Inga Härmälä

[This research paper was presented at CILE 7th  Annual International Conference – Doha, Qatar – March 23, 2019]



Abstract: A growing number of environmental movements recognize the need for a change of our spiritual approach to the environment, while we simultaneously witness a revival and development of ecotheologies and religiously motivated environmental activism. Islamic theological discourse on environmental and ecological questions was dormant for a long time, but in recent decades it has increased. Usually the discussions remain on a theoretical level, and more seldom have we seen these ideas reproduced in religious fatwas or as implemented action. In this article I want to explore how Islamic ecology has been and could be translated into environmental activism and an ecological way of life grounded in Islamic ethics, something which I call a Transformative Islamic Ecology.

According to scholars in the field of human ecology and modern scientific ecology, the world is in dire need for radical changes in order to tackle the local and global environmental catastrophes which are already well under way. In order to examine what an up-to-date Islamic response to the ongoing worldwide ecological crises could look like in practice, I studied well-educated Muslim environmental activists and interviewed them on the Islamic beliefs and practices they view as important for their work on the advancement of sustainable agriculture and permaculture. Based on interviews with the seven informants involved in either agroecology or permaculture, this study looks into religious beliefs motivating their activism and how they vision the future of a social movement of Transformative Islamic ecology.

The three main topics which emerged during the interviews, can be divided into three dimensions: a) spiritually connecting to nature through contemplation, b) stewardship (khalīfa) as a commitment to learning and recognizing a diversity of knowledges, and c) staging change and striving to create systems free of corruption based on sustainable agriculture, permaculture, an interest-free economy and a diverse civil society. These dimensions could also form the basis for a movement of Transformative Islamic Ecology, which could help in changing theoretical Islamic ecology into practice.



Some of the biggest problems currently facing humankind is a various combination of ecological challenges, such as climate change and its scientifically predicted consequences including sea level rise, an increase in natural disasters and global epidemics, large scale loss and extinction of species, a decrease in renewable fresh water resources and a system too fragile to adapt to the rapidly occurring changes (IPCC 2014). Too little has been done to prevent these problems from seriously damaging the possibility of a dignified future for humanity, not to speak about the dignity of the rest of the Earth and its creatures. The reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs are many, such as politicians focusing mainly on short term economic gains and the general public being too caught up in their everyday lives to consider what needs to be done. Meanwhile big corporations are driven by the need for increasing their profit, which of course is directly correlating with the increasing destruction of our common natural resources. The worldwide response to climate change has largely focused on economically profitable alternatives, such as greenwashing the business as usual and developing ”green technology” instead of more radical alternatives, such as degrowth and rethinking the economic systems altogether.

Most religious leaders are not even close to realising what role they could play in raising awareness on the moral dimensions of environmental destruction and climate change and very few of them have enough knowledge of modern scientific ecology in order to adjust their religious rulings and advice to the actual conditions we are living in today. Some Muslim theologians, such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Ibrahim Özdemir, have done a great deal in developing an Islamic ecotheology based on a deep understanding of modern scientific ecology  (Nasr 1996; Özdemir 1998). They have re-examined Islamic teachings in the light of current environmental problems, such as climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, depletion of natural resources, large scale clearing of tropical rainforests, loss of biodiversity, air pollution, water pollution and more (Nasr 1996; Özdemir 1998). The problem remaining is that their theories by and large have remained theories without much influence on the lived reality of Muslims worldwide.

Ecological teachings derived from Islamic sources have to some extent translated into a range of Islamic environmental movements gaining popularity around the world (Islam 2012). Some aim at teaching Islamic ecology among the public, by e.g. advocating for green khutbas (Friday sermons on the environment), some at growing gardens or installing solar panels in relation to mosques, and some develop ecologically sustainable Muslim fashion.  There is also a smaller group of Muslims[1] who have gone the distance to manifest their Islamic[2] beliefs and knowledge of modern scientific ecology into more life changing action. These activists recognize the need for major systemic changes in order to face the contemporary ecological crisis and they work as environmental activist, ecological farmers, permaculture trainers and teachers in order to develop ecologically sustainable livelihoods based on sustainable agricultural practices. The work they do is also driven by their Islamic faith and Quranic and prophetic teachings, which they combine with other sciences. The number of individuals engaged in this form of conscious activism is still relatively small, but the number seems to be growing, as the internet and social media provide a possibility for these activists to connect, communicate and spread these practices worldwide. I refer to this type of activism as transformative Islamic ecology in order to emphasize that this approach recognizes a need for a more radical transformation of the current ecological systems than most other initiatives within the larger Islamic environmental movement. The term transformative also includes the meaning of a change in substance and character into something quite new and possibly better.

