Two New York City Muslims discuss the Islamic imperative to care for the earth.
“In the midst of the drama around the mosque that’s being erected two blocks from Ground Zero,” wrote Ibrahim Abdul-Matin in the Daily Beast in August, “a few details have been left out that provide some clarity as to the purpose of this project. Specifically, the project will be the country’s first certified ‘green mosque,’ in full compliance with stringent LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, which is why organizers have named the project Park51, rather than the oft-cited ‘Cordoba House.’”
If “green Islam”—or “green Any Religion”—sounds like an oxymoron, meet Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, author of Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet. Ibrahim is an environmental policy consultant who has worked with Green for All, Green City Force, Interfaith Leaders for Environmental Justice, the Prospect Park Alliance, and the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning & Sustainability. And he believes that Islam calls on its followers to protect the earth, and always has.
To explore this, he spoke in November with Khalid Latif, Executive Director and Imam of the Islamic Center at NYU. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg appointed Imam Latif to become the youngest chaplain of the New York City Police Department. He was named one of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims in 2010.
This conversation took place in New York City at Housing Works, a nonprofit bookstore, cafe, and event space that raises money to fight AIDS and homelessness. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: My book is called Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet. I’m going to bring up some ideas and Khalid is going to pontificate on them, and make sense of them, then we’re going to go back and forth. I organized the book into four areas: water, waste, watts (for energy), and food. I’ll just give you a brief story. The year was 2003, there was a gentlemen named James E. Davis. James E. Davis was a city councilman who was gunned down in City Hall in 2003. Three weeks before he was shot down, he and I were at Prospect Park. I was the director of youth programs. We were talking about what was the latest thing, what was the new thinking, and I was just reading and learning about composting toilets. And I was sort of obsessed with composting toilets. I was like, “Whoa, this is the coolest thing ever.” People were like, “Great, composting toilets.” I was like, “If we do every building with composting toilets, it would be the best thing.” And I also learned about distributing energy generation—I thought that was pretty cool, so I was trying to explain to him what it was.
And James was like, “Listen, I think you’ve got something there. But if you can explain it to my guys, then you got something for real.” So I was like, “Alright, what does that mean?” James E. Davis’s guys were basically a bunch of rough construction dudes that lived in Fort Greene projects and they were in a room—like sixty of them in a classroom in Brooklyn. And he was like, “Alright, if you can explain it to them, all this stuff you talk about, then go, then do it.” So that’s when I wrote up water, waste, and watts, the three W’s. And I used that framework to explain to them all of this different stuff I was thinking about; basically, the way we manage those systems is a reflection of how we see ourselves.
That’s where this whole journey began, in a sense. So what I’m going to do today is go through different sections of the book—water, waste, watts, and food—and give a selection from that piece.
First I’ll say this: Green Deen is the first book about Muslims in the United States that does not mention 9/11. You can give me a round of applause for that one. No mention of 9/11. Thank you. I think every time someone asks you about terrorism as a Muslim, you should just talk about water. In the book, I look at six principles. A brother named Faraz Khan from New Jersey looked at many different Islamic scholars throughout history and everything they said related to the environment. And then he made a matrix of these scholars and then all the principles that they mentioned. The top six, the ones that all of them have mentioned, are the ones that I put in the book.
What we know from our deen, the path or way of Islam, is that we are not the owners of anything in the universe.
So the principles are—and Khalid can do a good job of explaining some of them as we talk—I’m reading from page five. The six principles of a green deen: “the conviction that the earth is a mosque is rooted in some core, ethical Islamic principles that we should comprehend when attempting to live a green deen. In order to grasp Islam’s commitment to the oneness of all things, and how this commitment can be used to advocate for the environment, it’s helpful to understand some of the core spiritual principles and practices that align Islam and the environment so closely. These ethical principles, which many scholars of Islam have studied and discussed, were recently codified and presented to me by Faraz Khan, a brilliant young scholar of Islam and the environment.
“They were the principles of tawhid, understanding the oneness of God and his creation, the idea of seeing the signs of God, the ayat, are everywhere. So there’s ayat in the Koran and sections of the Koran. There’s also ayat which are considered miracles, everywhere in nature—ayat all around us, signs of God everywhere in nature.
