A fun and interesting story to research, looking at projects in Jordan, Indonesia, Morocco and the UK to build environmentally sound mosques and/or convert existing mosques to renewable energy by fitting solar panels and water recycling facilities. Original story page is here.
Up on the roof, Yousef al-Shayeb looks around happily, gesturing to an array of solar panels tilted south towards the sun.
“This was stage one – 44 panels. Over there was stage two – 64 panels. Now we are all set, for the next twenty years at least. I am very proud for having done this. I served the military and now I serve the community, this house of God, and everyone in this neighborhood. Who would I serve otherwise?”
Electrical engineer al-Shayeb retired from the Royal Jordanian Air Force in 1990 as a brigadier, after almost 22 years in uniform. Since then he has brought his professional and technical expertise to his local neighborhood in Tlaa al-Ali, a prosperous district of northwestern Amman. There he heads the management committee of his local masjid, or mosque.
The mosque, known as Masjid Abu Ghuweileh, is not a large building. Following a recent extension it can host around 650 worshipers at full capacity for the midday Friday congregational prayer, though it more usually sees one hundred or fewer. Regardless, it has been a mainstay of the neighborhood for decades. Al-Shayeb moved to the area in 1986 and the mosque was already a cornerstone of community life then, he says.
Up until a few years ago, the mosque’s electricity bill ran at a hefty 1,000 Jordanian dinars (about $1,400) a month. Today, al-Shayeb says with a quiet smile of pride, thanks to the solar panels on the roof, the bill is zero.
The upgrade forms part of a Jordanian government initiative to retrofit mosques across the country with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. They convert sunlight – which is abundant hereabouts – into electricity. The initiative is handled and directed through the Jordan Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Fund (JREEEF), established in 2012 as an office of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.
“Electricity and energy consumption is a very big issue in Jordan,” says JREEEF’s head of project development, Engineer Lina al-Mobaideen. “The heaviest worries are about how we can reduce demand, and so reduce the overall energy bill. This led the government to [formulate policy] encouraging individuals to reduce their consumption.”
Al-Mobaideen highlights a partnership set up in 2016 between JREEEF and Jordan’s Ministry of Awqaf [Islamic Endowments] to focus on places of worship as key nodes of state influence within every community.
“Energy consumption at mosques is very high,” she says. Islam’s five daily prayer times, at dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and evening, mean that worshipers tend to flow in and out of mosques all day long: Lighting as well as cooling in summer – fans and air-conditioners – and heating in winter often stay on throughout. “The mosque is the most appropriate place to encourage people to change their behavior and introduce them to renewable energy,” al-Mobaideen adds.
From 2017 tenders began to be launched area by area to install solar PV systems in mosques nationwide. By 2019, about five hundred mosques were running on solar. The intention is to extend the scheme to most of Jordan’s 6,500 mosques (the smallest have energy usage so low that conversion to solar is often uneconomic) as well as Jordan’s smaller number of churches. Parallel schemes have also been launched for schools.
“It’s an awareness tool,” says Samer Zawaydeh, an independent consultant on renewable energy in Jordan and longtime educator for the Association of Energy Engineers, a US-based nonprofit coordinating training for the sector worldwide. “Mosques and schools are places where people visit a lot. If people see solar PV, ask what it is, and learn more, then maybe they will choose it for their home or office.”
The scheme works through direct grants from government. Each mosque submits a proposal for a solar PV system whose size and capacity is based on the building’s electricity consumption over the previous 12 months. Contractors, who are all Jordanian, source components on the open market. One-quarter of the cost is covered by JREEEF and one-quarter by the Ministry of Awqaf, which disburses the grant. The remainder must be paid by the mosque community itself, usually by donations from members.
“People are continuously donating,” says al-Shayeb. “The community already paid 300,000 dinars ($420,000) to renovate and extend this building. Then we gave priority to solar panels, because we were paying such high bills every month. People started donating right away.”
The Abu Ghuwaileh mosque was one of the first in Jordan to install solar panels, as early as 2013. By 2018, the two-stage installation was complete. Total outlay came to around 35,000 dinars ($49,000), of which the government paid about 7,000 dinars ($9,800) – a lower-than-usual amount because the mosque began the process of installing solar panels independently, before the JREEEF-Awqaf scheme existed.
Al-Shayeb calculates that, with shifts in the market and other economic considerations, the community will recoup its outlay in around a year and a half – astonishingly quickly. Zawaydeh estimates a more usual payback period of between two and three years on solar PV systems of this type. But that’s still a remarkably attractive proposition, and it shows that prices have fallen substantially, even in the last few years: A 2014 study in Kuwait to convert all of that country’s 1,400 mosques suggested a payback period then as long as thirteen years.
