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Intra-Muslim Debates on Ecology: Is Shari’a Still Relevant?

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A survey of the proliferating literature by Muslims on ecology indicates that the majority favors some role for traditional Islamic law in order to solve the current environmental crisis. And so what is the meaning of the word “Shari’a” that appears so often? A close look at this discourse reveals an inherent fuzziness in its use of Shari’a. All of the scholar/activists surveyed in this paper, though on the conservative end of the spectrum, chiefly refer to “Shari’a” as a source of ethical values. The first to address these issues was Iranian-American philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr whose pluralist theology is hospitable to the spiritual input of all faiths; yet the most influential environmentalists today are the British scholars Mawil Izzi Dien and Fazlun Khalid, whose writings and campaigns have impacted millions of Muslims worldwide. Their appeal to past norms of eco-friendly Shari’a norms and their desire to update them in the present context fits nicely with the Earth’s Charter call for “a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.”

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20. fn1 1) Yerushalmi was co-author of the Center for Security Policy’s report, “Shariah: The Threat to America.” See also an article blasting Yerushalmi posted on the Anti Defamation League website (no author) on March 25, 2011:
21. fn2 2) For this, consult Richard C. Foltz’s bibliography on the topic ( Foltz 2003).
22. fn3 3) This book is the result of the Gallup World Poll, a project from 2002 to 2007 that necessitated tens of thousands of interviews in over thirty-five Muslim majority countries or countries that have a substantial Muslim presence.
23. fn4 4) The exceptions were Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, where most people wanted Shari’a as the “only source” of legislation ( Esposito and Mogahed 2007: 48).
24. fn5 5) The Amman Message, which began as a statement of Jordan King Abdullah in 2004, turned out to be the most significant effort in many centuries by Muslims worldwide (Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi, etc.) to come to a consensus on the three pivotal issues of 1) Who is a Muslim? 2) Can a Muslim call another Muslim an “apostate” (or the issue of takfir)? 3) What are the qualifications for issuing an Islamic legal opinion (fatwa)? A highly representative body of leaders and scholars drafted a common text, which was then ratified between 2005 and 2006 by all the most representative Islamic international bodies (including the International Fiqh Academy based in Jeddah).
25. fn6 6) Richard C. Foltz, the foremost expert on Islamic environmentalism, opined in a recent paper that the reason behind Nasr’s limited following in the Muslim world is two-fold: he writes mostly for Western non-Muslim audiences and his works have rarely been translated into Arabic or Farsi. Still, in the Washington, DC area, where he lives, a coalition of Muslim environmentalists calling themselves “DC Green Muslims” found their initial inspiration through the writings and lectures of Seyyed Hossein Nasr ( Feder 2009). Some of the founding members were his students at George Washington University.
26. fn7 7) Consider what he wrote in a more recent book about the centrality of Shari’a: “To speak of Islam on the level of individual practice and social norms is to speak of the Shari’ahwhich has provided over the centuries guidelines for those who have wanted or wish today to live according to God’s Will in its Islamic form. When we hear in the Lord’s Prayer uttered by Christ ‘Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,’ for the Muslim His Will is expressed in the Shari’ah, and to live according to this Will on earth, first of all, to practice the injunctions of the Divine Law” ( Nasr 2002).
27. fn8 8) Izzi Dien was present at this conference sponsored by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), to which representatives from the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths were invited. The final declaration was a first attempt to harness the moral power of religion in the service of ecological sustainability.
