Beyond Ecological Essentialism: Critical and Constructive Muslim Environmentalisms [transcript]

Beyond Ecological Essentialism: Critical and Constructive Muslim Environmentalisms

Podcast with Anna M. Gade (15 February 2021).

Interviewed by David McConeghy and Lauren E. Osborne

Transcribed by David McConeghy

Audio and transcript available at:

David McConeghy  00:04

My name is David McConeghy. I’m really thankful that today I’m joined by Dr. Lauren Osborne, Associate Professor of religion at Whitman college, and our Response Editor. Lauren, thank you for joining us today.

Lauren Osborne  00:28

 Hi, thank you very much.

David McConeghy  00:30

Our mutual guest is Dr. Anna Gade, Vilas Distinguished Achievement professor of Environmental Studies and Associate Dean for Research and Education in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, author of Muslim Environmentalisms: Religious and Social Foundations, The Qur’an: An Introduction, Perfection Makes Practice: Learning, Emotion and the Recited Qur’an in Indonesia and numerous book chapters and articles. We’re thrilled to be able to have a conversation today about her latest book Muslim Environmentalisms. Thank you so much for joining us today. Dr. Gade.

Anna Gade  01:08

Thank you. And I’m thrilled to be here.

Lauren Osborne  01:10

So in starting to talk about your book, Muslim Environmentalisms. Dr. Gade, I’d like to start with a claim that you make most clearly in the conclusion of the book, actually, but it kind of builds throughout. So in the conclusion, you are articulating this idea of the environment as an ethical idea. And I was wondering if you could explain what do you mean, when you say that the environment is an ethical idea?

Anna Gade  01:37

Yeah, thanks, Dr. Osborne, it kind of sneaks up in the book, as you said, and it also kind of snuck up on me a little bit, too, I must say, you know. I decided to frame the book in terms of writing about environmentalism, rather than say, you know, Islam and the environment, which I think folks are more accustomed to in the field of religion and ecology. And what writing about environmentalism, meant to me was writing about commitments. So I could study the various diverse commitments that Muslims had in the present and in the past, and those that circulate globally now, in various contexts, particularly in Muslim Southeast Asia.

Anna Gade  02:23

But then what happened, and I think this comes out of my grounding now in the field of environmental studies, where I now teach at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and where I work and where I research, is [that] I began to realize that the notion of the environment itself carries so much ethical load, maybe, especially for the scientists around me. Now, there, there are ideas that are very clearly and very formally sometimes considered environmental ethics. And of course, here in Madison, Wisconsin, that would include the land ethic of our own Aldo Leopold, yet, even when we look in other fields, like the application of environmental justice, or just trying to solve environmental problems, overall, there’s so much of an idea about what are the normative commitments, that would go into just even prioritizing certain environmental issues, not to mention, you know, the potential for climate disaster, or some kind of environmental catastrophe on the horizon, that I recognized that a lot of what was distinguishing environmental studies from, from science overall, was the moral load and the ethical commitments around the environment. So that’s kind of where that’s coming from.

Anna Gade  03:48

In terms of the book, what that means is that I felt freed up when writing about ethics is now so many, you know, in the field of anthropology of Islam do, and of course, as Dr. Osborne you and I were trained to do at the University of Chicago in the history of religions. I feel like that freed me up from from concerns about making some kinds of normative claims that we’d been trained not to make in religious studies, and instead to really embrace the, the two edges of critical and constructive studies. So by saying the environment is an ethical concept, I felt like I could make the critical claims, the constructive claims that come descriptively out of the Muslim material that I was looking at that really I thought made for the most robust kind of analysis in the book, and that’s why it shows up that claim the environment is ethical in the conclusion to the book.

Lauren Osborne  04:47

I think that leads in really nicely to the ways in which the book makes a number of different really powerful disciplinary critiques to areas that I think are normally kind of understood as separate, but I think the critiques made here also highlight the ways in which different different disciplines are interrelated when we start looking at them in these ways. So there’s this very powerful idea of an act as well, I think in the book of decolonizing. And I was wondering if you could speak to how the work advances the ongoing decolonization of the various areas to which it speaks, which I would say include religious studies in general, but also Islamic Studies more specifically, as well as environmental studies or any other areas you would like to address in this way?