“Being the steward, being the khalifah of the earth,” and Khalid can expand on the khalifah idea later on… “Honoring the covenant or the trust, the amana that we have with God—so as the representatives of God on earth, we also have a sacred trust and covenant to protect the planet. The fifth one is moving toward justice, adl, and the sixth, balance with nature, mizan.” So the idea is that when you disturb the balance—the delicate, beautiful balance that God has created us in—then you do injustice. Those are the six principles, and I looked at those four areas I described earlier and wove through looking at the six principles and focusing on those different areas.
So we’ll start here, with water. What we know from our deen, the path or the way—oh, by the way, so deen, how many people know what deen means? So it’s spelled d-e-e-n, and it means the path or the way to the religion. So it’s similar to the word dharma, if some people know that term. So Islam is a deen, Christianity is a deen, Judaism is a deen. What we know from our deen, the path or 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, and the somber trust that we have with our creator, to be stewards, khalifah of the earth, means we will be held accountable for our actions. These actions include those related to water. If the earth is a mosque, then 70 percent of our mosque is water. Our mosque is oceans and springs and rivers, lakes and 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, fellow humans, all of whom also need water for survival.
In this time right now, we are in the final days of the hajj. And the hajj, currently, is centered around the city of Mecca. Khalid will expound a little bit on water and the city of Mecca, just to put it in context.
Khalid Latif: The way the city of Mecca actually established itself is around a large oasis that still exists today, from the well that we call the Well of Zamzam. So as our tradition goes, the prophet Ibrahim was commanded to take his wife Hagar and son Ishmael to the deserts and they were left there with nothing but dates and water. And when that runs out, Hagar begins to run back and forth between the two hills that we know as Safa and Marwah. And she ascends to the summit of those hills looking for some kind of sustenance to silence the cries of her infant child.
And while she’s doing that, what our tradition says is that Ishmael, he’s kicking at the ground and where his feet are kicking, the angel Gabriel comes and strikes the ground and at that point the Well of Zamzam is established. And now this water begins to gush forth and birds begin to fly into the middle of the desert where the water is. There’s a tribe that’s at the outskirts of the desert, and they’re called the tribe of the Jurhum. And they see these birds going to the middle of the desert, and they’re really astonished as to why they’d be going where there’s pretty much nothing, just barren land, and they send their emissaries, and to their astonishment they find this infant child, this old woman, and this large body of water. And they ask her, “Can we live around this water?“ And they begin to settle there, and from there the city of Mecca is established. And what we have these days is millions of people pretty much coming from all over the world, and they’re still drinking and benefiting from that well that was established centuries ago.
So the idea is that water essentially attracts life to it. So then, without that water in that area, the city of Mecca probably wouldn’t have been established because there would have been nothing for it to really build itself on. And interestingly enough, our law, which is called sharia, is translated mostly as a path to water. This idea is that when it’s implemented properly, it’s meant to give you a sense of life and a sense of a kind of vibrancy, it’s something meant to be expansive, not restrictive, and it’s supposed to give that vitality that you would get as you would from water, essentially.
Muslims, or any person of faith, if you are concerned about the well-being of folks, then you could primarily be concerned about clean water.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: That’s perfect. On page 122, I say, we can “turn your Green Deen ‘blue’ by setting up a water recycling station in your mosque so the water used for wudu,” wudu is a ritual ablution before you pray, “can be used to water the plants and grass outside. Install water-saving appliances in your home. Take shorter showers. Never, ever dump anything into your local water supply. Don’t buy bottled water! What we choose to do now is a choice we make for ourselves and for our future generations.” And then I go on to say that some 97.5 percent of water on earth is salty, around 1 percent of that is brackish ground water, some 2.5 percent of water is fresh, about two-thirds of that is frozen in ice. That leaves less than 1 percent for us to survive. How are you going to ensure that this small percentage of water not only lasts, but is available for everyone coexisting on the planet Earth? That is a question I have for everyone. Water is the most essential thing that we need for survival, so think about your relationship to water and if you think now, I want you to think about when you wasted water today. If you saw dirty water today, what did you think about? If you were thirsty, how did you feel today, how did it make you feel? Now think of other people, people around the globe that don’t have that. What is our responsibility to ourselves to make sure that everyone has access to clean, healthy, fresh water? That’s why I say, Muslims, or any person of faith, if you are concerned about the well-being of folks, then you could primarily be concerned about clean water. I do make an argument that water should be governed by governments, it should not be privately owned. And I just want you to expound on that for a second, on who owns water.
