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Rooting Environmental Action in the Islamic Faith

Sustainability and Faithful Interfaith

Rooting Environmental Action in the Islamic Faith

by Kamran Shezad

Photo: Kamran Shezad

Photo: Kamran Shezad

In September 2018, the Bahu Trust in Birmingham, United Kingdom, won ‘Best Green Initiative’ at the British Beacon Mosque Awards. The Bahu Trust represents 22 mosques around the country. Kamran Shezad, sustainability advisor to The Bahu Trust and a member of its congregation, explains the motivation behind moving towards a sustainable model and Bahu Trust’s efforts within both the Muslim and interfaith community.

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An estimated 80 percent of the world’s population self-identify with a faith. Places of faith, be it a mosque, church, synagogue, gurdwara, or temple, have the power to influence the people who attend to worship. The majority of holy books/scriptures such as the Qur’an, Torah, and Bible have vast amounts of teaching about nature and the environment. At the Bahu Trust, these teachings are being used to influence change in people’s behavior towards sustainability. An environmental message from one’s faith leaders has the potential of bringing about change and is an added resource in the fight against climate change.

Dr. Fazlun Khalid – Photo:    IFEES

Dr. Fazlun Khalid – Photo: IFEES

In May 2015, Pope Francis published the papal encyclical Laudato Si’, subtitled ‘On care for our common home.’ In it he discusses consumerism, irresponsible growth, environmental degradation, and global warming. The pope calls on the global community to take swift and unified action to protect the planet.

Similarly, the work of the Bahu Trust has been inspired by the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. The declaration is considered by many to represent the “Muslim voice” within the climate change discourse and was drafted by Dr. Fazlun Khalid. Dr. Khalid, the founding director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecological and Environmental Sciences (IFEES/EcoIslam), is one the most influential Islamic scholars on the environment.

Based on the Islamic environmental ethic and incorporating Qur’anic verses and examples from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the declaration is grounded in Islamic principles common among Muslims and therefore has significant implications for how we live our daily lives. It is the responsibility of all Muslims to tackle the human actions and systems contributing to global climate change. The declaration makes this explicit, calling on all “Muslims, wherever they may be, to tackle the root causes of climate change, environmental degradation, and the loss of biodiversity.”

Islam, as a faith, is inherently environmental. There are numerous passages in the Qur’an that express environmental values and identify caring for creation as a sacred duty. Although Muslims have been found to be highly motivated by their faith, the challenge is that they are not always aware of how environmental their faith is. By educating folks about the environmental dimensions and responsibilities of their faith, we can potentially bring two billion people on board to tackle climate change.

Bahu Trust

While ‘talking the talk’ is important, it is equally if not more important to ‘walk the walk.’ The Bahu Trust has been teaching their communities about things they can do to live more sustainably and ways they can be involved in creating sustainable societies. It has also committed itself to educating and raising awareness about environmental issues, starting with imams. As respected leaders in the Muslim community, imams are potential change-makers and need to be well equipped if the right message is to be given from the pulpit. Therefore, Bahu Trust offers training to all their imams, helping connect their faith with their responsibility as stewards of this earth.

Imam training session – Photo: KS

Imam training session – Photo: KS

The training we offer is interactive and conducted in a way that encourages the imams to teach each other rather than being ‘trained’ by an instructor. Imams first discuss verses from the Qur’an and quotes from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and begin to make the connections between their faith and the environment.

For example, the message we often take from the story of Noah’s ark is that if we don’t believe in God or behave wickedly before Him, He will punish us. But this isn’t the sole message that can be drawn from the story. One imam recognized that God had asked Noah to take all the animals and not the best technology of the day, hence recognizing that the story can be seen as a message that biodiversity sustains the world and we should protect it. The discussion continues organically from there as other imams quote references and quotes from the Qur’anic scriptures and relate them to the environment.

