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Progressive Muslim Environmentalism: The Eco-Theology and Ethics of the Nahdliyyin Front for Sovereignty over Natural Resources (FNKSDA)

  November 29th 2021

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Economic development is often seen as a legitimate reason from the state and capitalist side for infrastructure development and exploitation of natural resources that cause many agrarian conflicts and environmental problems[1]. People are being displaced from their land and unable to fight back because they are powerless against the power of the state and the owner of capital or investor. In Indonesia, throughout 2017, there were many empirical cases of agrarian conflicts. No less than 650 cases occurred. In Java, there were many cases of agrarian conflict and environmental problems, for example, the construction of the New Yogyakarta International Airport in Temon, Kulon Progo, Special Region of Yogyakarta; cement industry in Kendeng, Central Java; and gold Mining in Tumpang Pitu, Banyuwangi, East Java. These cases are often followed by violent processes that oppress local people. Therefore, throughout 2017 there were 1030 alleged human rights violations related to this problem.

Unfortunately, even the problems are complex, but only small appraisals of the local manifestations that engaged with power relations and political dimensions regarding these problems. Religious leaders lack a critical attitude towards government. The issuance of fatwas and theological arguments have many limitations. A top-down theological approach does not resonate on the ground, because it's only potentially theologizing rather than addressing the actual issues in the society caused by the disconnection of religion as an institution from local communities/grassroots' suffering. Since Islam and ecology tend to use a textual-normative approach, there might be a gap between what should be (norms) and what happens (facts) regarding environmental problems. The fact is the grassroots have unequal power relations, often with violent conflicts and tensions, ontological, epistemological, and political contestation. This is argued by Ali Ilham Almujaddidy, in his presentation within Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion forum organized by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) on 27 October 2021.  Almujaddidy is a staff member at the Institute of International Studies, Universitas Gadjah Mada, and alumnus of CRCS who holds a master’s degree in Islam and Ecology and did his research about Nahdlyiyyin Front for Popular Sovereignty over Natural Resources (Front Nahdliyyin Untuk Kedaulatan Sumber Daya Alam or FNKSDA). He recently published a chapter in the book entitled Varieties of Religion and Ecology: Dispatches from Indonesia[2].

Furthermore, in his presentation, Almujaddidy argues that the discourse of Islam and Ecology in Indonesia pays much attention to theological and ethical-normative aspects on how Muslims should deal with environmental problems. Within scholarship or discourse on Islam and ecology, most of the focus is given to the legal analysis of Fiqh and Sharia (Islamic norms and values) of the environment from canonical sources of the Qur'an and Hadith). The issue of the relation between God, humans, and nature is mostly discussed in the framework of the concepts of Khalifah (vicegerency), Tawheed (divine unity), Mizan (balance), Fitra (primordial nature), Ihsan (good deeds), Insan Kamil (perfect human with divine presence), Taqwa (piety). And the approach that is usually used is the classical approach, questioning the domination of humans against nature, for instance from Seyyed Hossein Nasr/Lynn White. Meanwhile, within the discourse of Islam and ecology, land conflicts are less studied, particularly in Indonesian cases. There is only some research on eco-pesantren and the roles of Islamic leaders (ulama or Kiais) in raising awareness of environmental sustainability; and the roles of the two biggest Islamic organizations in Indonesia (Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama/NU) with mostly conservation-based approaches and issuance of fatwas. However, questions concerning concrete social problems, political contestations, as well as the interaction of actors within the context of unequal power relations are rarely addressed. Thus, there is the domination of mainstream interpretations of religion which focus more on the theoretical construction (Islamic values) than the local manifestations (Muslim experiences).

