R20 Working Group on Spiritual Ecology:
“Environmental stewardship should not cause us to harm other human beings”

“Radical, top-down prescriptions that do not account for the interests of those who lack wealth and power will simply destabilize societies and fuel conflict.”
~ H.E. KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf

His All Holiness Bartholomew I of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, addressing the Opening Plenary of the KAICIID Forum in Lisbon

LISBON, Portugal — On 16 May 2024 Nahdlatul Ulama Chairman and Founder of the G20 Religion Forum (R20) KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf outlined key principles associated with the R20 Spiritual Ecology Movement before an audience of religious authorities, politicians, and environmental activists gathered for a Global Dialogue Forum hosted by the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID).

KAICIID was established in 2012 by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Austria, and the Kingdom of Spain, acting upon the joint initiative of Pope Benedict XVI and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Holy See is a founding observer.

Mr. Staquf shared an Islamic perspective on Spiritual Ecology, which inculcates respect for the environment among religious believers at a grassroots level by emphasizing humanity’s divine mandate to serve as stewards of God’s creation (khalifah fi-al-ardh).

The Nahdlatul Ulama Chairman contrasted this spiritual approach with the imposition of “top-down policies that create scarcity [and] may fuel an unbridled, zero-sum competition for power and resources,” thereby threatening humanity, the natural environment, and civilization itself.

Mr. Staquf’s remarks — adapted for publication — may be read in full below.

H.E. KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf
Remarks on Spiritual Ecology Prepared in Response to Questions Posed by the KAICIID Global Dialogue Forum
Lisbon, Portugal
16 May 2024
Questions for H.E. K.H. Yahya Cholil Staquf

1.      As a Muslim scholar advocating for rahmah (universal love and compassion), how can Islamic teachings be interpreted to promote environmental protection and sustainability?

Thank you for your question.

When discussing a topic, the starting point for ulama should be to ground the conversation in an Islamic perspective. This means that rather than seeking to interpret Islam to reach a predetermined “right answer,” our focus should instead be on what Islam actually teaches about the matter in question.

Such a reorientation is fundamental, because it means that our discussion will originate from within the traditions of ahl al-sunnah wa-al-jama‘ah (Sunni Islam), rather than from within a foreign, secular perspective.

Fortunately, from an Islamic perspective as I understand it, environmental stewardship is a divine obligation central to human beings’ very presence on earth.

In Surat Al-Jathiyah, God says:

وَسَخَّرَ لَكُم مَّا فِى ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَمَا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا مِّنْهُ ۚ إِنَّ فِى ذَٰلِكَ لَـَٔايَـٰتٍۢ لِّقَوْمٍۢ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ ١٣

“And He has made subservient to you, [as a gift] from Himself, all that is in the heavens and on earth: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think!” (QS. 45:13).

In other words, everything on earth has been created by God for the benefit of humanity — and this fact contains within it a sacred purpose.

This sacred purpose is elaborated in verses 29 and 30 of Surat Al-Baqarah:

هُوَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ لَكُم مَّا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا ثُمَّ ٱسْتَوَىٰٓ إِلَى ٱلسَّمَآءِ فَسَوَّىٰهُنَّ سَبْعَ سَمَـٰوَٰتٍۢ ۚ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَىْءٍ عَلِيمٌۭ ٢٩ وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَـٰٓئِكَةِ إِنِّى جَاعِلٌۭ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةًۭ ۖ قَالُوٓا۟ أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ ٱلدِّمَآءَ وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنِّىٓ أَعْلَمُ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ ٣٠

In these verses God tells the angels that all He has created is for the benefit of humanity, and He will appoint mankind as stewards of His creation. The Angels protest, saying “Will You place upon the earth one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we exalt You with praise and declare Your perfection?” God replies that, yes, He will for “Verily, I know that which you do not know” (QS. 2:29-30).

As these verses make clear, God has gifted humanity a divine mandate to serve as His vicegerent on earth (khalifah fi-al-ardh). Although the environment has been created as a gift to mankind, this gift comes with a sacred obligation to use the environment wisely in a way that betters both the human condition and that of all life on earth (rahmatan li al-‘alamin).

In Surat Al-A’raf, God says:

ٱدْعُوا۟ رَبَّكُمْ تَضَرُّعًا وَخُفْيَةً ۚ إِنَّهُۥ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُعْتَدِينَ ٥٥ وَلَا تُفْسِدُوا۟ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ بَعْدَ إِصْلَـٰحِهَا وَٱدْعُوهُ خَوْفًا وَطَمَعًا ۚ إِنَّ رَحْمَتَ ٱللَّهِ قَرِيبٌۭ مِّنَ ٱلْمُحْسِنِينَ ٥٦

“Call unto your Sustainer humbly, and in the secrecy of your hearts. Verily, He loves not those who transgress the bounds of what is right: (7:56) hence, do not spread corruption on earth after it has been so well ordered. And call unto Him with fear and longing: verily, God’s grace is ever near unto the doers of good!” (QS. 7:55 – 56).