The second part of the training is discussing the reality of environmental issues in the local community. We deliberately choose not to talk about the global nature of climate change and what is happening in other parts of the world, nor use technical environmental jargon. We focus purely on local issues so participants can visualize problems and work out solutions that they can directly work on. It is not that we think the large-scale, systemic nature of the environmental crisis is unimportant, but what is most likely to motivate people to act is talking about issues they can directly relate to.

Pledge from one of the imams – Photo: KS

Pledge from one of the imams – Photo: KS

The third part of the training focuses on what can be done. How can imams influence other imams? What can be done to improve the madrassa syllabus? How can mosques take the lead on organising social action projects in the local community? What can mosques do to reduce their carbon footprint? These topics always generate excellent discussion which then leads to the fourth and final section of the training, where imams pledge to carry out specific actions. Some amazing pledges have been made, including starting a “walk to the mosque” campaign, authoring green sermons for other Imams, and looking into setting a ‘Green Mosques Council.’

The training has benefitted not only imams, but also been held for the wider Muslim community. This has resulted in more people getting involved in the environmental work at their mosque. As a result, 12 out of 22 mosques have installed solar panels and converted to renewable energy. Numerous educational sermons and messages have been developed and delivered, plastic-free events such as iftars organised, and community clean-up of local streets mobilized, all of which have contributed in the Bahu Trust winning the ‘Best Green Initiative’ at the national Beacon Mosque Awards. It is not often that a mosque is associated with ‘green’ or environmental work, but the Bahu Trust is an example to others on how you can mobilize members of the community by empowering them and making them a major part of the solution.

All this has been possible through the hard work and dedication of the green team, the staff, local people, and volunteers who are leading and supporting the Bahu Trust in its endeavors to promote environmental stewardship and sustainability.

The Bahu Trust is keen on expanding its existing work. A new module titled “Islam & the Environment” is currently being developed and will be added to the supplementary school syllabus. It is also looking to expand its educational resources to include web-based resources, videos, and toolkits. The Bahu Trust is looking to develop an ‘EcoMosque’ set of standards (in line with EcoChurch and EcoSynagogue), with the aim of providing guidelines to mosque management members on how to ‘green-up’ their mosque and reduce their carbon footprint.

Interfaith Work

The Bahu Trust works alongside environmental interfaith organisations such as Footsteps – Faiths For a Low Carbon Future and Faiths for the Climate Network. They are wonderful organisations which bring together members of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, and Pagan faiths, as well as people of no faith, all of whom share concerns around protecting the planet. Regardless of what religious, spiritual, or secular belief systems we come from, we share the duty to be guardians of this earth. Networking with other faith and interfaith organisations has taught members of Bahu Trust the rich impact that comes from encouraging people from different backgrounds to come together to share good practices and hold joint educational events.

One such example was “Small Footsteps,” an initiative by Footsteps – Faiths for a Low Carbon Future. Based in Birmingham UK, the program brought together a team of like-minded friends from different faiths to organise a summer workshop for young people. The highly interactive summer school lasted a week, and discussed a variety of topics including ecology, food, trees, water, 3Rs, energy, climate change, and global warming from faith perspectives. The aim was simple: no matter what faith or background we come from, we all have the responsibility to take care of the environment.

The programme was a huge success and a source of inspiration for the young people who took part. The children were able to see beyond the individual topics and see the bigger picture and realise how everything around them is connected. They gained new skills such as learning to cook using left over food and how to convert items of waste into meaningful new items like birdfeeders. Feedback from parents was that these young children were advocating for changes at home and were challenging their families to cease practices that are bad for the environment!

Small Footsteps group picture – Photo: KS

Small Footsteps group picture – Photo: KS

Environmental activism and engagement have historically been seen as scientific or political issues. However, faith-based organisations worldwide are beginning to play increasingly significant roles in this arena. They are gaining seats at environmental conferences and becoming major players in advocating environmental stewardship. 

Only together as one global community can we make a difference. Our planet is suffering and needs us to restore the natural balance; needs us as people from different faiths and beliefs to together live into and bring this message to the world. As the Islamic scholar Dr. Fazlun Khalid once said, “Let us save the planet first, then we can sit down and debate about God.”

Header Photo: Pexels