The call to eco-jihad

Pilgrims in Mecca (photo: DW/A. Abubakar)
Pilgrims in Mecca (photo: DW/A. Abubakar)

Gradually – and unnoticed by most Muslims – Muslim intellectuals and scholars have, since the late 1960s, been developing an Islamic environmental theology. Their aim is to examine green principles such as sustainability, environmental protection, animal welfare, and biodiversity in terms of their compatibility with Islam. By Monika Zbidi

By Monika Zbidi

Climate change and global environmental problems have not only led humans to reflect on their position in the environment, they also call for strategies for preserving the earth, not least with a view to protecting and preserving the human habitat. This is why many religious communities started to look at what their own religion had to say about the issue of environmental protection.

In 1967, the historian Lynn White Junior put forward a controversial theory about the origins of the ecological crisis, namely that its roots lay in monotheistic religions. Reactions to this accusation from the religious quarter triggered a new discourse of 'ecotheology'. Although White focussed primarily on Christianity and Judaism in his writings, the confrontation with such an allegation and the perception of the ecological crisis led Muslims to turn their attention to the issue of ecology as well.

The Islamic ecotheology movement, which comprises Islamic ecological philosophy, Sharia-based environmental law and Islamic environmental activism, was initiated by Muslim academics and scholars, many of whom grew up in a predominantly Muslim country and later lived in – or still live in – Western countries. The confrontation with environmental problems led them to focus on the position of their own religion in the discourse. Since then, the ecological dimension of Islam has spread and has been applied in Muslim organisations and initiatives worldwide.

Eco-Islam on- and offline

Slogan Day of the Open Mosque 2013 (photo:
Since 1997, Islamic communities in Germany have used 3 October – Germany's Unification Holiday – to hold a nationwide Day of the Open Mosque. This year's chosen focus is "Environmental protection – mosques are committed"

The 'Green Khutba Campaign', 'The Green Guide to Hajj', 'The Muslim Green Guide to Reducing Climate Change', 'Greening Ramadan', 'The Clean Medina Campaign' ... one can see at a glance from the names of these initiatives, projects, and campaigns that their focus is on the link between Islam and nature. The terms 'green Islam' or 'eco-Islam' (the latter is primarily used in the English-speaking world) have become the labels of this contemporary movement in recent years.

However, this is not to say that supporters of this movement are propagating what one could call their 'own' version of Islam: it is more the case that the term is a reference to the esteem in which they hold the environment and God's creation, and an attempt to define a sustainable way of life as an inherent Muslim necessity. One of its objectives is to make other Muslims aware of the potential of Islam.

Important Islamic events and dates in the Islamic calendar are ideal for the promotion of these views, for example Ramadan, the month of fasting, which is considered a month of contemplation and self-reflection. Because Muslims refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, many families prepare enormous feasts for the evening meal, which means that a lot of food ends up being thrown away. In recent years, a number of articles on a variety of blogs dedicated to the theme of Islam and ecology (such as or, have in the run-up to Ramadan and during the month of fasting called for a 'green Ramadan', and for sustainable and environmentally-friendly behaviour. In the Western context, this means, for example, using fair-trade products, growing your own fruit and vegetables or, if that is not possible, buying local products and using water sparingly during the ritual washing before prayers.

The Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) and Islam's greater and lesser feasts, (the Feast of Sacrifice at the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca and the Feast of Breaking the Fast) offer Islamic ecological organisations or blogs an opportunity to appeal to the religious and, in this way, to people's ecological conscience.

The 'Green Khutba Campaign' was founded by Muaz Nasir on the occasion of international Earth Day 2012. A sample Friday sermon on the environment was drawn up specially for the campaign, which was supported by more than 75 imams and/or organisations in North America. The aim was to encourage mosques and Islamic institutions to dedicate the Friday sermon on Earth Day to raising awareness about the environmental challenges faced by humankind. Muaz Nasir is a Muslim environmental activist from Canada who lives in Toronto and is very active in the environmental sector.

Pilgrims on their way to Mecca (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Pilger erwarten den Sonnenaufgang am Gnadenberg in Arafat auf ihrem Weg nach Mekka. Die islamischen Öko-Kampagnen fordern die Muslime besonders während der Hajj und im Ramdan auf, das eigene Umweltverhalten zu reflektieren.