In this article I have chosen to highlight the beliefs and practices of this very specific group of Muslims, who aim to transform both the physical as well as the mental relations of humans to their environment. They might not be concentrated to a single area or united by a common religious school of thought, but what they share is an awareness of modern scientific ecology and concrete actions Muslims could engage in in order to combat, as well as  adjust to, the environmental and ecological disasters lying ahead of us. My research questions were as follows:

  • How do Muslims working for sustainable agriculture or permaculture relate Islamic beliefs and practices to their environmental engagement and activism?
  • How do they view the future of a social movement of transformative Islamic ecology?

After this introduction I introduce my theoretical framework and then present a short literature review of three fields closely related to my study, namely studies on religious beliefs and environmentalism, Islamic ecotheology and Islamic environmental activism, which help to situate my study within and between these discourses. I then describe the methodology I used and introduce the informants. In the analysis I discuss the three main themes which emerged during the interviews: 1) a spiritual dimension, which connects people emotionally to nature through contemplation and internalizing the Islamic concepts of unity, diversity and balance, 2) a knowledge dimension, which means accepting stewardship (khalīfa) as a commitment to learning a diversity of knowledges, and 3) an action dimension, which indicates the importance of staging change by creating food and economic systems based on Islamic principles and a diverse set of knowledges, such as permaculture design. In the end I discuss my findings and present my conclusions.



This study of transformative Islamic ecology combines fields such as Islamic ecotheology, political ecology, behavioral sciences and social sciences. My studies in human ecology, also known as environmental social science or human-environment interactions research, have taught me to cross all disciplinary borders when studying human-environmental relations (Moran 2010). The human ecological approach could also be described as postdisciplinary studies, which Sayer states that come into being when “scholars forget about disciplines and whether ideas can be identified with any particular one; they identify with learning rather than with disciplines” (Sayer 1999, 5). Another important aspect of studies in human ecology is exploring how humans perceive themselves and interact with their environments (Bates and Tucker 2010, 8).


2.1. Theoretical Framework

Alienation from nature has been identified as one of the main causes of the global ecological crisis and different spiritual philosophies of nature aim at countering and reversing that development (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002). In my research I look at which aspects of Islamic beliefs and practices can counteract this alienation. I also analyze the Islamic beliefs and practices discussed in this study as a form of political ecology, an approach which recognizes the inherent links between the political, ecological and cultural (Escobar 2006).


2.1.1. Alienation from Nature

Several philosophers have developed theories on the spiritual roots of the ecological crisis and how it is based in a spiritual alienation of humans from nature (White 1967; Nasr 1996; Plumwood 2002). However, our religious and spiritual worldviews, which largely form our human-environmental relations, have been identified as possibly both the cause of and a possible solution for the crisis (White 1967; Nasr 1996).

Probably the best known writer who has argued that religions are the root to our current environmental problems, is Lynn White, who in his famous essay ”Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” says that it was the Western form of Christianity which made humans God's image on Earth and let them dominate the rest of creation. He argued that the root of the ecological crises lies in biblical anthropocentrism and a dualistic view on human-nature relations (White 1967). He was not saying that the religious groups now would in any way be worse than others, but that this general idea for centuries had influenced the whole Western world, which has now entered a “post-Christian age”. White's ideas can be compared to Max Weber, who in a similar manner argued that Protestantism is a direct cause of capitalism. Others claim that the anthropocentrism and exploitation of nature for our needs is in fact not a Judeo-Christian heritage, but an ancient Greek one (Calliot 1983 as cited in Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, 37).

René Descartes is often seen as the main philosopher who contributed to the development of a dualism of substances, that mind and body are essentially different. This dualism has then expanded to distance humans from nature as a whole. Val Plumwood has criticized the concept of dualism and dualistic thinking and considers it as a cause for destructive behavior towards the environment (Plumwood 2002). According to the human/nature dualism, the essential characteristic of humans is a “radically separated reason”, which situates humans outside and above an inferior nature (Plumwood 2002, 4). She claims that rationalism, as in “a cult of reason”, in combination with a human/nature dualism are particularly characteristic for the contemporary Western cultures (Plumwood 2002, 4).

Seyyed Hossein Nasr also discusses the historical roots of dualism and religion’s important role in bringing back the spiritual unity with creation (Chittick 2007). Also my informant were well aware of the concepts  of dualism and alienation from nature and therefore counteracting alienation from nature became a recurrent theme throughout the research.

2.1.2. Islamic Political Ecology

In the article ”Difference and Conflict in the Struggle Over Natural Resources: A political ecology framework” Arturo Escobar describes a framework for political ecology, where he puts cultural distribution on the same level of importance as economic and ecological distribution (Escobar 2006). When I analyze Islamic activism for sustainable agriculture and permaculture, this notion of cultural distribution becomes a critical factor. While the activists I interview first and foremost seem to orient their activism against the ecologically unsustainable practices of the global capitalist society, they also direct a critique against the secularity of the major part of the environmental movement, by using religious rhetoric and the connected religious practices. Another political dimension which can be seen is the intra-religious political struggle, where a re-reading of religious texts from a contemporary perspective can contribute to intra-religious debate.

