Austin Bodetti

Environmentalism and Islamic Ecotheology


As climate change threatens much of the Middle East, Muslim academics from Bahrain to Turkey have begun to advocate for a unique solution: looking to Islam itself. Muslim proponents of ecotheology argue that, because the Quran emphasizes the importance of environmental protection, Muslims have an obligation to defend the natural environment. This little-known but fast-expanding school of thought can bring the Environmental Revolution to the Middle East and fight global warming.

While many academics, analysts, and pundits like to frame Islamism as a political movement, the ideology lies at the heart of another, apolitical trend in the Greater Middle East. An ever-growing number of Middle Eastern academics argue that Islam can inspire the environmental movement, citing a range of verses from the Quran suggesting that Muslims have a religious obligation to defend the natural environment. As climate change envelops every corner of the Muslim world, the potential importance of this developing school of thought is growing.

“In Islam, the environment is sacred and has an intrinsic value.”

Proponents of ecotheology, the study of a religion’s calls for environmental protection, transcend the Middle East’s geographic and theological boundaries. In Iran, Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, founding director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies, has observed, “In Islam, the environment is sacred and has an intrinsic value.” 

In Palestine, meanwhile, Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway at Quds University has said, “Theologically, there are signifiers in the universe and in the environment, and by taking care of these signifiers we are really doing the right thing in terms of our relationship with God.” 

However esoteric these thoughts may seem, few philosophies have appealed to Iranian Shias and Palestinian Sunnis alike. Given that global warming threatens the entirety of the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, ecotheology offers a unique, all too rare opportunity to unite Muslims across the political spectrum against climate change.

One verse of the Quran indicates how Islam might jump-start the Environmental Revolution in the Middle East.

One verse of the Quran, emblazoned on the website of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science, indicates how Islam might jump-start the Environmental Revolution in the Middle East: “Corruption has appeared on land and sea caused by the hands of people so that they may taste the consequences of their actions and turn back.” 


Advocates of ecotheology point to this verse in particular as evidence that Muslims, the guardians of what the Quran describes as God’s creation, have a duty to the natural environment lest they want to confront the ever more apparent perils of environmental degradation. While the social movement behind ecotheology remains small, its supporters are working to spread their message far and wide.

The most prominent ambassadors of ecotheology include Dr. İbrahim Özdemir, one of Turkey’s best-regarded environmentalists and the founding president of Hasan Kalyoncu University, and Dr. Odeh Rashid al-Jayyousi, a Palestinian-born, Manama-based environmentalist who chairs the Innovation and Technology Management Department at Arabian Gulf University. 

Özdemir, who contributed to drafting the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change in Istanbul in 2015, has emphasized the “need to empower Muslim scholars and imams to understand contemporary science on the natural environment and facilitate dialogue.” 

“civil society activism in the Muslim world should support and nurture a green way of life in line with the Islamic worldview,” which he has called “one form of jihad to ensure balance and harmony between humans and nature.”

Al-Jayyousi leveraged a job on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel at the United Nations to urge the international community to create an Islamic financial endowment geared toward sustainable development in the Muslim world. According to al-Jayyousi, “civil society activism in the Muslim world should support and nurture a green way of life in line with the Islamic worldview,” which he has called “one form of jihad to ensure balance and harmony between humans and nature.”

Several spots in the Muslim world have proved receptive to al-Jayyousi and Özdemir’s ideas. In Morocco, mosques are training imams to find inspiration for the environmental movement in the Quran. As far from the Middle East as Indonesia—the most successful example of ecotheology in practice—officials are collaborating with religious organizations to fight plastic pollution, and a number of gurus have founded schools dedicated to ecotheology. Indonesian clerics even got a few headlines by announcing a fatwa forbidding wildlife trafficking, the first of its kind. Other countries, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have indicated that they are joining this trend by hosting conferences and starting research institutes focused on ecotheology.

In a startling development, even militants best known for their hostility to progressive ideals are preaching ecotheology. In 2017, Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada asked Afghans to “plant one or several fruit or non-fruit trees for the beautification of Earth and the benefit of almighty God’s creations,” a bizarre request from insurgents who have otherwise done more to harm the natural environment than beautify it. 

In 2018, clerics affiliated with al-Shabaab banned plastic bags in a move that provoked widespread derision on social media. Though the Taliban and al-Shabaab’s odd pronouncements will likely do more to hurt ecotheology than advance it in the long run, the militants’ receptiveness to the philosophy’s tenets furthers the argument that its ideals can bridge even the widest ideological divides in the Greater Middle East.

