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Abrahamic Religions and the Environment: Intimate Strangers?

Written By

Marcel Poorthuis

Submitted: January 20th, 2022 Reviewed: February 24th, 2022 Published: April 2nd, 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.103913

Sustainability, Ecology, and Religions of the World Edited by Levente Hufnagel

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Sustainability, Ecology, and Religions of the World [Working Title]

Dr. Levente Hufnagel

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The relationship between Abrahamic religions and environment is a delicate one. Critical voices argue that already in Genesis the human being is situated in a hierarchical position above the animals. Only by admitting his animal status humankind could be freed from its arrogance. Other voices point instead to the solidarity between human beings and animals as fellow-creatures. Particularly in Jewish interpretation (midrash), the dignity of the human being goes together with responsibility for the whole of creation, a responsibility which cannot be required from animals. In addition, the seventh day is a day of rest for human beings and for animals. It is our anthropocentric reading of the Bible that has excluded animals from our religious consciousness. In this chapter, the religious attitude toward animals and to nature in the three Abrahamic religions will be documented. a bit more. A purely anthropocentric reading of sacred Scripture has been dominant the last centuries, but fails to do justice to the Bible. The protestant bias against nature by identifying it with idolatry and with fertility cults of a goddess has also caused a blind spot for the environment in religious perspective.


  • animals and humans
  • hermeneutics of creation stories
  • Abrahamic religions
  • image of god
  • feminist criticism
  • anti-nature theology

1. Introduction

Assuming that care for the environment is more than just a matter of technical adaptations, it is worthwhile to delve into the religions. Will they serve as an incentive to necessary changes in our dealing with creation, or are they tributary to our problems? We limit ourselves to the so-called Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This not because only these religions have something to contribute, but because of their similar basis in the creation story they can be treated together (without, incidentally, suggesting that their message as to creation is identical). In the course of our discourse, we will have occasion to side glance at other religions as well, although each religion would deserve a separate treatment.

First, we will deal with the religious perspective on the human being and on humankind, to continue with more specific religious notions of care for the environment.


2. Religious perspectives on the human being

Undoubtedly, the notion of the human being created in God’s image as stated in Genesis 1:27 is a cornerstone of the Abrahamic religious perspective on human beings. Critical voices argue that here already the exploitation of the earth finds its legitimation: The human being is distinguished from the other living creatures, created “according to their species.” Hence, a closer look is necessary. Indeed, Genesis 1:26 allows the human being to rule over the other living creatures. A few verses further, God even instructs the human being “to fill the earth and to subdue it” (1:28). Small wonder that critical voices point to texts such as these to accuse the religions of complicity in exploiting the earth.

Let us take a closer look by drawing upon the interpretations the religions themselves offer. Indeed, humankind is presented as separated from the rest of the living animals. Although both human beings and animals are creatures and as such related to each other, God addresses only the human being directly, vouchsafing him the dignity of being created in God’s image. This dignity is explained ethically, rather than ontologically: The human being bears a responsibility for all of creation, and just like the First Human Being, the Adam Kadmon(both male and female) has been entrusted with the whole of creation. In that respect, each individual may consider him- or herself as equal to the First Human Being.1 Obviously, we cannot expect from animals to fulfill such a responsibility and although the human being has often forfeited this responsibility he should be considered capable of doing otherwise. The statement, often heard from activists of the environment, that the human being is “just and animal,” fails to acknowledge this special responsibility. Still, the statement finds its origin in a typically human concern for the whole of creation.

The anthropocentric reading of Genesis ignores the fact that the day of rest is intended for both human beings and animals. It likewise fails to assess the specifics of the covenant between God and Noah in which the animals are included as partners of the covenant (Genesis 9:10). Only then a certain alienation between human beings and animals seems to be emphasized (Genesis 9:2), as if Adam and Eve in paradise lived more harmoniously with their fellow creatures the animals than humankind outside paradise. This may have fostered the idea that initially Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat meat, happy as they were as vegetarians. Only after humankind had shown how much evil it could spread, the eating of meat would have been allowed (Genesis 9:3). Hence, the eating of meat may be interpreted as a concession to the cruelty of humankind and to prevent him from doing violence to his fellow human beings. Even then, restrictions on eating meat remain in force: Blood as the seat of life is forbidden. The notion of divine permission to be asked before slaughtering an animal finds its origin in these texts. Ironically, ritual slaughter in Judaism and in Islam is often the target of attempts to abolish this practice, although the respect for animal life is a hallmark of it: Even a prayer is said over each individual animal is said before the slaughter.