In Najma Mohamed’s PhD dissertation on an eco-justice ethic in Islamic environmental education she constructs a research framework called liberation ecotheology, by combining theories of political ecology with liberation theology. Liberation theology she defines as linking the belief in God directly to actions for political, socioeconomic and environmental change (Mohamed 2012). However, liberation theology is a concept imported from a Christian tradition and is thus considered by many to be irrelevant or simply unnecessary in Islam. Islam and Christianity share many commonalities as Abrahamic world religions, but one of the most essential differences is the lack of all the hierarchical structures of bishops, priests and Churches in Sunni Islam (Chambers 2006, 40). The Islamic principle that authority should only be temporary and based on competence accords well with the anarchist notion of ‘rational’ authority (ibid.). ‘Rational’ types of authority such as in a teacher-student relation, does not necessarily imply any kind of domination, as long as authority is based on competence and remains temporary. The way Muslims establish mosques by local funding and appointing teachers of their own choice is as an organizational structure very similar to anarchist organizations (ibid.).

For many Muslims Islam has little in common with the organizational structures of the Church and therefore many Muslims see no need for “liberation” from religious authorities, as that freedom is seen as God-given. It has been claimed that Islam in itself is a theology of liberation or as Tariq Ramadan put it “Islam is liberation” (Ramadan 2014). In this study I study the activism of my informants through a lens of Islamic political ecology, which I define as Islamically motivated political-ecological struggles against hegemonic knowledges and practices.


2.2. Religious Beliefs and Environmentalism

Religions develop human relations to the environment mainly by emotionally involving people to their surroundings or by sanctioning certain conversational behavior (Anderson 1996, 167). Studies on how people's religious affiliations and beliefs are related to their concern for the environment have produced some conflicting results (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, 38). Some recent studies show that people with strong religious practices could be more prone to change their behavior to protect the environment (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002). Adherence to religion was measured in two ways: 1) religiosity, as in frequencies of praying and self-reported strength of affiliation and 2) level of fundamentalism, as in how literal the readings of holy scriptures were. It turned out that when these two aspects of religiosity were separated, the level of religiosity seemed to have positive effects on environmental attitudes (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, 43).

Another way is to study the relation of religions and environmentalism is to look at societies which are relatively ecologically sustainable. Eugene Anderson is a cultural anthropologist, who has studied different ways in which people manage their natural environment. In his book ”Ecologies of the Heart” he gives examples of cultures around the world, where religiously motivated beliefs have had a positive impact on resource management and conservation (Anderson 1996).

It has been shown that religion can be an effective tool in advancing sustainable resource management strategies and the efficiency of this approach is according to Anderson largely based on the fact that religions and similar cultural systems serve primarily to offer “a moral code by embedding it in an emotionally compelling communal system of symbols, beliefs, and ceremonies.” (Anderson 1996, 162).

While experts and scientists seem overly concerned about objectivity, rationality and dispassionate examination, Anderson argues that there is a need for genuine love for the environment and an emotional engagement with it (Anderson 1996). Anderson notes that many field biologists love their study subjects, but in public they are afraid to admit this, as no emotions are allowed to appear in their writings (ibid.). Powerful emotions are, however, recognized as a major force behind environmental political action. Anderson also recognizes the notable role of religion in politics.

”Politics without rationality soon degenerates into mindless conflict. Reason without passion carries no political appeal. Politics thus comes to rely on wider and more personally compelling belief systems. Religion is notable among these.” (Anderson 1996, 160)

Anderson’s main strategies to bring emotion into the environmental discourse is by bringing people into the natural environment and let them love it, which will make them act to protect that which they love (Anderson 1996). What the environmental movement needs is openness to all visions and philosophies with ecological morals and it must not appeal only to fear, but to love as well (Anderson 1996). As a response to the lack of spiritual approaches to nature in the West, many young environmental movements have included religious or spiritual elements, such as the deep ecology movement (Anderson 1996; Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002).

Most pollution and environmental destruction is, however caused by corporations and governments, and not individual behavior (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, 7). Changing the behavior of individuals could therefore be an ineffective way of tackling environmental problems, as most of the destruction would still continue. Why individual’s beliefs and behavior do matter is the possible effects of collective action and influencing government policies and corporations (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, 7). An argument which also encourages a further look into religions and environmentalism is that value change is said not to occur in whole populations, but in smaller groups of people sharing similar characteristics such as age and experience (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, 66).

Ethical discussions found in philosophical works do generally little to motivate people to follow these moral guidelines, so according to Anderson (1996) most people will follow some type of ordinary contemporary social morality, which is largely constructed upon earlier religious and philosophical teachings. These social morals, however, are limited to the field of daily influence and do not have the same authority, originality or inspiration as religious leaders, who have come with a much more persuasive and comprehensible rhetoric and a set of ethical codes appealing to human emotion (Anderson 1996, 161). More studies are needed to say anything profound about the relation between religious adherence and environmental attitudes, and so far all major studies have focused on adherents to Western Judeo-Christian religions, which can hardly be said to be representative of any other religion or region.


