To what extent does eco-Islam differ from the wider ecological movement in Britain?

Eco-Islam is a growing movement, mainly centred in Britain, within the Islamic community. In the pamphlet Islam and Climate Change produced by the British eco-Islam group ‘Wisdom In Nature’ (WIN), out of eight ‘Islamic Resources/Groups’ that are linked to, six are based in the UK.1 Groups prominent to this movement include Wisdom In Nature, based in London; the Islamic Foundation for Ecology & Environmental Sciences; the International Muslim Association of Scientists and Engineers; and three regional groups in Reading, Sheffield, and the Midlands. The movement is evidently very new, as Muzammal Hussain notes in his ‘History of Wisdom In Nature and Islamic Environmentalism in the UK’, with Hussain appearing to have been at the centre of the movement’s growth after having helped to start most of the groups around British in the early 2000s.2 This essay is concerned with studying how far eco-Islam fits in with the wider ecological movement within Britain. An interview was conducted with a member of Transition Bath that was based loosely on various themes within eco-Islam, which will be related throughout this essay. The essay will focus on the Islamic themes of mizan, fasad, fitrah and khalifah, which have each been found to have had central prominence within eco-Islamic thought, and their relationship to the the wider ecological movement in Britain with the respondent from Transition Bath giving a representation of one such voice within the wider ecological movement. Firstly, the methodology, definition of ‘eco-Islam’, a comparison of the two groups Wisdom In Nature and Transition Bath, and the degree of variance of beliefs within the eco-Islam movement in Britain will be outlined.

Before this essay may begin analysing the different themes that have been outlined, it is important to outline the particular approach that I have taken in regards to the topic of the essay. I consider myself to be an active environmental activist, being especially involved over the past few years in the grassroots environmental group Transition Bath. I originally planned to use myself as an example of a non-Muslim environmental activist, but after finding such an affiliation with the Islamic teachings about the environment and ecology I decided to interview a friend of mine who has been very central to Transition Bath over the last few years. In order not to misrepresent the priorities for Muslims within the eco-Islam movement in Britain, I likewise conducted a questionnaire that was responded by four people that are affiliated with different groups or organisations that are to be considered to be a part of the eco-Islam movement. For the most part, the essay acts as an analytical overview of the background behind, and the current status of, eco-Islam in Britain. Throughout this essay, various themes will be explored and compared across the spectrum, with the root of the Muslim view being sourced from the literature of the Wisdom In Nature team. The first part of this essay will now evaluate the concept of eco-Islam, and how the concept will be used throughout this essay.

Firstly, this essay will explore the boundary of what is to be considered ‘eco-Islam’. The respondent to the questionnaire from Wisdom In Nature outlined the important difference to them between ‘ecology’ and ‘environmentalism’. Whilst ‘environmentalism’ is a ‘managerial approach to dealing with environmental problems’ that ‘leans to a more reductionist view of the world which…can be problematic’, intrinsic to the concept of ‘ecology’ is the nature of interconnectedness.3 The concept of ecology, being by far the preferable option to the respondent, will thus be used throughout this essay in relation to its intertwining within Islam. There is also a clear inherent difference between ecological thought and ecological practice within Islam. Whilst the Qur’an is considered to cite over 500 verses on ‘matters relating to the environment and how to deal with it’, it is likewise understood from the data that has been collected and from the Wisdom In Nature literature that there has been little recent prominence of ecological thought within Islam.4 It thus seems to be evident that there is a clear difference between what could be seen as ecological thought within Islamic philosophy and ecological thought put into practice. This essay will thus explore both of these ways in which ecology is found within Islam in relation to how important the eco-Islam phenomenon is within Britain. The essay will now give an overview of the two groups, Wisdom In Nature and Transition Bath, that will be centrally used throughout this essay.

