IMASE Reflections 4: The Origin of Man

Soil is a natural substance comprised of solids (minerals and organic matter), liquids, and gases which form the pedosphere; the interface between the lithosphere (rocky part of the planet) and the biosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere. Soil is a three phase system comprising of various combinations of naturally-derived solids including fine to coarse-grained rocks and minerals, organic matter, ice, weathered rock and precipitates, liquids and gases. Plants take their nutrients from the liquid phase, which is primarily water. The gaseous phase is important for supplying oxygen to plant roots for respiration and other living organism present in the soil.

Human understanding of the soil system is not complete and is a new horizon of astonishing discovery for scientists, which is present under our very own feet! Our interest in maintaining the planet's biodiversity is dependant on the health of the soil. Pedogenesis or soil formation is the process by which soil is created. It is a continuous process which forms what is called the soil cycle. How the soil "life" cycle proceeds is influenced by at least five classic soil forming factors: regional climate, biotic potential, topography, parent material and the passage of time. The organisms living in and on the soil form distinct soil types. For example, Prairies have very high humus accumulation, creating a dark and thick horizon.

Soil has many functions, some of them are:

  • A medium from which food and other biomass is derived, via natural process, agriculture, livestock etc.
  • Source of raw materials such as organic soils, for example peat which serves as a fuel resource
  • Environmental cycle such as storage, filtering and transformation. Waste management often has a soil component. Septic drain fields treat septic tank effluent using aerobic soil processes to degrade ‚Äòunclean and harmful‚Äô components
  • Biological habitat and gene pool for many living organism
  • A platform for man-made structures such as the dwelling and buildings in which man live and work

Soils altered or formed by man (anthropic and anthropogenic soils) are also of interest, especially in modern times where his effect is great. Land degradation is a human induced or natural process which impairs the capacity of land to function. Soils are the critical component in land degradation when it involves acidification, contamination, desertification, erosion, or salination.

Soil acidity lowers crop productivity and increases soil vulnerability to contamination and erosion.  Soil contamination at low levels are often within the soil capacity to treat and assimilate. Many waste treatment processes rely on this treatment capacity. Exceeding this treatment can damage soil biota and limit soil function and in some cases is not reversible, which result in the land becoming unproductive and unsafe.

Desertification is an environmental process of ecosystem degradation in arid and semi-arid regions, or as a result of human activity. Droughts do not cause desertification since well-managed lands can recover from drought when the rains return, i.e. ‘dead’ lands can live again. Increased population and livestock pressure on marginal lands accelerates desertification.

Soil erosional loss is caused by wind, water and ice movements in response to gravity. Erosion is an intrinsic natural process, but in many places it is increased by human land use due to deforestation, overgrazing, improper construction activity, and slash-and-burn practise prevalent in tropical areas. Soil piping is a particular form of soil erosion that occurs below the soil surface. Soil salination is the accumulation of free salts to such an extent that it leads to degradation of soils and vegetation. Its consequences include corrosion damage, reduced plant growth, erosion due to loss of plant cover and soil structure, and water quality problems due to sedimentation. Salination occurs due to a combination of natural and human caused processes. This is especially apparent when soil parent material is saline. Irrigation of arid lands is especially problematic (arid land has more saline).

We know that there is no life without air and water, but does it occur to anyone that soil is also a prerequisite to life? And He shows His sign where He revives the dead land to produce grains which we eat (Quran 36: 33), and He revives the earth barren and lifeless with water which pours down causing it to vibrate, swell and puts forth every kind of beautiful growth in pairs (22: 5). Soil is not an inert mass (dead), but is a living entity (50:11, 43:11). However, as God turns dead land into living land, we turn living land into dead land, land which is 'bad which springs up nothing but that which is niggardly' (7:58). As the soil cleans nature of its waste, it also cleans us with the act of Tayammum (4:43), which means the seeking of soil to wipe one's face and hands with the intention of purification and preparing oneself to pray, and so on.

Allah says 'Lo! I am creating a man out of clay moulded into shape. So when I have made him and have breathed into him of My Spirit - do ye (the angels) fall down prostrating unto him' (15:28-29). Scholars say that a human being consists of a soul and a body, one part breath into him from the Creator's spirit, the other from soil made from the best of His moulds (95:4). They say that the body is the vessel from which the soul travels back to His creator. As Allah whom creates in cycles, the body returns to the soil from which it was made, and the soul returns back to its creator from which it was originated. Is not this soil a creation of wonder to be able to house His breath? Is not soil great to be able to be shaped by the best of moulds? The body needs food for hunger, water for thirst, cloths for protection from the elements; and the soul needs guidance for the journey, love for its motivation, fear for its speed of urgency, patience for the wait, perseverance for the struggle, and hope for its return. As Allah creates all in balance and as we have to balance between the body and the soul, it is also our job not to transgress the balance of his creation if we were to succeed as His vicegerents. Treat that from which our body was created and shaped with high respect for we would be spending lots of time in it soon.