The Muslims Who Want to Save Octopuses

In Zanzibar, cephalopods are getting a leg up from the Quran.

Hamissi Usi swims with an octopus on Pemba Island, Tanzania, in 2010.
Hamissi Usi swims with an octopus on Pemba Island, Tanzania, in 2010. (Per-Anders Pettersson / Reuters)

ZANZIBAR—Ivory pirates, slave traders, and naturalists alike have long sought out the Zanzibar archipelago, a biodiverse group of islands lying off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. One of these islands, Misali, is surrounded by a six-mile coral reef. It teems with rare life: hawksbill turtles, flying foxes, coconuts crabs—and lots of octopuses.

This island is special to Muslims, who form the vast majority of Zanzibar’s population. According to a local Islamic myth, Misali was once visited by a saintly man known as Prophet Hadhara. When he asked fishermen for a prayer mat, they had none to offer, but he said it didn’t matter: The teardrop-shaped island, whose northern beach faces Mecca, was like a prayer mat itself. In fact, “Misali,” in the local Kiswahili language, means “prayer mat.”

Misali sustained generations of Muslims; the octopus catch, in particular, kept them fed for centuries. But overfishing, climate change, and oil exploration began in recent years to threaten the ecosystem. The octopus population dropped dramatically. Government regulations did little to curb the problem. And so, some residents decided to try a different strategy: appealing to the community’s Islamic consciousness and using verses from the Quran to promote conservation.

“Whether you catch small-size fish, damage coral reefs, or use drag nets in seagrass areas … [it] is forbidden in the Islamic point of view,” said Ali Said Hamad, a field officer at local nonprofit Mwambao Coastal Community Network who began using the religious strategy in a few villages in 2016. “We should use our resources in a wise manner. That’s why there is mizan—an Arabic word which means balance, but balance in the sense of sustainability.”

Since 2016, Mwambao has been assisting villages’ shehia, or fishery committee, with closing 436 hectares of fishing grounds in intervals of three months per year, to allow the octopus population to regenerate. Some closures coincide with Ramadan, when fishermen will feel discouraged from entering the water, “because when water gets into your ears and nose it means that you’re breaking your fast,” said Ali Thani, the country coordinator at Mwambao. When the area re-opens toward the end of Ramadan, when celebrations require villagers to splurge, “they can sell the [bigger] octopus, get money for Eid, and buy clothes for their kids,” he added.

While foreign nonprofits and words like “sustainability” can evoke distrust in the population, the Quran does not: “We say, ‘It’s not from Europe—it is in your faith; it is in your religion; it has been there for a long time,’” Thani said. “[T]his is making the people to start trusting things.”

Although quantitative data is hard to come by, Thani said anecdotal evidence suggests these octopus regeneration efforts “got very good results.” The octopuses are heavier now, commonly growing to twice the size they used to attain before the religious strategy went into effect. “We left octopuses of 1kg and now they find ones of 2-2.5kg,” he said.

The Mwambao staff’s experience using Islamic environmental ethics to reinforce conservationist messages goes back several years. In the 1990s, when illegal fishing methods like poison and dynamite threatened Misali’s fish stocks, Hamad and Thani were employees of a nongovernmental organization called CARE International. They worked with clerics and fishermen to promote the Islamic concept of khalifa, or environmental stewardship, making Misali the site of the first documented example of a partnership between a secular NGO and Muslim clerics.

In the past, mixing politics and religion has facilitated the mass exploitation of natural resources in former colonies like Zanzibar, following Pope Nicholas V’s 15th-century edict to “capture, vanquish, and subdue.” But in recent years, the use of scripture to excite and involve communities in green activism has taken off. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’, stressed sustainable development, while Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist environmental treatises launched similar commitments. When, in April 2016, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement, the accord’s success was credited in no small part to faith-based organizations lobbying behind the scenes.

In Zanzibar, balancing sustainability and economic survival can feel like “an uphill battle,” said Aboud Jumbe, the policy director at Zanzibar’s Ministry of Lands, Water, Energy, and the Environment. “People are aware of things changing around them—the fishermen are aware of the drying stocks in the coral reefs; the farmers are aware of the change in rains,” he said. In spite of these problems, the government contracted RAK Gas, a UAE-based company, to explore for oil and gas last year. In the face of a population boom, and poverty levels of more than 50 percent, Jumbe questioned the reach of imams. “Even though we do have local community religious elders in the country who are pretty much at the forefront of conservation and [climate change] adaptation, what can they do in the face of that very aggressive development agenda?”

Gulf countries such as the UAE—Muslim states financed by oil and gas profits—have not generously supported nonprofits promoting Islamic environmental ethics, said Fazlun Khalid, the founder of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, who added that “99.99 percent of what funding that we received over the years has been mainly from secular organizations.”

Meanwhile, Wahhabism, a fundamentalist type of Islam that Saudi Arabia is often accused of funding and exporting, is gaining territory in Zanzibar, with possibly dire consequences for the environment.

In Jambiani and Paje, villages in eastern Zanzibar, some villagers worship so-called sacred groves—stretches of rare coral rag forest that serve as medicinal treasure chests, where people make food offerings to conceive a baby, pray for rain, or heal from sickness, and where, legend has it, villagers were cured from a plague. The groves shelter caves, where traces of human occupation dating back 20,000 years have been excavated. The trees are also said to harbor ancestral spirits and are part of the villages’ origin stories. (Belief in such spirits stem from Swahili traditions that predate Islam on Zanzibar; Islam was introduced here in the eighth century.) But worshipping trees, or anyone other than God, is deemed blasphemous—and for extremists, such blasphemy demands action. In Syria, for example, an ISIS affiliate reportedly chopped down a tree last year over fears that “polytheistic” locals were worshipping it as a god.

“I think it’s a serious issue for [Zanzibari] sacred groves because that could be used as an argument to neglect or not protect them,” said Robert Wild of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

But efforts at conservation might yet prevail—thanks in part to monetary incentives. “There are lots of controversies and debates about the use of the environment,” said Kessi Ali Pandu, a Muslim who works as a guide of the sacred groves. “[But] it doesn’t have to do with religion, or culture, or whatever—trees are a source of life. So let’s keep the trees and the caves. They pay for my living.”

Reporting for this piece was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.