An Abridged Shari‘ah Perspective: Obligations to Future Generations

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

﴿رَبِّ اشْرَحْ لِي صَدْرِي * وَيَسِّرْ لِي أَمْرِي * وَاحْلُلْ
عُقْدَةً مِنْ لِسَانِي * يَفْقَهُوا قَوْلِي﴾


The following is an abridgment of my paper Obligations to Future Generations: A Shari‘ah Perspective, published by Tabah Foundation. Please see the original for references and additional details.

Summary

Technology and population have advanced to where today’s decisions result in irreversible changes or damages which will be passed on to generations of persons who are not yet born. Do we have any obligation to these future generations? Is there a Shari‘ah-based foundation for such an obligation? If so, what are these obligations? What follows is a brief introduction to the concept of obligations to future generations, a demonstration that the overall objectives of the Shari‘ah (maqaṣid al-sharī‘ah) call for such obligations and suggest particular obligations. It then ends with several observations for Muslim scholars. The full paper covers a wider range of topics and in greater detail, and is available for those who are interested.

Future Generations

Since the 1970s, philosophers, economists, and environmentalists have been interested in the topic of ethical obligations to future generations. Obligations to future generations examines moral issues concerning persons who have yet to be born, but may come into existence. Some of the practical questions it asks are: Does the present generation have the right to exhaust the planet’s resources or render the planet uninhabitable? Do future generations have rights which require the present generation to conserve resources and preserve the environment for future generations? Are there institutions that must be built and passed on?

Philosophical concerns for future generations go back to at least Aristotle’s theory of distributive justice. In contemporary literature, obligations to future generations are often included within discussions on intergenerational justice. It is also present in the ever-increasingly important topics of the environment, ecology, and sustainability.

The topic of obligations to future generations remained largely overlooked until the 1970s. The most popular explanation for the recent interest is that previous generations lacked the capacity to render extinct or critically impair future generations of man or beast, or to greatly deprive them of resources or well-being. Technology and population have advanced to where decisions of today result in irreversible changes or damages which will be passed on to persons who are not yet born and did not have any say in the matter. These decisions not only affect the quality of life of future generations, but may also put their very existence at risk.

The concept of obligations to future generations has been used repeatedly in the context of economic and environmental policy. For example, in 1997, UNESCO adopted its “Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations”.1 The authors listed these responsibilities in a set of twelve articles: the needs and interests of future generations; freedom of choice; maintenance and perpetuation of humankind; preservation of life on earth; protection of the environment; human genome and biodiversity; cultural diversity and cultural heritage; common heritage of humankind; peace; development and education; non-discrimination; and implementation.

Today, the ability to handle obligations to future is considered a litmus test for ethical theories, so demonstrating that the Shari‘ah accounts for obligations to future generations is important.

A Shari‘ah Perspective

Several contemporary Muslim authors have alluded to the concept of obligations to future generations in their writings, though none of the writings surveyed have provided compelling proof for such an obligation from within the Shari‘ah itself. So there is still a need to provide a compelling Shari‘ah-based justification for such obligations and to determine the details of what these obligations entail outside of environmental concerns.

Contemporary Shari‘ah scholars will need to assess whether the Shari‘ah recognizes obligations to future generations, what those obligations are, how to balance intergenerational priorities, and what impact this concept has on our Shari‘ah discourse – especially in light of our newfound ability to affect future generations. More specifically, they need to clarify who owes what to whom, why this is the case, and how to handle dilemmas.

Obligations to future generations are significant

The overall objectives of the Shari‘ah (maqāṣid al-sharī‘ah) indicate that future generations of the human species are significant and that current generations do bear obligations towards their welfare. The existence of the human species is included within the ultimate objective of the Shari‘ah, and preserving its continued existence is considered a necessity in obtaining well-being. Furthermore, the existence of the human species is a necessary condition for carrying out many of the overall objectives of the Shari‘ah.

In his Maqāṣid al-Sharī‘ah al-Islāmiyyah, the late Tunusian scholar Ibn ‘Āshūr mentions that the overarching purpose of the ethico-legal system of Islam is

to preserve the order of the world and to regulate the conduct of human beings in it by preventing them from inflicting corruption and destruction upon one another2

and

to ensure [humanity’s] healthy progress by promoting [its] well-being and righteousness….3

There is an emphasis on the human being

since the human being is the predominant creature in this world, [and the] righteousness and the orderly functioning of [the world’s] affairs depend on the righteousness and virtue of human beings. Accordingly, we find that Islam has dealt with setting to right the condition of mankind by tackling the affairs of both the individual and the community.4

Human beings must exist in order to actually obtain this overarching purpose. Other objectives of the Shari‘ah require the existence of the human species, for example: the idea that the Shari‘ah is suitable for all human beings in all times and places; the preservation and spread of Islam; and protecting the wealth of the Muslim community. Each of these objectives requires the existence of the human species in order for the objective to be coherent or obtainable. Furthermore, the latter two objectives include a degree of futurity and continuity.

We find similar things during his discussion on the universal categories which are necessary to preserve in order to obtain well-being (the ḍarūriyyāt, that is: necessities), which include the preservation of human life. Ibn ‘Āshūr writes that

[t]he preservation of human life (ḥifẓ al-nufūs) means to protect human lives from being ruined either individually or collectively. This is because society or the human world (‘ālam) comprises the individuals of the human species, and every single soul has its specific characteristics that are essential for the existence and survival of the human world.5

It is important to note that Ibn ‘Āshūr considers the preservation of life to include the life of the group of individuals (i.e. the species) – a life which spans the generations of its individual members – to be a necessity.

So the Shari‘ah does consider future generations significant and does assert that prior generations have obligations towards later ones, it is appropriate to examine what tools the Shari‘ah offers for thinking about obligations to future generations and to then move on to specific issues related to the subject.

Proposed content of the obligations

While most discussions about obligations to future generations occur within the context of economics, the environment, and sustainability, many Western ethicists argue that the content of these obligations include things such as institutions, knowledge, and culture, as well as physical resources. Many theories of obligations to future generations have difficultly identifying specific content for these obligations since interests, values, and tastes vary from people to people and age to age. Identifying specific obligations is a prerequisite to fulfilling them to future generations.

Several potential obligations to future generations can be found within the general categories of benefits the Shari‘ah considers necessary to preserve and amongst the individual objectives of the Shari‘ah, since both embody that which the Shari‘ah values.

A basic list of necessities includes the preservation of religion, life, the intellect, property, and lineage (or progeny). If we think of these in terms of future generations, we can rephrase this list as obligations to preserve Islam and to safeguard possibilities for life, the intellect, wealth, and reproduction. While this list does give us something, it does not add anything lacking in the writings of Western ethicists other than preservation of Islam, nor does it give us anything resembling specific obligations. Furthermore, it runs the risk of reducing Shari‘ah-based obligations to a triviality. Something of more substance and practical value can be found among the overall objectives of the Shari‘ah as these objectives are timeless and immutable, and their obtainment leads to the greatest possible well-being for all of creation.

Ibn ‘Āshūr mentions many general objectives covering a wide range of issues, as well as objectives related to specific issues such as interpersonal relationships, financial transactions, religious affairs, justice and retribution, spreading and implementing Islam, and preserving the wealth of the Muslim Community.

Additional Discussion

Shari‘ah-based obligations to future generations demand that we rethink our current usage habits, avoid perpetuating social ills, and, when making decisions, consider their intergenerational consequences.

Preserving the wealth of the Islamic Community

Although the overall objectives of the Shari‘ah affirm that owners of private wealth are free to dispose of their wealth as they see fit, an exception is made for wealth which is needed by a segment of the Islamic Community (such as foodstuffs and materials needed to defend the Community). Even though such properties remain private wealth, the Shari‘ah’s conception of economic justice requires that its disposal be within the boundaries of obtaining public interests and warding off public misfortunes.

Protecting the wealth of the Islamic Community for future generations will require that we assess the habits of a current generation. When a cultural habit is found to include a significant harm for the Islamic Community, it becomes necessary to evaluate the habit according to the Shari‘ah worldview to determine whether it should be considered unlawful. Habits which involve resource consumption or affect the environment will have an impact on future generations since these habits do not only influence what future generations can do, but also influence the possibility of their very existence. Such an assessment is in line with the overall principle of affirming good habits and changing bad habits and the Shari‘ah’s definition of economic justice, and so provides a means to protecting the wealth of the Islamic Community, which is a duty incumbent upon those responsible for looking after the affairs of the Islamic Community.

In particular, there is a pressing need to assess the current generation’s preoccupation with the acquisition of disposable consumer goods and services which not only removes wealth from the Islamic Community, but also reduces the resources that will be available to future generations, changing the environment that will be passed down to them.

Perpetuating or correcting social ills

Muftis and other Shari‘ah experts who influence practice and policy will need to take into account how their opinions affect future generations, particularly when responding to temporary exigencies. A succeeding generation will inherit the social ills of the previous generation; excusing current ills or preventing them from being rectified means that the problems will increase and eventually become accepted as norms.

Consideration of consequences

The Shari‘ah includes several tools which are useful for thinking about issues that are temporally related, including obligations to future generations; the most important being those tools falling under the general topic of taking consequences into consideration (i‘tibār al-ma’ālāt).

One of the most fundamental discussions on the topic is found in al-Shāṭibī’s Al-Muwāfaqāt.6 Al-Shāṭibī considers reflecting upon consequences to be a general basis for the topics within legal methodology of prohibiting anything which has the potential of leading to that which is prohibited (sadd al-dharā’i‘), juristic preference (istiḥsān), and consideration of public interests (i‘tibār al-maṣāliḥ).

However, one obvious difficulty in applying the current Shari‘ah conception of taking consequences into account to the topic of obligations to future generations is that it concerns consequences that apply to individuals and are direct and relatively near in time, whereas obligations to future generations concern consequences which apply to groups and may be indirect, span generations, or even be delayed.

Before consequence-consideration (i‘tibār al-ma’ālāt), in its various forms, can be applied to the topic of obligations to future generations, it needs to be extended (its various forms) to account for the issues introduced when long-term or delayed consequences are considered significant. It will also be necessary to identify the means through which consequences are known.

Conclusion

In closing, I have introduced the concept of obligations to future generations, and argued that the overall objectives of the Shari‘ah (maqaṣid al-sharī‘ah) call for such obligations and suggest some particulars. I have also pointed out that Muslim scholars may judge differently when looked at from the perspective of future generations.

The full paper covers a wider range of topics and in greater detail, and is available for those who are interested. The framework it presents uses the overall objectives of the Shari‘ah to define the various values, knowledge, and culture that need to be passed on. Whereas Western conceptions of these obligations have difficulty identifying interests on the grounds that values and interests change from generation to generation, the overall objectives of the Shari‘ah are constant and immutable. Shari‘ah experts can further develop this framework into a viable alternative to Western models that can be used in a manner harmonious to the Shari‘ah and pleasing to Allah Most High.

And Allah Most High knows best.


  1. UNESCO, “Declaration on the Responsibilities of Present Generations Towards Future Generations.” (UNESCO, 1998, http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13178&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html accessed 11 October 2009) 
  2. Ibn ‘Āshūr, Treatise on Maqāṣid al-Sharī‘ah (Herndon: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2006), 115. 
  3. Ibid., 91. 
  4. Ibid., 94. 
  5. Ibid., 120. 
  6. Abū Isḥāq Al-Shāṭibī, al-Muwāfaqāt fī uṣūl al-Sharī‘ah (Beirut: Dār al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 4:194–5.