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Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet

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“The Earth is a mosque.”

Muslims are compelled by their religion to praise the Creator and to care for their community. But what is not widely known is that there are deep and long-standing connections between Islamic teachings and environmentalism. In this groundbreaking book, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin draws on research, scripture, and interviews with Muslim Americans to trace Islam’s preoccupation with humankind’s collective role as stewards of the Earth. Abdul-Matin points out that the Prophet Muhammad declared that “the Earth is a mosque.”

Deen means “path” or “way” in Arabic. Abdul-Matin offers dozens of examples of how Muslims can follow, and already are following, a Green Deen in four areas: “waste, watts (energy), water, and food.” At last, people of all beliefs can appreciate the gifts and contributions that Islam and Muslims bring to the environmental movement.

“Ibrahim Abdul-Matin not only shows the myriad ways American Muslims are contributing to the resolution of the environmental crisis that threatens us all but also goes a long way toward humanizing the Muslim community by sharing with the reader the lives of so many extraordinary, talented, and visionary people.”

—Imam Zaid Shakir, Zaytuna College, Berkeley, California.

“Ibrahim blends his passion for a green economy, his love and understanding of faith, and a deep commitment to justice in this book.”

—Van Jones, founder, Green for All.

“At a moment when distortions of Islam are what feed most Americans, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin has done something both practical and inspiring. He persuades us that the imperiled environment is both common struggle and common ground for people who share, it turns out, more than simply God.”

—John Hockenberry, Emmy-award-winning journalist, author of Moving Violations, and host of National Public Radio’s The Takeaway.

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1 The Problem of Overconsumption

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Following a Green Deen and choosing to practice the religion of Islam while affirming the connection between faith and the environment begins, of course, through prayer. From there you can reflect on your relationship with God and with the planet and how you live in it.

I know it sounds funny, but let’s begin with thinking about trash, what creates it, and the processes of consumption and overconsumption. Think of your first recollection of waste. When was the first time you became aware of trash? Each time I pose this question to an audience, the responses usually start out slow as people begin to work the idea over in their heads. I once put this question to a group of young Muslims in New York City—see which of their responses resonates for you.

For Chris, it was when he was a child. Chris and his friends would collect aluminum cans and newspapers for money. They got $3 a pound for cans and $1 a pound for newspapers. He remembers learning for the first time that trash had value. Every day people work to move our trash, and governments pay to dump trash.

 

2 The Environmental Movement as a Response to Overconsumption

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What we think of as the environmental movement today has in reality been a longer process existing in three main phases. The first phase dealt primarily with the regulation of toxic substances that are a by-product of overconsumption. The second dealt with organizing people to respond to the negative effects of pollution in marginalized communities. The third phase, where we are now, consists of transforming our lifestyles, seizing opportunities for innovation, and involving people in the movement who have never been involved before. There was also an important precursor to these three phases—the transformation of the management of resources after the worldwide colonial era.

Throughout each stage, Islam and the environmental movement have had much in common. Each phase contains elements that reflect the six principles of a Green Deen: understanding the Oneness of God and his creation (tawhid); seeing signs of God everywhere (ayat); being a steward of the Earth (khalifah); honoring the trust we have with God (amana) to be protectors of the planet; moving toward justice (adl); and living in balance with nature (mizan). From the perspective of these principles, the environmental movement can be seen as an attempt to restore balance and justice to the Earth after the environmental destruction caused by overconsumption.

 

3 Green Muslims

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I was inspired to write this book after reflecting on my own Green Deen and meeting other Green Muslims who are living the six principles of a Green Deen. I sought out Muslims who are committed to being stewards of the Earth (khalifah), who understand the Oneness of God and His creation (tawhid), who look for signs of Allah (ayat) in everything around them, who move toward justice (adl), who seek to protect the delicate balance of the natural world (mizan), and who honor our sacred trust with God to protect the planet (amana). Happily, what I discovered is that Muslims are involved in every aspect of the stewardship of the Earth.

Stewardship of the Earth comes in many forms. Green Muslims like Aziz Siddiqi of Houston, Texas, are actively involved in environmental policy. Others, like Sarah Sayeed of the Bronx, New York City, are Green Muslims who ensure environmental justice by working with the interfaith environmental community. While this whole book reflects the active involvement of Muslims in the environmental movement, this chapter focuses on some distinct and inspirational efforts, including the famous DC Green Muslims in our nation’s capital.

 

4 Green Mosques

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The mosque is the center of religious and community life for Muslims. Around the globe, the mosque is primarily where people go to pray, but mosques also serve other functions as well. They are used as community centers where Muslims get married, gather after the sun sets in the holy month of Ramadan to end the daily fasting with a communal meal, and hold classes for youth—what some might call “Sunday school.” Given the centrality of the mosque in Muslim life, it is the perfect place to start promoting a Green Deen.

