The Value of Water in Islam

Religious scholars can play an important role in teaching citizens about the value of water and how to use it more sparingly and efficiently, but can they provide a solution to Jordan’s water scarcity?

Limiting water waste

Combining an arid climate, high population growth and limited natural water reserves, Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. The annual average water availability per person has dropped from 3,600 cubic meters in 1946 to 145 cubic meters in 2008 – a fraction of the 9,000 cubic meters that U.S. citizens have at their disposal. The conflict in Syria and the influx of more than 628,000 Syrian refugees since 2011 has put further pressure on the country’s scarce water resources, with annual water availability dropping to around 128 cubic meters per person since 2011.

The average Jordanian knows that the country’s water supplies are limited: scarcity is tangible almost on a daily basis in many towns and villages – particularly during the hot summer months. Jordanian households receive eight hours of running water a week or less, making careful use and preservation essential. Still, the Jordanian government and several NGOs are constantly working to raise awareness of the value of water and to encourage water savings in every area of life. They say that religion is one of the most effective ways of convincing users not to waste water.

The role of Islam

“Water plays a central role in Islam,” says Professor Abdel Majid al-Salahin, the dean of the Department of Islamic Jurisprudence at the University of Jordan. “The word ‘water’ is mentioned more than 60 times in the Quran and there are also many references to rain, snow and ice. Moreover, the Quran clearly condemns the wasting of water.”

He gives the example of the hadith (a saying of the Prophet Mohammed) in which the Prophet Mohammad sees one of his companions, Saad, performing the ritual ablution wudu that is required before prayer. As Saad is using a lot of water, the Prophet Mohammed asks him: “Why are you wasting water like this?” Saad is surprised and asks whether it is possible to waste water during wudu. To this the Prophet responds that one must never waste water, even on the banks of a flowing river.

 Jordanians are very receptive to everything that is related to religion. When you talk to people about water through religion, they are more easily convinced.”

Salahin says teachings like these and others can help make people more aware of the importance of water saving. “Jordanians are very receptive to everything that is related to religion – people here are religious by nature,” he says. “And when you talk to people about water in a religious context and quote passages from the Quran, they are more easily convinced.”

Passing on the message

The Jordanian government has long acknowledged the important role that Islam can play in spreading awareness of sustainable water use, encouraging imams to incorporate teachings from the Quran and the ahadith in their Friday sermons. Female religious scholars or waithat – graduates with a university degree in Islamic Studies who follow additional training – also teach women about the value of water in Islam and how they can apply this to daily water use in the household.

The Quran says that God made all living things from water and this is a very important message for us here at the center and in Jordan in general.”

– Alham Alatala, waithah at Al Jinan Quranic Center in Amman
Alham Alatala works as a waithah at Al Jinan Quranic Center in the Marka district of Amman, where she teaches women and children about different aspects of Islam and its practice. “We give lectures on many topics such as drug abuse, education, crime, but also water awareness,” she says. The center has a range of activities around the theme of water: it has published booklets about the importance of saving water for children, there are sessions in which older women show younger women traditional ways of saving water, and sometimes they even organize dish-washing competitions to see who can use the least water. “One of our basic aims is to teach children about the value of water. The Quran says that God made all living things from water and this is a very important message for us here at the center and in Jordan in general.”

Irrational behavior

Such teachings have been repeated for many years in mosques and learning centers across Jordan, but can they really change people’s behavior? “The tradition of saving water is there, but it is not reflected in practice,” says Professor Odeh al-Jayyousi, a specialist in the domain of Islam and sustainable development. “I have a neighbor who is a heart surgeon, and he smokes. This illustrates the disconnect between knowledge and practice. Sometimes we act irrationally. We know this is right, nevertheless we don’t abide by it.”

A recent study by the Water Authority of Jordan shows that water use in the household remains relatively irrational: the study found that only 5% of domestic water is used for drinking and cooking purposes, while 45% is used in bathrooms and for the irrigation of gardens. There is therefore considerable scope for increasing water use efficiency.

