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Engaging British Muslims in environmental issues

Volume 8 Number 1 - April 2011
Mark Bryant

French:  Vers un intérêt des musulmans britanniques aux problématiques environnementales
Spanish:  Atrayendo a los musulmanes británicos en temas medioambientales

Pioneering research by Cardiff University, on behalf of BGCI, suggests that botanic gardens can develop meaningful relationships with faith-based communities in order to foster greater understanding of conservation, sustainability and bio-diversity. Apathy is an issue, concedes Mark Bryant, but the potential rewards are great.


While working with ‘Qur'anic garden’ projects in the Middle East, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI)  saw the opportunity to link traditional Islamic respect for natural habitats inspired by the Holy Qur’an, with the goal of conservation of plant diversity. Thus inspired, BGCI began to work out how the concept of a Qur’anic Garden could be adapted and developed outside the Arabian Peninsula – in particular in the UK. Having secured funding from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, BGCI then approached the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. The centre, based at Cardiff University, is recognized for its high quality research and focuses on contemporary issues facing Muslims living in Britain. An eight-month project was commissioned, to examine whether and how the building of gardens reflecting Islamic traditions could promote biodiversity conservation awareness, and an appreciation of Islamic gardening heritage among both Muslims and non-Muslims.  It was hoped that opportunities would be identified both for increasing the involvement of Muslims in local environmental issues and also for promoting greater respect and understanding from the local community for Islamic heritage and plants. Other potential benefits include educational opportunities and the encouragement of social integration of Muslim women in society.

An important aspect of the research was to gauge the current level of involvement of botanic gardens in these issues and, if possible, to find ways of working with faith-based communities that could help such gardens to widen their appeal and work proactively within their local communities.

Early in the project, we made a collective and strategic decision to change the conceptualization of the project, so that our focus was not so much on ‘Qu’ranic Gardens’, but on ‘Islamic  Gardens’. The substantial concern we had was that the concept of a ‘Qu’ranic Garden’ could be rather restrictive, especially if narrowly interpreted.Also,an early literature search revealed the absence of an established body of writing on the theme of ‘Qu’ranic Gardens’, whereas we found an abundant literature about the idea of  Islamic  Gardens and Islamic conservation.

British Muslims

Present estimates put the number of Muslims living in the UK as around  2.4 million (Kerbaj, 2009). Having said this the ‘ British Muslims’ represent a religious community that is linguistically, spiritually, ethnically, and racially very diverse (Gilliat-Ray, 2010). For this reason it is probably more useful to talk about Muslim communities as a whole, rather than to think in terms of a single community. Overall, views on religious attitudes to environmental issues and Islamic heritage are likely to reflect this diversity. Muslims have been living and working in the UK for centuries (Ansari, 2004 ;Matar, 1997).  However, the arrival into Britain of substantial numbers of predominantly South Asian Muslims following the Second World War, changed both the quantitative and qualitative nature of Muslim settlement.  

Migration history accounts for the socio-demographic and economic situation of British Muslims today.  About half of all Britain’s 2.5 million Muslims are under the age of twenty-five and, compared to all other faith groups, Muslims are more likely to be living in areas of housing deprivation and to suffer from lower rates of economic activity, educational achievement and good health (Hussain, 2008).  The general picture that emerged from the 2001 Census data revealed that British Muslims suffer from a range of cumulatively disadvantaging socio-economic circumstances to a greater extent than all other faith groups in the UK (Beckford et al., 2006). It follows, then, that the socio-economic situation of the majority of Muslims living in the UK will colour their attitudes to issues such as the environment and how they would feel about visiting places such as botanic gardens.

Islamic environmentalism

For Muslims, the ultimate source of guidance on all ethical questions, including the principle of environmental responsibility, is the Qur’an, which directly addresses and anticipates the tendency that humans have for environmental irresponsibility, as well as highlighting the imperative to take care of the earth’s resources.      

