Only a short time ago, green was just another color in the crayon box. These days, saying “green” sparks images that go well beyond Christmas trees and the Green Bay Packers. Greenhouse gases, green technology, or simply “going green” are phrases that we now hear peppered in daily conversation. But “green-friendly” ideas are anything but new for the people of the Indonesian island of Java.
As early as the 1950’s, Javanese pesantren, or madrassahs taught students about the Islamic obligation of taking care of their natural environment. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation with 243 million people inhabiting 922 of its 17,000 islands, has floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes to worry about on an annual basis. Eco-Islam originated as an organic response to the environmental challenges Indonesia has faced for decades.
Professor Anna M. Gade recently spoke of her research documenting the eco-Islamic movement on Java and its impact. From popular children’s comic book heroes fighting environmental degradation, to mosques with built-in recyclable water filtration systems for worshipers performing wudu (ablution), one cannot separate environmental consciousness from mainstream Indonesian Islamic culture. And while eco-Islamic initiatives supported by the Indonesian government and NGOs are increasing, the spirit of the green movement on Java stems from local leaders in rural areas and is largely a bottom-up process.
Javanese imams are integrating eco-Islam into their outreach, actively encouraging Muslims and non-Muslims alike to pursue greater environmental awareness and piety in their lives. Religious leaders also note that tawhid, or the unity or oneness of God, is at the core of the Islamic justification for environmental consciousness. They say that humans’ role as stewards of the earth and all of its various elements is the basis for ecocentricism–that all beings and non-beings of the planet possess intrinsic value that originates from the Creator. Taking care of the planet brings a person closer to oneness with God, thus spiritually cleansing oneself and the outer environment as well. In that sense, Muslims have always been natural conservationists.
As in many of the world’s large cities, Jakarta–Indonesia’s capital of 10 million people–suffers from heavy air pollution, forcing some to wear masks when walking on the car-filled streets. Eco-Sufism, a specific sub-set of eco-Islam, encourages newlyweds to plant a tree in honor of their union, directly linking love and family with a cleaner environment. Increasing vegetation is one of the most important things Indonesians can do to preserve the environment, as new trees counter deforestation, absorb carbon dioxide, and produce clean oxygen.
While Indonesian religious leaders and institutions are some of the most outspoken proponents of environmental awareness, green initiatives have sprouted up in other countries with large Muslim populations as well. From young female activists in Saudi Arabia to young men riding their bikes across the entire African continent for Hajj, an eco-Islamic consciousness is spreading. And while governments and non-profit agencies across the world are beginning to support environmentalism, the sustainability of these movements is most dependent on an awareness created at local levels. Muslim or not, the whole world can learn something from the Javanese model and the resulting mindset.