You hear ‘Muslim activism’, you immediately think ‘environment’. No? Fareena Alam and Abdul-Rehman Malik make some crucial connections.
Ramadan is supposed to be a month of restraint, reflection and repentance. But, walking through the malls of Dubai or Kuala Lumpur, you might not see it like that. In the Muslim world, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar - when believers fast from dawn to dusk, resolve to increase their devotions and attempt to adhere to the high ethical and moral example of the Prophet - has begun to look a lot like ‘Christmas’, complete with gaudy neon sales signs, jam-packed stores and special promotions. Mass consumerism - Western-style - has invaded the Muslim high street.
The punters with their credit cards have never had it so good. Global warming is far from their minds. Still less are they engaging with how to move from climate concern to action - that’s a huge further hurdle, even in countries like Britain where climate change has at least captured the headlines.
To be sure, the spirit of Ramadan continues to thrive, as evidenced by the crowded mosques, the remarkable displays of generosity and charitable giving, and acts of sincere piety. But the rot has begun. As traditional values come up against ersatz globo-culture and the apparent attractions - status, wealth, luxury living - of mass consumption, Muslims must struggle ever harder to make their principles matter. After all, Islam, the oft-quoted Muslim cliché goes, is not merely a religion, but a way of life. It is a fight shared by all people of faith - from London to Lahore.
What then of Muslims in Britain? Last Ramadan, a group of young activists from the pioneering Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES - see box further down) organised the second annual ‘Organic Iftar’. The premise of the event was simple: there are few blessings as special or as honoured as providing some food and drink to help a fellow Muslim end their fasting day - so London Muslims were invited to gather at a University of London hall, but to bring only organic food, preferably homemade dishes, to break the fast. The meal was preceded by some timely reminders about Islam and the environment, and the duty all human beings have to make good on their God-given responsibility to safeguard the planet.
A year earlier, the same event had attracted less than a dozen people. This time the hall was overflowing. Over 150 people struggled for standing room inside the crowded auditorium to hear Cambridge Divinity scholar Abdal-Hakim Murad and Jeremy Smith of The Ecologist talk on the theme ‘We Are What We Eat’. At the meal which followed, a long line of hungry, yet organic-minded Muslims waited patiently to get some grub. Few left unhappy. Most were surprised by the amazing response. Talk turned to doing an even bigger and more influential event next year. The organisers were ecstatic.
“Iraq, global poverty, trade justice, climate change - Muslim environmentalists need to make the case that they’re all connected.”
At the event, Dr Abdal-Hakim noted that although it is striking how much importance the Quran gives to nature and the balance therein, modern Muslims find it hard to work out what that means for us. The reality around us seems so different. Perhaps that is at the root of the very thin performance of Muslim theologians in the area of protecting the environment, organic food, animal husbandry and so on. We have a scripture that offers fertile soil for the development of a profound and striking theology of nature - a contribution that could be central to how Muslims are perceived around the world, he suggested. But it is a symptom of the larger disorder that has crept into the religiosity in the Islamic world, that those countries claiming to be most religious have some of the most acute health problems - Saudi Arabia, for instance, has the world’s second highest incidence of diabetes.
The popularity of the Organic Iftar is indicative of two related trends. Young, politicised Muslims in particular are becoming increasingly aware that Islam calls its followers to action on the environment as stewards and caretakers of creation. They are also concerned that, with notable exceptions such as IFEES, Muslims have until now done little in terms of collective action, either to involve themselves directly in advocating policy change, or, more importantly, to contribute directly to building sustainable communities.
For most Muslims, Islam is more than merely a cultural or political identity. Religion matters - and thus any motivating argument about environmental activism must have at its core a message drawing on the sacred. The spiritual dimension, in other words, is at the heart of ‘Islamic environmentalism’. Nature is a sacred web of relationships, finely balanced and resonating with divinely given life. As the Quran says, “The sun and the moon follow courses precisely reckoned and the stars and the trees bow themselves in adoration and the heavens, God has raised them up, and set a balance. Transgress not in the balance.”
“The Prophet Muhammad once said ‘The Earth is like your mother; you came from it and you will return to it.’”
To transgress this balance is to commit a crime against God. Even the other creatures that inhabit this vast sacred dominion are not considered incidental. “No animal is there crawling on the earth and no bird flying on its wings that is not part of communities like yourselves,” the Quran reminds us. When we disrupt the natural order, we are upsetting communities as complex and diverse as our own. The Prophet Muhammad once said: “The Earth is like your mother; you came from it and you will return to it.”