Corruption has flourished on land and sea as a result of people’s actions and He will make them taste the consequences of some of their own actions so that they may turn back. (Surah 30:41)

Further important sources for Muslims are the sayings of the prophet Mohammad (Hadith) and here too is guidance. For example, he is reported to have said

Whoever plants a tree and looks after it with care until it matures and becomes productive, will be rewarded in the hereafter. (Ammar, 2001)

Respect for the environment is also found in central tenets of Islam: for example, tawhid expresses the unity of an uncreated God with what he has created. According to Muslims, people can only really experience God through his creation. Therefore, nature is respected as part of God's creation and as a sign of his greatness and, indeed, existence.  As well as respecting nature as part of creation, Muslims have also been entrusted with the task of acting as khalifah, or vice-regents on earth.  

Later We made you their successors in the land, to see how you would behave. (Surah 10:14)

As the global environmental crisis deepens, concerned Muslims in Britain are turning towards principles of conservation and environmental awareness embedded in Islamic sources to encourage their fellow Muslims to behave in an environmentally responsible way. The research identified five regional Islamic environmental groups operating in Britain (Reading, London, Sheffield, Wales, and Birmingham, West Midlands) and one national body, the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), also based in Birmingham.  The picture emerging through the testimony of the group organizers, is of a battle by a few enthusiastic individuals against a wall of apathy. Whilst the legitimacy of the Islamic environmental imperative may be recognized and acknowledged, it would seem it is difficult to persuade individuals to prioritize such matters and turn good intentions into action. This is perhaps surprising considering it has been shown that Muslim communities in the UK are more religiously motivated than comparable non-Muslim populations (Cesari and McCloughlin, 2005, p.42).

The research found that involvement with hands-on activities could be effective in motivating people. In addition, these visible examples of Islamic environmentalism in action were often met with a very positive reaction from non-Muslim members of the community. The organizer of the ‘Big Clean’ event set up by the Sheffield Islamic Network for the Environment (SHiNE) noted many examples of inter-community goodwill in response to the picking up of litter around the local Mosque.  For example, a ‘guy coming up to Jamal out of the blue on the street who was white/English looking to shake his hand saying “I really appreciate what you’re doing.”

Many of those spoken to indicated that the key to encouraging a greater awareness of environmental issues is to get religious leaders involved. The research found examples of Eco Mosques, such as South Woodford Islamic Centre in London which claims to be the first ‘carbon-neutral’ place of Islamic worship in Britain. Such incentives show what can be achieved when Imams and mosque committees get behind the environmental message.

Islamic gardens

The Qur’an contains over 160 references to gardens and many of them describe the gardens of paradise awaiting the just in the hereafter (Wescoat, 2003).

God has promised the believers both men and women, ‘Gardens graced with flowing streams where they will remain.’ (Surah 9:72)

There is a long tradition of gardens flourishing throughout the Islamic world, from the Far East to Islamic Spain  (Brookes, 1987). Essentially these gardens were built to be a representation or reflection of heaven on earth and included features such as a four-quartered (chahar bagh) walled layout , shade, and running water (Clark, 2004).

It became clear from our research that traditional Islamic gardens in the UK are part of a shared British-Muslim history, shaped by colonialism.  An example of such a garden inspired by a love of the oriental aesthetic (if not any spiritual significance) can be found at Sezincote House, in the Cotswolds, itself the inspiration for the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

It can be argued that along with Islamic art, architecture, and science, Islamic gardens (which to some extent embody all these things) carry the potential for educating all British people about the longstanding and beneficial relationship that Britain has enjoyed with the Islamic world.

Data from the project suggest that British Muslims are not likely to visit botanic gardens – it is parks that figure as the green spaces most likely to be visited. However, public parks in Leeds and Bradford which have large numbers of Muslim visitors as well as Islamic style gardens, report that there is little awareness of the significance of these gardens.

