Sacred Natures: Mapping Islamic Landscapes in Jordan and Lebanon’s Hima Conservation Movement

By Kate McClellan
Submitted to Session P3855 (Challenging Places: Cartographic and Affective Re-Mapping in Social and Environmental Projects, 2014 Annual Meeting
All Middle East; Jordan; Lebanon;
Arab Studies; Environment; Ethnography; Islamic Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the emergence of an environmental movement aimed at reviving a centuries-old network of himas – natural areas protected under Islamic law and through local, communal governance – in Jordan and Lebanon. Though himas and similar protected areas were used for more than 1500 years to manage communal rangeland in tribal areas across the Middle East, most had been wiped out by the mid-1900s. In recent years, several national and regional environmental organizations have begun to reestablish old himas and develop new ones in or near rural communities as part of a strategic revival movement aimed at conserving biodiversity, increasing economic development, and mitigating drought. Leaders in this movement are framing the revival of himas as a homegrown approach to conservation work that blends environmental science with religious duty and Arab cultural heritage. With its focus on community development, environmental conservation, and collective history, the hima movement is producing a kind of “environmental imaginary” (Davis and Burke 2011) that envisions a Middle Eastern future, based on imaginings of a Middle Eastern past, in which human communities live in harmony with their natural surroundings.
This paper focuses on how the hima movement’s central tropes of morality and Islamic sanctity are mapped onto the physical landscapes of three hima sites in Jordan and Lebanon. It examines how the hima revival movement produces and plots himas as sacred, Islamic spaces, and what this does for the plants, animals, and people living inside them. For instance, how do the Islamic guidelines that structure the use and protection of himas (e.g., which wild animals not to hunt; when and where to collect wood) challenge and/or change villagers’ use and conceptualizations of these natural areas? The hima movement has created campaigns to replace common local practices like bird hunting with more palatable and conservation-friendly activities like bird watching, hiking, and species tracking. How do these campaigns enact in local communities a new kind of Islamic ethics regarding animals and, in general, nature? Drawing on ethnographic research with villagers, hunting clubs, and environmental activists, this paper explores these and other questions to better understand how the environmental imaginary of the hima revival movement is plotted and enacted on the ground. In so doing, it engages with larger questions about the production of space and place; the entangledness of conservation and development; and the history of environment and land use in the Middle East.