Khalid Latif: Water is one of those things that’s considered just a basic necessity of life, and the idea that anyone, any individual, can have ownership—it really problematizes the situation because it’s something everyone is meant to have access to. Even in our tradition, we have a lot of rules and laws that pertain to just commerce and business, and in most instances it becomes prohibited for an individual to actually sell water itself because it’s something people are just in dire need of all over the world and can’t function without.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: So the other section that I want to jump to is waste. What I discovered when I was thinking about this was that, really, what we’re talking about is consumption and over-consumption and the patterns of consumption and how do we use things and let them go and, then, what we do do with them? What happens to things? What happens to ourselves when we use and consume things? Because things define who we are. And that’s the challenge we face here. I want to go to page thirty. I went to college and I was l like, “I want to be a communist, I want to be a radical.” And I was like, “Wait, I’m not really a communist.” And then I was like, “I want to make hella money, I wanna be rich.” I was like, “Well, that’s cool, and I definitely want to be rich. But that’s not really my primary goal.” But I felt as though, as a young Muslim, and anyone of faith can probably attest to this, you felt like you were torn between—you had to be one way or the other. You had to say, “I believe in science” or “I don’t believe in science,” or you had to say “I was capitalist” or “I was communist,” like you constantly fit within a dichotomy. So I discovered some things when writing this. Capitalism—or for that matter, socialism and all other economic or human-derived systems of organization and government—all disconnect humans from the natural world. These systems reduce us to units of production, we become relevant only by what we can create. In contrast, Islam teaches that we come with intrinsic value, we do not need to produce or acquire anything to be valuable, we are innately valuable from birth to death. We all have the noble beginning and noble end, our soul has value because it is made by God. And when we recognize our own value and nurture the relationship with the creator, we begin to take better care of ourselves, we see ourselves as a beautiful part of creation.
In thinking about this, I wanted to ask Khalid again about the idea of purification, and specifically—today was the ninth day of Dhul-Hijja, it’s a day of fasting in Islam. And from that perspective, there’s a relationship to purification and fasting and consumption. I just wanted you to talk about that a little bit.
Khalid Latif: You know, it’s interesting. We have five basic pillars to our faith, things that all Muslims are obligated to do. Pretty much how our law functions, there’s very few obligations and very few prohibitions. Most people are probably very well versed with our month of fasting, which is the month of Ramadan, in which we fast from sunrise to sunset, and during the daylight hours we abstain from consumption of food, drink, or any sexual activity. Where it becomes interesting in the context of what we’re talking about here is that fasting in and of itself is something that people pretty much all over the world, from a young age, are mandated to do. And it’s not ritualistic practice in the sense of our prayer or our charity or even of our pilgrimage, in that it necessitates us actively doing something. It’s a very passive action, it’s something made very easy so pretty much everyone can do it. And we’re mandated to do it from the time we hit puberty, which kind of gives us a certain consciousness from a very young age, and essentially what it’s telling us to do is less consumption is actually better, that a process to purifying your physical self and then in turn your emotional and spiritual self is not done by you going out and doing something, but you keep yourself from doing something. You limit the amount of food you’re taking in, limit the amount of drink you take in, limit those kind of carnal desires and that’ll have impact on you and your worldview. And the idea is done from a very young age, which also puts it in perspective, setting you up for later and down the line that you’re not going to necessarily seek to violate the rights that others have over you in your own self-driven principle of consumption.
Energy from heaven comes from the sun and from the wind. Energy from hell is dirty, feeds off subsidies, and drips with the blood of people from all over the globe that pull it out of the ground.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: How many people that have ever been at the top of a mountain, or, yeah, you two. You guys are mountain climbers over here. How many people stood at the edge of an ocean or a large, huge body of water? Have you felt this sense of like, “oh my goodness,” like you just lose your breath almost for a second and gasp? And that sense of awe is, you’re just filled with it. And many times, you’re thinking, “this is what God has created,” or “this is what the universe has created.” Whether you believe in God or not, you’re just in awe of creation, correct? So actually I met this Afghani guy. A lot of these Afghani guys are poetic—they say things beautifully. And he stopped me and was like, “No, no, no, that’s not you seeing what God has done; that’s you recognizing that you’re part of what God has created. That you’re connected to what you’re looking at. And when you’re losing your breath in that second, you’re realizing that you’re connecting to what that is.”