For the purpose of this essay, the Islamic organisation Wisdom In Nature will be compared loosely with the secular organisation Transition Bath in order to ascertain the links between the two in thought and practice. Wisdom In Nature, formerly known as the London Islamic Network for the Environment, was founded by Dr Muzammal Hussain, a climate activist with strong views regarding the necessity of people to change to becoming more ecologically-conscious.5 The group is considered to have come out of Hussain’s motivation towards filling the gap in Islamic ecological activism by providing a grassroots form of ecological activism for the Islamic community.6 Hussain himself describes of how the group ‘beat the odds and established itself as a competent, creative and self-aware activist group which has demonstrated that it can deliver’.7 The basis of the group, of creating a ‘safe space to explore Islamic themes in the light of current challenges’, shows how central Islamic faith is to the group.8 I have found this group extremely accessible in terms of its literature availability, and it is quite clear that the group is very much at the centre of the eco-Islam movement in Britain. Transition Bath, which is the group that I have been strongly involved in for the past two years, has a strong grassroots emphasis and considers itself to be an ‘intensely practical organisation, creating ways to make the inevitable move from a high-carbon to a low-carbon society.’9 Interestingly, the respondent from Transition Bath spoke of the importance of faith to them in ecology, that, ‘the desire for a sustainable life is a faith rather than anything else’.10 Whilst both organisations emphasise their practices in ecology on a grassroots level, there seems also to be a potential link in the centrality of faith to the practices of the groups which could be further explored in a later study. For the purpose of this essay, however, I will focus purely on exploring a few key Islamic themes, and will compare them to the beliefs of the Transition Bath respondent so as to understand how much of a link there is between the eco-Islamic thought and a more general ecological thought in Britain. The first issue that will be discussed is of how much of an explanation eco-Islam can give to there being a variance in ecological prominence within British society.

The variance in ecological thinking within Islam is inherently a huge factor for why eco-Islam has arisen as a movement. With eco-Islam being such a new movement, it is understandable why more people are not involved. However, what does need to be addressed is of why many people within the Islamic community are clearly disengaged with ecological thought. A possible explanation posed by WIN is that many Muslims ‘have been successfully programmed to function as robotic consumers’.11 An example of this is of how, despite industrial farming practices not fitting with Islamic core values, GM crops, which are considered to be a part of industrial farming practice, are known to be fed ‘to animals destined for halal slaughter’.12 With 20% of the lamb meat in Britain, which could well have been fed with GM crops, reported to be consumed by Muslims, it is easy to see where Wisdom In Nature’s argument may have come from.13 The response of the respondent from Transition Bath was similar in many ways to this. Whilst the respondent disagreed with the term ‘robotic’ as being ‘a bit harsh’, they did agree that ‘the constant media message’ promoting consumerist behaviour ‘of course…contributes to consumerism and…there’s very little messaging to counteract that’.14 It should, therefore, be acknowledged that top-down consumerist control is deemed to hold a large influence not only on Islamic ecological activity, but also on ecological activity throughout the wider British society. From the data that was collected from the respondents to the questionnaire (see Appendix 1-4), responded by people that are deemed to be centrally involved in eco-Islam in Britain, a number of conclusions could be drawn regarding the variance in engagement of ecological thought. Whilst three of the four respondents stated that ecology or the environment were central or fundamental to their both their life and faith, three of the four respondents suggested that ecology holds little prominence within their faith community.15 Likewise, two of the respondents believe that there is a strong future for the movement of eco-Islam, whilst another believed that, if people move out of their comfort zones, a fundamental change will happen.16 Thus, it seems to be clear that, whilst ecology is seen as central or fundamental to Islamic faith, its actual role in the community at current is not strong, and furthermore the opinion was divided upon if it does have a strong future. It could be, as WIN suggested, that the culture of consumerist control has caused people within the Islamic community to lose touch with the truer principles of their faith, and that a radical change is needed in order for them to get back to their ecological roots. Wisdom In Nature has described four main concepts in regards to the Islamic ecological view. The first of these, mizan, will now be explored.

