courtesy Jordan Tourism Board
Early in the 7th century, soon after Muslims established themselves in what is now the holy city of Medina, the Prophet Muhammad surveyed the natural resources in the region – the riverbeds (called wadis), the rich, black volcanic soil, the high rangelands – and decreed that they be preserved and set aside as a hima, a “protected place.”
“Verily Abraham declared Makkah a sanctuary and I declare Al-Madinah, that which lies between its two lava flows, to be a sanctuary; its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted,” he told his followers.
This uniquely Middle Eastern nature conservancy plan, with roots in antiquity, is a locally managed preserve in which the members of surrounding communities control use of the land to conserve water, flora, and fauna. Dating to pre-Islamic times, the hima is considered among the world’s oldest conservation systems. There were at one time thousands of himas across the Arabian Peninsula, owned by tribal chiefs who used them for hunting, for the exclusive grazing of their personal flocks, or to oppress locals by cutting them off from resources. According to one medieval Arab jurist, the boundaries of a hima were determined by how far away the tribal leader’s dog could be heard barking from a centrally located high point.
“We’ve seen the return of endangered species to areas where we’d given up hope of seeing them again – places that had become dump sites.”
With the coming of Islam, the socially-conscious Muhammad transformed the hima from a private enclave into a public asset, in which all community members had a share and a stake, in accordance with their duty as stewards (khalifa) of Allah’s natural world. As Islam expanded, so did the concept of the hima, as rehabilitated by the Prophet.
“Muslims have a common share in three [things],” the Prophet declared, “grass, fire, and water.”
With an eye to this Islamic past, and another to the environmental challenges of the present, some Middle Eastern conservationists are looking to the ancient model of the hima to address the modern problem of preserving threatened habitat. Their objectives are essentially the same as the Prophet’s: to help rural communities protect natural areas such as woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands from over-exploitation. Instead of cutting people off from the land, as in a formal protected area, himas encourage traditional uses that are compatible with or contribute to the environmental health of a site.
A commitment to stewardship of the environment is not unique to Islam. Both Judaism and Christianity speak of environmental responsibility in their sacred texts, while Buddhism and Jainism, as well as Native American cultures, take a holistic, interdependent view of Earth and its ecology.
The refrain in the creation story in the book of Genesis is that God looked upon all that he made and declared that “it was good.” The human connection with the environment is underscored in Genesis 2:7, in which God created Adam from “the dust of the ground.” Prominent Jewish thinkers throughout the centuries have argued that human beings should never forget that they are inextricably linked to the environment and that every thing has a dignity and right to an unmolested existence. In his Guide to the Perplexed, the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides put it this way: “All the other beings have been created for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else.”
In response to the world’s environmental crises, many of Christianity’s multiple faith traditions are united by the search for a spiritual response to man-made ecological challenges. Acknowledging God’s immanent presence in all of nature by virtue of His spirit (Logos), many Christian theologians have viewed appreciation for the environment as a means to divine unity. “God ... is present everywhere in and through the whole creation in all its parts and in all places,” Martin Luther wrote. Today, a so-called “Ecological Reformation” is on the agenda of Christian theologians who feel that human beings bear a moral responsibility to recognize “the theological and biological fact of human kinship with all other creatures,” according to Christian environmentalist Dieter T. Hessel.
The Vedic traditions and texts of Hinduism are rife with symbolic imagery that emphasizes a connection with the natural world. Early seals (c. 3,000 BCE) from the Indus River Valley depict trees as life-giving symbols, while the sacred Ganges River is commonly referred to among Hindus as “Mother Ganges.” The Hindu doctrine of Dharma calls for behavior that benefits all the world, including nature, and in certain parts of India this philosophy is taken into account when projects that affect the environment, such as dams, are considered. Meanwhile, practitioners of the Jaina tradition share with Hindus a respect for all life. Jaina monks and nuns famously sweep the pathways before them, so as not to tread on any bugs.
Rooted in the deeply metaphysical philosophies of the Chinese ancients Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, Daoism speaks to those who seek a rejection of the complexities of civilization in favor of the pursuit of a cosmic environment in which balance and harmony are expressed in the fundamental concepts of yin (contraction) and yang (expansion). While intensely cerebral and focused on a world beyond the senses, Daoism nonetheless recognizes that attention to the details of order, in the universe as well as the backyard and home (as practiced by the Daoist tradition of feng shui), is critical to one’s life journey toward perfection. With its focus on the spiritual coupled with its devotion to environmental harmony, the Daoist approach to nature might be best summarized in the eco-tourist slogan, “Leave no footprint.”
The theme of kinship with Earth is central to Native American cultures, from northern Maine to southern California. Care for the environment is a governing creed among North American spiritual traditions, which view human existence in terms of sustainability and balance with the natural world. When the systems of nature are broken by human behavior, everyone and everything suffers. Humans, therefore, have a responsibility to care for Earth. As the Lakota thinker, Luther Standing Bear, wrote in his 1933 work, Land of the Spotted Eagle: “All this was in accordance with the Lakota belief that man did not occupy a special place in the eyes of Wakan Tanka, the Grandfather of us all. I was only a part of everything that was called the world.