The principle of stewardship (khilafa), which God gave to humankind, is the inspiration for Muaz Nasir's blog In his blog, he links the Canadian and the Muslim identity, both of which, he feels, have a close connection with Nature. He uses important environmental events to reflect on an Islamic view of things. Examples include the above-mentioned Earth Day, or International Pollinator Week, which inspired him to write about the role of bees in Islam. He also used Canadian Waste Reduction Week to explain why the avoidance of waste is also anchored in Islam.

The British Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) commissioned Global One 2015 and EcoMuslim to write The Green Guide to Hajj, which was published in 2011. The aim of the guide was to change Muslims' ecological behaviour, particularly during the Hajj. Pilgrims are in a sacred state in which they are forbidden to hunt, kill animals, or to fell or kill plants and trees. Because the pilgrimage to Mecca is the fifth pillar of Islam, and because the approximately 2.5 million pilgrims who make the pilgrimage every year generally return home with the good intention of adhering even more closely to religious requirements, this event is ideal for touching pilgrims' hearts and encouraging them to adopt a sustainable, more environmentally-friendly way of life.

The guide contains a foreword by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, and lots of tips and ideas: for example, how to use only environmentally-friendly products and services during the Hajj, how to reduce waste and consumption during the pilgrimage, and how to continue to live sustainably after the pilgrimage. Pilgrims should not travel by plane. If this is not possible, they should make a donation to an environmental project in order to compensate for the carbon miles they ran up by flying to their destination. The Green Guide to Hajj also calls on pilgrims not to use plastic bottles, to use public transport such as the Mecca Metro, and only to make the pilgrimage once in their lives, as their religion requires of them.

Iranian women in Teheran (photo: picture alliance / landov)
Aufgrund der hohen Luftverschmutzung in Teheran blieben Anfang Januar 2013 öffentliche Einrichtungen wie Schulen, Banken und Bürogebäude tagelang geschlossen.

Muslim Green Guide

Another brochure, published in 2008 by Life Makers UK (founded by Amr Khaled) and the Birmingham-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), is the Muslim Green Guide to Reducing Climate Change. This brochure contains practical instructions for individual Muslims on how to tackle climate change. Everyday tips on issues such as saving energy when cooking or washing, recycling, and using public transport or bicycles are accompanied by quotes from the Koran. This brochure explains why Muslims should take action and illustrates that protection of the environment is anchored in their faith.

Another campaign run by the IFEES was the 'Clean Medina Campaign', which also ran in Birmingham in 2008. The campaign slogan was: 'It's a film! It's a campaign! It's Jihad!' Muslims recorded themselves on video sweeping and cleaning streets together in an attempt to motivate other Muslims to take similar action in their respective cities. IFEES is regarded as the mother of all Islamic environmental organisations. It runs a variety of local and international projects and was founded by Fazlun Khalid in the 1980s. Khalid was born and grew up in Sri Lanka and has lived in England since 1953. He is considered to be one of the co-founders of eco-Islam. What sets him apart from the rest is the fact that he is both a Muslim ecotheologian and an environmental activist.

There are now a large number of international activities similar to the ones described here, and the Internet is increasingly being used as a means of spreading ideas and approaches, and for putting Muslim activists in touch with one another. In addition to information websites, there are blogs, numerous Facebook pages, and groups that are run and used by people from a wide variety of countries. These sites and groups are used to discuss environmental themes on the basis of articles, videos, and links.

Fazlun Khalid (photo: Fazlun Khalid)
Fazlun Khalid zählt zu den 15 führenden Öko-Theologen der Welt; er stand auf der Liste der "Top 100 Environmentalists in the UK" und auf der Liste "500 Most Influential Muslims in the World". Er hat zahleiche umweltethische Schriften im islamischen Kontext herausgegeben.

This is why A.M. Schwencke, in the style of Olivier Roy, speaks of a 'globalised eco-Islam'. On the aforementioned blog, which is run by the young British woman Zaufishan Iqbal, the themes range from environmentally-friendly halal food (including recipes), ethnic fashion and eco-mosques, to reviews of books on environmental themes and reports on national and international developments. The subtitle of her blog is 'the eco-jihadTM Enviro-news, halal living and eco-lifestyle from UK'. When she speaks of so-called 'eco-jihad', she is playing on Western associations with the term 'jihad' in her fight for a healthy environment.

The fundamentals of Islamically-motivated ecological behaviour

The founding father of Islamic ecotheology is the Iranian-born philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who in 1967 wrote the book Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man. In so doing, he was well ahead of his time. Islamic environmental ethics are based on the Koran and the body of hadiths. According to this interpretation, conserving nature and creation – in particular flora, fauna, and water – is one of a Muslim's most important obligations. Water plays a very important role in Islam because it is considered to be the source and foundation of life. It is also of major significance for Muslim ritual cleansing. There are many sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed that prove he urged people to use water sparingly, and forbade the pollution of water.

The purpose of all creation is to praise God, and all individual parts of the earth are perceived as signs of God (ayat in Arabic). This means that God is omnipresent, which implies that Nature should be protected for God's sake alone. In addition, Nature is seen as the totality of mutually complementary elements. In addition to praising God, every individual part of Nature has a role and a task within creation that is of importance for the functioning of the Earth. This means that all things are mutually dependent on one another.

Koran recitation (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Der Koran und die Hadith-Werke des Propheten Mohammad fordern die Gläubigen auf, verantwortungsbewusst mit der Schöpfung umzugehen.

Animals are below humans in the Islamic order of creation because, unlike animals, humans have reason and can differentiate between belief and non-belief. As proven by a number of hadiths, the protection of animals is very important in Islam. The Prophet Mohammed was particularly fond of cats. It is said that on one occasion the Prophet cut off his sleeve because a kitten was sleeping on it when he wanted to rise to pray.

Plants also play an important role in Islam. They are food for both humans and animals (Sura 80, verses 24–32) and are needed by humans to generate essential oxygen. Planting a tree is considered particularly commendable in Islam. Accordingly, there is a hadith that says that every Muslim who plants a tree will be rewarded in the hereafter for every animal or for every human who eats of this tree. There are also institutions of Islamic law that guarantee the conservation of nature in certain areas, for example in harim and hima areas – protected zones, like nature reserves, where water resources, forestland, and pastureland are protected.

In the Islamic, anthropocentric vision of the world, humans are at the centre of creation, which not only affords humans certain rights in accordance with an Islamic environmental ethic, but also places specific obligations on them too. If there is such a thing as a concept of Islamic environmental ethics, it is based primarily on a variety of Koranic principles that are interpreted in an ecological way. In addition to the doctrine of moderation and abstinence and the doctrine of justice ('adl in Arabic), the following six doctrines are the most frequently cited, and help to keep human behaviour within certain boundaries:

1. The doctrine of oneness (tawhid): The doctrine of tawhid has three levels of meaning within the scope of Islamic ecotheology. Firstly, it indicates the monotheistic unity of God, as opposed to the polytheism and idolatry of the pre-Islamic period. Secondly, it indicates the unity of God, as opposed to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which the Koran contradicts. Thirdly, it is an expression of the unity of God with all of creation. This unity with creation gives expression to the fact that everything in the world is part of creation and is related to everything else, which makes the entire world significant, valuable, and worthy of protection. There is also the argument that tawhid expresses the recognition of God as the one and only Lord of all created beings, which means that every single creature must be treated with respect.

Blossom (photo: FARS)
Das Schöpfungsprinzip (fitra) ist eines der koranischen Prinzipien, welches im ökologischen Sinne interpretiert wird: "Im islamisch-ökologischen Diskurs wird unter der fitra der ursprüngliche Zustand der Schöpfung bzw. die ursprüngliche Natur der Dinge verstanden. In erster Linie beinhaltet dies den natürlichen Zustand des Menschen in Harmonie mit der Natur. Daraus wird die Notwendigkeit und Pflicht des Menschen für Umweltschutz abgeleitet."

2. The doctrine of creation (fitra): In the Islamic ecological discourse, fitra is understood to mean the original state of creation or the original nature of things. First and foremost, this comprises the natural state of humans in harmony with nature. From this is derived the necessity that humankind protect the environment and its obligation to do so. Fazlun Khalid, for example, argues that humans used to live in a natural state of fitra and unconsciously lived within the unwritten laws of nature.

