Indonesia's eco-theology: An Islamic environmental consciousness

Indonesia's eco-theology: An Islamic environmental consciousness
A green, eco-centric approach to understanding Islamic teaching is revolutionising environmental protection in the world's most-populous Muslim-majority nation, reports Austin Bodetti.
5 min read
08 November, 2018
Will eco-theology prove an effective response to climate change in Indonesia? [Getty]
Indonesia, the world's most-populous Muslim-majority country, has evolved into a unique laboratory for combining two philosophies rarely associated with one another in the Western world: Islamism and environmentalism.

Some of Indonesia's most successful environmentalists argue that Islam obliges its adherents to combat climate change and support the environmental movement, pioneering a trend taking shape in countries across the Muslim world - and Indonesia has the opportunity to lead by example.

As early as 2003, Indonesian activist Nasruddin Anshory founded Ilmu Giri, a madrasa in the small Javanese town of Bantul dedicated to studying the relationship between Islam and the natural environment. His efforts earned praise from environmentalists across the globe.

The research paper Teaching Morality: Javanese Islamic Education in a Globalizing Era notes the importance of such schools in "shaping the identity of both the Indonesian Islamic community and Indonesia itself" and "inventing 'modernity' and remaking it in an Islamic and an Indonesian mold". Islam has the power to propel grassroots support for the environmental movement in Indonesia.
It's a case of caring for this earth for the sake of the world to come
Many other Indonesians have followed suit in the decade and a half since Ilmu Giri's founding. The Indonesian government began promoting environmental education in madrasas across the archipelago after seeing the success of Ilmu Giri and Guluk-Guluk, a school on the Indonesian island of Madura that has been teaching eco-theology for more than a century. The Wahid Institute, a prestigious Indonesian research center devoted to a pluralistic interpretation of Islam, has also been supporting these efforts.

"Many Muslim environmentalists with whom I have spoken in Indonesia recognise that positive environmental engagement can be in service of religious commitments, not just the other way around," said Dr Anna Gade, a professor of environmental, religious, and Southeast Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It's a case of caring for this earth for the sake of the world to come."

The appeal of eco-theology has caught the eye of ranking Indonesian theologians. In 2014, the Indonesian Ulama Council - a government agency and Indonesia's top clerical institution - released what National Geographic dubbed the "first ever fatwa issued against wildlife trafficking". Given the extent of the wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, the edict proved critical in the fight against poaching.

Indonesians' attempts to combine Islamism and environmentalism have received support not only from civil society and government but also from Western Muslims. The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, or IFEES, a British nongovernmental organisation, sponsors the Schools 4 Trees Project in Indonesia.

Speaking to the IFEES mission, the NGO's website references a Quranic quotation popular with Muslim environmentalists: "Corruption has appeared in land and sea caused by the hands of people so that they may taste the consequences of their actions and turn back."

The Quran, the Hadiths, and other religious texts provide countless examples of an Islamic call to combat climate change. Indonesian Muslims are acting on these historic edicts with an eye toward the contemporary consequences of global warming for the world's largest island country.

"Islamic preachers emphasise the need for young Muslims to protect the natural world since human beings are God's stewards on Earth," said Dr Pam Nilan, a professor of sociology at the University of Newcastle who studies environmentalism in Indonesia.

"Quranic principles are often emphasised in Indonesian activist discourse about environmental conservation."

Eco-theology will likely prove an effective response to climate change in Indonesia and the rest of the Muslim world. After all, Indonesia accounts for almost 13 percent of the world's Muslims - more than 220 million Indonesians in total.
There is no doubt that the new Islamic environmental consciousness strengthens the whole ecological movement in Indonesia
Muslims will soon outnumber Christians, the world's current largest religious denomination, for Islam represents the world's fastest-growing religion. Going by these commanding statistics, Indonesia seems set on an all but guaranteed course to become a leader within not only the environmental movement but also the Muslim world in the coming years.

"There is no doubt that the new Islamic environmental consciousness strengthens the whole ecological movement in Indonesia," Nilan told The New Arab.

As the tsunami that struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in October demonstrates, Indonesia's relationship with the natural environment represents a matter of life and death. Despite the Indonesian government's ongoing commitment to environmental protection, the archipelago continues to struggle with deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, and other environmental issues that could spur long-term ecological crises or near-term natural disasters across the country.

Islam can mobilise Indonesians against climate change like little else has. An Indonesian-led Islamic approach to environmentalism can act as a model for populous Muslim-majority countries dealing with global warming, such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Climate change threatens Muslim-majority countries across Africa and Asia, from Mauritania to Malaysia. In Indonesia, Muslim environmentalists have found an effective, replicable way of mobilising support for a response to global warming. As a vibrant democracy on the front lines of climate change, Indonesia seems well positioned to spearhead the Global South's embrace of eco-theology.

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia.

He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.