In this perspective, vegetarianism is not an obligation, but can still be seen as an anticipation of messianic times, in which paradisiac vegetarianism will be restored. A peaceful relationship between the animals and the human beings belongs to the characteristics of messianic times, as can be seen by the many lives of saints in which an animal plays a role. In addition, some monastic rules prescribe a vegetarian menu. However, as with many messianic elements, enforcing vegetarianism without humankind being ready for it leads to violence and mutual dissension.

The notion of the human being created in God’s image knows of a plethora of religious interpretations, some of them seemingly rather exclusive. The banishment from paradise has been interpreted as a Fall of humanity, by which the dignity of the image of God has been obscured, rightly so if we consider the murder and deterioration described in Genesis 4-9. However, Christianity may claim that only redemption by Christ restores the image of God in the human being. This would imply an inability to act responsibly in all other human beings. This is, however, not the general line in Christianity: free will, although damaged by the Fall, is never completely absent. Distinguishing between the image of God and the likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), some theologians argue that the image of God should be considered a permanent state, whereas the likeness invites to imitatio Dei, by obeying His commands. Anyway, the notion of dignity-as-responsibility does seem to be preserved here as well.2

Greek-orthodox theology has always emphasized the dignity of the human being more than his condemnation after the banishment from paradise. An interesting theology of the environment connects the human being again the First Human Being in paradise. Just like in Paradise, the good of the earth has been celebrated as God’s gift to humanity; nowadays, the Human Being should be considered a priest of creation, receiving the gifts of the earth in gratitude, consciously of the Giver of all these benefits and rendering grace for that. If humankind would be conscious of having received the goods of the earth, humankind would not consider himself as the sole possessor of the goods, but he would be willing to share with others what he has received himself.3 Possibly, some similarity with the cosmic notions of the human being within Hinduism may be detected here. Obviously, the creatio ex nihilo(creation from nothing) has fostered the independence of the human being, but at the possible expense of an absence of the divine in creation. In contrast, both Greek-orthodox theology and Hinduism reckon with an incarnatory theology of the divine presence in the world, the one by viewing the incarnation as a cosmic event, affecting the destiny of all living creatures, the other by affirming avatarsas manifestations of the divine and by assuming a continuity between human beings and animals (reincarnation) and by considering some animals sacred. Add to this the fact that the Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah has transformed the creatio ex nihilointo its opposite by claiming that the Nothing (=God) has effused Himself into creation, and it will be clear that Kabbalah as well may be seen as an ally in environmental spirituality. The parallelism between macrocosm and microcosm known in Kabbalah and in many other religious manifestations, likewise bridged the gap between the divine and the world.

The Greek-orthodox concept of priestly dignity is undoubtedly also a correction of the ambiguous notion of the human being as the steward of creation. This notion has been derived from the parables in the New Testament, in which it denotes the human responsibility to develop and increase the wisdom/Torah received from God. In the course of history, this notion of stewardship of the talents has been taken literally, as money, instead of metaphorically, as God’s wisdom. It began to serve as a legitimation of capitalist increase of money and wealth. Coupled with the obligation that wealth should be re-invested rather than enjoyed,—“in the sweat of your face you will eat your bread”(Gen 3:19)—sociologists like Max Weber and Richard Tawney detected in this religious notion a possible foundation of capitalism. Be it as it may, the human being as priest of creation allows for an generous distribution of wealth and a sincere enjoyment of God’s good gifts, deserved to be treated with holy reverence.