Amid climate change and environmental degradation’s stranglehold on the Global South and the deserts of the Muslim world in particular, the region needs unity now more than ever. Of the ten countries considered most at risk from water scarcity by the World Resources Institute, nine fall within North Africa or Western Asia. Many countries in the Greater Middle East, from Pakistan to Yemen, may exhaust their water supply within the next decade, and global warming has only exacerbated these environmental issues. To face this challenge, the Muslim world, like the rest of the world, will have to reexamine its role in climate change and retool environmental policies at every level. Ecotheology can accelerate and inform this urgent introspection.

As ecotheology has established footholds in Bahrain, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE, this social movement would likely have little difficulty gaining traction in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Muslim world’s other centers of gravity if supported by local leaders. In fact, Pakistani and Saudi officials have already expressed interest in devising an Islamic approach to environmentalism. The works of scholars such as Abu Sway, al-Jayyousi, Özdemir, and Shomali are providing the Muslim world’s leaders a chance to realize their eco-friendly goals.

The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, a landmark document based on the ideas of Muslims from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America and the high-water mark of ecotheology in the Muslim world, urges “all Muslims, wherever they may be, to tackle the root causes of climate change.”

The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, a landmark document based on the ideas of Muslims from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America and the high-water mark of ecotheology in the Muslim world, urges “all Muslims, wherever they may be, to tackle the root causes of climate change, environmental degradation, and the loss of biodiversity, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who was, in the words of the Quran, ‘a mercy to all beings.’ ” 

Today, followers of ecotheology are echoing these words in an ever-expanding list of countries because, as global warming overwhelms the Muslim world, they might have a solution.

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in the Greater Middle East. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Morocco, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Austin graduated summa cum laude from Boston College with a bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies in 2018. 

This piece was originally published on Inside Arabia on September 7, 2019.

FORESTS AND FATWAS: Islam, Terrorism, and Environmental Jihad


The Islamic world is currently engaged in a debate over climate change: not about whether it’s happening, but about whether militants or reformists are best equipped to stop it.

As climate change threatens countries from Malaysia to Mauritania, environmentalists across the Muslim world are wrestling with how to respond. A growing number are looking to Islam itself for an answer to what is now being called a “climate crisis.” Some of the region’s activists and intellectuals have argued that Muslims, the stewards of what the Quran defines as God’s creation, have a responsibility to care for the Earth and promote environmental protection. And given that Indonesians and Iranians alike have embraced this idea, the concept of a religious obligation to the natural environment appears to transcend Islam’s geographic and theological divides. 

Even Muslim militants are talking about environmentalism.

In Somalia and Afghanistan, longtime allies of al-Qaeda have begun to portray environmental conservation as an Islamic duty. Militants in Iraq and Yemen are taking steps toward copying this model, a sign that—at least in the Greater Middle East—environmentalism is far from the exclusive domain of progressives. Whether out of sincere theological conviction or just for the sake of their propaganda, several American-designated terrorist groups are trying to co-opt the environmental movement by aping the message of their traditional adversaries in the Muslim world: Western-friendly Muslim philosophers and scholars.

If Muslim proponents of eco-theology, the fast-spreading belief that religious texts can inform an approach to environmental protection, want to stop militants from polluting a philosophy that has potential to become a social movement, eco-theologians must refrain from making the mistake of ignoring them. Though al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) have failed to influence even the margins of political theory in the Muslim world, both umbrella organizations have proved adept at exploiting social issues that divide religious communities and encourage sectarian strife. Only the handful of Muslim intellectuals pioneering an eco-friendly interpretation of Islam can reverse what some militants are trying to turn into an extra-regional trend.

Like Muslim eco-theologians, the Taliban and al-Shabaab assert that Islam tasks humans with protecting the natural environment from all manner of threats, including humans themselves. The Quran has become the most reliable resource for Muslim environmentalists across the political spectrum, who cite a variety of Quranic verses about the importance of environmental protection. “Corruption has appeared on land and sea caused by the hands of people so that they may taste the consequences of their actions and turn back,” recites the website of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science (IFEES), a British non-profit that has held workshops in Indonesia, Nigeria, and Zanzibar and published a pamphlet highlighting “the ethical foundations of Islamic environmentalism.” Muslim environmentalists interpret that Quranic quotation as an ancient but timeless warning against soil contamination and water pollution.

