[This research paper was presented at CILE 7th Annual international Conference – Doha, Qatar – March 23, 2019]
All informants shared a strong faith in that Islam can teach humanity a lot about environmental ethics and sound ecological practices. ”It is very clearly stipulated in the Quran what our role is here and how we are supposed to tread carefully on this earth and not destroy this earth. It is our home”, said Hossam. Most of the time I did not need to ask the questions in my interview guide, as the informants themselves initiated the discussions I was interested in. All of the informants saw their work with environmental activism as linked to their faith in many levels. Hossam expressed how his Muslim identity encompassed all his activism, which made any other names subordinate: ”I wouldn't even say that I am an ecologist, I wouldn't say that I'm an environmentalist, I wouldn't say I'm a permaculturist, I wouldn't say I'm a farmer. I would say I am a Muslim, because Islam kind of covers all of these things. I would say I am all of them and I am all of them because I am Muslim”.
4.1. Beliefs and Practices for a Transformative Islamic Ecology
In order to limit and structure my analysis I decided to focus on three main dimensions of religious practice which were discussed during the interviews; namely A) developing a spiritual connection to nature, B) recognizing a diversity of knowledges and learning as a requirement for a conscious stewardship, and C) practical activism, which my informants saw as a form of religious practice of serving God. These themes can be seen as corresponding to three commonly mentioned dimensions of Islam; spirituality, knowledge and physical submission, which in turn correspond to the human dimensions of 1) heart and soul, 2) mind and 3) body. Nezar described the different types of civil society activism he does in these terms: “We give information, so that is for the head, to put it like that, but when we walk in nature, that is also for the heart. And when people get used to organize their lives in that way it will all come together.”
The first dimension is the most personal, as it concerns spirituality and the personal connection to the divine. To the second dimension belongs that which requires using reason, aql, like recognizing that humans have been given a special morally and legally binding role on earth. Learning about God's message to humanity in combination with other knowledges is a requirement for the third dimension, which is the necessity to act upon the received knowledge. All informants stressed one of two of these dimensions more than others, but when I analyzed the interviews as a whole, the three dimensions emerged as equally important.
A. Developing a Spiritual Connection to Nature
A theme which emerged in most of the interviews was the importance of developing a personal relation to nature and creation through studying the signs Allah has put forth for humanity to contemplate over. Corresponding well to Özdemir's theories on the signs of nature, many of the informants saw a parallel between how they study the Quran and how they study the creation as signs from God (Özdemir 1998). As all of my informants have first-hand experience of some forms of agriculture, and they have spent a lot of time working the soil, studying how different plants and ecosystems function. Through contemplation and personally engaging with nature several informants claimed to have strengthened their connection to God and developed a more profound understanding of the vast diversity within the unity of all creation. Studying nature also helped them see creation as an abundant gift from God set out in a fragile balance, which humanity should try to understand, maintain and facilitate. For Hossam studying the Quran and Islam brought him closer to nature:
”It was only when I came to Islam that I realized the importance and beauty of the nature. However, I've always been a science geek, so I've always found the actual chemistry and science behind nature amazing. I've always been in awe of it. And for me, the closest thing to seeing God on this earth is nature. Because when I look at nature, when I am around nature, when I look at the complexity and the beauty of His creation, that is when I am closest to Him. Not when I am in the mosque [laughter]. Only when I am in the garden and when I see fruits and flowers and vegetables coming out of the ground, out of this dirt that we stand on.”
- Contemplating the Signs
Contemplation over the signs in the Quran in combination with the signs of nature can from a religious point of view be seen as a strife to reach a state of fitra and taqwa, which can be defined as a god-consciousness where one is aware of God and all his attributes. This strife I understand as a part of a constant personal struggle, jihad, in order to combat the natural human inclination to become alienated from one’s own nature, fitra, and the environment. Interestingly enough the first of twelve permaculture principles is called “observe and interact”, not at all that different from the Islamic concept of contemplation (Holmgren 2002, 9).
Khadija reverted to Islam shortly after starting to volunteer on farms. She calls working on the fields alone and weeding a kind of meditative practice which helped her on her journey to find God. Here Khadija talks about a “newborn state of mind” which could be understood as fitra:
”So I spent a lot of time outdoors on that farm, you know, planting and contemplating, and at the same time I was learning about Islam, so I was reading Quran. So I was really in this kind of newborn state of mind, where everything was new and I was newly discovering or rediscovering things in a much more pure kind of way. So, you know, I really connected to Allah, subḥānahu wa ta'āla, while I was out there. And that really helped me to come into Islam.”
Ahmed in Sweden was also explicit in stating that caring for the environment is something spiritual for him and that working in the outdoors is healing him. Nezar explained how his relationship to the environment was always connected to his faith: “From the very beginning there was a combination of religion and environment, because I experience nature and taking care of the earth as part of your spiritual development“. He also referred to Islamic sources, according to which mountains and non-organic matter also have life:
“In prophetic teaching everything has a life, has a spiritual life, even a rock has a life. So we should respect the whole of creation. From that consciousness everything starts“.
