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Seeking Muslim discourse on climate change


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In this December 6. 2008 file photo, Egyptians drive under a polluted sky in Cairo. Qatar is hosting a UN conference where nearly 200 countries are trying to forge a joint plan to fight global warming, which climate activists say is the greatest modern challenge to mankind. – File photo by AP
In this December 6. 2008 file photo, Egyptians drive under a polluted sky in Cairo. Qatar is hosting a UN conference where nearly 200 countries are trying to forge a joint plan to fight global warming, which climate activists say is the greatest modern challenge to mankind. – File photo by AP

DOHA: At Friday prayers in Qatar’s most popular mosque, the imam discussed the civil war in Syria, the unrest in Egypt and the UN endorsement of an independent state of Palestine.

Not a word about climate change, even though the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar is hosting a UN conference where nearly 200 countries are trying to forge a joint plan to fight global warming, which climate activists say is the greatest modern challenge to mankind.

“Unfortunately the Arab and Islamic countries have political and economic problems,” said Adham Hassan, a worshipper from Jordan streaming out of the al-Khatabb mosque in Doha. “Islam calls for the protection of the environment, but the Muslim countries are mostly poor and they didn’t cause pollution and aren’t affected by climate change.”

Of six mosques contacted by The Associated Press in the Qatari capital, only one included an environmental message in the Friday prayers, telling those in attendance to plant trees, shun extravagance and conserve water and electricity.

The Quran is filled with verses on nature and Earth. Yet the voice of Islamic leaders is missing from the global dialogue on warming.

That disappoints Muslim environmental activists, who believe the powerful pull of Islam could be the ideal way to change behaviour in both poor countries, where many people’s main source of information is the mosque, and in some wealthy countries like Qatar, where Islam remains important even as rapid growth has made it the world’s top per capita emitter of carbon dioxide.

“It’s absolutely frustrating,” said Fazlun Khalid, founder of the UK-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, which oversees projects around the world that use Islamic teachings to combat problems ranging from deforestation to overfishing.

“We get very little support from Muslims,” he said. “They don’t connect. We have to wake them up to the fact their existence is threatened by their own behaviour. Modernity and the economic development paradigm is about dominating nature. Islam, as you are aware, is submission to the will of the creator. We need to remind ourselves that we have to submit.”

As the annual UN climate conference neared its halfway point in Doha, the usual splits opened up between rich and poor nations over how to divide the burden – and financial cost – of protecting the world from overheating.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres lamented that she didn’t see “much public interest, support, for governments to take on more ambitious and more courageous decisions.”

“Each one of us needs to assume responsibility. It’s not just about domestic governments,” she said.

The talks are aimed at limiting the level of warming to 2 degrees Celcius, compared to temperatures before the industrial revolution. So the main focus is to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases that a vast majority of climate scientists say is to blame for the rising temperatures.

That goal gets more difficult to reach ever year. Temperatures have already risen about 0.8 degrees Celcius, according to the latest report by the UN’s scientific panel on climate change. And a series of reports before and during the conference warned that global emissions are still increasing, primarily driven by the rapid growth of emerging economies such as China and India.

World religions are seeking a more active role in climate change and sustainability issues. The Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change project – endorsed by Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism – was a regular presence at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, while the Dalai Lama has repeatedly called on governments to take climate change more seriously.

Religious leaders in the United States have launched a movement known as “green religion” or “eco-theology, with groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network endorsing clean energy and calling on people to consume less.

Muslims are also slowly heeding the call.

Egypt’s government-appointed Muslim Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, also known at the green mufti, has been outspoken on pollution and climate change, calling them greater threats than war, according to the consultancy Green Compass Research.

The holy month of Ramadan has taken on a greener theme, with Muslims across the Middle East and the United States using it to touch on food waste and sustainability. Small-scale campaigns using Islam including one aimed at turtle conservation in Malaysia and illegal mining in Indonesia have been rolled out.

“It’s becoming a more important part of Islamic discourse, a more holistic approach to what it means to be a responsible Muslim in the world today,” said Tamara Sonn, a humanities professor at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

“There are greater levels of education and overall global awareness of the importance of environmental concerns facilitated by advances in communication, the Internet.”

But Muslim environmental activists say more could be done.

Too often, they complain, discussions of the role of Islam and the environment are limited to conferences. They say religious leaders could issue fatwas on the environment, and governments could introduce curriculums in schools highlighting themes found in the Quran such as the importance of nature, treating animals compassionately and the prohibition on wastefulness.

“The majority of Muslim scholars, leaders, and activists whose major concerns are ritualistic and the legalistic aspects of Islam, themselves have not seen the environmental issues and problems as their immediate concern,” Muhamad Ali, assistant professor Islamic Studies University of California, Riverside, said in an email.

“While they focus on the purity and validity of a ritual act, they lack understanding and awareness of the immediacy and cruciality of the environment crisis as a common problem. Besides, like other monotheists in general, they see human beings as superior over the natural world.”

