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Water and Equity

The Quran warns human beings against unfair distribution by stating that the riches of this world belong to Allah, his Prophet, orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer, and that these riches ought "not (merely) make a circuit between the wealthy among you." In fact, the recognition of water as a vital resource, of which everyone has the right to a fair share, is emphasized by the following hadith, which effectively makes water a community resource to which all, rich or poor, have a right: "Muslims have common share in three things: grass (pasture), water and fire (fuel)." On the Prophet's advice, one of his companions, Othman RA, who later became the third Muslim caliph, bought the well of Ruma (a settlement in Arabia) and made its water available free to the Muslim community – the well was actually made into a waqaf, a usufruct or a collective property for religious purposes and public utility.

 Rights of the environment

As in Christianity and Judaism, in Islam humankind has the first right to the resources that God has provided for his creation. It is well accepted by Islamic scholars (Mallat 1995, 129) that the priority of water use rights is:

  1. first, haq al shafa or shirb, the law of thirst or the right of humans to drink or quench their thirst;
  2. second, haq al shafa, the right of cattle and household animals; and
  3. third, the right of irrigation.

The environment has clear and unmistakable rights in Islam. The immense value of giving water to any creature is reflected by the following hadith: "A prostitute was forgiven by Allah, because, passing by a panting dog near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, and tying it with her head-cover she drew out some water for it. So, Allah forgave her because of that."

The Quran notes that the gift of water is for flora as well: "vegetation of all kinds" and "various colours" are nourished by rainwater that God sends down.

Humankind's role as steward

Although humans are the most favoured of God's creation, we also are responsible for ensuring that God's gifts are available to all living things. As, in Islam, human-environment interactions are guided by the notion of humans as khulafa, viceregents or stewards, of the earth. We (humans) are equal partners with everything else in the natural world, we have added responsibilities. We are decidedly not its lords and masters: but its friends and guardians.

The environment is protected from humans by specific injunctions against upsetting its natural order through pollution or other activities. In the Quran, Allah commands believers to "make not mischief (fassad) on earth."

The meaning of fassad can be interpreted as spoiling the natural functioning of the world or spoiling or degrading of natural resources. The Prophet (pbuh) once instructed his companions to return to a bird's nest the eggs they took from it. Islamic scholars and rulers have attached penalties to misuse of water, including polluting or degrading clean water. This opens the door for punishing or fining polluters through modern legislation. Also, the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) very sensibly forbade urination into stagnant water, and advised to guard against three practices, "evacuating one's bowels near water sources, by the roadside and in the shade"

Water conservation

The Quran makes two clear statements regarding water that support water demand management:

  1. First, the supply of water is fixed, and
  2. second, it should not be wasted.

The statement that water supply is fixed, and that therefore, at some point, demand must be managed because supplies cannot be infinitely increased is: "And we send down water from the sky in fixed measure." The Quran then tells humans that they may use God's gifts for their sustenance in moderation, provided that they commit no excess therein: "O Children of Adam! . . . Eat and drink: But waste not by excess, for God loveth not the wasters."

The hadith are even more explicit. The Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) "used to perform ablution with one mudd of water [equal to 2/3 litre] and used to take a bath with one sa' up to five mudds [equal to 2–3 1/2 litres]." This hadith demonstrates the logical approach to sustainable water use in arid Arabia where the Prophet lived. However, the Prophet forbade waste even in conditions of seeming plenty when he said "Do not waste water even if performing ablution on the bank of a fast-flowing (large) river."

Islamic water management principles

The overriding principle under all three is that of ensuring equity.

Water as a social good

  • Water is first and foremost a social good in Islam – a gift from God and a part of, and necessary for, sustaining all life.
  • Water belongs to the community as a whole – no individual literally owns water.
  • The first priority for water use is access to drinking water of acceptable quantity and quality to sustain human life, and every human being has the right to this basic water requirement.
  • The second and third priorities for water are for domestic animals and for irrigation.
  • Humankind is the steward of water on earth.
  • The environment (both flora and fauna) has a very strong and legitimate right to water and it is vital to protect the environment by minimizing pollution. Individuals, organizations, and states are liable for harm that they have caused to the environment or to the environmental rights of others, including water use rights.
  • Water resources must be managed and used in a sustainable way.
  • Sustainable and equitable water management ultimately depends upon following universal values such as fairness, equity, and concern for others.

Water demand management

  • Water conservation is central to Islam. Mosques, religious institutes, and religious schools should be used to disseminate this principle so as to complement other religious and secular efforts.
  • Wastewater reuse is permissible in Islam; however, the water must meet the required level of treatment to ensure purity and health for its intended purpose.
  • Full cost recovery is permissible: that is, the full cost of supplying, treating, storing, and distributing water, as well as the cost of waste-water collection, treatment, and disposal. However, water pricing must be equitable as well as efficient.
  • Privatization of water service delivery is permissible in Islam, but the government has a duty to ensure equity in pricing and service.

Integrated water resources management

  • Water management requires shura (consultation) with all stake-holders.
  • All community members, including both men and women, can play an effective role in water management and should be encouraged to do so.
  • Communities must be proactive to ensure equitable access to water resources.
  • All nation-states have an obligation to share water fairly with other nation-states.
  • Integrated water management is a necessary tool to balance equity across sectors and regions.

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