Remember, living a Green Deen means opening your heart to the possibility of understanding the Oneness of God and His creation (tawhid); seeing the signs of God (ayat) everywhere; being a steward of the Earth (khalifah); honoring the trust we have from God to be a protector of the planet (amana); moving toward justice (adl); and living in balance with nature (mizan).

A Green Deen starts with the greening of your local mosque. Mosques are buildings, and buildings are where we use the most energy and emit the most greenhouse gases. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings use 39 percent of the energy and 74 percent of the electricity consumed each year in the United States.1 In New York City alone, buildings are responsible for nearly 80 percent of the city’s “carbon footprint,” or its total amount of greenhouse gas emissions.2

 

5 Energy from Hell

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Energy from hell is energy that is derived from the ground. It is extracted from the Earth, it is dirty, and it is a major cause of pollution and climate change. Energy from hell is nonrenewable; it takes away from the Earth without giving back. It disturbs the balance (mizan) of the universe and is therefore a great injustice (zulm). A Green Deen calls for maintaining the Earth’s balance and treating it justly.

In Islam, Allah calls all people to justice (adl):

O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do. (Qur’an 4:135)

One way we can stand out firmly for justice is by ending our reliance on oil and coal. Energies from hell are particularly devastating and unjust to people and the planet. Oil and coal are toxic to water, sky, and ground. In this chapter, I focus on oil and coal as examples of energies from hell that those aiming for a Green Deen should avoid.

 

6 Energy from Heaven

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Energy from heaven comes from above. It is not extracted from the Earth, and it is renewable. On September 27, 2008, over fifty thousand Americans in seven hundred communities across the fifty United States stood up and said, “America is ready to build the new economy. We’re ready to save people and the planet. We’re ready for green jobs now!” One of those seven hundred communities was the Anacostia community outside of Washington, DC. At the Anacostia Green Jobs Now rally, Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, noticed he was speaking on the lawn of a church and said, “We need to get our energy from heaven, wind, solar, and waves, instead of from hell—the stuff in the ground like coal, oil, and gas.”1

Extraction causes imbalance, whereas energy from above is like a gift from heaven. In this chapter, we discuss how a Green Deen affirms that Islam is a path that opens your heart to the Oneness of God and His creation (tawhid), a path that calls humans to see the signs of God (ayat), to be stewards of the earth (khalifah), and to honor the trust we have with God to be protectors of the planet (amana). A Green Deen acknowledges that God created everything in perfect balance (mizan), that humans are made to perfectly coexist on the Earth, and that disturbing this balance is the fundamental form of injustice (zulm). Our Green Deen is Islam, the religion of 1.4 billion people around the world, and it requires bringing the world into a state of balance in respect to how we consume and manage energy.

 

7 Efficiency and Green Jobs

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Green jobs and a green economy have the potential to transition our society from an economic system that is reliant on pollution to one that is cleaner and greener and that fulfills our responsibility as stewards of the Earth (khalifah). In 2007, the term “green jobs” was barely seen or heard, but the concept took the nation by storm in the 2008 presidential election. National advocacy organizations involved in the environmental movement joined forces to advance a national campaign calling for “Green Jobs Now.” The leading organizations were 1Sky, Al Gore’s We Campaign, and Green For All.1 By the end of 2008, “green jobs” had become a mainstream phrase. Each presidential candidate needed a position on green jobs, which Americans had come to see as a critical solution to pressing problems like global climate change and the failing economy.

This chapter demystifies the green jobs movement and critiques and gives examples of how green jobs and the green economy are deeply rooted in the Islamic ethical principles that command us to embrace justice (adl), to honor our covenant with God as protectors of the planet (amana), and to refrain from corrupting the delicate balance of nature (mizan). To those in the environmental movement, the green economy movement does what they have been seeking for a long time—that is, it assigns value by how a good or a service impacts both the planet and the health of humankind. The green economy is about looking widely at what we are already doing and determining if a process is wasteful and harmful—to people and to the planet, the principle of the Oneness of all creation (tawhid).

 

8 Living off the Grid

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I began this section on watts by talking about the blackout of 2003 in the northeastern United States and how it got me thinking about energy. Throughout this section, we have looked at the sources of present and future energy, and also at energy from heaven versus energy from hell. I have also talked about the promise of green jobs and energy efficiency. Now I want to return to the blackout to talk about how we can address the imbalances in the way we deliver energy.

