The Muslim world, representing one-fifth of the world’s population, is also among the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change. A March 2016 NASA study, for example, found that a drought hitting the eastern Mediterranean countries of Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey since 1998 was likely the worst to hit the region in the past 900 years. The NASA team behind the study found that the drought was caused, at least in part, by climate change.
Many Muslim countries also rely on their rich oil reserves to propel their economies, and all, like the US, burn climate-warming fossil fuels for energy. But if a growing movement of green-minded Muslims around the world has anything to say about it, that reliance on fossil fuels in the Muslim world could be in for a major shift.
In 2015, leading Muslim scholars from around the globe gathered at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium to hammer out the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change (IslamicClimateDeclaration.org).
“We call on Muslims, wherever they may be … to tackle habits, mindsets, and the root causes of climate change, environmental degradation, and the loss of biodiversity in their particular sphere of influence, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and bring about a resolution to the challenges that now face us,” the declaration states.
In April 2016—on the same day representatives from more than 150 nations signed the Paris Agreement on climate change—the Declaration authors presented their document to the United Nations General Assembly, where they also announced the launch of the Global Muslim Climate Network (GMCN). GMCN is a coalition of scholars, philanthropists, experts, and Muslim non-governmental organizations, including Islamic Relief Worldwide and the interfaith organization GreenFaith, who are working across the Muslim world on solutions to curb the climate crisis.
Many Muslim countries rely on their rich oil reserves....But if a growing movement of green-minded Muslims around the world has anything to say about it, that reliance on fossil fuels in the Muslim world could be in for a major shift.
At GMCN’s launch, the group called for all Muslim nations to increase the amount of renewable energy to 20 percent or more of their total energy mix. The group also called for Muslim investors to employ environmental, social, and governance criteria in their investment portfolios.
Meaningful action has already begun. The Moroccan government has been publicizing its program, launched in 2014, to retrofit all of the 15,000 mosques it owns across the country—some nearly 900 years old—with solar panels and energy- efficient technologies.
As Muslim activists spread their ecological message across the Islamic world, they’re also joining together with environmentalists from other faiths, finding common ground and forming cross-cultural bonds that are helping to break the stereotypes that lead to hate—all while caring for the Earth.
Connecting the Qur’an and Climate
Nana Firman is one of the leaders behind the Islamic Declaration and a co-founder of the GMCN. Today, she hopes the Muslim world can lead the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, spurred on by teachings in the Qur’an.
She first started noticing the interconnections between religion and environmentalism while working abroad for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). After the 2004 tsunami, which caused mass destruction in countries bordering the Indian Ocean, Firman joined WWF’s rebuilding efforts in Indonesia with her background in urban and industrial design. But she found herself having a tough time persuading local people to take sustainability into consideration in their rebuilding efforts.
Some colleagues noted that the area where she worked, the Indonesian province of Aceh, was predominantly Muslim and deeply religious, and they suggested using religion as a way to find common ground. Firman ended up going back to her own Islamic faith to look for environmental messages.
She found plenty. For example, the Qur’an states: “Eat and drink from the provision of Allah, and do not commit abuse on the Earth, spreading corruption.”
So she started connecting the dots between the environmental stewardship she wanted to catalyze and the faith she shared with the community.
“The people understood better when I actually used religious teachings to emphasize my points,” she says. “I got involved with the religious leader, and then people started to get involved in my programs. From then on, whether I worked on sustainable cities or climate- change issues, I tried to incorporate my own faith also.”
When Firman moved to the US in 2012, she found that American Muslims she met “didn’t have the connection between the Islamic teaching and the protection of the environment. Somehow, they thought those were two different things, like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s cool to be a green activist, but I’m a Muslim.’” When she visited a mosque in Southern California in 2013 for the breaking of that year’s Ramadan fast, she was surprised at the waste she saw there.
After the prayer service, Firman spoke to the Imam, the mosque’s leader, about how to reduce waste— and what doing so had to do with the teachings of the Qur’an. He was so impressed, he welcomed her to speak to worshipers on the issue.
That speaking engagement led to many others, and today, Firman often travels nationally and abroad to talk to Muslims about sustainability practices. In 2015, she was named a White House Champion of Change.
“As Muslims, we have a responsibility to take care of our world and this planet as the khalifa [steward] of this Earth,” she said in an interview at the 2016 UN climate conference in Marrakesh, which she attended on behalf of GCMN.
A Common Care For People
Muslim environmentalists like Firman are also reaching out to people from other faith traditions—and vice versa—to join together in spreading their message of caring for Creation.
In 2013, Firman joined GreenFaith, where she now works part-time as the Muslim outreach director. GreenFaith (greenfaith.org) is an interfaith organization that has organizers from many religions reach out to worshippers around the country. It provides educational resources linking religion and environment, and it brings people of different beliefs together for environmental stewardship events. The organization is one of several behind the GMCN.
Founded in 1992 in New Jersey, GreenFaith is an interfaith environmental organization that works with a diverse range of faith groups globally. With Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist partners, in the last four years alone, GreenFaith has helped lead the faith-based fossil-fuel divestment movement; led organizing that brought over 15,000 people of faith to the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York; coordinated an international, multifaith campaign in support of the Paris Climate Agreement; and led a march into St. Peter’s Square in Rome to celebrate the release of Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical. The organization has trained hundreds of faith leaders for environmental action and facilitated financing for over a megawatt of solar installations on faith facilities.
"It doesn’t mean that we worship the Earth. It does mean that there is a belief that we have a moral accountability for the way in which we treat the Earth, along with how we treat other people.” - The Reverend Fletcher Harper
The Reverend Fletcher Harper is an Episcopal priest and the executive director of GreenFaith. Harper says what brought him to GreenFaith was a recognition that he had many of his connections with God while outdoors in nature, which he thinks is common with people across religions.
“There are real, legitimate, and genuine differences between religions, culturally and theologically. Within that diversity though, there’s a clear sense, with religious groups, that we have a responsibility to care for the Earth, that the Earth is a remarkable gift for which we are to be grateful,” Harper says. “It doesn’t mean that we worship the Earth. It does mean that there is a belief that we have a moral accountability for the way in which we treat the Earth, along with how we treat other people.”
Indeed, Harper, Firman, and others, including Pope Francis, see pollution mitigation as part of their respective religious mandates to care for the poor.
“A theme that is really powerful and shared among religions is the priority we need to place on looking out for those who are the most vulnerable,” Harper says. “While it’s very clear the pollution hurts everybody, it hurts the poor the worst, and it hurts racial minorities the worst. And that’s wrong.”
Harper stresses that particularly in today’s divisive political climate, “it’s beyond vital that people of faith register their belief, publicly, that we must protect the environment and act on climate change.”
He suggests finding members of your congregation who are interested in sustainability and environmental topics and meeting regularly, as well as going to faith leaders with a request for a sermon on the topic.
Divisive language ignited voters last year—Trump’s election was a clear loss for environmentalists, and also for Muslims, as peaceful people were lumped in with terrorist groups. But Nana Firman is full of hope as she talks about the months and years to come. She says since the election, there has been a huge outpouring of support for the Muslim communities where she lives, support people in those groups didn’t know existed before.
She also is quick to acknowledge her identity is not the only one that has come under fire; she talks about her mosques making new ties to other minority groups. In 2015, she connected with a group called Islam in Spanish, which has been trying to build bridges between Muslims and Spanish speakers. In at least a few cities where there are large communities of both groups, including Los Angeles, Houston, and New York, hate speech and governmental threats directed at Latin-Americans and Muslims have inspired both communities to reach out to each other in solidarity.
Firman says that the two communities have found things in common when discussing the environment, due to both having strong agriculture background and a culture of sharing communal goods. She says these few cultural nuances connect many.
“Even though a lot of us are not happy with the [political] situation, groups that did not even have any communication before are starting to communicate because of it,” she says. “There’s been this outpouring of support that we didn’t even think about before.”