13 October 2012

Islam and Ecology: Finding Today's Pulse

K.H. Ahmad Yani is the “kiai,” spiritual and academic leader, of Darul Ulum Lido, an Islamic boarding school near Bogor, an hour’s drive from Jakarta, the capital of  Indonesia. Photo by Anna M. Gade K.H. Ahmad Yani is the “kiai,” spiritual and academic leader, of Darul Ulum Lido, an Islamic boarding school near Bogor, an hour’s drive from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Photo by Anna M. Gade http://insideislam.wisc.edu/index.php/archives/12829

The core insight of this website is the notion taught by both Bible and Qur’an that God created humans with the capacity to reason – thus creating art and furthering science—and to make moral choices for which they will have to answer. So from the beginning he mandated his human creatures to rule over the earth, manage its resources and organize their collective life in just and compassionate ways.

In light of that, I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a special issue of Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture and Ecology (Vol. 16) with the title, Islam and Ecology: Theology, Law and Practice of Muslim Environmentalism.” I had the privilege of co-editing the issue with Anna M. Gade, Associate Professor of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I only have permission to offer you my own article, “Intra-Muslim Debates on Ecology: Is Shari’a Still Relevant?,” and our Editors’ Preface (see below). But you can click here for access to the Worldviews’ issue.

Two of the four articles deal with Indonesia. First, Anna Gade’s fieldwork among the environmentally-friendly pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) reveals a double-pronged strategy to promote creation care: a) theological teaching grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith; and b) the emotional/affective impact of songs and poetry extolling the beauty of God’s creation and the joy of joining him in caring for it.

Then, thanks to Gade’s extensive contacts in Indonesia, we were able to enlist the contribution of its most influential scholar and environmental activist, Fakhruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, a biologist at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta. His co-author is British anthropologist, Jeanne Elizabeth McKay, who has invested much effort in Indonesia over the years with the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. They argue that state initiatives to preserve the immense wealth of biodiversity in its rain forests will not be effective in the long run, unless they are joined by religious and community-based leaders who can enlist grassroots support.

Finally, Ahmed Afzaal, an Islamicist teaching at Concordia College in Minnesota, looks at some of the theological underpinnings of an effective Islamic advocacy for a committed environmental agenda through the lens of one the greatest Muslim philosophers of the twentieth century, the South Asian Muhammad Iqbal.

To give you a feel for this special issue, allow me to present an excerpt from the issue’s Introduction by Jonathan Brockopp, Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. Originally, three of these papers were presented at a session I organized at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in 2010. I was thrilled that Brockopp accepted to respond to the five papers (at the time), as he’s a specialist in early Islam and especially in the development on the legal tradition. Further, he’s an environmental activist both at Penn State and in interfaith circles (Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light).

Religions are complex traditions that contain wisdom that can be applied to new situations. In the case of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, ancient stories, such as the creation narratives, can be reinterpreted and rediscovered. Second, true engagement is a combination of practical engagement with the hands, intellectual appreciation by the mind, and emotional attachment. Examples from Indonesia, Zanzibar, Wales and elsewhere can inspire people all over the globe to respond.

Our experience of working to care for creation, instead of exploiting nature, can lead to an engagement with God. Iqbal’s vision of God as panen­theistic brings to mind Qur’anic verses that challenge people to wander in the land and see there the signs of God:

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 humankind; in the rain which God sends down from the skies, thereby giving life 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 (Q 2:164).

Nature, then, is much more than a storehouse to be plundered or a threat to be neutralized, it is a book full of God’s signs ready for us to read. For reli­gious people, then, preventing climate change and loss of species and habi­tat can be much more than an ethical imperative―it is also the preservation of God’s revelation. To exploit these mysteries for short-term gain is to pro­foundly misunderstand both their meaning and our own role within the cosmos.”


This issue, to my mind, is a response by Muslims to the challenges presented by the Earth Charter launched in 2000. This initiative launched by the United Nations was followed by a decade of widespread discussion on a global scale, which led to a separate international entity with massive civil society participation worldwide, the Earth Charter Commission. Its international legitimacy as a document can be compared to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in that it is gaining little by little the status of “soft” international law.

Claiming that humanity stands at a “critical moment in Earth’s history,” the Charter asserts that the way forward requires the lucid recognition “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.” This means a concerted effort to create “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.” “Earth community” implies a revised and humbler assessment of the value and role of humankind, compared to the modern Western view. Thus the preamble ends with a sobering and solemn call not just to action but chiefly to a new attitude and ethical imperative: “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.”

“Earth community,” I believe, is indeed an appropriate expression. Human solidarity on a planetary scale is not just a pious wish. It starts with the recognition of a fact. We all share this planet and as someone from its richest country and greatest contributor of greenhouse gases (China might have that dubious distinction by now), I have to repent of my selfish lifestyle that will visit more and more harm on the poorest. As Brockopp put it, solely focusing on Muslim nations:


Iran, with its oil production, its relatively wealthy population and its heavy industry, also happens to have the largest carbon footprint of any majority Muslim country. In Iran, as in the United States, high carbon out­put is a means to a comfortable, even opulent, lifestyle. But this is the exception in the Muslim world. For example, the 150 million people of Bangladesh produced 46,000 kilotons of CO2 in 2008. The 16 million of Niger produced only 851 kilotons.

It is a sad irony that the very same Muslim countries, which have con­tributed almost nothing to the rise in greenhouse gases will be among the hardest hit. Already, the droughts in East Africa in 2011 and the endless rains that brought devastation to Pakistan in 2010 serve as harbingers of the changes scientists have predicted for our climate, not to mention the pos­sibilities that the Maldives and half of Bangladesh will be under water within the next one hundred years.

This imbalance of cause and effect, our overconsumption causing their suffering, is outrageous and violates every ethical principle of love for neighbor, caring for the poor, and stewardship of the earth that religious traditions preach. How did we arrive at such a point in our development as a species that we so easily dismiss the lives of millions so we can live in climate-controlled comfort?”

I have dealt in greater detail on these issues elsewhere. Suffice it to say here, this journal issue should be heart warming for all. As it takes the pulse of Islamic environmentalism today, it finds many Muslim scholars, religious leaders and activists seriously pondering their calling as God’s trustees of the earth. Join me in earnestly praying for their success.