What is in the heavens and the earth belongs to God. God encompasses all things (Qur’an 4:126)

The world is beautiful and green, and verily God, be He exalted, has made you His stewards in it, and He sees how you acquit yourselves (Muslim)

AN island paradise where sea breezes temper tropical heat, Misali Island is an Indian Ocean gem steeped in Islamic history and natural beauty. It is a popular fishing destination for locals and dive site for tourists, but overexploitation of the island’s resources has put Misali’s place as an economic support for thousands of Zanzibaris in jeopardy. However, a unique environmental conservation project is working to channel local people’s faith in Islam, and harness the benefits of tourism, to preserve the island’s natural resources and improve local quality of life.

Located 10km off the west coast of Zanzibar’s northernmost island, Pemba, in the channel between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania, Misali is a small 1km island surrounded by an offshore coral platform. Misali’s reef teems with marine life and fishermen come from all parts of Pemba and even the Tanzanian mainland just to fish in Misali’s rich waters. Though uninhabited due to lack of freshwater, the island is used as an overnight campground for Pemban fishermen and is a sacred site in both Islamic and pre-Islamic traditions.

Misali’s waters boast of some of Tanzania’s highest coral cover and are home to more than 350 species of fish and 40 genera of hard corals. The island supports a variety of endemic species, including the Pemban Vervet Monkey, Pemba sunbird and Pemba flying fox (a type of bat), as well as endangered species such as coconut crabs and sea turtles, which lay eggs on the island’s beaches. These assets have not gone unnoticed by the tourists who have flocked to the island in steadily increasing numbers over the past few years. Misali’s unique aquatic features, which include vast coral gardens, steep drop-offs and an underwater mountain, have made the islet popular among clivers and snorkelers, while its pristine beaches are an attractive destination on their own.

Unfortunately, the unique natural resources and biodiversity of Misali Island have been threatened in recent years. Unregulated fishing and destructive methods, such as the use of dynamite and finely meshed nets, have devastated fish populations and the delicate reef environment they breed in. Dynamite fishing reduces coral reefs to rubble within a radius of a few meters. (The Shockwaves kill all fish and most other living organisms within a much wider radius-15 meters to 20 meters-of the blast. The fish, whose hearts have stopped, then float to the surface intact for fishermen to collect.) Finely meshed nets are also destructive as they capture even small fish, taking juveniles out of the ecosystem before they have a chance to reproduce. Poison, spear guns, fishing with weighted drag nets and beating the coral with sticks to scare fish into nets , are also common techniques, each harmful in different ways.

Today, more than 12,000 Pembans depend on fish from Misali’s waters for subsistence, but the continuation of unsustainable fishing techniques will mean fewer fish for future generations. With nearly 50 percent of Pemba’s population under the age of 15 at present, it is clear that the pressure on natural resources will increase dramatically in future years.

Recognizing this problem, the Zanzibari government declared Misali Island and its waters an official conservation area in 1998. However, conventional environmental regulations, such as outlawing destructive fishing methods and proscribing fishing within a certain protected area, seemed to have little effect on actual resource use. Fishermen continued to fish unsustainably in the area.

Regulations on use of natural resources are particularly difficult to enforce in marine areas, compared with enforcement of similar restrictions on land. A marine conservation area cannot be fenced off as terrestrial conservation areas can. Constant patrolling by boat to ensure fishing rules are not being broken would be prohibitively expensive for a developing nation like Tanzania. In addition, the sea is usually not owned the way land may be. As an open-access resource with unclear property rights, and generally with no responsible party (such as a person or community who owns the area) to manage it, marine resources are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation.

Problems of overfishing are plaguing the planet’s oceans today. They are not limited to tropical waters or underdeveloped countries, as the widely publicized collapse of Canada’s Newfoundland cod fishery in 1992 due to unsustainable fishing evinces clearly. The loss of industry led the province of Newfoundland to become what one journalist called “the most vast and scenic welfare ghetto in the world” because of the thousands of people left unemployed in its wake.

Conservationists are increasingly learning that environmental protection – whether marine or terrestrial – requires the cooperation of the resource users to succeed in the long term. Arcane conservation strategies, such as those used in the early days of African game parks, that prohibit local people from using natural resources have been shown to exacerbate poverty for already marginal communities that depend on natural resources for subsistence, making communities unsupportive or downright hostile toward conservation efforts. Such exclusionary approaches are both impractical for long-term conservation success and unethical as they harm local people.

Today, conservation strategies are increasingly incorporating sustainable use (instead of no use) of natural resources and participatory approaches that involve local people and work in harmony with them instead of against them. The difficulty in enforcing regulations in marine conservation areas suggests that for conservation to succeed, local people must willingly abide by regulations and actually want to preserve the environment, thereby eliminating the need for “enforcement”. A new approach, more creative than ordinary government intervention, was needed to protect Misali Island’s biodiversity and natural resources.


In the spring of 1999. CARE International-Tanzania, a nongovernmental organization, set up an innovative conservation project to protect the natural resources of Misali Island. The project’s goal was to harness the power of local people’s adherence to Islam and capture the economic benefit of tourism while working to conserve Misali’s natural resources and improve local quality of life.

Misali Island gets its name from the Swahili word msala, which means “prayer mat”. Locals believe that the prophet Nabi Hadhara once appeared before the island’s fishermen and asked for a prayer mat. No mat being available, he is said to have declared that the island itself, which faces northeast toward Mecca, would serve as his mat. For centuries, Misali has also served as a site for spiritual activities such as ancestor healing and divination. Pre-Islamic beliefs maintained that the island’s coral caves were inhabited by spirits who would ensure good health and large catches if left offerings. Older generations still adhere to these traditional beliefs and offerings left at cave openings can be seen today.