- Characteristics of Nature
How I understood my informants was that by contemplating over and studying nature one can try to understand the characteristics of nature and ecology and then internalize these. This way one can reach one's natural state of fitra, uniting with the rest of creation, which is not capable of the type of alienation humans experience. Some of the main characteristics of nature mentioned by the informants were interconnectedness, which I consider to be part of tawhid, diversity and the balance of this diversity, mizan. Many of these characteristics of nature are also corresponding to permaculture principles, such as “integrate rather than segregate” and “use and value diversity” (Holmgren 2002). References to the diversity of plants can also be found in the Quran (20:53 Yusuf Ali): "With it have We produced diverse pairs of plants each separate from the others.” In the Quran it is also mentioned that creation is abundant and full of useful blessings for humanity: “Eat and drink from the provision of Allah, and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption” (Quran 2:60 Yusuf Ali). Internalizing these values can help Muslims fulfill the role of being responsible caretakers of the Earth and then enjoy the great abundance of blessing that God has created.
Working the soil helps in understanding the diversity and interdependence of everything in nature according to Khadija:
”Some scholars say that being out in the desert and seeing the stars and the universe out in the desert is so awe inspiring because you feel so connected. All of a sudden you are like, 'wow, this is the vast universe that Allah, subḥānahu wa ta'āla, created' and I feel the same way about the earth, when you really connect to what's happening, how these plants are growing and how they are all so different and they all have their needs, but they all connect with like this net of mycelium underground and the soil is... You know we came from the soil, we were created from clay, we were created from the earth and our whole nutrition and basis of health comes from the soil so I think it is our responsibility, as Muslims to know that and to take care of our bodies.”
Here she also connects the belief in that human were created from soil to the fact that everything we eat is dependent on the soil and the nutrients in it. This is where the unity of creation becomes apparent and this is a concept more widely studied in Sufism. During the interviews many mentioned Sufi scholars, such as Hamza Yusuf, Habib Umar bin Hafiz and Jalal ad-Din Rumi, as being influential to the Islamic environmental movement. Sufism should not be understood as a separate sect in Islam, but as a philosophy relevant to most Islamic schools of thought.
According to David there is a connection between accepting the diversity of creation and simplifying your own life.
“It [Creation] is constantly evolving and we have to accept that and if we do accept that, then we are simplifying our lives and accepting an infinite and eternal path. [...] There is a point when you realize that you are quite comfortable with infinity, because there is an infinite set of evolutions that can happen when you facilitate creative events. You are only facilitating them, you are not creating them. Cause you're not the Creator.”
Khadija described how she understands that the role of being stewards means to respect the nature, but also “to cultivate it in such a way that it will become more, instead of less. And that it will also serve human kind in a sustainable way.” When I asked about the importance of biodiversity Ahmed explained that it was crucial in order for the balance not to be disturbed: ”Cultivating just monoculture and without biodiversity affects the natural balance. I believe in biodiversity in everything”.
For most of the informants it was clear that humanity has transgressed the natural balance set by God (Quran 55:7-8). Hossam said: ”And if you look now it is very clear that we have transgressed that balance, which is why we are having climate change and you know ice caps melting and hurricanes and the weather is getting worse.”
The second dimension of Islamic beliefs and practices which was discussed with all of my informants related to the concept of khalīfa or stewardship. Stewardship is one of the most commonly discussed topics when it comes to ecotheology both in Christianity and Islam, as mentioned earlier. However, the way my informants talked about stewardship differed a bit from most Islamic ecotheology on the theme. I found that some informants found the concept a bit problematic and preferred to talk about caring for the earth using different terms.
First of all Hossam emphasized that stewardship by definition means that you do not own and cannot use creation for your own interest only. He says that the role of stewards means have a responsibility to look after something which is not ours, as God is the ultimate owner of everything between heavens and earth according to the Quran.
“He [Allah] says 'to him belongs whatever is in the heavens and the earth and all obey his will. And it is he who originates creation'. And that implies that everything on earth, whether or not it has any use to mankind has a function, has a purpose, so we cannot destroy something that we find is not useful to us. Cause it is not ours.”
When I asked the others about the meaning or importance of khalīfa, some were reluctant to answer or answered indirectly. I think this reluctance had to do with their more ecocentric worldview and the concept of stewardship has, maybe especially in English, a very anthropocentric nuance to it. What appeared during my interviews was the need to put extra emphasis on how the khalīfa has to be accepted with a great humility, as humanity's knowledge about the world or how to manage it is never complete. This is how the discussion with David went:
- Me: Are we guardians, or?
- David: We are students.
- Me: Yes, there seems to be many risks with using this concept.
- David: Because you don't necessarily accept change.
Here David is probably referring to the twelfth permaculture principle “Creatively use and respond to change”, which teaches how change can be beneficial both in agriculture as well as societies and organizations (Holmgren 2002). Perhaps the concept stewardship is too often understood as a monotonous job which humanity has to do, instead of seeing it as processes of endless change and diversity.