Blackouts are not unusual in the world. Across the globe, people live in places where energy is unreliable and unavailable. The Qur’an says:

But squander not (your wealth) in the manner of a spendthrift. (Qur’an 17:26)

In places where the flow of energy is seldom interrupted, like the Western world, we need to start seeing energy as a blessing. You don’t squander blessings. The blackout made clear something that Muslims know in our path, or Deen: everything is connected (the principle of tawhid), and the actions that we take in one place affect people in another.

 

9 Water — Essential for Survival

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What we know from our Deen, the path or the way of Islam, is that we are not the owners of anything in the universe. This includes a molecule made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom: water. The Earth is 70 percent water.1 The somber trust that we have with our Creator (amana) to be stewards (khalifah) of the Earth means that we will be held accountable for our actions. These actions include those related to water.2 If the Earth is a mosque, then 70 percent of our mosque is water. Our mosque is oceans, streams, rivers, lakes, springs, and wells. It is our right to benefit from water; indeed, we need it for sheer survival. However, we negate that right if we contaminate, poison, or withhold water from plants, animals, and our fellow humans—all of whom also need water for survival.

This chapter advances two main points regarding the distribution of water. First, water should be a community-shared resource. Second, water should be managed by governments who operate justly. The equitable sharing and just managing of water is central to a Green Deen, the path and religion that espouses the Oneness of God and His creation; it is the most basic way to support Oneness (tawhid), justice (adl), and balance (mizan) in this world. We all come from water, we all need water to survive, and we all are responsible for keeping water safe for everyone.

 

10 Toxic Waste in Our Water

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A Green path, or Deen, recognizes that how we manage waste, watts, and food also impacts our water. This chapter looks at industrial practices and how they have mistreated our water systems.

Water is integral to human life, and the way corporations treat water points to the value they place on human life. The Qur’an says:

We made from water every living thing. (Qur’an 21:30)

Yet for over a century, large corporations have used our water sources as their dumping grounds. The effects have lasted for decades and have caused numerous untold deaths.

One of the worst examples is the mercury poisoning of Japan’s Minamata Bay. Chisso Corporation, a Japanese chemical company, dumped waste mercury into the bay for decades, denied it, and sat back to watch as the contamination destroyed the local fishing stock and sickened the lives of thousands of residents.

Chisso used mercury as a catalyst to produce a variety of materials. It prospered during post–World War II reconstruction and by 1950 was a dominant force in the fishing town of Minamata, even while it dumped wastewater into the local bay. In the 1950s, mullet, lobster, and shad began disappearing. Dead fish floated and birds dropped dead from the sky. By 1954, patients with impaired nervous systems were coming to the hospital at the Chisso plant. Bodies were racked with convulsions, and newborns showed birth defects. Fishermen and their families were most affected by what came to be called the Minamata disease.1

 

11 The Wonderful World of Wudu

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Muslims have a special relationship with water. It is one of the great signs (ayat) of God in nature, and it has been mentioned specifically in the verses of the Qur’an. Water is indeed a sign of Allah that is everywhere in one of its many forms. For everyday Muslims, water is nothing more than an expression of the covenant, or trust, (amana) we have with God, for with it we ritually purify ourselves to begin each act of worship. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that “cleanliness is half of faith.”

For Muslims, cleanliness begins with the practice of bathing and ablution, or wudu, the ritual cleansing before each prayer. We make wudu every day, sometimes five times a day. Water is essential for this most important ritual, but we can also make wudu part of our green, eco-conscious way of living our Deen, the path of Islam, by being conscious of how we use this most precious gift.

The Qur’an gives us the origin and power of water:

He sends down water from the skies, and the channels flow, each according to its measure. (Qur’an 13:17)

 

12 Feeding Your Family

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This chapter is about choices we can make to live a Green Deen by bringing the best possible food to our table. It’s not easy being parents. We must make many important decisions that affect our family—for instance, where to live and where to send our children to school. Another important decision involves food. Finding healthy, affordable, and convenient food is a challenge for many families. Finding and preparing food that is also consistent with living a Green Deen is an even greater challenge, but there are Muslims who have met this challenge head-on. In this chapter, I’ll show you how they’ve done it.

First, before getting to stories of Muslims who are living a Green Deen in relation to food, I need to give you some background on what is wrong with most of the food that is easily available to us, especially with regard to meat. Today, most of the meat sold in supermarkets and served in restaurants, especially fast-food restaurants, is raised in what are called factory “farms,” also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Here huge numbers of animals are crowded together in inhumane conditions, pumped with pharmaceuticals to promote growth as rapidly as possible, and slaughtered on assembly “killing lines”—all for the sake of producing as much meat as quickly as possible, with as much profit as possible. When food production is strictly a business with the sole purpose of making profit, it will never provide high-quality food that is also mindful of the planet.

 

13 Urban and Suburban Food Gardens

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Growing your own food—whether you live in an urban, a suburban, or a rural area—can be a liberating process. When you grow your own food, the connections you make to the planet are tangible. During World Wars I and II, Americans were encouraged to start small gardens called “Victory Gardens.” These gardens were designed to help provide food for citizens during the war since many agricultural workers had been drafted.1 We can adapt this approach to fit our present times, when people are looking for healthy organic food at low cost.

Some of the best spaces for growing food happen to be in the suburbs. Take, for example, a family in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. It’s a nice town with nice people. Some of these nice people are the Ashrafs—the family of my wife, Fatima. They fit the profile the Pew and Gallup polls use to characterize the Muslim American community—well educated, middle-class, and mainstream. They also maintain a Green Deen, living as stewards (khalifah) of the Earth and cultivating the land available to them by keeping a backyard garden.

 

14 The Farmers’ Market

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While writing this book, I learned that food management is a clue to the priorities of a civilization. The choices we make to transform our industrial food system into one that is localized will define our society as we move into the future.

Our current industrial system brings food to our tables from far away, and the financial and environmental costs of transportation are significant. Furthermore, the food is wrapped and packaged when it comes to our door, so once it’s been consumed, there’s still waste to get rid of. Moreover, the manufacture of this packaging is another process that supports the industrial system. Consumers with a Green Deen will want local fruits and vegetables that are pesticide-free and without wasteful plastic packaging.

Muslims are actively involved in bringing farm-fresh produce to local consumers. This chapter highlights Qaid Hassan, a Muslim who runs a farmers’ market in Chicago, Illinois.1

Qaid grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and, like me, is a child of converts to Islam. He was raised in a Sister Clara Muhammad School—named after the wife of Elijah Muhammad, longtime leader of the Nation of Islam, a group of African Americans who practiced a derivative form of Islam.2 Clara Muhammad schools are rigorous institutions of learning with a deep foundation in Islamic principles and are also known for their healthy lunches.3

 

15 Green Zabiha

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Islam has a long-standing tradition of treating animals with respect and slaughtering meat in a clean and humane way. The best meat comes from animals who have enjoyed a tayeb (good) life. As part of following a Green Deen that affirms the Oneness (tawhid) of God and his creation, we need to look for humanely raised, grass-fed halal meat that is wrapped in environmentally friendly, nonwasteful packaging.

I have mentioned Yasir Syeed earlier in this book, for he is perhaps the most passionate and eloquent spokesperson for the role that the Deen, or the religion of Islam, plays in the larger movement for protecting the planet. “It’s not about organic, halal, grass fed,” he says adamantly on the stage, flailing his arms and smiling. “It is something much deeper.” Yasir wants to inspire you. “We treat animals,” he says, “as though they are raw materials and humans are just consumers.”

Yasir sees a more noble role for humans, animals, all of creation. “Everything in the heavens and the Earth does thikr (remembrances of Allah),” he reminds us, quoting a scholar from another time when humans were better stewards (khalifah) of the Earth. “All of creation has a spiritual essence, and a physical reality.”

 

16 American Halal — Setting the Stage for the Future

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In an industry that runs on marketing information, Adnan Durrani has become a master of managing data and trends that will inform tough decisions. He is a compelling figure in the growing halal food marketplace because he has had proven success running a large business in the past. He is uniquely positioned to making halal and organically grown, ethically raised meat and vegetables a staple of the American and Canadian diet—Muslim or not. Adnan is also a connector of like-minded Muslims all over the world and an interfaith leader who regularly engages in dialogue with people from all walks of life. With his knowledge base, network, and vision, he is setting the table for the future of halal and organic eating.

Adnan is an ethical entrepreneur and a responsible and ethical investor who starts and supports firms that reflect his values. We first met in 2006 at a conference of entrepreneurs seeking to develop a “caring capitalism.”1 In one of the sessions on the environmental movement, I made the observation that the “green movement” needs to be better connected to communities of faith, which already have a vested interest in protecting the planet. Afterward, Adnan identified himself as Muslim and asked if I knew where the mosque in Tucson was. I did know, and he and I drove over for Friday congregational prayer. Over the years we have stayed in touch, partly because he understands his role as a steward (khalifah) of the Earth and wants to leave it better than he found it. Adnan also recognizes the importance of developing talent to help build an industry and has begun mentoring young entrepreneurs with good ideas and a strong commitment to a Green Deen.

 

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