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.