Islam and eco-theology: The future of environmentalism

Islam and eco-theology: The future of environmentalism
Eco-theology has the potential to reshape environmental protection in the Middle East.
05 August, 2020
The relationship between Islam and environmentalism will become crucial in the post-coronavirus era. [Getty]
In a region where many countries enshrine religious law in their constitutions, eco-theology once held obvious promise. 

The philosophy argues that Muslims have a religious obligation to care for the natural environment because, according to the Qur'an, God made them the custodians of his creation. 

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has distracted the international community from the need for environmental protection and jeopardised eco-theology's future. When governments are fighting a pandemic, they have little time to reflect on Islam and environmentalism's relationship.

As the coronavirus has devastated economics across the Middle East, countries are dedicating fewer resources to climate change in an effort to prioritise the more immediate health crisis. Saudi Arabia is reporting thousands of new cases each day.

In July, the Algerian authorities opted to extend lockdowns in twenty-nine provinces. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the region's energy superpowers to lose $270 billion.

The coronavirus' creation of twin financial and health crises has forced governments in the Arab world to neglect environmental protection. Overwhelmed officials from Baghdad to Beirut lack the funds needed to stimulate economies and upgrade health systems battered by Covid-19, let alone enact the comprehensive, expensive environmental policies suggested by scientists.

  The philosophy argues that Muslims have a religious obligation to care for the natural environment  

Before the pandemic, countries large and small investment in the promotion of eco-theology. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), rival regional powers, funded conferences and research institutes focused on the fast-developing school of thought.

For its part, Turkey hosted the Islamic Climate Change Symposium five years ago, crafting the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. Morocco spearheaded an even more ambitious endeavour in 2016: the Green Mosques Program, a project to retrofit 15,000 mosques with solar panels and train imams in eco-theology.

The coronavirus has consumed the attention of officials throughout the Arab world, leaving the future of initiatives such as the Green Mosques Program in doubt. The countries best positioned to bankroll eco-theology's spread may no longer have the capital necessary to initiate a campaign on the philosophy's behalf.

Oman, a wealthy monarchy that distinguished itself with an effective environmental policy, may have to seek a bailout from its neighbours in the Persian Gulf. 

While the coronavirus has inhibited eco-theology's expansion, the philosophy has the potential to reshape environmental protection in the Middle East and the Muslim world as a whole.

Islam has played a role in revolutions and social movements throughout the region. Eco-theology's growing number of proponents assert that religion can also encourage Muslims to integrate the ideas of environmentalism into their daily lives. The Quran features a range of verses relevant to these concepts, and similar campaigns have sprouted from Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism.

Eco-theology's rising stars have included several academics, who have continued to advocate on behalf of the philosophy even as their universities have closed and governments throughout the Middle East shifted their attention elsewhere. Samira Idllalene, a professor of law at Cadi Ayyad University in Casablanca and a top expert on the intersection of environmental and religious law, circumvented the pandemic by speaking at a series of Zoom conferences in July.

  Eco-theology asserts that religion can encourage people to integrate the ideas of environmentalism into their daily lives  

The celebrities of eco-theology often use their platforms to push for change at a national and even international level. İbrahim Özdemir, a Turkish academic and environmentalist championing the "Islamic perspective" on environmental protection, has defended protests against deforestation in Turkey.

Odeh Rashid al-Jayyousi, a Palestinian-born scholar in Bahrain and one of the top names in eco-theology, employed a position on a panel at the United Nations to call on Muslims to join a "green jihad" against climate change and environmental degradation in the Middle East.

Following in Idllalene's footsteps, al-Jayyousi and Özdemir have chosen to maintain their public profiles by turning to the Internet. Özdemir remains active on Twitter, and al-Jayyousi wrote an article about how "Islam provides new sustainability perspectives for discovering and explaining the root causes for the current environmental, economic, and social crises" earlier this year.

The longer the coronavirus ravages the Middle East and undermines environmental protection, the more important outreach like Idllalene's, al-Jayyousi's, and Özdemir's will become. While governments might have slowed their investment in eco-theology, these academics have a critical opportunity to sustain the philosophy as a grassroots movement.

The coronavirus has thrived in the Middle East because of environmental issues such as air pollution and water scarcity, which make populations more susceptible to the coronavirus in a variety of direct and indirect ways.

The Arab world must resolve its ecological crises to defeat the pandemic, and eco-theology provides a promising path for the encouragement of environmental protection. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has noted that "environmental health considerations related to the COVID-19 pandemic are particularly relevant for MENA countries." Proponents of eco-theology can highlight this point as they present the philosophy to their governments. 

Though the Middle East has drifted away from eco-theology in light of the pandemic, the relationship between Islam and environmentalism will become crucial in the post-coronavirus era.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution.