What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet

An Interview with Ibrahim Abdul Matin

Sally Steenland interviews Ibrahim Abdul Matin about the role faith communities can play in helping protect the planet from global warming.

Part of a Series

SOURCE: Ibrahim Abdul Matin

Environmental policy consultant Ibrahim Abdul Matin

This interview is part of the Young Muslim American Voices Project, a CAP project launched late last year that seeks to strengthen the voices and visibility of young Muslim-American leaders.

Listen to the full interview (mp3)

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an environmental policy consultant and has worked for 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. Ibrahim is also a youth organizer and co-author of “Future 500: Youth Organizing and Activism in the United States.” He is a media personality on public radio’s morning show, “The Takeaway,” and has also been published in ColorLines, WireTap, and Left Turn. His new book, Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet, was published in early November.

Sally Steenland: Ibrahim, you have just written a book called Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet. How did you come to write it?

Ibrahim Abdul Matin: I come from the youth activism world. In 2002 a small group of us created a database of youth organizations in the United States called the Future 500. We mapped the youth left, nurtured it, and helped it grow. In 2004, I helped establish the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment and then went to work with the Movement Strategies Center, a progressive think tank in Oakland, California. I attended a retreat with some of the leaders from the environmental movement and became convinced that the environmental path was something I had been following, but didn’t know it.

A key development for my book, Green Deen, came when I was at the Green for All Summit in Memphis, Tennessee. It coincided with two things: marking the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and, oddly enough, the NCAA’s Final Four in basketball, which included the Memphis basketball team. So we were in Memphis when Memphis was playing.

At the conference I felt like I was preaching to the choir and needed a fresh perspective. I also felt the conversations were very secular. I left the conference and walked through the streets—they were filled with revelers because Memphis had just won. I went to a local restaurant. After telling some folks at a table that I was from New York City, I asked what they thought of climate change. They told me that climate change was about Democrats trying to get them to be afraid of something, just like Republicans were trying to get them to be afraid of terrorism. I knew right then and there that if we wanted to transform our pollution-based economy, we needed to connect with all people, including people motivated primarily by their faith.

It would take a few years for me to get to the right situation and opportunity. I was prodded by people like Bracken Hendricks at CAP, Adulpha Wilson in Newark, Rinku Sen of the Applied Research Center, and Rami Nashashibi of the Inner City Muslim Action Network in Chicago. I did research and came to better understand the Muslim community. I realized that there wasn’t a plain language accessible book about Islam and the environment. I wanted to fill that niche.

S: Deen is a word that might be unfamiliar to a lot of people. Can you tell us what it means and why you put it in the title?

I: Deen is a path. It is a religion or a way. All religions are deens. The Quran, it says, “To you your way, and to me, mine.” Here’s some personal background: I am a descendant of enslaved Africans, mixed with Native Americans, and also Irish. My mother and father joined the Nation of Islam, which was essentially a community empowerment organization that attracted many followers. Many of those looking for something more spiritually oriented transitioned to becoming orthodox Muslims. I am among the children of those converts. At the same time, an influx of immigrants in the last 40 years has brought a great many Muslims from all over the globe. One thing that connects converts and immigrants is that they had a great deal of courage—to move to another country, raise their children in another culture, change their religion, and create a culture within a culture.

Part of the experiment has been creating language that made sense to us. The word “deen” is an Arabic word that has become part of American Muslim slang. People say, “Are you on your deen?” or “How’s your deen?”

S: I want to go back to the conversation you had in the restaurant in Memphis. People felt that Democrats were trying to scare them, that global warming was a hoax. After the midterm elections, we have been hearing similar rhetoric by a number of conservatives who are challenging the notion of global warming. I read this morning about a conservative Republican congressman saying we don’t have to worry about global warming because God told Noah that there would only be one flood on the earth. What about people whose religion informs their views on global warming in a way very different from yours?

I: One thing that communities of faith have a hard time doing is admitting they are wrong. We claim moral authority and feel we are right. You can argue about scientific data forever. I like to talk about how we can do things fundamentally better. We have done a lot about pollution-based resources and made great strides using extractive practices. Now we need to create systems that are better for people’s health and for the planet. I think part of the rejection of global warming is a form of being afraid of change and the future. In some ways, it’s being afraid of your own self and the power of the human imagination to recreate the best of what we have.

We all make choices. So it’s important to say, let’s talk about your life and where this connects for you. Let’s talk about the water you drink, the air you breathe. Let’s talk about your health—your mother and father, your grandmother and grandfather, and how are they. We need to hone in on the human impact of climate change and make it a personal issue.

S: What do you hope happens after people make those connections? What is the next step?

I: I think communities of faith need to band together and become more of a source of strength for the environmental movement. The environmental justice movement began with the United Church of Christ in North Carolina leading the way in researching environmental racism, finding empirical evidence, and using that to help inform the movement’s development. I think that was the template in the past for communities of faith to lead. The way that faith communities can do that now is by coming together as a bloc, the way that labor has traditionally been a bloc or industries like oil, coal, and gas are blocs of influence. Faith communities concerned about poverty and the quality of people’s lives can form an effective voting bloc to support the environmental movement.

S: Can you talk about environmental interfaith efforts that Muslim Americans are participating in? Can you also talk about awareness of environmental issues in the Muslim-American community, especially now that it is being battered by so many forces?

I: Much of the interfaith collaboration with Muslim communities has been around issues of civil rights and religious liberty—the freedom to worship. For the most part, it has not evolved or matured into other spaces. I was recently at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky, and that is where you start to see interfaith conversations. This year the conversation was about our responsibility to sacred soil, and you see different faith communities telling their stories. Last year the conversation was about water. Next year it will be about air.