“Solar makes a big difference,” Zawaydeh says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity [and the benefits] can be realized fairly quickly. It makes financial sense.”
The switch to solar power for mosques in Jordan is running alongside programs to reduce water usage – the Islamic requirement for ablution before each of the five daily prayers can create heavy demand – and to replace lighting with LED bulbs that use much less energy and last much longer than regular incandescent bulbs.
Such concerns are rooted in budgetary prudence, but can be corroborated in religion – a vital connection the government is making to encourage mosque communities.
“One of the things Islam teaches is not to overspend or exceed our consumption,” says Lina al-Mobaideen. She cites verses from the Quran urging believers “Do not be excessive: truly God does not love the wasteful” (7:31) and naming the righteous as “those who do not spend too much or too little but always in moderation.” (25:67)
“Conservation in spending and consumption – that’s what we use to bring awareness to people,” she adds. “It is both a financial and a religious imperative.”
This reflects the difficulty governments around the world have often faced in delivering either clear messaging or effective policy on the obvious long-term benefits of conserving energy and expanding use of renewables. Jordan’s approach demonstrates a holistic way forward, with environmental concern and religious direction anchored in – but secondary to – the main point: Economic benefit.
The country is not acting alone. Al-Mobaideen emphasizes that energy conservation is spurring debate at the supra-national level within the League of Arab States, where committees exchange knowledge between countries on best practice. She identifies Morocco as the Arab world’s leader in renewable energy.
“Morocco already has the legislative framework, the institutional framework, and action plans. They have implemented many large projects,” she says.
One of those is a scheme launched in 2016 by Morocco’s Ministry of Awqaf, with technical support from the German development agency GIZ, to install solar PV as well as LED lighting and solar water heaters in the country’s 15,000 government-funded mosques. Government grants cover up to 70% of initial costs, and as part of the scheme, imams (prayer-leaders) and other clerics are being trained in issues around renewable energy and sustainable technology, to pass the message on to their congregations and communities.
“What we want to do is inform people,” Said Mouline, director of Morocco’s National Agency for the Development of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, told CNN. “Energy efficiency is not only a matter of technology, it’s also a matter of behavior.”
One of the first of Morocco’s mosques to be fitted with solar PV, in 2016, was the 12th-century Koutoubia in Marrakesh, chosen specifically for its status as a symbol of the city. With the solar panels hidden out of sight on the roof, a digital display has been set up in the street outside to remind passers-by how much energy has been generated and the savings in carbon emissions.
In the capital, Rabat, the large Masjid Assounna has cut its energy bill by more than 80%, saving around 70,000 Moroccan dirhams (around $7000) a year. The scheme has now reached the Masjid Hassan II in Casablanca, the largest mosque in all of Africa, with capacity for more than 100,000 worshipers. Renovations there, under way throughout 2020, will introduce solar PV among a range of other measures, reducing the building’s energy consumption by more than half as part of a national transformation aiming to create 150,000 jobs over the next decade by improving energy efficiency across the Moroccan economy.
Similar projects are sprouting across the Islamic world. Analysis in 2019 of a solar PV test system installed at a large mosque in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia calculated an annual energy bill reduction of more than half. There have been studies on solar PV for mosques in Libya and Malaysia. Tunisia is investing heavily in solar power, and Egypt has also started down the road.
The country with the world’s largest Muslim population is also on board. In 2011 the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), or Indonesian Council of Scholars – the country’s top Muslim clerical body – launched the “Eco Masjid” initiative. This places Indonesia’s 800,000 mosques at the center of a national public education effort spotlighting the environment.
“It started with the understanding that environmental degradation is not technical or technological, but a moral issue,” says Hayu Prabowo, chair of MUI’s environment unit in the capital, Jakarta. “The government approached us to complement their approach to the public. We are closer to the people, because of how people congregate daily at mosques – and Islam is very rich in teaching on environmental issues.”
Hayu, who devised and oversees the Eco Masjid program, lists a range of criteria by which the MUI assesses each mosque, from appropriate site development and energy efficiency to recycling, education provision and management effectiveness. He sees mosques as nothing less than a vector for empowerment.
“Empowerment is not only about economics. It’s about safeguarding people’s health and livelihood. It’s a very complex issue. We cannot manage it alone, but neither can government. It’s about translating the language of environmental activism into more practical aspects of people’s lives.”
Of Indonesia’s fifty or so mosques that are part of the scheme so far, the flagship is Masjid Azzikra. Built in 2010 in Sentul, around 40 kilometers outside Jakarta, Azzikra became Eco Masjid’s national pilot project in 2014.
