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Indonesia: The home of "Green Islam"

Can Quranic teaching save the planet? Many in the world's most-populous Muslim nation think so.

Muslim student girls line up for lunch at Darul Muttaqien Islamic pesantren (boarding school) in Bogor, Aug. 1, 2007. (Dadang Tri/Reuters)

IMOGIRI, Indonesia — Scattered on a forested hillside in this remote, almost pristine area of Central Java is the Ilmu Giri Pesantren, an Islamic boarding school that six years ago began offering a new kind of curriculum to a handful of local farmers.

Today, students of Islam, young and old and from all over the country, are flocking to this tiny, mostly outdoor campus to hear its founder, Nasruddin Anshory, preach about a Muslim’s ordained responsibility to protect the environment.

“As a Muslim,” he says to the students, who sit cross-legged in the dirt beneath the jungle canopy, feverishly taking notes, “you must do something.”

Ilmu Giri rose to prominence during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, where Anshory was celebrated for his teachings. But environmentalism had been taught in Indonesian Islamic boarding schools, known as pesantren, since at least the 19th Century — long before anyone paid attention to melting ice caps or rising sea levels.

On the Island of Madura in East Java is Pesantren Guluk-Guluk, also called Al-Nuqayah, which was established in 1887. Its founder, Muhammad Syarqawi, originally opened the school to spread Islam on an island that was then a lawless and often violent place.

He soon found the real problem to be the small island’s devastated environment. It was desperately dry and fresh water was scarce, forcing the inhabitants to fight over resources. So Syarqawi shifted his focus to teaching the island’s villagers, with the help of the Quran, about conservation.

It was hardly a stretch, says Achmad Suaedy, director of the Wahid Institute, an organization founded by Indonesia’s former president Abdurrahman Wahid that promotes peaceful and pluralistic Islam, and which has been working to promote “Green Islam” within Indonesia’s pesantrens.

“There are numerous passages in the Quran that refer to environmental protection,” he said. “There’s the line, for instance, that equates a human life with that of a tree: ‘Do not kill women, elders, children, civilians or trees.’”

In fact, the very origins of Islam are thought to be partly rooted in the early Muslims’ need to preserve scarce resources.

“The advent of Islam as an organized religion occurred in the desert environment of Arabia, and hence there was considerable attention paid to ecological concerns within Islamic ethics,” said Saleem Ali, associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School for the Environment. “There is a reverence of nature that stems from essential pragmatism within the faith.”