Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

‘Trees pray for us’

Published: Apr 15, 2022

Ulil Amri

Kyai Habib leads the al-Imdad religious pesantren (boarding school) in Bantul, Yogyakarta. His students are known as santri. For him, environmentalism is both an everyday spiritual and a material practice. He urges his santris to always follow Allah’s mandate to protect the earth, while at the same time involving them in a recycling program as well as a small-scale biogas project. For his hard work, he was awarded a prestigious provincial environmental prize in 2020: the Kalpataru DIY. Kyai Habib is an exemplary religious leader who has successfully mobilised resources to green a local region in Indonesia. Many more like him are out there, yet they do not often appear in the media, whether mainstream or otherwise.

The involvement of religious groups in halting environmental problems in Indonesia is a relatively new phenomenon. It took shape within broader secular environmental discourse about climate change from the early 2000s, specifically after the Bali Climate Conference of 2007. Government meetings since then have often featured religious non-governmental institutions (RNGIs) like Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). These two biggest RNGIs each have environmental councils. Muhammadiyah’s, originally known as the Lembaga Lingkungan Hidup (Environment Institute), is now called the Majelis Lingkungan Hidup, MLH-Muhammadiyah (Environment Council). NU has its Lembaga Penanggulangan Bencana dan Iklim - LPBI-NU (Disaster Mitigation and Climate Change Institute).

The future of religious environmentalism is promising. Muhammadiyah claims to have 35 million members, and NU 90 million, representing almost half of Indonesia’s population. With their pesantrens, schools, mosques, and universities, these organisations have the power to transform the country from a developing nation into a sustainable one. But how might these institutions initiate such a transformation? To understand the answer, we need to examine how they mobilise their adherents at the local level to create concrete environmental initiatives.

Muhammadiyah schools have been investing in green schools and building renewable energy sources. NU pesantrens have been planting trees. These programs reach beyond adherents to also engage local villagers, who are attracted to both the spiritual and the material incentives they offer.

Muslims affiliated with Muhammadiyah and NU believe God will compensate them for their involvement both in the hereafter and materially in this world. Spiritually, God will increase their iman (faith) and recompense those who have protected nature in the life hereafter by granting them jannah (paradise). Materially, God will increase their concrete resources, such as money and property, in the here and now. 

Indonesian pious environmentalism involves both ecological and economic activities. The intertwining of material and spiritual profit is like two sides of a coin. They refer to the Qur’an to find the religious basis for protecting nature. Some Qur’anic verses clearly mention humanity as the vicegerent of God on Earth, mandated to look after it. The emphasis is on balancing the needs of humanity and the rights of nature. The Qur’an does not mandate Muslims to prioritise one over the other, and many of the devout Muslims I talked to take this message seriously.

The Earth is bigger than us

Kyai Thontowi for example, a leader of Pesantren Al-Wasilah Garut in West Java, has been involved in local efforts to green Garut, while at the same time mentoring local communities to secure their livelihoods. He said the Qur’an acknowledges the existence of non-human beings, including the earth itself. These non-humans always pray and glorify God. The earth is bigger than we are, he said, yet we are arrogant and ignorant and we act as if we are bigger than the earth. The Kyai says that we should reduce our ego by respecting the earth and positioning ourselves as its equal instead of its master. Kyai Thonthowi used this notion of equality to teach his santris to practice ecology (nature conservation) and economy (nature commodification). According to him, conservation is for the earth, and the economy is for humanity.

This idea of the agentive capacity of the non-human is not foreign to pesantren communities. Many of the classic Islamic kitab kuning (yellow books) read in the pesantren mention that non-humans on the earth and in the sky pray to God. They ask God’s forgiveness for humans. The text entitled Lubabul Hadits, chapter 1, authored by As-Suyuti, is one such example. Communities raised with these texts readily acknowledge the pivotal role of the non-human in making our social-environmental worlds.

