23 January 2012

Muslims Investing in our Planet

logo of the DC Green Muslims organization logo of the DC Green Muslims organization http://dcgreenmuslims.blogspot.com/

[This is the 3rd installment of the series, “Earth Warming, Faith Rising?”]

“Investing” is a business term. People invest in start-up ventures that seem promising; in company stocks that are slated to rise; in a property whose market value is climbing. In each case, the investor expects to reap financial dividends.

People invest in charities too. They invest their time and skills as volunteers to tutor underprivileged children after school, or to help run a food bank. Those dividends are not financial, but still just as tangible. We do this with great satisfaction, because we are helping others develop their potential, or we’re simply alleviating human need.

I have no doubt that “investing in the planet” will reap great dividends, though many will only be counted down the road. Investing in clean energy, for instance, will decrease greenhouse gas emissions, thus slowing down global warming. Then less temperature increase will reduce the number and intensity of future weather disasters and curb the rise of sea levels – all of which disproportionately affects the poor.

That’s for climate change mitigation. Let’s add two more factors: investing in the planet also means removing all the socioeconomic and political barriers that keep the poor beaten down (social justice) and reducing conflicts and wars that create such havoc around the world (peace building).

Now you have the three core principles behind the Earth Charter. What is the “Earth Charter,” you ask?

Initiated by the United Nations around 1990, the Earth Charter Commission was run by a coalition of NGOs and activists from around the world. After much networking by email, phone conversations and conferences, the final product was rolled out in 2000. Here is the preamble:

“We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”

This document was in part behind the paper I presented (see a more recent blog on this) at the American Academy of Religion in its 2010 annual meeting in Atlanta. What is striking in its wording is the emphasis on the interconnectedness of all humans sharing one planet, and their close ties to “the greater community of life” – another way of saying “nature,” “creation” (from a monotheistic perspective), which includes animate and inanimate beings.

This blog looks at the idea from a Muslim viewpoint and the next one does the same for Christians. I will start with the theological tenets that crop up most often as Muslims today write about the environment. That will lead into naming some of the key players in today’s “greening of Islam.”


Tawhid, Khilafa, conservation, and care for all creatures

Tawhid (literally, “the process of making things one”) first designates the unity of God. Islam is fiercely monotheistic, as is Judaism. Christians too believe in only one God, but the Bible adds that he was fully embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who preached and demonstrated the kingdom of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the earliest suras of the Qur’an directly pushes back against this idea, because it interprets it literally (“sonship” is clearly figurative in the New Testament):

“Say: He is God, the One and Only God,

The Eternal, Absolute

He begetteth not, nor is He begotten

And there is none like unto Him” (Q. 112)

From the absolute oneness of God, then, flows the oneness of all creation, since every part directly connects to him, by virtue of its origin and by virtue of his constant, sustaining power. Islam means “surrender” or “submission” to God. Every organism, rock, tree, ocean and planet submits to the laws he puts in place. In that sense they are all “muslim.” From the start only humankind, once fashioned by God, received the breath of God’s Spirit:

“Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: ‘I am about to create man from clay: when I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of my Spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him.’” (38:71-2)

The angels were commanded to bow down to Adam for another reason too, as we read in Sura 2 (“The Cow”). Here the angels, upon hearing that God was about to place Adam on earth as his “caliph” (khalifa, meaning trustee, deputy, representative), were stunned. God gave them proof that this creature was totally unlike all other creatures. He is taught “the names of all things,” meaning that humanity alone is endowed with reason (i.e., with the power to create science and technology) and conscience (he alone can choose to submit to God or not). So we read,


30. Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood? Whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.”

31. And He taught Adam the nature of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: “Tell me the nature of these if ye are right.”

32. They said: “Glory to Thee: of knowledge we have none, save what Thou hast taught us: in truth it is Thou who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom.”

33. He said: “O Adam! tell them their natures.” When he had told them, God said: “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know what ye reveal and what ye conceal?”

34. And behold, We said to the angels: “Bow down to Adam:” and they bowed down: not so Iblis: he refused and was haughty: he was of those who reject Faith.


This of course is the central theme of my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. The idea that God empowered the children of Adam and Eve as his trustees on earth is the bedrock of Muslim-Christian common ground. This concept first came to me while reading the works of Anglican bishop, Kenneth Cragg, arguably the most astute (certainly the most prolific!) non-Muslim interpreter of the Qur’an. For him, the Qur’an unmistakably links the gifts of reason and conscience to the calling of earth tenancy – “wisely colonizing” the earth (Q. 11:61), as he puts it. So accountable management of the earth’s resources is in itself an act of worship; and this calling to master the earth nicely parallels the earth itself being full of “God’s signs,” as the Qur’an repeats over and over. Borrowing a Christian word, he calls it the “sacramental earth.” In Cragg’s own words,

“Nature offers both delight and duty but only in unison. Economy and ecology, wealth and habitation, are as it were a constant interrogation of his environment by the mind of man. The questioner is himself questioned. The answers to man have to be matched and sanctified by the answer from man. It is these together which are the essence of the sacramental. The good earth is the earthly good: they require each other” (The Mind of the Qur’an, 153).

