Fazlun Khalid

Caring for Our Common Home: Climate Change and Faith

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Adopted from a keynote address at the Grand River Interfaith Breakfast held in Kitchener, ON on April 25, 2015

By: Dr. Hind Al-Abadleh
Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University

I had the honour and privilege to stand before 350+ attendees from the Waterloo Region and deliver the keynote on a topic that I’m passionate about at the Grand River Interfaith Breakfast, just three days after the world celebrated Earth Day. I provide below an edited version of my talk.

I started by acknowledging that “we are on the Haldimand Tract, traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnaabe, and Haudenosaunee peoples.” The indigenous people of this land have so much to teach us on how to care for it as it was their ancestors who were connected to this land, understood its seasons and rhythms, and welcomed settlers into their ever-expanding circle.

I have structured my brief talk with one goal in mind that I wanted to leave the audience with, which is that humans need to rethink and restore their relationship with and dependency on nature, and that people of all faiths are uniquely qualified to lead in this area.

The history of environmental degradation since the industrial revolution that started just two centuries ago clearly shows that human-induced climate change is by far the most serious threat to human civilization as we know it in the 21st century. Nature has a way of restoring balance in its systems after a storm, an earthquake or a volcano eruption. But, when you add to the picture people, homes, factories, farmlands, drinking water sources, basic infrastructure for transportation and sewage, border security, animals and microscopic species we depend on for food, it becomes clear how fragile this human-built civilization is to the impacts of climate change.

These impacts include, but are not limited to: rising sea levels, ocean acidification and its impact on marine life, increased intensity of hurricanes and tornadoes, loss of biological diversity and its impact on soil quality, increased intensities and duration of heat waves, flooding in some areas and drought in others, and mass migration of people fleeing conflict due to lack of water and food.

Because I’m a trained scientist and a practicing Muslim, it is very clear in my mind where science and religion stand on environmental issues:

I see science as a tool that help us make sense of the world around us at molecular, atomic and subatomic levels, and also as a tool to create things we can’t find in nature. Through scientific studies, we can quantify and project how human activities influence the chemical and physical balance of natural systems, and how we can fix them when they are out of balance because of our actions. I also can see that scientific findings can enlighten the faithful about benefits and harms of certain religious practices passed on from generation to generation.

As for religion, given what I know about human nature and how it evolves and changes over ones’ life time, religion can inform the application of science through instilling ethical principles so that products of scientific innovation are for the benefit and good of society and the rest of creation.

There is a relevant statement in Dr. David Suzuki’s book, the Sacred Balance, that reads as following:

"As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. At the same time, a much wider and deeper understanding of science and technology is needed. If we do not understand the problem, it is unlikely we will be able to fix it. Thus, there is a vital role for both religion and science."

More scientists and politicians are coming out framing environmental problems as moral issues, not only technical scientific issues that can be fixed with machines. See for example statements by Dr. James Hansen and Al Gore.

So, what drove humanity to this degree of environmental degradation that threatens their existence? It boils down to two main factors: (1) unregulated corporate greed for resource development, whether at home or abroad, and (2) overconsumption by individuals eager to achieve and maintain a certain social status based on materialistic acquisitions.

Hence, what do religions in general, including Islam, have to offer humanity at this critical time of societal challenges?

In an excellent book authored by Andrea Cohen-Keiner with the title “Claiming Earth as Common Ground”, I echo what she lists there as the three main tools that people of faith bring to the table of environmental activism: Faith, Spirit and Social Wealth.

  • Faith: the belief in a mighty God and a benevolent universe. This faith is trust, optimism, and the capacity to work when we know we will not finish the job. With faith, we know the worst and work for the best.
  • Spirit: is the still small voice we hear that calls for alignment with natural order. It is the joyful wordless satisfaction we feel when are connected to ourselves and feel fully alive.
  • Social Wealth: is the non-competitive meaningful connection to the community. It is not governed by same physics of “material wealth”.
     

