Interview with Professor İbrahim Özdemir
I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting Professor Özdemir in Bologna where he was participating to the G20 Interfaith Forum.
We spent two lovely evenings together. Then he went back to Istanbul and I went back to my Italian home from where I had been missing since September 2020.
But a beautiful friendship is born and now we are regularly in touch, looking forward to a future collaboration.
Professor Özdemir is a very easy going person but he is an internationally well reputed academic and, surely, he deserved an interview on the relation between Islam and Ecology which is one of his major interests as a scholar.
I sent him the questions and he, amazingly, answered in less than one hour.
Enjoy your reading!
Dear Professor Özdemir, you are a leading expert on Islamic environmentalism. Could you please, briefly, introduce yourself?
I am a Professor of Philosophy at the Uskudar University, Istanbul-Turkey. I received my A.B. from Ankara University in 1985, M.A, from METU (1989), and my Ph.D. from the Middle East Technical University, Ankara in 1996.
I was born in a village as the 8th member of my family, 6 boys and two girls in 1960. My father Mustafa was a farmer and an illiterate man. My mother Ayşe was an illiterate Kurdish strong woman. There were no school and mosque in our village. Therefore, I had to walk every day 2 miles to a near village for school. Moreover, there was no drinkable water in our village, too. We used to go with our donkeys to collect water every day.
As a village boy, the awe and wonder of nature always attracted my curiosity. Since then, I have been a keen reader of the book of nature, trying to understand the human-nature relationship in the sense of what the Norwegian echo-philosopher Arne Naess calls “deep ecology”.
My dissertation, The Ethical Dimension of Human Attitude Towards Nature (Published by Insan Publications: Istanbul, 2nd edition, 2008) has been regarded as the first dissertation by a Muslim scholar on environmental philosophy and ethics.
The main objective of my dissertation was to explore the “philosophical and ethical dimensions of environmental problems”.
I began to teach, disseminate, and share my findings with my fellow Muslim scholars as well as others. Therefore, I have been working closely with environmentalist groups and activists in the Muslim world as well as in the West and East. I lectured at summer schools, seminars, and workshops in Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Germany, the USA, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Maldives, and Turkey. During these lectures and panels, I met and talked in person with HE Mr. Nelson Mandela, HE Mr. Dalai Lama, HE Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev, and many other leading figures.
I was among the drafting team of the Islamic Declaration for Global Climate Change in August 2015. Because of my dedication to environmental awareness and active engagement with environmental NGOs and groups, I was appointed as a consultant to UNEP (United Nation Environmental Program), 2015-2016.
Last year, I attended UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March 2019. During Assembly, ICESCO (The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, representing 57 Muslim countries) asked me to prepare a Strategy Document for the Islamic Conference of Environment Ministers. With Dr.Fachruddin M. Mangunjaya from Universitas Nasional, Jakarta, Indonesia, we prepared the document “How to activate Cultural and Religious Factors to Protect the Environment and Achieve Sustainable Development in the Islamic World”.
It means, our strategy document will be used as a blueprint for sustainable development and climate change in Muslim countries in the future.
A new book Contemporary Thought in the Muslim World: Trends, Themes, and Issues by Carool Kersten (Routledge Press, 2019) presented me as “the most prominent Islamic environmentalist in Turkey for many years”.
Now, we have been working with the cooperation and guidance of UNEP on Al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth for a while. AL-MIZAN (‘Balance’ in English) is based on Surah Ar-Rahman (The Merciful) in which Allah Almighty describes the creation in its perfect balance: (Quran 55:1-9)
Al-Mizan presents an Islamic outlook of the environment in a bid to strengthen local, regional, and international actions that combat climate change and other threats to the planet. It is a global endeavor to engage Islamic scholars and Muslim institutions in the development and adoption of this Call.
It examines the ethics behind the social patterning of human existence and enquires into how they could be brought to life today working in harmony with the heartbeat of the natural world.