If you are serious about studying Islam and ecology, perhaps the best place to begin is with Mawil Izzi Dien’s book, The Environmental Dimensions of Islam (2000). A specialist in Islamic law and ethics at the University of Wales, his objective has been to develop a new branch of the Shari’a that deals with environmental protection. Besides some legal tools developed in Islamic jurisprudence over the centuries, the two main sources of Shari’a are the Qur’an and Sunna (the example of the Prophet Muhammad, as seen through the most authentic collections of sayings, or hadiths, circulated by his Companions). Here are just a few environmental principles he gleaned from these sources:

1. The Qur’an addresses humanity as a whole, underlining the dignity of “the environmental citizen of the globe”:

““O people! Adore your Guardian-Lord . . . Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith fruits for your sustenance” (Q. 2:21-22)

2. Add this idea of the solidarity of humanity as a whole to the Shari’a principle that benefit (maslaha) for the greater number outweighs the benefit of the smaller number and you have, in Izzi Dien’s words, the following environmental application:

“This principle can be extended to many contemporary environmental threats since they are potentially greater killers than any homicidal individual, and the interest achieved, in both avoiding and removing them, is often unquestionable even if there is the loss of benefits expected from them. Islamic legislation is expected to have provisions to protect the environment and guarantee its sustainability. These provisions take precedence over individual or community interests even if the latter appear to b of an overwhelming urgency. The long-term harm that results from the destruction of environmental factors such as the ozone layer outweighs any possible advantages that may arise from cheap refrigeration, which releases chlorofluorocarbon gases and damages the ozone layer (Izzi Dien 2000: 136).”

3. The value of conservation: according to one hadith, the Prophet scolded his companion Sa’ad one day for using too much water for his ablutions (wudu). Water should not be wasted, he said, even if a river is nearby.

4. The necessity of nature preserves: the prophet emphasized the sanctity (hurma) of creation by declaring a large tract of land around the cities of Mecca and Medina off limits for hunting and any kind if harvesting; later Islamic law established “protected”(or “forbidden” zones” (harim) around trees, wells, and rivers to guarantee that they would continue to serve as a public good.

Some names to remember (and look up!):

The pioneer of Islamic environmentalism is the Iranian-American scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr (with a long career at George Washington University), an acclaimed philosopher and a follower of the Perennial Philosophy movement (all religions, however different they appear on the surface, are expressions of a common Transcendent Reality). His landmark book on ecology was Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (1968). More recently he published Religion and the Order of Nature (1996). All religions, he argues, teach that nature is sacred and that humanity must approach it with great humility, seeking above all to live in harmony with it. Islam, in particular, offers the potent symbol of the Pen (Q. 96:1-4):

“God wrote by means of the Pen, which symbolizes the active principle of Creation, the realities of all things, upon the Guarded Tablet, which remains eternally with Him, while through the cosmogenic act, the realities written upon the Tablet were made to descend to lower levels of existence and finally to the world of nature. The order of nature, therefore, reflects and issues from the order that exists in the Divine Realm. This thesis is confirmed by the insistence of the Quran, reaffirming the Book of Wisdom, that everything is created according to measure, or to quote the Quranic verse, ‘Everything with Him has its measure (miqdar)’ (13:8) (pp. 60-1).”


Probably too mystical for most, I’ll point out that over the years he’s influenced scores of students, and Muslim ones in particular, to actively care for creation. See this 2009 article on a Muslim website reporting on the Washington network called "DC Greens." Their website is attractive and cleverly interactive.

The most famous Muslim scholar/activist has been Fazlun Khalid, founder of the UK-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES). Strangely, his website seems to be down at this time and his journal EcoIslam also hasn’t been issued in the last couple of years. Nevertheless, it showcased a flurry of activity in the 2000s, like intensive educational workshops on Islamic environmentalism in the Zanzibar Archipelago, Indonesia’s Aceh province and West Sumatra. He has worked closely with the ulama (legal scholars) of those Muslim territories, who delivered high-profile fatwas (legal rulings, usually in response to specific questions) on environmental issues as a result. One in particular read,

“Logging and mining which damage the environment and harm society and/or the nation are haram [forbidden]. All activities and businesses related to these are haram. It is fardh [obligatory] upon law enforcement agencies to act firmly to enforce the law.”

IFEES activism in West Sumatra, in particular, where the rain forest has been especially vulnerable to destruction by logging and mining companies, along with cash-crop entrepreneurs, bringing together civil society, forestry cadres and religious leaders, has been very effective.

In a nutshell, here is the IFEES philosophy:

“Human beings according to Islam are considered the best of creation. Created from organic materials, Earth, water and infused with the 'fitra' - a divine inclination - humans are from the Earth. The Earth is a part of ourselves. And it is our responsibility to protect it.” ~ The Eco Muslim

I should add too that several Indonesian environmental scientists have been training students and even publishing their research abroad, as is the case of Fachruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, professor at the Bogor Agricultural University. In 2010, his essay, “Developing Environmental Awareness and Conservation through Islamic Teaching,” was published in an Oxford University Press journal. Thanks to Prof. Anna M. Gade (University of Wisconsin) and her own research in Indonesia on these issues, Mangunjaya agreed to contribute an article to the special issue of Worldviews I am editing. Her own article chronicles the growing “green” movement in the religious schools of Indonesia, the pesantren.

  By far, the country most dramatically threatened by climate change is the south Asian Island nation, the Maldives. Out of 1,200 coral islands, 200 are inhabited, yet the elevation above sea level is nowhere above three meters. Not surprisingly, their president, Mohamed Nasheed, has been the most outspoken critic of China and the USA’s foot-dragging in the UN-sponsored climate change talks. In 2009 he held an underwater cabinet meeting in scuba diving gear to publicize the urgency of his nation’s situation (see Reuter’s coverage of the event).

Finally, if you browse the Internet, you will encounter all manner of Muslim green activism. One website especially grabbed my attention. I think you’ll agree with me that it’s inspiring – the EcoMuslim site. The woman behind it, Zaufishan Iqbal, isn’t lacking in creativity, or energy for that matter. Check out her links in the UK and beyond.

One last link – one that leads nicely into the next blog. The Renewal Project completed an exciting documentary on what eight different religious communities in the US are doing to better invest in the planet. The segment on Chicago Muslims throwing themselves into sustainable farming is worth the whole film “Renewal.”