While IFEES operates out of London, one of Europe’s many secularist bastions, the ideas behind eco-theology have proved popular in even the most conservative corners of the Muslim world. Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, founding director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies in Qom, began his 2008 article “Aspects of Environmental Ethics: An Islamic Perspective” with a quotation from the Muslim prophet Mohammad: “If Resurrection is starting and one of you has a sapling in his hand that he can plant before he stands up, he must do so.” In the article, Shomali noted how “in Islam, the environment is sacred and has an intrinsic value,” adding that “as the vicegerent of God, [Muslims] have to channel the mercy of God to everything within [their] reach.” An idea championed by Muslims in the liberal democracy of Britain has a following in the Shi‘a theocracy of Iran. Across the Persian Gulf in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which adhere to a traditional interpretation of Sunni Islam often hostile to Shi‘a practices, officials have hosted conferences and research institutes dedicated to studying the intersection of ecology and Islam. Eco-theology has managed to appeal to Islamic schools of thought across the world.

Eco-theology’s distinguished Muslim voices include Dr. Odeh Rashid al-Jayyousi, chairman of the Innovation and Technology Management Department at Arabian Gulf University and author of Islam and Sustainable Development, and Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor emeritus of religious studies at the George Washington University. An outspoken member of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel at the United Nations, al-Jayyousi has pressed Muslims to reframe jihad as a struggle against climate change and urged the international community to establish an Islamic financial endowment dedicated to sustainable development. Nasr, who started writing about Islam and environmentalism in the 1960s, has lamented Muslim clerics’ failure to take a greater role in the environmental movement. Dr. Akhtar Mahmood at Panjab University in India, Dr. Md Saidul Islam at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway at Quds University in Palestine echo these sentiments in their writings.

Muslim eco-theologians found their most conspicuous platform in 2015, when supporters of an Islamic commitment to the natural environment traveled from countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America to Istanbul to release the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. The landmark document sought to reinforce the message that, because “Islamic environmentalism is embedded in the matrix of Islamic teachings,” Muslims must fight on the front lines of the war against climate change. Dr. İbrahim Özdemir, founding president of Hasan Kalyoncu University and a contributor to the document, has stressed Islam’s potential place in environmental policy: “Muslim countries must use the Islamic perspective in environmental protection and sustainable development, taking into consideration religious texts and the practices of Islamic heritage.”

No country embodies Özdemir’s ideal better than Indonesia, where activists, clerics, and officials have led grassroots and top-down efforts to incorporate Islam into the environmental movement. Indonesian environmentalists have launched several madrasas that focus on environmentalism as one of Islam’s foremost principles, and the Indonesian government has partnered with two of the country’s most influential religious organizations to campaign against plastic pollution. For its part, the Indonesian Ulema Council, Indonesia’s top faith-based organization and a government agency, issued the world’s first fatwa against wildlife trafficking in 2014.

Thousands of miles away from Indonesia, the Taliban and al-Shabaab have announced their own bids to combat environmental issues. Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s latest leader, called on Afghans to “plant one or several fruit or non-fruit trees for the beautification of Earth and the benefit of almighty God’s creations” in 2017. Just a year later, clerics tied to al-Shabaab outlawed plastic bags as “a threat to the health of humans and livestock.” Though experts on the Taliban and al-Shabaab debate the sincerity of these edicts, the pronouncements imply that some insurgents have adopted the methods of eco-theologians. The Taliban’s and al-Shabaab’s rhetoric also fits the wider pattern of militants taking advantage of environmental issues.

In the most obvious example of a Western-labeled terrorist group benefiting from environmental degradation, ISIS recruited Iraqis in rural areas by blaming the beleaguered central government of Iraq for water scarcity. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), often considered the most dangerous franchise of the umbrella organization that Osama bin Laden founded, attempted to improve its poor reputation in Yemen’s hinterland by refurbishing some of the drought-plagued country’s water mains and wells. Even bin Laden himself demonstrated a bizarre fascination with environmental issues, at one point recommending that Americans undertake “a great revolution for freedom” to bolster Barack Obama’s campaign against environmental degradation and global warming. Unlike the Taliban and al-Shabaab, ISIS, AQAP, and bin Laden never seemed to link these actions to the tenets of eco-theology or any other overarching religious themes. How long that divergence between al-Qaeda’s allies and offshoots will persist remains another story.