Muslims believe humanity have been given a special role on this Earth because of their ability to learn and reason, aql. The first word revealed to the Prophet was iqra’ (Quran 96:1), read and accepting the message of Islam can be understood as a commitment to learning about how to act right and fulfill the role of stewardship on earth. The stewardship can also be seen as a legally binding contract between humanity and God, which humanity is accountable for on the Day of Judgment. Khadija retold story about Adam and what made his role on earth different:
“Adam was created on this Earth after everything else was created, after Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla, created everything else. He was then created and he was taught what every single one of those things were. I mean, we learn that in the Quran [2:30-33]. He was given the names to all living things. And why was he given those names? Because he has that responsibility of knowing something and you can't appreciate and respect something without knowing it, you know without identifying what it is. So I think that's where we have to learn about what is in our immediate environment.”
She further explained the problem of people not being able to identify even the most common trees in their environment: ”So if you don't know that it is an oak tree or you don't know it's a maple tree or you don't know it's a pine tree, how are you going to respect it and give it is due rights? Because in Islam we have to give creation its due rights”.
Hossam also emphasized the imperative of learning in Islam by referring to the first verses which were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (Quran 96:1-5):
“In the Quran, the very first command was what? Iqra’. And the word iqra’ doesn't mean ”read this”. [...] There is another word which means read this, but he doesn't say that. He says iqra’, which means read, in general. He has given us something called aql, which is reasoning, and we're supposed to go and find other sources of knowledge, not just the Quran. The only reason the Muslims were at the forefront of discoveries and science and poetry and literature during the golden age of Islam was because of this. The Muslims were translating Greek texts and you know the Greek religion was paganism and shirk in its highest form, yet we understood that these people regardless of their religion were educated people, so we translated their texts. It is promoted and advocated in Islam to go out and learn from other sources.”
So according to these statements what is required from humanity in order to fulfill the role of khalīfa is a commitment to learning and studying nature and all kinds of knowledges which could bring an increased understanding of nature and guidance to act right. Khadija related the alienation from nature and detached from our environment to how people are nowadays more like residents than inhabitants:
“And we are in such a move all the time in this world now. Before people grew up in one place and they stayed there. They may have traveled a bit, but they knew their landscape, they knew their environment and it is this concept of inhabitance, you inhabit that space, whereas now we are like residents. We are actually moving so much we don't know our watershed, we don't know what grows around us, we don't know how to grow anything.”
- Diversity of Knowledge
The commitment to learning and studying a wide variety of subjects in order to deepen the religious understanding of the environment and our role in it also necessitates a questioning of authorities, in whatever form they come; religious or secular. It is here that the relation to Islam as freedom plays in. Another way to express it could be that my informants expressed an intellectual courage in the way the hegemonic traditions were questioned, both when it came to environmental aspects as well as religious ones. Perhaps these traits of intellectual courage and rejection of sectarianism could also be something especially common among Muslim reverts and Western Muslims.
Nezar explained one reason for his reversion to Islam was the dislike of institutions in religion, such as the Church represented.
“So my search for knowledge on the environment and my search for knowledge on spirituality and religion were parallel and slowly but surely I got more attracted by Islam, because I was interested in, I say, a more meditative way of dealing with religion and at the same time I was very… Well, I didn’t feel comfortable with organizations, so that put me off when people are talking about the Church and things like that.”
Khadija also mentioned how she did not learn most of her religion, or deen, from Muslims but by just reading Quran and establishing a relationship with Allah while being outside in nature. Hossam grew up in a Muslim family in the UK, but he says it was not a religious environment. He mentions this aspect as something which benefited him in his understanding of ecology:
“But a few years back I came back to Islam... I came back and I kind of spent, most people they grow up in mosques and around other Muslims and I think it was kind of fortunate that I didn’t do that because this kind of thinking, thinking about the environment, thinking about the ecology as a whole, is not very prevalent amongst Muslims. And I kind of spent a year or two, kind of by myself learning about the deen and Islam and then when I looked at the society and I looked at Muslims I kind of found that there's a dichotomy between what Islam was teaching and what Muslims were practicing. And I think most people who are reverts to Islam find that as well.”
He then goes on to talk about his own generations of European Muslims, who he claims have rejected the traditional version of Islam and all kind of sectarianism in search for the true Islam by going back to the Quran and the sunnah and asking the question “what is this book actually really telling us to do”. He said:
“So you have a group of Muslims that have emerged, that are wanting to practice the true Islam, not the Islam of their parents or their forefathers, but go back to the real Islam and make Islam not just their religion, but their whole way of life. And through that they have also realized, and then combined with the environmental crises that we are having at the moment on earth, they kind of made the connections. They've connected the dots together and they found that in fact Islam is an almost, I hate to use the word hippie movement, (laughter) but the hippie movement is very close to it. And they found that the Prophet, ṣalla Allāhu ʿalay-hi wa-sallam, was an environmentalist or an ecologist himself.”