These principles grew out of the foundations established by Prophet Muhammad into a range of rules and institutions that manifested an expression of life that was truly holistic. It was based on the Qur’an and it could be distilled into three categories namely encouraging public good, forbidding the wrong action, and acting in moderation at all times:
“Let there be a community among you that calls for what is good, urges what is right and forbids what is wrong, they are the ones who have success” (3: 104).
I attended hundreds of meetings, in-service education programs for teachers, devised a syllabus on Religion and Environment for the Department of Theology at Ankara University which is used by almost all Theology departments.
I also write regular stories on the environment and climate change for Turkish newspapers. Any interested reader can consult my web page for more information:
We know the pioneer of Islamic environmentalism has been the Iranian Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Did you know him and how did he inspire you?
Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr is the pioneer in making Islamic Environmental discourse with his writings and talks. When I was working on my dissertation in the early ’90s, his book Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man was one of my key references. I met him for the first time during a conference in Konya in April 1997. One year later I met him at Islam and Ecology conference at Harvard in May 1998. He listened carefully to my paper and made very important remarks on my paper and encouraged me to further studies on the subject. I almost read all his works on Islamic cosmology, Sufism, and the man-nature relationship. Professor Nasr re-kindled the spirit of burning for learning on the one hand and to discover the rich tradition of East and West regarding the universe. He pointed to the essence of the ecological crisis, which is a result of a spiritual crisis.
Therefore, time and again he underlined that the environmental crisis has the meaning of the erosion of human spiritual-existential wisdom, which results in the bluntness of self-awareness as a creature of God. Needless to say, he presented us with the richness of Islamic Sufi tradition to discover the deeper meaning of reality and come up with new proposals to solve our problems.
In an article that appeared on The New Arab (written by Austin Bodetti): Why Turkish academic Ibrahim Ozdemir is pushing for an Islamic approach to environmentalism you are introduced as the scholar who believes “the growing number of Muslim environmentalists can find inspiration for their aggressive campaign against global warming from Islam itself”. Could you kindly comment on this statement?
Muslim scholars, when confronted with new problems and challenges, first looked to the Qur’an as the word and final message of God and then to the Sunnah of Prophet, which is considered to be a concrete example of the Scripture. Let me say living Qur’an. In the case of the environment or the natural world, we can apply the same method and find some foundation for the preservation of the environment or raising the environmental consciousness of Muslim societies. I think the Qur’anic emphasize o the metaphysical and sacred dimension of nature, is a good example for our case.
When we look at the first chapters and the verses of the Qur’an, which were revealed in the Meccan period, we see that its main purpose was “to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his manifold relations with God and universe.” Thus, by awaking in man a higher and deeper consciousness, firstly it changes his overall world view, then it constructs his image of himself; and consequently, his attitudes, feelings, sentiments, and the patterns of his relationships with reality begin to change accordingly. All these should be considered as a result of Qur’anic Weltanschauung.
The Qur’an, thus, with its emphasis on the metaphysical dimension of nature, replaced the pagan Arabs’ conception of nature with a new and vivid concept. Today, the Qur’an once more is ready to challenge the modern materialistic conception of nature, which is also dominant in Muslim societies through educational curriculum, let do not mention others, and to suggest and provide a more comprehensive and holistic approach to developing an environmental ethical theory.
It is my firm conviction that once the metaphysical foundation for an environmental ethic is discovered within the Qur’anic value system, it will not be difficult to develop an environmental ethic on this basis. Furthermore, understanding the metaphysical dimension of the Qur’anic message will give us the opportunity of understanding and appreciating the development of sensitive ideas and attitudes concerning the environment in course of Islamic history, the first example of this, I think, is the behavior and attitude of the Prophet with the environment.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), for example, both in his practices and in many of his Hadiths, attached great importance to planting trees, protecting existent ones, planting forests, as well as conserving existent ones. A’isha, one of his wives, said: “His character was the Qur’an.” His practices and conduct related to the conservation of the environment should therefore be considered from the Qur’anic standpoint. For us, his actions are sources of inspiration constituting his Sunna or practices, which we are obliged to follow. To put it another way, as in all matters, the exemplar of Islamic conduct related to the environment and the person who displayed it in almost perfect fashion was God’s Messenger.
