Learning, Nature and Faith: Inextricably Bound
Most of us in the Western world live compartmentalized lives. We eat, sleep and live between four walls. We are transported from place to place in the confines of a car or bus or subway. We work between four walls and then go home again. Even in our leisure time, some of the places we love to go – restaurants, malls, etc. are all the same. Boxes.
During that time, we are often absorbed in technology. Our bodies are in boxes, and our minds are in even littler boxes. I once read that kids from ages 8-18 spend around 35 hours a week using technology (and sometimes, using more than one piece of technology at a time). That’s a full time job.
We all stumble upon the many articles and studies that denounce the overuse of technology for both kids and adults. We quietly nod our heads and commit to using less of it. But our motivation wanes when the stresses of life are piled on us. And because we don’t understand what the alternatives to technology are, we continue to feed ourselves on an unending stream of our screens’ flickering lights.
We don’t understand the alternative to living in these boxes. But more importantly, we don’t understand the repercussions of closing ourselves off from the natural world…
The Islamic belief system is intricately and inextricably tied with parables and examples from nature. Allah (swt) says: “And of His signs is that you see the earth stilled, but when We send down upon it rain, it quivers and grows. Indeed, He who has given it life is the Giver of Life to the dead. Indeed, He is over all things competent” (41:39).
Here, He is asking us to look at the earth when it is dead and compares it to our own existence on this earth – if the beauty of spring can grow after a frigid winter, surely our bodies can also rise from the dead to face the ultimate judgment. If Allah (swt) brings rain and causes lush oases to grow from a barren, dry, cracked desert, then surely He can bring our hearts back to the life of faith out of the death of disbelief.
Allah (swt) calls us to reflect on the alternation of night and day, to marvel at the beauty of the stars and to appreciate the trees, animals and other life forms that we benefit from on a daily basis.
“Say, [O Muhammad], ‘Travel through the land and observe how He began creation. Then Allah will produce the final creation. Indeed Allah, over all things, is competent’” (20:29).
Allah (swt) is asking us to explore the world, to put ourselves on a path of discovery and reflection and to witness to His Oneness by understanding the absolute and utter perfection and balance that He has created in our surroundings.
The stories of the Prophets and righteous people in history are also tied to nature: the torrent rains and flooding at the time of Nuh (as), the parting of the Red Sea and the ascension to the mountain in Sinai by Musa (as), and the complex animal kingdoms that were controlled by Suleiman (as) – just to name a few. As a child, prophet Ibrahim (as) was aware that the idol worship propagated by his own father was misguided. We all know this beautiful story of Ibrahim (as):
“When the night covered him over with darkness he saw a star. He said: ‘This is my lord.’ But when it set, he said: ‘I like not that those who set.’ When he saw the moon rising up he said: ‘This is my lord.’ but when it set he said: ‘Unless my Lord guides me, I shall surely be among the erring people.’ When he saw the sun rising up he said: ‘This is my lord, this is greater.’ But when it set, he said: ‘O my people! I am indeed free from all that you join as partners in worship with Allah. Indeed, I have turned my face toward He who created the heavens and the earth, inclining toward truth, and I am not of those who associate others with Allah” (6:76-79).
Above all, he was able to interact with the natural world in a truthful and honest way that helped him understand that all the celestial bodies he witnessed were signs of the existence of the One true Creator.
These were the people living in the world that Allah (swt) created. Their lives were tied to nature. They appreciated the raw, sublime signs that He put on this earth to lead us to believing in Him.
Those of us who live in urbanized worlds have had nature removed from our consciousness. We no longer reflect over where our food comes from. It just comes from the grocery store. We no longer reflect on what materials were used to create our houses. They’re planks of wood, not trees. We no longer reflect on the source of our water. It comes from the tap.
We are painfully disconnected from reality, and it has a direct impact on our faith. The beautiful parables that Allah (swt) spells out for us in the Quran are often and easily lost on those of us who live in concrete boxes. We understand them theoretically, but we don’t connect with them emotionally.
If you have never known the joy of silently sitting beneath a tree, or walking in a garden or forest, or seeing the dead earth come back to life, or feeling the breeze whip across your face, or seeing mountains loom over your head, or picking a wild flower and examining its delicate petals, or hearing the perpetual waves of the ocean lull you to sleep – you are missing a part of the purpose of your life – reflecting on the beauty and creation of Allah (swt).
You don’t have to live on a farm or in the wilderness to appreciate the creation of Allah. You don’t have to be wealthy and own a cottage or beach house to experience nature. But you do have to make an effort.
Teaching kids about nature in a classroom, from a textbook, doesn’t yield the same results as giving them the opportunity to explore and learn through seeing, touching, feeling, smelling and (sometimes!) tasting their environments. When they learn from a book, it’s theoretical, not emotional.
This isn’t to say that humans who are not all that exposed to nature can’t learn about and worship their Creator. But natural learning in wide-open spaces has the potential to strengthen that bond of understanding and appreciation. (There are also so many scientifically proven side benefits to incorporating nature into your family’s life. Nature is calming, healing, soothing to those in pain – both physical and emotional. It steadies emotions, relieves stress and helps us focus and concentrate.
We often have a hard time knowing how to teach our kids about Allah (swt) and about their purpose in this world. We keep trying to find the right books and the right teachers. But Allah (swt) in His Wisdom gave us the best teaching tool of all – nature. The more kids are allowed to experience and understand the wonder and perfection of what He created, the more they easily they will accept that a Supreme Creator is responsible for this world.
But if they live in boxes as we do, faith will become something abstract and distant from their lived reality. They, and we, need to reflect on reality – actual reality, not perceived reality. We need to roam outside without looking at our watches. We need to breathe air that doesn’t always smell of gasoline and old cigarettes. We need to listen to birds chirping and breezes humming. We need to plug ourselves back into the real world.
“Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the Night and the Day; in the sailing of the ships through the Ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth; (here) indeed are signs for a people that are wise” (2:164).