On Friday afternoons, as the story goes, the Prophet Muhammad delivered sermons standing beneath the fronds of a date palm tree. Eventually, followers built him a podium inside the nearby mosque and he began speaking there instead. Saddened by the prophet’s absence, the date palm wept. When the prophet learned of the tree’s unrest, he returned to comfort it. This popular hadith, or Muslim tradition based on the acts of the Prophet Muhammad, is one of several that Anna M. Gade shares in Muslim Environmentalisms. The story underscores two of the book’s central points: that the Quran teaches an environmental ethic of care for creation, something reflected through Islamic jurisprudence, aesthetics, and science; and that creation is populated not only with humans and animals, but also with nonsentient “creatures” who the Quran includes in its calls for justice.
Gade approaches the question of justice as a scholar of the history of religions and environmental studies. A study of Islamic people’s ethical commitments to the various phenomena understood as the environment, Muslim Environmentalisms thus has implications for both religious studies and the environmental humanities. Both the -ism and the plural are important: the first because it signals the “norms and values, ethics and intentionality” central to the environment as an ethical category, and the second because investigating multiple actually existing Islamic environmentalist practices counterposes the abstractions of religious studies work on “Islam and the environment.” Yet more so than her interventions in religious studies, it is the environmental humanities that is the primary audience to which Gade addresses the book—and this is thus the focus with which I, as an environmental historian and geographer, engage with her arguments. (Full disclosure: We are colleagues in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.)
Neither the religious inspiration for environmentalist thinking nor the idea that nonhuman beings have ethical standing are new to the environmental humanities. Yet this is what makes the hadith and the book so striking: though the themes of environmental justice, jurisprudence, and environmental ethics may be familiar to environmental humanists, the geographical and religious context of Gade’s book, which focuses predominately on Indonesian Muslims, is much less so. She writes to environmental humanists because we are a primarily Anglophone field whose conversations and debates are little informed by ideas and scholarship that come from outside the English- and Romance-language-speaking world.
What is common Western knowledge about palm trees in Indonesia are not the tears of a date palm, but rather lamentations about the millions of oil palm trees in massive plantations that have been the cause of deforestation and forest fires, habitat loss for endangered species, and labor abuses for communities whose lands have been swallowed by industrial agricultural. Yet why do we (myself included) know so little about how Indonesians themselves—more than 85 percent of whom identify as Muslim, among the global population of nearly 2 billion Muslims—make sense of these palms, or other environmental issues from climate change to clean water supply? As Gade asks, “What structures of power would prevent these voices from otherwise being seen and heard?”
Gade asserts that the answer lies in legacies of orientalism that pervade the environmental humanities, apparent in the field’s Anglocentrism, the way Islam is often slotted into world religions frameworks, and an overreliance on ideological assumptions in the post-9/11 world. The question of how to decolonize the field is at the core of Muslim Environmentalisms. Gade’s approach to normativity (in this book at least), is to show how, through both critique and complementarity, knowledge of Islamic environmentalism could fruitfully expand the environmental humanities and even address some of the field’s pressing debates. This means, for instance, addressing “head-on the notion of responsible and human existence as that of being among other creatures in the face of the imminent potential for earth’s destruction.”
This emphasis on what I would term multispecies or multi-being justice has much in common with strains of the environmental humanities invested in learning from Indigenous law and cosmologies to think otherwise than Cartesian duality of Nature and Culture, Nonhuman and Human. As Metis anthropologist Zoe Todd asks, how can we be good kin to fish that are dying in Alberta, Canada, or indeed around the world during the Sixth Extinction? Or, following Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte, how might developing the Anishinaabe concept of collective continuance counter the social and environmental violence of settler colonialism?