Anna Gade  05:34

Yeah, thanks, Dr. Osborn, I mean, again, I didn’t see it coming. The degree to which I was going to write a book that was so methodological. I really thought that this would be sort of an update to you know, I hoped it would be an update to the terrific, you know, Islam and environment, Islam and ecology material that was out there the work that had been done by Richard Foltz, and others. Yet, what I found was, when I began to really dig into the material, which I sort of structured as an intro to Islam class [to] write the book. And there’s a lot of development critique at the beginning, which I think needs to be there to think about these categories. But, you know, it really follows the structure of starting with Qur’an, and moving through law and thinking about Sufism, and ritual and practice. I thought it would be sort of straightforward, and yet it wasn’t. And what wasn’t straightforward was the concepts that I had from Environmental Humanities and Environmental Studies, not just the environment itself, but notions about nature or crisis or what’s an environmental problem, ended up not translating so well into the Islamic framework. And, you know, the problem wasn’t really so much that the Muslim material wasn’t robust, or I couldn’t find the environment in it. It was more of this kind of mismatch. So I really felt the need at the beginning to take a step back and say where are the concepts from that are deployed in environmental studies that fits so well in a white settler kind of context when we talk about nature or wilderness in North America, yet need to stretch and adapt, and frankly, undergo some critique in order to work elsewhere. So, in the end, the decolonization of course, is part of work that we’re doing across academic study, including in Environmental Studies, including with the attentiveness to Indigenous traditions and critical Black Studies. And also for someone like both of us, Dr. Osborne, who are Islamicists, this is familiar work for orientalist critique. And so many of the points that I make that are both critical and constructive in the book are ones that would be familiar to someone who was aware of Islamic Studies and how it fits in with larger historical and intellectual frameworks in the academy and more widely.

David McConeghy  08:15

One of the things that I think that we’ve done a lot of at the Religious Studies Project is to really kind of hone in on that constructed nature of these categories. And in the challenge of translating categories across cultures. We say as religious studies professionals, religion is not a native category. But I think one of the challenges that we see here that you’re identifying your work is that Islam is not a native category, right? Environment is not a native category. And all these things are intersecting and layering on themselves. Is the western framework of the environment, the first step in that chain?

Anna Gade  08:57

The critique that’s based on a kind of a notion of authenticity, like what is the western notion? What is the Islamic notion? I don’t find to be one that really is so helpful in thinking about Muslim Environmentalisms. And the reason why is that so many are clearly hybrid. And part of this comes from the developmentalist kind of frameworks that perpetuate you know, what is now recognized as environmental notions globally. So, you know, I couldn’t really do a genealogical critique in the way that we often have seen in a post-Foucaultian kind of an approach, critical approach in religious studies. So instead, what I did was this very grounded phenomenological kind of approach to really be as descriptively rich as I could and then to work from that analysis both in terms of a shared framework like the Qur’an, which is diverse, and then looking at a very specific kind of a context, which is Southeast Asia, but with the same goal in mind, which was to have a descriptive kind of texture that then would allow me to pull out the kind of analytical categories, Dr. McConeghy, that you’re asking about, you know, where the buck stops, if you will, in terms of what I’m finally going to say, is “the environment,” right? Or “the Islam” in the analysis. And I think that that also works as a powerful critique for the kind of essentializing tendencies that we often see, especially in the world religions kind of orientation, that still tends to dominate the field of religion and ecology.

Lauren Osborne  10:48

I think one thing that you show really nicely in the book is sort of the way in which Islam when figured in kind of a world religions paradigm is being made to take on or is being given a particular kind of shape, right? And when you take the kind of approach like you do in this book in which you are, like you just said, descriptively, rich, and then also the geographic focus on Southeast Asia and what is happening and what people are talking about and what people are doing there. I think it can really serve to kind of push back against some of those implicit or even explicit, and sometimes, in certain cases, paradigms of Islam. So I was wondering kind of a central issue is a kind of projection of an essential Islamic “core,” right core being in scare quotes. That’s why I’m saying it that way. But your work problematizes this model by framing authenticity differently. And I was wondering if you could talk about that different framing of authenticity.

Anna Gade  11:53

I think that one of the expectations that readers of a work like this might have is that especially in drawing on firsthand fieldwork in the region, like the work does that somehow it would present, you know, the “real Islam”, the “real Muslims,” as opposed to, you know, something that is imposed. And I really try not to give that impression throughout the book. I think that all kinds of environmentalisms are authentic. But what the book does offer is, both in terms of fieldwork, and in terms of textual study, is a way to look at tradition that allows to see the circulations that is global geographic circulations. When talking about fieldwork in one region of the world which doesn’t represent all Muslims, but represents a way in which tradition is embedded, and then circulates out into a wider system. And then also textually, looking at the Qur’an and tradition of Hadith the material about the Prophet Mohammed, that while people have diverse orientations around that material nevertheless, ends up being the shared and common reference. So in a sense, that takes the place of looking at authenticity and allows for a lot of surprises. So the contrast is not so much in terms of “good” Muslims, or “bad” Muslims or “real Islam” or not “real Islam,” or “good” environmentalism or not. But rather what I found in the field that could have been overlooked otherwise, had I not taken that approach that is looking at so much diverse material. So for example, I found in Southeast Asia that a whole tradition that draws on teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, about mercy and care, was really central to the teaching that was being given and really was in fact motivating environmental activism and piety in a way I didn’t expect. And that would have been invisible, had I not gone to the region and looked at that firsthand.