Driving south from Jakarta into the province of West Java, the highway climbs towards Bogor in the shadow of the Mount Salak volcano, nicknamed ‘Rain City’ for its damp climate and high humidity. Amid foliage of cassava, bamboo and banana, the white domes and minarets of Azzikra rise above a neat grid of suburban streets under tropical thunderclouds. The mosque stands as the centerpiece of a planned neighborhood that is home to around 150 religious Muslim families, founded by the charismatic cleric Muhammad Arifin Ilham. He was formerly the mosque’s figurehead, famed across Indonesia for his TV sermons until his death last year from cancer at the age of 49.
“We want to lead by example, not by talk,” says Khotib Kholil, who heads Azzikra’s management. “Beside coming here to learn about religion, we would like people to come to learn about the environment.”
Khotib emphasises Azzikra’s close working relationships with universities, technical institutes and agricultural colleges in and around Jakarta, who provide expertise on energy conservation and sustainability. One national priority is improving sanitation and water management. He shows me a set of ten large tanks at Azzikra which together hold around 50,000 liters of rainwater channeled from the mosque’s roofs. All the building’s water, sourced from wells and the rainwater tanks, is recycled three times – diverted on the fourth cycle to the surrounding gardens – and he explains how a simple adjustment to faucets has reduced the mosque’s water usage for pre-prayer ablutions from fourteen liters per person to four.
A biogas tank, buried under the mosque’s courtyard, generates cooking fuel from human waste, though the mosque is still spending more than 30 million Indonesian rupiah ($2000) a month on electricity and gas. Solar PV is the next step, Khotib says.
On the Friday I attended, Azzikra hosted around a thousand worshipers for the midday prayer, though for special events it has drawn five or ten times that number, and more.
“This is seen as the most complete eco mosque,” Azzikra’s secretary Arief Wahya Hartono told me. “It’s something we are very proud of, even if most people still don’t understand what it means.”
Back in Jakarta, Greenpeace campaigner Atha Rasyadi faces a daunting range of challenges from plastics in the oceans to chronically congested roads – but getting the message across of environmental conservation is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.
“We want mosques to be talking about environmental issues. They have strong influence to their people and we want to make use of that,” he says, describing how Greenpeace Indonesia is building strategic alliances with Muslim civil society organizations.
Hening Parlan, environment co-ordinator for Aisyiyah, Indonesia’s largest women’s NGO, speaks even more plainly.
“There are more than 250 million people in Indonesia, and over 80% of them are Muslim,” she says. “If we are not educating Muslims about the environment, we are achieving nothing. Eco Masjid is the key to making [knowledge of] climate change mainstream.”
It’s starting to work. Arifin, before his death, helped to give Az-Zikra nationwide profile. MUI is partnering with Indonesia’s environment ministry on training courses for mosque leaders across the country addressing issues around wildlife conservation, forest preservation and energy efficiency, beginning with Aceh and Riau on Sumatra island, West Kalimantan on Borneo island, and Lombok. And at Jakarta’s – and Southeast Asia’s – largest mosque, the Istiqlal, which can hold as many as 200,000 worshipers, new solar PV is expected to halve the current 200 million rupiah (about $13,000) monthly electricity bill, alongside a water treatment plant channeling wastewater to a new, highly visible fountain and public park flanking the Ciliwung River around the mosque.
The next step is to move beyond retrofitting wastewater recycling or solar panels onto pre-existing mosques, and instead design in capacity from the start. The authors of the 2019 study in Riyadh, led by Amro M. Elshurafa of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, noted: “If some prior planning were incorporated in the early stages of the mosque’s construction, solar PV can bring down the electricity bill to zero.”
That has been borne out by the experience of Tadmamet, in the High Atlas mountains of southern Morocco. The village’s only public building is the mosque, newly built – almost entirely by the villagers themselves – under Morocco’s government scheme. As well as cavity walls to optimize insulation and small windows to keep interiors cool, the mosque has a solar PV system pre-installed, LED lights and a solar water heater. It is now doubling as a schoolroom for the village children and is feeding surplus energy back to the grid, powering new streetlights.
Tadmamet is an exemplar, says Rachid Naanani of EMC Cluster, a Moroccan nonprofit promoting energy efficiency in construction materials. “Beyond energy efficiency, [Tadmamet] aims to show that we can offer a mosque model which is self-sufficient in terms of energy supply,” he adds.
