The idea of a protected commons was central to early Islam, and to Muhammad’s vision of a just society. Today, Muslim environmentalists are reviving this concept to protect threatened ecosystems throughout the Muslim world.
This article originally appeared at OntheCommons.org.
A glance at history turns up the names of many heroes—from Robin Hood to Chief Joseph to Gandhi—who stood up to protect the commons on behalf of future generations. One name from history not likely to be associated with the commons is Muhammad. Yet the holy prophet of the Islamic world sought to preserve special landscapes for everyone. Today, Muslim environmentalists are trying to reinvigorate this tradition.
There was an ancient Middle Eastern tradition of setting aside certain lands, called hima (“protected place” in Arabic), for the enjoyment of local chieftains. Muhammad “transformed the hima from a private enclave into a public asset in which all community members had a share and a stake, in accordance with their duty as stewards (khalifa) of God’s natural world,” according to Tom Verde, a scholar of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations.
In the seventh century, Muhammad declared the region of Al-Madinah, now the holy city of Medina, “to be a sanctuary; its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted.” Many of the hima lasted well into the 20th century, when the tradition fell victim to modern beliefs about land ownership.
Now Middle Eastern environmentalists are invoking the idea of hima to protect the region’s threatened woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, and rangelands. In 2004 the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon helped local residents establish two of the first new hima in the hilltop town of Ebel es-Saqi. “The hima has had a very positive effect in the community,” said Kasim Shoker, mayor of a nearby town. “Not only has it helped improve the economy [through ecotourism], but it has made the local people recognize the value of the land and have greater respect for its biodiversity.”