For decades, Muslim scholars specializing in religious studies, social and physical sciences have written on the topic of Islam and Ecology. They include Drs. Seyyed Hossein NasrFazlun Khalid in the UK, Adi Setia in Malaysia, and Ibrahim Ozdemir in Turkey.

The main questions addressed in their scholarly work were:

  1. What do the revelations in the Quran say about the natural world?
  2. How do Muslims understand the “stewardship” concept?
  3. How do Muslims translate that understanding into practice?

In answering question 1 on what the Quran says about the natural world, we find that verses regarding the natural world are universal and address all humanity, believers and non-believers.

These verses start with “O People..” and “O People of Adam”, or contain pronouns that refer to all humans. The context of these verses revolves around:

  • the creation of humans from a single soul and of diverse nature,
  • creation of the natural world, the living and the inanimate, and
  • how humans should view the natural world.

This verse in particular:

“He has raised the sky. He has set the balance: 8. so that you may not exceed in the balance” (Quran 55-7). The word “balance” in the above verse could be interpreted in light of our scientific understanding of how ecosystems work, where natural elements are interconnected with each other in a delicate cyclical fashion.

In addition, natural elements in the Quran are referred to as “signs” of God, a language for us to learn. God invites us to read these signs as a “book of Nature” and tell us that it is as sacred as the written “book of revelation”. It is not a coincidence that the first word that was revealed in the Quran is ‘Read’ and the name of the second chapter is the ‘Pen’, highlighting the centrality of seeking and recording knowledge to believing in God.

It is also not surprising that the first thing a reader of the Quran will notice is that a good number of the 114 chapters have names of natural elements: the Sun, the Moon, The Star, the Bees, the Ants, The Spider, the Sand Dunes, The Smoke, etc. See more selected verses in this link.

In answering the second question on how Muslims understand the “stewardship” concept:

It is mentioned in verse 165 of chapter 6 that, It is He (God) who has made you (people of Adam) successors, stewards, vicegerents on Earth.”

In light of this verse and other related ones, Muslim scholars interpreted the stewardship concept as the following: As God’s vicegerents on Earth, generations of humans are guardians of the natural world and should work hard to keep it in its inherit balanced state.

Early scholars deduced that everything in nature was created for reasons other than only serving or benefiting human kind. Hence, as Al-Burini inferred, humans “[do not] have a right to exploit the other kingdoms for [their] own desires”.

Should humans ignore their responsibility towards the natural world, we are told in the Quran (Verse 41 of chapter 30) that humans shall taste the consequences of their ignorance in this life: Corruption has flourished on land and sea as a result of people’s actions and He will make them taste the consequences of some of their own actions so that they may turn back”. The keyword “corruption” is so broad in meaning and has been interpreted by many scholars to encompass environmental degradation as a result of people’s exploitation of the natural world.

To continue on to the answer of the third question of how Muslims translate their understanding of religious texts into environmentally-friendly practices, we have to start by saying that what drives Muslims to couple faith with action stems from their desire to live a good life now and in the hereafter, where they will meet their Lord. Acts of righteousness — as Muslims understand them — encompass those to one self, other fellow humans, and the rest of creation.

In addition, traditions of Prophet Muhammad inspire Muslims to cultivate land, treat animals humanely, reduce water usage, and tread gently on the earth. See specific examples in this link.

What I’ve mentioned so far does not only provide an alternative ethical worldview of the natural world, but also builds a sense of internal accountability to the Creator to whom we will return. This internal sense of accountability was the driving force for early generations of Muslims to (1) set up a range of conservation zones for protecting land and species in their habitat, (2) designate zones where human development was not allowed, usually for the protection of water sources, and (3) establish agencies known as hisba to whom members of the community were held accountable.

In more recent history, a number of initiatives by Muslim academics, activists and concerned citizens in Canada and around the world galvanized action towards raising awareness of environmental problems and solutions, and also produce scholarly work in this area. This modern Islamic environmental movement culminated in the publication of the “Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change” in 2015 in Istanbul by a team of Muslim professionals recruited by the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences based in the UK.