The concept of mizan, or the natural balance of the world, appears to be central to Islamic ecological thought.17 This natural balance is often seen to be under threat for a number of different reasons. In Islam and Climate Change, WIN describes of how ‘[the] increasing proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has disturbed the mizan, or balance that has been established’, thus leading to ‘effects that will be catastrophic’.18 Many sources, in explaining why this balance should be protected, cite from the Qur’an: ‘Verily, all things have we created in proportion and measure’ (54:49), whilst in some publications an extra quote is given as: ‘It is He who created the heavens and the earth in true (proportions)’ (6:3). The protection of mizan is seen as important likewise in the Fairtrade movement, where it is described that: ‘Islam preaches moderation in consumption, exhorts man to avoid wasteful use of natural resources, and enjoins mankind to maintain the natural balance – principles important in the production of fair trade products and to the consumers who purchase them’.19 In response to this concept of there being a natural balance in the world that should be protected, the Transition Bath respondent suggested it being ‘psychologically unhealthy’ not to view ourselves as likewise a part of nature.20 This suggestion differs from the Islamic view on the natural balance as, whilst in the Islamic view the balance should be protected, this view seems rather to hold the suggestion that, if we are a part of nature itself, then how can we hold an external impact on what happens to the balance in nature? Masri’s clarification that the solution lies in humanity’s ‘total submission’ to ‘the will of this kind of God’, and to ‘try…to carry out His will which He expresses through the laws of nature’ affirms the point made by the Transition Bath respondent, and again bridges the gap between the philosophy of the Transition Bath respondent and what is believed within Islam.21 There is thus very little difference between the Islamic thought and the thoughts expressed by the Transition Bath respondent in regards to this concept of mizan. The second concept that is central to eco-Islam, fasad, will now be discussed in relation to the prominence of eco-Islam in Britain.

It is through disasters, or fasad, that we are pushed back towards a more natural way of living. WIN describes it as such: ‘one of the timeless truths of the ages is that, if we violate God’s natural laws, we run the risk of fasad or disasters coming back at us, reminding us to return to our natural state – to the state of fitrah in which we were created and through which we are able to live in harmony with the wider creation’.22 An interesting part of this statement is the suggestion that this is one of the ‘timeless truths’, which suggests that there is a historical legacy behind returning to a more natural world. The concept of fasad seems to show a force of equilibrium that ensures that the world does not detract too far from the ‘natural state’. When asked about this, the Transition Bath respondent asserted that they did not think that ‘we can say what nature should be’, and that ‘it will react and rebalance within the ecosystems that we have’.23 There is clearly quite a difference between the two sets of beliefs concerning this notion of the equalling effect of disasters on the climate. Whilst the Islamic view appears to be quite God or human-centric, the view of the Transition Bath respondent holds an almost planet-centred stand. The reason for the difference in regards to this theme can be found in looking at the Islamic response to James Lovelock’s gaia theory. Mawil Izzi Dien and Mūʼil Yūsuf ʻIzz al-Dīn’s argument that ‘the ability of the earth to control itself does not imply a divine function, and if the earth rejects abuse of its environment, it is only functioning within the overall system which its Maker has designed for it’ clearly shows the belief that God is ultimately controlling what nature is doing.24 Whilst it is hard to suggest that the Transition Bath respondent was following with Lovelock’s idea of nature looking after itself, the example can show the difference between the views of WIN whereby the ‘natural state’ seems to be very much controlled by God, and the views of the Transition Bath respondent that suggests that nature is a part of a much wider system, with no reference to God. This notion of this difference was also noted by Hussain in an essay in 2004, whereby he stated that whilst ‘Islam points to a creator’, ‘ecologism…tends not to articulate one, even though an ‘ecologist’ might believe that a Creator exists’.25 The Islamic approach thus differs from that of the Transition Bath respondent in regards to fasad based upon the nature of God in the argument. Because of how much the concept of fasad interlinks with that of fitrah, or the ‘pure state’, this latter concept will not be further explored through this essay. Rather, the last concept to be explored will be the concept of khalifah.

