An Act of Worship

As Muslims, it’s our sacred duty to hijrah towards climate justice.

IN ISLAM, THE word “ayat” has multiple meanings. It can mean both a verse in the Holy Qur’an and a “sign” or “proof” of God’s existence. This universe, Earth itself, plants and animals, and natural phenomena like night and day and rainfall, which influence life on Earth, are all considered such signs. Now, just imagine if someone were to erase a single verse in the Holy Qur’an. I am certain many Muslims across the world would be outraged. Yet, when the signs of God in nature go extinct, we barely hear a murmur of protest.

[T]here are countless signs on Earth for those with sure faith, as there are within yourselves, can you not see? (Qur’an verse 51:20-21)

I certainly was once among those who could not see. Growing up within the religion in the Indonesian rainforest region of Sumatra, I tended to take the teachings of Islam at face value, even though my family followed several Islamic practices that were environment-friendly, such as not wasting food and observing the ḥadīth, the statement of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) on eating the food that is close to you. I did not think deeply about how some of these teachings and practices were connected to care for the earth until 2004, when I was tasked by the World Wildlife Fund with developing reconstruction guidelines in Aceh province following the deadly tsunami. (I was an urban designer by profession back then. That’s how I got into environmental work.)

people in a tangled wood

The reality of the ecological crisis and climate change represents one of the great moral and ethical issues of our time, which Muslims must respond to with action. Photo by Mat McDermott.

At the time, I tried to get the community involved in coastal rehabilitation efforts, such as replanting mangroves, but, understandably, people were more focused on rebuilding their homes quickly. I wasn’t able to clearly explain climate science to them in the local language. In fact, they wanted to cut down a nearby untouched forest for timber. After a year of trying, a friend recommended I try to connect to the communities through the common language of our faith. On the advice of eco-theologian Fazlun Khalid, the founder of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, I approached the local ulama (Islamic scholars). I told them that memorizing ayats of the Qur’an that emphasize sustainable behavior isn’t enough; one has to put those teachings into practice, too. That was all it took to change their minds and embrace my effort to help the communities rebuild sustainably.

This was a profound moment for me, because it was when I began to understand how environmentalism is deeply embedded in Islam. I began to comprehend how connecting with nature brings us closer to Allah and the Truth, and how working to protect the planet is an act of worship. Ever since, my faith has motivated me on my journey as an Earth defender.

There is no creature on (or within) the earth or bird that flies with its wing except (that they are) communities like you.(Qur’an verse 6:38)

THE HOLY QUR’AN reminds us that we humans are just one of a multitude of communities living on this planet, and it calls on us to recognize that God established the natural world in a life-sustaining balance which we should both respect and protect. It explains that we hold the privileged position among God’s creations as khalifas. The term khalifa is commonly understood to mean a leader or viceregent within the Muslim community. This is how I understood it growing up too. But now I know that the meaning of this word is more nuanced. It means both viceregent and caretaker, and it is the latter meaning that we need to emphasize: Islam directs us to act as khalifas or caretakers of this planet. The 2015 Islamic Declaration on Climate Change — which calls on the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to play an active role in tackling “environmental degradation and the loss of biodiversity” — stresses this interpretation of khalifa.

Islam directs us to act as khalifas or caretakers of this planet.

The Holy Qur’an also tells us to walk gently on the earth: “The true servants of the Most Compassionate are those who walk on the earth humbly” (25:63). American Muslim scholar Imam Zaid Shakir says this verse emphasizes doing the least amount of damage to the environment during our lifetime. Therefore, caring for the environment and protecting it from harm is an obligation (fard) for us, both as individuals (fard al-‘ayn) as well as a collective (fard al-kifayah). As Muslims, we are bound by a moral imperative to treat our shared common home with the care and respect it deserves. Thus, the reality of the ecological crisis and climate change represents one of the great moral and ethical issues of our time, which Muslims must respond to with action.

Indeed, the values and principles established by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), which encourage public good (ma’ruf), forbid wrong action (munkar), and urge us to always act in moderation (i’tidal), already show us the way in terms of taking climate action. Take water use, for instance. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) lived in a desert. He recognized how valuable water was and taught us to use it sparingly. His example takes on new meaning for us today.

WHEN CONSIDERING THE actual state of the world, my heart overflows with concern. Climate-induced floods, droughts, and wildfires are happening more frequently and with more intensity, and it is always those who have done least to cause the problem who suffer the worst consequences: racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, elders, young children, and women. There are significant demographic and geographical disparities as well. Here in the US, it is well-documented that communities of color suffer disproportionately from climate change-induced heatwaves and severe storms.

Internationally, many of the predominantly Muslim countries, especially in North Africa and the Middle East, are among the most impacted parts of the world, despite having done very little to contribute to the climate crisis. The need for climate action and justice is more urgent than ever. Yet the gap between the climate commitments made by our governments, financial institutions, and corporations and what is required to limit catastrophic global temperature rise remains alarmingly large.

Sadly, even in climate-vulnerable Muslim countries, awareness of climate disruption and environmental pollution, as well as action to curb these, has been limited. But that’s changing. I’m heartened to see a growing crop of Muslim environmental activists who are drawing on their faith and pushing against the status quo.

Take, for example, Kadjahtou Balde and Zainab Koli, founders of Faithfully Sustainable, a BIPOC, Muslim-led environmental justice community and resource hub that seeks to merge “faith and environmental sustainability through education, activism, and entrepreneurship.” Or Kori Majeed and Saarah Latif, who compiled 40 Green Hadith in 2020 as part of their GreenFaith Fellowship project, which has since become an inspiration for many Muslim youth around the world. Or 2018 Brower Youth Award winner, Mishka Banuri, the co-founder of Utah Youth Environmental Solutions, which empowers youth to hold government officials accountable in combating the climate crisis.

Many others are pushing for greater energy efficiency in their mosques (masjids) and schools (madrasahs), along with the training of Muslim clerics on the importance of saving energy, or encouraging Muslim pilgrims to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca more sustainable. I’m also seeing more and more Muslims trying to change their habits to walk more lightly on the earth in an effort to integrate these values into our own personal lives. Many of us, for example, are reducing the amount of water we use during our ablution (wudu’), the ritual cleansing of our face, arms, head, and feet before we pray, and approaching Ramadan with a more climate-centric lens by trying to reduce waste.

The Islamic New Year, or Hijri, which marks the start of the Muslim lunar calendar, also commemorates Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) migration (hijrah) from the city of Mecca to Medina (in present day Saudi Arabia) along with his companions to escape persecution, and the establishment of the Muslim community. Muslims understand Hijrah not as only a physical migration that took place more than 1,400 years ago, but also as a constant process of learning, growth, and transformation that we all aspire towards in order to be good khalifas who live in line with the Islamic teachings and values of justice (adl) and compassion (rahma) for the people and the planet.

It is time all of us Muslims put this wisdom into practice and begin leaving behind unsustainable practices and making a hijrah (journey) towards climate justice, towards a future where reverence for the planet and all things living is a way of being. Even for those who feel like it’s too late to save the world, Islam offers hope in action via this ḥadīth:

“If the Final Hour comes while you have a palm-cutting in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.”

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