Call to Worship: Islam and the Environment
In a new book, Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin articulates a spiritual and ethical form of environmentalism rooted in the Koran. The son of African American converts to Islam, he encourages American Muslims to prioritize the protection of the planet in their private and public lives. He currently works as a policy adviser in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office of sustainability and long-term planning. A former college football player at the University of Rhode Island, Abdul-Matin also appears regularly as a sports commentator on New York City’s National Public Radio affiliate. He spoke with the journalist Justin Vogt at his home in Brooklyn Heights.
Both your parents grew up Episcopalian but converted to Islam.
Yes, they both joined the Nation of Islam, and that’s how they met. When Elijah Muhammad [who led the Nation of Islam for four decades] passed in 1975, they transitioned to Sunnism. The problem with the Nation of Islam was that it had a great message around empowerment, but it didn’t have a great understanding of the sunnah, the practice or the ways of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Tell me about your childhood.
I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, at a time when New York City had the highest murder rate in the history of the city. We would hear gunfire every night. There were crack vials in the playground next to us. We lived in the projects for a bit, but my mother would still cook tofu. We would have broccoli for lunch.
When did you first begin to specifically connect your religious upbringing to environmental issues?
During my senior year of college, I started to look at the environment and overconsumption and to target corporate abuse as the problem. Both capitalism and socialism define your value as a human being on what you can make or create or destroy or waste or consume. The beauty of Islam is that it provides a framework that is an antidote to that. I would argue that Islam shares this perspective with Christianity, Judaism and other great faiths. If I claim to love God, then I should love his creations. So how do I live in that framework?
After graduating, how did you put these beliefs into practice?
I worked for a time as an Outward Bound instructor. We were training young people to understand their relationship with the planet and to leave the place better than they found it. It was a hands-on experience, not theoretical. Then I worked with a group called the Active Element Foundation in New York City, where we developed a directory of youth organizations all over the United States. It was called the Future 500. I also helped start a public high school, the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment. Then I moved to California, where I did a mixture of national organizing work and training youth organizers. That’s where I met Van Jones [later an adviser to President Barack Obama on green jobs].
What led you to make the transition into city government?
I was basically like, the left has no idea what to do if it actually had to govern. If our guy got elected tomorrow, would we know how to run the sanitation department? Or water? Or waste? I applied to the National Urban Fellows program and got a full scholarship and came back to New York to go to grad school. My goal was to learn how to manage government institutions. After I graduated in 2008, I worked with the organization that Van had started and we pushed the Green Jobs Now campaign, which became a national campaign issue. We put out his book, The Green Collar Economy. Van said I should stay in California, but I can’t stand California. I need to be in New York.
Tell me about your current job.
I work on Mayor Bloomberg’s sustainability agenda, which is called PlaNYC and is his vision for how we green New York City. It covers land use, housing, transportation, energy, a whole multitude of things. In the next 20 years, the city’s population is expected to grow by one million. The goal is to figure out how to improve our infrastructure to handle them all. It’s really a quality-of-life plan. My role is to make sure that we have community engagement in the process. We have tons of meetings with community groups, which involve a lot of education and a lot of listening. Recently, for example, we met with a group of faith leaders and talked about water. All faith traditions use water in some way: for Muslims, it’s for wudu, the ablutions we make before praying. So maintaining our water system is important for these communities.
The title of your book is Green Deen. Can you explain that term?
Deen is an Arabic word that means a religion or path. It’s a way of life. So Christianity is a deen and Buddhism is a deen and atheism is a deen. There are many deens. In the American Muslim community it’s like a slang term in a way. People will be like, how is your deen? So it has a cool ring to it.
What makes Islam especially congruent with environmentalism?
The part that resonates with me the most is where the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that the earth is a mosque. Since everything on the planet is sacred, nothing can be debased. If I pray and my head touches a blade of grass, on the day of judgment that blade of grass will be able to say, "He prayed here." The wind will say, "I heard him praise God here." Everything around us will be able to testify for and against us. So if I am a factory owner and I dump mercury in the lake, then that lake and the fish and everything around it will be able to testify against me on the day of judgment and say, "You polluted me. You poisoned me."
Islam also lays out a framework to explain why human beings can have a negative effect on the environment. There’s a passage in the Koran that says: "Corruption has appeared on the land and in the sea because of what the hands of humans have wrought. This is in order that [Allah] give them a taste of the consequences of their misdeeds that perhaps they will return to the path of right guidance."
Right now seems like a difficult climate to be persuading Muslims to engage in political issues.
No, I think there’s a really great opportunity right now to say that Muslims are not just "the Other." Muslims are already very much involved in the things that everyone else cares about. But I think the American Muslim community has largely been silent on environmental issues. This book was designed to be the first step in that conversation, and my hope is that much more qualified scholars will join in and take this further. To see if we can be a force for good -- an example to ourselves first and foremost, but also because we’re America and America consumes five times as much as the rest of the world.
Do you see any risk in encouraging people to base their political activities on religious convictions?
I wouldn’t think so. I think the greatest moments of transition in this country have been when communities of faith have taken up the mantle of social change. It might be scary, and people have died, but like Martin Luther King said, if you have nothing to die for, then you have nothing to live for.
The book is critical of corporations that profit from our reliance on fossil fuels. But you don’t say much about the Muslim leaders of states like Saudi Arabia, who play a vital role in sustaining that system.
I do think leaders in those places embody the idea where the representative of God says, "I’m going to take from the earth and not care what I do with it." That’s a deep part of our Muslim tradition that we need to move away from. But I’m not from Saudi Arabia. I’m American, and I wanted to speak to my own people.