Overview Essay


Islam: Norms and Practices

Zainal Abidin Bagir and Najiyah Martiam

Originally published in the Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology

See also Islam and Ecology: Toward Retrieval and Reconstruction” by S. Nomanul Haq from the Fall 2001 issue of Daedalus


Contemporary Muslims’ concern about Islamic understandings of nature can be traced back to a series of lectures in 1966 delivered by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, linking environmental degradation to spiritual and moral crises of the modern world. Yet, four decades later Nasr said, “general indifference to the environmental crisis and apathy in seeking to find solutions to it based on Islamic principles continued until the 1980s and 1990s, when, gradually, voices began to be heard concerning this issue” (Nasr 2003, 86). This does not mean that nothing happened in the four decades. For example, in the mid 1980s Fazlun Khalid developed the Islamic Foundation For Ecology and Environmental Sciences (http://www.ifees.org.uk/), which is now active in a number of Muslim countries. In terms of publications, the anthology Islam and Ecology (2003), which is part of the Harvard Series on World Religions and Ecology, has prominently marked the new development.

Locating this discourse in the broader landscape of contemporary Islamic thought, which consists mostly of responses to modernity), it is clear that the issue of ecology does not occupy an important place yet. After 9/11, political issues such as radicalism and terrorism (with the brutality of ISIS as its most recent and vivid manifestation), democracy, human rights, and the equality of women and religious others, have exhausted the energies of contemporary Muslim thinkers. 

As an illustration, it is instructive to see that in Progressive Muslims, a book attempting “to reflect critically on the heritage of Islamic thought and to adapt it to the modern world,” which was expected to mark “a new chapter in the rethinking of Islam in the twenty-first century” (Safi 2003, 5, 6), ecological concerns were completely absent. Its two main foci were gender justice and pluralism, which reflected the intention of the authors to offer alternative Islamic voices to counter negative portrayals of Islam in a freshly post-9/11 world. Another illustration is The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought (Abu Rabi’, 2006), which featured writings on terrorism, political movements, and women, but not on environmental problems in Muslim countries. The entry on “Theology” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (Morewedge 2013) summarizes main theological currents in Islam since its early history, but when it comes to challenges to theology in the twenty first century, it lists only political events: Israel-Palestine conflicts, post-9/11 terrorism and its aftermath, and the so-called “clash of civilizations.” The examples can be easily multiplied.

Identifying the environmental crisis as a particular problem of the modern world, as Nasr and many other scholars do, brings them quickly to two of its main components, i.e. modern science and the dominant modern economic system, both of which can legitimately be characterized to some extent as Western. Starting from the realization that at the root of the crisis is a modern metaphysics that desacralizes nature—expressed in both modern science and the capitalist economy that has led to the exploitation of nature—the solution offered is naturally an alternative metaphysics, manifested in some alternative science and economic system.

Nasr has argued for an alternative science since his first work on this issue (1969). One of the prominent arguments in the discourse of “Islamic science” that developed in the 1980s and 1990s had to do with attempts to provide an alternative mode of relation with the natural world. The “Islamic science” movement, including a variation expressed in the term “Islamization of knowledge,” was booming for some time, although it did not develop far enough toward the creation of a distinct system of science and technology as hoped for by its proponents. Furthermore, even in this more proximate, discourse of Islam and science, ecological concerns have not figured importantly.

The idea of Islamic economy developed around concerns related to the negative impacts of modern economy, especially its failure to deliver justice and its exploitation of nature. Despite the mushrooming of Islamic (or shari’a) financial institutions, this trend too has seldom been taken up in a way that also considers its relation with environmental problems. Instead, its focus has been promoting shari’a-compliance, understood in very technical terms as avoiding usury.

While shari’a looms large in the Islam and ecology discourse, it is hardly connected to the broader discourse about the place of shari’a in the modern world. All this shows that, despite the rise in publication of works on Islam and ecology in the past decade, and despite the similarity of the structure of environmental and other contemporary problems as well as their methodological challenges, this issue has not been integrated with the wider issues of Muslim responses to the modern/contemporary world.

