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Greenpeace staff help distribute food wrapped in banana leaves and drinks in reusable bottles at a mosque during Iftar. Photo: Greenpeace

Rooted in faith: Islam’s role in Indonesia’s environmental fight

  • Awareness of issues such as plastic pollution and sustainability has grown in Indonesia, thanks to local initiatives and Muslim clerics
  • The concept of people as khalifah, or caretakers, of the earth has helped spread the message about protecting the environment
For the past 15 years, Iskandar Waworuntu has been implementing and teaching permaculture outside Yogyakarta in Central Java, one of Indonesia’s main tourist sites.

In the green hills that surround the city, he founded Bumi Langit, a socio-ecological project that combines the principles of Islam with the activities of a sustainable commune, which vary from farming and food production to education through courses open to the public.

Waworuntu’s journey began in 2000, when he embraced Islam and relocated from Bali to Java to explore its teachings. “I married a Muslim and converted,” he says. “The very attractive part of Islam, for me, is Sufism, a dimension of love and beauty within the religion.”

The position of humans in relation to the environment is at the base of Bumi Langit, which started as a permaculture farm in 2006 but evolved into a foundation that integrates local villagers and provides jobs and practical teachings to implement sustainable agriculture.

Permaculture is based on a carefully planned use of resources and an ethical approach to every aspect of nature. Photo: Bumi Langit

The project, still a unique concept in Indonesia, is emblematic of a wider scholarly engagement and revival in the practice of environmental action as an integral part of Islam.

“I’ve always been interested in permaculture because it’s about all the elements of life, it’s a holistic process,” Waworuntu says. “When I started to understand Islam more, and it was confirmed by more scholars, I realised that permaculture can be seen as a way to implement Islam in everyday life and how to be ethical in our relationship with nature, principles that are in the Koran and the Hadith.”

With around 225 million believers, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world.

Waworuntu firmly believes the principles of eco-Islam and its positive outcomes, rather than frenetic industrialisation and urbanisation, can offer a solution and model to fight the local and global crises that are endangering the planet.

“In Indonesia, most people, or at least a large part of the population, make daily life and important decisions moved by religion,” says Muharram Atha Rasyadi, an urban campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia. “That’s why we need to make sure that big Islamic organisations also campaign for environmental causes and help spread the message.”

In 2018, Greenpeace Indonesia launched the campaign #pantangplastik to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic during Ramadan. Photo: Greenpeace

Rasyadi is based in Jakarta and has been working for Greenpeace for more than two years, focusing on tackling plastic pollution in the fast-developing capital. Indonesia is the world’s second-largest plastic marine waste polluter, behind China.

While Waworuntu’s utopian vision of a “green Islamic society” is still confined to the hills of Yogyakarta, its basic principles are gaining momentum all over the country. In the past few years, environmental action and awareness among Muslim leaders and the authorities in both urban and local areas have grown, thanks to an increasingly popular Islamic environmental ethic put forward through local initiatives.

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“Since 2018, we [Greenpeace] have been working with the Indonesia Ulama Forum, or MUI, one of the biggest religious organisations in the country,” Rasyadi says.

“They have a lot of power and they issued a fatwa [a ruling on a point of Islamic law] in 2015 against littering in the streets, so we naturally want to boost their initiatives and collaborate with them to spread the message to a wider audience.”

The partnership, supported by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment, first materialised in the 2018 “eco-iftar”, a widespread campaign that invited Muslims in big cities to break Ramadan fasts without using single-use plastic.

Bumi Langit's founder Iskandar Waworuntu learnt the principles of permaculture in Bali. Photo: Bumi Langit

Following the success of the first collaborations and an increasingly successful presence on social media among young Indonesians, Greenpeace also approached the NU (Nahdlatul Ulama), the largest socio-religious Islamic organisation in the country. At its 2019 international congress, “plastic pollution and waste became a topic of discussion for the first time in history and it’s such a great start”, Rasyadi says.

According to a 2013 study published by Oryx, The International Journal of Conservation, Indonesian Muslim clerics successfully raised awareness about pressing environmental issues by incorporating messages about sustainability and conservation in relation to Islam into their sermons, especially by emphasising some key principles in the Koran that define the role of humans towards nature.

Islam says that … we have to respect everything equally, which is not what we have been doing with nature.
Iskandar Waworuntu

One of these values, the concept of people as khalifah, or caretakers, is one of the driving concepts behind Bumi Langit and many pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) around Indonesia.

The tiny Ilmu Giri Pesantren in Central Java was a pioneer of this movement. The school first rose to prominence at the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, where its founder Nasruddin Anshory was widely praised for his commitment to using Islamic teachings to preserve the environment. Years later, students of Islam still flock to the campus to learn the best sustainable practices.

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“There is a strong sense of self-sustainability in some large pesantren,” says Intan Suci Nurhati, a palaeoclimate scientist and palaeoceanographer at the Research Centre for Oceanography of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and National Geographic Explorer.

“More and more programmes have their own farms and make compost and I think there is room to expand from here and to merge this concept, Islam and environmentalism. Many Islamic organisations have pesantren and they have historically been playing important roles in social and political movements in Indonesia.”

As a scientist, an expert on Indonesia’s marine plastic waste emergency and a Muslim, Nurhati is always concerned when big religious celebrations are approaching. Beyond educating people and collaborating with the religious authorities, it is important to raise awareness among food sellers to use organic packaging as much as they can, she says. Some habits, like buying quick meals on the streets of big cities, are deeply embedded in popular culture and hard to change.

Bumi Langit's founder Iskandar Waworuntu and his wife. Photo: Bumi Langit

Waworuntu also sees consumerism and globalisation as the biggest threats to a greener Indonesia and planet. But while there is still a lot to do, “if within my own community, I can change things, I’m already happy to be able to make a difference locally”, he says.

“Some great teachers of Islam have openly said that you are not a Muslim until you practise permaculture and become a true caretaker, until you give more instead of just taking because Islam says that everything created by God is a creature and we have to respect everything equally, which is not what we have been doing with nature.”