“The overall goal is to fuse traditional practices with recent developments in conservation science, as a way to achieve sustainable development,” says Assad Serhal, director general of the Beirut-based Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL), the organization spearheading the initiative to revive himas in Lebanon and throughout the region. Working closely with SPNL are a host of local and international conservation organizations, such as the Christian conservation group A Rocha Lebanon, BirdLife International, and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
Restricted activities in himas include grazing, in certain areas and only at certain times, as well as the cutting of trees and grasses. Hunting is also tightly regulated. The main goal of a hima is to promote the economic well-being of local communities by safeguarding the sustainability of nearby resources. In the process, another goal is achieved: protecting regional biodiversity.
“We’ve seen the return of endangered species to areas where we’d given up hope of seeing them again – places that had become dump sites or where there was hunting,” says Dalia Al-Jawhary, SPNL’s hima site manager.
Although known by different names in different parts of the Muslim world, the hima has remained consistent in its philosophy: to entrust the preservation of the land to local people, for the sake of the people themselves and the environment, within the framework of Islamic law, or shari’a.
“The prophet Muhammad laid down guidelines that transformed the hima into one of the essential instruments of conservation in Islamic law,” says hima advocate and authority Othman Abd Ar-Rahman Llewellyn of the Saudi National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development. “It is the most widespread and long-standing, indigenous, traditional protected-area institution in the Middle East, and perhaps on Earth.”
But with the emergence of postcolonial, modern Muslim states, known for their complex bureaucracies and centralized governments, himas were engulfed by ministry-controlled swaths of public land. Although a handful of academics, including Llewellyn, continued to study and advocate himas as a conservation model (not to mention an important cultural institution), by the late 20th century, the hima system was all but forgotten. That was until SPNL – while surveying the boundaries of an important migratory bird flyway in the southern Lebanese hilltop town of Ebel es Saqi – discovered old maps of the region drawn during the French Mandate of the 1930s.
“We noticed large areas on the maps that were designated as himas, a concept that had slowly dissipated since Ottoman times,” SPNL president Ramzi K. Saidi says.
Inspired by the potential of a system that was already familiar and community-based, as opposed to remote and government-imposed, SPNL, in partnership with BirdLife International, worked with residents of Ebel es Saqi and the marshland village of Kfar Zabad in Lebanon’s western Bekaa Valley to establish himas in both sites in 2004. The idea was to shift responsibility for the land from the in-baskets of beleaguered bureaucrats and onto the shoulders of the local population.
“Himas create a connection between the community and the land,” Al-Jawhary says. “When people feel ownership of the land, they begin protecting it.”
SPNL helped set up oversight committees composed of local farmers, town officials, and a cadre of specialists such as agricultural engineers, botanists, and even archaeologists, whose input is sometimes required in a corner of the world where the casual turn of a spade can unearth biblical-era treasures. The committees meet regularly to discuss the progress of projects that provide sanctuary for wildlife as well as economic opportunity for locals.
At Hima Ebel es Saqi, for instance, the use of traditional shepherd paths for hiking trails has attracted eco-tourists, especially birders, who come to catch glimpses of the Dalmatian pelican, the pygmy cormorant, and the white-tailed sea eagle, among other endangered species, migrating between Europe and Africa. This tourist influx provides local beekeepers and goatherds with a ready market for their products, and bed-and-breakfast opportunities for enterprising families.
“The hima has had a very positive effect in this community,” says Kasim Shoker, mayor of Kfar Zabad. “Not only has it helped improve the economy, but it has made local people recognize the value of the land and have greater respect for its biodiversity.”
Still, convincing everyone that himas are a viable option is not always easy. In the coastal village of Qoleileh in south Lebanon, the site of SPNL’s first marine hima, the local fishing industry was devastated by the July 2006 war between Israel and Hamas. Fishermen lost their boats, nets, and other equipment and resorted to the environmentally disastrous practice of dynamite fishing or using poisons to kill fish in order to make a living.
As Islam spread, so did its social institutions, himas among them. Today the tradition of the hima exists, in one form or another, in various far-flung corners of the Muslim world, from the Pacific Rim to North Africa. Though known by different names, each hima remains true to the mission of the original model established by the Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago: to function as a collective natural resource, maintained by and for local communities.
In the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Berber villagers preserve pasture land and irrigated meadows called agdal, a Berber word meaning “pasture.” The rugged Oukaimedene agdal is located at Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Generations of Berber agro-pastoralists, the Ourika and Rhiraya tribal peoples, have shared the agdal since the 17th century, cultivating barley and wheat on terraced land carved out of the steep mountain slopes. The sacredness of the land to both tribes, plus its remoteness, has kept the agdal protected from overuse and exploitation, though a
proposed skiing resort is a potential threat.
