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Indonesian Muslims achieve global acclaim for fatwa on wildlife trade

A Sunda tiger, one of only 400 or so remaining on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Tigers are already extinct on the islands of Java and Bali and are under severe threat from deforestation and poaching, according to the WWF. Picture: PMunadi/PIxabay

How Indonesian Muslims created a fatwa against the illegal wildlife trade The global decline in endangered species has preoccupied wildlife groups for decades, but has not been seen as a subject for faith groups to debate until relatively recently.

With growing awareness of the crisis facing our climate and biodiversity, religions are increasingly concerned to do what they can to limit the harm human beings are doing to the planet. Hence the move by Muslims in Indonesia, one of the nations with the richest diversity of wildlife on the planet, to take a stand against the exploitation of rare species. This was to be no mere discussion but a fatwa – an instruction telling all the faithful that this exploitation must stop.

Unambiguous direction from a fatwa

‘A fatwa provides certainty on how Islamic teaching can guide you on a particular subject,’ explained Dr Fachruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, chairman of the Centre for Islamic Studies and lecturer at the Universitas Nasional (UNAS) Indonesia. Dr Fachruddin is part of a team that worked on the fatwa – or religious edict – against the illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia.

The story began in 2013, when a university, two environmental groups, and representatives from Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry asked Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council, to issue instructions on how Muslims should protect wildlife.

A lengthy process followed, including assessments and verification by a fatwa commission, a study group to examine the proposal in depth, and finally a commission plenary meeting before the fatwa could be released.

'We’re in the public eye and we feel that, if we do things persistently, we’ll be able to show that our work is a positive thing – morally, ethically, and for the planet' – Dr Fachruddin Majeri Mangunjaya

The unprecedented ruling was a global first: the Fatwa for the Conservation of Endangered Animals for the Balance of Ecosystems forbids (under Islamic law) the hunting, killing, or harming of endangered species, except in self defence.

It also renders the illegal trading of endangered species haram, or unlawful, and calls on Indonesia’s 200 million Muslims to be active in protecting the lives of endangered species including tigers, elephants and rhinos.

International media attention

The fatwa gained enormous international press coverage. The Indonesian government supported Dr Fachruddin and his team took part in regular – often impromptu – press events, and were able to make use of mass media thanks to their existing connections.

But how did leaders ensure that the message filtered down within their own communities, as well as amongst the rest of the world? It was vital, explained Dr Fachruddin, to ensure that local communities – especially those living closest to wildlife – understood what was required of them. As a result, communication was tailored to be received in the way that communities would engage with it most.

Training modules were created, guidebooks were written, posters and sermons were disseminated and more than 800 imams, village leaders, and elders were trained.

Use of social media

As with so many projects, online media also played their part. As well as creating a website to host information and press coverage, Dr Fachruddin and his colleagues extended their use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to include WhatsApp groups, and used these to support clerics to spread the word to local people. There were, for example, 10 WhatsApp groups for clerics trained about the fatwa. Instagram and YouTube channels also spread the message.

'Social media can be negative if you have political opposition,' Dr Fachruddin said. 'We feel it was both positive and negative. We’re in the public eye and we feel that, if we do things persistently, we’ll be able to show that our work is a positive thing – morally, ethically, and for the planet. Forget the negativity – we have to be optimistic.'

News of the campaign spread far and wide. A Google search of the term "wildlife fatwa" in July 2021 produces 510,000 results – the vast majority of the top-ranked pages referring directly to the Indonesian example.

Peatland fires lead to new fatwa

The wildlife fatwa was followed in 2016 by a similar fatwa against the deliberate burning of forest peatland. Deliberate deforestation had become a major problem in Indonesia. Fires are set to clear land for agriculture, but the consequence is a degraded environment that is more susceptible to flooding, and robs countless species of their habitat – from orang-utans to microbes.

It also made Indonesia a much bigger climate-change contributor on a global scale: fires during a major drought in 2015 affected 2.7 million hectares, cost an estimated $16.2 billion in damage, caused 100,000 premature deaths and affected the health of 500,000 people. Indonesia’s CO2 emissions increased to one billion tons, exceeding the annual emissions of Germany.

The fatwa which followed called on the faithful to pray that the disastrous fires were not divine retribution for their sins, and to make Istisqa prayers (prayers for rain). It also asked the secular government to take action, by penalising those who deliberately set fires, and to take measures to prevent such disasters.

Spurred by the reaction to the fires – which had spread smoke and haze to several Pacific nations – the Indonesian government did take action to deter and prevent fires, especially in peat land. It was successful: Panjaitan (2018) noted a decrease in fire hotspots, from 21,929 in 2016, to 3,915 in 2016 and 2,567 in 2017, though there was an increase in 2018, to 4,613.

As with the wildlife fatwa, there was no legal compulsion on the people of Indonesia to comply: Indonesia is a multicultural nation, and fatwas do not have the force of secular law. But in both cases, the religious edict inspired legal and governmental action, and brought about changing mindsets among large parts of the population.

• Study: Fatwa against peatland fires in Indonesia, Mangunjaya and Praharawati, 2019


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