It should be noted that Islam is hesitant to use the concept of human being as “image of God.” No doubt, fear of a too anthropomorphic speaking about God lies at the heart of this hesitance. Although it should be stressed that according to the Bible, God creates the human being in His image, which should not be confused with the human being creating God in hisimage, the Islam keeps aloof from this concept.4 The concept to denote the dignity of the human being in the Qur’an is: ḥalif, which can be translated as: vice-regent (Qur’an 2:30). Bold interpreters of the Qur’an claim that the human being is here considered God’s vice-regent on earth. Others point to the fact that in the context of the creation of the human being, the protest of the angels against the creation of the human being has been silenced.5 Hence, the human being could be considered as the successor of the angels (although his being a ḥalifis located on earth, not in heaven!). The context of the Qur’anic account is remarkably similar to the Genesis account in that the human being is considered capable of all kinds of cruelty and depravity. The angels are quick to emphasize that. Yet the dignity of the human being allows for more noble expectations from him as well.

2.1 Nature and history

From a more general perspective, it is clear that the Hebrew Bible knows of many regulations about animals. They should be treated with care and without vexing them, allowing them to rest together with the human beings. The long lists of pure and impure animals, which has laid the basis of kashrut, often lack a rational foundation, but retain the animal in the religious consciousness. In addition, Biblical feasts such as Pesach and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) are based upon agriculture. Due to German protestant influence upon Biblical scholarship, this attachment to nature has been downplayed in favor of the dimension of history.6 Obviously, Pesach celebrates the liberation from slavery in Egypt, but the agricultural aspects should not be overlooked. The bone of the lamb as representation of spring and the of the new-born of the flock, the unleavened bread, and many other elements still betray the agricultural layer.7 Due to an ideological bias against nature as supposedly more prone to idolatry and to veneration of a goddess of the earth and of fertility, German exegetes like Von Rad staunchly combatted all references to nature in Biblical feasts. By doing so, they robbed the Bible of its ability to solidarize human beings religiously with their fellow creatures. Particularly, feminist scholars have criticized this ideological approach to nature in Biblical context.

In the course of history, animals have more or less disappeared from the religious consciousness, except for farmers who, in spite of an industrialized agriculture, still feel attached to their animals. Not long ago, the day of slaughtering animals was still celebrated as a feast of thanksgiving to God. Hence, we should not blame the Bible for ignoring animals and all of creation, but rather an anthropocentric reading of the Bible as it has developed in Western society, possibly only after the Middle Ages. Whereas in the Middle Ages, according to some thinkers the tripartite division of the soul in a vegetative animal and human soul, as proposed by Aristotle, were all of them present in the human being, Western philosophy has ignored the position of nonhuman creatures until recently.8

Another relevant topic when it comes to Bible and environment is time perception. The noncyclical linear time perception of monotheistic religions is held responsible for exploiting the earth.9 The linear time concept would have fostered a blind faith in progress and expansion. Suffice it to state that the notion of a last judgment can indeed be understood as the End of Time, but also as the ultimate expression of human responsibility for his behavior. This last element is, however, sadly neglected in Christianity. The cyclical time perception in Hinduism may have led to an undervaluation of history, but also to a less result-driven approach to life.10 Mutatis mutandis the African concept of time in which the remote future does not seem to play an essential role (John Mbiti) may provide a less-exploiting attitude to the environment. However, all this needs further scrutiny.


3. Some specific religious regulations about environmental protection

Pope Francis has surprised the world with his encyclical Laudato Si’(2015).11 The document propagates an inclusive ecology combined with economic reform. It points to the problems of the poor countries which suffer the most under the ecological crisis. “The interconnectedness of all creatures (not only human beings) invites to acknowledge the worth and dignity in love and admiration”.

The encyclical develops this concept in five sections: ecology of the environment; cultural ecology; ecology of daily life; the principle of the common good; and: justice among the generations.