Khalid has seen first-hand how Islam can persuade Muslims to change their ways on sustainability issues. He once went to Zanzibar after conservation groups failed to persuade fishermen to stop using dynamite on coral reefs. After leading several workshops that leaned heavily on Quranic teachings, he said the fishermen never again used destructive practices.

“They stopped dynamiting coral reefs in 24 hours,” said Khalid, who has similar successes in Nigeria and Pakistan with forest protection.

“It had a profound impact on the local fishermen. One of the fishermen told me that we can disobey the laws of the government but we can’t disobey the laws of the creator.”

Comments (18) Closed

Naseer Qureshi Dec 01, 2012 07:56pm
All members of OIC (group of 55 countries) do not make even 10 percent of the world total economy and trade.
Abhishek Dec 02, 2012 04:11am
What religion has to do with the climate change? Protecting the climate is a common sense.
Bill Moyer Dec 03, 2012 01:00am
Climate change is a universal phenomenon which will have universal inputs. Muslims have not had inputs into this simply because muslims societies have become regressed, and what is worse, oh so proud in their religiosity. Muslim societies need to get over this hyper religiosity if only because it has bred intolerance. And that perhaps may begin the road to recovery where learning from others may be possible with respect and tolerance for all.
ck67 Dec 01, 2012 02:28pm
Are Muslims worried about anything? Are they worried about how to find cure for cancer, or how to cure diabetes or how to discover space mysterious or how to produce next fastest computer? Muslims been free loaders, helpless and dependent on others, others lead and mulsims follow.
Meherban Ali Dec 01, 2012 02:24pm
This is as preposterous as it gets. Next you'll say what is the importance and opinion of islam in relation to manufacturing tires. Stop linking everything to religion.
Shakeel Dec 01, 2012 09:21pm
Talking about climate change in a Muslim forum is a far cry. Let us first try to get a unity amongst all Muslims about fixing the Eid day. We simply cannot get all heads working and agreeing on simple matters
Ara Dec 02, 2012 11:31am
What a thought provoking and well researched article. But did you read the Koran, books of Hadith and fiqh? Most probably not, otherwise you might have gotten some references. I am not here to spoon feed you. Go do the research again, then do re-research 99 times. If you still can't find any reference, then ask me.
Awais Dec 02, 2012 07:17pm
Certainly it is a common sense but Islam is not just a religion of individual rituals. It also addresses issues like environment, economics, growth, contract management, astronomy and so much more. Its a pity that these so called Muslim clerics and their blind followers do not pay any heed to that. May Allah make it easy for every human to learn the true spirit His true religion! Ameen
Rao Dec 01, 2012 03:37pm
Who says Muslim countries did not cause climate change.? After all, they were the biggest supplier of oil and other petro-carbon fuels that produced so much methane and CO2 emissions which in turn produced this global disaster.
Circumbulator Dec 01, 2012 03:30pm
Culprits are the oil producing countries of the Middle East, with the biggest carbon footprint. When and only when humanity is given preference over greed will we see any progress.
Ara Dec 02, 2012 11:23am
And what about your lot?
G.A. Dec 01, 2012 01:21pm
Never understood the concept of a religious leader. Is it a political figure or a scholar? What contribution have they made to the environment or society that they deserve such praise? What is the credibility of an Imam happily serving a despotic king or a dictator?
raika45 Dec 01, 2012 02:14pm
The Islamic situation worldwide in the eyes of non muslims is not one of one with nature.It is about the turmoil that is created by the muslims in their own countries like the middle east and even Pakistan. Not forgetting the African countries including your demands in western countries contrary to their laws. You muslims have to put your house in order first before telling others of the beauty of Islam regarding nature.
deo Dec 02, 2012 05:20pm
No religion, Islam including, has much to contribute to the present debate on pollution and destruction of environment. This is a the negative side of moder living. The answer lies in science, new thinking on meaning of life, controlling population growth, and educating people. Religion has no answer to any of these problems.
BRR Dec 01, 2012 04:27pm
Completely misplaced priorities - educate people on their environmental problems and responsibilities at schools, at colleges, etc. don't yet drag Islam into it. Don't make the mosque the center of such activities - it is totally misplaced. Very myopic view if writer believes only Islam has stuff to say about environment and the mosque is the place to beat the drums. Grow up, there is more to life than the mosque.
Ara Dec 02, 2012 11:25am
My first reaction was well said. But later I retracted, using my wisdom.
Ben Dec 02, 2012 06:36am
Islam has defined laws not only for humans but also for animals, plants and every other thing in this universe, but it is unfortunate that Muslims are not following their scriptures and being behind on this issues, but the question is how come a community focus on this when they are cornered everywhere in the world.
Ara Dec 02, 2012 11:22am
More to life -Brrrrrrrrrrr.