IMASE Reflections 6: The Sustaining of Life

Fire is a form of energy released as heat and light during a chemical reaction known as, an exothermic combustion. During an exothermic reaction, substances transform to a more stable chemical form, in the case of a fire, it is carbon dioxide and water. Depending on the reaction the flame may or may not emit light, for example, burning alcohol or burning hydrogen is usually invisible to the naked eye.

Fire occurs naturally on earth and has played an important role in the development of the planet. Green plants change light energy to chemical energy, fire changes chemical energy to heat energy. Organisms change heat energy to other form of energy to live. ‘Fire’ breaks down complex organic molecules to smaller ones in our body when we digest food. The ability to control fire is one of humankind's great achievements. Fire making allowed humans the ability to generate and control the heat and light and made it possible for people to migrate to colder climates and enabled people to cook food.

With the introduction of agriculture, people all over the world have been using fire as a tool in landscape management. The first technical application of the fire was probably to extract and treat metals. Fire has also been used in warfare for a long time and was detailed in ancient wars such as the Trojan War but was curtailed somewhat with the advent of Islam in the famous prophetic sayings "It is not becoming that anyone should punish by fire except the Lord of the Fire". However, the First World War saw the first modern flamethrowers used by infantry and were successfully mounted on armoured vehicles during the Second World War. This opened up a new dimension to warfare.

Several different forms of energy, including kinetic, potential, thermal, gravitational, elastic, electromagnetic, chemical, nuclear and mass have been defined to explain all known natural phenomena. Fire as a form of chemical energy has changed the way we live and interact with our surroundings the most. In 2004, the average total worldwide power consumption of the human race was 15 TW (= 1.5 x 1013 W) per year, with almost 90% from the burning of fossil fuels. Coal fed the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century but with the advent of the automobile, airplanes and the spreading use of electricity, oil became the dominant fuel during the twentieth century. The usage of fossil fuels has increase twentyfold in the last century with the United States leading the world of energy usage, with 11.4 kW per person, and Japan and Germany with 6 kW per person. The most significant growth of energy consumption is currently taking place in China, which has been growing at 5.5% per year over the last 25 years.  

Political considerations over the security of supplies, environmental concerns related to global warming and sustainability may move the world's energy consumption away from fossil fuels although the rising price of oil would probably be the “straw that  broke the camels back”. Since the mid 1980s the inflation adjusted price of a barrel of crude oil on NYMEX had been generally under $25/barrel and was still at this level in September 2003. However, the price reached over $60 by August 11, 2005, surpassed $75 in the summer of 2006, reaching $92/barrel by October 2007. In 2008, oil hit several new record highs, on February 29, 2008, oil prices hit an inflation-adjusted all-time peak at $103.05 per barrel, and reached $110.20 on March 12, 2008.


We are told of the story of the story of Musa in the Quran ‚ÄúHas the story of Moses reached thee?‚Äú (Quran 20:9). ‚ÄúAnd when Moses had fulfilled his term and was wandering with his family [in the desert], he per¬?ceived a fire on the slope of Mount Sinai; [and so] he said to his family: ‚ÄòWait here. Behold, I perceive a fire [far away]; perhaps I may bring you from there some tiding, or [at least] a burning brand from the fire, so that you might warm yourselves‚Äô ‚Äú (28:29). This was to be the ‚Äòfire‚Äô given the honour to be the veil between Moses and The Almighty, when He spoke to Moses on Earth (20:14).


And fire was and still is a source of energy to sustain our existence in this world for a short transition, to keep us warm and to make life a little easier. “He who produces for you fire out of the green tree, so that, lo! you kindle [your fires] therewith” (36:80). This fire was to be subdued to serve man by the Almighty, “Have you ever considered the fire which you kindle? Is it you who have brought into being the tree that serves as its fuel  - or are We the cause of its coming into being?” (56:71-72). Yet that Earth is not enough for us, we want more although we have been given some much, however, “To whom I granted resources in abundance, And sons to be by his side!- To whom I made (life) smooth and comfortable!, Yet is he greedy-that I should add (yet more);-  By no means! For to Our Signs he has been refractory! Soon will I visit him with a mount of calamities! (74: 12-17).


We use the resource wastefully for everything from keeping us warm when we do not need it, to killing others beings. Instead of fuelling our needs, this resource is used to fuel our greed, digging towards the very core of the Earth to bring up substance which we then burn, burn everything that we can gets our hands on (including waste via incinerators), and changing the landscape of the Earth as we know it. But one day “When the earth is shaken to her (utmost) convulsion, And the earth throws up her burdens (from within), And man cries (distressed): 'What is the matter with her?'-  On that Day will she declare her tidings:  For that thy Lord will have given her inspiration.” (99: 1-5). What do you think will be her tiding?


Our only hope to stop the potential calamity that we have beset upon ourselves is to listen to the creator of the heaven and the earth, “O CHILDREN of Adam! Beautify yourselves for every act of worship, and eat and drink [freely], but do not waste: verily, He does not love the wasteful!” (7:31) And realise that fire that provides us warmth, does so by chemical ‘decomposition’, i.e. changing the original composition of a material. Over burning creates damage on the Earth, and the Prophet said “There shall be no damage and no infliction of damage.” (Al-Hakim) And it is our duty “not to allow any change to corrupt what God has thus created this is the [purpose of the one] ever-true faith; but most people know it not” (30:30).