 The tradition of saving water is there, but it is not reflected in practice. There is a disconnect between knowledge and practice. We know this is right, nevertheless we don’t abide by it.”

– Odeh al-Jayyousi, specialist in the domain of Islam and sustainable development
Read the full interview by Berkan Ozyer with Professor al-Jayyousi here: On Communicating Water

Policy-makers at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation believe that the teachings of Islam can contribute to raising such awareness. With the support of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and working with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the ministry launched a three-year project in January 2015 to train approximately 1,000 imams and waithat effective ways of engaging their community in water saving and awareness. In addition, a teaching unit for religious studies will be developed at public universities and three large ‘pilot’ mosques will be turned into ‘water-plus-mosques’ and equipped with rainwater harvesting and water reuse facilities. The Abu Ubaidah Mosque in the Jordan Valley is the first example of such a mosque where water is being reused.

Smart discourse

Al-Jayyousi often contributes to workshops to teach imams and waithat about the link between Islam, water and sustainability. He says that the teachings of Islam could guide believers towards a more sustainable lifestyle, but that most imams lack the technical background to impart such teachings. “There are around 7,000 mosques in Jordan, but many imams don’t have the proper educational foundation to be able to address issues like water scarcity.” He emphasizes the importance of providing a discourse that connects Islam to the realities of the 21st century. “You cannot talk about religious discourse while ignoring environmental realities like climate change, economic realities like oil prices and without understanding political relations.”

Al-Jayyousi says that once imams make the connection between the teachings of Islam and sustainability they can create their own “smart discourse” and go beyond just quoting passages from the Quran. “The Quran relates the story of when Moses chose 12 springs and instructed each tribe to go to one spring. This is effectively an example of decentralized water management. When they hear this, many imams say they didn’t realize that a modern theme such as decentralization is addressed in Islam.”

There are, however, limits to what religious leaders can achieve because of current economic and educational levels. Imams in Jordan are employed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and earn very low wages. “They live barely above the poverty line,” says Jayyousi. “You cannot expect a beautiful discourse from people if they are hungry.” He gives the example of imams who have participated in training courses who ask whether they can take the pen that is handed out to them at the start of the course home for their children. “This says a lot,” says Jayyousi. “You can’t expect people to be innovative, to educate and cultivate themselves if they have to worry about the cost of a pen.”

Leakage and theft

Religion is also being used to reinforce water legislation: in 2013, a fatwa was issued prohibiting water theft and other abuse of water resources and networks. It states that violating water resources and random well drilling threaten drinking water reserves, which is a shared right for all people.

Still, water theft through illegal connections remains a serious problem in Jordan, together with network leakages. According to a 2014 Mercy Corps report, 50% of the water that is pumped through the state network annually is lost to leakage and theft. Of this, 76 billion liters is lost to leakage – enough to satisfy the needs of 2.6 million people a year, nearly a third of Jordan’s current population. Illegal well drilling also remains a problem.

While religion may convince people to use water more efficiently, it alone cannot solve the problem of water scarcity in Jordan in the long term. In the end, problems of network leakage, theft, outdated infrastructure and illegal well drilling form a much greater threat to the country’s water reserves.

Water in Islam

The word “water” appears 63 times in the Quran.
One of the five mandatory acts or pillars in Islam is salat (prayer), which is carried out five times a day.
Before salat, the believer is supposed to perform the small ablution, wudu. The Quran and the ahadith go into great detail about wudu and how much water the believer should use for each of its components.
Muslims are required to perform the Friday midday prayer, salat al-jumah, in the mosque with the congregation. It is preceded by a sermon, the khutbah, during which the imam focuses on a specific theme. This is an important occasion to deliver messages about water saving.
The mauda (ablution fountain) is a central feature of each mosque, placed strategically for believers to perform wudu before prayer.

Writer: Berkan Ozyer, 27, is a Turkish journalist based in Istanbul. He works for EKOIQ, a monthly magazine that focuses on sustainability and the green economy.