Faith, Justice and Going Green

Photo by Naib Mian.

Photo by Naib Mian.

Ali Rashad converted to Islam 37 years ago. For 30 years, he’s worked as a contractor in Chicago. Now, he manages a program called Green ReEntry, a project by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) that provides formerly incarcerated men with transitional housing and training in the field of green construction.  For Rashad, the term green doesn’t just mean environmentally sustainable. “Green is a color of prosperity and good will in Islam,” he says.

Rashad’s job is to teach program participants how to construct homes following certain environmental guidelines. The men install solar panels, environmentally friendly furnaces and organic insulation in the new homes. The program emphasizes reducing waste by reusing the remnants of existing homes to build new ones. At the core of IMAN’s environmentally conscious efforts is an understanding that Muslims have a spiritual obligation to live a “green” life, in all the color’s connotations. Rashad and the cohort at Green ReEntry understand this. Mujahid Hamilton is a former graduate of the program, and he says it’s made him more mindful. “I used to get into the shower and just keep the water I get wet, soap up, rinse off, and I only keep it on when I need to,” says Hamilton. About the formerly incarcerated men who come into the program, he says they may not necessarily come in knowing much about environmentalism, but they learn how to make small adjustments in their lives.

The Green ReEntry program derives its spirit of Islamic environmentalism from the faith’s core teachings. Dr. Md Saidul Islam, a Canadian sociologist, coined the term “the Islamic Ecological Paradigm (IEP) to discuss Muslims’ responsibility to the environment. By analyzing the Quran and Hadith, he uncovers an Islamic tradition of environmentalism dating back to medieval history. It’s a history that prioritizes the protection of the ozone layer, the preservation of water, and the fair treatment of animals, and it’s substantiated by Quranic verses.

“And We made the sky a protected ceiling, but they, from its signs, are turning away”(21:32).
“And We have sent down blessed rain from the sky and made grow thereby gardens and grain from the harvest” (50:9).
“And there is no creature on [or within] the earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are] communities like you. We have not neglected in the Register a thing. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered” (6:38).

From these verses, we can gather a number of things. For one, we can understand our obligation to protect the ozone layer from releases of toxic compounds. We can also infer that water is intended as a public good not to be commoditized, sold for profit, or kept from the poor. Certainly, it’s not to be poisoned, as we are seeing in black and brown communities in Flint, Michigan, and Native American communities across the country. Lastly, we are forced to reckon with the idea that humans are not necessarily superior to other beings. If animals belong to communities just like ours, we have some modern institutions to reconsider: zoos, slaughterhouses and animal testing, for example.

Ultimately, our obligation to the environment as humans, according to the Quran, comes down to the term “khalifa.” Khalifa has multiple meanings including deputy, guardian, and ‘friend of Earth.’ Essentially, however, it implies that to be human is to promise to take on the responsibility to care for the planet and for other beings on it.

Beyond religious ideals, Muslims have a historical and political relationship to the environment. Around the world, Muslims have faced the brunt of colonialist and imperialist regimes that have destroyed their environments, foods, and ways of life. These regimes have prioritized profit over people by commodifying water and limiting its availability, and destroying lands used to cultivate fruits and vegetables. As climate change further destabilizes the world, it is once again Muslim communities who will be at the forefront of its consequences.

“There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and a lot of them are in latitudes that will be primarily affected by climate change,” says Asma Mahdi, the executive director of Green Muslims. “Climate change is not just sea level rise. It’s not just extreme weather events. It’s also the movement of bodies across borders, and we’re seeing that with the current refugee crisis.”

Green Muslims is an organization that seeks to promote environmental awareness among Muslim communities. Mahdi sees Islam and environmentalism as two deeply linked ideas. Climate scientists and writers argue that the Syrian refugee crisis was significantly exacerbated by climate change. According to an article in the American Meteorological Society Journal, Syria suffered its worst drought in more than 900 years. Water became scarce, and food prices surged, helping spur the civil war.

Although Mahdi acknowledges that it’s difficult to think about being an environmental advocate when you are “fighting just to exist in the state,” she strongly believes the environment is the core issue at the center of most others. In many ways, it’s the lowest common denominator of most human struggle.

“I think the American [Muslim] dream for a very long time specifically has been: you come to the U.S, you buy a big house, you buy a fancy car, and that shows that you made it. So, living minimally, not having such a huge carbon footprint…those haven’t necessarily been seen as means of success. I think our generation is starting to change that,” Mahdi explains.