The informants again emphasized the importance of diversity, but this time concerning knowledges. The diversity in of all life can also be seen in the diversity of human communities and peoples, as mentioned in the Qur’anic verse: ”O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other” (49:13). Having a diverse ummah is also seen as a strength from an ecological point of view:
“Me: How important is it for you that in Islam you don't have to belong to any institution to be a Muslim? And that you are free to define your beliefs?
Nezar: I think it is important for the whole of the ummah, for its very survival and its credibility. So in that way... Actually you can compare it to agriculture. In modern industrial agriculture you have monocultures and those monocultures they make the agricultural system very vulnerable, very prone to diseases and things like that. Even with genetic engineering and things like that. When one disease pops up it can destroy a whole harvest. You can compare that to the Muslim ummah. When the ummah is diverse and when they celebrate it, that the ummah is diverse, it is better equipped to counter all challenges and threats. So even when people differ in opinion, differ in approach, that is something we should be very happy about.”
- End of Days and Ecological Collapse
For many of the informants Islam holds the answers for most contemporary crises. The ecological crisis is interpreted as mentioned in the Quran and a direct result the corruption which humanity has spread on earth: ”Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness]” (Quran 30:41 Sahih International). Hossam quotes this verse and then explains it like this:
“So what that means is that... there's a concept in Islam called fasaad, which is corruption, so if corruption is rife, there will be signs that the earth will give us because of what the hands of men have done. And these signs that we are getting, like the destruction of our soil, like the destruction of our food systems, animal welfare and climate change. These are signs so that we can reflect on them and find our way back to mizan.”
One topic which emerged especially in the interviews with Hossam and Farouq was the importance of eschatology, the religious teachings about end of days. The discourses on the ecological crisis and preparation for societal collapse share terminology, beliefs and suggested actions with Islamic eschatology. The ecological, economic, political and climate crisis are interpreted by many Muslims as a sign that we have entered or are entering the end of times. Understanding the Islamic eschatology requires knowledge about our current global processes and an understanding of the interdependence of all these processes. Because these topics are not promoted in most societies, finding the information is a counter hegemonic struggle in itself.
In order to prepare for the end of days, there are some suggested ways in which Muslims can minimize their role in the destruction of the earth, as well prepare themselves for the hard times lying ahead. This corresponds pretty well with what the permaculture and transition town movements are teaching. Farouq mentioned the hadith saying: "There will come a time when the best property of a Muslim will be sheep which he will take to the tops of mountains and the places of rainfall so as to flee with his religion from the afflictions” (al-Bukhari(b) 7088). When I asked him which the afflictions are he answered:
“Farouq: The destruction of the world, war, oppression, etc. Loss of morality, pollution, greed. Society has become perverted.
Me: So the destruction is kind of approaching and now it's time to pack and leave?
Farouq: No it's already happening all around us, look at the middle east, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, etc. Look at climate change, pollution, deforestation etc. Look at the instability of the financial system.”
Hossam mentioned the same hadith and added:
”And you kind of think ‘What, how will that happen?’. And it will probably be because we will have to start over, because this system in which we currently are living in is designed to crash. This crisis that we're.. this is not a crisis, this is a collapse. It has been designed to collapse.”
For Nezar Islam was also always linked to the global issues and not just the standard “talk about adaab (manners) and sharia” as he expressed it. He wanted to relate Islam in a deeper way to what he learned in academia and “the bigger issues, both personal and also global”. Khadija expressed frustration over that the environmental issues seemed to appeal mostly to revert Muslims. She said the immigrant community in her town is just not as interested. Omar, who has been living most of his life in Egypt tried to explain why the kind of discourse which works in the West might not have the same effect in less developed countries:
“whenever someone wants to spread permaculture, whether when it started 40 years ago in Australia or now, he hammers on the same concepts that Bill Mollison has started, which is ‘We are saving ourselves from disaster’ and also the transition cities movement ‘We are protecting ourselves, so whenever the crisis happen, we'll be safe.’ And actually it never happened. And they predicted that it will happen so long ago and it didn’t happen at the time when they predicted.”
Omar thinks most people in Arab countries are less interested in preparing for crises, as they usually do not make long-term plans and instead deal with the crises when they occur. In the interviews with my informants there appeared to be a difference of opinion or approach between Western ideas of creating change and the everyday realities in which a big part of the world’s Muslims live. Connecting the dots and criticizing the current ecology of the world systems is still a privilege of some sort. I will come back to this discussion in the section on challenges of a movement of transformative Islamic ecology.
The third dimension which I focus on relates to how activism and staging the change was seen as a relevant part of the informants' understanding of Islam. After gaining spiritual wisdom by studying the signs in the Quran and nature and having studied all forms of knowledges which the stewardship requires, a Muslim is then required to act upon the gained knowledge. Nezar mentioned the necessity for Muslims to act according to their knowledge in relation to the environmental classes he gives:
“Nezar: Sometimes I also say, when we have a lecture, that actually giving them all that environmental knowledge is very mean to do, because they will be reckoned on the day of judgment based on their knowledge, so if their knowledge is increased, their responsibilities increase also.