The Muslim visitors do not particularly seem to visit The Alhambra Garden in Roundhay Park, Leeds, preferring the attractions such as ‘tropical world’ which has activities aimed particularly at families. Visitors don't seem to make the connection between The Alhambra Garden and its Islamic heritage. Perhaps we could include more information about the Islamic connections in our promotional material.   (John Roebuck, officer for the Roundhay Park Estate for Leeds City council)

There is obviously much that can be done to make Muslims living in Britain more aware of their own horticultural legacy and the international influence of this heritage, as well as an opportunity for botanic gardens to become involved in raising awareness of this gardening form among all communities.

Once again, it is the less grand grassroots projects we encountered that would seem to hold the key to engaging ordinary British Muslims with the environmental message within their religion. For example, in the socially deprived area of Tower Hamlets a community garden built on Islamic environmental principles has been successful in encouraging local Bangladeshi women out of their flats and into the local community. It is significant that this project actually involved organizing a trip for these women to the gardens at Kew.

The Gardens of Peace Muslim Cemetery in Ilford was the closest example we found to the ‘Qur'anic garden’ concept, where plants mentioned in the Qur’an and in Hadith form the collection. Recognizing the different climatic conditions of the UK, the driving force behind the project, Maqbul Hussain, has planted varieties suited to British weather. For example the date palm is represented by a palm native to Tasmania.  Thus plants from the Qur’an are represented, but in a sustainable way. Despite the Islamic elements the garden is designed to be in keeping with the British setting and, by the inclusion of lawns and familiar churchyard plants such as yew, the overall effect is of a British garden of remembrance. Mr. Hussain feels the garden puts people in touch with Islamic environmentalism in a subtle way, though he would like advice on how to grow more plants with an Islamic relevance.

Conclusion

It would appear that practical, grassroots, community-orientated, inexpensive, ‘bottom-up’ gardening and conservation projects that reflect the composition and dynamics of local communities are most successful in raising awareness of Islamic horticultural heritage, as well as promoting the Islamic environmental ethic. It is likely that the most effective way for botanic gardens to widen their appeal to the majority of British Muslims is through involvement in such community-based initiatives. By developing an outward facing, collaborative orientation to faith-based communities, botanic gardens can also open opportunities for knowledge exchange.  A demonstration of that potential came to light on a visit to the Kensington Roof Gardens.  

The researcher was able to point out the Islamic significance of the various features and plants found in the garden. In turn the head gardener explained how advances in horticulture now allow the cultivation of significant plants, related to Islam, previously thought unsuitable for the UK climate such as olives and palms. The researcher was then able to pass on this information to Muslims keen to grow such plants in their own gardens.

So working with local Muslim communities can benefit botanic gardens by developing a greater insight into the spiritual aspects of Islamic gardening traditions, as well as a better understanding of how botanic gardens can be made more appealing and relevant to these communities.  At the same time botanic gardens represent a wealth of botanical knowledge that could help people cultivate plants not usually found in the UK, but which hold a cultural or religious significance for them.  Last but not least, the education facilities of botanic gardens could be utilized to help local Muslims gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for their own horticultural heritage.

 

 

Note: Translations of the Qur’an are taken from M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford University Press ‘World Classics’ series, 2005.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Ammar, N., 2001.  Islam and deep ecology. In D. Barnhill and S. Gottlieb (Eds.) Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred ground, pp. 193–212.  State University of New York:  New York, NY.
  • Ansari, H.,2004. The 'infidel' within: Muslims in Britain, 1800 to the present.   Hurst: London, UK.
  • Beckford, J.A., Gale, R., Owen, D., Peach, C. and Weller, P., 2006. Review of the evidence base on faith communities. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: London, UK.
  • Brookes, J., 1987. Gardens of paradise: the history and design of the great Islamic Gardens.   Weidenfeld and Nicolson: London, UK.
  • Cesari, J. and McLoughlin, S., 2005. European muslims and the secular state.Ashgate:  Burlington, VT.
  • Clark, E.,2004. The art of the Islamic garden: an introduction to the design, symbolism and making of an Islamic garden.   Crowood Press:  Marlborough, UK.
  • Gilliat-Ray, S., 2010. Muslims in Britain: an introduction.Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.
  • Hussain, S., 2008. Muslims on the Map: A National Survey of Social Trends in Britain. IB Tauris Ltd: London, UK.
  • Kerbaj, R., 2009. Muslim population 'rising 10 times faster than rest of society'. Times Online, 30 January.
  • Matar, N.,1997. Muslims in seventeenth-century England. Journal of Islamic Studies, 8 (1), 63–82.
  • Westcoat, J.,2003. From the gardens of the Quran to the gardens of Lahore. In: R.C. Foltz et al. (Eds.) Islam and ecology: a bestowed trust, pp. 511–26. Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, MA.