The members of Pesantren Al-Ittifaq, in Ciwidey near Bandung, speak of ‘eco-sufism.’ Sufism is an esoteric dimension of Islam; its ‘eco’ variant sees nature as a sacred entity that must be respected. They employ this insight to develop their agribusiness programs, supplying vegetables, fruit, and fertilizer to Jakarta. This combination of eco-sufism and economy has elevated Al-Ittifaq into one of Indonesia’s best-known ‘eco-pesantrens.’ Its leader Kyai Fuad Affandi was awarded the nation’s highest environmental prize, the Kalpataru, in 2003.

Kyai Ghofur leads Pesantren Sunan Drajat, in Lamongan, East Java. He won the Kalpataru in 2006 for his role in guiding and advising local communities in Lamongan to green their region through planting Great Morinda (Morinda Citrifolia, known in Indonesian as mengkudu). Lamongan villagers were excited to join the action. They felt inspired by Kyai Ghofur’s teachings about the importance of planting trees. He said that a Muslim must plant at least one tree in a lifetime. He believed that trees ‘can pray for us’.

Kyai Ghofur connects the spiritual importance of planting trees with material and health benefits one could gain. He persuaded villagers that planting mengkudu would bring them a significant economic payoff in the future. Trees can moreover remove air pollutants, he said, noting that healthy air is a luxury rarely enjoyed in Lamongan and other locations across Indonesia. Mengkudu is also an alternative medicine, Kyai Ghofur taught. It could possibly cure various diseases, including cancer and diabetes. His persuasive power attracted many people in Lamongan to get involved in planting mengkudu.

Kyai Ghofur teaching his santris/Ulil Amri

Muhammadiyah institutions have been training adherents to produce renewable energy since 2010. Pesantren Darul Ulum, for example, has collaborated with Yogyakarta’s Muhammadiyah University to build a small-scale biogas digester to provide alternative energy source for villagers of Potorono. During my visit, villagers enthusiastically informed me that the digester could replace their old wood-burning stoves. They wanted to further develop the biogas facility so more households could benefit.

The Muhammadiyah vocational high school in Bantul near Yogyakarta – SMK 1 Bambanglipuro – developed a small-scale bioethanol project in 2012 to support a national village energy independence program, Desa Mandiri Energi (Energy Independent Villages) launched by President Yudhoyono. When I visited, the school was waiting for a government permit to sell the bioethanol to the public. So far, it has been used for educational purposes in local schools.

Muhammadiyah University in Malang has built a micro-hydro power plant in Sanankerto in the foothills of Mount Bromo. It is part of an agritourism and educational site. The head of Sanankerto village told people the plant will bring ecological and economic benefits both to Muhammadiyah and to local communities in Malang District.

Another school – SMP 1 Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta – was awarded the Adiwiyata ‘green school’ award by the Environment Ministry in 2011. It was the first school in Yogyakarta to win an Adiwiyata. A teacher at the school shared with me her experience of educating students about the environment: ‘If you teach a person to love nature, they will teach another person to also love nature later,’ she emphasised. Such efforts to educate and mobilise for the environment reminds us of Foucault’s idea of governmentality: the conduct of conduct that aims to create an active and progressive environmental subject, who in turn will create another subject. This form of governmentality today operates in many Islamic institutions, both Muhammadiyah and NU.


Religious environmentalism in Indonesia is developing in progressive directions. Yet it might be impeded in future by what can be called economic ‘pragmatism.’ Muhammadiyah and NU have shown their commitment to protect nature from further destruction. Yet some of their members seem to be more engrossed by the economic outcomes of this environmentalism. When they talk about the ‘sustainability’ of their projects, they often mean economic sustainability. What the top leaders plan does not always correspond to what their adherents perform at the local level.

However, this does not mean that members of these organisations are doing something wrong or are opposing what their leaders have mandated. Pragmatism arises from complicated socio-economic issues like poverty, unstable earnings and jobs, food shortages and malnutrition. These force them to practise environmentalism differently. In such a situation, it is almost impossible to push villagers to fight against environmental problems in an idealistic way. The ideal format of religious environmentalism is only possible once socio-economic problems have been tackled. Unless we address these problems, Indonesian religious environmentalism will remain strictly pragmatic.

Ulil Amri (amri@gonzaga.edu) is a postdoctoral fellow at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, USA.

Inside Indonesia 148: Apr-Jun 2022

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