by Austin Bodetti
Across the Global South, community leaders, politicians, and scientists are wrestling with how to rally their compatriots to combat climate change and prepare their countries for the dangers of environmental degradation. In several corners of the Muslim world, academics and environmentalists have looked for inspiration from a source that has mobilized countless past social movements: Islam itself.
“Islam views humans as trustees and guardians of the natural environment,” says Odeh Rashid al-Jayyousi, chairman of the Innovation and Technology Management Department at Arabian Gulf University and author of Islam and Sustainable Development. “Caring for any living organism is rewarded. Every species is in a state of prayer, and hence disturbing or hurting any species is simply silencing a community of worshippers or disrupting the symphony of life.”
The Quran and the Hadith, a collection of religious texts that recount the actions and sayings of Mohammad, emphasize the importance of environmental protection. Many Muslim environmentalists like to cite the famous Quranic directive, “Do not commit abuse on the Earth, spreading corruption.”
“Islam instills a sense of hope and optimism about the role of humans in creating balance,” al-Jayyousi tells LobeLog. “Reflecting on the destiny of past civilizations is key, as it deepens the meaning of cycles of life and the impact of humans on the environment. Celebrating diversity and beauty is a form of worship. The signs in nature and the cosmos are sources for reflection and deep learning.”
Muslim proponents of eco-theology, an understanding of religion that focuses on its relationship with the natural environment, believe that they have a personal and spiritual obligation to curb the spread of environmental degradation because Islam encompasses not only humanity but also nature.
“Religious values and practices are deeply entwined in the fabric of daily lives,” says Ibrahim Ozdemir, founding president of Hasan Kalyoncu University and author of The Ethical Dimension of Human Attitude Towards Nature: A Muslim Perspective. “Muslim scholars, religious leaders, mosques, and religious communities play an important role in shaping attitudes, opinions, and behaviors for the management and use of the environment, natural resources, and sustainable development overall.”
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, offers the most remarkable example of eco-theology’s success. There, clerics, gurus, and officials have contributed to crafting an environmental policy that combines environmental education and Islamic studies, describes conservation biology as a religious duty, and encourages Muslims to tackle the island country’s long history of deforestation. This unique approach to environmental protection has spread to other Muslim-majority countries, from Qatar to Turkey. Given Islam’s reach as a state religion, Muslim support for eco-theology will likely grow.
“Nature and humans have the same creator,” argues al-Jayyousi, who has used his spot on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel—part of the United Nations—to emphasize this view to the international community. “This oneness instills a sense of empathy and reason for humans to take care of nature. The Islamic message is not about doom and gloom but rather hope and positive action.”
Muslim scholars across the world share al-Jayyousi’s sentiment. In addition to Ozdemir, these academics include Akhtar Mahmood at the University of Punjab, Mohammad Ali Shomali at Imam Khomeini Educational Research Institute, Mustafa Abu Sway at Quds University, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr at George Washington University. This geographic diversity indicates that eco-theology is gaining traction in the Muslim world. All the way in Singapore, Md Saidul Islam at the Nanyang Technological University is studying a phenomenon that he terms “the Islamic ecological paradigm.”
“Like a mirror, nature reflects the power, beauty, wisdom, and mercy of its creator,” Ozdemir tells LobeLog. “Nature is seen as a balanced, just, peaceful, unified pattern—created and sustained by God. Moreover, the Quran’s insistence on the order, beauty, and harmony of nature implies that there is no demarcation between what the Quran reveals and what nature manifests.”
In 2015, Muslim community leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America gathered in Istanbul to issue the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, noting the need for “an urgent and radical reappraisal” of global warming. Even grand muftis from Bosnia and Uganda attended.
“Islamic environmental law is based on the intent of jurisprudence, which aims to protect life and human wellbeing,” notes al-Jayyousi. “There are key policy principles for managing resources and making judgments based on public consultation and adhering to the public interest and decentralization. In Islamic law, there are also sound rules for minimizing harm while securing public goods.”
“There is a need to empower Muslim scholars and imams to understand contemporary science on the natural environment and facilitate dialogue,” posits Ozdemir, who participated in the team that wrote the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. “The role of religion and culture is crucial for sustainable development in both developed and developing countries.”
As the world’s fastest-growing religion, Islam can play an important role in the environmental movement. The other world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism—have likewise found a place for eco-theology, sharing Islam’s emphasis on the spiritual duty to care for the temporal. Because Muslims will outnumber Christians, the world’s current largest religious denomination, before the end of the twenty-first century, Muslim environmentalists will soon have the ability to reach an even larger audience than the ones available to their Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Jewish colleagues.
“The discourse of imams is key, and they need to build their capacity to deliver a green message, foster conservation, minimize waste, and promote respect for nature and justice,” al-Jayyousi tells LobeLog. “Islam can inform and reform education, communication, and environmental law.”
As climate change becomes an ever-growing danger to the Middle East and the rest of the world, the need for eco-theology in the Muslim world and further afield becomes greater by the day.
“Muslim countries must use the Islamic perspective in environmental protection and sustainable development, taking into consideration religious texts and the practices of Islamic heritage,” concludes Ozdemir. “Muslim political and religious leaders have to rethink their responsibility to promote inclusive, green economies based on collaboration and alternative measures of growth and wellbeing.”
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.