“Corruption has appeared on land and in the sea, caused by the hands of people so that they may taste the consequences of their actions and turn back.” A quote from An Inconvenient Truth? Nope, those words come straight from the Quran. As climate change threatens the entirety of the Muslim world — and rampant wildfires draw global alarm — more people are turning to Islam itself to find inspiration for the environmental movement.
At the forefront is Odeh Rashid al-Jayyousi, a 58-year-old Palestinian academic who serves on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel at the United Nations and leads the little-known but fast-growing field of ecotheology, the study of religions’ calls to protect the natural environment. Muslim disciples of this idea cite eco-friendly verses of the Quran to argue that Islam obliges its followers to fight environmental degradation, promote sustainable development and stop global warming.
“Islam as a way of life provides remedies to the global debate on growth and sustainability,” says al-Jayyousi, chair of the innovation and technology management department at Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. “Islam views the role of the individual as a value and knowledge creator, a steward, a witness and a reformer who strives to contribute to progress and a good life.”
This activism is one form of jihad to ensure balance and harmony between humans and nature.
Odeh Rashid al-Jayyousi
Ecotheology has developed a small following in corners of the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco, but the arcane academic discipline has yet to spark the kind of social movement that Muslim environmentalists envision. As an Arabic- and English-speaking intellectual with the international community’s preeminent platform, though, al-Jayyousi has the ultimate opportunity to bring the Green Revolution to Islam and the Middle East.
“What impresses me about Dr. Jayyousi is his approach to linking the principles of the current concepts of sustainable development and environmental protection with the teachings and principles of the Islamic religion and Arab heritage,” says Waleed Zubari, a friend of al-Jayyousi’s and a professor of water resource management at Arabian Gulf University.
Born in the West Bank city of Tulkarm in 1961, al-Jayyousi has spent much of his life in a region in turmoil, but the Middle East’s history of conflicts has never detracted from his lifelong love of nature. In the ruinous aftermath of the Six-Day War — the 1967 battle between Israel and its Arab neighbors — he distracted himself by catching grasshoppers and playing in orchards, an extension of his wider love for interacting with the natural environment. “Trying to capture grasshoppers was a challenging task that taught me to accept and celebrate failure,” says al-Jayyousi.
Al-Jayyousi’s academic and professional career took him far from the insects and orchards of the West Bank. He got a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Yarmouk University in Jordan in 1983 before moving to the United States, where he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in urban planning from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Prior to arriving at Arabian Gulf University in 2015, al-Jayyousi taught environmental science at a Jordanian university for 11 years and launched the Middle Eastern office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental organization headquartered in Switzerland. To relax amid all this travel, he would play tennis. At one point, al-Jayyousi even dabbled in writing children’s literature as a hobby. “Each place I’ve lived has redefined my perception of an ecosystem as a social innovation lab,” he says.
The Palestinian professor’s expanding list of accomplishments has included advising the United States Agency for International Development, establishing a doctoral program of 50 students at Arabian Gulf University and overseeing an initiative that encourages Syrian refugees in Jordan to start green businesses. But he’s most proud of Islam and Sustainable Development, the 2012 book where he first made his case for an Islamic approach to environmentalism. Since then, al-Jayyousi has evolved into one of ecotheology’s most prominent advocates. “Odeh is uniquely able to uncover the essence of Islam, insofar as it applies to sustainable development,” says Ronald Lessem, a professor of management at the Da Vinci Institute for Technology Management in South Africa. “He is able to combine the material and the spiritual, the natural and the cultural.”
Leveraging his position at the U.N. since 2015 to capture a larger audience, al-Jayyousi has called on the international community to build an Islamic financial endowment for combating global warming and to reframe jihad, which he defines as a “struggle against imbalance,” as a campaign against environmental degradation. Like other Muslim environmentalists, he refers to this second concept as “green jihad.”
“Civil society activism in the Muslim world should support and nurture a green way of life in line with the Islamic worldview,” says al-Jayyousi. “This activism is one form of jihad to ensure balance and harmony between humans and nature.” His work has earned a bevy of academic citations, and several countries in the region, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have hosted conferences and research institutes dedicated to the relationship between ecology and Islam.
Despite al-Jayyousi’s reach and the novelty of his ideas, he must overcome several hurdles if he hopes to convert the Muslim world’s many hundreds of millions of inhabitants to ecotheology. İbrahim Özdemir, founding president of Hasan Kalyoncu University in Turkey and author of The Ethical Dimension of Human Attitude Towards Nature: A Muslim Perspective, notes that Muslim environmentalists often face the accusation that they “serve Western and colonialist agendas.” In a notorious example, Iran has detained many environmentalists on dubious charges of espionage.
On a wider level, al-Jayyousi will have to make ecotheology accessible to Muslims less steeped in its sometimes esoteric teachings. “These Muslims adopt secular approaches to most problems, including the environmental one, and it’s not easy for them to switch gears and see that the Islamic tradition itself, which they have known only superficially, has wonderful solutions,” says Tarik M. Quadir, an assistant professor of philosophy at Necmettin Erbakan University in Turkey and the author of Traditional Islamic Environmentalism: The Vision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
In the face of these challenges, al-Jayyousi remains steadfast, asserting that ecotheology can pave the road to an eco-friendly future — after the modern world led us astray. “It is imperative that we rethink educational systems that neglect the beauty and majesty of the powers around us in nature,” says al-Jayyousi, in the hope that more young Muslims will find their own grasshoppers.