Every now and then a book comes along, at times from an oblique vantage point or marginalized point of reference, and shakes the foundation of a field, laying bare its intellectual assumptions and epistemological categories. Muslim Environmentalisms: Religious and Social Foundations is just such a book. Ambitious in scope, transdisciplinary in theoretical approach, and unapologetically decolonial in its masterful demonstration of the futility of universalist approaches to environmentalism, this book takes down the dominant epistemologies of environmental humanities and offers, in its place, an ethical vision for both the environment and the humanities.
Anna M. Gade—trained as an Islamicist and historian of religion, and with two decades of ethnographic research in Southeast Asia—offers a radical critique (and I do not use those words lightly) of what scholars think they know about the environment. Building on late twentieth-century postcolonial and developmentalist critique, Gade looks to Islam in Indonesia—as both text and lived religion—to question the secular and universalist leanings of academic scholarship and international NGOs that attempt to integrate “religion and environment.” In corporate board rooms in Jakarta and environmental conferences in Bali, secular (and sometimes non-Muslim) environmental activists comb online English translations of the Quran for what they think are equivalents of supposedly universal emphases on religious themes of stewardship, dominion, and environmental balance. Viewed from the perspectives and programming of international environmental agencies such as the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), at times even partnering with the US Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, religious knowledge is only important insofar as it can be instrumentalized for public diplomacy and environmental advocacy.
The problem with this “Islam and the environment” approach, Gade argues, is that it presumes knowledge of where to find the “environmental” in Islam. NGO activists and governmental agencies seek simplified Islamic approximates of categories that originate in Western European religious and philosophical traditions. Rather than Islamizing assumptions about the environment, they mobilize public campaigns that try to environmentalize a particular Islamic pillar of faith (fasting, the hajj pilgrimage, etc.) or solicit an authoritative yet nonbinding religious decree (fatwa) from a quasi-state apparatus as another way to mobilize public campaigns. Gade puts it eloquently, “Through institutions like those of development and conservation, non-Muslims participate in the invention and promotion of normatively Islamic messages and seek to operationalize these ‘values’ through local political power and patronage.” Drawing on erudite, contextualized analysis of Quranic referents and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad in the tradition of classical Islamic studies, and complemented by ethnographic fieldwork to observe how such precepts are actually lived in daily life, Gade argues compellingly that Muslims understand and relate to the environment as an ethical category that bridges communal relations, religious ritual, and eschatology.
In this reckoning, local context matters. Sufi traditions in Indonesia, though perhaps frowned upon by some reformist and modernist Muslims, have shaped particular religious understandings and everyday practice. At the same time, some Muslim environmentalists in Indonesia participate in, though at times contest, global development narratives and strategies often based on neoliberal logics around states, markets, and purportedly autonomous selves. This tension (and at times congruence) between local and global could offer interesting comparative perspectives, as long as such an approach does not repeat the errant inquiry into supposedly disparate “great” and “little” traditions or bifurcated idea of the local and global.
What might it look like, then, to Islamize the environmental humanities? Rather than cherry-picking Quranic words that approximate Western notions of “stewardship” or “balance” (or presume some universalist version of a natural sublime), Gade urges us to focus on how contextualized authoritative Islamic sources (and Muslims themselves) frame the environment in terms of religious practice. A truly Islamic environmentalism, Gade contends, would begin with the ethical categories and moral obligations concerning the earth, not an imprecise Arabic gloss of what are assumed should be the most important environmental terms. The very idea of the earth isunderstood as a trusteeship (amanah) that commands respect, moral reflection, and active care for both sentient and nonsentient creatures—from camels and dogs to trees and mountains. However, this is a demanding trusteeship, a test for which humans, according to the Quran, will held to account on Judgment Day. This eschatological focus calls the believer to reflect on daily practices of consumption and waste management. They are to seek and learn from the environment by closely attending to the signs (ayat) of nature with intellect, eyes, and heart. Going beyond secular concepts of sustainability, Islamic textual sources and the prophetic tradition frame conservation in moral terms to prevent the corruption (A: fasad; I: korupsi) of the earth. Efforts by secular environmentalist NGOs to find varieties on a theme cannot begin to account for the eschatological implications of the corruption of both earth and heart, the material and the moral.
For nonspecialists of Islamic studies, perhaps the single most important takeaway is that the environment is an ethical category that connects diverse dimensions of Islamic thought, practice, science, arts, and eschatology. Whereas the term Muslim environmentalisms suggests plural understandings of the natural order, Islamic texts and traditions nonetheless articulate a universal natural order, whose signs are read in different ways. (In the case of Indonesia, tsunamis and earthquakes are interpreted in diverse ways, but typically through the lens of not fulfilling moral obligations to God). As Gade argues, a history of religions approach provides a deeper understanding of the moral and theological concepts that underlie understandings of the earth and the potential corruption of its resources. In Islamic perspectives, multiple ethical registers mediate and bring together different articulations of what counts as environment, nature, and the natural order.
