Islam and Permaculture Share Foundational Similarities

islam and permaculture by aisha

There are foundational principles in Islam that are similar to the guiding ethics of permaculture. This is not to say that Islam and permaculture are similar, however. Islam is an all-encompassing way of life, with guidelines for caring for creation, for the express purpose of restoring and sustaining humankind’s relationship with their Creator.

Permaculture is a well-designed component of life, with guidelines for restoring and sustaining humankind’s relationship with creation. This article explores the intersection where Islam and permaculture meet.

Non-Religious by Design

Think of permaculture as “sustainable culture.” Three morals, or ethics, guide permaculturists: “Caring for people,” “caring for the planet,” and “returning surplus back” to both people and planet. Intentionally non-religious, permaculture inhabits the ideological realm beyond religious boundaries and values humans as they are, without judging personal beliefs. This is the basis of “caring for people” — a perfect starting place for creating a sustainable culture through unconditional acceptance.

“Caring for the planet” encompasses life on Earth as one large ecosystem. Permaculturists views all the components of a sustainable culture as individually important parts of a whole system. From the container herb garden on the patio, to the local credit union financing the entire community’s development, protecting the whole ecosystem is the point in “caring for the planet.”

“Returning surplus back” to people and planet includes equitably sharing excess and recycling to prevent waste. Equal pay for equal work, giving surplus away free, and creative re-use are guiding principles of this ethic. All three ethics form an intertwined rope, which, like Ariadne’s unrolled ball of twine, guides us like Theseus through the labyrinth of (sometimes monstrous) human diversity.

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Permaculture Design Certification

Permaculturists travel around the world, teaching people how to live off their land. They conduct Permaculture Design Certification courses (PDC’s), giving people “hands-on” experience. They are concerned about life’s approaching changes, due to climate change impacts, fossil fuel divestment, and the failure of modern economics to equitably sustain human life.

Many people strive for fossil fuel divestment. However, a future without fossil fuels requires self-sufficient communities. By teaching people how to develop local food systems and sharing economies, permaculturists help communities learn to operate self-sufficiently.

Permaculture Ethics Are Shared by Many Faiths

Permaculture ethics are shared by many faiths and belief systems. Permaculturists understand this and adapt their lessons to student’s beliefs.

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In Permaculture in the Islamic World: The Dire Need to Get Involved, author and PDC instructor Alex McCausland shares the similarities found in Islam and permaculture. Using the recorded sayings of Prophet Muhammad (God’s Peace and Blessings be upon him), McCausland quotes:

“One day, Abu Darda, one of the reputed companions, was planting trees in Damascus. A man who was passing by thought this was strange and asked: “O Abu Darda, you are a Companion of the Prophet, why are you planting trees?” Abu Darda replied: “I heard the Prophet say, ‘If a person plants a tree, the fruits eaten by any human or any of God’s creatures will be recorded as charity for the one who planted it.”

Within this one simple hadith, all three permaculture ethics are clearly expressed!

Permaculture Practices in Early Islam

McCausland also quotes from Sarah E. Fredericks’ Measuring and Evaluating Sustainability: Ethics in Sustainability Indexes, highlighting the similarity of Islamic practices to permaculture’s sustainable land management practices. In particular, the early Islamic institutions of  “hima” and “haram” ( this is  not to be confused with “haraam,” meaning forbidden, but “haram” here means “sacred” or “inviolable” place – as in “temple/church/mosque,” or the stereotypical “harem”):

“A Haram is a ‘sacred territory, inviolable zone [or] a sanctuary’ used to promote the welfare of all inhabitants. They are similar to a green-belt surrounding each Islamic settlement and natural and developed water sources. Harim (plural) around settlements were used for forage and firewood but could also be used to preserve species intentionally, cleanse air, and provide green space for recreation or aesthetic purposes. Harim around water also prevent water pollution, facilitate the maintenance of the water sources, and, by prohibiting new wells within their boundaries, preserve the water supply of the existing wells.” [Sarah E. Fredericks: Measuring and Evaluating Sustainability: Ethics in Sustainability Indexes]

The Islamic Hima Conservation System

Additionally, quoting from Lutfallah Gari’s Ecology in Muslim Heritage — A History of the Hima Conservation System, McCausland recognizes the early Islamic institution of the “hima,” as conceptually the same as modern land and game preserves, equally critical aspects of modern permaculture:

“A himā (to be pronounced ħimā) is a reserved pasture, where trees and grazing lands are protected from indiscriminate harvest on a temporary or permanent basis… The system sets aside an area as a grazing reserve for restricted use by a village community, clan or tribe as a part of a grazing management strategy.