2.2.1. Religious Environmental Activism

Whereas religion in many societies still is a major force in involving emotion in moral codes, religion and faith never ceased to influence people in the so called “post-secular” societies in the West (Norris & Inglehart 2004). Religion continues to flourish and in many circles it is being revived as a source of ecological worldviews. Many religious leaders are also becoming more environmentally aware and have started to encourage pro-environmental behavior (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002). According to Anderson (1996, 168) the modern and Western world is “not so much a secular world cut off from ”Nature” as a deeply ambiguous, divided, and contested world”.

According to Gardner, Gerald and Stern (2002) religiously based environmental movements usually share a worldview (or system of beliefs) consonant with modern scientific ecology (see table 1 page 7) and an ecocentric value orientation. Pro-environmental organizations with an ecocentric value orientation may often take the same actions as anthropocentric environmentalists, but based on different ethics (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, 58). Anthropocentric environmental organizations would e.g. oppose environmental pollution first and foremost because of the risk to human well-being.


Table 1: Western and Modern Scientific Ecological Worldviews

(Adapted from Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, Table 3-4, p. 53 and Table 3-6, p. 57)

Dominant Western Paradigm

Modern Scientific Ecology

Dominance over nature

Complex, interdependent and interconnected life-support systems. Human survival depending on vulnerable ecological processes.

Natural environment as a resource for human use

Ecological integrity and diversity must be maintained

Material/economic growth for a growing human population


Permanently sustainable levels of population, resources use and, and pollution must be reached

Belief in ample resource reserves


Earth’s supply of natural resources is limited

High technological progress and solutions


Managing nature with technology can lead to failure, as the complexity of systems is too hard to comprehend


“Upstream” solutions, such as limiting material use, are more beneficial than “downstream” solution, such as recycling

Followers of the main world religions have generally welcomed modernity and industrialization, by either adapting their teachings to fit that development or by neglecting the environmental teachings found in their religions and traditions. Only some smaller groups, such as the Amish communities in North America, have remained extremely faithful to their old way of life. During the recent decades all the big world religions have also recognized the need to emphasize and develop their theological, moral and ethical principles that support respect for the environment, their ecotheologies (Nasr 1996; Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002; Townsend 2009).

The notion of stewardship, that is human responsibility to respect and care for the sacred creation of God, its ecosystems and nonhuman forms of life, is a well-studied concept, which is thought to encourage pro-environmental behavior among Christians and Jews (Whitney 1993 in Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, 49). The ecotheologians argue that the concept of stewardship is deeply rooted in the Bible, but that Christendom has deviated from these scriptures in recent centuries, because of suggested causes such as the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution (Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002, 50). When searching for solutions to the ecological crisis by using religious appeal it should, however, be based on actual experience of what works in practice. Anderson (1996, 169) suggests that such initiatives should be based on experience from societies that have successfully managed their resources, and not on purely emotional belief, which “could be a formula for disaster”.


2.3. Islamic Ecotheology

Muslims around the world are now looking for religious answers to the environmental crises and solutions for it (Gilliat-Ray & Bryant 2011). Generally societies in areas with a high pressure on natural resources have developed more conservational traditions than where resources have been abundant (Anderson 1996, 168). If this theory holds true then Islam, which developed on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century should have plenty of conservational traditions and many scholars who have studied Islamic ecology would agree with this claim. Although there is a tradition of environmental teachings in Islam, it was not until the awakening to the ecological crisis in the 1970s that the environmental aspects of Islam were brought back into wider discussion by some Islamic scholars. At that time the Muslim ecotheologian Seyyed Hossein Nasr began advocating for a more up-to-date Islamic ecotheology, which recognizes the modern circumstances and a modern scientific ecological worldview. Some other scholars who have raised critical questions concerning an Islamic view of the environment are Mawil Izzi Dien, Ibrahim Özdemir, Hamza Yusuf and Fazlun M. Khalid.

The Islamic eco-theological work is largely based on studies of the Quran in combination with teachings derived from the life of Prophet Muhammad. In the Quran the earth is mentioned hundreds of times and a basic understanding of the physical world and humanity's role in it is pictured. Prophet Muhammad also provided plenty of environmental advice and is known for e.g. having established natural reserves and forbidden the destruction of trees in battle (Ramadan 2007).

Additional sources may include texts on Islamic ethics and Islamic philosophy, as well as traditional Islamic jurisprudence developed throughout history to deal with management of the environment (Nasr 2003). In the texts of Islamic philosophy it is the Sufi texts which contain most expressions of an Islamic "metaphysics and theology of nature" (Nasr 2003, 94). Looking at historical sources, Nasr also considers Islamic art, such as architecture, landscaping and urban design, as an embodiment of the Islamic sciences and literature, especially poetry, as a source of spiritual teachings.