Turning to methodology, a popular strand in Islamic responses to environmental issues is defensive, if not apologetic. A major characteristic of the discourse consists of expositions of how Islam, as shown in its traditions (especially the two canonical sources, the Quran and hadith), has actually been or has the potential to be a “green religion.” In communities in which religion still plays a central justificatory role, such a normative understanding should not and cannot be evaded, but this kind of overtly textual exposition does not go far enough to respond to new ecological knowledge and environmental problems.

It is anachronistic to think that a centuries-old tradition should be prepared with answers to any emergent question, especially questions that have not yet been asked, at least not in the magnitude of today’s environmental crisis. Considering the possibility and plurality of interpretations within Islam (an-Na’im 2008), the main issue is what kinds of interpretation can best respond to the problems at hand. What is urgent is a broader hermeneutic insight that focuses on solving the problems. At this point it becomes urgent to focus more attention on the practices of believers and not only to normative sources as means of justification.

This chapter shows some new developments in that direction, that is, studies which do not only look at the primary normative, textual sources of Islam, but also at the existing practices of Muslims as an alternative source of Islamic/Muslim normativity on ecological issues. Attention to practices, as illustrated in this chapter with examples from Muslims in Indonesia and the U.S., further serves as a reminder of the pluralism within Islam, which originated in different readings of Islamic textual sources, but also the practices of Muslims in different places. This suggestion signals some difficult epistemological challenges related to how we should understand Islamic normativity, which will be discussed later.


Challenges to the theological discourse

There has been a broad agreement in Qur’anic interpretation regarding the metaphysical framework around which the discourse of Islam and ecology has developed since the 1960s, expressed in a few central concepts. The existence of the one God (tawhid), the Creator, on whom the existence of the created world depends absolutely, forms the basis of Islamic belief. The natural world is understood as muslim, in the sense that it cannot but submit (aslama, from which the name of the religion, islam, is derived) to God’s will (Ozdemir 2003, 16ff). Human beings, who received revelations from God, occupy a distinctive place in the order of nature.

The single most important concept in this framework,which almost always appears centrally in discussions of Islam and ecology, is khalifa, the idea that human beings are created as God’s vicegerents or stewards in the world. Inasmuch as it was a human being (Adam) who was taught the names of all things, humans occupy a special position in creation because, through God’s education (revelation), it is they who name all creation as objects. This unequal and asymmetrical relation between humans and the rest of creation may easily give the impression that it is human beings who make decisions about other creations, including to exploit them. There are also a number of Qur’anic verses which clearly state that the natural world exists for humans to take benefit from (Ozdemir 2003, 26). Following such an interpretation of the Qur’an, it is difficult to avoid the idea that human beings are special in the order of nature.

Some critics see such anthropocentrism as detrimental to environmental preservation. For example, such a concern was voiced strongly by Afrasiabi (1998), who pointed out the prevalence of anthropocentric images derived from Islamic sources, even by scholars engaging the environmental crisis. He argued that “an alternative Islamic theology that would be capable of integrating within its horizon the fundamental ecological precepts” is required to deconstruct such an image. For Afrasiabi, such a theology would present a non-anthropocentric conception of Islam, and a view of human beings not grounded in “the stereotypical monarchical connotation of vicegerency”; it would comprise a non-utilitarian “theology of the inorganic.” In a passing remark, Foltz has also mentioned that an eco-friendly interpretation of Islam should not be hierarchical (Foltz 2003, 249).

Those suggestions raise important questions. Acknowledging plurality of interpretations in Islam, one question is whether non-anthropocentric expectations are within the scope of possible interpretations of Islamic sources, especially given the strength and centrality of the notion of humankind’s role as khalifa. Does the concept of khalifa necessarily lead to anthropocentrism with all its negative implications for preservation of nature? The project of reconstructing Islamic ecotheology does not need to be an all-or-nothing affair; it is more realistic to see a variety of Islamic cosmologies presenting a spectrum in which non-human beings occupy different degrees of significance relative to humans. Taking a few chapters in Islam and Ecology (2003) as samples, we can already discern differences in how khalifa is understood despite apparent universal agreement on its centrality.

