How Green Is Your Deen?
The conversation around Islam, sustainability, and environmental justice has existed for decades, if not centuries, and is not solely a scholarly one: organizations, campaigns, entrepreneurs, and everyday people can be important leaders in Muslim eco-consciousness.
Activists like Mishka Banuri, founder of Utah Youth Environmental Solutions, uses Qur’anic stories to draw connections between Islam and environmentalism. Kadiatou Balde and Zainab Koli founded Faithfully Sustainable to advocate for environmental justice using Islamic teachings and practices, while also highlighting the BIPOC experiences and leaders in this movement. Melanie Elturk, founder of the sustainable and world-renowned hijab business Haute Hijab, connects faith, fashion, and environmentalism by centering sustainability and environmental consciousness in her business’ mission and in her production process. In the United Arab Emirates, the government campaign Connect with Nature engages youth around topics related to nature and the environment. Here in the Washington, D.C., area, Green Muslims helps put religion, or deen, into practice by sharing ways Muslims can become sustainable and eco-friendly.
This year, with Earth Day occurring during the holy month of Ramadan, I want to take a closer look at what Islam says about the environment. What teachings and practices can Muslims use to understand the intersection of Islam and environmentalism?
Sharia (شَرِیعَة), one of the most important concepts in Islam, offers some answers. Although Americans may recognize the term as a legal and political system, it is a way of life. The definition and purpose can be as broad or as narrow as each Muslim’s interpretation and application. Drawn mainly from the Qur’an and Hadith, which are teachings and guidance from the prophet Muhammad, it is a source of guidance for Muslims for practicing Islam in a way that is halal (permissible), with the intent of living in harmony and unity with all of God’s creations. Think of it like “How to Be an Ethical and Good Muslim 101.”
In Arabic, the word sharia comes from a root meaning “the clear path to the water.” Although it’s often translated as “Islamic law,” Muslims use the term to refer to religious values, commandments, and code of conduct. The watery metaphor shows that it is the life source of the ummah, or Muslim community. Just like water is essential for human survival, sharia is fundamental to the survival and prosperity of one’s faith.
In both the Qur’an and Hadith, Muslims are taught not only to respect the Earth and all its inhabitants but to also protect it and be mindful that the Earth and all living organisms have rights. One example of this guidance is verse 38 of Surah Al-An’am (The Cattle), which says: “All living beings roaming the earth and winged birds soaring in the sky are communities like yourselves. We have left nothing out of the Record. Then to their Lord they will be gathered all together.”
Sharia also records practical structures for environmental management, like hima. Hima, with its various translations, means “protected land,” “sacred land,” or “private pasture.” Himas are zones of land that cannot be touched or exploited by humans. This conservation system predates Islam (which was delivered to the people of Mecca in the seventh century CE), originating among the cultures of the Arabian Peninsula who managed resources in a harsh desert environment. It was then adopted into Islam by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In fact, Prophet Muhammad bestowed the title of hima onto various areas around Medina, including Hima An-Naqi’, which protects land for the Prophet’s cavalry.
Hima allows communities to use land in a way that promotes general well-being and equitable access. It also encourages people to ration the use of land so that it remains available for future generations. Hima proposes a conception of land that may be lost on those who are accustomed to thinking of land as a thing to own. Under hima, the natural environment is an entity available for all living organisms; it promotes the idea of reciprocity.
There is a mizan (balance) and harmony that is integral to the relationship between Muslims and the environment, and that can include one’s personal relationship with nature. Verse 165 of Surah Al An’am states, “It is He who made you successors on the earth and raises some of you above others in rank.” This verse can be understood to mean that Muslims are made stewards and protectors of the Earth. The Earth provides for us, and, in return, we have a responsibility to protect it and every living organism within it.
Ayats (verses) in the Qur’an communicate both directly and indirectly how Muslims should treat land and animals. God tells believers not to waste in ayah 141 of Surah Al-An’am, which says, “He is the One Who produces gardens—both cultivated and wild—and palm trees, crops of different flavors, olives, and pomegranates—similar in shape, but dissimilar in taste. Eat of the fruit they bear and pay the dues at harvest, but do not waste. Surely He does not like the wasteful.” The verse celebrates the riches of the soil provided by God and encourages their careful use. On a broader level, one can understand this ayah as a call to avoid behavior that is wasteful, that will harm the environment and those within it.
Gardens have symbolic importance in Islam as they are often believed to represent aspects or jannah (heaven). In the Qur’an, ayah 35 from Surah Ar-Ra’d says: “The description of the Paradise promised to the righteous is that under it, rivers flow; eternal is its fruit as well as its shade. That is the ultimate outcome for the righteous.” Paradise is imagined as a cool, fruitful garden. Even earthly gardens provide more than physical nourishment—they also offer rest for the soul with flowing water and shade-giving plants.
This spiritual symbolism is combined with a scientific aim in the Islamic Botanical Garden in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Developed in 2006 by the Emirate of Sharjah in collaboration with its Environment and Protected Areas Authority and UNESCO, the garden is the first of its kind in the Middle East, designed to juxtapose biodiversity and appreciation of Islamic culture. It includes elements of Islamic garden design like flowing water and shade, while also connecting the visitor experience to scripture by incorporating almost every plant or flower mentioned in the Qur’an and Hadith. Although modern terms like “ecosystems” and “biodiversity” may not be found in Islamic texts, organizations like the Islamic Botanical Garden that work for environmental protection can embody the concept of hima.
Closer to home in Washington, D.C., local actions also promote the relationship of faith, nature, and sustainability in everyday life. The nonprofit Green Muslims quite literally began around the table with the organization’s first leftar—an iftar, or Ramadan fast-breaking meal, made with leftovers and reusable containers, in place of a lavish dinner that creates waste. Green Muslims developed from that Ramadan night into an organization that uses faith and conversation to help grow environmental stewardship within the Muslim community. Initiatives like “Our Deen Is Green,” a youth education program, share Islamic environmentalism with the D.C. Muslim and interfaith community.
Sevim Kalyoncu, the executive director of Green Muslims, shared that her early experiences in nature are deeply connected to her faith. From that foundation, sustainable practices became a way of life. Green Muslims shares tangible ways to put faith into action, like the daily eco-conscious practices suggested in their Ramadan calendar (many of the tips apply to Muslims and non-Muslims alike).
As a young Muslim myself, intersectionality and finding ways to connect my faith to other aspects of my identity and life have always been important to me. As emerging leaders, I and many other young Muslims are trying to create spaces and conversations that will create better futures for others who come after. Moreover, as seen in the United Arab Emirates, through their Connect with Nature campaign and their Virtual Youth Circle Series, youth leaders are the future of environmental action, and helping to sustain and protect the Earth in any way we can is fundamental to how we envision the future.
In researching and writing this piece, I want to encourage a conversation about the ways Islam can provide meaning to contemporary movements and issues. While, yes, Islam is a traditional religion with old roots and foundations, this does not mean Islam is unforgiving and unadaptable. Muslims have the opportunity to use our beliefs to create change and spark important conversation.
How can we, not only as Muslims but as people, live a life of balance and harmony, showing gratitude and respect? My faith shows me that when mercy and graciousness is shown to us, one must pay it forward, and that also applies to living an ethical, environmentally conscious life. How can you pay it forward?
Asiyah Ball is an intern at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, researching art, life, sustainability, and culture in the United Arab Emirates. She is also a student at the George Washington University double majoring in international affairs and Arabic. Her favorite Ramadan iftar snack so far this year is the vegan peanut butter bars made by her mom.