Fazlun Khalid, Founder of the first Islamic environmental organisation, IFEES, discusses his work linking Islam with modern environmentalism


SHAFAQNA – Fazlun Khalid is Founder of The International Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), a registered charity officially formed in 1994, that seeks to explore the relationship between Islam, ecology and environmentalism alongside campaigning for the effective stewardship of the world’s natural resources and ecosystems as an Islamic imperative. Fazlun began his career in the Royal Air Force before spending 25 years working for the Civil Service including the Commission of Racial Equality, forerunner of the present day Human Rights Commission in the UK. Shafaqna interviewed Fazlun to find out about how he became involved in environmentalism and how this field connects with Islam and his Muslim faith.

How did you get into environmentalism and why did you set up IFEES?

I was interested in the third world, poverty issues, and development issues throughout my life; it was also always in the background while I was growing up. I was born in Sri Lanka, my father was native and he used to take us to the forest, that is my childhood background. My professional background is more initially technical and then it became social sciences when I worked for the commission. I changed course in the 1960s. And then because of my involvement and interest in third world issues, poverty issues, that was my impetus into that area. In the 70s and 80s, the aid agencies and the charities who were interested in poverty like Oxfam and Christian Aid morphed into environment from poverty reduction. I morphed with them and I sort of gradually found myself focussing on these kind of issues that affect the environment and consequently affect people and consequently affect poverty; those were the connections. Then I found myself engaging more and more with people interested in ecology and the environment and then somebody asked me the question “what has Islam got to say about the environment?”. Although I knew that Islam was connected to the environment there wasn’t an answer I could give them.  So I actually gave up my full-time work and I went back to university and did a Masters [degree] on Islamic Theology based on the Qur’an, based environment, that’s how I got into it, only to discover that the Qur’an was inherently environmental. The teaching was there but it was buried because there has not been a need for an environmental ethic per se to emerge out of the Qur’an. In previous times it was organic, it was embedded in peoples’ behaviours, we were natural environmentalists, and now we have to overtly articulate this, in a sense reacting to what modernity has brought us, that is a specialism. So in Islam, environmentalism is not a specialism, this is a discovery. What we discovered then was what we needed to do was to create a new fiqh, a new jurisprudence in Islam and this has been the work of the foundation [IFEES]. I’ve been consulting with scholars, I’m not by any stretch of the imagination an Islamic scholar, but I specialise in this, and we are known for this kind of specialism internationally. So working with scholars we have created the beginnings of a new fiqh, a new kind of specialism which we call ‘ilm al-khalq, ‘Knowledge of Creation’. As part of my Masters thesis, I looked at the verses in the Qur’an that derive from the root khalaqa, to create and also khaaliq, Creator, and khalq, Creation. There are about 260 verses in the Qur’an. I was invited to stay on and do a PhD but I didn’t want to stay on at university and become another scholar so to speak, I wanted to go out and actualise it. I wanted to discover the Sunnah of the Prophet, how he understood the Qur’an working and how he then actualised the verses of the Qur’an. To give you an example, there is a verse in the Qur’an, the end of which is “Allah does not love the wasters” so the question is then how did he then actualise it? The Sunnah emerges when there is a narrative about one of his companions washing for prayer and wasting water and the companion challenged the Prophet, “even if I am washing for prayer?” and the Prophet responded “even if you are by a flowing river”. So the thing is how do you actualise it in the world of today? So I put together a workshop based on the four principles, tawhid, fitra, mizan and khalifa. It wasn’t pedagogic. Because of my civil service experience I was able to devise a method whereby people could learn out of the Qur’an by self-discovery; instead of somebody standing on a pedestal and preaching. I said “here are the verses and now relate these to the realities of today”. I loved it because here are the verses of the Qur’an they already knew and it was quite germane to them and their lives, and we built on that. That is how it evolved and the other thing was, because we were involved internationally we used to work all the way from West Africa all the way through to Indonesia. And the Indonesian scholars were far more open to these ideas than the scholars from other parts of the Islamic world. I have been working with them [the Indonesian scholars] and we have been producing a follow-on to ‘ilm al-khalq, Knowledge of Creation, creating another specialism called fiqh al-biy’a, biy’a being an Arabic word which connotes environment, ecology, surroundings. So we have two things going now that we are promoting: ‘ilm al-khalq from the Qur’an, and fiqh al-biy’a, the fiqh on Islamic environmental management, and it is our job to popularise them and make people understand what we are doing and convince people to take on those principles.

What do you think is the future of Islam and environmentalism?

I think it has a huge future but the important thing to look out for is that the paradigm we function from is anti-environment, the whole thing is based on the greatest thing that is forbidden in the Qur’an which is riba. So, as long as it [our economy] is based on that we are not going to get very far. But at least it is a resource and a teaching that we can work from and work with and as long as we do that we educate other people to the norms of Islam about what can be done and what cannot be done and also about the discrepancy.

This is more of a problem for western people because we consume more and we have more luxurious lifestyles, what advice would you give the average Muslim in this country and the Muslim community here in the UK? How can we return to the Sunnah or get ourselves on the straighter path?

That is the three Rs: reduce, re-use, recycle; that’s quite basic advice and that’s very Islamic as well. Re-use material as much as you can, reduce your consumption and recycle. Recycling is of course a new thing, recycling was not an issue because it is modernity and modern technology that has created the kind of materials that we need to recycle because plastic is not going to die for another thousand years. That’s the basic advice I can give Muslims, and the other thing would be to follow the example, the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw), and that would incorporate nearly all of the reduce, re-use mentality actually. If you follow that mentality we might go somewhere. Consumption-wise the Prophet was there, he used up very little of the natural resources.

How can people transition to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle considering the financial costs of for example buying organic foods or the extra time required to use environmentally friendly products like re-useable nappies?

It ain’t easy. Real life confronts people, economics and modernity confronts people, consumerism confronts people. This is a difficult one, I think the important thing firstly is for people to understand the issues, what is really going on, there needs to be some kind of public education or Islamic education. If you consider the mainstream of society, that’s all of us, collectively we are kind of trapped into a consumeristic, materialistic lifestyle, the twin-income families, they are trying desperately to pay their mortgages, meet the needs of the time, go beyond their needs and there are lots of wants that have been artificially created that people are made to feel that they are needs. And we are hooked into it you see. At one level, at a higher level, we need to deal with what modernity is and understand what it is based on the whole banking system and riba. But at the level of living every day life it is a difficult one. And of course when you have disposable nappies and mothers find less time to wash their own nappies, that is a challenge, if they do not ideologically understand that they have to do the other, go back to the recyclable, washable nappies, modernity provides them with the kind of technology and leisure that allows them to enjoy the so-called “good life”, but what all of this is leading us all to collectively is the collapse of society. And this is what is happening today. So we need to be prepared for the time when society inevitably collapses, it has already collapsed in certain parts of the world, we are living still very comfortably.

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