Environment, Sustainability and Islam

The groundbreaking Netflix documentary Seaspiracy shocked viewers by exposing the widespread corruption within the global fishing industry. It mainly focused on the harmful impact of industrial fishing on the ecosystem and how people and communities who rely on fish and fishing as a livelihood are affected1. In addition, the documentary highlighted the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world that requires one to see the world as a tapestry of cause and effect. Unfortunately, our modern, urbanised lifestyle has created a hyper-consumerist, hyper-individualistic society that has greatly contributed to this catastrophe, which is antithetical to the religious epistemic. Every religion, including Islam, calls on its followers to responsibly position themselves within this dynamic tapestry to maintain the natural order that is part of God’s cosmic plan. Failure to preserve this order results in imminent chaos and strife.

Prominent Muslim thinkers such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr have contributed a lot to developing an Islamic eco-theology drawing extensively from the Islamic tradition to deeply understand modern scientific ecology2. However, the problem with such works is that their theories have largely remained theoretical and without having much influence on the lived realities of Muslim societies and states3. According to the renowned environmentalist Ibrahim Ozdemir, even though many Muslim states bear the brunt of climate change, climate action awareness remains peripheral and staggeringly limited. As a matter of fact, many Muslim countries, according to him, are contributing to the problem4. This article argues that this inaction stems from two factors. First is the reluctance to critically engage with modern concepts of environmentalism due to a climate of suspicion and fear towards the West. Second is the Islamisation phenomenon that hides behind a veneer of ‘Islamicity’ with little care for ethics, and disengaged from the inequities produced by abusive economic systems. This article further argues that such approaches are counterproductive and will elaborate on the importance of connecting with the larger picture by analysing some of these ideas using Seaspiracy as an example. It will then conclude by outlining three recommendations that Muslims can refer to in addressing major contemporary environmental issues.

Siege mentality
According to Fadl, in the age of postcolonialism, Muslims have had to confront social and political realities that have inevitably pushed them to be preoccupied with attempts to remedy a collective feeling of powerlessness by engaging in what he calls a ‘theology of power’5. This theology largely relies on unfounded claims about the particularities of a specific set of values and proceeds to classify it as either ‘Islamic’ or ‘Western’. As a result, this theology engages in a civilisational bifurcation to identify ‘One’ against the ‘Other’. Fadl maintains that this has more to do with one’s anxieties rather than an accurate account of the ‘Other’. By constructing the ‘Other’ as the antithesis, it gives one control within his circle to shape normative beliefs that are seemingly pure, Islamic and devoid of the dangerous Other6. In this case, the Other is the West or the global North. This defensive mode of thinking is disassociated from the Islamic civilisational experience that is rich and diverse7. Unsurprisingly, it reduces Islam to a single facet, which is, power.

What prevails is an aggravated siege mentality, which leaves no room for analytical and creative thought, and impoverishes the Islamic intellectual tradition8. Concerning environmentalism, many Muslim countries and societies are reluctant to bow to pressures from Western groups for fear that it is interlinked with the ongoing process of colonialism, inspired by secular Western values that are insensitive to indigenous cultures. Though there is weight to this concern, which we will explain later, it should not stop Muslims from critically engaging with modern environmental concepts.

What followed from the siege mentality were efforts to make Islam a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to every problem. A key factor of this Islamisation phenomenon was the growing attachment of Muslims to Islam which emerged in the late 20th Common Era (CE) that was rooted in the pursuit of power as a response to Western modernity9. What ensued was the total rejection of any systems from the West by creating Islamic alternatives to re-strengthen the wounded Ummatic (or Muslim community) identity. It is during this period that we see the exponential growth of Islamic economic and political systems. Similarly, we see attempts to Islamise environmental concepts by sprinkling Islam on development models as an antidote to our ecological crisis10. However, it is in the interest of this article to argue that such attempts will be counterproductive as it does not engage and critically question the development models forced on both industrialised and more impoverished developing societies. It is not to say that Islamisation efforts are categorically uncritical of Western models that promote consumerism and radical individualism. Still, one can hardly find a deep engagement of these models from within the Islamic tradition in the name of the higher ethical goals such as justice, solidarity and dignity. This ethical commitment is not an outright rejection of these systems to save Muslims only. Instead, it lies in questioning structures related to development projects and models for human flourishing at large. In short, the Islamisation project is simply an effort to Islamise modernity that aims to set up systems that maintain the rationalism of the West clothed in an ‘Islamic’ paradigm. Moreover, efforts that are disengaged from these structures will always remain insular and marginal, which makes them counterproductive.

Why is it important to engage deeply with these structures? It allows us to understand the philosophical underpinnings objectively without blindly demonising the West. Using Seaspiracy as an example, although it has its advantages which we have briefly highlighted earlier, a deep engagement of the series tells us of a few things that are antithetical to Islam and religion in general, but we will only highlight two.

White veganism
It somewhat alludes to the idea of veganism that intersects with a certain ‘whiteness’. We are not referring to biological traits or geographical location but a particular form of mentality that perpetuates superiority and entitlement that is insensitive towards indigenous cultures and apathetic towards power structures that are causing these inequities in the first place – namely capitalism. Capitalism is a powerful force that influences the production of cultural commodities but also determines who benefits from them11. The fact that documentaries such as Seaspiracy offer no alternatives to the numerous communities across the globe that depend on fishing for survival is problematic. Giving up seafood is a privilege and would not solve the issue. Instead, we should channel our energy on transforming policies to uplift these fishing communities.

Uncivilised natives
Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising to see an unfair representation of Asians and indigenous communities in the documentary. They are depicted as vicious, uncivilised and requiring a White man/woman to save them from their ‘backwardness’. Referring to Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism, the West is always the actor, and the Orient is a passive reactor12. It is a discourse created by European culture and political power that forces the world into binaries. According to Arjana, for the longest time, people in the global North have thought of themselves as modern humans and everyone else as different or unmodern13. This attitude has enabled Europeans to control the Orient culturally, politically, and ideologically14. Thus, any Muslim efforts concerning Western development models must first engage with this discourse on a philosophical level to decolonise and re-sacralise man’s relationship with the natural world. Not much will change unless a serious attempt is made to address capitalism and its underlying utilitarian philosophy, equating happiness with material satisfaction. In order to satiate this gratification, it commodifies everything and alters our value system that profits on inequalities and exploitation.

Reconnect with our mortality
The late German sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (d. 2017) characterised the liquid modern society as constantly pursuing a goal but lacking a clear final destination. Due to this, it compels individuals to consume and turn them into objects of consumption to escape the insecurity and fulfil fleeting satisfaction15. As Muslims, this end goal represents death as the culmination of life. The idea of death would urge us to be good. Unfortunately, today, death is a distanced reality. It is easier for us to forget death and harder for us to be reminded of our mortality. We tend to isolate and conceal death in unfamiliar spaces such as hospitals and hospices16. The historian Richard Bulliet has blamed this on the social shift from domesticity to post-domesticity17. Domesticity refers to communities’ social, economic and intellectual characteristics in which its members are in close contact with animals other than pets. Unlike a post-domestic society where its members live far away from the animals that provide them with food, they consume them in abundance yet psychologically feel guilt when they think about the industrial processes of the meat industry18. It best describes the current condition of how we see our meat: a pound of flesh, tightly packed with its calculated worth. We are far removed from the metaphysical element of the sacrifice to an extent that we fail to recognise that a life was taken at all. It has theological implications that need to be discussed further but is beyond the scope of this article19.

Ethical consumption based on the Purpose of Creation (Maqasid Al-Khalq)
Our relationship with the natural world is not human-centric, where humans are at the top of the food chain and everything else is subservient. But the Quranic vision of man’s position in the natural world is a symbiotic relationship, in harmony with nature. According to Al-Raghib Al-Isfahani (d. 502), this Quranic vision outlines three main tasks that inform how a man should act and behave ethically20:

i. Cultivation of the earth (‘imãrat al-ard) to benefit man and the environment. There is an element of reciprocity. One of the pioneers of environmental ethics, Aldo Leopold, coined the term ‘land ethic’ in which we have to respect the land and protect it from being exploited.
ii. Acting as a vicegerent or trustee on earth (khilãfa) with a vicegerental vision that is theocentric not anthropocentric.
iii. Religious obligations and rituals (‘ibãda).

Thus, the closer one gets to fulfilling these tasks, the more moral one becomes. Success (falah) is interlinked with the fulfilment of these tasks. Furthermore, as Muslims, we need to rethink our relationship with the environment through a Tawhidic (or Oneness of God) paradigm. Tawhid is not just an abstract concept but is also a guide for social action. The Quran has underlined our duty to establish and maintain God’s moral and social order to preserve Tawhid 21. Therefore, any effort that supports the well-being of His creations is critical for a Tawhidic society22. Thus, in the name of Tawhid, we need to ensure that our consumption habits are not causing harm to the environment, and we need to challenge power structures that allow our lands and seas to be exploited.

Interdisciplinary thinking
The economist Amartya Sen argues that development cannot be divorced from ecological and environmental concerns. He further adds that essential components of human freedom, including the quality of life, are thoroughly dependent on the integrity of the environment23. Thus concepts such as sustainable development must be critically analysed to ensure that it promotes the common good of humankind and the environment. Perhaps moving forward, what is required is an interdisciplinary approach to the environment that brings together Muslim scholars, food scientists and experts working on theoretical and practical frameworks to solve contemporary food issues, food safety, sustainability, security, fair trade, alternative farming and modern technologies that can help to build a better future24. In short, we need a transformative Islamic ecology that combines fields such as Islamic eco-theology, political ecology, behavioural sciences and social sciences. It is vastly different from a literalist theology of the environment that is apathetic towards modern scientific ecology.25

These alternative ecologically-minded solutions and methods must challenge the deadly confluence of capitalism and consumerism that has made sustainable development a reality for the rich but remains an unfulfilled dream for the poor and marginalised. An Islam that uses human agency not to usher in exploitation, but to make goodness a reality for all, is the culmination of human dignity and flourishing. ⬛

1 See: Seaspiracy. Accessed on 2021, June 4. Available at: https://www.seaspiracy.org/
2 See: Nasr, S. Religion & the Order of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1996
3 Harmala, I. Transformative Islamic Ecology: A Study of Islamic Ecology in Action. 2019, June 13. Retrieved from: https://www.cilecenter.org/resources/articles-essays/cile2019-transformative-islamic-ecology-study-islamic-ecology-action-0
4 Ozdemir, I. What does Islam say about climate change and climate action? 2020, August 12. Retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/8/12/what-does-islam-say-about-climate-change-and-climate-action
5 El Fadl, K. A. Injustice in God’s name: The corruption of modern Islam. ABC. 2012, September 24. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/injustice-in-gods-name-the-corruption-of-modern-islam/10100290
6 El Fadl, K. A. Which clash? What civilizations? ABC. 2011, May 16. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/05/16/3218247.htm
7 El Fadl, K. A. Injustice in God’s name: The corruption of modern Islam. ABC. 2012, September 24. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/injustice-in-gods-name-the-corruption-of-modern-islam/10100290
8 Ibid
9 Rosyad, R. A Quest for True Islam: A Study of the Islamic Resurgence Movement among the Youth in Bandung, Indonesia. Canberra: ANU Press. 2006. pp.17-18. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24h949
10 See: Islamic Development Bank. Sustainable Development Goals. Accessed on 2021, June 4. Available at: https://www.isdb.org/what-we-do/sustainable-development-goals
11 Arjana, S. R. Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace. London: Oneworld Publication. 2020. p. 90
12 Said, E. Orientalism. New York: Random House. 1979. p. 109
13 Arjana, S. R. Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace. London: Oneworld Publication. 2020. p. 100
14 Said, E. Orientalism. New York: Random House. 1979. p.120
15 Bauman, Z. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2000. pp.74-76
16 Farouq, M. Is Social Responsibility a Religious Duty? Muslim.sg. 2020, August 10. Retrieved from: https://muslim.sg/articles/is-social-responsibility-a-religious-duty
17 Bulliet, R. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships. New York: Columbia University Press. 2007. pp. 22-25
18 Ibid, p.177
19 Nguyen, M. Modern Muslim Theology. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2018. pp. 30-33
20 Mohamed, Y. The Path To Virtue: The Ethical Philosophy Of Al-Raghib Al-Isfahani. Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization. 2006. pp. 105-139
21 Quran, 4:135.
22 Farouq, M. Is Social Responsibility a Religious Duty? Muslim.sg. 2020, August 10. Retrieved from: https://muslim.sg/articles/is-social-responsibility-a-religious-duty
23 Sen, A. Sustainable Development and Our Responsibilities. 2010. Accessed on 2021, June 7. Available at: https://www.unipol.it/sites/corporate/files/document_attachments/sen_2010_eng_ugf_01-01-2010_en.pdf
24 Schatzschneider, I. Food Ethics and Islam. Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics. 2012, August 29. Retrieved from: https://www.cilecenter.org/resources/articles-essays/food-ethics-and-islam
25 Harmala, I. Transformative Islamic Ecology: A Study of Islamic Ecology in Action. 2019, June 13. Retrieved from: https://www.cilecenter.org/resources/articles-essays/cile2019-transformative-islamic-ecology-study-islamic-ecology-action-0


Sheikh Mohamad Farouq Abdul Fareez is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He holds a Master’s degree in Islamic Thought and Applied Ethics. His area of interest involves issues concerning religion, human development and ethics.

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