Ahead of this week’s UN climate change conference (COP28), there’s a growing urgency for more awareness — and more action. An often overlooked source of inspiration for sustainable living is found in the teachings of Islam, where a profound connection between faith and environmental stewardship has been emphasised for centuries.

Muslims hold an interesting perspective on the relationship between humanity and the environment. Rooted in the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny), the ethic of a sustainable environment seeks to balance human needs with preservation of the natural world.

Central to this ethic is the concept of khilafah, or stewardship. Muslims believe that humans are stewards or trustees of the Earth, with a duty to care for and protect Allah’s creation — which includes other humans, wildlife, and the environment at large. This perspective, in contemporary times, places a moral responsibility on individuals to be mindful of their impact on the planet, urging them to make choices that align with principles of ecological balance.

The Qur’an is replete with verses that stress the interconnectedness of all living beings and emphasises the duty of humans to safeguard Allah’s creation. Surah al-Baqarah (2:205) encourages moderation and condemns wastefulness, stating, “And when he turns away, he strives to cause corruption on the earth and to destroy crops, agriculture and livestock. God does not like corruption.” The injunction against corruption can be interpreted to include environmental degradation, highlighting the ethical imperative for us to be mindful of our ecological footprint.

Muslim scripture also stresses the principle of adl or justice, which can be extended to environmental justice. Surah al-A'raf (7:31) warns against wasting natural resources: “O children of Adam! Take your adornment at every masjid and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess.” This call for moderation resonates with contemporary discussions on sustainable living, where wasteful consumption is recognised as a major driver of environmental crisis.

Mawlana Hazar Imam’s guidance has consistently highlighted the need for organisations to integrate ethical considerations into their decision-making processes. This includes taking into account the environmental impact of policies and initiatives, fostering a sense of responsibility towards future generations. Such considerations underpin the projects and programmes of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), founded by Hazar Imam to improve the quality of life of those in need.

Over many decades, AKDN agencies and project companies have placed sustainability at the centre of their operations, ensuring their work to develop human capacity, build resilient communities, generate economic growth, and honour cultural heritage is carried out in harmony with the natural world. As the network operates in diverse regions and sectors, its initiatives provide a blueprint for how Islam's emphasis on stewardship and justice can be applied across different contexts.

For example, researchers at the Aga Khan University’s Karachi campus are studying how climate change affects the health of women and children, helping to influence environmental decision-making at various levels of government in the developing world. The University has also embarked on a data-led approach to decarbonisation of their own operations which has helped to lower carbon emissions, increase investment in clean energy, and assist suppliers to improve their sustainability.

In Kenya, the Aga Khan Foundation is partnering with businesses like Frigoken to help farmers switch from chemical to organic farming practices. Also known as regenerative agriculture, the practice safeguards eco-systems, with humans giving back to the soil just as they benefit from harvesting it. Since the 1960s, the Foundation’s community-led approach to development has succeeded in alleviating poverty while promoting sustainable practices in the regions where it works.

Meanwhile, AKFED’s chain of Serena Hotels is making commendable strides in championing environmental sustainability within the hospitality industry. The group’s commitment to green practices is reflected in its eco-friendly initiatives — such as waste reduction, water conservation, energy efficiency, and community engagement — and has led to international recognition and awards for its properties in Asia and Africa. 

Such examples highlight the potential for other organisations and institutions to replicate AKDN’s work in sustainable practices, drawing inspiration from their own values.

As delegates prepare to advocate at COP28 for more awareness and more action, they might consider looking to the teachings of Islam that emphasise stewardship, justice, and moderation; and which offer a valuable perspective on sustainable living. By embracing the ethical principles embedded in our faith, Muslims can help to redress the Earth’s natural balance and fulfil our responsibility to leave behind a better world for future generations to enjoy.