When founders of the Darul Ulum boarding school, a traditional pesantren, started building the school compound on the hilly area of Lido in Sukabumi, West Java, in 1995, it was so hot and humid that the founders had second thoughts whether the place was really suitable for learning.
“I did not know exactly what the temperature was then but it felt so hot,” said Ahmad Yani, one of the founders.
Then the founders decided to set aside one hectare of the 7-hectare area as a harim, which literally means forbidden zone. Any form of production and settlement in it was banned.
“The only activity allowed are planting and maintaining the planted trees,” Ahmad said.
Four years later, the air around the school is cool and fresh.
That is after 700 trees — made up of varieties of mango, avocado, rambutan and durian — thrive in the zone. The number of trees is exactly the number of the pesantren’s graduates because every student is required to plant a tree before they can take the school’s final test.
“We imposed a policy called ‘one student one tree,’” Ahmad said, adding that teachers evaluated students not only on planting trees but also on how they maintained them. “If the trees they have planted grew well, they would get a high score,” he said.
Now, after almost all of the allotted land has been filled with trees, pesantren leaders are under pressure to find additional land to grow trees.
Besides trees planted by students, the pesantren also grows teak trees, now numbering about a hundred.
The harim zone is located beside the Cihilir river, which is threatened by pollution and sedimentation as more people from outside the villages build cottages by the riverside.
Several mineral water producers also utilize the river by pumping the water up to their refinery tanks. “Free of charge,” complained a frustrated Ahmad, “without paying attention at what they should do to make the water supply sustainable.”
The Darul Ulum’s policy on harim has historical and religious roots.
The harim scheme was introduced by prophet Muhammad in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century to protect river and water resources, which was fundamental for Muslim ablution from pollution and damage.
The harim area for a river extends to half of the river’s width on both sides and the harim area for a tree extends from the tree to a radius of two-and-a-half to three meters.
There is also a forbidden zone for wells or water sources that can extend to a 20 meter radius.
Harim is part of the Islamic conservation teaching called himma, which is a system of resource tenure that has been practiced for more than 1400 years in the Arabian peninsula. Prolonged political conflicts and war has hampered the implementation of himma over the last centuries.
The Darul Ulum’s success story in protecting nature drew other presantrens in Bogor, including nongovernmental organizations, to follow suit. On July 29, 2008, 19 pesantrens representing 31,900 students converged in Bogor to launch a more ambitious move: protecting the Gunung Gede Pangrango and Halimun-Salak national park through the implementation of himma.
Now, the pesantren environmental movement has received a boost from international NGOs like Conservation International, USAID and the Center for Indonesian Environment (PILI).
A number of academics from the country’s major universities are also part of the movement. The Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) is building a strategic alliance with the schools
The pesantrens’ initiatives are connected with an international inter-faith conservation movement called the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.
This alliance, based in the United Kingdom, incorporates at least nine religions — Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism and Jainism — so it covers all believers of major religions on earth.
About 88 percent of the world’s population are faith believers.
Due to its huge potential, this organization became a major partner of the World Bank in running faith-based conservation projects around the globe in 1995. ARC is the only worldwide organization to bring together environmentalists and religious leaders in green projects.
“I think it is the time to give Islam a chance in conservation, after so much funds and energy from NGOs and governments were spent with less encouraging results,” said Fachruddin Mangunjaya of the CI.
He said the current interpretation of Islam has been too political, whereas its teachings like shariah carried a strong message on environmental conservation. “Actually environmental protection takes center stage in shariah,” he said.
The university rector, Komaruddin Hidayat, said Muslims should follow guidelines the Prophet Muhammad had set out, including planting trees and converting idle land to fertile soil.
He said during the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, Muslims were forbidden to kill or destroy any living creature, including a mosquito, or to break the branch of a tree.
“This has left the environment of Saudi Arabia undamaged, even though those two holy cities are visited by pilgrims all year round,” he said.
From Bogor, the faith-based environmental movement then spread to West Java province.
Data from the ministry of religions shows that 1,311 of West Java’s pesantrens are located in mountainous areas, 1,065 in agricultural estates, 87 on coastal lands and 114 by rivers.
Over the years, the schools have incorporated into their curricula teachings that reflect their close relationship with the land, including agriculture and animal husbandry. The institutions are also influential in the villages in surrounding areas, so they are able to mobilize tens of thousands of villagers to help rehabilitate degraded lands and erosion-prone areas by convincing them that saving the environment is a religious duty.
Most of all, the pesantrens’ commitment to environmental sustainability is indubitable. Students and their leaders see themselves as guardians of their own soil. “Protecting the environment is a religious duty,” says K.H. Mansyur Ma’mun, leader of the Al-Amanah boarding school in Cililin, Bandung.
While conservation has become a trigger for making Islamic teaching more relevant, it has an additional benefit — to dispel the image that pesantrens are factories for bombs and organizing suicide attacks on ‘kafirs,’ or infidels.
In Garut, one of the pesantren bases in West Java province, ulemas or Muslim scholars, have gone a step further and issued a ‘fatwa’ or religious decree, ruling that harming nature is a serious violation of Islamic law.
Thantowi Yahya Musaddad, leader of the Al-Washilah pesantren, has also made an all-out effort to protect the environment, even composing a ‘shalawat lingkungan’ or a song of praise to Prophet Muhammad, containing environmental messages.
“I see this green campaign as a calling,” he said. “This is a matter of faith.”
But things are not always easy. The biggest challenge is, as Fachruddin sees it, the partial interpretation of Islam. “Many Muslims still think that missing shalat [prayer] is a sin but throwing waste into the river is not a sin.”
“No shariah law is imposed on Muslims who do harm to the environment,” Fachruddin said.