In a 2001 Hannity & Colmes appearance, conservative columnist Ann Coulter said, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants,the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it! It’s yours.'” But just as some Christian groups are taking are more Earth-friendly approaches, there is a swelling movement among American Muslims that stands in direct contrast to Ann Coulter’s interpretation. To members of the Green Muslim movement, sustainability is as much a part of their faith as their five daily prayers. In an atmosphere where religion and science are often pitted against one another, these Muslims are using core values of Islam to push for change in environmental policy.
“At the heart it is an issue of world view. How we view ourselves in relation to nature. Whether we’re part of it or a part from it,” says Mohamad A. Chakaki, an independent environmental consultant and a founding member of Green Muslims in the District. “It’s about reconnecting people to each other, to nature, themselves,” says Chakaki. Chakaki, Sanjana Ahmad, their friend Sajid Anwar, and a group of their like-minded friends began the group in the spring of 2007 with simple educational programs in mosques and homes.
For Chakaki, living sustainably is an inherent part of Muslim life. “In Islam the body is temporary; the soul is what belongs to God. The same can be said of the earth and the resources it provides, they belong to God—not man,” says Sajid Anwar, who worked with area non-profits on water and climate change issues, presenting an idea in opposition to Coulter’s statements. Chakaki says stewardship “does not mean absolute power of humans over nature. … It is a trust, an immense responsibility.” Farkhunda Ali, who in 2008 won an Ethnic Media Award for her writing on immigration, also sees a natural convergence between sustainability and Islam. “Organic is in my opinion more Halal than Halal.” Halal is an Arabic word that means in accordance with Islamic law.
While it might appear that Green Muslims in the District simply jumped on a trend, Chakaki, one of the group’s founders, says that “people have been writing about this direct connection between Islam and environmentalism for a while.” In fact, Chakaki points to the work of the George Washington University’s Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies. Nasr’s writings are one of the things Chakaki says led him to a career in environmentalism.
To have D.C. area Muslims connect their faith to sustainability requires “taking general religious principles and seeing how they apply to our resource consumption,” says Ahmad, an environmental activist now living in Jordan. “Being green isn’t a matter of buying the latest gadget. It’s living sustainably in line with your religious values and principles,” Ahmad says. Sustainability starts with a consciousness of everyday habits, not one’s wallet.
Ahmad’s interest in environmentalism began in the classroom when her fourth grade teacher invited the city’s recycling director to class. “We asked questions like ‘why don’t you take aluminum foil?’ It was those kinds of interactions that helped me realize there’s a whole policy space and civic participation is important. Through that teacher I learned a lot about environmentalism and awareness.”
For Anwar, who since our initial interview has started a graduate program in global environmental politics, it was during a trip to Hawaii that he saw “charismatic animals that are a part of every day life in Hawaii and often associated with Hawaii itself.”
This ability to associate the flora and fauna of a region is a connection Ahmad works hard to instill in people. “Get people to think about something they find peaceful and they will automatically talk about something very natural—a sunset, a mountain view, the ocean,” Ahmad says. “I encourage them to learn the names of the trees and animals in their area, Once you can look outside and say ‘oh, that’s an elm tree’ you appreciate it more.”
Rather than looking at charts and graphs, Chakaki asks people to take account of their daily lives to find simple, practical steps to lower their environmental impact.
At a local mosque, Chakaki and others pointed out that “you need very little water” when making ablutions, or performing a ritual purification bath, and encouraged people to use a small container. Green Muslims in the District was able to take a part of daily life for Muslims and find a simple way to relate to a larger green consciousness. Chakaki often uses the words of the Qur’an itself to teach these principles; in his work he talks of a Hadith, or narration originating from the words of the Prophet Muhammad, in which Muhammad instructs his followers not to waste water even when by a flowing river. To Ahmad this was an example of “taking general religious principles and seeing how they apply to our current resource consumption.”
Though Green Muslims in the District aims to use traditional Islamic texts along with the Hadith the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and theSunna, or the practices of the Prophet Muhammad, they do not mean to drive Muslims into the past. Instead, it is a way to show their peers that Islamic tenets can be used to address contemporary issues.
Furthering the connection between Islam and sustainability, Green Muslims in the District created “Green Iftars” during Ramadan. Iftars are ritual evening meals to break the fast Muslims observe during Ramadan. Green Muslims in the District encourage those observing the meal to prepare organic and local food, conserve paper, and carpool or take public transit at this time. The initial Green Iftar dinner in 2007, hosted by Green Muslims in the District had only 15 participants, but the next year the number of attendees increased to 40.
Green Iftars were so successful that the group developed the Ramadan Pact, or a pledge that encourages participants not to purchase anything for a month. Ahmad says a buy-nothing Ramadan was another “good way for people to connect something that has so many traditions and is such a big part of Muslim culture with something environmental,” says Sanjana Ahmad.
Ahmad says the Ramadan Pact forced people to realize “consumption is not just about buying stuff at the store. It has a history. Where did the natural resources come from—a metal mine in Africa run by child labor? How were they put together—a sweatshop with workers barely making a living wage? Where did they end up—in a toxic landfill near an ecologically blighted community? This project help[ed] us combine important aspects of our faith: spiritual reflection and improvement, with a concern for others.”
Such questions about the workers who produce the products become increasingly personal to the Muslim community since many nations that have been documented with sweatshops and metal mines have large Muslim populations.
Ahmad connects this world view to the fact that “Muslim countries having resource constraints are intrinsically [wiser] about managing resources. When I went to Bangladesh, they made shoeboxes out of recycled paper. That’s not some pioneering effort; it’s just an easy way to use what you have.” To Ahmad and Chakaki, in contemporary American society it is easy to not be cognizant of your impact, however, in nations where it takes greater effort and ingenuity to simply go about daily life, even the simplest things can prove vital. Founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core,a Chicago based organization that focuses on young people of different faiths engaging in service work driven by their shared ideal, Eboo Patel, stated simply “the environmental crisis will affect Karachi before it affects Chicago. Just breathing the air in Cairo is equal to smoking 10 cigarettes a day.”
Though Mohamad Chakaki, Sajid Anwar, and Sanjana Ahmad have all moved on from Green Muslims in the District, they each continue to be a part of the green movement within Islam through their own actions in their daily lives. “At the core of what we’re trying to do is reconnect [with the Earth], because we live in the United States in the 21st century. It’s harder to reconnect to ourselves. To each other. To the natural world. To Allah,” says Chakaki.