Eco-Islam hits Zanzibar fishermen
By Daniel Dickinson
BBC News, Pemba, Tanzania
The Koran is not widely known as a source of guidance on environmental and conservation issues, but that has not stopped one development organisation in Tanzania from using it to help conserve an island marine park.
Religious leaders have been asked to promote conservation messages using the texts of the Koran - an approach which has proved a great deal more successful than government regulations.
The island of Misali is just a small dot in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Pemba.
The coral reef surrounding it is home to a rich variety of fish and turtles.
Misali is uninhabited, but where there are fish, there are fishermen - and just a few years ago this fragile island paradise was under serious threat.
Destructive fishing methods were damaging the corals and harming species that lived there. Government bans had little impact.
The fishermen who launch their wooden dugout canoe from the windswept shores of Misali, like 99% of the population of the Zanzibar archipelago, are Muslims.
Once they realised that catches were falling dramatically, the non-governmental organisation Care International stepped in to persuade them to take better care of their environment - through a scheme based on Islamic principles.
"People didn't experience environmental destruction in their areas until very recently," says Ali Thani, Care's project director.
"And after what they are experiencing, they feel that Islamic environmental ethics might be better to create awareness in the community to protect their environment."
These fishermen have learned the benefits of fishing in a sustainable manner without harming the island's bio-diversity.
Salum Haji has fished these waters for as long as he can remember.
"There have been a lot of bad things happening here," he says.
"People have used dynamite and guns to fish here. This has destroyed the coral.
"I am happy that now we have learnt that the Koran tells us to protect everything in this world, including the environment.
"I am more dedicated to protecting the environment now and a more committed Muslim as well."
With sustainable fishing, catches have increased.
And the underwater life is so rich that the island has also become a tourist destination, with money paid by visitors being put back into community development on Pemba.
It is thought this is the first time the teachings of the Koran have been used in Tanzania to promote conservation.
Local religious leaders like Shehe Mlekwa Lissani Bambi are now highlighting Islamic teachings about conservation in their sermons, though a certain amount of interpretation has been necessary, he says.
"Everything we see in the world is in the Koran," he says.
"We have not changed what is in it as this cannot be changed, but we are reading it with more knowledge.
"We are the guardians of God's creation. He asks us to protect what he created and we can do this by looking after the environment."
Shehe Mlekwa Lissani Bambi feels it is fitting that Misali island was chosen to pioneer the use of Islamic ethics to conserve the environment. Misali is steeped in Islamic myth, including one surrounding a saintly figure known as the Prophet Hadhara.
"The island is very important in our history. Once Prophet Hadhara arrived at Misali and asked fishermen for a prayer mat.
"As there was no mat, Hadhara said the island itself was like a prayer mat since it exactly points towards Mecca.
"He prayed and then disappeared. Since then the island is called Misali, which means prayer mat."
Care International project director Ali Thani says it was only possible to convince people with the help of the sheha and shehe - the religious leaders. So far, he says, the project appears to be working.
One local fisherman summarised neatly why the religious message has succeeded where government decrees failed: It is easy to ignore the government, he said, but no-one can break God's law.