Faith communities are saying, “We believe in being stewards of creation. We have the responsibility of being representatives of God on earth.” What does that mean for Christians? What does that mean for Jews? For Muslims? We are finding that people of faith have a lot in common. The hard work is a bit further off, in terms of doing physical projects together.

D.C. Green Muslims is a group that does work in the D.C. region. There is also a lot of good work around food in the Muslim community related to halal, organic, free-range food for Muslims and others. People like Yasir Syeed of and Qaid Hassan in the Chicago area have been helping do farmers’ markets and working with local Christian farmers to get their produce into the inner city of Chicago. Yasir Syeed who does Green Zabiha goes out and slaughters his animals on Amish land. They’ve been working on a partnership between a Muslim and Christian group for free-range working animals. The Inner City Action Network in Chicago brings young men out of prison and gets them doing energy efficiency work in homes, and then they can live in the homes. There are a lot of points where the work is happening but it needs to be elevated as we move into a larger conversation with other communities.

S: In your book you say that the whole earth is a mosque. What you have just been saying reflects that view, right?

I: I would say so. That phrase comes directly from the hadith, which is one of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammed, Blessings and Peace be Upon Him. He was responding to a questioner who inquired about the first mosque being built. The prophet responded by saying the earth is a mosque for you. So wherever you are at the time of prayer, pray there. Part of the beauty of being Muslim and praying five times a day is that it is aligned with the motion of the earth. As a Muslim, when you exercise your deen and get into the rhythm of the day, it is almost as if Allah is saying, “Understand the way you relate to the planet at different times of the day.” This speaks to the sacredness of everything. It reminds us of our connection to the planet and that it must be kept clean and sacred.

Recently I have been riding my bike over the Manhattan Bridge and every time I get to the end, I see a man—he’s a sort of monk—meditating amid the smells and noise of cars and traffic. That is what it means to say “the earth is a mosque.” He is surrounded by noise and mess, but has reclaimed that space and made it sacred.

S: I want to go back to your book. You talk about speaking in plain English, getting rid of charts and complicated things to touch people’s lives. You’ve organized your book into four parts: waste, watts, water, and food. Why did you pick those four as an organizational structure?

I: The framework came from a talk I was asked to give in 2003 at the behest of the late councilman James E. Davis (D-Brooklyn). One day he and I were talking about the future and communities of color. I was just getting interested in compost toilets and was trying to convince James. He said, “This doesn’t really make sense to me, but if you can explain it to some guys I know, maybe we can do something with it.” The guys he knew were construction workers—black men from the projects who were his sounding board.

He had me meet him at this school after work and all these guys came in. They were working men and family men, and he said, “All right, explain it to these guys.” I had no idea how to explain it. So I broke it down into water, waste, and watts—the three w’s—that are the systems we organize our life around. You can determine our priorities based on how we manage these systems. For the book I expanded that framework and added food because I thought it was a clear way to look at priorities and at history.

S: Let’s talk about the future. Faith communities are doing work, Muslim-American communities are active. Your book has just come out. What needs to happen in the next weeks, months, years regarding environmental protection—both in terms of individual work and policy work?

I: First, a myth needs to be debunked. It is that industry is afraid of further regulation. It’s a false premise to say that environmental policy and regulation is going to hinder innovation. We need to debunk that. Part of the problem is that industry needs certainty to operate. We need to be very clear that these policies are going forward. The way to make it clear is for the people and their representatives to make their voices heard.

We need to be more strategic and learn to play an insider-outsider game. That means sometimes conceding on some areas and compromising on others, but getting a base of trust with organizations that make these decisions and with communities.

Another point about the industry is that it is in their best interest if we clean up the planet because it will open up new markets or improve markets that already exist. That story also needs to be told. There is economic prosperity to be found in transforming our relationship with the planet. We can lead again. This is a place where we have a lot of challenge and need a dose of humility. We can’t just beat people over the head and say, “you don’t get it.”

Finally, on a practical level, people need to say, “Fine. Those in power may not do what we want them to do.” This is where that old-fashioned American libertarian strain comes up in me. If the government isn’t going to do something, we citizens have to demonstrate that there is a market for it. So if a fuel oil is polluting the air, don’t wait for government regulation—change your boiler. Organize other communities to do the same. There are small things communities can do, creating streets for playing in certain areas of a neighborhood, transforming the way that garbage is managed. At the church and mosque level, we can demonstrate the savings. We can show public engagement and change the way people see their relationship to the planet. The more we can demonstrate these things, the more policies will follow us.

S: Do you think this is happening?

I: I do think it is happening. For instance, it is happening on college campuses where you routinely have three garbage receptacles—recycle, landfill, and compost. It is becoming the norm. People get used to the process, so it doesn’t seem strange.

S: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that feels important to say?

I: I want to reemphasize that for communities of faith, one of our challenges is that we often don’t admit we are wrong. Too often faith communities have been complicit in our pollution-based economy. I think of the Muslim world, where Muslim countries produce most of the oil we use. Sometimes developing countries say that the West has not been energy efficient, so why should they? I say that we can do better than that. People in developing nations and in beaten-up mill towns in the United States are in places that can lead if they are committed to finding new ways to do things.

As a Muslim, I think that communities of faith need to come together. We don’t have to debate our views of God or talk about our creeds. Instead, we can work together on discovering ways to alter how we live and work, so that we can all benefit from a healthier planet. It is less about ideas and more about work. That is what I am interested in.

S: Thank you for talking with us and for writing your book, Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet.

I: Thank you very much.

Listen to the full interview (mp3)

Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress. For more on this initiative please see its project page.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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