Introduction: Transcendental food and agriculture

There is no doubt that agriculture and food are important, if not central, to the teachings of Islam – and this is also true of other heavenly religions. Just think of how the heavenly religions describe Paradise, the Garden of Eden built of beautifully tended, well-ordered vegetation, with colorful flowers, vast expanses of land, clear flowing rivers made of honey, milk or khamr. Food is a symbol of prosperity, physical pleasure and spiritual satisfaction. However, what is equally important is: What kind of food symbolizes all that?

All kinds of fruits, for example, carry the image of food perfection and are a basic component of paradise, and are closely associated with goodness (perhaps with the exception of the khuldi fruit). Even alcohol has good value, if only it is not intoxicating. The connoisseurs of these types of food are the dwellers of heaven, or in this mortal world, adequately represented by kings and nobles. Cereals (wheat, corn, rice, and the like), on the other hand, symbolize prosperity for the common people, food for everyone no matter what class, a form of divine love in Greek or Indian myths. Cereals itself is derived from the word Ceres, Mother Earth in Roman mythology. In Hindu cosmology, Sanghyang Dewi Sri is symbolized by rice (and other complementary foods).

In the history of human civilization, food has been attached to deep and complex values in line with the cultural context of the local community, whether good or bad. The Qur’an Surah Al-Ghaasyiyah verses 6-7 tells of the torturous food of a thorny tree, which neither fattens nor relieves hunger. In another Surah, God specifically mentions a drink made from zanjabil (ginger) as a description of the characteristic drink of heaven (QS. Al Insaan verse 17). It is clear that food is more than just a hunger reliever and a provider of nutrients for humans to move, grow and develop. Food is a source of pleasure that is deeply embedded in the culture of a society, so much so that there are certain types of food/beverages that are reserved for Gods and Kings, and not for commoners. Take chocolate (cacao), derived from the word Chocolatl, the food that the god Quetzalcoatl in the Aztec culture gifted to humans (cacao’s Latin name, Theobroma, literally means food of the gods).

Let’s stop talking about food for a moment, and turn to agriculture as an activity that is fundamental to society. Agriculture is often held up as the starting point of human civilization. In his book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond (1998) points to primitive societies’ discovery 13,000 years ago of farming as an important leap forward in technological advancement, as well as a determinant of the inequality that has since persisted in human history. Diamond, a professor of human physiology, began to question the roots of social inequality when he spent much time in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. From his investigations, Diamond concluded that it was not genetics that made one society superior to another, but what he called geographical advantage – that some prehistoric societies were more fortunate than others to live in places inhabited by certain types of plants and animals that allowed them to farm and build complex cultures. The assertion that agriculture and food were central to the lives of prehistoric societies seems indisputable.

This may also be the reason why the Qur’an repeatedly (QS. An-Nahl 10, Al-An’aam 99, Al Hajj 5, Thaahaa 53, Ar Ra’d 4, Al A’raaf 58, and many more) mention the variety of plants that come out of the fertile soil from the water that comes down from the sky, and how livestock benefit from the various plants. Farming is one of man’s responsibilities as a khalifah on earth. Growing crops from good soil, and managing plants and animals for the good of mankind is often contrasted with causing damage to the earth. The Prophet’s portrayal of a shepherd is a clear example. Furthermore, we can also reflect on other cultures such as the Maori in New Zealand. For the Maori people, farmers are defined as tangata whenua, which literally means guardians of the earth (Anderson et al., 2014).

As I conclude this first part of the discussion, I am left with the impression and argument that both agriculture and food are fundamentally good – but not only good, they are essential and fundamental. As recognized in cultures in all parts of the world, Islam also elevates agriculture and food in the Qur’an. The question is: what kind of agriculture and food is good? And how has Islam positioned agriculture and food in its historical development to date? It should be underlined from the outset that this paper is not intended to examine the history of Islamic civilization or look at how agriculture is linked to Islamic fiqh and sharia – the author does not have the competence to do so. Instead, the narratives that follow will discuss the dynamics of world agriculture and food from the pre-colonial era to the present in the era of post-modernism, and position the extent to which Islam plays a role in it. Some historical depictions are framed in a sociological-historical perspective according to the author’s knowledge.

