F&A Series: Islamic Environmental Activism – Theology, Relationship, and Action

Dr Rosemary Hancock is a Research Associate at Notre Dame University where she is convenor of the Religion and Global Ethics program and is Managing Editor of Solidarity: Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Secular Ethics. Her monograph on ‘Islamic Environmentalism: Activism in the United States and Great Britain’ was published in 2018 by Routledge. 

Religious responses to climate change and environment crisis have become more prominent in recent years. Whether the widespread coverage and debate of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ and its release in mainstream media outlets, or the very public and visible use of religious and spiritual ritual in climate protest such as that discussed by Stefan Skrimshire in a previous post. Yet despite the raised profile of religious environmentalism, Muslim environmentalists and Islamic environmentalism rarely make newspaper headlines. Between 2012 and 2013, I researched Islamic environmental organisations and activists scattered across the United States of America and Great Britain, spending time with six Islamic environmental groups and a handful of independent activists. Whilst undoubtedly a marginal activity in Muslim communities, Muslim environmental activism is present and growing, as I argue in my recent book Islamic Environmentalism.

As in other forms of religious environmentalism, there is a developed ‘environmental’ theology in Islam and many lay people either believe their religion teaches them to care for the environment – or support environmentalism more broadly. However, the link between environmental theology and taking environmental action is less clear. Scholars studying religion and activism often argue religious belief can motivate action – highlighting particular theologies that encourage political participation and service.[1] However, my research with Muslim environmentalists suggests that what matters more than theology and belief is relationships. Social movement theorists, when they (rarely) write about religion, argue that religious institutions and communities have the power to bring significant resources to social movements, particularly money and physical infrastructure, social and moral legitimacy, and dense social networks.[2] Of these, the dense social network is – I argue – the most valuable.

The majority of Muslim environmentalists I met were either drawn into environmental activism by a friend or spouse they respected or remained committed to environmental activism in the face of often disappointing outcomes because of affective ties to fellow activists or, occasionally, charismatic leaders.[3] One member of a US Islamic environmental group was introduced to the group by a friend in her weekly halaqa (study circle) – and her friend had himself joined partly because he was searching for like-minded Muslims after moving to D.C. from across the country. On the other hand, another member of the same environmental group was a regular and active participant – but primarily because her husband had joined and become very involved: she reflected that, although she agreed with the environmental framing of Islamic scripture the group espoused, she wouldn’t have joined the group alone.

In other Islamic environmental groups, a significant or charismatic leader drew members in and kept them engaged in activism. A US-based couple moved their lives from the East to the West coast – all to follow an Imam who was also an environmental activist and leader; whilst in the UK, another Islamic environmental organisation was structured around the leadership and charisma of a central figure.

All the Muslim activists I met, spent time with, and interviewed spoke about the ways in which Islamic scripture and teachings could be understand through an environmental lens. Many, in fact, argued that Islamic scriptures were essentially environmental – that the environmental teachings and values had always been there, but Muslims simply hadn’t recognised them until recently. But most also had pre-existing commitments (or at the very least, exposure) to secular environmentalism prior to their active involvement in an ‘Islamic’ environmentalism: one UK activist had studied environmental sciences at University; another Muslim convert had been an active member of Greenpeace; and multiple activists had been involved in local clean-up or recycling initiatives through their schools or neighbourhoods.

What became evident is that, whilst environmental readings of Islamic scripture circulate within Muslim communities, agreement with ‘green’ theology was not usually sufficient to motivate people into environmental activism.[4] Muslim environmentalists certainly made sense of their environmental action through the lens of religious belief and practice, arguing that it is a religious duty to care for the environment and that Muslims are called to take action in the world. But these beliefs and justifications came subsequently to their mobilisation into environmentalism.

Given that the majority of Islamic environmental groups I spent time with focused their efforts upon education campaigns within their Muslim communities – often running classes or giving lectures on Islamic environmentalism at Mosques and Islamic community centres – the weakness of the link between belief in a ‘green’ theology and becoming active in environmental groups has impacted their ability to grow and recruit members. Of the six Islamic environmental groups I studied – three were either on a self-imposed ‘sabbatical’ year or were in abeyance during my fieldwork. All three of these organisations had struggled to recruit and retain enough members to keep the campaigns and initiatives of the group running. Whilst all these Islamic environmental groups differed from secular environmental groups in both their membership – which was either exclusively, or nearly exclusively, Muslim – and in their framing of environmental crises and solutions, they faced the same problems found within secular environmental (or any activist) group: the struggle to move sympathetic listeners into action, and the fight to retain active members who were pulled away due to other commitments or dropped off when change was slow and ‘wins’ were few and far between.

Written By: Dr Rosemary Hancock

Feature Image Credit: Omani @Flickr 

[1] For example, Ruth Braunstein, Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017); Sharon Nepstad, Convictions of the Soul: Religion, Culture and Agency in the Central America Solidarity Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Grace Yukich, One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[2] For example, Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984); Diane Singerman, “The Networked World of Islamist Social Movements” in Quintan Wiktorowicz (ed.), Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Approach (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 143-163.

[3] See Rosemary Hancock, Islamic Environmentalism: Activism in the United States and Great Britain (London: Routledge, 2018), pp 101-105.

[4] See Rosemary Hancock,  “Islamic Environmentalists, Activism, and Religious Duty” in Mario Peucker and Merve Kayici (eds.), Muslim Volunteering in the West: Between Islamic Ethos and Citizenship (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), pp 141-160.