- Published on Thursday, 19 July 2012 07:28
- Category: Culture
Environmentalism has taken root in many Muslim communities but it remains a marginal issue for discussion at the pulpit. Most imams in America, pressed about the importance of ecological themes in Islam, usually offer a polite nod: “Of course brother, Islam respects nature; God’s creation must be valued; Cleanliness is essential and part of our ritual.” Such vacuous platitudes are very common but when it comes to the serious task of educating our children about ecological ethics, there is rarely any attention given.
Unfortunately, the essence of ecology – the natural science of studying how humans interact with their environment – eludes most centers of Islamic learning. This apathy towards nature is emblematic of the growing imbalance which many practicing Muslims have regarding “deen” and “dunya.” They are often drawn to one pole or the other with a reluctance to engage productively with the time-tested Islamic edict of “meezaan” or balance. For livelihoods, they might ostensibly appear to be keeping a balance between work and family but they are in fact compartmentalizing their lives. So yes, most religious Muslims are also successful professionals but do they really try to connect with their world in the same planetary way that the term “dunya” suggests in its natural connotation? Such an ecological lens of viewing their lives would help them keep perspective of this need for “meezaan.”
For political reasons, terms like “moderation” have been stigmatized and are often branded as a co-optation strategy to drive people away from theology. One young Muslim scholar responded, “all this environmental stuff – what relevance does it have when Muslims are dying in wars or being persecuted?” The response to such thinking would be: Have you ever thought why things are not changing for the better in terms of our predicament? One explanation might be that Muslims have become “denaturalized” – we do not want to make the full connection with the natural world in terms of scientific inquiry, reflective appreciation for the natural world and thus we have an existential angst that comes out in either aggression or apathy.
Muslims, particularly influential and well-intentioned groups like the Tablighi-Jamaat, simply dismiss requests for environmental education by saying: “Brother, this world is ephemeral and so we should just prepare for the Afterlife.” Such a simplistic vision of the present and the future and human obligations to the planet, however, is detracting Muslims from reaching their full potentials as stewards of the planet – which was the primordial obligation given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Infusing ecological norms and making decisions based on how the planet would be impacted by them, can actually bind Muslim communities and also improve their relations with non-Muslims and indeed also reduce sectarian strife. There is general consensus that sustaining natural planetary processes is essential for life on earth to continue. A good read in this regard is Ibrahim Abdul Mateen’s book Green Deen. Building on such scriptural invocations, my goal is to tackle the problem of inertia -- why Muslims are still not making such a planetary vision a priority in their lives, and how to change this status quo.
Once we have the knowledge base to appreciate and understand the natural world, we need to change our day-to-day conduct and consider our impacts on the planet. This means changes in behavior in terms of what we eat and drink and the kinds of products we consume and many of the usual edicts one comes across from contemporary environmentalism. Of particular note might be a reconsideration of the dominance of meat in the diets of many Muslims. Apart from certain rituals, there is no injunction in Islam to consume so much meat (particularly cattle meat) which has become a cultural corrosion and has an enormous impact on resource depletion.
Perhaps the most salient behavioral change that Muslims can make is greater awareness of their surroundings and realizing the complex web of interactions that sustains our planet and is manifest majesty of the Divine. Experiential learning is the most effective form of inculcating a value for ecological processes. In January 2013, I am facilitating the launch of a new program in collaboration with the Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California to help teachers and leaders in Islamic schools and mosques implement ecological learning more easily within their curriculum. Imam Dawood Yasin, the Muslim chaplain at Dartmouth College is leading the development of the program. Hopefully this program and others like it will spring up “organically” across the Muslim world and spark a movement of greater consequence. But to have a measurable impact, they will need to be taken seriously by Muslims in their daily lives. Making the connection between science and ecology, and instilling the importance of empirical research within Islamic learning at the earliest stage is the most sustainable way for such a process of inculcation to proceed.By Dr. Saleem H. Ali, Aslan Media
Dr. Saleem H. Ali is currently a professor of sustainability science at the University of Queensland, Australia and a tenured professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont. His most recent book is Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali