Religion's Role in Climate Conversations | Opinion

As valuable as President Joe Biden's Leaders' Summit on Climate was, something vital was missing: religion.

The fact is, much of the world is religious—including the one-quarter of humanity that is Muslim. Without bringing these hundreds of millions of people on board, the fight against climate change is unlikely to succeed.

The environmental movement must acknowledge and include people of faith—and faith itself—in its discourse.

In fact, regard for nature, and our responsibilities towards it, are fundamental to Islam.

Credible Islamic rulings have two main sources: the Qur'an—what Muslims believe is the literal word of God—and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH). In both, humankind is called, time and again, to treat the Earth as a bountiful garden we are entrusted with.

In the Qur'an's second chapter, "The Cow," we learn that God created Adam and Eve, and their descendants—all human beings, regardless of religion—to serve as His "Caliphs" on the Earth. This is a widely misunderstood term; a reasonable translation would be "steward." Humanity literally exists to look after the world on God's behalf. In the Islamic tradition, we can take from nature only with God's permission and only as we absolutely require, squandering nothing.

Reinforcing this notion, a very well-known saying of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), teaches that every human being is a "shepherd"—and "each of you is responsible for his flock." Once again, the language of caretaking, of gentle and patient protectiveness, is applied to every single person irrespective of his or her faith.

Wherever we are, as the Qur'an cautions, we must walk humbly upon the Earth, all of which has been consecrated, in the Islamic tradition, as a mosque. It follows that we should cherish the world in the same way we honor our houses of worship, for that is literally what the planet is: a place for us to honor God.

But more than that, the Earth itself honors God, irrespective of us.

Throughout his life, the Prophet (PBUH) demanded respect for the natural world. In fact, it is the Muslim belief that everything in the world is in some way conscious of God and, as such, exists in a constant state of prayer. It is little wonder the Prophet (PBUH), describes the Earth as a mosque; everywhere you look, everything is reverentially worshipping.

Do we treat nature with the same respect and deference we would a person at prayer?

For those who are used to the secular language of so much of Western environmentalism, these references may seem unusual or even uncomfortable. But if climate change is a global problem, it requires global solutions. The language we speak must make sense to the people we're trying to motivate.

wind turbines
A car drives past wind turbines at Coal Clough Windfarm on April 29, 2021 in Burnley, England. Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

This is why the Muslim World League (MWL) has launched a global campaign reminding Muslims of the unquestionable religious obligations they have to confront climate change. With this year's Earth Day falling squarely in the Holy Month of Ramadan—when believers learn to prioritize other lives over their own year—the timing for such a campaign could not have been more fitting.

The campaign will pursue several goals:

First, we will encourage and facilitate engagement between credible scientists, regardless of background or belief, and MWL's global network of 1,200 Islamic clergy and scholars across 139 countries so that they can learn first-hand of the indisputable science of climate change, its causes, effects and solutions.

We will also make an Islamically sound case for why these scholars must develop messaging, content and curricula to provide their institutions and congregations with a deeper awareness of the climate emergency—and the appropriate Islamic response.

All this, we hope, will turn the empirical facts of climate change into a moral narrative capable of leveraging the deeply held values that influence behavior for people across the Muslim world.

Finally, we will raise global media and social media visibility for our messaging—thereby supporting the work of religious leaders, while demonstrating to the Muslim—and wider—world that the cause of climate action is inextricably connected to Islamic teachings, values and obligations.

The Muslim World League's efforts (not to mention the rationale behind using religion to galvanize Muslims into joining the environmental movement) rely on the clear Islamic authority that can be referenced in support of care for the environment. While the religious legitimacy behind such claims has not always been well communicated or understood, it does exist.

After all, this is why the MWL convened hundreds of leading Islamic thinkers to ratify the Makkah Charter, a document emphasizing our religion's core priorities, with defending the environment being high amongst them.

By appealing to deeply held beliefs and high aspirations, we can bring about genuine change in the behaviors of hundreds of millions of people. There is already proof of that possibility, welcome signs that more and more Muslims are beginning to remember that protecting the environment is a religious obligation.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Islamic faith, captured worldwide attention with its recent climate plan. The country will pursue an ambitious reforestation plan, pursue the protection of the vulnerable Red Sea region and aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 60 percent. But what is especially notable is that the kingdom's Islamic authorities are using the language of faith to realize public support for this climate plan.

Imagine how much more can be done should the West and the Muslim world work together. Imagine if Western resources were joined to Muslim-world ambitions. We may articulate our reasons differently, but our goal is the same: to develop the partnerships and relationships that will protect and restore our precious planet. The very same one that God entrusted to all of us.

Dr. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa is Secretary General of one of the world's largest Islamic non-governmental organisations, the Muslim World League.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.