O Children of Adam: Beautify yourselves for every act of worship, and eat and drink [freely], but do not waste: truly, He loves not the wasteful. (Qur’an: 7:31)
In Islamic tradition it is considered that humans were created as khalifas (trustees) of the earth and of its animal, mineral, and plant resources. As caretakers, it is said, we may utilize these resources as long as we respect the balance that must be maintained in all aspects of our lives: spiritual, physical and mental.
There is extensive support for environmental protection in Islamic theology: from the Prophet Muhammad’s self-practice and repeated exhortations to plant trees or to not waste water, to the stern limitations on military engagement stating that civilians, animals, trees, and water sources were not to be harmed. And this theology was regularly put into official practice over the centuries. As American Muslim scholar Zaid Shakir has said: “The protection of natural habitat, the well-being of animals, and related responsibilities were often overseen by appointed officials, members of the world’s first environmental protection agencies.”
Dr. Derek Wall of the UK’s Green Party has remarked (in an article for the UK’s Guardian titled “Green Islam”) that contemporary Muslim scholars like George Washington University’s Seyyed Hossein Nasr have been advocating Islamic environmentalism since the 1970s while Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan has been evolving a thoughtful understanding of “spiritual ecology.”
Some might say, rightly, that our green legacy has been forgotten as the race to industrialization has created environmental devastation and dead zones in more- and less-developed countries alike. Some may even suspect the environmental movement of being another Western initiative to impede the progress of Muslim nations. In spite of this, we are beginning to see Muslim community-based organizations in the global North and non-governmental organizations in the global South reviving these deep-rooted green practices in a manner informed both by modern realities and Islamic principles.
For example in the United States, the Chicago-based Taqwa Eco-Core Cooperative provides sustainable, family-farm raised, and organic halal meat to comply with Islamic dietary rules while bringing the religious rulings for humane and respectful treatment of animals and the environment into a modern context. In DC, the “Green Muslims” seek to help “understand and implement sustainable and eco-conscious ways of living.” And, the San Francisco-based American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism (AMILA) hosted a sold-out, green-themed Ramadan retreat this past September to help participants learn more about the connections between Islam and nature.
In the UK, the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environment Sciences, established in the 1980s, is developing proactive and protective opinions on environmental issues based on religion and science, while simultaneously practicing what they preach through green projects in affected countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Tanzania, and Yemen.
In India, Goldman Environmental Prize winners Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla are battling the environmental and health effects of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in their community while also trying to hold the company’s current owner Dow Chemical legally accountable for the devastation. The women’s partnership is all the more remarkable because Shukla is Hindu and Bee is Muslim, groups with a history of conflict in India.
This interfaith alliance is also important because the environment doesn’t acknowledge human-made borders, nationalities, or theological differences. The devastation of wheat crops yesterday and far away will affect our bread prices here tomorrow. Hurricane Katrina taught us that in the heart of the richest nation on earth, we are heartbreakingly vulnerable. And, as environmental disasters increase in ferocity and frequency disproportionately impacting the world’s less developed nations, we will be tested in our ability to extend compassion and caring to our neighbors next door, and to those half a world away.
Instead of seeing environmentalism as something being imposed on us from the outside, we must see it as a Qur’anic and Prophetic imperative that is integral to Islam. By returning to our spiritual teachings of balance, of compassion for each living creature, and of thoughtfully embodying the highest ethical principles—both individually and collectively—we can begin to create new ways of being human, ways which replace extreme material consumption with actions that truly nourish individuals, families, communities and nations.
Environmental change won’t happen without the support of people of faith, including Muslims (one-fifth of the world’s population). If we take our shared American history as an example, every great cultural shift from abolition to women’s enfranchisement was led and supported by religious voices. As Muslims, we must increase and deepen our environmental commitment and involvement at all levels: from the way we individually use water to prepare ourselves for the five daily prayers, to the way we conduct ourselves in our homes, mosques, communities, businesses, and through political participation.
For many, the color most associated with Islam is green. We’re lucky to have 1400 years of environmental awareness under our belt already. Now, it’s time, as Muslims, to honor that legacy and to take the lead again by helping to protect this precious world in the time that we’ve been given.