 

RÉSUMÉ

Le centre d'étude de l'Islam au Royaume-Uni, à l'Université de Cardiff, a été chargé par le BGCI de réaliser un projet de recherche “inédit” pour enquêter comment, et dans quelle mesure, “les Jardins islamiques” au Royaume-Uni pourraient contribuer à une plus grande participation des musulmans britanniques dans la conservation de la biodiversité et les projets de développement durable (notamment en rapport avec les plantes) et améliorer la compréhension du public en matière d'Islam et du dialogue interreligieux.

Cette recherche a identifié des groupes ayant des convictions environnementales basées sur la foi, souvent en lutte contre l'indifférence au sein de leurs communautés. Bien que les jardins islamiques traditionnels représentent une histoire partagée entre Britanniques et musulmans, il est difficile d'estimer combien de musulmans britanniques s'identifient à ces espaces aménagés.

La majorité des musulmans en Grande-Bretagne vivent dans des conditions socio-économiques de pauvreté et, par conséquent, sont peu représentés parmi les visiteurs qui fréquentent des lieux comme les jardins botaniques. Cependant, il a été démontré que la mise en place de projets de jardinage et de conservation populaires, pratiques, à orientation communautaire de base et non dispendieux ont eu un certain succès quant à l'implication de musulmans dans les problématiques liées à l'environnement. Aussi, il semblerait qu’il y ait une opportunité pour que les jardins botaniques adoptent une approche plus ouverte et s’intéressent à ce type de communautés croyantes en leur permettant d'avoir une meilleure compréhension des problématiques liées à la conservation, au développement durable et à la biodiversité.

RESUMEN

La BGCI comisionó al centro de estudios islámicos en el Reino Unido de la Universidad de Cardiff en llevar a cabo por primera vez en su tipo, el proyecto de Jardines botánicos Islámicos en el Reino Unido,  en donde se investiga, cómo y en que extensión estos jardines pueden contribuir a involucrar una mayor cantidad de musulmanes británicos en aspectos de biodiversidad, conservación y sostentábilidad (especialmente en lo que refiere a las plantas), además de incrementar el entendimiento de Islam y los diálogos inter-religiosos.

En la investigación de los grupos medioambientales, se identifica la fé en la que se basan y qué obstáculos son lo que a menudo los conducen a una apatía en sus comunidades.

Por otra parte los jardines islámicos representan una historia compartida en la que no está claro que tanto de lo musulmán británico identifica a estos espacios. La realidad para la mayoría de musulmanes viviendo en el Reino Unido es que tienen condiciones socio-económicas pobres, y personas como ellas están poco representadas como visitantes a jardines botánicos. Sin embargo, se encontró que  en la práctica, comunidades orientadas a céspedes, no costosas, ponen en alto la jardinería, los proyectos de conservación y tienen éxito en involucrar, hasta cierto, grado a las poblaciones generales de musulmanes en aspectos relacionados con el medioambiente. En este ámbito, los jardines botánicos pueden acercarse y  captar el interés con dicha comunidad y su fé, ayudándolos en ganar el entendimiento de aspectos tan importantes como son la conservación, sostentábilidad y biodiversidad.

 

 

Mark Bryant
Assistant Researcher
Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK
School of Religious & Theological Studies
Cardiff University
Cardiff CF10 3EU
Wales

Email: abusamibryant@gmail.com
Website:  www.cardiff.ac.uk/relig/research/researchcentres/csi/centre-for-the-study-of-islam-in-the-uk.html