Can “green fatwas” combat climate change?

Published online 22 November 2016

Climate change is forging a connection between science and religion in the Islamic world.

Sarah Hiddleston

Palmer at a ceremony commemorating the pilgrim city of Kano, Nigeria, becoming a founder member of the Green Pilgrimage Network.
Palmer at a ceremony commemorating the pilgrim city of Kano, Nigeria, becoming a founder member of the Green Pilgrimage Network.
© ARC / Katia Marsh
Climate-change negotiations in Morocco have ended, and now, the Middle East and North Africa region, and the Muslim world at large might wonder how climate change mitigation fits in with daily life.  

Science can produce the data to track emissions and the technology for alternative energy solutions. But, some experts believe that it is the human element, the stories of life, that can bring change. 

Both oil-rich nations dragging their feet on emissions targets in MENA and some of the countries worst affected by global warming, including Bangladesh, Maldives and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, have a story in common – Islam. 

The Islamic Declaration on Climate Change issued last year, which called upon Muslims to phase out fossil fuels and commit to 100% renewable energy by 2050, was a watershed moment. Stewardship of the environment within Islam runs deeper.  

Following Greenaccord 2016, a forum that brings together scientists and media on environmental issues, Nature Middle East talks to Martin Palmer, from the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) about the role religion plays in changing human behaviour, the rediscovery of Islam’s philosophy on ecology and growth, and the long road to change in the Arab region.

NME: What does religion have to do with mitigating climate change?

MP: Climate change is not the issue, the issue is human behaviour. We are not going to be able to deal with climate change unless we deal with human greed, arrogance, stupidity and pride. By what values will we decide what to do? Faith sets a moral framework. Living simply and remembering how dependent we are on the grace of God and generosity of human behaviour is not the same thing as talking about ecosystem deliverables. Ecosystem deliverables is a manifestation of the problem.  

The faiths also think in generations. This is not a quick fix situation. Most people are brought to a realisation of the need for change not by short campaigns, but networks of people talking about what makes a difference in their lives. Unless something moves us beyond what we believe is our place in the cosmos, nothing is really going to change.

NME: Dialogue between scholars of Islam has brought about the rediscovery of core philosophies relating to ecology. What are these?

MP: The basis of the Qu’ran is that this world does not belong to us. We have the responsibility for the correct management of this planet. Therefore respect, care and protection are important. 

The story that has brought Islam to be active on climate change is one that teaches us not to be wasteful. The Prophet is by a river and the time comes to wash before evening prayers. He does everything from just a bowl of water, because that’s all he needs.  There are other beautiful teachings in the Hadith. On species protection: the Prophet castigates his friends one day for throwing stones at a mother bird helping her young to fly. They are all in the eye of God, and they will report, he says. On population: the Prophet responds you can have only "as many children as the earth can support."

NME: Environmental economists talk about green growth, more holistic in what it delivers for humanity and more sustainable in the long term for the planet. How does this fit with Islamic teachings about investments?

MP: Islam is playing an interesting role in setting an alternative model for economics built on social entrepreneurism. It challenges many of the assumptions of contemporary capitalism and particularly consumerist capitalism. Take zakat, the obligatory 2.5% tax on disposable income …. The role of it is not just charity, but to enable investment in families so they contribute to tax in a couple of years. It is no accident that the whole microfinance movement came out of a Muslim organisation. 

The secular financial world has spotted how much money there is in Islam from zakat and now all major secular banks have sharia compliant boards. Sharia (non-usury) investing has grown from one bank in 1973 to ... [trillions] worth of investment at the moment. 

Islam’s rediscovery of the ban on usury has triggered within other faiths an exploration of their stance towards interest. Islam now needs to invest in a way we earn that supports the values we believe in – that is, faith-consistent investing.

We are working with the UNDP and OECD, focusing on how financing from all faiths could shift into supporting alternative energy, alternative housing, sustainable forestry and more. The Islamic Development Bank is leading the way. 

Last February it announced more than US$734 million for projects including upgrading a slum in Indonesia, a power plant efficiency improvement project in Bangladesh, a water supply project in Iran and a rural development project in Cameroon.

NME: Where in the Muslim world has the ARC had most success?

MP: We help faiths unlock teachings, infrastructure and investments. We look at what resources they have, help to work out what can be done with those, and link them up with secular groups. When we started in the 1990s dynamite fishing of the coast of Kenya was a problem. Huge amounts of money were spent studying it, but no one was talking to anyone locally. We were brought in with our Muslim colleagues and went through the Qu’ran, Hadith and Sharia. After two days the Sheikhs issued a declaration that this was un-Islamic and within two months dynamite fishing had ceased. 

Recently in Indonesia, two fatwas were issued. The first was in 2014 against illegal wildlife trade and illegal forestry, and the second was two months ago against the burning of the forests. That fatwa is being looked at by Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria.

It took us 12 years to develop the academic background. We’ve worked closely with Jakarta University, The Centre for Islamic Ecology at Lampeter, University of Wales, with Al-Azar University in Cairo, with Jordan, where Prince Hassan has been a huge supporter and hosted a lot of meetings. Qatar and Dubai have set up Islamic conferences and institutes for the study of Islam and ecology. Saudi Arabia has broadcast TV programmes about our care for nature.

NME: What kind of engagement have you had with the Arab world?

MP: Some great work has been done on greening the Hajj. This came about from a project on sacred land.  People want to be in touch with the sacred but it’s killing the sites. We were told that 100 million plastic bottles were left behind. Together with organisations including UK-based Global One, and the Muslim World League, based in Saudi Arabia, we looked at how to rebuild into pilgrimage the notion of living simply. How to make transport more ecological? Saudi Arabia has now built a railway network to bring pilgrims there. How to make the provision of water less wasteful? The Muslim community looked at Sikh pilgrims at Amritsar, who take flasks and fill them from a water system with huge tanks. The head of the largest North African Sufi movement, with eight million members, then asked pilgrims to bring a flask and bring it home. You reintroduce the artefacts of pilgrimage and you get rid of the disposability of tourism. It’s been remarkably successful. 

NME: How significant is the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, authored by Muslim scholars and clerics from around the world, including the Grand Muftis of Lebanon and Uganda, in providing this kind of impetus for change? 

MP: It was a notable gathering of Islamic groups and the declaration is historic. The next step is for each group to detail what the world would look like if this declaration were taken seriously. The fatwas in Indonesia were accompanied by five-year development plans that included training for Imams, resources for 80,000 Islamic schools, and work with government relating them to codes of law. Similarly for faith-consistent investing, the next step is protocols.