Me: But then you have fulfilled some of your responsibilities, which is spreading information.
Nezar: That's true. [laughter]”
Some informants stressed the necessity to start the change from within and by being an example yourself. When I asked Ahmed about how he understands khalīfa and if he finds it important, he answered that the starting point of khalīfa is to spread good, love and peace around you, both with regards to the environment and people. Only by feeling at peace inside can your actions become a reflection of the inner peace. Nezar also stressed that the change starts from within: “We approach it (environmental education) in, what you can call, a holistic way, so you cannot change your manners when you don't change your inner self. And the other way around also. So we consider that an Islamic concept”. Ahmed believes big changes can happen if individuals change themselves and become examples which others will want to follow. Setting an example is more effective than talking and teaching: “You know, if I do something in front of you and you see it. That can affect you.”
What are then the practical ways of staging change which my informants believe are inherently a part of their faith? How can the systems be made more Islamic? How are Muslims supposed to live in a corrupted world? Establishing permaculture demonstration sites is one way to stage change and starting an interest-free currency could be another. Emigration away from the current societies and their systems, hijra, offers Muslims another possible way to liberate themselves from the existing systems and build a society on their own terms and with their own values.
- Creating Halal and Tayyib Food Systems and Economies
There are many aspects of Islam which can be seen to encourage the establishment of permaculture practices and a sustainable food system based on organic local agriculture. According to my informants Allah has commanded people to eat the food that is halal, permissible, and tayyib, which means it is wholesome, healthy and nutritious. This has many implications for how Muslims live in societies where the food system is not based on these principles. Some of my informants argued that the best way for Muslims to make their food system halal and tayyib is by becoming completely self-sustaining on organically produced food and meat. Khadija thought striving for self-sufficiency should be a goal for Muslim communities everywhere:
“I think one of the first things is for Muslim communities, whether that's a Muslim country or a small community within a country, but to become more self-sufficient. And to be able to, again looking at those closed loops, be able to provide everything you need for that community right there. And it can be done. We have seen these amazing projects in the desert, like the greening the desert projects, where this can be done.”
Khadija was stressing the importance of eating healthy food. She hoped for broader discussions in society on which foods can be considered good and pure and how Muslims should relate to genetically modified foods etc. Meat production is another topic which was discussed with many, as it demonstrates how the Islamic concepts, such as halal slaughter, can evolve to mean something completely different than the original meaning. Khadija explained that ”Halal is more than just bismillah and cutting the throat. Halal is how it is raised, and what it is raised on and where it is raised.”
Nezar has personally been active in advocating for Muslim and Jewish communities right to continue ritual slaughter in the Netherlands. For him the concept of producing meat in Islam is a solution to the large scale, industrial, efficient and money driven system of producing meat in the West. Even though Nezar in his activism often cooperates with non-religious environmental organizations, in this particular case he thought that the advocates of the environment and animal welfare were cooperating with bioindustries: “It was obvious for us to see that the mechanic way of slaughtering was just to increase productivity and not meant for a better animal welfare.”
As mentioned in the hadith earlier, production animals will also be the most valuable a Muslim can own when the end of times arrive. Cultivating the land was also seen as an activity which needs to go on until the end of times. Many quoted the hadith stating: “If you have a sapling, if you have the time, be certain to plant it, even if Doomsday starts to break forth.” (al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir, iii, 30. as quoted in Özdemir 1998). About the end of times David said:
”You can plant a tree or plant as many as you can. That is what we are told to do. If you think you are going to die today, then one of the good things you can do is plant a tree. And you get extra credits for those trees that perform functions for any other living thing.”
Nezar also emphasised how to act based on hope even if end of times are approaching:
“But as a geographer I always say there are differences in the level of analysis. So there's the personal level, and the societal and global level. So on a global level we can say there are prophecies saying that at the end of times people are living in big cities and the rest is desert. But that doesn't mean that we need to be passive, because at the same time we need to deal with our own day of judgment. That way we always must show that we have acted based on hope and not based on despair. And that actually everything is in the hands of Allah, subḥānahu wa ta'āla.”
Hossam believes Muslims should respond to the current social and ecological crises by follow the examples of Prophet Muhammad, Prophet Lut, and Prophet Ibrahim who all made hijra, emigrated, from a corrupt society to start anew in a better place. Some Muslims also believe they should leave corrupt societies and construct ecovillages, intentional communities or Muslim villages. The concept of Muslim village has been developed and explained by the scholar Imran N. Hosein, whose teachings Hossam follows and recommend:
“We're living in a Godless society, so he [Imran Hosein] says that it is time for us to now, for Muslims to preserve our faith and to establish Islam, because you cannot practice Islam in its entirety unless you have the Islamic system.“
Just like a food system based on other principles than the halal and tayyib causes humans to sin by harming themselves as well as the nature and animals involved, the interest based economy causes a similar negative loop. Hossam explained how “(e)very single pound, all currency currently, is created based on usury and we can't escape it”. Riba is the word used for usury or interest in Islamic terms and it is considered a big sin. This notion makes every exchange made with these interest based currencies a sinful act which should be avoided. In order for Muslims to avoid riba they will need to create their own interest free currencies. Hossam explains:
”The ultimate goal of the Muslim village would be to have complete self-sufficiency and to not trade with money. So the money that we are going to be using is going to revert back to the dirham and the dinar, gold and silver.”