According to Nasr, religion plays a crucial role in the solution of the existing crisis between man and nature (Nasr 1996). Like many other scholars Nasr argues that the environmental crisis is tied to the spiritual crisis in the world. The environmental crisis is merely an external sign of a crisis within us and therefore the crisis cannot be solved without the removal of this inner crisis (ibid.). Nasr claims that it is modern secularized sciences, the removal of their ethical and social aspects and the negation of other understandings of reality which leads to a reduced understanding of the world (ibid.).

Tariq Ramadan calls the ecology taught by Prophet Muhammad a type of ”upstream ecology”, meaning that it is not springing from ”the anticipation of disasters” of human actions, but an ecology for preventing disasters (Ramadan 2007, 202). To show this he retells a hadith about Prophet Muhammad telling a man performing ablution ”Why such waste, O Sad?” and Sad asked if one can waste in performing ritual ablutions. ”Yes, even when using the water of a running stream” answered the Prophet (ibid.). This hadith indicates that even when an action has no apparent negative consequences for the environment it is not recommended that you consume more than you absolutely need.

Among the different ecological worldviews, the Islamic one can be understood as everything from a very anthropocentric one, where environmental ethics are based on the wellbeing of humankind at the expense of all other life forms, to a much more ecocentric worldview where all creation is seen as Muslim and therefore in need of similar rights as humans. Most of the works of Islamic ecotheologians highlight the importance of central Islamic ethical principles and concepts, such as tawḥīd (divine oneness), khalīfa (vicegerency or stewardship) and mizān (balance) in the formation of an Islamic ecological worldview (Khalid & O’Brien 1992). In order to keep my introduction to Islamic ecotheology limited I will give a brief overview of a few central concepts in Islamic ecotheology and their references in the Quran and the sunnah.

  • Creation as Muslim

In the Quran the Earth can speak (99:4), ants and birds talk (27:17-22) and everything in the heavens and earth praise God: “The seven heavens declare His glory and the earth (too), and those who are in them; and there is not a single thing but glorifies Him with His praise, but you do not understand their glorification.” (Quran 17:44 Shakir) According to the Quran everything is created for a purpose and everything follows the laws of Nature, which are the laws of God. This implies that all of creation, organic as well inorganic, is Muslim, meaning they are in submission to God (Khalid 2002). The earth was created for all living things, not only humans (Quran 55:10) and the Quran also mentions the animals as being divided into communities like humans: ”There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.” (Quran 6:38 Yusuf Ali).

  • Unity and Balance

A central concept in Islam is tawḥīd, oneness or unity. Allah is one and the belief in his unity is tawhid. His unity is also reflected in the unity of humanity and nature (Mahasneh 2003). Nasr has argued that the dualism of human/nature is foreign to his understanding of Islam, and that the Muslim world has been influenced by the dualism coming from the West. He argues that centrality of the concept tawhid makes the dualism of human/nature impossible in Islam (Nasr 1996). The unity is also seen in the interdependence of all creation. The world functions only because it follows a preordained pattern and is set in a balance, mizān. Man then has a responsibility to use his God-given reason and knowledge to not transgress the balance (Mahasneh 2003).

“The sun and the moon [move] by precise calculation, And the stars and trees prostrate. And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance That you not transgress within the balance.” (Quran 55:5-8 Sahih International)

  • Fitra- Primordial Nature of Man

In Islamic ecotheology, the concept of fiṭrah is the pure state, a state of intrinsic goodness and principle which describes the primordial nature of creation. This means that everything in creation has a potential for goodness and that humans can consciously choose to express this natural pattern in which they were created (Khalid 2002). Fitra is considered to be the natural state of man in harmony with nature and as an idea it is compatible with the argument that people must “return” to a more natural way of living as proposed by environmentalists.

“So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah.“ (Quran 30:30 Sahih International)

  • Stewardship

According to the Quran humans were given the role of caretakers of the earth (2:30-34; 6:165). Stewardship is a central concept for environmental ethics in all Abrahamic religions and has been in the center of their ecotheology and interreligious dialogue on the environment (Assisi declarations 1986; Gardner, Gerald & Stern 2002). The Arabic word used is khalīfa and it can be translated into English as vicegerent, guardian, trustee or caretaker of the earth. The term is closely related to the concept of amānah, trust, which has been handed to humanity (Quran 33:72). According to Muslim ecotheologians the role of stewardship is what separates humans from other creatures on Earth, as humans accepted this responsibility offered to them by God. In the Quran it says:

“We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man undertook it;- He was indeed unjust and foolish” (Quran 33:72 Yusuf Ali)

When humanity accepted the amānah and the role as khalīfa, they made a contract with God, which means they will be held accountable for all their deeds on the Day of Judgment and they affect their status in the ākhira, the hereafter. This responsibility has been translated into practical directions for how to live, sharia law, which includes environmental law, animal protection, forest conservation etc. The trusteeship is not ownership and the relation could be seen more as that of a just ruler with his subjects. Having power his subjects, does not give the ruler freedom to do as he wishes with them, but he has to treat the subjects according to the contract he has with the owner (Hussain 1991).

