Spotlighting Islam’s “Hima” System of Nature Conservation

mowing fathers garden by aisha

Like a drunk driver on a riding lawnmower recklessly careening over his father’s vegetable garden, humankind is recklessly mowing down the earth – destroying the very support system needed to fuel the mower. All across the globe, the massive population of man is like an unstoppable machine. Requiring fuel to sustain the machine, consumption is driving production at an unhealthy rate of speed.

Searching for ways to slow down the machine is proving to be a critical challenge. If we are to survive in the face of dwindling resources, we need to conserve nature to achieve better fuel-efficiency. In order to feed larger and larger numbers of people, we need to find better ways to utilize the Earth.

Revisiting the earliest days of rural, pastoral- and agriculture-based societies offers thought-provoking answers to solve today’s crises. At the highest levels of international concern, Islam’s formalized system of “Hima,” or Nature Conservation, is receiving optimistic attention.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature

Launched in 1948 at an international conference in Fontainbleau, France, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization. 
Their mission is to “influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.”

At the IUCN’s Regional Office for West Asia (ROWA), Regional Director Odeh Al-Jayyousi is turning to an ancient indigenous conservation institution for modern solutions to Earth’s current crises. Perhaps the oldest set of conservation strategies on Earth, the core practices were adopted and formalized into what is now known as Islam’s “Hima” system.

The Early Days of Hima Appear in Biblical History

One of the reasons why Hima is an interesting solution for today’s conservation needs is because it developed under a similar set of crises. Relatively speaking, the ratio of human population to accessible natural resources in the days of Moses were just as dire as today’s challenges. It is possible to recognize the development of Hima by following the early days of Prophet Moses, God’s peace be upon him, as the following history is related in the Torah, the Bible, (Exodus 2:17) and in the Quran:

And when he arrived at the watering (place) in Madyan, he found there a group of men watering (their flocks) and besides them he found two women who were keeping back (their flocks). He said: “What is the matter with you?” They said: “We cannot water (our flocks), until the shepherds take back (their flocks): and our father is a very old man.”
So he watered (their flocks) for them; then he turned back to the shade, and said: “O my Lord! Truly am I in (desperate) need of any good that thou dost send me!” Afterwards one of the (damsels) came (back) to him, walking bashfully. She said: “My father invites thee that he may reward thee for having watered (our flocks) for us.”

So when he came to him and narrated the story he said: “Fear thou not: (well) hast thou escaped from unjust people.” (25) Said one of the (damsels): “O my (dear) father! Engage him on wages: truly the best of men for thee to employ is the (man) who is strong and trusty”… [Quran 28:23-26) 

image (Image note and source: Moses Defends Jethro’s Daughters at the Well, by Philo. Public domain)

Perhaps this incident returned to Moses’ memory, years later in the desert wilderness. Leading his people out of Egypt, the miracle of God’s guidance to water not only brought much-needed relief, but brought evidence of the first application of the Hima system, as well:

And (remember) when Mûsa (Moses) asked for water for his people, We said: “Strike the stone with your stick.” Then gushed forth therefrom twelve springs. Each (group of) people knew its own place for water. (Moses told them) “Eat and drink of that which Allâh has provided and do not act corruptly, making mischief on the earth.” [Quran 2:60]

Evidence of the Hima system being enforced in Christian times is related in the Quran, as well. Known in Arabic as the “Thamud,” the Nabataeans were the inhabitants of Petra in Jordan. The intricate palace facades carved into the cliff faces of Petra are still famous today. The Nabataeans were of Arab origin, made rich by their monopoly on the trade of incense and spice between the East and the Roman, Greek and Egyptian empires.

They have vanished, but the history of the famous cliff dwellers of Petra is still present in the Quran. God’s blessing of water to humanity demands sharing among all living beings. All have equal right to use it, without suffering abuse for their need. Apparently the Nabataeans were transgressing in this issue, because God commanded the prophet Saleh, peace be upon him, to warn them of impending punishment:

Lo! We are sending the she-camel as a test for them; so watch them and have patience; and inform them that the water is to be shared between (her and) them. Every drinking will be witnessed. But they call their comrade and he took and hamstrung (her). Then see how (dreadful) was My punishment after My warnings! Lo! We sent upon them one Shout, and they became as the dry twigs (rejected by) the builder of a cattle-fold. And in truth We have made the Qur’an easy to remember; but is there any that remembereth? [Quran 54:27-32]

image (Image note and source: Petra, Jordan by Mohammed Asfour.