2015 was also the same year when Pope Francis published his 192-page encyclical letter on climate and the environment. The letter was welcomed in the scientific community with dedicated editorial pieces written on its content in the top two scientific journals, Science and Nature. This is in addition to reports published regularly by a number of interfaith grassroots organizations and initiatives focusing on ecology: the Greening Sacred Spaces of Faith & the Common Good here in Canada, the US Sierra Club report entitled ‘Faith in Action: Communities of Faith bring Hope for the Planet’, and the UK-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

So, the climate change issue presents opportunities to think globally and to act and collaborate locally towards a common goal. Instead of feeling paralyzed when thinking about the impacts of climate change, we need to shift our focus and energy and think of the massive opportunities that await us in creating a new future that is more sustainable, socially just, and in harmony with nature for us and future generations.

Scientists and thought leaders in politics and the energy sector tell us that the path to meeting Paris emission reduction goals center around the following three major points:

  • Stopping all subsides to the fossil fuel industry,
  • Pricing carbon to account for the true cost of pollution,
  • Divesting investments from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Religious leaders in all faith communities also have a role to play to:

  • Remind the faithful that their value as human beings in the eyes of God does not equal the material wealth they accumulate at whatever expense,
  • Remind the faithful that their faith in the heart has to be coupled with actions that benefit the planet, the people, and all creation for generations to come, and that God is watching their intentions and actions,
  • Encourage the faithful to renovate or build homes and places of worship that consume less energy and water,
  • Encourage the faithful to cultivate the land in their homes and places of worship in form of community gardens,
  • Encourage the faithful to contemplate their diet and ways of transportation to reduce their environmental footprints,
  • Reach out to members of the indigenous communities to listen to their stories on how they cared for this land,
  • Reach out to neighbouring faith communities and other non-faith based community organizations to learn about best practices and how to support each others efforts.

I hardly can think of other ways to engage the faithful — and youth in particular — for the long term, except through working on solutions to climate change. In this way, we are sure to build a future and a community that we will be proud of for years to come.

To conclude, while science provides the understanding and technical fix to climate change, religions provide the moral and ethical framework that influences the individual’s behavior towards the creation in general.

Acknowledgments:

I want to thank my dear colleague Dr. Meena Sharifi-Funk for the introduction at the event and encouragement to participate in this year’s interfaith breakfast.

Also, thanks to Sandy Milne and John Maine for their kind invitation, Mirko from the Laurier Seminary for the media coverage, and the hardworking volunteers who made that event possible.

This article originally appeared on Faith and the Common Good on May 7th, 2018. 

An open letter to faith based organisations represented at COP 22 in Marrakesh

COP 22 The twenty-second session of the Conference of the Parties and the twelfth session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 12) is being held in Bab Ighli, Marrakech, Morocco from 7-18 November 2016.

Dear friends and colleagues,

Greetings!

The Paris protocol is now in force but may I just remind you that where we need to take giant strides this is only one small step for humankind. The COP process is vital and necessary but what we need overall is a paradigm shift that will enable us to leave a liveable Earth for our children. Divesting in fossil fuel investment to the exclusion of everything else is like plugging a leak in a dam that is about to burst. Let us take note that big oil is pushing a pipe line through North Dakota in the face of stiff opposition and the British Government is inviting bidders for new offshore drilling licences. And I wonder if anyone is talking to the Middle Eastern oil producers about divestment.

The voices of faith communities are now beginning to be heard in the global arena in matters of vital concern for us all. From tentative beginnings COP 21 in Paris witnessed the burgeoning presence of Faith Based Organisations (FBO's) in the public arena to the extent that we have earned ourselves our very own acronym. FBO's are now on the map and ask to be heard. This is unprecedented and long overdue though it must be said that people of faith did run the world for millennia keeping it in reasonable shape for past generations to thrive in. The organisation of the Climate Conscience Summit by the far sighted Government of Morocco in Fez on 3 November, is a commendable event. It not only recognises the emergence of once marginalised faith communities but also assures the continuing consolidation of this movement.

