Written by: Tom Verde
Photographed by: Pascal Beaudenon
Early in the seventh century, soon after Muslims established themselves in what is now the holy city of Madinah (formerly Yathrib), the Prophet Muhammad surveyed the natural resources in the region—the wadis (riverbeds); the rich, black volcanic soil; thHimae high rangelands—and decreed that they be preserved and set aside as a hima, an Arabic term meaning “protected place.”
“Verily Abraham declared Makkah a sanctuary and I declare al-Madinah, that which lies between its two lava flows, to be a sanctuary; its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted,” he told his followers.
Considered by some to be the world’s oldest conservation system, the hima was not unknown to the nomadic tribes of Muhammad’s day. Ruthless or self-serving tribal chieftains had used himas for centuries for their own enrichment, or to oppress locals by cutting them off from resources. But the socially conscious Prophet of Islam transformed the hima from a private enclave into a public asset in which all community members had a share and a stake, in accordance with their duty as stewards (khalifa) of God’s natural world. “Muslims have a common share in three [things],” the Prophet declared, “grass, fire and water.”
With one eye to this Islamic past, and another to the environmental challenges of the present, some Middle Eastern conservationists and environmental planners are looking to the ancient model of the hima to address the modern problem of preserving threatened habitat throughout the region. Their means and objectives are essentially no different from those of the Prophet: to help rural communities protect natural areas such as woodlands, grasslands and wetlands from over-exploitation, in the interest of biodiversity and their own economic well-being. Instead of cutting people off from the land, as in a formal protected area, himas encourage traditional uses that are compatible with or contribute to the environmental health of a site. Restricted activities in himas, for example, include grazing in certain areas or at certain times, as well as the indiscriminate cutting of trees and grasses. Hunting is also tightly regulated.
“The overall goal is to fuse traditional practices with recent developments in conservation science as a way to achieve sustainable development,” said Assad Serhal, director general of the Beirut-based Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL), the organization spearheading the initiative to revive himas in Lebanon and throughout the region. Working closely with SPNL is a host of local and international conservation organizations, such as A Rocha Lebanon, BirdLife International and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
There were at one time thousands of himas across the Arabian Peninsula, owned by tribal chiefs who used them for hunting or the exclusive grazing of their personal flocks. According to the ninth-century jurist Imam Al-Shafi (for whom the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence is named), the boundaries of a hima were determined by how far away the tribal leader’s dog could be heard barking from a centrally located high point of land.
As Islam expanded, so did the concept of the hima, as rehabilitated by the Prophet. Though known by different names in different parts of the Muslim world, the hima remained consistent in its philosophy: to entrust the preservation of the land to local people, for the sake of the people themselves and the environment, within the framework of Islamic law (shari’ah).
“The Prophet Muhammad laid down guidelines that transformed the hima into one of the essential instruments of conservation in Islamic law,” said hima advocate and authority Othman Abd ar-Rahman Llewellyn, of the Saudi National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development. “It is the most widespread and long-standing indigenous, traditional protected-area institution in the Middle East, and perhaps on Earth.”
But with the emergence of post-colonial modern Muslim states, with their complex bureaucracies and centralized governments, himas were engulfed by ministry-controlled swaths of public land. Though a handful of academics, such as Llewellyn and others, continued to study and advocate himas as an important and viable conservation model (not to mention an important cultural institution), the hima system was all but forgotten by the late 20th century. That was until SPNL, surveying the boundaries of an important migratory-bird flyway in the southern Lebanese hilltop town of Ebel es-Saqi, discovered old maps of the region drawn during the French mandate of the 1930’s.
“We noticed large areas on the maps that were designated as himas, a concept that had slowly dissipated since Ottoman times,” said SPNL president Ramzi K. Saidi.
Inspired by the potential of a system that was already familiar and community-based, as opposed to remote and government-imposed, SPNL, in partnership with BirdLife International, worked with residents of Ebel es-Saqi and the marshland village of Kfar Zabad in Lebanon’s western Bekaa Valley to establish himas in both sites in 2004.