Which I think is a beautiful way of thinking about the way we exist as a part of creation.
Khalid Latif: In our tradition we have numerous instances with the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, where he’s seemingly in conversation with other parts of the creation of God than just human beings. So we have one instance, for example, when he’s standing on top of a mountain. Two of his companions are with him, and the mountain starts to shake, and he says to the mountain, “Be still, because upon you is a prophet, a truthful individual, and someone who will be a witness to God.” But essentially he’s so in tune with that which is around him that he’s literally speaking to the rest of creation. These days, especially in the village, if we saw anybody talking to anything other than a human being we’d think, This guy’s nuts. But the idea was that there was such a sense of responsibility and accountability to everything, even beyond just human beings, that you could have that kind of systematic relationship.
Even if we just dwell upon that one simple aspect to nature, which was the mountain, you find it throughout the Abrahamic as well as in numerous instances in our tradition, where it speaks about the strength—not strength in the sense of physically strong, but a strength that could be equated with that which humans try to espouse when we’re trying to go against struggles in day-to-day hardships.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: There is another part that I became somewhat obsessed with as I was putting this book together. In the watts section, when thinking about coal, the example that I give is, energy from hell vs. energy from heaven. Energy from heaven is energy that comes from the sun and that comes from the wind. Energy from heaven is renewable, and you can use it again. Energy from heaven you don’t have to destroy things to get it. Energy from hell is dirty, and feeds off subsidies, and it’s dripping with the blood of people from all over the globe that pull it out of the ground.
The description I give in here, I’m talking about mountaintop coal removal.
“Mountaintop coal mining is an extremely destructive practice, harmful to both the mountain and to humanity. When the top of the mountain is blown off, the rubble goes deep into valleys, covering the streams and communities that live in those valleys. The rubble consists of boulders known as flyrock and ash. At all steps and stages of mining for coal, there are concerns about huge boulders that can kill people. In fact, Jeremy Davidson, a three-year-old child, was one such casualty. In 2004, Jeremy was sleeping at his home in his bed in Inman, Virginia, when A&G Coal was widening a road at a mine site, and a dislodged boulder rolled down the mountainside and into the Davidson home, killing young Jeremy. The family received three million dollars in settlements and left the region.
“In the small town of Sylvester, West Virginia, the coal company had to install a huge nylon dome over the coal processing plant because it was creating so much coal dust in the town that a parked car, after only an hour, would be covered in three inches of coal dust. This dust is known to cause black lung, a term applied to various respiratory diseases that can lead to severe illness or death.”
People used to only get black lung disease when they used to go underground, in the tunnels. Now they get black lung disease because they live in their homes. When they blow up the top of the mountain, they hear the rushing water. They’re not sure how fast the water is going to run because they completely stripped the mountain bare. The water could be moving so fast that they could have to leave their house immediately. So what they do is sleep in their clothes. And, as you know, if you’re sleeping in your clothes, that’s a war zone—at any given moment you have to get up and go.
We all have the comfort that when we turn on the light switch there is energy. Almost 50 percent of our energy comes from coal. Now if we think of what human beings create, in terms of energy and light, that’s what we can create. We have to destroy an entire mountaintop where the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, a mountaintop like the one he stood upon and felt it rumble and was in tune with.
That’s the light that we can create—the light of the universe that God creates, that comes from the sun. Wouldn’t it be better if we found ways to manifest the power of that light, instead of the light that we have to destroy ecosystems to create. That’s the argument that I have in this book.
I do want to switch the subject, to food. How many people would describe themselves as a foodie?
Before we go on can you describe the concept of Ihsan.
Khalid Latif: We have three categories that are used if someone tries to embrace Islam and navigate themselves through as they’re developing their connection to their religion. Islam is a kind of category—it’s something that is more individualized. It has an external manifestation to it in terms of the pillars of Islam—the fasting, charity, the pilgrimage. Everything is very much focused on you yourself and these individual commitments.
Then you have a level called Iman, which is faith, on an internalized level. And we have six levels of that. Again, those are elements of faith that exist to the individual.