Almujaddidy’s research drew from the empirical case and comparative literature of Islam and ecology, especially in the case of FNKSDA as progressive Muslim environmentalism that engages with direct advocacy for the people affected by agrarian and environmental conflicts. He argues that within Islamic discourse on environmental issues in Indonesia there is a discursive gap between the progressive NU who are socially engaged with the progressive ecology group. NU is mostly informed by contemporary Muslim thinkers and Western critical theories while the progressive ecology also employs political ecology and Marxist analysis which emphasizes the liberation ideas with the hermeneutical privilege of the oppressed. Therefore, the absence of ecology and environmental concern and analysis of power relation and political dimension is filled by FNKSDA. FNKSDA emerged in 2013 as a response to its main institutional body that was not taking agrarian and environmental issues seriously. Most of the affected communities from Nahdliyyin are focusing on grassroots or civil society. They acknowledge the cultural affiliations with NU but remain independent and critical of NU. Nahdliyyin focuses on the impact of (extractive) capitalism and declares "Jihad Against Capitalism" as their main agenda. The organization utilizes a network of pesantren by establishing Pesantren Agraria. Aligned with the oppressed, FNKSDA takes the spirit of nahdlah (revival/the risen people). Nahdliyyin is not exclusively limited to NU adherents but those who struggle to protect their rights. They connect "Jihad against capitalism" to the historical NU fatwas issued by Hasyim Asy'ari to fight against colonialism. Extractive capitalism is interpreted as a new form of colonialism. FNKSDA also employs the hermeneutical privilege of the oppressed (mustadh’afin) and integrates Marxist epistemology with traditional fiqh to bring a new voice into the discourse of Islam and ecology.

Through his research, Almujadydy draws on the traditional theological legal doctrine of NU (Aswaja). He argues the integration of Marxist social and political-economic analysis into the traditional theological mode of reasoning. Here, Marxism is an analytical tool to understand the nature of capitalism. It emphasizes social piety and rights as a form of preserving the earth, cosmic balance, and social and environmental/ecological justice. Almujadydy moves from theology to praxis in critique of NU’s structure that did not take into account the agrarian and environmental issues by constructing the basis axiological principle of Aswaja. He proposes to reinterpret some theological concepts so they can empower praxis. For instance, Tawasuth/i, not only conceived as moderation against right-left political ideology but is reinterpreted as anti-fanaticism, critical and democratic. Tawajun, not only balances rational and textual inferences but counters power and co-existence in the struggle. Lastly, I'tidal, from consistency in practice to consistency and militancy in the principle of justice. Progressive faith (al iman al-taqaddumi), not only reforms religious understanding but also involves socially engaged activism.

Almujaddydy also argues that it is important to develop eco-justice ethics by formulating Islamic legal responses to the environmental problem to achieve higher objectives of Sharia (Maqasad). The Qur'an and Hadith with their traditional theology should be completed by Marxist epistemology. It is illustrated on five thematic issues: mining, collective access, and common ownership, farmer and means of production, planting, and climate change. These eco-justice ethics change the perspective of FNKSDA in response to particular cases of mining, for instance in Kendeng and Banyuwangi. They propose that utilization of mining is half-shared with the corporations, not fully owned by the state (al-dawlah). They are also concerned about the destructive implications towards the protected areas (hima) thus contradicting the Islamic principles of mining. They argue that the land is not a dead-land (mawat), and ownership is not for the public good. Therefore, resistance is allowed (islah) toward the problem of utilization of nature which is already beyond limits (ifsad) and wastes the natural wealth (israf).

Furthermore, in response to the concept of ecosystem, based on Hadith, Muslims were encouraged to plant trees to prosper the ecosystem, but today planting is mandatory. Islam acknowledges open ecosystems where humans and other living things help each other to meet their needs (spirit of sharing). Humans are not superior but part of the ecosystem. Capitalism counts the ecosystem as property and commodity, separating humans from animals, plants, and fellow humans (mastering and possessing). In response to climate change and extreme drought, based on Hadith, climate change is not caused by natural disasters but by social factors. The water crisis affects the lack of trees because of privatization and massive exploitation of the forest. Prayer for asking the rain (istisqa') can turn to disasters (Bala) such as floods. Thus, defending the earth from exploitation is mandatory. Finally, Almujadydy concludes that FNKSDA offers new discursive values for Islam and ecology that take into account analysis of power relations and political dimensions and go beyond textual-normative interpretations. It has distinctive values by integrating Marxist analysis to its traditional theological arguments, which on the other hand helps sustain the movement. It also shows a variety of Muslim experiences in response to the environmental and ecological problems, especially local particular cases on land and agrarian issues. This movement represents a hybrid movement, a creative interpretation of Islamic traditions, one which is informed by a Marxian understanding, and puts emphasis on the values of social justice by standing with the oppressed.


[1] Marcos A. Pedlowski, “When the State Becomes the Land Grabber: Violence and Dispossession in the Name of ‘Development’ in Brazil” Vol. 12, No. 3 (2013): 91–111. p. 92.

[2] Zainal Abidin Bagir et al., Varieties of Religion and Ecology: Dispatches from Indonesia, vol. 53  (Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2021). p.9.