An important notion that resounds within the eco-Islam movement is of human beings being the ‘guardians’, or khalifah, of the planet. Within the Qur’an, it is stated on ten different occasions of ‘viceroys’, or guardians, being appointed or placed on the planet. There seems to be no exact definition of humanity as being the guardians guardians that are spoken of within the Qur’an, but it is rather written in similar ways to the example as follows: ‘He it is who hath placed you as viceroys of the earth’.26 Likewise, also within the Qur’an it is stated that ‘No human soul but hath a guardian over it’.27 It is, clearly, quite crucial to differentiate between the terms ‘viceroys’ and ‘guardian’, for in the Pickthall translation of the Qur’an the ‘guardian’ seems nominally to be of divine form, as in the line ‘Lo! there are above you guardians’.28 For the purpose of this essay, the concept that will be related to the Islamic notion of khalifah will be ‘viceroys’. Within the ‘Islam and Climate Change’ booklet, WIN addresses of how we can fulfil our role of khalifah through reducing and replacing our unsustainable energy usage, by strengthening or enriching local communities, by becoming more conscious of our food systems, and through utilising nature as a teacher.29 In relation to khalifah being a God-given role, the Transition Bath respondent stated that they thought that ‘because we have effected such a change…it is our role to repair what we have done as much as we can’, but that they felt ‘a little bit uncomfortable with the idea that that’s a divine situation’.30 What is synonymous in both the Islamic and the Transition Bath respondent’s beliefs is the theme of a ‘role’ that humanity holds towards healing the planet. Whilst the two meet on this level, again they differ in regards to the role of God in orchestrating the situation. This difference appears to be crucial in understanding the difference of eco-Islam to the wider ecological movement.

This essay has shown a parallel in many ways between the central thoughts of eco-Islam and those of the Transition Bath respondent in an attempt to give an understanding of the differences between eco-Islam and the wider ecological movement in Britain. Whilst the views of the Transition Bath respondent can in no way represent the wider movement, it was intriguing to find the similarities between the views of the respondent who I assume has had no deep involvement in Islam in the past, and the themes that are centrally followed within the eco-Islam movement. It can be seen as a great positive for the ecological movement in Britain that the views of the Islamic community seem to have been so easily accepted in the most part by the respondent. The part where the views differed, which mainly concerned the role of God and Nature within ecology, was understandable. Importantly, the respondent agreed with the notion of human beings holding a clear role in the world of clearing up the waste that it has produced; and that we are a part of the same ‘wholeness’ of nature as every other being. In regards to the future of eco-Islam in Britain, I do not consider myself capable of suggesting what this holds for it, especially considering some of the main people within the movement themselves were unable to concretely suggest what the future may hold. However, an observation that was made, that despite ecology playing such an important role within Islamic faith very few people actually take this forward, seems to be central to the understanding of the future of the movement in the Islamic community. If a major change does not happen, whereby people are motivated enough to go outside of their comfort zones in order to explore the ‘ecology in practice’ that is so central to their faith, then likewise no change will happen regarding the future of the eco-Islam movement in Britain. It can be considered the role of everyone within the ecology movement, whether or not in the Islamic part of it, to continue with their inspirational actions in the hope that action may carry forward future changes that will affect people’s thinking.

Word count: 3191/3000

Bibliography

Books

Dien, M.I. and al-Dīn, M.Y.I., The Environmental Dimensions of Islam. 2000, Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press,

Khan, A.A. and Thaut, L., An Islamic Perspective on Fair Trade. 2008, Birmingham: Islamic Relief Worldwide.

Masri, A.H.B.A., ‘Islam and Ecology’ in Fazlun Khalid and Joanne O’Brien eds., Islam and Ecology. 1992, London: Cassell, pp. 1-23.

Wisdom In Nature, ‘Islam and Climate Change: A Call To Heal’. 2010, London: Wisdom In Nature.

Journals

Sophie Gilliat-Ray, ‘Are British Muslims ‘Green’? An Overview of Environmental Activism among Muslims in Britain’. 2011, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, 5(3), pp. 284-306.

Websites

Meat Trades Journal, ‘Eblex to Release Halal Meat Report’. 2010, [Online] Available from: http://meatinfo.co.uk/news/archivestory.php/aid/11873/Eblex_to_release_halal_meat_report.html [Accessed: 13.03.13].