What is at stake in Muslim Environmentalisms is not the inclusion of Muslim perspectives as diverse viewpoints to be added to (and thus validate) the dominant paradigm of environmentalism rooted in Judeo-Christian theology and built on the work of Thoreau and Emerson and Romantic reverence for the wild sublime. The question Gade poses is not, “How do Muslims belong in environmental humanities?” Instead it is, how can the environmental humanities (and scholars of religion) learn from environmentally committed Muslims? She cautions against cultural appropriation without due credit for the sake of theory building—something for which, for example, Todd has called out Bruno Latour. Muslim Environmentalisms is a treatise that seeks to make room for Islamic humanists and environmentalists to be included as full participants in environmental humanities conversations. Doing so, Gade argues, would contribute to ongoing work contextualizing foundational concepts, such as nature and the environment, and to “retheoriz[ing] key questions at the frontier of the field, like the most pressing ethical and humanistic questions of environmental justice and anticipation of dire consequence that guide the cutting-edge of inquiry today.”
Methodologically, Gade’s touchstone is Edward Said. She takes inspiration from his late 1970s call to end the exoticization of Oriental “others” in the Anglophone humanities by engaging in ethnographic study of the lives of real people. Gade combines more than a decade of ethnographic fieldwork in Indonesia with the textual-analytical approaches of the history of religions. Doing so provides her with the convincing evidentiary basis from which to show that there is not one monolithic Quranic doctrine on environmentalism. Instead, Muslims practice many environmentalisms, defined as “commitments to the phenomenal world.” These Muslim environmentalisms “emerge through layering of the material, the ethical, and the symbolic in religious, scientific, social, and experiential frames.”
An important distinction exists between these myriad Muslim environmentalisms, grounded in scripture and shaped by people’s lived experiences, and the environmentalism that development and conservation organizations seek to instill in Muslim populations by appealing to religious doctrine. The latter, “Islam and the environment” approaches, seek to harness normative religious stances toward some predefined “nature” to address a crisis or promote sustainability. Yet for the spiritual leaders Gade worked with, religion was not the means to an environmentalist end.
In contradistinction to much Western environmentalism, Muslim approaches are not rooted in the sense that nature is mired in crisis caused, at base, by human moral shortcomings. Instead, environmentalism is performed to meet religious goals. For committed Muslims, “environmental practice is a religious practice.” The relationship between nature and morality that emerges from Muslim systems is not one in which nature scripts a particular moral order (dangerous territory given the racist histories of social Darwinism in Western environmentalism and ecofascism). It is perhaps the opposite—and this is another of Gade’s central arguments: that what constitutes the environment is an ethical claim. Muslim environmentalisms do not “rest on a principle of nature or any experience of the sacred, nor even environmentalism defined in relation to an idealized ethical pragmatism like sustainability or conservation. It is…merely the practice of Islam following the best model of the Prophet Muhammad.” Religion, as it is reflected in law, art, and science, Gade writes, “may create the very structures though which humans understand what are their environmental problems, formulate committed environmentalisms, and construe how ‘the environment’ ought to matter as an ethical and humanistic result.”
This Islamic basis for environmentalism offers a distinct approach to understanding the crises that preoccupy environmental humanists. Take for example, the Anthropocene, a concept Gade critiques as “geological positivism”—a scientistic concept that lacks an ethical frame. As she notes, leading theorists struggle with how to make sense of, and live in the midst of, environmental catastrophe of overwhelming scale. Attempts to ethicize environmental science fall short because science alone is an incomplete guide for life. While such Western frameworks might expect a clash between science and religion, the same is not an issue in Muslim systems, which offer a model for combining the ethical and the empirical. Because of the emphasis on apocalypticism in the Quran, Muslim environmentalisms offer an ethical frame for thinking through environmental disaster, for linking “unknown and indeterminate environmental effects to an everyday notion of the future.” They model ethical responsibility and justice that links the state of the present world with that of the next.
One of the religious leaders Gade works with, K. H. Thonthawi, called Muslim environmentalism the “ticket to paradise,” reflecting the ultimate Quranic goal of returning to the “original” garden. At a time when we might all want to weep like the date palm because of how far from this divine image the world currently seems, Gade’s book is a most welcome guide—not for a facile sense of hope, but for building ethical relationships both within the academy and in our wider communities.