Ecology of the environment(1) should prevent the human being from considering nature as a mere object outside himself. Resorting to the notion of creation (instead of the more physical term nature) the interconnectedness of all creatures and creation as a gift of God are stressed. From the outset, the human being is implicated in the notion of “creation.” The notion of nature with its duality of culture is less clear in that respect. The encyclical rejects fatalistic approaches to the ecological crisis by stating that an overly anthropocentric approach to the world has caused a one-sided exploitation of the earth.

Surprisingly, concern for the destruction of local cultures(2) is also one of the topics about the ecological crisis. Destruction of large forests often go hand in hand with oppression of local cultures. These locals could be of service as keepers of the forests and of wildlife.

The ecology of daily life(3) should analyze the way people live together in towns and suburbs. The feeling of togetherness can be enhanced by a humane architecture in which people do not feel lost or superfluous.

The common good(4) presupposes the respect for the human person and the human rights.

Last but not the least, justice among the generations(5) introduces a new notion of responsibility, in which future generations are included as well as the respect for the heritage of past generations.

The encyclical ends with introducing the term: ecological conversion. Conversion to God and to creation is the only way to spiritually combat the ecological crisis we are in.

Turning to Judaism: The Jewish scholar and Rabbi Norman Solomon distinguishes six basic principles in the Jewish approach to the environment [7]:

  1. The creation is good and God (who should be distinguished from creation) may be praised because of that;

  2. Biodiversity should be guarded according to the Bible. Each animal is created according to its species;

  3. The hierarchy of living creatures with the human being at the top should be acknowledged accompanied with this principle: the higher the ranking the higher the responsibility

  4. Human beings are responsible for the active maintenance of all life.

  5. Land and people belong together. This would imply for the Jewish people exemplary way of dealing with water, the soil, and the air in the land of Israel.

  6. Do not waste. This Biblical injunction (Deuteronomy 20:19) can be applied to water and chemical waste12

Islam may be less known for its environmental thought. Still already in the Middle Ages, the animals are told to start a lawsuit against the human beings because of the bad treatment by the latter.13 The Islamic scholar Abdelilah Ljamai brings forward a plethora of literature about environmental care, hardly known in Europe and America [9]. Some of the Muslim writers he quotes are critical about the way Islamic countries deal with the environment. They resort to the Qur’an, to post-Quranic narratives, and to Islamic jurisprudence in order to develop an Islamic environmental ethics. The worldview of the Islam consists of three principles:

  1. The cosmos reflects the glory of God;14

  2. The cosmos may be taken into service of humankind;

  3. Destruction of nature is a gross form of injustice.

Nonhuman beings have an intrinsic value and hence, the concept of rights of animals is not alien to Islam, as our example above has shown.

Striking are the practical exhortations, often backed up with some saying allegedly going back to Muhammad: plant trees; revive dead soil (one is even entitled to become the owner); prohibition to pollute the air; moderate eating; careful handling of water resources (prohibition to defecate); withdrawal of water for one’s own field should not happen at the expense of other farmers. Both in traditional Islamic sources and in modern publications emphasis upon the rights of animals and the rejection of cruel treatment of animals can be found [11].


4. Conclusion

The way we have dealt with religious perspectives on the environment is both hermeneutic and benevolent. Hermeneutic because it allows for a merging of ideas of the past with our modern horizon of understanding. This is in marked contrast to historic-critical approaches which aim at a reconstruction of past phenomena without taking into account our modern world.

Our approach is also benevolent: Obviously, people from centuries ago did not have the same sense of urgency and the same knowledge of technological issues as we have. The examples quoted above should be considered paradigmatic rather than identical to modern issues. They may offer spiritual vistas to be explored further, without claiming to offer exhaustive solutions or direct applications. Still, the spiritual depth of these religious traditions may surprise us, accustomed we are to assume the preeminence of our own technological era. The advancement on the spiritual level, if at all, is less clear than on the technological level. A future for our planet cannot dispense with spiritual resources such as these. A broad perspective on religions and spiritualities, critically assessing its possibilities and stumbling blocks, may contribute to overcoming the spiritual crisis of the human attitude to the environment.