“The studies about himā show that the following types existed since earlier times in Arabia:

1. Grazing is prohibited, cutting is permitted during specific periods. This is when plants reach to a certain height of growth, after they flower and bear fruit. The cut branches are taken outside the himā to feed the livestock. The tribe council specifies the number of people from each family allowed to do the cutting. Certain trails are specified for the workers, to prevent destruction of soil fertility. Certain days are allocated for men; others for women.

2. Grazing and cutting is allowed only after flowers and fruits are produced. This allows natural seeding of the soil for the next year or season.

3. Grazing is allowed all year, the number and type of animals are specified. No restriction on grass-cutting.

4. Reserve for bee-keeping. Grazing is allowed only after the flowering season. These reserves are closed for five months of the year, including the Spring months.

5. Reserve for forest trees, e.g. Juniperus procera, Acacias spp., Haloxlon persicum. Cutting is only allowed for great emergencies or acute needs.

6. Reserving a woodland to stop desertification of an area or sand dune encroachment.” [Lutfallah Gari, Ecology in Muslim Heritage — A History of the Hima Conservation System]

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The sensitivity of early Muslims to the environment is inspiring. The similarities of the “haram” and the “hima” to modern permaculture practices is remarkably clear.

Learning Sustainable Living Systems

As a Muslim, Alex McCausland is familiar with the Islamic principles of ecological conservation. He is also a renowned Permaculturist. This past spring, Alex McCausland and Sidi Salah Hammad taught a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course in Jordan, in the dry, desert landscape surrounding the Dead Sea. The site is called the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project site.

The PDC course is an internationally-recognized, 72-hour course providing an introduction to permaculture design as set forth by movement founder Bill Mollison. The course covers sustainable living systems for a wide variety of landscapes and climates, applying permaculture principles to home design, construction, food production, energy conservation and generation, and explores alternative community economic structures.

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The Jordan Valley Permaculture Project

The PDC course that McCausland and Hammad taught is located in the Dead Sea Valley just 10km north of the Dead Sea and 6 km east of the Jordanian-Palestinian border, directly east of the West Bank. It is a small project site on less than one acre of land, and still under development. The demonstration house functions as both a classroom and administration office for the project staff.

Upon completion, the project site will have self-sufficient housing with natural cooling systems, solar electricity and hot water, biological wastewater treatment recycling, and dry compost toilets. A plant nursery will be attached to the systems, and the site will have rain water-harvesting earthworks. Animals and farming are part of daily life, as well, for local food production and processing. All this on less than one acre!

Once established, the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project will serve as a model to replicate within the village, throughout Jordan, and other countries in the region. The project started in 2008 and has already seen significant progress. The first trees planted are growing well and the first garden is producing vegetables.

On October 9, the current phase of the project began, and will continue for 20 days. Plans include expanding the water tank, improving the fence and gate, and building basic living accommodations.  Students will also learn how to create minimum-fuel rocket stoves for cooking and heating, as well as for hot water.

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“Do You Have Something More Worthwhile To Do?”

The inspiring words on the PRI website regarding the value of permaculture are definitely worth repeating:

“Through this work we envision thousands of educational demonstration sites worldwide – all inspiring and teaching communities around them how to begin to tackle at root the massive challenges we now face after decades of short-term profit-based thinking has all but ‘consumed’ our planet and dismantled the social constructs that the human race has always depended on for its survival.

“Through this work we see desertification stopped in its tracks, and reversed. We see this century’s dire water issues getting resolved. We see productive work for millions in bypassing the irrelevant efforts of our ‘leaders’, to instead build a new kind of culture – a culture based on cooperative effort and learning. It’s a culture where its members have regained a sense of their place in creation, where they become land-based stewards of remaining resources; creating a culture where we at last find ultimate satisfaction – promoting and building peace and low-carbon, relocalized, community-based prosperity.

“Perhaps it’s time you took a look at Permaculture? After all, do you have something more worthwhile to do?”

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About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid (Birth-name Kathleen Vail) is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, sustainable economics, corporate social responsibility, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.