God commands humanity therefore — in our own best interests — to tend to His creation for the betterment of all living things (rahmatan li al-‘alamin).

From an Islamic perspective — therefore — sustainable environmental protection rahmatan li al-‘alamin cannot be separated from promoting the wellbeing of humanity as a whole.

Ultimately, human welfare sits at the heart of our divine mandate on earth, and so environmental protections should always be considered in the context of human wellbeing.

In other words, environmental measures that harm human wellbeing go against God’s divine order and, as such, will ultimately fail in their objective: neither protecting the environment nor human beings.

2.      In your role as the General Chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, how do you recommend encouraging and engaging the Muslim communities to actively participate in environmental conservation efforts, and how do you recommend encouraging and engaging Muslim and non-Muslim communities together to actively participate in environmental conservation efforts?

As I explained earlier, for Muslims it is imperative that environmental conservation efforts originate in Islamic teaching and an Islamic worldview. If this is done, then Muslim communities will actively and spontaneously participate in these efforts, as by doing so they will be fulfilling their sacred obligation to act as God’s vicegerents on earth (khalifah fi-al-ardh).

This religiously grounded approach is at the heart of the Spiritual Ecology Movement launched by Nahdlatul Ulama’s Institute of Indonesian Muslim Cultural Artists (Lesbumi) in Bali, just prior to the 2022 G20 Religion Forum, or R20.

The R20 Spiritual Ecology Movement was inaugurated with a multi-religious tree-planting ceremony held at Puja Mandala, a religious complex consisting of five houses of worship built side-by-side, including a Hindu temple, a mosque, Protestant and Catholic churches, and a Buddhist vihara.

Those present at the launch included H.E. Shaykh Mohammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League; and Mahamahopadhyay Bhadreshdas Swami, an ordained Hindu monk with millions of devotees worldwide.

Spiritual Ecology is the focus of one of seven R20 working groups, which is networking like-minded religious leaders and organizations world-wide. Our aim is to re-enliven indigenous and ancient “wisdom traditions” essential to respecting and preserving the environment in a holistic manner that fosters balance within nature and society.

3.      How can the principles of rahmah and universal love and compassion be integrated into policymaking and governance to address ecological crises? And in your expert opinion, would you consider that initiatives promoting such principles, for long term effect, would be more sustainable and successful at the grassroot level or policy making level? 

An effective way to integrate rahmah (universal love and compassion) into ecological policymaking and governance would be to follow the guidance set forth on this topic in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

In Surat Al-Ma’idah, God says:

يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ كُونُوا۟ قَوَّٰمِينَ لِلَّهِ شُهَدَآءَ بِٱلْقِسْطِ ۖ وَلَا يَجْرِمَنَّكُمْ شَنَـَٔانُ قَوْمٍ عَلَىٰٓ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا۟ ۚ ٱعْدِلُوا۟ هُوَ أَقْرَبُ لِلتَّقْوَىٰ ۖ وَٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ خَبِيرٌۢ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ ٨

“O YOU who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice. Be just: this is closest to being God-conscious. And remain conscious of God: verily, God is aware of all that you do” (QS. 5:8).

Justice is central to piety in Islam (taqwa), and human beings are unlikely to care for the natural world in a sustainable manner if their own societies are afflicted by injustice. In Surat Al-Baqarah, God says:

أَيَوَدُّ أَحَدُكُمْ أَن تَكُونَ لَهُۥ جَنَّةٌۭ مِّن نَّخِيلٍۢ وَأَعْنَابٍۢ تَجْرِى مِن تَحْتِهَا ٱلْأَنْهَـٰرُ لَهُۥ فِيهَا مِن كُلِّ ٱلثَّمَرَٰتِ وَأَصَابَهُ ٱلْكِبَرُ وَلَهُۥ ذُرِّيَّةٌۭ ضُعَفَآءُ فَأَصَابَهَآ إِعْصَارٌۭ فِيهِ نَارٌۭ فَٱحْتَرَقَتْ ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ ٱللَّهُ لَكُمُ ٱلْـَٔايَـٰتِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَفَكَّرُونَ ٢٦٦

“Would any of you like to have a garden of date-palms and vines, through which running waters flow, and have all manner of fruit therein — and then be overtaken by old age, with only weak children to [look after] him — and then [see] it smitten by a fiery whirlwind and utterly scorched? In this way God makes clear His messages unto you, so that you might take thought” (QS. 2:266).