  1. 1. Solomon N. The image of god in man from a Jewish perspective. In: Solomon N, Harries R, Winter T, editors. Abraham’s Children. Jews, Christians and Muslims in Conversation. London: T&T Clark; 2006a. pp. 147-153
  2. 2. Michot Y. The image of god in humanity from an Islamic perspective. In: Solomon N, Harries R, Winter T, editors. Abraham’s Children. Jews, Christians and Muslims in Conversation. London: T&T Clark; 2006. pp. 163-174
  3. 3. Van MT. Green Theology. An Eco-Feminist and Ecological Perspective. London: Darton, Longman and Todd; 2022
  4. 4. White L. The historical roots of our ecological crisis. Science. 1967;55:1203-1207
  5. 5. Poorthuis M. Rituals in Interreligious Dialogue: Bridge or Barrier? Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing; 2020
  6. 6. Verkleij Frans. “Bekering tot integrale ecologie. De boodschap van paus Franciscus in zijn encycliek Laudato Si”. In: Bas van den Berg and Leo Mock (eds), Zorg voor de aarde, herstel van de wereld. Amsterdam: Pardes / Amphora; 2021. pp. 108-144
  7. 7. Solomon N. The environment from a Jewish perspective. In: Solomon N, Harries R, Winter T, editors. Abraham’s Children. Jews, Christians and Muslims in Conversation. London: T&T Clark; 2006b. pp. 248-256
  8. 8. Brethren P. The Animal’s Lawsuit against Humanity. Fons Vitae Publishers / Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010
  9. 9. Ljamai Abdelilah. “Ecologisch bewustzijn in de islam. De islamitische milieu-ethiek heroverwogen”. In: Bas van den Berg and Leo Mock (eds). Zorg voor de aarde, herstel van de wereld. Amsterdam: Pardes/Amphora; 2021. pp. 146-185
  10. 10. Radwan L. The environment from a Muslim perspective. In: Solomon N, Harries R, Winter T, editors. Abraham’s Children. Jews, Christians and Muslims in Conversation. London: T&T Clark; 2006. pp. 272-283
  11. 11. Foltz R. Animals in Islamic Traditions and Muslim Culture. This book deals with the cosmic, juridical and literary status of animals in Islam. New York: One World; 2014


  • See [1].
  • The most serious threat to this universal dignity is the reasoning that only the male human being would be created in God’s image, whereas the female would be created according to the example of the male (cp. 1 Cor 11:7). I consider this gendering as a sidetrack, caused by a practical inability to accord to women the same dignity and responsibility in church as to men.
  • The "green Patriarch" Bartholomew of Constantinople has developed this priestly concept into an environmental theology.
  • See for a nuanced treatment which allows for exceptions: [2].
  • It should be noted that the protest of the angels against the creation of the human being can be found in the Jewish interpretations of Genesis (Midrash Rabba) as well.
  • See: [3].
  • Note how the search for unleavened bread in the houses betrays a sedentary civilization (Exodus 12:15), although the Israelites are on the eve of 40 years of desert!
  • If a dualism between body and mind may have fostered such an anthropocentric reading, the philosopher Descartes may have been the culprit, as he laid the foundation for a "ghost in the machine" concept of the human being.
  • One of the first to bring forward this accusation is [4].
  • The shared interest for the animal sacrifice as the basic religious attitude has surprisingly fostered affinities between Hinduism and Judaism. The same holds good for the bodily orientation towards purity rules. See my book: [5].
  • See the overview in: [6].
  • However, the obligation to keep the camp in the desert clean (Deuteronomy 23:13), brought forward by Solomon, op. cit. 252, as an example of environmental care, does not seem to be very appropriate, as the garbage is allowed to be thrown outside the camp! This is quite similar to the European habit to dump chemical waste in Arica.
  • See the Sufi text, probably from the 10th century: [8].
  • Lufti Radwan [10] emphasizes the connection between the unity of God (tawḥid) and the unity of the created world, which is especially relevant given the objections against monotheism as intolerant and anti-nature.

Written By

Marcel Poorthuis

Submitted: January 20th, 2022 Reviewed: February 24th, 2022 Published: April 2nd, 2022