As you are no doubt aware human induced climate change now poses a deadly threat to all life on planet Earth. Although FBOs have the potential to be a positive force for change there are other fault lines defined by special interests which have the capacity to impede progress. Looking at this fairly and squarely in the face it has to be said that much of the responsibility for change lies in the hands of corporations and banks that wield enormous power and have access to resources. They perpetuate a counter narrative to the COP process we need to address. In a sceptical editorial that appeared in the influential Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Monday 14 December 2015, on the first week day edition after the Paris summit, it made the following comment:

"The moment to be wariest of political enthusiasms is precisely when elite opinion is all lined up on one side ... if climate change really does imperil the Earth, and we doubt it does, nothing coming out of a gaggle of governments and the United Nations will save it."

This is verging on the rude and displays an arrogance of monumental proportions. The WSJ is located like the UN headquarters in New York and I wonder if one is listening to the other or do they just stare at each other over the sand bags. The best place to experience the chasm that exists between big business and the COP process is to visit the World Economic Forum that is held in Davos, Switzerland each year. Take your snow boots with you as it is held in deep winter. There is a serious need here for the two groups that think they run the world to be talking to each other.

The G20 Summit held in Hangzhou, China just about eight weeks ago was heralded by both China and the USA announcing their ratification of the Paris climate proposals. However one doesn't have to read too hard between the lines to notice some feet dragging is going on. For example there were some rumblings in Hangzhou concerning timelines for the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies. In some countries tampering with existing subsidies is tantamount to political suicide because in the final analysis it is the voice of the people that matter.

Sustainable Development (SD) warranted frequent references in the final Hangzhou communiqué. But it is just about dawning on policymakers that SD becoming a reality requires a capital intensive transition which is bound to interfere with the carbon reduction programme. We are in a double bind and a huge responsibility lies on the shoulders of the politicians because it is they who have to straddle the fine line that exists between cutting carbon emissions to the required proportions which on the one hand requires a degree of austerity and on the other responding to people's demands for prosperity. This puts the onus on developed countries to rethink their economics beyond COP and SD and apply the brakes to slow down growth to enable the rest to have a fair share of the cake. This is no time to be pointing our fingers at the United States as it is preoccupied in electing a new leader and I only refer to that country as a template for the rest of the world. The campaign for the presidency clearly reflects the universal fact that the climate change agenda is always subordinate to the growth agenda.
 

Morocco is unique amongst Muslim countries in the lead it is giving to bring the climate agenda to the notice of the people and following it up with an agenda which is both international and local in scope. The hosting of COP 22 takes care of the international and the local which is of primary importance becomes apparent in government policy where there is an undertaking to provide renewable energy to hundreds of mosques in all parts of the country by installing solar panels. I would urge the Moroccan Government to catch the wind and embark on an education programme that reflects Islam's basic conservationist approach to life. In this regard we offer our experience built over more than thirty years of work.

We have a shared responsibility and this is where the burgeoning FBO movement has a vital role to play. The collective will of people of faith can be a force to be reckoned with and as an interface between people and policy makers there is much this movement can deliver. As a lobby we can be strong enough to influence public policy but we also need to engage in demonstrable change if we are going to be taken seriously.

Yours sincerely

Fazlun Khalid

Fazlun Khalid is the Founder and Director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (EcoIslam), Birmingham UK; Convenor of the drafting team of the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change .Fazlun Khalid Founder Director IFEES/EcoIslam

 

Against Modernity

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Fazlun Khalid - Islamic environmentalist, Founder-Director, Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science

One of the effects of what we’ve now come to know as modernity is that if you’re not up there with the rest of the crowd following “fashion” then you must be backward. Fashion has many guises and its most obvious manifestation is the clothes industry (the words clothes and fashion are now interchangeable) where models manage to look progressively glamorous whilst they progressively wear less and less. This is a trick, and in this trick lies a moral.

