Cross-Fertilizing Religion


 “I want people to think, ‘this is a plant like me – it eats, it drinks – so we have to protect it, not just see its fruits or the things it can give us.’” So proclaims Aziz Rahmouni, former Environmental Education Chief of Morocco’s Tazekka National Park and current collaborator with the High Atlas Foundation. As our conversation followed the branches of Aziz’s identity, I marveled at how firmly his roots were planted: whether co-creating and leading an innovative environmental education program with the Water and Forest Department for twenty-seven years, extending this curriculum to cultural-environmental tree nurseries throughout Morocco, or even just beaming with pride at his son Azar’s guitar skills (after seeing videos, I can attest: he plays beautifully), Aziz is drawn towards environmental action and community-building like a bee to nectar.

Among these branches of identity stands Aziz’s religious devotion to Islam. Although religosity may seem worlds away from tree-planting or environmental education, Aziz cross-pollinates his environmentalism with Muslim devotion at large. As he put it so beautifully, “In Islam, agriculture is like a blessing: something you love over everything.” He further explained, “When Islamic farmers want to start to plant, they start with prayer...We invite all the people in the village, and they have a big prayer to ask God for a plentiful year and good harvest.” With these words, Aziz began to weave a web of community connection and spiritual belonging born of agricultural pursuits. The act of growing physical sustenance in the fields also translates to nourishment in one’s house, town meeting, or spiritual gathering.
Aziz Rahmouni facilitates environmental education in the classroom and field. Photo: Aziz Rahmouni/HAF.
This intangible connection springs from concrete and embedded community practices. One of the most prominent within these is known as twiza, which describes a group that unites to help farmers through difficult seasons. If a farmer finds themselves without enough hands to sow in the spring, tend to the crops throughout the summer, or harvest in the fall, they emit a call for twiza for their community to join hands and work the fields together. Aziz highlighted the community-bonding and identity-building that grow alongside the crops: “And after the work, the farmers have dinner for everyone, and at the end, they bring a big goat, and they invite everyone to eat with them. They celebrate, honor God, use the Qur’an, and at the end of the day, they ask God to bring a good year.”  

Where twiza manifests abundance from lack, Islam’s tradition of zakat distributes excess wealth. Zakat describes an act of monetary worship in which any Muslim possessing more than a predetermined limit of food, goods, or wealth – known as Nisab – donates portions of their wealth to less affluent community members. In fact, Zakat is embedded so deeply into Islam that it is identified as one of the five pillars of the faith and stands as one of a Muslim’s core duties; Aziz himself testified to the power of this practice by remarking that every farmer he knows practices Zakat, and, in doing so, blesses their yield. As he put it with a chuckle, “Sometimes we’re motivated by fear, too – if I have a quantity of wheat, I have to give a part of it to the poor man. Otherwise, it’s not good with God!”

It is often said that the Prophet himself remarked, “If the Final Hour comes while you have a shoot of a plant in your hands, and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.” Although these words may seem apocalyptically removed from our daily life, the concept of the “Final Hour” looms much closer than we may think. With over 900 species going extinct in the past five centuries alone and more than 35,000 others threatened, the Final Hour is becoming a very real and pressing reality (see table below). Climate change and its disproportionate socioeconomic and cultural effects are well underway, yet we humans struggle to mitigate a problem so paradoxically all-encompassing yet human-constructed.
So, how can we move forward from here? Environmental education programs are a start, yet what truly marks Aziz’s efforts in Tazekka is not the curriculum but the passion he has poured into it. Perhaps cultivating similar intentionality within each of ourselves, whether religiously inspired or secular, can bring much-needed resolve and action to our climate crisis – and if not, maybe we can at least institute equitable and compassionate zakat amidst our shrinking resources.
Aziz Rahmouni facilitating environmental education in the classroom and field. Photo: Aziz Rahmouni/HAF.
Grace Gray is an intern of the High Atlas Foundation in Marrakech. She is an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in the United States, where she studies Global Development and Environmental Thought & Practice.
This article was completed with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Dakira program, and the High Atlas Foundation is solely responsible for its content, which does not necessarily reflect the views of the USAID or the Government of the United States.