  • Signs in Nature

In addition, Özdemir regards nature as a ‘sacred book’ or a ‘book of the universe’ (Özdemir 1998). The word ‘āyah can refer to a verse in the Quran and as well as a natural phenomenon or a wonder of nature. This can be interpreted to mean that the Quranic verses from God are a wonder of nature, and that each wonder of nature is a verse from God (Özdemir 1998). The ayahs of God's creation are mentioned many times in the Quran as messages for humanity to contemplate and reflecting on in order to get to know God and Islam:

“And Allah has sent down water from the cloud and therewith given life to the earth after its death; most surely there is a sign in this for a people who would listen. And most surely there is a lesson for you in the cattle; We give you to drink of what is in their bellies-- from betwixt the feces and the blood-- pure milk, easy and agreeable to swallow for those who drink. And of the fruits of the palms and the grapes-- you obtain from them intoxication and goodly provision; most surely there is a sign in this for a people who ponder. And your Lord revealed to the bee saying: Make hives in the mountains and in the trees and in what they build: Then eat of all the fruits and walk in the ways of your Lord submissively. There comes forth from within it a beverage of many colours, in which there is healing for men; most surely there is a sign in this for a people who reflect.” (Quran 16:65-69 Shakir)

  • Benefits of Agriculture

According to sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro (1990), the late grand mufti of Syria, Islam pays great attention to agriculture and practicing it is considered a kind of worship. In an article published on his website Kuftaro cites many hadiths in support of this claim. The farmer is e.g. said to have a bigger right to own the land he cultivates than anyone else, as the hadith goes: "He who cultivates land that does not belong to anybody is more rightful (to own it)" (al-Bukhari(a) 2335). Anyone who farms is also rewarded spiritually for whatever benefits the plantation produces: “Whoever reclaims and cultivates dry, barren land will be rewarded by God for the act. So long as men and animals benefit from it He will record it for him as almsgiving” (al-Munawi as quoted in Özdemir 1998). Planting a tree can also be understood as charity, even if the harvest is stolen or eaten by birds as the following hadith states:

“If a Muslim plants a tree, that part of its produce consumed by men will be as almsgiving for him. Any fruit stolen from the tree will also be as almsgiving for him. That which the birds eat will also be as almsgiving for him. Any of its produce which people may eat thus diminishing it, will be as almsgiving for the Muslims who planted it” (al-Bukhari as quoted in Özdemir 1998).

2.4. Islamic Environmental Activism

The relevance of the Muslim population in the world is increasingly growing. Almost one in four people on earth are Muslims and 60% of them are under 30 years old (Pew Research 2011). Muslim consumers spend around $2.3tr on halāl food and lifestyle sectors such as fashion, cosmetics, entertainment, tourism and education and their power as consumers make many companies turn to Islamic marketing to make profit of their Muslim identities (The Guardian 2014). Among the top ten countries in the world with the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in 2010, six countries were Muslim countries, with Qatar in the lead, followed by Kuwait, Brunei, Oman, UAE and Bahrain (World Bank 2014). One of the aims of the general Islamic environmental movement is to turn Muslims away from excessive consumption habits, which are seen as a result of the Enlightenment and the materialistic conception of nature that followed (Saniotis 2012).

Most of the research on Islamic ecology has been of a theological type, with only a few empirical studies on Islamic environmental practices, such as environmental activism among Muslim groups in the UK (DeHanas 2009; Gilliat-Ray & Bryant 2011; Chowdhury 2013), an Islamic approach for environmental conservation in Indonesia (Mangunjaya & McKay 2012) and Islamic environmentalism in Turkey (Ignatow 2008). As far as I know, only one PhD dissertation by Eleanor Finnegan has previously examined a similar type of Islamic activism for sustainable agriculture which I focus on, but with the difference that she focused her study on activism in the USA (Finnegan 2011).

The Islamic environmental movement is as diverse and as global as the environmental movement in general. Most of the most prominent Islamic environmental initiatives today could be classified as working for “weak sustainability”, as these initiatives focus on individual consumption patterns or green consumerism, such as in switching to biofuel for the cars, stopping bottled water purchases, using renewable energy in the mosques or marketing ecologically produced fairtrade Muslim fashion. These initiatives generally do not attempt to change the global socioeconomic systems, which are the main cause for environmental degradation. In this research I focus on a smaller group of activists who try to advance a more radical understanding of Islamic ecology and are familiar with modern scientific ecology, recognizing the inherent faults in our current systems and attempting to create new sustainable economic and ecological systems through transformative activism.