Behind the jargon of political correctness and the hype of the advertising industry, the idea of modernity stands as naked as the fashion models. Like them, it exudes glamour at the same time. But it is the fleeting glamour of built-in obsolescence, and its nakedness attracts and devours. This process is most evident in the garish cities to which people are attracted like suicidal moths to a powerful street lamp. It is estimated that over 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities before the end of this century. Think what will happen to these people when the water stops flowing through the taps, as it will inevitably do, and the flush toilets stop working in the high rise blocks.

Seasoned travellers sometimes face the unexpected, and this happened to me in Indonesia during a visit to this mosaic of a country before the financial meltdown in 2008. My colleagues in the Institute of Ecology in Bandung were taking me to a madrassa (Qur’an school) in one of the neighbouring villages. It was described blandly in advance as an alternative school system that employed “traditional methods”. But I was in for a surprise. The person I was first introduced to was the “marketing manager”. A marketing manager in a Qur’an school? This puzzled me. “The economic crisis in the country never touched us,” he told me. “Why?” I asked. “Our fresh produce is in great demand, especially in the cities,” he replied, patiently. My puzzlement grew into curiosity: Qur’an schools equal economic independence, but how could that be?

I was led into a village community, which practiced organic farming for economic self-sufficiency in what was described to me as the traditional way. Here is another example of how modernity plays tricks with words. It is fashionable in the developed world to go into “organic farming” yet the methods used by this movement are as old as the hills, and the people of this village have got it right – it is the “traditional way”. This was one of a network of Qur’an school villages that had survived the ravages of colonialism. Apparently there are hundreds of them and the particular village I was taken to supports about 300 students whose ages ranged from twelve to eighteen. A third of them were female. Most of the learning activities centred in and around the mosque and, when they were not studying, the male students worked in the fields. The female students worked in the packing sheds grading and weighing the produce for market. The village also boasted a herd of dairy cows and a fish farm. There was also a clinic and sports facilities.

The remarkable thing about this community was that the whole ethos of it was non-institutional. I didn’t get the impression of being in a regimented, over-organised place. The feel was that of a village – a community of people of which the students were a part. The income derived from agricultural produce supported the students. The students paid no fees and they were housed and fed by the village. And yet the village made a profit. I then saw the point of the marketing manager.

My discussions with the Imam, who was also the head of the community, ranged amongst other things to self-sufficiency and the way the Muslims used to trade internationally without the help of the banks. I told him about certain Muslim groups in the West who are advocating a return to traditional trading through the use of gold and silver coins. His response was that he does not trust paper money and that his community traditionally kept their surplus wealth in gold. This is how they saved themselves when the crisis hit the country and the banks collapsed.

So we are back to tradition again. The fashion today is for banks and for paper money, which is at the root of the environmental crisis, but any critique of this is considered to be a bit unfashionable, if not loony. Such is the power of fashion and the path to “progress” – another fashionable buzzword, but what does it mean? The term’s application relates almost exclusively to economic progress, but the fact that this is causing massive pollution and species extinction at an alarming rate are issues people are not willing to look at squarely.

And then there is “sustainability”. It is now the buzzword in eco-economics. Very fashionable in fact, but nobody can agree what it actually means. Here in Indonesia, however, we have people living sustainably after the very traditional fashion of their forefathers and learning to cope with the dominant model at the same time. No definitions needed here – just getting on with it. So, tradition is best. It is not about a monopoly of any one faith or nation or tribe or group. Tradition has evolved out of centuries of responses to the rhythms of nature; importantly, it is in context. It is not subject to the vagaries of one economic theory or another, and neither is it dependent on the impulses of global financial markets. This is real progress. It is not polluting and it does not line the pockets of corrupt politicians, racketeers, petty officials and trans-national corporations. Such tradition is by the people, for the people.

This article was originally published on iai news in October 2014. 