If we do not find a way to steward and cultivate God’s creation and manage its resources in a just, consensual, and equitable manner — then solutions to the ecological crises facing humanity are likely to be short lived, that is: “smitten by a fiery whirlwind and utterly scorched.”

In addressing environmental crises, therefore, Spiritual Ecology adheres to two principles:

Firstly, environmental stewardship should not cause us to harm other human beings.

Secondly, solutions must be sustainable long-term. It would be counter-productive to solve one ecological crisis if in the process we unleash conflicts among human beings that cause even greater environmental destruction.

Many of the world’s inhabitants depend on fossil fuels in their daily lives and to ensure a minimal level of economic wellbeing. Any strategy that seeks to resolve environmental problems by harming their interests will merely precipitate the bloodshed and chaos that Surat al-Baqarah warns of. We must devise environmental strategies that are fair, benefit everyone, and give people adequate time to adjust to any changes.

In practice, upholding our sacred obligation to use the environment wisely in a way that betters both the human condition and that of all life on earth (rahmatan li al-‘alamin), should follow the principle of subsidiarity and — as much as possible — take place at the grassroots.

Radical, top-down prescriptions that do not account for the interests of those who lack wealth and power will simply destabilize societies and fuel armed conflict.

Indeed, top-down policies that create scarcity may fuel an unbridled, zero-sum competition for power and resources that — in an age of nuclear weapons — threatens all life on earth and human civilization itself.

Responsible environmental stewardship, at a global level, requires building a broad-based consensus that extends from the grassroots of society to the corridors of state and institutional power. This is the objective of the G20 Religion Forum (R20) and its Spiritual Ecology Movement.

In the Qur’an, God draws an explicit connection between environmental stewardship and preventing bloodshed. Human welfare requires protecting the environment, and protecting the environment requires promoting human welfare. Any attempt to do one without the other is likely to end in catastrophic failure. This is why God makes it clear that human welfare is the focus of humanity’s divine mandate to serve as vicegerents of His creation (khalifah fi-al-ardh).

4.      How can the ethical requirements of sacred ecology inspire a collective commitment to safeguarding the environment and fostering a more harmonious relationship with the Earth?

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5.      How can religious actors involved in dialogue, negotiations, and civil activism show a constructive path forward to protect our environment?

For people across the world to collectively commit to safeguarding the environment, a broad-based, global consensus is required that extends from the grassroots of society to the corridors of state and institutional power.

Building such a consensus necessitates buy-in from religious believers, who constitute the single largest demographic within the human family — estimated to exceed 80% of the global population.

If this vast constituency of religious believers are going to commit to responsible environmental stewardship, compelling rationales should be presented from the perspective of each of their various faith traditions.

It is simply not plausible to expect faith communities to view environmental protection as a religious obligation if ecological policy prescriptions originate within a secular context and are imposed upon religious communities from without. Rather, an ethical imperative to protect the environment should emerge organically from within the religious traditions of each community.

Forging such a durable, religiously grounded consensus is the objective of the G20 Religion Forum (R20) and its Spiritual Ecology Movement, which Nahdlatul Ulama launched under the auspices of Indonesia’s 2022 Presidency of the G20 to network like-minded religious leaders and organizations world-wide.

Consensus-building requires listening to all voices. Everyone alive on planet earth is a stakeholder. Grounding environmental activism within religion will aid in arriving at consensus because it constitutes a more holistic approach than those provided by secular environmental perspectives.

Let us take Islam as an example of this holistic approach. From an Islamic perspective, ecology is not sacred in and of itself. Rather, the natural world has been created as a gift to mankind that carries with it a sacred obligation to manage the environment wisely in a way that betters both the human condition and that of all life on earth (rahmatan li al-‘alamin).

Humanity’s obligation to manage the environment responsibly — in our own best interests — is sacred, and constitutes mankind’s divine mandate to serve as God’s vicegerent on earth (khalifah fi-al-ardh).

This Islamic approach ensures that our solutions to environmental problems will be equitable, and genuinely serve the interests of humanity as a whole. This includes the roughly 2 billion people, or 24% of the world’s population, who live in precarious circumstances characterized by poverty, instability, and often violence.

By ensuring that both the natural world and humanity’s interests are intertwined and protected, we may maintain international peace and security, ensure that our grandchildren reap the fruits of our efforts, and live up to the example of the Messenger of God (saw.), of whom the Noble Qur’an says:

وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ إِلَّا رَحْمَةً لِّلْعَالَمِينَ

“And [thus, O Prophet,] We have sent thee as [an evidence of Our] grace towards all the worlds.”
(21:107)

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R20 Working Group 5 on Spiritual Ecology

Launch of the Spiritual Ecology Movement

Spiritual Ecology and COP28