Working with residents, SPNL set up “site support groups” composed of local farmers, town officials and such specialists as agricultural engineers, botanists and even archeologists, whose input is sometimes required in a part of the world where the casual turn of a spade can sometimes unearth Biblical-era treasures. The groups meet regularly to discuss the status of the himas and monitor the progress of projects that provide sanctuary for wildlife as well as economic opportunity for locals.
At Hima Ebel es-Saqi, for instance, the use of traditional shepherds’ paths as hiking trails has attracted eco-tourists, especially birders, who come to catch glimpses of the Dalmatian pelican, the pygmy cormorant and the white-tailed sea eagle, among other endangered species, migrating between Europe and Africa. This influx of tourists provides local bee-keepers and goatherds with a ready market for their products and offers bed-and-breakfast opportunities for enterprising families.
“The hima has had a very positive effect in this community,” said Kasim Shoker, mayor of Kfar Zabad. “Not only has it helped improve the economy, but it has made local people recognize the value of the land and have greater respect for its biodiversity.”
Outsiders have come to appreciate the value of himas as well. By cordoning off and protecting parcels of land, hima conservationists effectively create living laboratories where researchers can study local habitats.
“Himas can be valuable for studying the interactions between plants and human beings,” said Lebanese botanist Houssam Shaiban, on a visit to Kfar Zabad. “Because grazing is controlled and not random, we can see how this affects the regeneration of certain endemic plants.”
Himas, established in places from the Dead Sea to the rocky wadis of northern Oman and in indigenous forests of juniper, olive and jujube, can provide valuable seed banks for rehabilitating rangelands threatened by overgrazing and development. Himas can also play a role, said SPNL officials, in combating desertification and sand-dune encroachment. Fauna also benefit from himas, in sometimes surprising ways.
“We’ve seen the return of endangered species to areas where we’d given up hope of seeing them again—places that had become dump sites, or where there was hunting,” said SPNL’s hima site manager Dalia al-Jawhary.
By restricting hunting and allowing tall grasses to regenerate, local farmers in Hima Kfar Zabad—one of Lebanon’s few remaining wetlands—not only have created safe havens for wildlife, but are saving money and cutting back on the use of harmful agro-chemicals.
“Birds feel safe in the tall grasses and reeds,” said Sami Abu Rjayli, a local farmer and site support group coordinator for Kfar Zabad. “They also like to eat rodents. Since the birds have come back, I haven’t had to use rodenticide on any of my crops.”
Other fauna that Abu Rjayli has seen making a comeback include red fox, swamp lynx and the river, or Eurasian, otter, listed as “near-threatened” by the IUCN.
“Pesticides and human activity such as hunting typically make an area uninhabitable for otters, and this was the case at Kfar Zabad,” said al-Jawhary. “So we didn’t expect to see the otter come back, but were pleased and surprised that it did.”
This is not surprising, since environmentalism and Islam are entirely compatible, and have been so from the very beginning, say Muslim scholars. To be a Muslim, one must always have respect for nature, according to Dr. Abdul Fattah Al Bizm, grand mufti of Damascus.
“Every Muslim is called upon to protect and deal with nature in a way that will lead to its own protection, as well as to benefit from it,” said Bizm. He cited the presence of himas in northern Syria and along the Syrian–Lebanese border, where goats are allowed to graze in accordance with hima tradition and in spite of government-imposed forestry-protection acts. He also noted that, until 1930, there was a unique, 100-hectare (250-acre) hima set aside for retired horses in downtown Damascus, in an area called al-Marj al-Akhdar (“lush green meadow”) extending from the Umayyad Square into the Salihiya district, a neighborhood now engulfed by shops, hotels and urban sprawl.
But before the sprawl and government laws, it was Islamic law, shari’ah, and the revelation of the Qur’an that guided Muslims in their relationship with nature.