Lauren Osborne  14:08

So Dr. Gade, one thing that related to what you were just talking about, and that I also was really struck by in the book is the really dynamic and complex relationship between texts and contexts in your field work and the literature’s that you’re talking about, and I was wondering if you could provide perhaps an example or offer some more thoughts on how you saw the Qur’an figuring in relation to this research?

Anna Gade  14:34

Yeah, I mean, I… It was so important to me, especially as someone who like you, Dr. Osborne, has done previous work, and published previously on Qur’an and it was so important to me to really bring this forward in the study. And what I found was that the approach most frequently seen, which is to take certain key verses like certain environmental verses often cognate to what people seek when they look at say Hebrew Bible about themes like dominion and nature, for example. That those key verses have sort of lives of their own in global circulation, and you can find them circulating on the on the Internet quite readily. And that also, when I went into a fieldwork kind of a setting — and I’ve been working on Qur’an and with Qur’an in Southeast Asia as doing ethnographic study now for about a quarter of a century so it’s been a while — I found that the material that people were drawing on with and from Qur’an differed somewhat from these key verses. So for example, teachings about eschatology were the end of the world, which so famously, and kind of stereotypically, in Protestant North America, are cast is having a particular kind of impact on environmental commitments, fair or not, operated quite differently in this Muslim majority setting. So the idea, which is in about a fifth of the Qur’an’s content, which is that the world is going to end. That the whole environment will be destroyed, transformed into the environment of worlds to come, was in fact, something that committed Muslims pointed to as a factor that motivated them to environmental activism, because they sought to fulfill the criteria for the mercy of God on Judgment Day, and had the conviction that the best way to fulfill that criteria was to care for God’s creation. So even though it’s all going to be destroyed, you know, still to “plant trees, even though the end of the world is coming” to cite from a well known Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, and also the activities that I saw firsthand people carrying out in Indonesia. So the way that scripture worked, and even the verses that were commonly heard, and teaching and preaching, differed in emphasis somewhat from what one hears in the Islam and ecology literature. Not to say that it’s not all Qur’an and not important. But what that meant was that the relative emphasis in Qur’an, say on apocalyptic material or on verses about al-Arḍ, Earth, that appear, many, many hundreds of times in the text, had, as you would expect a proportionate kind of influence and attention placed on them, and not so much say the few verses in the Qur’an about themes that we’re familiar with in English language sources, such as balance and stewardship.

Lauren Osborne  17:56

When I really started thinking about this, I think, you know, as a specialist of the Qur’an, but then I think at the time I was reading this book, I was also teaching my course on the Qur’an. Like if I went to it, the text and was thinking, “Oh, like, where does the natural world tend to figure in the text?” It’s on the page a lot. When you’re talking about eschatological and apocalyptic material, like you were just saying, right? And then often being a site of evidence, attesting to like the existence of God and kind of the ordering of the world or else being used to illustrate “Oh, it’s kind of it being undone” is part of a natural process that will take place at the end of the world as well. This is, I think, a transition that I think makes sense to me, but might be a little bit… I was wondering if I could ask you about challenges that we all face. So what would you say is next for the intersection of religious studies and the environment? Where might this area be going next? Or what are some possibilities in that regard?

Anna Gade  19:12

I think it’s wonderful that people in Religious Studies are beginning to think through the frameworks of Environmental Humanities to really expand what they see as the environment just as fields outside of Religious Studies, you know, and Religious Studies also has a lot of subfields. But, you know, people who don’t think that they work on religions, such as the scientists with whom I work, are beginning to expand what they see is religion, as well. So I think Environmental Humanities is a really helpful nexus for that. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to focus on Environmental Humanities, both in terms of constructive notions and also some critique, as we’ve discussed a few moments ago, to begin to allow there to be this kind of rich discussion emerge around key questions, critical questions, like environmental justice. You know, I think that the nature concept has been extremely helpful and remains that way. But I think that there are more robust conversations to have, particularly once we recognize that nature has had its own genealogical development, you know, especially within the white settler traditions of North America.

David McConeghy  20:27

One of the things that I think your work recommends to us is that Religious Studies folks should be thinking a lot more about the key concepts that are related to the environment. And you’ve cited nature and crisis and sustainability, and especially environmental justice, as concepts that we can think with in terms of how multiple religious traditions have their own ways of talking about these things. Can you recommend some of the ways that your own work on on Muslim environmentalisms have raised these environmental concepts for us?

Anna Gade  21:06

The book ended up, as I said, before being critical and constructive around core ideas, not just in Religious Studies or Islamic Studies. But to me what was a surprise was in Environmental Studies as well. And I think what I found was that the interventions that were necessary in say, the received tradition in Environmental Humanities, which here in North America is strongly Protestant influenced, if not still oriented in significant respects, meant that I needed to take seriously the intervention in an idea like environment, say, as an ethical category, or in nature, say as being an idea that doesn’t translate the way one might expect into Muslim majority or Qur’anic contexts. And really invite others not just to view Muslim materials as being epiphenomenal, or a diverse addition to an array of alternatives to core ideas that would then support planetary and universalizing claims, which may remain naturalized according to their genealogical heritages. But instead to say that this material requires us all to do a fundamental rethinking about the environmental challenges that we face as global citizens, and then also academically, these categories that we use.

Anna Gade  22:53

So throughout the book, different notions for the environment, and about the environment, some of them quite ethical, such as sustainability, emerge, as do some of the most well known measures that are currently undertaken to promote environmental conservation and preservation, such as the rights of nature. And the book shows that we can all benefit from a deeper, more constructive and more critical approach to these concepts. And in particular, I think that’s the case with Environmental Justice. And the reason why is not just the fundamental importance of Environmental Justice, or EJ, as we often say, in environmental studies, to environmental awareness and activism, but also that Muslim traditions because of the emphasis on law and ethics and law as ethics, speak to Environmental Justice in ways that move current frameworks beyond Anglophone law, and beyond the Marxian commitments of political ecology, not to say that those aren’t relevant. Yet in order to have political and ethical responses that are commensurate with the scale of the crisis and the challenges that communities are understood to face, it’s necessary to move to frameworks that can consider say, the end of the world, or that can merge legal understandings with ethical understandings in the way that Islamic materials do as a matter of course and have for 1000 years.

David McConeghy  24:48

One of the things that I really got out of your work is, when you speak about seen and unseen things, you often are speaking about unseen ecological issues, let’s say “How the environment adapts to a particular thing.” It can be very difficult to see that and I read your work as saying that Islam has a lot of resources for us in terms of the way in which Muslims in Indonesia were creating practices and innovating the ways that they thought about their practices in order to bridge that divide between the empirical positivistic scientific kind of mindset and the tools of Islam, which was always saying, there’s another world that we need to care about, there’s another set of concerns that are coming from the Qur’an that are not simply empirical, physical manifestations. For these Muslims that you’re talking about, there is no separation there, right? You can’t have one without the other, they are simply two sides of the same coin and both of them must be addressed.

Anna Gade  25:49

Thank you for that point. You know, it’s not, it’s not just for the Muslims in Indonesia, the point that you’re taking away, and I suppose this wasn’t something that I was so intentional about in the book was addressing the… It was not a primary aim and writing the book to address say, of religion and science kind of split that might be expected for some readers. But I can tell that you really took away, especially from chapter five, the depth in which Islamic sciences and empirical tradition has as its extension, metaphorical and symbolic valences. They’re all connected in a way and then we in religious studies, Dr. McConeghy, can really understand how the connections of seen and unseen worlds make sense whether in medieval alchemy or in 21st century practice. So I think that for present day Environmental Studies having the tools to apprehend the unknown, the uncertain, the indeterminate, the unseen, such as with climate change, is essential. And although it wouldn’t be expected that those representing Environmental Studies or Religious Studies today would necessarily have an Islamic or a religious framework, what I wanted to do throughout the book was to model the scale, and the kinds of thinking that are going to be necessary to grapple with environmental issues in the dimensions that they’re truly meaningful. So thanks for that.

David McConeghy  27:37

Well, I’m so thankful for your time today. I really enjoyed your book. This was not my area, but I found the theoretical interventions that you were making in this hugely, hugely valuable for my own thinking. And so thank you for putting such a provoking and interesting text out there. We really appreciate your work in your time today. Thank you so much, Dr. Gade, for joining us.

Lauren Osborne  28:03

Thank you very much, Dr. Gade. It’s been such a pleasure to talk about this book.

Anna Gade  28:07

Thank you too Dr. Osborne. Thank you, Dr. McConeghy. And to listeners all over the world, thank you for your time.

Citation Info:

Gade, Anna M., David McConeghy, and Lauren E. Osborne. 2021. “Beyond Ecological Essentialism: Critical and Constructive Muslim Environmentalisms”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 15 February 2021. Transcribed by David McConeghy. Version 1.1, 15 February 2021. Available at:

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