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
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
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.”
five himas have been established in Lebanon,
and a “workshop”
was held last in Istanbul to promote the ideas
throughout the Middle East.