Greening religion: New Islamic covenant for the Earth

Following on from the Catholic Church, the global Islamic community is finalising a new Earth charter to encourage Muslims to combat pollution, climate change and other threats to the planet.

Jorge Bergoglio penned a powerful 37 000-word message to humanity a few years ago, pointing at special economic interests, technology and large sections of the media for helping turn the world into “an immense pile of filth”.

God had never granted humans unchecked dominion over nature, declared the world-renowned Argentinian football fan, former bar bouncer, janitor and chemistry technician.

Bergoglio said young people were demanding change but, regrettably, efforts to find lasting solutions to the global environmental crisis had been ineffective. This was largely because of powerful opposition from special interests, but also apathy among those who mistakenly saw themselves as biblically ordained “lords and masters” entitled to plunder the Earth at will.

Bergoglio – better known as Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic Church – set down these thoughts in his papal encyclical Laudato si’, published on 24 May 2015 for the estimated 1.3 billion baptised Catholics and “every person living on this planet”.

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Francis painted a gloomy picture: “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance … economic interests easily end up trumping the common good … any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance … we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the Earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

Now, the global Muslim community is drafting its new environmental charter, titled Al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth. The draft is scheduled to be completed by late March, with the final version published in October.

Iyad Abumoghli, the Nairobi-based founding director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Faith for Earth project, announced the Al-Mizan endeavour last year.

Undated: Iyad Abumoghli is the Nairobi-based founding director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Faith for Earth project. (Image supplied)

The Laudato si’ inspired many Christians and people of other religions, said Abumoghli. “Several religious institutions and leaders have issued declarations on climate change or calls for action on biodiversity, rainforests and other environmental challenges. However, these remain expressions of positions and solidarity with nature. What is needed is a concerted effort that charts the way forward and engages followers in meaningful actions by all religions comparable to Laudato si’.

“Muslims form over one-fifth of the world’s population and can offer humanity important Islamic perspectives on how to mitigate the impacts of the unprecedented crises we are living through.” 

Islamic guidelines

The new Islamic charter would help identify what Islam can do to ensure future generations inherit a healthy and sustainable planet.

Islamic scholars and institutions have teamed with Faith for Earth, the Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science, Uskudar University in Istanbul, the Qur’anic Botanic Garden and the College of Islamic Studies and Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar to draft the charter, said Abumoghli. There are two teams, one representing these organisations and “a scholars team representing different regions and Islamic sects”. 

Sri Lanka-born, Britain-based Sidi Fazlun Khalid is the chair and co-author of the scholars team. Khalid has been described as “a pioneer in the field of Islamic environmentalism”. He founded the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences and is the author of Signs on the Earth: Islam, Modernity and the Climate Crisis.

15 August 2020: The opening chapters of the Qur’an. (Photograph by Abdullah Faraz/ Unsplash)

Although not involved in drafting the document, Abumoghli said the authors had reached out to the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) in South Africa as well as many other Muslim leaders during the review process.

MJC member and head of the Coowatool Mosque in Loop Street, Cape Town, Moulana Shuaib Appleby welcomed the initiative. His interest in environmental issues has deepened since his appointment to the board of the Southern Africa Faith Communities’ Environmental Institute (SAFCEI), a multi-faith organisation launched in 2005 to support faith leaders and their communities to increase awareness, understanding and action on eco-justice, sustainable living and climate change.

Its members practise a broad spectrum of faiths, from African traditional healers to Bahá’í, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Quaker and a range of Christian denominations.

Appleby said it is essential for religious and faith leaders to work together to raise public awareness about environmental issues within their communities. He said that the SAFCEI has also launched a campaign to install renewable energy such as solar panels and wind turbines in places of worship, but said “more needs to be done to implement campaigns within communities. As much as it is great to share theory and discuss ideas about global environmental issues, I also see the need for more tangible projects for ordinary people on the ground.”

A game changer

Abumoghli noted that the Quran, the practices of Prophet Muhammad and the teachings of Islam all urge humanity to value and protect nature. But many of these environmental lessons remain unknown to Muslims, he said in a recent interview on the UN Environment Programme website, including how they relate to contemporary environmental issues such as climate change, ecosystem destruction and overconsumption.

“Mizan is designed to change that – and encourage Muslims to do all they can to safeguard the planet … In many places, we’re losing our connection to nature. Mizan will help provide a set of authoritative standards for Muslims to follow in their daily lives. We think it could be a game changer.”

At a broader level of the Faith for Earth Initiative, Abumoghli sees opportunities to work with religious institutions, who are often major investors, to green their assets and reduce their environmental footprints.

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In Laudato si’, Pope Francis lamented the decline in the quality of human life, especially among the urban impoverished. He posited that environmental degradation could not be resolved unless society attended to the causes of social degradation for billions of impoverished people, evidenced by social breakdown, increased violence, growing drug use by young people and a loss of identity. 

“They frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems … We have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor,” he said.

All the same, Francis’ encyclical ends on a positive note, where he speaks about the “duty to care for creation through little daily actions” such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings and using public transport.

“We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.”

Bending the Curve. (Image supplied by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis)

Hope versus action 

But there is a big difference between hope, on one hand, and action on the other, said United States theologian and energy ethics scholar Erin Lothes Biviano.

Writing in the Journal of Moral Theology about the American Catholic Church and the Laudato si’ initiative, Biviano touched on the abiding conservative-liberal divide among US Catholics.

“Despite the wealth of magisterial teaching and theological writing on religion and ecology, we find that far less is being done than we would like … Why is that? 

“I do not believe we should threaten people with doom – it does not work. This is not to say that we should downplay the gravity of climate change or avoid the sobering facts,” she suggested. Rather, those who seek to connect with more conservative Catholics on the issue of climate change should pay more attention to their “rhetorical tone”.

“Leadership is critical – believers must hear ecological reflections from the pulpit and read them in diocesan and parish publications to counter assumptions that environmentalism is superfluous, if not irrelevant to, faith … We also need to talk about morality without moralising – the ‘green zealot’ will simply turn people off. We must recognise that people do things differently; they have different personalities, different economic philosophies, different levels of scientific literacy,” she wrote.

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