Focusing on the concept of hijra does not necessarily mean that one has to leave society completely. A website, which Hossam has established with a friend, is directed to Muslims who want to perform hijra, but it also invites “people who maybe don’t want to leave the city or maybe are not ready to do that, but still want to practice a level of self-sufficiency in their house.” Also Khadija emphasized that pulling yourself out of the corrupted systems does not mean you have to join a cult:
“It is really clear that this is the best way for us to live and it is the best way for us to connect to our Lord, you know, it is by living in this kind of way and to pull ourselves out of this materialistic... I mean not completely, you know, not so that we are some weird cult and we're going off the grid. But you know small measures, small things at a time.”
As most of the informants were involved in permaculture, the relationship between permaculture and Islam was widely discussed. When I asked why so many activists link permaculture to Islam, Omar explained that the connection is quite strong, as permaculture teaches us how to go back and live according to nature and Islam is about the natural way of living. Permaculture fits quite well into Islam according to Farouq: “Permaculture is about designing your life and the things around you to support your needs. It fits with Islam as a lifestyle choice - way of living - and it also fits ethically with Islamic values” David further explained how permaculture ethics link to Islamic ethics:
“If you care for the environment you also care for the people. And by caring for the people you care for the environment. And the third ethic is the return of surplus, which is like a zakah, which is accepted in the Islamic world. You return your surplus back to the caring for the people and the caring for the environment.”
Omar also considered the life of Prophet Muhammad and his companions as a perfect model of permaculture. David said the community of Prophet Muhammad in Medina was “more or less like the first ecovillage in the way it operated”. David explained the relation between Islam as a religion and permaculture design this way:
”Permaculture fits into Islam as it does in much religions, if not all religions. The religions themselves don't fit into permaculture. So, Islam doesn't fit into permaculture, but permaculture fits into Islam, very easily. [...] Because permaculture is separate, it is a science, a design science, an ethical design science, but it is not a belief system. You don’t have to believe in permaculture, permaculture is provable. You can measure it.”
Practicing permaculture, creating a self-sufficient food system, an interest-free economy or performing hijra to a Muslim ecovillage are not only seen as ways to avoid harming nature and contributing to corruption, but also as a way to eat and live more healthy and more in accordance with Islamic principles. Living in a clean environment is also something which can bring you closer to God. Like Hossam stated earlier it is in the nature he connects to his God and Khadija also said that “we need to be in an environment that makes us want to pray”. Without this third dimension on establishing new practices, the spiritual dimension which requires physically connecting to nature, becomes much harder to realize. The dimensions of spirituality and the third dimension of staging change are thus codependent and become part of the same development.
Ahmed who has been working as an agricultural inspector visiting both conventional and ecological farms thinks there is a difference in the general atmosphere, that people are less stressed on organic farms and that there is general feeling of harmony on them: ”Having a lifestyle as an organic farmer is reflected in the character and to the surrounding. So social aspects are a part of it. It is not only the environment.”
4.2. Visioning a movement of Transformative Islamic Ecology
Most of the informants recognized that in the future there is a need for work on many levels. Like the analysis of the beliefs and practices relevant for a transformative Islamic ecology is divided into three main dimensions, possibilities of building a social movement for a transformative Islamic ecology can also be divided into these three dimensions: 1) spiritually connecting to nature, 2) combining a variety of knowledges, developing ecotheology and Islamic environmental legislation for a holistic environmental education in mosques and madrasas, and 3) practically developing and building sustainable alternative systems such as ecovillages and permaculture demonstration sites. The different methods of change proposed by my informants are gathered in table 3.
These dimensions are not to be seen as separate, but they are all mutually reinforcing each other and one without the other does not lead to a transformative Islamic ecology. These dimensions also correspond to the different methods shared by large parts of the environmental movement, so a wide cooperation between both religious and non-religious initiatives is possible and this aspect all my informants also recognized as important. Hossam said:
“I think there's a huge potential [for the movement to grow] because it is not something that has spurn from our own ideas. It is very much prevalent in the Quran and in the sunnah. It is just a forgotten part of Islam and to revive that has been made easier because of the amount of reference to it in the Quran and in the sunnah. So to wake up the people to the importance of it, it is difficult, because it is not widely taught, but it has been made easier because of the references to it in the Quran.”
Many of the informants work in various cooperation with Islamic scholars and community leaders with an interest in the environment. Some of the scholars belong to a so called “traditional” school of Islamic scholarship, such as Habib Umar in Yemen, have also embraced permaculture as an Islamic way to meet the current challenges and has invited people to teach permaculture design courses in Dar al-Mustafa, the renowned Islamic school in Tarim which he has established. None of the interviewees saw their work as resistance to Islamic scholarly authorities, but more as a struggle to build alliances with them, as their influence on Muslims was recognized as vital for the movement to spread on a larger scale.
