DC Muslims Embrace the Environment

Lester Feder reports on one Muslim community that is embracing the tenets of the religion’s teachings about the earth.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, former Muslim Society of Washington president, was inspired in part by the DC Green Muslims to lead a group of DC-area mosques to take Muslim environmentalism “to the next level.” (Flickr/My Brother Godzilla)
Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, former Muslim Society of Washington president, was inspired in part by the DC Green Muslims to lead a group of DC-area mosques to take Muslim environmentalism “to the next level.” (Flickr/My Brother Godzilla)

The origins of the DC Green Muslims lie in an organic vegetarian potluck of 15 people, held in October of 2007. They had gathered to celebrate a “green Iftar,” putting an environmental spin on the meal that breaks the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. "We wanted to have a catalyst to get people thinking," explains Nadia Janjua, an architect who helped launch the group. "We wanted to talk about where do we get our meat from and where do we get our produce from."

DC Green Muslims held six more potlucks in the year after that first dinner, and grew rapidly, attracting as many as 150 people at a time. The group’s energy and enthusiasm has helped make the Washington area home to one of the most environmentally active Muslim communities in the United States.

They are also part of an international movement that has been incubating for half a century and which is gaining force in the context of modern environmentalism. Philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who has been teaching and writing about Islam and the environment since the 1960s, is an important inspiration for these Muslim environmentalists, some of whom studied with him at George Washington University. In the 1980s, the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences was founded in the United Kingdom, and today it claims to be the “only internationally recognized body articulating the Islamic position on environmental protection.” The Muslim World League contributed a declaration to a collection of statements on faith and the environment published by the World Bank in 2003, making its case for Muslim environmentalism based on core tenets of Islam and passages in the Koran in which Allah made man guardians of the earth.

In the past year, two leading Islamic organizations, the Muslim Alliance of North America and the Islamic Society of North America, both held panels on the environment at their annual meetings. But, says DC Green Muslim co-founder Mohamad Chakaki, in the United States much of the important work is being done at the local level, and his group is inspired by projects such as the one in Chicago to create “eco-halal.” (Halal are the muslim dietary laws, similar to kosher in Judaism). In addition to the regular potlucks, the DC Green Muslims hold monthly events that range from horseback rides to installing handrails in an inner-city park. They recently held a clothing swap at a local Goodwill with more than 60 participants and three fashion design students to alter recycled clothes on site.

When participants arrived for the most recent green dinner in early December, they were greeted by loud music and found the banquet tables were divided by graffiti-covered cardboard. Led by three recent graduates of an urban planning program, the group kicked off a discussion about sustainable neighborhoods by taking down the cardboard and rearranging the room to make their environment more hospitable.

At the dinner’s conclusion, Sarah Jawaid, one of the evening’s leaders, offered a soliloquy on the "Niyyah of Space," applying the Islamic concept of doing something well-intentioned for Allah to questions of the built environment. She urged participants to be “present in the moment so that we are [in] position to see God work in our lives and finally, to look within and find ways to be better protectors of this earth in whatever capacity works for us."

The DC Green Muslims, says former Muslim Society of Washington president Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, “edifies the grassroots.” Inspired in part by their example, Imam Johari is leading a group of DC-area mosques to take Muslim environmentalism “to the next level.” These congregations are working with an energy consultant to conduct audits of their operations and identify ways to improve energy efficiency. One major goal, Imam Johari says, is to use solar water heaters to heat the water for the ablutions that each worshiper must perform before prayers. “We have 3,000 people every Friday at our mosque, and four- to five-hundred every evening. Mmmm, that’s a lot of hot water.”

The All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in Sterling, Virginia, is one of the mosques leading the way. ADAMS Center Deputy Director Khalid Iqbal first became interested in the environment when a 9-year-old girl told him that Muslims should get involved with the earth. At her urging, Iqbal delivered a sermon on Muslims’ obligation to care for the environment at George Washington University, one of the area schools where he performed services before joining the ADAMS Center staff.

After this sermon, Iqbal looked for ways to put his newfound green convictions to work. “That would be merely words if I just delivered the sermon without actually participating in it. Then I realized that I don’t want to give [a sermon] I don’t practice myself,” says Iqbal. After joining the ADAMS Center staff, Iqbal found resources on energy conservation and green operations that he could use with the congregation with the help of the DC Green Muslims. “They really inspired me a lot,” he says.

The ADAMS Center, which serves more than 5,000 families, made a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 10 percent in one year. Located in DC’s sprawling outer suburbs, the center has created parking spaces reserved for carpoolers to encourage congregants to reduce their driving. It has installed solar-powered lights in the parking lot and upgraded to energy-efficient lighting inside. As part of a new extension to the building, the center is now considering installing a wind turbine on the roof, which could even produce surplus electricity that could be sold back to the electric company.

Imam Johari believes that the environment is a top issue for Muslims today, in part because of the problems associated with oil that affect so much of the Muslim world. “If we weren’t addicted to oil, we wouldn’t [have crises in] Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, [and] the Arab- Israeli conflict wouldn’t be what it is today,” he says.

But he stresses that Islamic environmentalism grows organically out of the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. “The Prophet Mohammed said, ‘You do not waste water even if you are beside a river,’” he quotes. “Muslims are the trustees, the ones who pass from generation to generation this way of life.” Taking care of the environment, he says, is simply a “manifestation of faith.”

Photo by Flickr user My Brother Godzilla

Lester Feder is a freelance journalist covering conservative politics and popular culture. He is currently working on a book about the evangelical environmental movement.


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