“It is He Who hath made You (His) agents, inheritors of the Earth,” reads the Qur’an (6:165), in a passage that is interpreted as referring to stewardship. Humans are also cautioned to “Do no mischief on the earth, after it hath been set in order” (7:56)—an order that is divine in nature: “And the earth We have spread out (like a carpet); set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance” (15:19).
In consideration of these and other such Qur’anic injunctions, Muhammad’s establishment of the first Muslim hima for the use of his cavalry in the wadi of al-Naqi, near Madinah, set the precedent for all subsequent himas as institutions that are ultimately derived from God. “There is no hima save for God and His Apostle,” reads a famous hadith (saying), often quoted in the literature on the history and practical applicability of himas.
While strictly a secular organization, SPNL recognizes and respects the religious nature of himas and, in fact, relies on this relationship with Islam to help establish new himas or revive old ones.
“In many villages, respect for the tradition of the hima is stronger than respect for the government’s environmental laws,” said Serhal. “Across the Arab world, people already understand that you can’t be a Muslim if you pollute the Earth and destroy habitat. What we are doing is tapping into the collective memory to help introduce a new generation to an old idea.”
Spnl is now working with local fishermen, BirdLife International, IUCN and EuroNatur (European Nature Heritage Fund) to establish the first marine hima in the coastal village of Qoleileh in south Lebanon and another in the northern cedar forests of Hermel, an ancient site of historical significance at the head of the Orontes River valley.
Meanwhile, inspired by Lebanon’s success, conservationists in other Muslim nations, from the Arabian Peninsula to sub-Saharan Africa to the Pacific Rim, are investigating the reestablishment or creation of himas in their own countries. In May of 2008, Qatar joined the effort with a donation of one million dollars to BirdLife International from Sheikha Jawaher bint Hamad bin Sahim Al-Thani, consort to the nation’s heir apparent. The funding will help conserve birds and promote sustainable use of natural resources and management across the Middle East, including himas.
While the reintroduction of himas has tremendous potential in the Muslim world since they conform to Islamic law and custom, there remain modern questions that this ancient solution has yet to answer.
“There is a gulf between Muslim jurists, who tend to be more preoccupied with ritual, theological and family-type legislation, and people in conservation, who are used to working with secular laws,” said Llewellyn, who raises important questions, even as he advocates the return of himas to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. How will private land adjacent to himas be affected, especially if that land is needed for the management of the hima? Under what circumstances should compensation be made to those who claim they have been denied access to the hima’s resources? Because there is no mention of coastal or marine himas in the Qur’an or the sayings of the Prophet, can they be legally established? “I have spoken with jurists who say these issues can be worked out, but [hima advocates] need to provide them with scientific information, so that they can understand how the environment works,” said Llewellyn.
Meanwhile, Serhal spends much of his time crisscrossing the Middle East, talking with local communities and ministry officials, hoping to convince them all that himas are both a viable and culturally acceptable solution to the challenges of preserving habitat and supporting local economies. His efforts have even attracted the attention of environmentalists outside the Muslim world, where the hima is unknown, but intriguing.
“We are meeting with MedWet in Greece, an NGO that is focused on preserving wetlands and coastal areas throughout the Mediterranean,” said Serhal, who barely had time to touch ground between his trips to Qatar and Athens. “Their objectives and ours are the same: to preserve their environmental heritage, while providing local people with pride of ownership of the land.”
|Free-lance journalist Tom Verde (email@example.com) has written for the New York Times and National Public Radio. He is pursuing a master’s degree in Islamic studies and Christian–Muslim relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.|
|French-born photographer Pascal Beaudenon (www.pascalbeaudenon.com) has lived in Lebanon since 1994. After a career as a photojournalist, he focused on panoramic landscape photography. In 2005 he produced L’Autre Liban (The Other Lebanon), a 340-page book containing 241 of his images.|
This article appeared on pages 10-16 of the November/December 2008 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.