One of the most impactful such ‘models’ is the Central Mosque that opened last year in Cambridge, England – the first purpose-built ‘eco mosque’ in Europe. It is constructed mostly from sustainably-sourced Scandinavian spruce and is one of the only buildings in the world to use cross-laminated timber on such a scale. A forest of sixteen tree-like columns create an interlaced vault structure above the main prayer hall – designed for a thousand worshipers – that is reminiscent of the gothic fan vaulting used in English medieval church architecture. During the day skylights above each ‘tree’ suffuse the space with natural light; after dark, energy-efficient LED lighting takes over.
Those ‘trees’ support a roof that is sowed with sedum plants, to introduce biodiversity and improve insulation. Even under English skies a rooftop solar PV array generates around a third of the building’s energy use, while storage tanks harvest rainwater and grey water from ablutions for reuse in bathrooms and gardens. Boxes encourage local swifts to nest.
“We wanted to add beehives too,” muses the mosque’s chair of trustees Tim Winter. “The East London Mosque produces its own honey from hives on the roof, but we didn’t have enough space up here.”
A heat pump exploits the temperature gradient between the outside air and the mosque’s interior to keep the building comfortable, but there is no air-conditioning: Insulation ensures warmth from underfloor heating is retained in winter, and in summer hot air is vented passively through ceiling louvers. The parking area, hidden beneath the building, has charge points for electric vehicles and space for 300 bicycles.
On a balcony above the prayer hall, Winter, who is also dean of the Cambridge Muslim College and known as Abdal Hakim Murad, speaks with passion about the meaning of what is both a beautiful and significant building.
“We are showing that religion is part of the solution to the big problems of the world,” he says. “[This mosque] is making an important spiritual and humane statement, that religion is here to counter waste, to encourage us to give thanks for the blessings of creation, to enable us to think collectively rather than selfishly about the problems that face us.”
That statement has universal relevance. In the US, Riverside, California-based activist Nana Firman heads the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Green Masjid program, taking the message of conservation and energy efficiency into mosques across the US and Canada. To pick one example, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque near Washington, DC recently reduced its energy consumption by one-fifth as part of a community campaign that included recycling projects and tree-planting. She has also worked on environmental initiatives at mosques in her birth country, Indonesia, with Hening Parlan of Aisyiyah. This year Firman and ISNA coordinated a Green Ramadan initiative for the Muslim holy month of fasting.
In 2014-15 the British government funded their own Green Mosques project, supporting Muslim communities in London to highlight environmental concerns. In Toronto, a sustainability project dubbed ‘Khaleafa’ – blending the Islamic principle of environmental stewardship (khalifa) with a leaf symbol – spearheads an awareness campaign for prayer leaders at mosques worldwide called ‘Green Khutbah’ (khutbah means sermon). Many more mosque-based eco projects exist, from India to Tanzania.
“The Quran is a book about nature,” says Tim Winter. “It challenges us to look around to see the order of nature – that’s the basis of Muslim theology. Integration into the natural world is the essence of the Quranic summons to humanity.”
What is most striking about the messaging generated around the energy-efficiency schemes in Jordan, Indonesia, and elsewhere in the Islamic world – and the global South more generally – is the positivity. The focus is squarely on improving community life. That contrasts with how similar schemes are promoted elsewhere. In the West, conserving resources is still often seen as a technical issue of science and governance, inextricably linked with forecasts of global catastrophe. We are bombarded with bad-news stories of climate disaster, social upheaval, and economic devastation, and then told that unless we tighten our belts we are doomed.
This existential framing is the truth, but it can often backfire. The intent may be to spur action by scaring people (and governments), but such negative messaging can instead create overwhelming feelings of impotence and desperation, undermining engagement and limiting effective action. When solutions are juxtaposed with predictions of global calamity, they often seem too difficult or disruptive or unpleasant to contemplate.
Yet in reality the path ahead can be as simple as the Islamic world’s ‘green mosque’ schemes say: Reduce consumption and invest in energy efficiency, because it will save money and improve quality of life.
For Jordanian energy consultant Samer Zawaydeh, it’s obvious.
“I give training to seven-year-olds and seventy-year-olds,” he says. “The children know about climate change. Awareness in Jordan is growing. We understand the global issues and we are doing our share, but here, the main reason for installing solar panels is economic. A very small amount is to do with social awareness and global climate change. People understand what other people are doing. If your neighbor [or] your mosque installs solar panels, you will ask yourself why – and the key reason is to get rid of the energy bill. During the past ten or fifteen years, energy costs in Jordan increased three-fold. So solar is a move in the right direction.”
In essence, driving behavioral change worldwide to combat our climate emergency need not be more complicated than that.
The writer thanks Ihab Muhtaseb in Amman and Ahmad Pathoni in Jakarta for their help in preparation of this article.