Just off the east coast of Africa, nestled in the clear, blue Indian Ocean, lies the pristine island of Misali. Connected to the Zanzibar archipelago, the island is home to over 350 species of fish, 40 types of hard coral, nesting turtles as well as the globally endangered coconut crab. It is a diver’s paradise. With bright white sands and turquoise waters, it is a gem of an island steeped in Islamic history and natural beauty. However, just a decade ago the future of this idyllic island was not so certain.
Dwindling fish catches had forced fishermen to experiment with more drastic means of trapping fish which included dynamiting the coral reefs, using cyanide and dredging. These fishing practices destroyed the spawning grounds of young fish and led to a serious depletion of fish stocks. The marine ecosystem was on its knees and traditional environmental organizations were struggling to convince the residents of the importance of marine conservation. All that changed when one Muslim organisation decided to reach out to the local Muslim population by highlighting Islam’s own environmental ethics.
The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES) was asked to help encourage marine conservation on Misali island in 2005. Working with the local fishermen and imams, IFEES highlighted the Islamic ethics of conservation as laid out in the Qur’an. They told the fishermen that as Muslims, they had been given a duty to be khalifahs or stewards of nature and were commanded to protect and preserve nature. They were informed that the Qur’an speaks of humans polluting the land and seas and being warned to see the error of their ways: “Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by (reason of) what the hands of people have earned, so He may let them taste part of (the consequences of) what they have done that perhaps they will return (to righteousness).” [Ar-Rum:41]
Eco-tourism and Islamic ecology
Fazlun Khalid, who leads IFEES, the world’s oldest green Islamic organisation, explains what happened next: “It was amazing; within 24 hours there was a complete attitude-shift – the fishermen stopped dynamiting the coral reefs almost immediately and it was clear that our teachings had a real impact on the people. To quote one of the fishermen, “You can break man’s law but you cannot break God’s law.” We had a very simple, straightforward message about the need to conserve God’s creation, that as khalifah we are guardians of nature. And in Zanzibar, they really took on the responsibility of protecting Allah’s creation.”
Today, the island is flourishing again and is celebrated as an eco-friendly tourist destination where visitors can enjoy the biodiversity and learn about sustainable fishing techniques. Fishing provides a direct livelihood to 11,000 people living on the Misali island, which gets its name from the word msala which means prayer mat in Arabic and Swahili. Whilst this success story has had a big impact, on a global scale, Africa plays a small role in the fishing market. Asia is the big player and 85 percent of the world’s fishing industry is located across the region. Sadly, in Muslim Southeast Asia, fishing techniques that use cyanide, dynamite, as well as overfishing are still real problems.
Spreading Islam’s conservation message
As such, Fazlun Khalid is eager to replicate their work in Misali in other countries and also other fields of conservation. “Whether it is deforestation or land pollution or marine conservation, these principles are universally applicable and people are ready to listen,” states Khalid. “We are lucky to have these Islamic environmental ethics as they are very powerful tools. However, many Muslims don’t realise we have these ethics or that they have a duty to protect nature and that’s very worrying.”
Another project that is making the most of Islamic teachings to promote eco-practice in fishing is the Africa Muslim Environment Network (AMEN) which was launched in 2006. Made up of members from across Africa, it has worked on projects to promote sustainable fishing along the East African coast by reviving the traditional Swahili fish-trap technique. Hand-made Swahili fish traps have no adverse affect on the marine environment, are sustainable and – more crucially – only capture mature fish. This means young fish are given time to grow and breed in their natural surroundings and the area is able to maintain a healthy fish population.
‘Conservation is not a luxury’
As more fishermen embrace this eco-friendly method, destructive practices using dynamite, which are indiscriminate and decimate the natural ecosystems, are being abandoned. The work of both IFEES and AMEN have been key to promoting awareness of the implications of harmful fishing practices as well as suggesting more environmentally-friendly alternatives. By invoking Qur’anic verses which highlight the importance of conservation and protecting the seas, they have been able to speak directly to the Muslim residents. They have also challenged the common assumption that conservation is a rich, middle-class, white concern.
“It’s not a luxury issue,” says Khalid about conservation. “It isn’t something that doesn’t concern us — it does. Environmental degradation is happening right now, all across the world and it is our job to tell people that we have a responsibility to God’s creations. That we have a duty to nature and that our Islamic faith is at the heart of this environmental commitment.”
Facts on fishing
• One in five people on this planet depend on fish as their primary source of protein
• Indonesia along with China and Peru are the world’s largest producers of fish
• Employment in fishing has grown and the industry provides a livelihood for about 540 million people, or 8% of the world’s population
• 85% of the fishing industry is located in Asia
• According to the UN, all of the world’s 17 major fishing estuaries are over-fished
• In 2008, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation found that 80% of all marine fish stocks are either fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted
Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the UK who writes on the Middle East, the environment and various social issues. Arwa is also the eco-Islam affairs editor at Green Prophet, the leading news site on environmental issues in the Middle East.