Food, world trade and colonialism in various forms

The history of Islamic civilization is marked by encounters with new cultures in Europe, Asia and Africa. For European society, Islam arguably brought many changes. When Islam spread to the European plains, local people came into contact with many exotic food ingredients such as coffee (kahwa), cumin, and dozens of other spices. Before the time of the Crusades, Islam excelled in the world trade of these commodities because of its access to sources of production spread across the globe. Europeans were connoisseurs – they enjoyed a sip of coffee, or needed a combination of cardamom, cumin and cloves to preserve and flavor their beef (Schivelbusch, 1992). Western Europeans, particularly the Spanish, Portuguese and Italians were major consumers, and this is reflected in the region’s local Mediterranean culinary choices, which were influenced by Islam. However, historical evidence suggests that the Nordics (Vikings) also enjoyed trading with Islam, as recent evidence of a cloth inscribed with Allah (in Arabic script) was found in one of the Viking tombs (Sharman, 2017). Deep in east to southeast Asia, Islamic trade relations were established with the small kingdoms of Malacca, Srivijaya, Majapahit, and Ternate and Tidore, which as we know colored the development of Islam in the archipelago. While trade was key, food commodities were at the core of the trade. For example, we already know how cloves, nutmeg and sandalwood were brought from the eastern archipelago to Europe through trade relations with Arab, Persian and Gujarati merchants in the 13th to 15th centuries (Ricklefs, 2008).

Entering the Crusades, trade relations between Islam and Europe were disrupted. The Portuguese lost access to various types of food that they used to obtain through trade with Islam. As a seafaring nation, it was a logical step for sailors like Vasco Da Gama to explore sources of spices to break their dependence on Islam. In the 16th century, expeditions in search of spice islands in the east began, with an initial stop in Goa, India. The Portuguese found pepper and cardamom, but still not what they were looking for. The journey continued to Malacca, one of the largest port cities in the world. There, they found spice markets filled with Malay, Chinese, Arab, Persian and Gujarati traders, trading in Malay. The Portuguese were clearly losing their way. To monopolize the market, the Portuguese decided to conquer Malacca. However, Malacca was a market, not a place of production. It was only a year after the Portuguese conquered Malacca that they finally discovered the spice islands in the Maluku Islands.

The Portuguese were basically traders, so the steps taken by the Portuguese were limited to controlling the spice trade for Europeans by cutting the distribution channel. In simple terms, the Portuguese traded with the Moluccas. For more than 70 years the Portuguese enjoyed the benefits of controlling this trade. On the eve of the war between European empires at the end of the 16th century, the Dutch took over the Moluccas through the exploration of their warships under the VOC flag. The steps taken by the Dutch were different from the Portuguese, as the VOC intended to control the Moluccas by conquering them. The event known as the Banda Massacre colored the VOC’s cruelty, in which the VOC massacred the entire population of Banda, burned its clove and nutmeg plantations and rebuilt the clove and nutmeg plantations in locations fully controlled by the VOC. In short, the VOC laid the foundations of colonialism in the archipelago for the next 350 years.

The Dutch actions brought fierce resistance to the people of the archipelago, especially to the Islamic kingdoms that were growing at the time. The Islamic kingdoms of Gowa Tallo, Mataram, Ternate-Tidore and Banten provide examples of such resistance efforts, partly based on the drive to fight colonialism and paganism. Islam, in this case, became the driver of the anti-imperialism and Dutch colonialism resistance. This continued during the VOC colonization, until the fall of the VOC in the early 19th century and the emergence of another form of Dutch colonialism in the form of the Dutch East Indies Government.

In terms of global agriculture and food, the transformation that took place in the 19th century was triggered by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. Industrialized societies’ demand for food increased dramatically, but was also limited to specific types of food. International food trade and production were reduced to a few key commodities that characterized industrialized societies: sugar, tea, coffee, rubber, indigo or cocoa from the tropics, and staple foods (wheat, meat and milk) from the British colonies. Indonesia, known as the Dutch East Indies at the time, was a leading exporter of key tropical commodities, particularly coffee and sugar. This was driven by the success of the agricultural system called kultuurstelsel. West Java coffee, or Java Preanger, was the best coffee in the world at the time. On the other hand, sugar factories in Java were state-of-the-art, and sugarcane production had the highest productivity in the history of sugar production in Indonesia up to that time. This success was recorded in a book entitled Java: or How to Manage a Colony from Money (1861).

What about Islam at the time? Outside of local resistance in the Dutch East Indies, and perhaps elsewhere, Islam’s role in the dynamics of world food production was practically nil. Arguably, under conditions of war and western colonial domination, Islam gave color to the dynamics of food trade indirectly through the struggle towards nationalism in various countries in Asia and Africa. Sarekat Dagang Islam (SDI) is perhaps one example where Islam entered the archipelago with the spirit of independence, but through trade. This continued in post-independence Indonesia through the solidarity of third world countries beyond the cold war between the United States and Communist blocs.

In the face of the post-World War world, agricultural production in different countries was made uniform. The green revolution, as people called it, was directed at a few key carbohydrate-providing commodities: rice, corn, wheat and potatoes. Modern agriculture took more or less the same form all over the world, through technological packages of improved seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and farm mechanization to increase production as much as possible. Local, more sustainable agriculture is clearly being abandoned, in some places even by force. On the other hand, the United States built hegemony through market control over its wheat and soybeans. The US implemented dumping politics through its Food Aid policy, where it dumped its excess production as aid to developing countries (Friedmann & McMichael, 1989). This had the dual benefit of not only preventing prices from falling, but also creating new colonies amidst the onslaught of communism. This US hegemony transformed food agriculture towards industrialization, built new multinational corporations along the food production value chain, and changed the face of the food system completely. The US society, and eventually the world, became a consumptive society accustomed to fast products and packaged foods. Food variety is reduced to even less, where the raw materials of processed foods are no longer known where they come from (or what!). On the consumption side, people are treated to ’empty calories’, food that is far from good, and leads to various food-based diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. On the production side, intensive farming systems pollute the environment, undermine social order and build farmers’ dependence on industry (Dixon, 2009).

This factory-like food system again negates the role of Islam in it. Let us return to the images of food and agriculture in the first chapter of this paper. The image of paradise with fruits and clear flowing drinks has been lost in how people consume their food now. Meat may be halal (i.e. not pork), but the way it is mass-produced is not considered good (thayib), because it causes epidemics of food-based diseases. Similarly, the description of agriculture is far from the description in the Qur’an. The soil is no longer fertile and good, the damage is done within the agricultural system itself such that the image of thorny trees producing food that does not fill you up more or less reflects the world’s agricultural production at that time. The world’s agriculture and food production, I would go to the extreme and say, is far from Islamic values. But where are Muslims or Islamic institutions in resisting this world agricultural hegemony? It seems that Muslims are still being carried away – either because food and agriculture are not considered central anymore, or because we are indeed shackled in a system that is already entrenched in any society in the world.

Reflexive consciousness and the point of food transformation: what role does Islam play?

It was Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist, who documented the turning point of society towards the negative effects of the modern system (Beck, 1992). The risk society, as it is called, is a society that realizes the various uncertainties and threats that exist in this world related to the various products we consume. In response to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962), people are increasingly aware of the dangers of agriculture and industry to the environment. Organic lifestyles, healthy and pesticide-free food, fair trade systems, and new agricultural models began to grow in the 1980s until today. What started as a public concern has now evolved into various external auditing schemes for agricultural and food production at the global level. The European retailers’ union in the 1990s implemented a product certification scheme called EurepGAP, which later evolved into GlobalGAP. This scheme labels food products as sustainably produced. On the other hand, people in developed countries are becoming increasingly aware of labels – be it Organic, Eco-label, FSC, Animal Welfare, Fair Trade, 4C, and many more. In Europe, consumers are prepared to pay more for products that, although rated the same in terms of product quality, are better in terms of process quality (Campbell, 2005).

In the growth of this scheme, Islam then contributed with the concept of Halal. There is nothing new about the obligation for Muslims to consume halal food, that is for sure. But halal as part of a global auditing scheme has only developed in the last few decades. The recent government policy of a governmental Halal Certification Agency complementing the MUI is one response to the globalization of food auditing schemes. Similar to the Organic Label, Halal certification is an audit of the quality of the process, not the product. However, with the growth of the world’s Muslim population and their awareness of the importance of halal, the Halal audit scheme has grown as a new market opportunity for food producers around the world – and not just for Muslim producers. In developed countries such as Australia and Europe, farmers, food processors and slaughterhouses are competing to get Halal certification for their products. Halal has been institutionalized within the framework of the world food system, and Islam clearly plays a central role in it (Fischer, 2005).

But what about good (thayib) itself? This definition in the agri-food sector is still very grey, and there has been no attempt to institutionalize thayib in food production. Nonetheless, as the world’s agriculture transforms towards a more environmentally friendly and smallholder-friendly direction, Muslims are finally beginning to speak out, albeit sporadically and casually. I would like to illustrate with three examples of cases in Indonesia where Islam has again taken part, or at least given its own color, in the construction of the image of Islamic agriculture-food.

The first case is where Islamic values permeate the building of a people’s economy, or in Mills’ terms, a moral economy, particularly in the agricultural sector. After the New Order regime, the important role of Field Extension Officers (PPLs) from the Ministry of Agriculture almost completely disappeared. First, because people lost trust in this institution. Second, because there was no regeneration within the field instructors themselves. The community then began to turn to farmer activists who emerged from the grassroots or the private sector. In some places, religious leaders have become central in developing new agricultural models. Take the case of Al-Ittifaq Islamic Boarding School in Ciwidey, where the wheels of agriculture and the agricultural economy are driven by Kiai Fuad and his team of teachers and students. Through Al-Ittifaq, horticultural farmer groups in Ciwidey began to build a stable market for their products free from the shackles of middlemen. Farmers began producing good quality vegetable products for supermarkets in Bandung and surrounding areas. The cooperative system with its loan and profit-sharing system also helps farmers to circulate their capital. The santris, on the other hand, helped with the farming, and with that the spirit and pride for farming grew among them. Some other pesantren, such as those in Garut and Sukabumi, also apply more or less the same concept. Indeed, not much has changed from the agricultural system they apply at the land level. However, the value of Islamic teachings has become a driving force for improvements in the trading system, the economic system and the welfare of smallholders. In Al Ittifaq, the model of an agricultural economy centered on Islamic institutions, be it pesantren or mosques, continues to expand more widely into the surrounding areas. At another point, the government began to respond to this growth by promoting a concept called Eko-pesantren, a form of cooperation between the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, although not necessarily about agriculture. This might be seen as one concept of thayyib in agri-food.

Another case is where Islamic values permeate new concepts and values about agriculture. I take the case of Bumi Langit Foundation, Imogiri Yogyakarta, which was developed by Mr. Iskandar Waworuntu. Bumi Langit Foundation implements an agricultural model called permaculture. Permaculture developed in Australia in the 1980s through an agriculturalist named Bill Mollison and his student, David Holmgren. The concept of permaculture is agriculture that is not only organic, but also in harmony with the ecosystem, self-sufficient, and sustainably designed (Mollison, 1988). Permaculture was inspired by Japanese agronomist Masanobu Fukuoka’s book on the concept of natural agriculture (1978). Permaculture developed more broadly as a movement that emphasizes balance and lifestyle – it is more than just farming. The influence of permaculture extends to all parts of the world, even in Indonesia where agriculture has been heavily indoctrinated by the Green Revolution style of farming. However, what is interesting about permaculture is its flexibility in adapting to local ecosystems and, more interestingly, local cultural values. In West Java, permaculture is very similar to the Kebun-Talun farming system, where farmland is zoned, and in one talun field annual crops are combined with stands of trees and perennial crops, so that agricultural production does not stop throughout the year – the concept of permanent agriculture, or permaculture (Whitten et al., 1996). Some permaculture promoters in Indonesia are now beginning to combine the values of Mollison’s version of permaculture with the traditionalism of West Javanese-style farming.

In this article, I would like to return to Bumi Langit Foundation and Iskandar Waworuntu. Mr. Iskandar is an artist who lived in Bali for a long time, who later studied permaculture and implemented the concept of permaculture farming in Bali. He is also a convert to Islam. His quest for Islam brought him to Imogiri, where he again applied permaculture and disseminated it to the local community, but now with Islamic values infused into it. For him, permaculture goes hand in hand with Islam. Returning to the image of Islamic agriculture-food that I discussed earlier, Pak Iskandar’s Islamic permaculture emphasizes the values of harmony with nature, the role of caliph on earth to not cause damage, care for every creature of God, even if it is considered a pest to others, to the values of water that continues to flow that soaks good soil, so that good trees and food are produced. The concepts of organics and harmony with nature get an Islamic touch in Pak Iskandar’s permaculture teachings. For him, teaching permaculture to the community cannot be separated from teaching Islam. At Bumi Langit Foundation, every night Pak Iskandar discusses with residents, volunteers, staff and visitors about Islam and agriculture. Unlike the previous case, Islam here permeates the values of farming philosophy and the Sufistic lifestyle inherent in it. Again, this could also be a different thayib.

The last case is what is now developing in Bogor and Bandung. Kang Asep Bezo, as I know him, is the founder and promoter of an agricultural garden that he calls Kebun Qur’an. The interesting thing about this is that he is developing a garden where the plants that are cultivated are those mentioned in the Qur’an. Here, we can find crops that we never thought could grow in Indonesia: dates, tien, olives, for example. Other crops such as ginger, black cumin and other herbs are also cultivated. Kang Asep is trying to break the myth that plants that grow in the Middle East cannot grow in Indonesia. In addition, he also still carries organic values as a way of producing his produce, although it is not as basic as that developed by Pak Iskandar. This is also what Jonggol Farm in Bogor is developing on a wider scale, although I have never personally visited the location. In one online news media (, the owner of Jonggol Farm, Mr. Muhaimin Iqbal, stated that the way to believe in the growth of Qur’ānic plants is to believe in the Qur’ān itself, to believe that what is mentioned in the Qur’ān is the best for humans.

Closing: giving Islam a more central role in food

The above presentation recounts the social transformations underlying changes in the world’s agri-food systems. Social scientists are debating how to predict the future of global agriculture. On the one hand, the future of agriculture is characterized by modern technology: the concepts of precision farming, agricultural big data, genetic engineering, changes in market structure, and global mass agriculture are on the horizon. Similar to the Green Revolution, this technology-intensive agriculture will create a higher social divide within the farming community. Smallholder farmers who dominate Indonesia’s agricultural landscape are likely to be further eliminated with the development of this post-modern agricultural model in the near future. On the other hand, the global agricultural system under the shadow of Audit, Label and Certification will grow. The transformation of the halal system in Indonesia needs to be anticipated, both positively and negatively. It is true that we can have more trust in the food we buy today, but the institutionalization of halal is likely to create new inequalities in agricultural production. Will we return to an age where there are foods for Gods and Kings (well-labeled, premium, exclusive), while there will be foods for the commoners who cannot meet the Audit scheme?

Nonetheless, I have high (and somewhat biased) hopes for a future agriculture characterized by a post-industrial society that is back to the village, communal, local, but still open and connected to the outside world. Community-based forms of agriculture are starting to flourish in Indonesia, following what happened in developed countries a decade or two back. These farms are more sensitive to social inequalities and seek to improve agricultural communities from their social roots. Agriculture is no longer seen sectorally, but as part of the wider fabric of society. On that basis, agriculture that emphasizes harmony with nature or the people’s economy will also continue to find space in the future. Islam as I understand it has a big role to play here, not only because of the characteristics of Indonesia’s Muslim-majority society, but also because this is what is needed by the rural farming communities that make up more than 40% of Indonesia’s population – and because they are increasingly threatened by the erosion of the times. Islam is rahmatan li’l aalamin, and therefore it is only right that we start with an area that is equally important to society and the environment: Agriculture.


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