When I refer to Islamic activism I mean activism “rooted in a literature that mixes social criticism, moral admonition, and philosophical dictums, all of which draw on Islamic textual sources” (Hashem 2006, 23). These sources are then reinterpreted to fit the specific context and concrete circumstances in which the activism takes place. Hashem (2006) outlines two main dimensions of Islamic activism: 1) the sharia dimension, which tries to understand Islam's socio-religious teachings and 2) the activism dimension, where these interpretations take the form of various types of physical activities. The movement I study seems to be mostly based on an eclectic type of sharia interpretations and this will become apparent in the analysis, where I look at how the importance of a diversity of knowledges is emphasized by some of my informants (Table 2, p. 12).

Quite literal interpretations of hadiths and Quranic quotes are used extensively in the Islamic environmental movement to increase care for the environment among Muslims, but generally they lack up-to-date contextual interpretations. The eclectic sharia interpretations takes also other than Islamic sources seriously, and when including sources of modern scientific ecology in their readings, it leads to an Islamic ecotheology which recognize the inherent faults in our contemporary global systems and the need for more radical changes. Table 2 shows one way to classify the diversity of approaches to the environment in Islam. In this article I am interested in exploring transformative Islamic Ecology, based in a mainly eclectic theological approach as described by my informants.


Table 2: Islamic environmental activism


Weak Islamic environmentalism

Transformative Islamic Ecology

Theological approach

Traditional and literalist theology of the Environment without including knowledge of modern scientific ecology

Eclectic, contextual and contemporary theological approach including knowledge of modern scientific ecology

Examples of activism

Green consumerism

Picking up trash

Wasting less water

Avoiding pollution

Transformative activism Staging change
Creating ethical systems



2.4.1. Permaculture and Islam

Muslims involved in permaculture provide a good example of the type of activism I call transformative Islamic ecology. Including permaculture teachings into their religious worldview exemplifies the eclectic, contextual and contemporary theological approach, which also includes modern scientific ecology. "As the world's problems are growing ever more complicated, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple" is a saying of Bill Mollison, also known as the father of permaculture. The word permaculture was first used by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the middle of the 1970s to describe ”an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man” (Holmgren 2002, 3). During the years the concept has developed and can now better be explained as ”(c)onsciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.” (Holmgren 2002, 3) Even though a lot of focus is put on developing a permanent and sustainable agricultural system, permaculture also applies to people, buildings and organization.

There are three overarching ethics in Permaculture that guide the design process:

  • Care for the earth (husband soil, forests and water)
  • Care for people (look after self, kin and community)
  • Fair share (set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus). (Holmgren 2002, 7)

Permaculture teachings vary locally, as each ecosystem require its special knowledges. The worldwide permaculture network works to spread permaculture design solutions by creating generally local changes, but they also influence the surrounding societies by advancing organic agriculture, appropriate technology and intentional community design (Holmgren 2002, 4). People involved in permaculture have generally completed certified Permaculture Design courses (PDc), which are organized all over the world (Holmgren 2002, 4). Five of my seven informants were certified Permaculture designers or trainers.

The relation between Islam and permaculture has been discussed on web pages and internet forums and the interest for permaculture among Muslims seems to be growing quickly (McCausland 2014; Facebook group Muslims for Permaculture and Sustainable Agriculture). Several Muslims are arguing that there is a strong link between Islamic teachings and permaculture ethics and principles and applying permaculture teachings is not only seen as an obligation for Muslims to fulfill their responsibility of being caretakers on earth and feeding humanity, but also as a necessity to enable an Islamic way of life (Kent 2012; McCausland 2014; Galluzzo 2014). Islamic Sufi thought has often been emphasized by Muslim permaculture designers, such as in the UK based organization called Wisdom In Nature (WIN), which offers courses on themes such as ‘Permaculture and Sufism’ and ‘Islamic ecology’ (WIN 2014).

Cooperation between Islamic educational institutes and the permaculture network is currently taking place in e.g. Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California and in Dar al-Mustafa in Tarim, Yemen, where a permaculture site is under development (PRI Tarim 2014). Another type of cooperation is established between the Permaculture Research Institute and Muslim Aid Australia, with the intention to exchange resources and knowledge to advance goals shared by both organization (The Permaculture Research Institute 2008).



The departure point for my interviews lies in phenomenology, as I aim to describe the life world of the informants. Phenomenology implies “an interest in understanding social phenomena from the actors’ own perspectives” (Kvale & Brinkmann 2009, 26). This encompasses the assumption that what really matters is the reality as people perceive it. By taking an approach of phenomenology of religion, I am not seeking to explain causalities between certain beliefs and observable phenomena, but my aim is to interpret the religious beliefs, disclose the meaning of them and understand how they are perceived and experienced from the perspective of the religious subject (Blum 2012, 1030). My perspective could also be called constructivist, as I emphasize the construction of knowledge and identities.

As my approach to religion is phenomenology of religion and not theological, I am not taking a stand on whether or not the beliefs are true or reasonable or as Blum puts it “[t]he phenomenologist does not ask whether God exists or what he/she is like, or whether or not scripture actually represents the divinely revealed will of God“ (Blum 2012, 1031). Interpreting religion from the perspective of religious consciousness and experience means trying to understand how the religious subjects regard certain phenomena and what the meaning and significance of such phenomena are for the subjects (Blum 2012, 1031).