However, this changed with the advent of industrialisation. While people in the past had the same negative and positive attributes as today, their tendency to do good or bad acts was kept in check by the natural order of things. For example, earlier civilisations did not leave behind any pollutants, destructive poisons, or radioactive waste. This shows that humankind's responsibility today is even greater than it used to be because of the very real possibility that it could destroy Nature on a large scale. One aim, therefore, is to re-establish the state of fitra and to conserve the Earth.

3. The doctrine of stewardship (khilafa): On Earth, humans assume the role of stewards or trustees (khalifa in Arabic). This means that God has entrusted humans with responsibility for creation and has entrusted the Earth to humans, the Earth which God has put at their service. In other words, although humankind is not the owner or lord of the Earth – a position that is reserved for God – it nevertheless has an important place in the order of creation. The Islamic environmental movement calls on humankind to assume the role of the steward and to stop subjugating Nature to itself.

4. The doctrine of responsibility (amana): Very closely linked to the doctrine of khilafa is the doctrine of amana, which stands for the fulfilment of responsibility in all dimensions of life. It is about the responsibility inherent in the role of steward, the responsibility that humankind assumed when God offered it to humans. The section of the Koran that is often cited in this case describes how God offered this responsibility to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains, but they refused, because they were afraid to take this responsibility upon themselves. Following their refusal, humankind agreed to assume responsibility (Sura 33, verse 72).

To a certain extent, the amana is both a restriction of the stewardship and a moral burden. The superior position of humankind is not, therefore, rooted in its greater power and authority over creatures within the framework of an Islamic environmental ethics, but much more in the accountability that only humankind has towards God.

5. The doctrine of servitude ('ubudiyya): The doctrine of servitude expresses the status of humans as servants of God ('abd Allah in Arabic) and completes the doctrines of stewardship and responsibility. The role of the slave restricts the power of humankind. Muslim ecotheologians understand it to mean that Muslims, in their role as servants of God, have to obey laws, including the care of Nature and the ecosystem and dealing properly with its resources.

Rainforest in Congo (photo: picture alliance/ WILDLIFE)
Die Folgen der globalen Konsum- und Vernutzungslogik auf Kosten der Umwelt: "All der Tee, den wir in der Welt trinken, kommt aus Gegenden, die einst unberührter Regenwald gewesen sind. Wie konnten wir das tun?", fragt Fazlun Khalid.

6. The doctrine of balance (mizan): The Arabic term mizan means balance, equilibrium, or scales. In Islamic environmental ethics it is translated as 'ecological balance' or 'a middle way'. This principle calls for the conservation or the restoration of balance on Earth, both in terms of harmony within Nature and in terms of the field of human justice and morality in day-to-day dealings. God created the Earth and everything in it as perfect, free from fault, and in balance. However, it is the task of human beings to keep it that way. In the opinion of Muslim ecotheologians, problems such as global warming, earthquakes, and rising sea levels are evidence that the Earth is no longer in divine balance.

An Islamic way out of the dead end of climate change?

According to Islamic environmental ethics, the solution to environmental problems lies in the revival of spirituality and faith. While this does not mean that they distance themselves from science and development, they do oppose the consumer society and immoderate behaviour. Islamic ecotheology is not a monolithic structure. In view of the fact that 'eco-Islam' is still a very young movement, there are a large number of different dimensions and interpretations, all of which share the same goal, namely the protection of the environment and the stewardship of creation.

Finally, the theme of the environment and the protection of the Earth unites supporters in other religions, too, in the common fight to preserve the livelihood of all living beings, and it has already proven to be an important pillar in inter-religious debate. While an exclusively religious approach cannot solve the problems of climate change, it can contribute to a change in attitudes. A growing Islamic ecological discourse is emerging in particular on the Internet, and it would seem that many Muslims have been inspired by the fact that their own religion calls for and encourages environmentally-friendly behaviour.

Monika Zbidi

© Goethe-Institut 2013

Monika Zbidi is a research fellow at the Faculty of Islamic Studies at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. She is also a Ph.D. scholar at the German Federal Environment Foundation. The subject of her doctoral thesis is Islam and ecology. She previously studied Islamic Studies, Political Science, and Semitic Philology.

Translated by Aingeal Flanagan editor: Lewis Gropp