28. fn9 9) David L. Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb in the Introduction to their edited volume, Deep Ecology and World Religions, give us some perspective on this issue. Since the ethic of “deep ecology” is ecocentric (or biocentric), that is, the unit of value is “life as a whole,” without prioritizing humans or even animals, this might seem entirely antithetical to the Bible or Qur’an on this issue. Yet commenting on the chapter in the book on Islam and deep ecology, they comment, “Thus, Muslims might criticize deep ecology for attempting to separate humans from a supposedly pure wilderness. Deep ecologists, on the other hand, might well criticize such a stewardship view as retaining too much anthropocentrism. But the similarities are worth noting. Both Islam and deep ecology affirm that the natural world is an integrated whole (as Creation, for Muslims), with humans an inextricable part of that whole. Nature is not to be exploited but responded to with contemplation, appreciation, and protection” ( Barnhill and Gottlieb 2001: 13).
29. fn10 10) Perhaps the most characteristic word in the Qur’an translating the idea of “environment” is ma‘ayish, or “the cause of life: “It is We Who have placed you with authority on earth, and provided you therein with means for the fulfillment of your life [ ma’ayish]: little give you thanks! (Q. 2:10 from Dien Izzi 2000: 24).
30. fn11 11) For the most complete discussion of this issue of human trusteeship, or stewardship of creation, see David L. Johnston, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, and especially chapters 6 through 9. See also the author’s blogs on his website,
31. fn12 12) He notes that the many hadiths (prophetic traditions) that highlight Muhammad’s concern for conservation are very useful tools in inculcating ecological responsibility in Muslim societies, “many of which are developing rapidly without an inbuilt cultural awareness of the environment” ( Izzi Dien 2000:32).
32. fn13 13) For more details on this, see Johnston 2007.
33. fn14 14) This was a joint production between LifeMakers UK and the IFEES. Available online at; see also an IFEES 2009 interview with world famous Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled, who was in the United Kingdom promoting this booklet:
34. fn15 15) This is available on the IFEES website front page under the title, “IFEES Director Addresses UN Climate Change Summit.” It would seem that this website has been neglected, or at least that nothing has been added since the last issue of EcoIslam (#7) in April 2010.
35. fn16 16) The ulamaare the experts in the Islamic sciences, which can include Qur’an and Hadith studies, law and theology, Arabic, grammar and lexicology. Historically, the jurists had competence in all these areas, though only a few of them had official, state-sponsored jobs like judges or academic appointments in certain institutes of higher learning. For the most part, the word ulama can be replaced with fuqaha(specialists in fiqh, therefore strictly jurists).
36. fn17 17) Fifth issue of EcoIslam, September 2008, p. 5.
37. fn18 18) This issue of the role of government, environmental legislation and Shari’a is taken up below.
38. fn19 19) Sadly, less than a dozen remain. Unbridled development and commercialism has taken its toll.
39. fn20 20) I have no room to detail other issues Llewellyn raises in this chapter; only to say that among the many articles and chapters I read, his was the most impressive in terms of breadth of understanding in Islamic law and environmental sciences. His last section is about “Shari’a-based policies,” which touch on the balance between rights and responsibilities, the importance of cherishing natural resources, the tension between capitalism, economic development and environmental concern, population control, animal rights, genetic engineering and international cooperation. Of course, this is more about raising questions than answering them at this stage, but I thought this was one of the most clear-headed road maps of the way ahead for Islamic environmentalism.
40. fn21 21) Islamic law is divided in two main categories: ‘ibadat(laws concerning one’s relationship with God) and mu’amalat(laws governing human relationships, including commercial, family and property law). Only in the eleventh century did a literature arise ( siyasa shar‘iya) dealing with politics; yet far from being constitutional law, it was mostly justifications for a status quo that had long departed from the political arrangements of the early caliphs.
41. fn22 22) This is the central thesis of An-Na’im’s book on the new role he sees for Sharia today―it can only become the life-giving force it was meant to be if it is used in harmony with “the principles of constitutionalism, human rights, and citizenship, which can work only when they enjoy sufficient cultural and religious legitimacy to inspire and motivate people to participate in organized and sustained political and legal action” ( Faiz 2008: 44).

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Affiliations: 1: Visiting Scholar, University of Pennsylvania, 847 Williams Hall, 255 South 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA, ;, Email:, URL:


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