Anti-Western militants expressing support for the environmental movement and trying to rebrand themselves with an eco-friendly image may seem entertaining. Even so, this phenomenon could create further challenges for Muslim eco-theologians already struggling to spread their message beyond academia. If the concept of an Islamic approach to environmentalism becomes associated with the reactionary ideologues of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, not the liberal activists and scholars who have dedicated their careers to devising an Islamic interpretation of environmentalism, the Muslim and Western worlds will prove that much more reluctant to embrace eco-theology.

Nothing suggests that the Taliban and al-Shabaab got inspiration for their nascent environmental policies from mainstream eco-theologians, nor have leading Muslim advocates of eco-theology responded to extremists’ attempts to frame banning plastic bags and planting trees as an Islamic obligation. In fact, neither side of the extraordinary political spectrum that spans eco-theology in the Muslim world—from Somali guerrillas to eco-friendly philosophers—seems to have acknowledged the other’s existence. This appears all the more striking in light of the widespread, well-publicized ridicule that has greeted the Taliban’s call for reforestation and al-Shabaab’s ban on plastic pollution over the past two years. While a staffer at the Daily Caller took a moment to lampoon the Somali militants’ strange announcement as “giving them at least one thing in common with U.S. states California and Hawaii,” eco-theologians missed a chance to denounce al-Shabaab’s half-baked attempt at environmentalism and distinguish the innovative field of eco-theology from the insurgents’ ultraconservative interpretation of Islam.

Eco-theology has the potential to revolutionize how the Muslim world confronts global warming. Given that summer temperatures are predicted to rise twice as fast in North Africa and Western Asia as in the rest of the world—and that, according to scientists, “prolonged heat waves and desert dust storms can render some regions uninhabitable”—the need for a sociopolitical philosophy that can unite Muslim-majority countries behind the environmental movement has become more urgent than ever. Still, the longevity of any Islamic approach to environmentalism will depend not only on the ability of eco-theologians to mobilize peoples and governments but also on whether they can prevent extremists from co-opting and corrupting eco-theology.

Muslim eco-theologians have yet to ignite the kind of viral, country-spanning social movement sparked by the world-famous teenage Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg. This problem likely stems from the intellectualization of their field: With the promising exception of Indonesia and a handful of limited initiatives sponsored by Arab governments, eco-theology has remained the domain of academics and philosophers. The public-facing work of scholars such as Özdemir and al-Jayyousi has failed to translate into the type of attention from the international community and the news media that the Taliban and al-Shabaab’s strange edicts received.

To build a political movement and keep extremists from dominating the already-scant coverage of eco-theology in the Muslim world, advocates of an Islamic approach to environmentalism will have to employ a multi-pronged strategy. First, eco-theologians must highlight al-Shabaab and the Taliban’s hypocrisy: Just as the Council on American-Islamic Relations has condemned actions that ISIS has undertaken in the name of Islam as “anti-Islamic,” supporters of eco-theology can draw attention to the Taliban and al-Shabaab’s involvement in illegal logging, which contravenes the militants’ eco-friendly propaganda. Emphasizing the disparity between militants’ halfhearted environmental policies and eco-theology will not only preempt any cynical attempts to conflate eco-theology with extremism but also undermine militants’ hopes of hijacking the environmental movement. Eco-theologians can no longer ignore extremists’ forays into environmentalism.

In addition to combating the rhetorical threat of extremists’ propaganda, Muslim eco-theologians will have to overcome the much larger challenge of rallying a coalition of their faith’s disparate ideologies and religious denominations behind an Islamic approach to environmentalism. Even if eco-theology appears confined to seminaries and universities for the time being, the geographic and theological breadth of its supporters—ranging from a Shi‘a scholar in the United States to a Sunni academic in Singapore—indicate that the up-and-coming philosophy can bridge this gap. Despite eco-theology’s promising future, its proponents have a lot of work ahead of them.

As Islam has evolved into a rallying cry for militants, reformists, and revolutionaries alike, few analysts have doubted its potency as a tool for exciting social movements and structural changes. If Muslim eco-theologians hope to capitalize on this centuries-old trend, they will have to stop extremists from exploiting their ideas, transform their philosophy from an arcane academic field into a call to battle for Muslim environmentalists, and win the race against the dangerous effects of global warming. As climate change devastates the Global South and the Greater Middle East in particular, the importance of the eco-theologians’ mission becomes all the more apparent. In fact, the fate of the environmental movement in the Muslim world may rest on their success.

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. His research has appeared in the Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. This piece was originally published on American Interest on August 16, 2019.