The Syrian name for himas is similar: mahima, though they are also known as mar’aa. In the highlands along the Syrian-Lebanese border, himas are chiefly used for the winter grazing of goats. Up until 1930, there was a roughly 250-acre hima set aside for retired horses in downtown Damascus, in an area called al-Marj al-Akhdar (the green lush meadow) extending from the Umayyad square into the Salihiya district, a neighborhood now engulfed by shops, hotels, and urban sprawl.
Environmentalists with the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, in cooperation with CARE International, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, have been working since 2001 to establish a hima on the island of Misali. This locale supports some of the finest coral reefs in the western Indian Ocean, and the hima would serve as a habitat for hundreds of species of fish, monkeys, and the rare pemba flying fox, as well as a nesting site for green and hawksbill turtles.
“It took us a year to convince them that these methods were destructive and that there were alternatives,” Qoleileh site manager Tala Khatis says.
Working in cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, BirdLife International, IUCN, and the Qoleileh municipality, SPNL helped to rebuild the local fishing fleet by donating new boats and equipment. Beating swords into fishhooks, as it were, they also transformed a building once used as a United Nations Forces headquarters into a storage facility for fishermen and a tourism welcome center. According to Khatis, the most challenging part wasn’t acquiring the boats, bricks and mortar: It was establishing trust with the locals.
“They were accustomed to having NGOs come in and forbidding them from using their land, dictating to them what they could and could not do,” she says. “Our approach was to help them use the land and the resources in a way that was good for everyone.”
Today, the fishermen of Qoleileh have returned to using nets to catch fish, as well as to diving, a traditional method employed by generations of locals. In addition, fishermen are augmenting their incomes by operating diving trips for tourists.
The himas at Qoleileh and Kfar Zabad have much to offer researchers as well. By cordoning off and protecting parcels of land, himas create living laboratories where biologists can study local habitats.
“Himas can be valuable for studying the interactions between plants and human beings,” says Lebanese botanist Houssam Shaiban during a visit to Kfar Zabad. “Because grazing is controlled and not random, we can see how this affects the regeneration of certain endemic plants.”
Himas have been established from the Dead Sea to the rocky wadis of northern Oman to the indigenous juniper, olive, and Ziziphus spina-christi (Christ-thorn) forests of Lebanon. They provide valuable seed banks for rehabilitating rangelands threatened by overgrazing and development and also play a role in combating sand dune encroachment. They may even make deserts bloom with exotic fruit, according to Al-Jawhary.
“Every environmental system is unique,” she says. “In Qatar, for example, where we are trying to establish himas, they grow a certain kind of truffle called the desert truffle, which looks sort of like a potato. It is not only a delicacy, but has cultural value among the people there, who search for it on weekends with family members.”
Fauna also benefit. At Hima Kfar Zabad – one of Lebanon’s few remaining wetlands – the regeneration of tall grasses has provided new habitat for birds. Some bird species prey on rodents, which has reduced local farmers’ need to use harmful agro-chemicals.
“Birds feel safe in the tall grasses and reeds,” says Sami abu Rjayli, a farmer and site support group coordinator for Kfar Zabad. “They also like to eat rodents. Since the birds have come back, I haven’t had to use rodenticide on any of my crops.”
Other fauna that abu Rjayli has seen making a comeback include red fox, swamp lynx, and the river, or Eurasian, otter, listed as “near-threatened” by the IUCN.
“Pesticides and human activity, such as hunting, typically make an area uninhabitable for otters, and this was the case at Kfar Zabad,” says Al-Jawhary. “So we didn’t expect to see the otter come back, but were pleased and surprised that it did.”
Today, the waterways of this fertile valley of cherry orchards and almond trees, nestled between Mount Lebanon and the eastern Lebanon massifs, are clean and otter-friendly, thanks to a new German-engineered wastewater treatment plant – part of the hima’s overall management plan. And water management, Al-Jawhary says, is the key to a wetland environment.
“Clean water attracts water birds, who in turn increase the biodiversity of the site, which helps regenerate pollination systems,” she says. Birds can also serve as indicators of the impacts of climate change, and a long-term goal of SPNL at Kfar Zabad is to increase water levels at the site to provide additional habitat for several species of endangered birds, including the pallid harrier, the imperial eagle, and the Syrian serin.
In this war-torn yet remarkably resilient country, himas have even provided safe haven for humans. During the 2006 war, hundreds of refugees fled the southern parts of country and settled in Kfar Zabad, putting a strain on resources. SPNL responded by helping displaced people find work and distributing food donated by neighboring countries and relief agencies. The initiative, SPNL director Serhal says, helped form lasting ties between conservationists and locals.
“In times of war, governments are paralyzed, whereas people on the ground keep mobile and active,” Serhal says. “This is why conservation management should be decentralized in countries like ours.”
Writer Tom Verde holds an MA in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations from Hartford Seminary, in Hartford Connecticut, and is on the faculty at King’s Academy in Jordan. A version of this story originally appeared in Saudi Aramco World.
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