First of all, the so-called “Islamic anthropocentrism” is mitigated to the extent that it becomes a type of anthropocentrism that does not necessarily lead to unduly destructive exploitation of nature. In some interpretations, khalifa is effective only insofar as human beings remain the obedient servant (‘abd) of God, to whom all human and non-human beings submit (Nasr 2003; Haq 2003). In this regard, human and non-human beings are equal, the only difference between them being that the latter are necessarily muslims, while the former has the choice to submit to God or not. Second, the relation between humankind as khalifa and non-human beings is not necessarily a straightforward relation of domination as implied by Afrasiabi. Ibrahim Ozdemir (2003) for example, affirms that indeed in Islam “human beings are at the top of the great chain of being,” but immediately qualifies this by saying that they are not “the owners of nature nor is the sole aim of nature is to serve human beings and their ends.” While in the Qur’an and hadith one may find texts with the view that non-human animals are valued mainly for the services they provide for humans, there are also texts with the understanding that animals have value of their own, apart from their usefulness to humans (Foltz 2006, 3, 4). A further position in the spectrum is given in Chisti’s account of khalifa, which goes so far as to say that “every life-form possesses intrinsic value independent of its resource worth to humanity” (Chisti 2003, 76). Within the genre of philosophical mysticism the significance of non-human beings is articulated even more strongly. A more recurrent theme in the Qur’an is nature as the object of spiritual contemplation rather than exploitation. A further position in this regard is a non-anthropocentric Muslim worldview in which humans and non-humans are regarded as equal persons, which is discussed below.


Shari’a as law and ethics

As with responses to other contemporary problems, shari’a features prominently in the Islam and ecology discourse. Shari’a has been deployed in a wide range of ways, from the narrowest of understandings in the form of fatwa (a non-binding religious edict) on particular issues, to fiqh (religious law or jurisprudence), to a methodology of ethical decision-making (Sachedina 2009, an-Na’im 2008).  The main problems discussed mostly concern how to derive laws or ethics from the Qur’an, hadith and other authoritative works, and how to implement them.

In the Islam and ecology literature, shari’a is generally conceived as a means to address environmental problems related to, among other things, the use of land, preservation of precious natural resources, and conservation. For this, scholars may draw from abundant sources in the literature of hadith, which includes chapters on explicitly environmental issues (Haq 2003, 141-143). Many scholars do propose making shari’a as the law to be enforced by the State (e.g. Mawil Izzi Dien; see Johnston 2012). For example, the tradition of hima (protected areas) is still kept alive in Saudi Arabia, though in recent decades these conservation areas have been dwindling rapidly (Johnston 2012, 235).

As law, only rarely is shari’a actually enforceable, that is, only in very rare situations when it is incorporated by a government. In most cases related to environmental issues, shari’a serves a different function, not as putatively enforceable laws, but as a rhetorical tool and strategy to advocate for “eco-justice” (Johnston 2012, 221). In a particular context of Indonesia, Gade argues that legal public reasoning of Islam and environmental law plays an important role as an engine of social change (Gade 2015, 162). In recent progressive discourse, the concept of the maqasid (the purpose of) shari’a, defined with public interest (maslaha) as one of its main principles, has come to play a central role as the legal/ethical framework (Johnston 2007; Hefner 2011). In the case of Indonesia, ecological concern has been given legal primacy that makes it the core aim of the law (maqasid) (Gade 2015, 164).

The enrichment of Islamic ethical discourse may be developed in a number of ways. Kecia Ali (2015) compares the domination of men over women to the domination of humans over animals in Islam, and argues that both originate from patriarchal-hierarchical cosmology. Showing the intertwined nature of the subjugation of women and of animals, Ali suggests that Muslim feminists should engage with non-religious feminist ethics because it can provide underutilized resources for Muslim thinking about food ethics in particular and ethics in general (Ali 2015, 269). “Engagement with non-Islamic (though not ‘un-Islamic’) ethics provides a model for productive dialogue among parties who disagree about basic presumptions but agree on desirable outcomes.” (Ali 2015, 269). She also makes a case for Muslim vegetarian ethics, despite the lawfulness of meat-eating, for animal welfare and ecological concerns.

At the same time, this illustration provides an insight into how Muslim thinking about food can be expanded beyond the dominant normative discussions of dietary laws such as defining foods as halal. While Ali probes deep into the underlying Muslim cosmology, Magfirah Dahlan-Taylor (2015) emphasizes the need to go beyond individual consumers’ interests in consuming halal foods, which display Muslim religious exclusivity, and connect it to political questions of food justice which also involve consideration of labor and wealth inequality. She argues that Islamic laws and ethics are not something that can be, quoting Muslim thinker Fazlur Rahman, “deduced from the Qur’an in abstracto” (Dahlan-Taylor 2015, 14-15). Dahlan-Taylor applies this principle to the politics of dietary laws, but it is also relevant to the discourse of Islam and ecology in general. Taken more generally, these insights illustrate how Muslim discourse on environmental ethics could be expanded beyond narrow legal categories (of halal and haram as applied to particular acts) in order to include broader categories and concerns of equality and justice, which are central in Islam.

In relation to this point, it is interesting to note the emergence of the notion of “eco-halal”, which combines the Islamic dietary principle of halal meat and the sustainable-food movement (Barendregt 2013; Arumugam 2009). This may be another way to expand the strictly legal discourse about what foods and methods of food processing are lawful, but, inasmuch as large-scale food industries in the U.S., Malaysia, and Europe are marketing themselves as halal, Dahlan-Taylor’s concern for justice remains an issue of importance.


Studies of practices

The increasing number of studies of ecological practices by Muslims, as individuals and as communities, constitutes another opportunity to enrich or even sidestep the discourse on theology and ethics as discussed above, which is mostly grounded in textual studies. Such practices may also give rise to further methodological debates in Islam and ecology, as will be discussed in the final section below.

A different response to the charge of Islam’s anthropocentrism may be found in Samsul Maarif’s (2014) portrayal of the seemingly animistic and eco-friendly practices of a small indigenous community in Sulawesi, Indonesia. This illustration at the same time shows a different way of doing Islam and ecology. The Ammatoans profess to be Muslims—and, as such, for Maarif, they are Muslims—but practice such indigenous rituals as chanting, sacrificing animals and giving offerings to the forest which involves the participation of a Muslim imam. While the rituals may be interpreted as being animistic in the conventional sense (worshipping and believing in spirits inhabiting natural objects), there is another way of understanding animism as constituting interpersonal relationships between human persons and natural objects, in which those objects are also understood as (non-human) persons. This latter understanding, argues Maarif, parallels Quranic depictions of natural objects (mountains, birds, stars, trees) as beings which glorify God (Q. 21:79, 38:18, 13:13, 55:6), which indicates their personhood as muslim. The Ammatoan cosmology regards and treats non-human beings as persons equal with humans. While Maarif admits that it is unlikely that those beliefs and practices are historically derived from their understanding of the Qur’an, he defends their “animistic” practices as Qur’anic and thus opens the possibility of “being a Muslim in animistic ways.”

The Ammatoan community is not the only example of Muslim “folk eco-theology”. Foltz mentions Shakeel Hossain’s discussion of rural Bengali Muslims’ traditional river festival, which was not welcomed by some Muslims who considered it shirk (polytheistic) (Foltz 2003, 252-253). While it is understandable that this kind of interpretation is controversial, there have always been a spectrum of interpretations, some of which are regarded as “non-mainstream” to differing degrees.

Another interesting example of Muslim practice is the Bumi Langit (literally, Earth Heaven) Farm in a village in Java, Indonesia. Founded by Iskandar Waworuntu, a Muslim convert, the Farm manifests a cosmology and ethics that blend inspiration from the Qur’an, Western and Eastern philosophies, and local practices (Rogers 2013). In developing a permaculture, Waworuntu seeks to work with, rather than against, nature in an Islamic paradigm. In his understanding, the paradigm realizes Islam as a blessing for the whole universe (rahmatan lil ‘alamin) by emphasizing harmonious relations between all God’s creatures—human and non-human, animate and inanimate—who are all praising and chanting toward God. Bypassing the anthropocentrism debate, he upholds the true khalifa as one who is not simply given the title by God but who earns it by the respect given by creation. For him, being an environmentalist is the most ethical way of being a Muslim, and it forms half of faith, the other half being tawhid (belief in God). In this worldview, halal (permissible) as a legal category is not sufficient, but needs to be supplemented with the ethical category of tayyib, meaning goodness or wholesomeness, which can be extended to the politics and ethics of food. He tries to make his farm embody Islamic teachings in all aspects.[1]

Ecological practices have also been developed by many ‘eco-pesantrens’ (Islamic boarding school/community) in Indonesia (Mangunjaya 2012). Mangunjaya argues that this independent grassroots initiative, which combines Islamic principles of environmental protection with traditional methods of conservation, is more effective than the top-down approach, through enactment of laws initiated by the goverment.

Another important example of Muslim ecological practices is shown in Eleanor Finnegan’s work on three Sufi Muslim farms in the United States (Finnegan 2011a, Finnegan 2011b). Though not all are functional farms, all three cultivate gardens, plants for healing, herbs for cooking, and vegetables and fruit for the community. Farming has helped them to create and maintain religious identities, foster community, and nurture spirituality (Finnegan 2011a, 71-73). Here, theological affirmations—e.g. that non-human creatures are muslim, or the understanding of tawhid as creation’s interconnectedness—are lived in daily experiences (Finnegan 2011b, 260ff).

Finnegan contrasts the scholars who turn to textual tradition to reconstruct ethics and the people for whom everyday life experiences on the farm shape values or practices (Finnegan 2011b, 243). In a sense, however, the Javanese and American examples show that this is not only about different ways of reconstructing theology and ethics, but also about how ecological practices help believers to understand religion and be better religious (Muslim) persons. In these examples farming has become a way not (only) to implement what they understand about Islamic theology and ethics related to nature, but also a way to understand Islam itself. The concepts invoked (such as tawhid, khalifa, nature being muslim) are identical with what scholars derive from the Qur’an, but here they have become lived experiences. One important difference is that while scholars seeking universal ethical concepts derive their views from Islamic textual sources, the knowledge gained from lived experiences of the communities is particular to these individuals and communities.

This last characteristic may be regarded as problematic if what is “Islamic” cannot be local and has to be universal—an issue to be taken up below. By way of introduction, it has to be admitted that the question of what or which interpretations may be considered “Islamic” is contentious and has important implications for the development of Islam and ecology discourse. This is especially true when, as in the Ammatoan case, practices are taken into account. However, drawing from her own study of the practices of American sufi Muslim farmers, Eleanor Finnegan (2011a, 2011b) shows that much is lost when the field of Islam (and for that matter, religions in general) and ecology does not pay sufficient attention to practices.


Concluding methodological notes: what is “Islamic?”

The theological and ethical discourse of Islam and ecology has produced normative arguments deduced from the canonical sources of Islam. In order to go further, it needs to be supplemented by broader considerations (e.g. on food ethics), and should pay greater attention to practices. The issues discussed in this essay—indigenous Ammatoan rituals, the ethics and politics of food, and the ecological practices of individuals and religious communities—raise questions about how texts and practices function in the formation of “Islamic views of nature” and “Islamic environmental ethics.” They suggest that ecological practices not only implement the normative theories, but also as play roles in the formation of “Islamic” normativity.