Bridging classical Islamic studies with insights from ethnographic fieldwork, Gade demonstrates that environmental concerns also emerge in everyday Islam, where the environment plays an important role in personal piety and communal relations. Gade discusses how Muslim environmentalists have attached new intentions (niat) to millennia-old traditions such as alms giving (sedekah) and recitation practices (dzikr), neologized by environmentalist Muslims as eco-sedekah and eco-dzikr. Environmentally friendly Islamic schools—or, eco-pesantren—manage resources such as recycled water, used for ablutions before prayer (wudhu), with reference to sayings of the Prophet (hadith) that forbid wasting water, even when it is plentiful. Environmentalist architect Professor Budi Faisal described to Gade how considerations such as local materials, water recycling, and even biogas projects are inspired by Quranic injunctions and a sensibility for how they integrate into lived practices such as the design and construction of mosques and eco-pesantren.
Likewise rooted in the Prophetic tradition, other Muslim environmentalists interviewed by Gade, such as revered scholar in West Java K. H. Thonthawi, framed reforestation programs in terms of the Prophet’s prohibition on cutting trees during warfare. Thonthawi elaborated his dedication to reforestation with reference to another hadith stating that those who plant trees will be rewarded in heaven. These ethical and eschatological considerations are lost when one takes a “world religions” approach to understand environmentalism. This shallow, decontextualized tactic finds in each religion something that approximates dominant notions of both religion and environment based on specific historical, post-Enlightenment imaginations of nature and the sublime (the quasi-sacred roots, perhaps, of what has become a supposedly secular enterprise).
Muslim Environmentalisms shows us what has become reductive and provincial about the environmental humanities. Gade’s book offers an invitation—indeed, an ethical command—to imagine a different future for the study of environmentalisms. How might we reimagine the sacred places and profane spaces, local knowledges and global networks, of religious environmentalisms? How can scholars reconcile textual, historical, and ethnographic methodologies? In terms of decolonizing our scholarship, how can we re-center religious voices and practices while also provincializing Western genealogies of environmentalism? How might our theoretical assumptions and empirical accountings also make room for global markets and state power?
As one possible future direction, I would note that ethical environmentalisms can also be corrupted. Gade is correct to point to how local wisdom affords sacred respect for particular natural places in Indonesia. Nevertheless, some of the country’s oligarchs and generals—some who often profess their piety publicly—have forced their way onto indigenous lands to make way for oil palm plantations. State complicity in transnational mining and agriculture has excavated the land and subjugated the indigenous peoples of West Papua. Ethical ideals are just that: ideals. As impressed as I was by the diverse reimaginings of religion and environment across Java in this book, I found myself wanting to know more about how some Muslims reconcile these ethical aspirations with everyday practices that corrupt the environment.
As but one example of the convergence of religious piety and environmental corruption, consider Zulkifli Hasan, former Minister of Agriculture and Speaker of Parliament and current Chair of the National Mandate Party (Partai Amanat Nasional, loosely affiliated with the modernist Muslim organization Muhammadiyah, promotors of the aforementioned eco-almsgiving campaign). On both religious and national stages, Hasan frequently deploys ethical rhetoric of trusteeship, much like environmentalists, by quoting the Quranic verses that characterize Islam as a “blessing for the worlds” (rahmatan lil alamin). Yet, Hasan has also been implicated in (but never convicted of) corruption charges related to his tenure as forestry minister during a political climate where much fortune (rezeki) was to be made through logging concessions. During his term, Hasan even managed to become a sensational internet eco-villain when a swashbuckling Harrison Ford marched into his Jakarta office (for an environmental documentary) and accused Hasan of not having the political will or moral gumption to save the Indonesian forests, implying that the minister’s real intentions (niat) were corrupt.
I purposely invoke some of the same ethical principles meticulously described in Muslim Environmentalisms, though in this instance to illustrate how environmental ethics relate to religious hypocrisy and state power. This corruption implicates not just the environment, but also self and nation. I offer this alternative vantage point not to critique Gade for what was more peripheral to her own intervention, but to take seriously her call for scholars to reimagine what counts as environment, environmentalism, and the environmental humanities. This diverse field might find inspiration from emerging work in the anthropology of religion (my discipline) that is also concerned with ethical practice—not in terms of the cultivation of ethical perfection, but as a solemn inquiry into those who find themselves “straying from the straight path.”
Close scrutiny of Indonesia’s money politics across an array of state ministries that have some bearing on the environment indicates quite convincingly the comingling of the pious and the corrupt. How might environmentalism, and the environmental humanities more broadly, look different from the viewpoint of someone clearly caught between the ethical ideals of Islam and the political temptations of state power? How do they imagine and manage worldly creatures, state resources, and eschatological anxieties? What might an ethnography of the environment look like from vastly different ethical places and spaces—not the board rooms propagating environmental concern, or even the Islamic schools that propagate resource management, rather the back rooms of port-city lumber yards that quietly sell legal logging certificates? Or perhaps from the military barracks providing security for the transnational Grasberg copper mine in West Papua? Such lines of inquiry do not discount the significance of textual referents or conventional figures of religious authority; instead, they take a broad ethnographic view of the entanglements of lived religion with power, politics, and even the unethical.
Whatever future the future holds for the environmental humanities, Muslim Environmentalisms makes clear that scholars must account for the local and lived ethical worlds of environmentalisms. Scholars must also decolonize the relatively nascent field’s genealogy of romanticism, notions of the sublime, and misunderstandings of where, and how, to look for the religion in “environment and religion.” This book summons us to reflect deeply on how we study the environment, to think across our epistemological and disciplinary divides, and then to develop the resources to create the field anew and cultivate the next generation of scholars.
Transliteration note: Unless otherwise noted, I have used the Indonesian spelling for all Arabic words.