Ihsan is kind of a combination of these two. Essentially it means excellence. That what you do, you do to the best of your ability. You shift way from an egocentric worldview to one that’s more God-centric. Within that you start to think more so about everything that is around you, as opposed to having your primary motivation be yourself.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: So going from egocentric to eco-centric?
Khalid Latif: Something like that, yeah.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: I’m going go to page 174. I want to tell you about this brother Yasir Syeed. He agreed to take me to an Amish family farm he contracts with to get the family’s organic free range meat. He basically sells halal, organic, meat. The farm was truly unique because the owners allow him to slaughter the animals himself. I accompanied Yasir before Thanksgiving to slaughter turkeys, and I immediately noticed how well the birds were living. They were walking around in a very large pen, they were not crowded, they were eating fresh grass. It was funny because we were like, “These turkeys are living good.” The grass is nice and soft.
Our goal was to catch and slaughter sixty turkeys. And I learned that day that catching turkeys is no easy task. Yasir and I ran around the field until we were able to catch them in a big bear hug. So this is the deal, if you’re trying to catch turkeys this is how you do it: Yasir had to teach me how to do the slaughtering in the Islamically appropriate way—this is important. First one must sever the two jugular veins, the two carotid arteries and the windpipe all together in one cut. At the very least, three of these need to be cut together. This ensures that all the blood is drained from the animal. Furthermore, the turkeys are prevented from seeing one another being slaughtered. And also from seeing the knife blade being sharpened. The blade also cannot be serrated. Basically, according to Islamic tradition, the animal should suffer as little as possible.
So when I would make the cut, he would encourage you to put the knife down, because you’re not supposed to get into a habit or feel comfortable slaughtering the animal, and that was the practice every time you do the cut, you put the knife down. You wash the knife off, you wash your hands. You take a breath, you take a moment. And then you do another cut. And each time, you say the blessings before you do it. So it’s not a joke, it makes you want to think— it makes you eat less meat, right? And looking at the factory farm system, you can eat—you can become a vegetarian according to Islamic law. I just want Khalid to briefly just talk about the rights that animals have over us.
The one principle that each community has the same is this idea of human beings as the stewards of the earth, the khalifah, the representatives.
Khalid Latif: You know, it kind of builds off this idea of Ihsan, which essentially means everything in creation has a right over you and vice versa to a certain extent. And kind of even building off what you’re saying, animals that you consume and slaughter for the purposes of consumption, they too have a right over you. So we have a tradition in which very explicitly the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, he sees a man who’s about to slaughter an animal for the purposes of eating it and this man is sharpening the blade that he’s going to kill the animal with in front of the animal. And the Prophet, peace be upon him, reprimands this man and says, Why are you torturing this beast? One of the prophet’s companions, a man named Umar, sees a man about to slaughter an animal for the purposes of eating it and this man has his foot on the animal’s face. And Umar starts to beat this man, and says, Why are you not giving this animal its right? The idea is that everything, essentially, has a right over you. And if you’re exerting this kind of air of God consciousness in your affairs, you know when you translate this word Ihsan it means that you worship God as if you can see Him. Because you understand, although you cannot see him, he can see you. But you have to be conscious of the fact that someone is always watching you, and it makes it a little bit harder for you to dishonor the rights they have over you.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: The one principle that each community has the same is this idea of human beings as the stewards of the earth, the khalifah, the representatives. In Christianity, they speak about having dominion, and in Genesis it speaks of how you are supposed to subdue the natural world and go forth and multiply. Be fruitful and multiply. And in Islam we speak about how as humans we are representatives of God on earth. So across the board this idea of having God consciousness, of being aware of your actions consistently, speaks to the challenge that we face at this particular moment. And the reason that religious communities have not been better about their responsibility to the planet is because we don’t like being wrong, right? Religious communities have this sense of moral superiority. And so they’re like, “No we’re right. Our tradition is right.” Often, we’re in this situation where we have to admit complicity in what we’ve done to the planet. And that’s where religious communities—Christians and Jews and Muslims—have to be humble in this particular moment. In acknowledging that in the past two hundred or more years, we have been complicit in destroying the earth—in dumping toxins into the water, into the land, and into the sea. And we now, because of that complicity, we have a responsibility to make right, to do better than that. We have to be a little more humble, shifting from an idea of the khalifah as one that dominates and controls and destroys and pillages, to being a khalifah that leaves the earth better than we found it.
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