CARE realized that the island’s spiritual narrative and the fishermen’s commitment to Islam could be directed toward protecting the island’s natural resources and improving fishermen’s quality of life. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, CARE developed the Misali Ethics Project to raise awareness about and popularize an Islamic conservation ethic, making it the first organization in Tanzania – and possibly the world – to promote marine conservation through Islamic principles.

Enlisting the help of the British-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), CARE produced posters, pamphlets, videos, training notes and other materials to aid religious leaders, madrassa teachers and government officials in fostering Islamic conservation on a local level. To measure the effectiveness of their experimental new approach, baseline studies of fishermen’s environmental knowledge were conducted so the results of the ethics-based environmental outreach could later be compared with sites where conventional environmental education was conducted.

Extracting environmental messages from the Qur’an is no simple task. It requires scholarly study and interpretation, as the Qur’an does not speak explicitly of the “environment” or of “conservation” as we understand those words today. Rather, the Qur’an illustrates the Islamic principles of conservation through descriptions of human behavior and of the relationships between humans among themselves and with the rest of creation. As the environmental directives of the Qur’an are somewhat recondite, it is difficult for people without extensive religious training to extract and understand these messages on their own. As a result, many Muslims may not be aware of the implications for conservation inherent within their own religion or realize that conservation of the environment is in fact a religious duty.

IFEES has, with the help of Qur’anic scholars, extracted and condensed information about Islamic environmental ethics into an introductory guidebook that CARE is using to raise awareness among Pembans about the environmental teachings of Islam. The guidebook relies on passages of the Qur’an that scholars have interpreted as teachings about conservation and basic Islamic principles such as unity (tawhid), accountability [akrah), balance (mizan) and stewardship of nature khalifa). Quotations from the Qur’an such as, “It is He who has appointed you viceroys in the earth.” (6:165), are used to explain, for instance, how God chose human beings to be His vicegerents on earth, giving them knowledge and free will. The guidebook explains that God is the owner of all creation, and that humans, as His stewards, have the responsibility to maintain the balance He created. The book draws several important conclusions about conservation as dictated by the Qur’an such as:

* Deliberate damage to the environment and its resources is a kind of corruption, which is forbidden in Islam.

* No wastage or over-consumption of resources is allowed.

* Everyone should consider the sustainable development of the earth by practicing wise utilization of resources and respecting the lives of other creatures.

* Every human is a steward of his surroundings and he should make all possible efforts to educate others and ensure that a safe environment is established not only for him/herself, but also for all living creatures now and in the future.

In the first stage of the Ethics Project, introductory workshops were conducted for local fishermen, madrassa teachers, local and senior government officials, and members of the office of the mufti (an Islamic legal scholar and religious leader who interprets Islamic law, or Shari’a). These workshops featured slides with quotations from the Qur’an and explained their implications for environmental conservation. In the second stage, scholarly study of Shari’a was conducted, which suggested that the Misali Island conservation area should be designated a hima, or no-take zone. (It has not yet officially been declared a hima, but discussions are ongoing.) Now, with support ranging from government officials and the mufti’s office down to ordinary fishermen, the project is in its third stage, in which madrassa teachers are given resource materials to disseminate the message to a wider cross-section of the community.

In addition to the Islamic Ethics Project, CARE has several other strategies to further improve the quality of life for the fishing villages of Pemba. CARE is improving the management of tourism-related revenues, employing a savings and credit scheme, developing a community management system for fishing groups, and teaching sustainable fishing techniques. CARE has also employed several fishermen to serve as rangers and guides to Misali Island. These strategies encourage sustainable resource use and offer fishers an alternative income source through tourism.

The main challenge of conservation is to make it a household want and duty – in other words, to make people genuinely care about the environment and want to protect it from the bottom of their hearts. As 99 percent of Zanzibaris are Muslim, CARE’s Islamic approach has proven far more effective than externally imposed regulations. A BBC News article quoted one fisherman as saying, “It is easy to ignore the government, but no one can break God’s law.” At the beginning of the project, the baseline survey showed that only 34 percent of fishers thought Islamic teachings related to their use of the marine environment. However, a later assessment found that 66 percent related their religious beliefs to marine resource use, and that some fishermen were practicing at least one or two specific conservation measures. It was also found that awareness of Islam’s relation to conservation had spread beyond the villages directly involved in the project, indicating that the use of local beliefs has encouraged environmentally responsible practices outside the conservation area. This is significant since much of the world’s biodiversity exists outside protected areas.

Though effective, the Misali Ethics Project’s use of religious beliefs to foster conservation raises important ethical questions. Is the project reducing culture and religion to a mere “tool” that is “useful” for conservation? Is Islam then no more than a means to an end? Are conservationists twisting the word of God toward their own goals? These are important questions to ask, though so far there has been no ethical opposition to the project.

Developing effective strategies for environmental conservation has become critical for the degraded environment of today’s earth, and it has been increasingly recognized that lasting change depends on both the long-term participation and understanding of the communities where conservation is taking place. Conservation is not merely the preservation of biodiversity for posterity’s sake, it is the path we must take toward reinstating the natural balance of our planet. It represents the opportunity for sustainable livelihoods for people in Tanzania and beyond, and a future for humanity. Yet, for conservation to be effective, the desire to protect nature must penetrate the hearts of everyday people. The use of Islamic beliefs in conservation at Misali Island is a fascinating example of how the ethical principles inherent in Islam can be used to inform choices that better the environment of our planet and the welfare of all mankind.

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