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December 2, 2012

Hima: An Islamic Tradition of the Commons

Middle Eastern greens revive Muhammad's vision of protecting special places for future generations

A glance at history turns up the names of many heroes—from Robin Hood to Chief Joseph to Gandhi—who stood up to protect the commons on behalf of future generations. One name from history not likely to be associated with the commons is Muhammad. Yet the holy prophet of the Islamic world sought to preserve special landscapes for everyone. Today, Muslim environmentalists are trying to reinvigorate this tradition.

There was an ancient Middle Eastern tradition of setting aside certain lands, called hima (“protected place” in Arabic), for the enjoyment of local chieftains. Muhammed “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,” according to Tom Verde, a scholar of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations.

In the seventh century, Muhammed declared the region of Al-Madinah, now the holy city of Medina, “to be a sanctuary; its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted.” Many of the hima lasted well into the twentieth century, when the tradition fell victim to modern beliefs about land ownership.

Now Middle Eastern environmentalists are invoking the idea of hima to protect the region’s threatened woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, and rangelands. In 2004 the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon helped local residents establish two of the first new hima in the hilltop town of Ebel es-Saqi. “The hima has had a very positive effect in the community,” said Kasim Shoker, mayor of a nearby town. “Not only has it helped improve the economy [through ecotourism], but it has made the local people recognize the value of the land and have greater respect for its biodiversity.”

Now five himas have been established in Lebanon, and a “workshop”:http://medwet.org/2011/04/regional-workshop-on-the-“hybrid-hima-approach-to-community-based-resource-management”-14th-16th-april/ was held last in Istanbul to promote the ideas throughout the Middle East.

Updated from the book OTC’s book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (The New Press).