs to pay attention to the environmental crisis, like water misuse and illegal deforestation, can be a compatible factor for Iranian society and a considerable potential for reviving the natural resources.   As with the Tobacco Rebellion, presenting a new interpretation of Islamic rules in Iran has always presented new possibilities for popular decisions.  Such popular decisions form a strong basis for communal and national activities for protecting the environment and the country's natural resources.  The lack of trust in governments of all persuasions during Iran's long history has resulted in people resisting of what governments ask or order them to do such as to protect the environment and the natural resources of the country.  Adding a dose of religious significance to such orders or requests may do the trick and persuade Iranians to do the right thing in resource utilization and environmental protection.




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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the Iranian Studies Group.








Arkoun, M. (1988). The concept of authority in Islamic thought (La hukuma illa li-llah). Islam: state and society/ edited by Ferdinand & Mozaffari. Sudies on Asian topics No. 12, Curzon Press. Ch. 4, Pp 53-73.

Browne, E. G. (1989). The Tobacco rebellion and Haji Mirza Hasan  Shirazi. Expectation of the millennium: Shi’ism in History/ edited by Nasr, Dabashi, Nasr. State University of New York Press. Ch. 20, Pp 302-305.

Coward, H. (1995). Introduction. Population consumption, and the environment: religious and secular responses. New York: State University of New York Press, Ch.1, Pp 1-24.


Hillel, D. (1980). Properties of water in relation to porous media. Fundamentals of soil physics, New York: Academic Press, Inc., Ch. 3, Pp 21-55.


Nasr. S. H. (1997). Prelude: The Spiritual significance of the rise and growth of the Sufi orders. Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations/ edited by Nars. New York: The crossroad Publishing Company. Pp 3-5.


Nasr, S. H. (1994). The relation between religions in the shadow of the environmental crisis. IIC Annual Autumn Lecture/ International Interface Centre, Thursday 27 October. Oxford: Manchester College. 10 p.


Nasr., S. H. (1989). The Tobacco rebellion and Haji Mirza Hasan  Shirazi. Expectation of the millennium: Shi’ism in History/ edited by Nasr, Dabashi, Nasr. State University of New York Press. Ch. 20, Pp 300.

PBOUN (Plan and Budget Organization of the Islamic Republic of Iran and United Nations), (1999). Human Development Report of the I. R. of Iran 1999, Plan and Budget Organization of the Government of Iran and United nations: Tehran. Ranis, G., Stewart, F. (2000). Strategies for success in human development. Journal of Human Development, Vol.1.


Copyright © 2004 Iranian Studies Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology