Muslims have a religious duty to take action against climate change, according to a declaration released by a major group of Islamic scholars, faith leaders and politicians from 20 countries. The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, launched in Istanbul, is aimed at the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and suggests mosques and Islamic schools should immediately take action.
In using religious authority to call for stronger climate change policies at the UN summit in Paris this December, the Islamic declaration follows a similar intervention by the Pope earlier in the year.
There is a solid religious case for this declaration. Muslims around the world take the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition (sunna) as the main two authoritative sources of the Islamic legal system (Sharia). You won’t find any direct references to carbon budgets or biodiversity in the sacred scriptures of course – the global environmental crisis is far too recent.
However there is an environmental framework inherently embedded within the traditional principles of Islam, and it is possible to extend these principles to consider contemporary changes. Traditionally there are five major obligations for all Muslims: proclamation in the oneness of Allah, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and alms-giving (charity towards the poor). Each can help the environment.
The concept of oneness may be extended to the unity of creation – the idea that there is one planet for all humanity to share. Thus Islam teaches an inter-connectedness between the environment and human beings.
Prayer is about seeking guidance from Allah. Similarly, the environment has a purpose and forms another kind of revelation, which may be seen as a source of guidance for humanity.
Fasting is performed for Allah but recently Muslim faith-activists have fasted for the planet. For example representatives from Wisdom in Nature, an ecological activist group in Britain, would fast so they could contemplate the human impact on the environment. Also, during pilgrimage Muslims must be considerate to animals and vegetation in designated areas.
Finally, the process of alms-giving indicates Muslims are thoughtful and effectively share resources. This means there is already an Islamic ethic for sustainability, particularly equity within and between generations.
How to get the mosques on board
Climate change affects us all, and by taking action, mosques can make themselves vital and accessible parts of civil society. In Western states, action will present an opportunity to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims, emphasising the importance of mosques in the public sphere.
Of course, such action depends on the people responsible for running each mosque. Generally each follows a particular way of Islamic thinking and the leadership may be reluctant to take on climate change, particularly when other issues, such as the conflicts in Syria and Palestine/Israel dominate current affairs.
Even so, mosques will need input from environmental NGOs to improve their understanding of the Islamic perspective on climate change. And, as climate change tends to be of interest to younger people, mosques will need to keep young people on board, many of whom now feel alienated from the Islamic establishment.
It will be vital to encourage climate change action through the various Islamic schools across the world. These children could have a big impact, as it’s a very new field – academics and Muslim scholars are only just catching up with the ways Islam can be applied to today’s climate problems. Whether young Muslims choose to join campaigns, become scientists or simply decide to lead more sustainable lifestyles, they will help develop the idea of Islamic environmentalism and what it could be.
However, there are great global disparities with regard to the importance of Islamic schooling. In Indonesia, for example, it is particularly significant and climate education would make a huge difference. On the other hand, the operation of Islamic schools is more difficult in the West, where Muslim children tend to assimilate into mainstream state-owned schools.
There is certainly an environmental ethic in the Islamic faith, but those behind the declaration need to consider the challenges facing Muslims, mosques and Islamic schools – it’s easy enough to have sustainable principles, but putting them into practice is much harder.