The relationship is intimate. By polluting the source of life and damaging the Earth we are actually doing irreparable harm to ourselves. Men and women of faith never used to see themselves as separate from the environment. They were always attuned to the natural order and the movement of the sun, the moon and the stars guided their devotions. The reality of climate change and other “inconvenient truths” are indicative of how we have upset both the physical and spiritual order of the earth.
How, then, to reconnect? As Abdal-Hakim Murad puts it: “The Prophet Muhammad gave people something they could actualise in their worlds, in order to give them a form of life that would allow them to reconnect with nature. What is it that we in the modern world can offer?”
To answer this question, he does offer some practical advice. “We can be, as we so often are, moaning from the edges. It cannot be a menu of pure Luddite rejectionism. We need to make calls to people to be recognisably human in the middle of the modern world. Muslims engage in fasting, one of the most ancient of human rituals, perhaps like no other sacred tradition in the world. We pray not according to a timetable set by someone in some distant hierarchy, but in tandem with the planet beneath our feet, the sun and the moon. We break fast when the sun drops below the horizon and no amount of manipulation can alter that. To be embedded in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is to be embedded in the natural world. That is the kind of Muslim voice I think should be heard. We must exist, in the things we say and do, with our lifestyle, to be living witnesses to a form of life that is genuinely pre-modern. We drive cars, become lecturers, use computers - but in the basic patterns of our life, we are following a form of life that is pre-modern.”
The word on the street
This practical message has resonance for a new generation of Muslim environ-mentalists. In London, a remarkable community-based group has grown out of the work of IFEES. The London Islamic Network for the Environment (LINE - www.lineonweb.org.uk), established by the World Development Movement activist and former IFEES project manager Muzammal Hussain, aims to make the message real at the grassroots level - through local events and campaigns where participants can get their hands dirty.
Borrowing from the approach of other community-based social justice movements, Hussain has sought to promote regular local engagement, with monthly meetings and links with existing campaigns, bringing a unique Islamic take to such events as last November’s Campaign for Climate Change march. Both LINE and IFEES also worked with the London Sustainability Exchange (LSx) in an innovative project in Tower Hamlets to sponsor Friday sermons on explicitly environmental issues [see Mosque with a mission].
LINE’s local focus and Hussain’s open-door approach has led to the initiative being replicated in the Midlands (MINE), Sheffield (ShINE) and Wales (WELCOME).
Hussain and others know the importance of broad, collective action. Young Muslim activists may be inspired and guided by their faith, but they must work with other environmentalist, social justice and advocacy groups and organisations to make the change they desire.
Part of this work, particularly on climate change, will take explicitly inter-faith dimensions. This coming autumn, Islamic Relief, the UK’s largest Muslim international aid and development charity, will join in a climate change march sponsored by Christian Aid - a powerful show of how people of faith can take a public stand together.
“Although the Quran gives importance to nature, modern Muslims find it hard to work out what that really means.”
But it’s going to be tough to promote the sustainability agenda, when Britain’s Muslim communities have other clear and present concerns. The current hysteria in some quarters about the perils of multiculturalism, and the wrong-headed linking of security issues with the ‘community cohesion’ and ‘integration’ agendas, is the source of a lot of anger and frustration. Muslims feel both under pressure and under the microscope - and they’re befuddled by the government’s failure to understand the link between foreign policy and the kind of violent extremism that the vast majority of them reject.
British Muslims - particularly young, second-generation ones - are both highly politicised and globalised. They have a unique awareness, and connection, not just to the countries of their parents’ birth, but to their faith community - the ummah - for which they hold a passionate empathy. We must understand what makes a young man from Bradford feel as passionately about his brothers and sisters in Gaza, as he does about his mates down the next street. Individual identities are certainly shaped by global realities.
In this situation, grassroots Muslim environmentalists need to make a convincing case that the politics behind the Iraq debacle, global poverty, trade justice and climate change are intrinsically connected.
The drive to mobilise Muslim communities behind climate change or other environmental issues must not become tribal. This is not an issue about Muslims alone - it is a truly global concern. Environmental disasters will not pick favourites. Islamic environmentalism must maintain its universality and its principle of partnerships. Faith must guide and inspire. It must also unite - hearts, minds and efforts.