Reconnecting with Nature

By: Klaudia Khan

The concept of responsible management and taking care of the natural environment is firmly embedded in the teachings of Islam, so Muslims shouldn’t be reminded that living eco-friendly lifestyle is part of their religion. Or do they?

Fazlun Khalid, a man synonymous with the eco-Islam movement and one of the most influential contemporary Muslims, claims that people nowadays, including Muslims, are getting more and more disconnected from nature.

It’s not only Islam that teaches respect for the natural environment, but it’s an idea rooted in every religious system in the world. Yet as the philosophy of the Post-Enlightenment Era divided the sacrum from the Profanum, industrialization and urbanization allowed people to live lives that are physically disconnected from nature, the sacrosanct link between the Creator and the creation has gone into abyss.

The result is a new world order in which the decisions are made by the people who care more for economical growth and the disastrous consequences this growth causes to the planet. And while environmentalists of all faiths are proclaiming the doomsday for Earth, the decision-makers seem deaf or oblivious to their reasoning and continue pushing our civilization towards environmental disaster. So is everything lost for us and future generations?

Not if we wake up now and make radical changes to our lives. But it’s not going to be easy as we have to make a step back and give up on luxuries that we got accustomed to. We have to go back to the Prophetic tradition of simplicity. As Khalid put it: "We have to live simply, so that others may simply live."

Reconnecting with Nature seen through a faith perspective was the subject of a series of lectures followed by discussion organized by Dr. Rizwan Nawaz at Leeds University on November 12.

Khalid was the first speaker with his lecture on ‘Reconnecting with Nature – An Islamic Perspective’; and his vast knowledge and experience in the field of conservationism made the listeners realize the seriousness of the problem.

His lecture provided an exposition of the problem, while the other speakers tried to present the possible solutions.

Emma Clark, a well-established international garden designer specializing in Islamic gardens, a writer and a senior tutor and lecturer at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London gave a presentation on ‘The Islamic garden as an opportunity for bridge-building between cultures’.

She started by explaining the concept of Islamic garden and the philosophy underlying all of its elements and went on to point out how the sacred art of Islamic gardens, the indisputable beauty and the magnitude of nature can speak and be understood by people from all the cultural and religious backgrounds and help build bridges between the communities.

Traditional Islamic gardens – Charbagh, are reflections of heaven on Earth, but the idea of heaven which they reflect is common to people of different faiths, not only Muslims.

And so through pondering on the beauty and the manifestation of cosmic harmony expressed through the design of Charbagh, people could find what has been missing in their lives and start the process of realigning themselves back to nature.

Mark Bryant, Development Officer for the study of Islam at University of Cardiff, and the last speaker at the event presented a lecture ‘Are British Muslims green?’ which offered some insight into how local Muslim communities are reconnecting with nature, often through creating green spaces, Islamic inspired gardens and communal gardens.

One of the success stories he related is the Community Garden created by the Wapping Women’s Centre in the East London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Creating a green space for vegetable garden enabled women not only to grow their own greens, but also boosted their confidence, helped establish a sense of belonging and promoted some pro-ecological changes to their lifestyle.

While many British Muslim communities are skeptical about the gardening projects, those who give it a try and start soon begin to see the positive changes that such ventures bring, their outlook changes and they do embrace more green lifestyles.

The lectures were followed by refreshments and discussions over the cups of tea, where the speakers, organizers and the visitors freely exchanged impressions, opinions and ideas. It was an interesting event and it certainly provided lots of food for thought and inspiration. Maybe the best way to start reconnecting with nature is by getting physically close to it. To find our right place within Allah’s creation we need to realize its grandeur. “Assuredly the creation of the heavens and the earth is a greater (matter) than the creation of men: Yet most men understand not.”(Surat Ghafir: 40:57).

Klaudia Khan is a freelance writer interested in all aspects of green living. She studied Sociology in London and now lives with her husband and two daughters in the UK and Pakistan.

This article was originally published November 24, 2013 on Onislam.  Photo credit from mwanasimba