Khadija expressed a will to see more examples of how this change can be realized in practice. She mentions the project “Greening the Desert” in Jordan as a perfect model of permaculture in a dry area and continues by talking about the potentials of permaculture in Tarim:
“I think maybe Tarim is a better example once they really build that out, you know that's a spiritual center where a lot of people go and that has a lot of potential for exposing a lot of people to something that most likely is brand new to them, you know, permaculture and what this looks like and how to live in a community that is dependent on Allah’s bounty, completely dependent on what Allah provides and not what somebody else is processing and manufacturing and sending to you.”
Nezar even stated that if majority of Islamic scholars start supporting permaculture, then all Muslims would eventually have to accept it:
”Well Hamza Yusuf and people like that in California are very strong supporters (of the union between Islam and permaculture), as they can see all the links. And once you point it out to Islamic people, and it is rather obvious, then it has to be accepted.”
For young Muslims in the West Hossam thinks the movement is attractive because of the alternative it provides in a time of crises:
“I think another reason is also that Islam provides an alternative way of life at a time where we have the peak oil crises, we have climate change, the economy is crashing. A time when people are seeking an alternative way, a different way, Muslims, specifically these Muslims (young Muslims in the West), are finding that, Islam is actually answering all of these issues that we have currently on earth and they find that it is providing a solution which is why they are so vocal and active about it.”
Omar, again talking from the perspective of the big majority of Muslims in the developing world, was of the opinion that what really makes a difference is teaching people practical skills, instead of trying to change their whole mindset: "If you tell a farmer that you have to be good to the environment and so on, but you don’t give him the practical skills how to do so, so it is not very effective." So spreading the skills and practices which automatically makes you good to the environment, even without knowing, is the way he believes change can happen.
Table 3: Proposed ways to create change
- Contemplating on nature
- Gardening or working in agriculture
- Activities in nature
Educational and knowledge dimension
- Involving more Islamic scholars and imams
- Teaching in madrasas and Islamic schools
- Using diverse knowledges, scientific and traditional
- Online networking and sharing resources
Practical activism and staging change
- Establishing Muslim ecovillages
- Urban farming
- Becoming self-sufficient
- Creating interest-free currencies
- “Heroic activism” (Greenpeace style)
One of the challenges is how to spread permaculture widely, when people are still dependent on national currencies in order to survive living in their societies. It was especially Ahmed and Farouq who emphasized this, as their projects in Egypt and Ethiopia face the harsh realities. There is a need to present poor people with an economically realistic alternative for our current world. Ahmed said: “If I think about Egypt and this project that I told you, that I want to change the agricultural system in Egypt. When I was in Egypt I could feel it will not be easy. And I feel like ´How am I going to succeed with this?´ People they want money, they want to survive.” Farouq has been working with permaculture projects in Ethiopia for seven years. He is now moving on from the first site to a new project in another area. He claims that a demonstration site will never be successful if it is not economically sustainable:
“Originally I was idealistic. I wanted to establish a movement in the local people. However a westerner may not understand their needs and thinking so easily. Now I am seeking to establish a strong financial base in this new project. People in Ethiopia want money. [...] With strong independent financial base we hope to work to protect environment and culture of the people in our area. Ethiopia has amazing ecological resources, but people are too poor to consider their worth... saving ecology has to be shown to be profitable.”
He now wants to work with permaculture models, which could be both sustainable and profitable. He says Ethiopia needs a way to use its environmental resources to promote development without destroying them and critiques parts of the permaculture movement as being post-industrial movement of middle class westerners who wants to "go back to the land", which suits only a certain society and a certain situation.
The bulk of discussions on the future of the movement were however fairly positive. Nezar said he wished that Muslims would become more heroic and do the kind of activism Greenpeace does. Most of my informants expressed a great enthusiasm over the possibilities for a social movement combining Islamic environmentalism with permaculture and similar ecological movements. Khadija said: “I really think Muslims could be at the lead of this, you know. There are other religious groups that are trying to do this, but not on a large scale, so I'd love to see... You know, I just think we can do so much more.” David had no doubt about how the movement of permaculture and Islam will eventually change the world:
“It can't do anything but change the world. [...] I just think that it is something that we shouldn't doubt. That it is not only possible but also endlessly expandable. And right at this point in history we have no real way of understanding how far it can go and how abundant the world can be, from its present position to what the potential is.”
As all of my informants have first-hand experience of agroecology or permaculture, they have spent a lot of time working the soil, studying how different plants and ecosystems function. By spending a significant amount of time studying these signs of creation, my informants have gained different types of knowledges and other perspectives than the ecotheologians focusing mostly on the traditional Islamic textual sources, without themselves engaging in the environment with that level of intensity.