You have participated in the drafting of the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change in 2015. Which kind of steps has been done since that time?
The positive reactions and well-reception of declaration in the world were surprising and overwhelming for us. Major newspapers, magazines, social media, and leading environmentalists expressed their appreciation of and support for the declaration. Bill McKibben, a leading environmentalist, and activist argue that although “by itself, this declaration will not lead to much as Islam, for better and for worse, lacks a central governing body; there is no pope”; “what they signal is an ongoing shift in the zeitgeist, to the point where most thinking people in our civilization realize that we have to take dramatic, even radical, action to blunt an emerging crisis. This is new”.
As Syed Hossain Nasr noted, “the main value of the declaration will be to remind Muslims that nature is not just a machine; it has a spiritual meaning”. Muslims, therefore, have the responsibility of developing environmental ethics which motivates and leads them toward a more meaningful and responsible attitude towards planet earth and sustainable development.
In short, Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change in 2015 was a wake-up call for Muslims. Right after the declaration, we had an invitation from many countries to talk about the Making and content of the declaration. I gave talks in Turkey, South Africa, Malaysia, Finland, Maldives, Hong Kong, Germany, and the USA on the declaration. I wrote some major documents such as “Environment, Religion, and Culture in the Context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, which prepared for UNEP.
Second is a Strategy Document we prepared in 2019 for the Islamic Conference of Environment Ministers which is called “How to activate Cultural and Religious Factors to Protect the Environment and Achieve Sustainable Development in the Islamic World”.
The third is al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth which is the making and will be finalized soon and presented to the UN. Al-Mizan presents an Islamic outlook of the environment in a bid to strengthen local, regional, and international actions that combat climate change and other threats to the planet. It is a global endeavor to engage Islamic scholars and Muslim institutions in the development and adoption of this Call.
From Austin Bodetti’s article, we also know you engaged with the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. What did you learn from the examples of these cultural icons?
Meeting these great leaders, I learned a lot of lessons and personal inspirations. Mandela, for example, told us never to lose hope and always struggle for change. Hope is not enough. You have to struggle for transformation by any means necessary. I never forget his motto “struggle is my life”. Even I bought a t-shirt with this motto on for my son Abdullah. Mr. Gorbacev reminded us how we neglected and almost forgot the role of ethics for human beings and development. He emphasized that we have a moral and spiritual responsibility to future generations as well as for the rest of creation. Dalai Lama teaches us how to be humble and solve our problems with a spirit of peace, compassion, and never-ending struggle.
Are you cooperating with other Muslim and non-Muslim academics on the issues of environmental crisis and climate change? What do you think about an interreligious approach?
Sure. Let’s not forget that Islam and Ecology Conference was organized in 1998 as a part of “The Religions of the World and Ecology conference series” which was organized by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim at the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) at Harvard Divinity School. Since then, Mary and John were my colleagues and we attend many meetings on the environment with members of other religions and faiths. We attend with Mary E.Tucker a summer school organized by the Gadjah Mada University, Jogyakarta, Indonesia, August 9–16, 2005.
My studies on environmental problems convinced me that environmental, social, and economic threats are aimed at everyone without discrimination, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, and Buddhist. The problem is that if the members of other religions when preserving their differences can work together to respond to these modern challenges to humanity or not.
We discovered that we have more in common than we think. As the Prophet says we are on the same boat, that is the planet earth. I think it would be a good idea to listen to the metaphor used by the Prophet’s and remember our responsibilities related to the environment:
Think of people on the same boat, some of them on top and some below.
When those below want to put a hole in the ship to meet their needs for water, if those above do not prevent it, the ship will sink and everyone will drown; if they prevent them, everyone will be saved.
We, that is all humanity, are all on the same boat of this world. Behavior that will sink the ship should not be met with silence and indifference. Not only that but a positive contribution should be expected from everyone to strengthen the social fabric and improve the social order and environment.
In today’s global world where the lines between East and West, between “us” and “them”, and among Jews, Christian and Muslim are no longer clearly defined thanks to the development of mass communications and global mobility, the need to engage in dialogue – with other cultures, with other people, and with other religions – is even more urgent than in the past if peaceful co-existence and dialogue are to prevail over confrontation and conflict.
In other words, the capacity to adapt to and cope with manifestations of climate change such as droughts, flooding, and natural disasters depends on factors such as local and national resources as well as individual and community capacities including governance, income, livelihoods, social capital, and individual ways of coping. Being a global phenomenon, environmental, social, and economic threats are aimed at everyone without discrimination, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, and Buddhist. Therefore, “Climate change forces us to face fundamental questions about social justice and responsibility in aiding those who are already affected and will continue to be affected for the coming decades and possibly even centuries”.
How do you link, in your work, policy to practice?
I think an Islamic discourse on the environment is in the making. As a result of political and social problems in Muslim societies, priority is given to other issues. On the other hand, the power and control of the state still permeate everything, leaving no public space for the public to contribute to the solution of problems.
However, there are some developments both in academia and the public. When we look at the literature on the subject we can see both an increase in the literature and a parallel interest in environmental protection. However, we should not forget the fact that still there is a very limited place for the public to involve solving these problems in Muslim societies, as everything is under state control. It is not surprising to see that even some leading environmental societies are either established or financed by the state. It is not difficult to imagine, if an NGO is not independent economically and financially, it can not take a stance against anti-environmentalist state policies.
I believe, however, that with the opening of more space for public and democratic spirit, Muslims will contribute more not only to solve the environment but also to contribute to solving other problems facing humanity, i.e., racism, violence, poverty, illiteracy, healthcare. It should be mentioned that Muslims should/must develop their democratic tradition and concept of pluralism again based on the Qur’anic concept of man and consultation on the one hand, and re-interpreting and criticizing their political tradition on the other. Therefore, I think, there is a close link between the environmental perspective and the spirit of democracy, namely the participation of the public in the decision-making process.
How Turkey and the Middle East are progressing in facing environmental crisis and climate change?
We have been witnessing an awakening among young people. Each year we have several Master and Ph.D. dissertations on the environment. I have graduate students from different countries who have been working on environments from philosophical, theological anthropological, and phycological perspectives.
Recently, the public began to understand that environmental problems are the root causes of deforestation erosion, floods, drought, hunger, racism, migration international and domestic terror, human rights violations, human trafficking, and even nihilism.
On the other hand, when trying to understand the current conflicts in the Middle East, we should also think about the negative and devastating effects of global warming on the region on one hand and the rush of powerful states to control the region for the enormous resources of fossil fuels. As much as our dependency on these resources continues, it seems these conflicts will prevail, too.
There are signs of good hope in the region. Turkey, for example, was among six counties that did not ratify Paris Agreement so far. It seems that the overwhelming forest fires and floods we witnessed this summer in Turkey and the world convinced the government to sign the agreement. President Erdogan declared to the world at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York last month that Turkey is planning to submit the Paris climate pact to parliament for approval next month in line with its constructive steps and a declaration of its contributions to the cause.
His remarks are important to see that there is a change in the mentality and policy towards environment and development as he said: “Turkey is not indifferent to any global problem, crisis, or call, and will also do its part on climate change and protecting the environment”. Moreover, he underlines we all hope that “…this process, which will lead to radical changes in our investment, production, and employment policies, as one of the main elements of our 2053 vision”.
Have you any conclusive remark?
First of all, let me present my heartfelt gratitude for giving me this opportunity to share my humble views on such an important issue. We are at the threshold of a new era of change. Witnessing so many problems at a time of the pandemic, we have re-thinks about ourselves, our priorities, our model of development, our obligations for future generations, and the rest of creation.
Today, scientific studies show us that our economic model, consumption patterns, and lifestyle are at war with life on Earth and in the sea. We cannot change the laws of nature, but we can change our broken economy, consumption patterns, and unsustainable lifestyles. Climate change, therefore, is not just a disaster but also a threshold for a new area of transformation. It is also our best chance to demand—and build—a better world. Shakespeare once said, “to be or not to be, that is the question”. If he would see these troubled times of ours, he may suggest to us “to change or not change that is the question”.
Therefore, our leaders, scholars, scientists, as well as NGOs need critical action to address urgent, pending, and increasing environmental degradation, and related challenges of social and economic unsustainability and make all necessary changes courageously. Thus, we can envisage a world, in which our children and grandchildren may enjoy sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all.
To do this we need a new framework of reference, which I tried to present based on the Qur’an and exemplary life of the Prophet (PBUH). Now we need to act according to this moral ground we articulated from the Qur’an.
First, we need a sound and comprehensive strategy for the environment, climate change, sustainable development, population movements, and even the transfer of technologies. To do this we need transformation based on:
- building ecological knowledge; to educate all citizens in the spirit of lifelong learning about the impact of human beings on eco-systems in short and long terms
- start with teacher training regarding climate change and environmental problems
- developing social networks; to cooperate how to protect the environment.
- providing vision and goals in a comprehensive framework.
We should never forget that education is key to make a change and reach the global integrated framework of sustainable development goals as well environment-friendly generations and citizens. Education, therefore, must be at the heart of our efforts both to adapt to change and to transform the world within which we live.
Education must be about learning to live on a planet under pressure and benefit natural resources in the spirit of sustainability. It must be about cultural literacy, based on respect and equal dignity, helping to weave together the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.
Therefore, there is no more powerful transformative force than quality education to promote human rights and dignity, to eradicate poverty and deepen sustainability, to build a better future for all, founded on equal rights and social justice, respect for cultural diversity, and international solidarity, and shared responsibility, all of which are fundamental aspects of our common humanity.
If we want our children to love nature, marine ecology, and coral reefs, we have to educate them from pre-school so that they will strive to protect them in the future. Scandinavian countries reformed their classical educational system and developed a more nature-friendly system of education, which is not ideological but scientific. To do that, “children must have time to play outside, communing with plants and relating to the heroic march of ants. Being in nature is just plain good for children and adults”. Then, we need educational programs that help our children understand how their individual choices affect God’s creation.
- activities include going on hikes,
- learning about the local watershed, national parks, coral-reefs, marine ecology
- removing invasive species and creating artwork that explores different faith traditions.
- discover the impact and footprint of daily life on nature and other creatures,
- discover the ecological systems and cycles of life in nature.
- Learn from “the Book of Nature”.
The Qur’an teaches us to look at nature and see “How beautifully it has been created by God!” Then, respect and preserve it.
Let me just remind you of the story of Sufi master Bayazid al-Bistâmi (d.848) with ants. Bayazid purchased some cardamom seeds at Hamadhan and before departing put into his gabardine a small quantity that was leftover. On reaching Bistam and recollecting what he had done, he took out the seed and found that it contained several ants. Saying, “I have carried the poor creatures away from their home”, he immediately set off and journeyed back to Hamadhan, a distance of several hundred miles [738km].
We should never forget that “if you bring children up with a love of nature, they will grow up to be environmental stewards” in the future, which is the case in Scandinavian countries.
Children grow up doing these things as second nature. They bring these practices home and often instigate change in their households.
Briefly, today it is time for us to try to understand the bounties showered by Allah’s grace upon us and live an eco-friendly life with the rest of creation, and never forget our moral responsibilities towards the generation next.
I would like to finish my talk with a verse in which The Prophet Shu’ayb says: “I only desire (your) betterment to the best of my power; and my success (in my task) can only come from Allah: in Him I trust and unto Him, I look.” (Hud, 11:88).