Indonesia's green madrassas

by Saleem H. Ali
05 February 2008
Burlington, Vermont - In a remote part of Central Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, there is a rather unusual form of environmentalism taking root. Shadowed by the great Merapi volcano and surrounded by fertile fields of rice and sugarcane, a small school is graduating environmentalists whose commitment to the earth is not based on Western conservation texts, but rather predicated in values derived from Islam. The head of the school, Nasruddin Anshari, frequently uses the refrain “one earth for all”, just as much as he does the usual Islamic invocation of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).

Indonesia’s pesantren (the local word for a madrassa, or religious school) have come under great scrutiny in recent years due to their perceived connections to terrorist incidents such as the Bali bombings in 2005. Even US presidential hopeful Barack Obama felt obliged to distance himself from his childhood days in Indonesia because of a rumour that he too had attended a pesantren, since both his father and step-father were Muslims.

Yet the transformation taking place at Pesantren Lingkungan Giri Ilmu would certainly please most constituencies in the West. Children from the village of Bantul are learning about the importance of preserving their ecosystem as a mark of worshipping God.

Not far from our eco-friendly pesantren, the United Nations mandated University for Peace held a week-long workshop on peace education in an Islamic context in November 2007 in Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. Scholars from numerous Muslim countries gathered to consider various dimensions of peace education and develop lesson plans for implementation in Islamic schools.

The advent of Islam as an organised religion occurred in the desert environment of Arabia, and hence there was considerable attention paid to ecological concerns within Islamic ethics. While Islamic theology is not pantheistic, and shares many of the anthropocentric attributes of other Abrahamic faiths, there is a reverence of nature that stems from essential pragmatism within the faith. Due to resource scarcity, early Muslims realised that long-term development was only possible within ecological constraints that were shared by all of humanity. Thus, the universality of environmental resources provides a valuable template for peace-building.

Nevertheless, there are several systemic challenges to the realisation of a sustainable development paradigm within contemporary Islam. First, the Islamic belief of humans as God’s most superior creation poses serious challenges to inculcating environmental ethics, particularly with reference to animal rights. However, there are numerous injunctions about the responsibility that comes with the status of “superior creation”. The concept of khalifa (viceregent) requires the viceregent to act as a steward for the land and for all creation.

Second, the focus on the after-life rather than the present has mistakenly led many Muslims to consider environmental and developmental challenges as trivial. This has led to a sense of complacence and fatalism about our developmental predicament, since it is deemed the will of God. Yet this fatalism is no longer pervasive among the devoutly practicing Muslims of Indonesia. The Islamic religious schools in the world’s largest Muslim country are realising that the most profound act of worship is to conserve natural resources on which all life depends. Just as suicide is forbidden in Islam because of a deep respect for the sanctity of life, so too is the deliberate desecration of the life support systems that make our planet so unique.

Beyond Indonesia, there are several promising signs of positive change. The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science, based in Birmingham, England, is developing numerous programmes for religious institutions in Muslim countries around the world. In late 2006, the US Agency for International Development launched an environmental education program in Tanzania targeting 12,650 primary school students and 12,650 madrassa students, training 220 primary school teachers and 220 madrassa teachers on coastal and marine ecosystem issues.

Even states like Iran are taking positive steps in this regard and are quite proud of the fact that the highly successful Ramsar Convention on Wetland Protection takes its name from the Iranian city where it was signed in 1971. Despite several subsequent years of conflict and environmental indifference, in 2004 the Iranian government organised an international conference on environmental security to which Americans were also invited and where a strong case was made for using environmental conservation for peace-building. The former Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, stated that “pollution poses an even greater threat than war and suggested that the fight to preserve the environment might be the most positive issue for bringing the Gulf neighbours together”.

The Gulf States are also trying to reduce their huge ecological footprint. Abu Dhabi has committed itself to establish the world’s first carbon neutral city of 40,000 residents by 2012. And Masdar City will have at its core an educational institution and numerous environmental technology firms to support a sustainable economy.

If the energy of Pakistan’s Islamic scholars and their madrassas as well as our development tsars can be collectively channelled towards such positive acts of social and environmental activism, perhaps we can begin to appreciate our common humanity. Rather than harping on the divisive rhetoric of tribe, sect and political persuasion, we have a theological and teleological imperative to “green our society”.


* Dr. Saleem H Ali ( is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and editor of Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (MIT Press). This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Daily Times, 19 January 2008,
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