Looking back at my first research question “How do Muslims working for sustainable agriculture or permaculture relate Islamic beliefs and practices to their environmental engagement and activism?”, I can say that for most of my informants the links between their Islamic beliefs and work were so many and so strong, that it would be quite impossible to separate specific beliefs and practices, as they all are interconnected. David mentioned that people's discipline can be of a big advantage for the movement and even that can be considered something Islamic, so there is no end to the possibilities of positive links between Islam and advancing sustainable agriculture and sustainable societies. In order to analyze the mentioned beliefs and practices I divided them into three codependent dimensions of religion, which I illustrated in the diagram 1.
In the diagram I summarized the main findings and show how the different beliefs and practices can be organized into three interconnected spheres which together can create a field of transformative Islamic ecology. If one of the dimensions is missing the result will be something different than the transformative Islamic ecology my research is focused on. If e.g. the dimension of ”staging change and establishing new practices” is missing the spheres of spirituality and knowledges will not create any change in physical realities. Because there would be no physical change also the spheres of spirituality and knowledges would weaken by time, as the practical sphere reinforce both of these spheres. Khadija mentioned earlier that Muslims should create and reside in environments that ”makes us want to pray” and Muhammad talked about the positive energy and peace which he sensed on organic farms. Creating those spaces and communities which allows for spirituality and diverse learning is what seemed to be imperative for a transformative Islamic ecology.
Diagram 1: Three dimensions of transformative Islamic ecology
In case the spiritual dimension was missing, the activism could very well go astray, as it would mean action and knowledge without including the heart and the personal attachment to nature. In the worst case it could end up as the type of ”rationalism” Plumwood (2002) has criticized or action based on the secularist sciences, which Nasr warned against (1996). Khadija’s reasoning around the difference of being a resident or inhabitant of your area also connects to this point. Inhabiting indicates a more emotional attachment to the area than residing, which could mean activities in your immediate surrounding are more spiritually rooted than activities in an unfamiliar environment.
Many risks can also be associated with the case of practical activism which is guided by spirituality and emotion, but lacking the proper or suitable knowledge. Anderson (1996) was warning against this type of religious environmental activism and in all of my interviews knowledge as a necessity for action was apparent. The current corruption of our ecological systems was understood as being mostly a result of the lack of diverse, interconnected and holistic knowledges on Islam, ecology, economy as well as practical skills. A critique of going with the flow, following the normative or hegemonic knowledges in both religion and ecology, was also present in all interviews.
My second research question concerned the future of a social movement of transformative Islamic ecology. Throughout the discussions plenty of critical questions were raised in relation to who the movement is for and how to make the movement spread among farmers in poorer Muslim countries. Although this movement is a counter hegemony movement in many ways, it also has to be said that it is currently led mostly by Muslims in a privileged position. Being in a privileged position of course has plenty advantages, such as possibilities to network with organizations, institutions and leaders, as well as financially sponsor projects and courses for less privileged people. However, in order for the movement to spread widely and make an impact on people’s lives, and this was mentioned by many of my informants, there is a need to get even the illiterate farmers in the countryside in the developing world involved and engaged in the movement. There also seemed to be a concern that the type of beliefs which influence western people might not have the same relevance for a person from a different background or living under different circumstances.
What became very apparent is that according to my informants Islam is a religion of spirituality, learning and actions and the way Muslims approach the environment should ideally happen on all these levels. The results of my study are a reflection on Islamic ecotheology by informants who actively promote these teachings in their lives and combine this knowledge with their knowledge on modern scientific ecology. Among these activist working with Islam and ecology in practice there seemed to be a slightly different focus on topics considered central to Islamic ecotheology, such as the definition of stewardship.
My informants came with ideas of how the complexity of nature could be understood, internalized, accepted as well as facilitated by Muslims and when this is done correctly the natural balance, which is mentioned in the Quran, will demonstrate its abundance. Keeping the balance from the perspective of my informants is understood as so complex that humans can only try to understand it and here the imperative to search for knowledge comes in. A requirement to fulfill the role of stewardship was a commitment to lifelong learning and also studying sources which contradict the current normative and hegemonic knowledges. Stewardship was seen as a task which should be accepted with a great the humility and it should start with knowing yourself and then getting to know all aspects of the world and the interconnected spheres of Islam, ecology, economy and agriculture.
A Muslim with knowledge was also seen as obliged to act upon the knowledge by trying to liberate themselves from the corrupted systems of consumption and economy and instead establish new systems, e.g. in the form of ecovillages based on Islamic principles. Establishing systems of sustainable agriculture and permaculture was also considered a way to get closer to God spiritually and a way to ensure that the food consumed is truly both halal, permissible and tayyib, wholesome.
The informants expressed some enthusiasm over the possibilities for a social movement of transformative Islamic ecology and that it even could eventually change the world. This article and the activists I interviewed are not enough to guarantee that will happen, so I call out for more studies, more teaching, more conferences, more knowledge sharing, more sponsoring, and more physical work in the field.
* 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.
 The phrase can be translated as ”the most glorified, the most high”.
 God’s peace and blessings upon him.
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