Transition Bath, ‘What We Do’. 2009, Transition Bath, [Online] Available from: http://www.transitionbath.org/what-we-do [Accessed 15.03.13].

Wisdom In Nature

– ‘Genetically Modified Foods & Islam: Intro’. 2009, [Online] Available from: http://www.wisdominnature.org.uk/Resources/GM/gmintro.htm [Accessed 04.03.13].
– Muzammal Hussein, ‘History of Wisdom In Nature and Islamic Environmentalism in the UK’. 2009, [Online] Available from: http://www.wisdominnature.org.uk/About%20Us/About_Us_docs/history.htm [Accessed 12.03.13].

Primary sources

Pickthall, M.M., The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an. 1938, Hyderabad-Deccan: Government Central Press, 6:165.

1Wisdom In Nature, Islam and Climate Change: A Call To Heal. 2010, London: Wisdom In Nature, p. 14.

2Muzammal Hussein, ‘History of Wisdom In Nature and Islamic Environmentalism in the UK’. 2009, Wisdom In Nature, [Online] Available from: http://www.wisdominnature.org.uk/About%20Us/About_Us_docs/history.htm [Accessed 12.03.13]

3Appendix 3.

4Al-Hafiz B.A. Masri, ‘Islam and Ecology’ in Fazlun Khalid and Joanne O’Brien eds., Islam and Ecology. 1992, London: Cassell, pp. 1-23, p. 2.

5Hussein, ‘History of Wisdom In Nature and Islamic Environmentalism in the UK’.

6Sophie Gilliat-Ray, ‘Are British Muslims ‘Green’? An Overview of Environmental Activism among Muslims in Britain’. 2011, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, 5(3), pp. 284-306, p. 294.

7Hussain, ‘History of Wisdom In Nature and Islamic Environmentalism in the UK’.

8Appendix 3.

9Transition Bath, ‘What We Do’. 2009, Transition Bath, [Online] Available from: http://www.transitionbath.org/what-we-do [Accessed 15.03.13].

10Appendix 5.

11Wisdom In Nature, Islam and Climate Change: A Call To Heal, p. 6.

12Wisdom In Nature, ‘Genetically Modified Foods & Islam: Intro’. 2009, Wisdom In Nature, [Online] Available from: http://www.wisdominnature.org.uk/Resources/GM/gmintro.htm [Accessed 04.03.13].

13‘Eblex to Release Halal Meat Report’. 2010, Meat Trades Journal, [Online] Available from: http://meatinfo.co.uk/news/archivestory.php/aid/11873/Eblex_to_release_halal_meat_report.html [Accessed: 13.03.13].

14Appendix 5.

15Appendix 1-4.

16Appendix 1-4.

17Wisdom In Nature, Islam and Climate Change: A Call To Heal, p. 3

18Wisdom In Nature, Islam and Climate Change: A Call To Heal, p. 3.

19Ajaz Ahmed Khan and Laura Thaut, An Islamic Perspective on Fair Trade. 2008, Birmingham: Islamic Relief Worldwide, p. 8.

20Appendix 5.

21Masri, ‘Islam and Ecology’, p. 22.

22Wisdom In Nature, Islam and Climate Change: A Call To Heal, p. 4.

23Appendix 5.

24Mawil Izzi Dien and Mūʼil Yūsuf ʻIzz al-Dīn, The Environmental Dimensions of Islam. 2000, Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, p.22.

25Muzammal Hussain, ‘Environmental Perspectives: Islam and Ecologism’. 2004, Wisdom In Nature, p. 3.

26Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an. 1938, Hyderabad-Deccan: Government Central Press, 6:165.

27Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, 86:4.

28Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, 82:10.

29Wisdom In Nature, Islam and Climate Change: A Call To Heal, pp. 7-8.

30Appendix 5.

Originally an essay submitted in March 2013 for the Muslim World Year 3 Study of Religions module at Bath Spa University.

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