My approach is also based on a rejection of objective knowledge. Feyerabend rejected the existence of objective knowledge production on the notion that all observations are theory dependent, creating a certain perspective (Chalmers 2003, 140-149). This ultimately boils down to the fact that there is no need to consider so called scientific claims superior to other forms of knowledges, such as religious knowledge. This can also be called a form of relativism, as it “underscores the relativity and indeed the equality of all knowledge claims” (Brante 2001).

3.1. Qualitative Interviews

By conducting qualitative interviews I aimed to develop an understanding of the informants’ point of views and their experience of how their Islamic beliefs can be related to their activism. I also wanted to know how the informants view the future possibilities of their work and an islamically motivated movement for sustainable agriculture. Semi-structured interviews provided a suitable format as they do not allow for standardization or straight forward comparability, but they allow the informants to express their views to a larger extent on their own terms (May 2001, 123). Equipped with a set of questions I had some main topics I wanted to discuss, but the order of the topics discussed varied according to the interview. From time to time my informants would take a lead on the subject, which new topics emerged which I could otherwise have missed.

My study is not tied to a specific geographical area, as this movement or set of ideas is truly global. In total I interviewed seven individuals from four different continents, all representing quite diverse views and but sharing a Muslim identity and a belief that their work for sustainable agriculture and permaculture is part of their faith. One interview was made in person and the rest were conducted on Skype. All interviews were recorded and after transcribing them I searched for common themes and structures as well as contradicting ideas among the different interviews.

One question I had to ask myself was the possible consequences of the interviews on my informants. As I am an environmentally concerned Muslim myself, I quite easily could relate to the informants and gain their trust, but in every interview situation there is a power asymmetry between the researcher and the informant (Kvale & Brinkmann 2009, 18). Even though many of my informants allowed me to use their real names in the study I chose to give all of them pseudonyms, in order to keep the focus on the content of what they say, rather than the individuals themselves.

3.2. The Informants

When I looked for informants my aim was to find people engaged in transformative environmental activism, and holding a conviction that the current global environment is developing in a negative direction and that Muslims have a religious responsibility to try to change that course of development and build a more sustainable society. I looked for Islamic environmental initiatives on various forums, webpages, blogs and facebook, where I could find email addresses and facebook profiles allowing me to contact the activists. I decided to focus my study on Muslim environmental activists who are somehow working with sustainable agriculture, either permaculture or agroecology, because I argue that most of these environmental activists have a different understanding of ecology and the global ecological crises, than the ones working with initiatives closer to green consumerism. Apart from contacting activist I found online and through contacts I also contacted a couple of people who I knew personally and fitted the targeted group.

Of the informants, one was in his twenties, three were in their 30s, two in their 40s and one was over 60. They were residents of Ethiopia, Egypt, the UK, the US,  Australia, the Netherlands and Sweden. Five of them can be described as converts to Islam, as they had been growing up in a non-Islamic or non-religious environment. Five of the informants have had an education in permaculture and most of them also practice it in their daily lives and teach it to others. Of the other ones, one is educated in agroecology, one in geography and one is a science teacher. What unites all the informants education-wise is a deep and up-to-date understanding of modern scientific ecology.

At least four of the informants have started up different environmental organisations or movements and four were engaged in local permaculture activities in their communities. Some of the activist have been working extensively on the convergence of Islam and ecology, whereas some have kept these thoughts more private, partly for reasons such as aversion to religion in their work environment.

Although my sample of seven informants all call themselves Muslims and engage in somewhat similar activism, their religious views naturally differ greatly from each other. Because they all have very diverse backgrounds and are geographically distributed around the world, my results should be understood as examples, which cannot be generalized to any particular group of people. As I cannot make any context specific analysis of the interviews, I focus on drawing up bigger lines and themes in my analysis of the content.


[Continue Part 2]


* Inga Härmälä is a 32-year-old independent researcher from Finland. After completing a bachelor's degreee in geography she lived in Egypt for a year to develop her Arabic language and study Islam. She holds a master's degree in Human Ecology from Lund University, where she got interested in and started to research the field of Islamic Ecology. She has worked as an environmental focal point and desk officer for Islamic Relief Sweden.



[1] The many denominations, local and individual varieties of Islam could be argued to make the term Islam meaningless, but in this article I define Islam as the personal religious convictions of people identifying themselves as Muslims. The aspects of Islam which unite most Muslims are the Quran, the sunnah, the five pillars of Islam and the six pillars of faith.

[2] The difference between the words Islamic and Muslim is that Muslim refers to a human being adhering to the Islamic faith, but not everything he or she does is Islamic. Muslim can also be used to refer to purely secular or cultural aspects of human life. When I use the term Islamic, I want to distinguish between self-reported faith-based actions and other actions done by a Muslim but not in the name of Islam.

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