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Why Turkish academic Ibrahim Ozdemir is pushing for an Islamic approach to environmentalism Open in fullscreen

Austin Bodetti

Why Turkish academic Ibrahim Ozdemir is pushing for an Islamic approach to environmentalism

Turkey's Salt Lake in Ankara [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 September, 2019

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İbrahim Özdemir, one of Turkey's most prominent environmentalists, believes that the growing number of Muslim environmentalists can find inspiration for their aggressive campaign against global warming from Islam itself.

Every day seems to bring a new headline about the dangers of climate change and environmental degradation in the Middle East.

Of the countries considered most at risk from water scarcity by the World Resources Institute, nine of the top ten fall within North Africa or Western Asia.

As the Middle East’s fragile states contend with sectarianism, terrorism, and societal collapse, they are also battling biodiversity loss, desertification, and rising sea levels.

One well-spoken Turkish academic, however, has a unique vision for how to fight this ecological crisis.

Dr İbrahim Özdemir, the founding president of Hasan Kalyoncu University and author of The Ethical Dimension of Human Attitude Towards Nature: A Muslim Perspective, believes that the growing number of Muslim environmentalists can find inspiration for their aggressive campaign against global warming from Islam itself.

Özdemir notes that the Quran and other religious texts call on Muslims to defend the natural environment, a job more critical now than ever.

Özdemir notes that the Quran and other religious texts call on Muslims to defend the natural environment, a job more critical now than ever

Born in 1960 to illiterate Kurdish parents in Karapolat, an isolated Turkish village abutting the Syrian border, Özdemir had to walk two miles each way to attend school.

Karapolat also lacked a well, forcing him and his family to travel to another village to retrieve water every day. Though tiresome, these trips played an important role in Özdemir’s environmental education, showing him how natural resources could influence social conflict and sustainable development. 

"As a village boy, I witnessed with amazement the daily cycle of collecting water from the fountain," recounted Özdemir.

"It was fun to watch the daily routine of my people fetching the water. I experienced the vitality of water for my people and life in our village at a very early age. I also witnessed how water scarcity could be a source of conflict in my childhood." 

While Özdemir left Karapolat to pursue higher education, getting a bachelor’s degree in theology from Ankara University in 1985, he returned to his poverty-stricken hometown after obtaining a doctorate in philosophy from the Middle East Technical University in 1996.

There, he cooperated with Turkish authorities to bring water to Karapolat, fulfilling what he viewed as a responsibility to his people.

As time passed, Özdemir came to hold that all Muslims had a similar duty not only to their peers but also to the natural environment, which he saw as a divine creation. 

"Muslim scholars, when confronted with new problems and challenges, first look to the Quran as the word and final message of God, then to the Sunnah of the Prophet, which is considered a concrete example of scripture," Özdemir told The New Arab.

"From an Islamic perspective, the natural world has value in and of itself and does not exist solely to serve human needs." 

Muslim scholars, when confronted with new problems and challenges, first look to the Quran as the word and final message of God, then to the Sunnah of the Prophet, which is considered a concrete example of scripture

Since delivering water to Karapolat, Özdemir has realised an impressive list of accomplishments, which include lecturing at Harvard University as a visiting scholar in 1998 and participating in the drafting of the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change in 2015.

During his travels, Özdemir also engaged with the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, allowing the Turkish academic to learn from the examples of cultural icons.

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"Dr Ozdemir was the most prominent Islamic environmentalist in Turkey for many years," said Dr Tarik M. Quadir, an assistant professor of philosophy at Necmettin Erbakan University and author of Traditional Islamic Environmentalism: The Vision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

"He writes and speaks on the subject very clearly and with conviction."

Many well-known Muslim academics have pushed for an Islamic approach to environmentalism, from Mohammad Ali Shomali at the International Institute for Islamic Studies to Mustafa Abu Sway at Quds University, but Özdemir has proved himself one of the most committed.

"Nature has been created by God and, ‘having a firm well-knit structure with no gaps, no ruptures, and no dislocations,’ is regarded as ‘among the grand handiwork of the Almighty,’ " said Özdemir, quoting a verse of the Quran popular with many a Muslim environmentalist.

"Like a mirror, nature reflects the power, beauty, wisdom, and mercy of its creator." 

Despite Özdemir’s philosophical rhetoric and writing style, the Turkish academic emphasises the need to derive concrete meaning from scripture’s esoteric directives.

He asserts that the Middle East’s turmoil has distracted Muslims from seeking Islamic solutions to these challenges. 

"The major issue is the current political, economic, and social issues in Muslim countries, which prevent people from seeing the problem in its context," Özdemir told The New Arab.

In Turkey, Özdemir has put himself at the forefront of the environmental movement, expressing support for protests against a controversial, Canadian-backed mine that Turks have accused of contributing to deforestation and other environmental issues.

Abroad, he has garnered the respect of ecotheology’s greatest minds for changing how Muslims think of environmentalism. 

"The unique aspects of Özdemir’s work include linking policy to practice," added Dr Odeh Rashid al-Jayyousi, chairman of the Innovation and Technology Management Department at Arabian Gulf University and author of Islam and Sustainable Development.

The closer climate change comes to destroying the Middle East, the greater the urgency Özdemir feels to mobilise Muslims against the world’s greatest environmental crisis.

"As God has created this world and entrusted it to human beings alone, they are not the owners and masters of the natural environment," concluded Özdemir.

"They are only trustees and stewards on Earth. We have to educate and enlighten Muslims that environmental awareness, caring for the environment and animals, and feeling concern over climate change, its daunting consequences, and all other related problems are our ethical and moral responsibilities."

In addition to studying Islam, Özdemir draws inspiration for his eco-friendly campaign from the need to safeguard the future of his four children and three grandchildren, who, according to him, "never saw a wild animal in nature – only in documentaries and zoos." 

"I have concerns about their future and the world they are going to live in," reflected Özdemir. "Therefore, caring for the environment and next generation is a moral imperative for me."


Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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