One way to explain this difference is by drawing a distinction between what the texts say and what Muslims do. For Richard Foltz, this distinction marks the difference between Islamic and Muslim views of ecology or between Islamic and Muslim environmentalisms. Foltz argues that “the actual practices and attitudes of Muslims have always been shaped by Islamic sources in combination with extra-Islamic cultural ones” (Foltz 2006, 8) In another place, his statement is bolder: “For an idea to achieve anything approaching universal acceptance by Muslims as ‘Islamic’, it must be convincingly demonstrated that it derives from the Qur’an or … the example of the prophet Muhammad”. (Foltz 2003, 253) Moreover, “local or regional attitudes cannot form a basis for any kind of universal Islamic ethics.” But this clear-cut distinction between Islamic environmentalism and Muslim environmentalism may be misleading because it gives the false impression that there are culturally-neutral “pure” Islamic interpretations, or that there are universally accepted Islamic doctrines. As a matter of hermeneutic principle, it is impossible to claim that any interpretation of the Qur’an or hadith is derived purely from the canonical sources without any cultural influence. Besides, it is difficult, if not impossible, to point to any idea “approaching universal acceptance by Muslims as ‘Islamic’” except on very basic or trivial issues.[2]

Of course, not all cultural practices done by Muslims should be regarded as “Islamic.”, just as they do not have to be rejected as “un-Islamic”. Similarly, not all views supposedly derived from the Qur’an are good or even “Islamic”. Determining what is “Islamic” or “un-Islamic” involves more than justifications by reference to Qur’an and hadith or cultural practices. Further, as Kecia Ali argues, the defensive concern with religious authenticity and the primacy given to “Islamic” identity may constitute an obstacle for a productive ethical work. In the context of the discourse on Islam and ecology, a central criterion by which any Islamic view is to be evaluated may be the premise of the requirement of an ecologically sound way of life; such a criterion, as discussed above, may be and has been interpreted as one of the principles of maqasid al-shari’a.

The major argument here is that one of the important keys to furthering Islam and ecology discourse is to pay more attention to the empirical study of living traditions and practices. Such studies have long existed but are not yet widely accepted because of narrow normative criteria about what makes an idea or a practice “Islamic.” What needs to be explored is not (only) the consistency and coherence of an idea with canonical sources but how Muslim communities develop, justify and defend eco-friendly practices, and form their ideas about Islam and ecology through their practices.

Realizing that the field of Islam and ecology is not only an academic discourse but also carries practical aims of responding to environmental problems, another benefit in acknowledging local views and practices, like those of the Ammatoans and Bengalis, or the Javenese and American Sufi Muslim farmers, is in providing recognition and support for the continuation of such eco-friendly practices. This recognition may also open ways for local communities to learn from others. Of course, this possibility is necessarily limited. Ammatoan or Bengali Muslim practices cannot simply be exported to Saudi Arabia, for example; the Ammatoan way of life may not even be replicable in other areas of Indonesia. But the local is significant precisely because it is usually very deeply and uniquely rooted in its own land. It may resist universalizing, but it continues to promise operative and sustainable practices as well as to generate fresh ideas.


Acknowledgment: The authors wish to thank CRCS Resource Center team, Whitney Bauman and Siti Sarah Muwahidah for their help in providing resources for this chapter. They also thank Gregory Vanderbilt and the editors of this book who helped to make this chapter more readable.



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[1] Interview with Najiyah Martiam (May 15, 2015)

[2] Another note on this point is the fact that even a “universal acceptance” may not mean much. A case in point is the declarations made in Jordan by more than a hundred mainstream Muslim scholars from all around the world known as The Amman Message (2004) and The Common Word (2007). These two declarations were hailed as an unprecedented ijma’ (consensus) in terms of the number and diversity of scholars who approved them, and as such The Amman Message even claims that the document is legally binding upon all Muslims. (89) Yet they do not seem to have the effects intended: differences remain and there are criticisms of the documents by Muslims.

Header photo: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, ©John Grim