Islam and Sustainable Development?

That is not a combination one often comes across. What is sustainable development and what does it have to do with Muslims?
Well, the answer could be found at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Muslim governments, organisations and individuals participated in varying degrees to promote the Islamic perspective on sustainable development.

What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development was defined by the Brundtland Report Our Common Future (1987) based on the findings of World Commission on Environment and Development (1983). According to the Brundtland Report sustainable development entails:
meeting the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

This concept was further developed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, also known as the Earth Summit. The Earth Summit produced Agenda 21, a blueprint for sustainable development in the 21st century, aimed at providing a high quality environment and healthy economy for all the peoples of the world. Sustainable development thus requires the integration of the environmental, social and economic dimensions, and is not just about environmental issues, as is commonly believed.

Since then, the term sustainable development (and all that it implies) has come to be more widely known. However, implementation of the outcomes of the Rio Summit was seen as inadequate. Also, the world had changed much since 1992, posing new challenges for poverty eradication and environmental sustainability.

The United Nations General thus decided to hold a ten-year review of the Earth Summit to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 26 August to 4 September 2002. The United Nations' Commission on Sustainable Development was tasked with preparing, coordinating and facilitating the Summit.

Muslim governments, business representatives and civil society organisations joined in the preparations. The extent of their preparation depended on how well informed, organised and resourced they were. They had the challenge of demonstrating the links between Islam and SD firstly to their own constituencies, and then to the wider society.

Islam and SD?

SD should not be a new concept to Muslims. In fact, SD is not really a new concept. Governments and civil society may have recently adopted the concept but the principles, which underpin it, have existed for centuries.

The Qur'an and the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) provide the framework for the spiritual and physical well being of humanity. There are over 500 verses in the Qur'an giving us guidance on matters relating to the environment and how to deal with it. In addition, there are numerous examples from the Prophet's life and his sayings, which provide a model for justice and equity.

Sadly, most of us are not aware of this rich legacy of environmental consciousness and socio-economic justice in Islam and how these relate to contemporary issues.

Islam at the WSSD

One of the organisations that took on the task of promoting the Islamic perspective on Sustainable Development in preparation for the Summit was the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), entrusted by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) with the preparation of a working programme representing the Arab Islamic perception of environmental development for submission to the WSSD ii.

ISESCO held jointly with the OIC a number of activities in this regard, e.g. a conference of governmental experts of the Islamic countries on sustainable development (Tunis, March 2001), the First Preparatory Meeting of the Environment Ministers of the Muslim World (Rabat, January, 2002) and the First Islamic Conference for Ministers of the Environment (Jeddah, June, 2002).

These activities generated several reports and declarations, such as:
• Report on ISESCO's efforts and Future Vision in the Field of Management of Water Resources in the Islamic World

• Report on ISESCO efforts in Environmental, Health and Population Education
• Study on Sustainable Development from the Perspective of Islamic values and Specificities of the Muslim World
• The Islamic World and the Challenges of Sustainable Development
• Study on Environment and Sustainable Development in the Islamic Countries (Sustainable Development from an Islamic Perspective)
• General Framework for Islamic Agenda for Sustainable Development
• Islamic Declaration on Sustainable Development.

ISESCO presented this Declaration at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Sandton, Johannesburg. Sandton was the venue for the official United Nations where governments and accredited organisations from business and civil society were gathered.

Meanwhile civil society representatives met at NASREC, south of Johannesburg where Muslim organisations were fairly prominent. There were several local South African and international Muslim organisations and institutes that held exhibitions and attended proceedings at the Global People's Forum.

Among the international Muslim organisations were the Muslim World League and the International Islamic Council for Da'wa and Relief. South African organisations present at NASREC included the National Awqaf Foundation of South Africa, the Jamiatul Ulama (Council of Muslim Theologians), the South African National Zakah Fund, the Waqful Waqifeen (Gift of the Givers Foundation), the Islamic Relief Forum, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, Islamic Careline, the Muslim Aids Programme and the Islamic Medical Association iii.

A meeting of South African and international Muslim organisations was held on 25 August 2002, in order to coordinate Muslim participation at the Summit. It was proposed that Muslims should support those agreements and commitments that do not violate any Islamic injunctions and are beneficial to all humanity, and should lobby and negotiate around those decisions that may undermine Muslim countries or values.

Although the proposal was supported, it has proved difficult to develop a joint Muslim position incorporating Muslim countries and Muslim minorities living in other parts of the globe. One of the reasons may be the lack of analyses of sustainable development from an Islamic perspective, or poor dissemination of what little material there was available. The lesson we have all learned from Johannesburg 2002 is the need to share information and coordinate our activities on an ongoing basis, recognising, of course, the differences that may exist between the various Muslim groupings.

The representatives of the various Muslim organisations took seriously their mission of promoting the Islamic perspectives on sustainable development and engaged in discussion with other delegates and the media on the Islamic viewpoints on the themes of the Summit. Islamic literature, much of it especially developed for the summit, was widely distributed. Many non-Muslim delegates, for example, were astounded to hear of the systems of zakah or waqf to benefit the less fortunate, or that Islam forbids riba, or interest, and is thus opposed to the debt slavery that many countries currently find themselves in. The Palestinian cause also received much support, especially from the South African public who have endured similar struggles as the Palestinians.