The Elevation of Hima in Islam

In Islam, believers are warned repeatedly to obey the set limits, and recognize the prescribed boundaries, or “hudood,” of the Hima as formalized in the following verses of the Holy Quran:

Those are limits (hudood) set by Allah: those who obey Allah and His messenger will be admitted to gardens with rivers flowing beneath to abide therein (for ever); and that will be the supreme achievement. But those who disobey Allah and His messenger and transgress His limits will be admitted to a fire to abide therein: and they shall have a humiliating punishment! [Quran 4:13-14]

In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the area around the Ka’abah, or the “Sacred House,” is the most famous Hima or “Sacred Precinct” in Islam. Behaviors, rights and responsibilities associated with the Hajj Pilgrimage are highly formalized for this Hima in the Quran:

O ye who believe! violate not the sanctity of the Symbols of Allah, nor of the Sacred Month, nor of the animals brought for sacrifice, nor the garlands that mark out such animals, nor the people resorting to the Sacred House, seeking of the bounty, and good pleasure of their Lord. But when ye are clear of the Sacred Precincts and of pilgrim garb, ye may hunt and let not the hatred of some people in (once) shutting you out of the Sacred Mosque lead you to transgression (and hostility on your part). Help ye one another in righteousness and piety, but help ye not one another in sin and rancour: fear Allah: for Allah is strict in punishment. [Quran 5:2]


Hima as a Model for Natural Resource Management

In his article, Hima as a Model for Natural Resource Management in West Asia and North Africa, Dr. Al-Jayyousi covers Islam’s elevation of the Hima system. Defining the hima as the Arabic translation for “a protected place” or “protected area,” Al-Jayyousi explains that in the original concept, access to this place was declared forbidden by the individual or group who owned it. However, mandatory public sharing, with codified community cooperation and joint protection eventually became the norm.

In the Arab peninsula, where the natural environment is characterized by aridity, fluctuation and uncertainty, cooperation over shared resources becomes essential to securing the livelihoods of local communities. Through public participation (shura) and reaching consensus through consultation, the community-based management model of hima contributed positively to saving and protecting natural resources, rangelands and forests for 5000 years, and providing the enabling environment for managing conflicts. The deep understanding of the cycles of nature, seasonal variations and carrying capacity informed social innovation in community-based natural resource management.

Islam contributed to the value system and ethical dimension of hima along with the rational imperative and judgement for measuring trade-offs between human rights and nature conservation. The Prophet Mohammad declared that free access to public water is the right of the community and said that “people are partners in three resources: water, pasture, and fire.” The notion of social justice and equity (adl) for all people, regardless of their culture or belief system, is the cornerstone of Islamic values. Islamic law has devised and formalised specific rules for formulating public policies and making trade-offs between public and private interest. Maslaha (public interest) may lead to an understanding of sustainability in its broader terms. [Dr. Odeh Al-Jayyousi Hima as a Model for Natural Resource Management in West Asia and North Africa]

image (Image note and source: grazing cow. Public domain from pixabay)

Slowing Down the Machine Requires Authentic Convictions

Wide-scale adoption of Islam’s concept of Hima could effectively slow down the runaway machine that has become global development. With well-protected boundaries, and strongly enforced penalties, the Hima system has at its core the goal of preserving life. New fuel-efficiency would be a built-in benefit when conservation is backed up by Islam’s teachings against waste, damage, and abuse. Hima boundaries are further protected by the Islam’s guideline that “whatever leads to something prohibited is also prohibited.”

However, although most countries have currently established environmental protection agencies, S. A. Hamed sums up the dilemma we need to consider, when confronting the drunk drivers of the Earth’s riding mowers:

“Unless communities are well-informed and consulted during the development planning process, new projects and programs will not benefit from local knowledge and may never gain the support of the community.

Movement towards environmentally sustainable development by any society involves more than establishing an environmental protection agency, raising environmental awareness, or providing technical training. It requires comprehensive efforts on all fronts to strengthen the sustainable development institution as a whole and to shift the priorities of the society at large.

No significant progress in history was ever accomplished without an ethical emphasis, sincere loyalty, genuine affection, and authentic convictions.” [S. A. Hamed, “Capacity Building for Sustainable Development: The Dilemma of Islamization of Environmental Institutions,” in Islam and Ecology, p. 409]

As responsible stewards of God’s creation, sharing our faith is critical in promoting conservation ethics in our families and throughout our communities. These qualities, “ethical emphasis, sincere loyalty, genuine affection, and authentic convictions,” are as miraculous as water in the desert, because we can all share them in common, even among diverse faiths and belief systems. With them, and with each other we can work together successfully to restore creation to its rightful glory.

image(Image source: public domain from pixabay)

(Top image note and source: 2 public domain images from pixabay, edited together by Aisha Abdelhamid)

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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.