This broad spectrum of South African Muslim participation at the Summit was a first for a global gathering of this nature. In the last few months leading to the Summit the local Muslim community embarked on a campaign to mobilise Muslim organisations and individuals to be active in the Summit and commit to continuing that effort after the Summit. This included providing logistical support to the Summit process-accommodation, transport, food and salaah facilities- as well as contributing to the policy discussions on sustainable development.

One of the organisations that played a leading coordinating role was the National Awqaf Foundation of South Africa (AWQAF SA). AWQAF SA arranged a series of public meetings at which the purpose of the Summit was explained and a volunteer network of professionals, students and women was established. The Muslim radio stations in South Africa were important partners in this regard, publicising the various meetings and holding special Summit features. Muslim schools and ulama were also part of this exciting initiative.

The 1st Muslim Convention on Sustainable Development

One of the activities organised by AWQAF SA was the 1st Muslim Convention on Sustainable Development, known by many as 'the Muslim Summit', held in Erasmia, Pretoria on 1 September 2002 iv.

The 900 odd participants and delegates included leaders, members of parliament, representatives of community organisations, professionals, academics, activists, ulama, and social workers, from all parts of South Africa and the World.
Highlights of the convention included a mix of cultural items rendered by different schools and madressas from Gauteng and the talks given by an array of Muslim academics and activists - Prof Yusuf Dadoo, Prof Suleman Dangor, Shamshaad Sayed, Moulana Ashraf Dockrat, Asma Hassan, Saliem Fakir, Dr Ismail Munshi, and Zeinoul Abedien Cajee.

International speakers included Haji Fazlun Khalid, the Director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences and Shaykh Hassan Cisse of the African-American Islamic Institute in Senegal. The South African Minister of Water Affairs & Forestry, Mr Ronnie Kasrils addressed the participants and praised the Community for their involvement in organising the event. A tree-planting ceremony, linking villages in Palestine to South Africa, was held. One of the trees was dedicated by AWQAF SA to Saartjie van den Kaap, a slave woman who made the first waqf in South Africa, and on which stands Masjid al Awwal (Cape Town) the first mosque in South Africa.

The outcome of the Convention was the adoption of the "Draft Principles on Sustainable Living and Development", which will now be circulated and comments called for to enable it to become a document that everyone across the community accepts and adopts.

After joburg?

"There's just no excuse for not getting on with it now. The Summit gave us a clear mandate for what we have to do…The Summit also sent a message to stop the chatter and get on with implementation." JoAnne DiSano, Director of the UN's Division for Sustainable Development v.

The message to Muslims is also clear. Those organisations that were involved in the Summit, in whatever capacity, have the responsibility of communicating the outcomes with the wider Muslim community, and developing critical commentaries on them from an Islamic perspective (something we have not yet seen but are in the process of formulating). Muslim governments, civil society organisations and other stakeholders have the task of establishing the systems, processes and capacity for implementation and ongoing monitoring and evaluation.

Some of the simple and practical measures that have been proposed (at least in South Africa) are to include environmental education in the madressa syllabus, to establish recycling centres at masajid, to encourage Muslim youth to consider careers in the various fields associated with sustainable development, and to develop a Muslim political lobby that engages in policy and research work at the local, national and international levels. The need to contribute to poverty eradication in South and Southern Africa was also recognised.

Already, some of these measures are being developed, and we are confident, inshallah, that we will achieve some of our goals, and ensure the positive legacy of the Joburg Summit. We look forward to working with the international Muslim community in this endeavour.

i) Asma Hassan is the WSSD Project Convenor for the National Awqaf Foundation of South Africa (AWQAF SA). Asma is an independent consultant based in Johannesburg, and has spent the last year working with South African civil society in preparing for the Summit. Her areas of interest and expertise are land rights and food security. Email Zeinoul Abedien Cajee practises as a consultant, is a senior lecturer at Vista Unviversity, Soweto, Johannesburg, and a member of the Steering Committee of AWQAF SA. Zeinoul, together with other team members, developed a policy paper on waqf as a sustainable development institution for the purposes of the Summit.

ii) Information in this and the next two paragraphs extracted from The Islamic World and the Sustainable Development (Specificities, Challenges and Commitments), ISESCO, 1423H/2002. I am grateful to Mr Ebrahim Patel of the Minara Chamber of Commerce in Durban, South Africa, for alerting me to this publication. See also the ISESCO website

iii) I am including the website addresses of some these organisations: The National Awqaf Foundation of South Africa (, the Jamiatul Ulama (Council of Muslim Theologians) (, the South African National Zakah Fund ( ), and the Waqful Waqifeen (Gift of the Givers Foundation) ( To contact any other organisations please approach the writers who will gladly assist.

iv) Additional information available at AWQAF SA website
v) 'UN taking first steps toward implementing Johannesburg outcome', United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Johannesburg Summit 2002 website 23 September 2002.