An illustrated tree with a moon and a star in the branches as the symbol of the environmental spirit...
Illustration by Peter Gamlen
A Green New World

This organization is bringing back the “environmental spirit of Islam”

During Ramadan, many Muslims fast from the pre-dawn prayer, fajr, until sunset or even later into the night. To break the fast, they often gather together for communal meals, known as iftar. With over 4 million Muslims living in the United States, you can already imagine that there’s a whole lot of iftars going on. Unfortunately, though, iftars sometimes come with a lot of waste there’s a lot of disposable silverware and serving items required when you’re feeding large groups at once. So in 2007, a group of 15 Muslims in Washington, D.C., took it upon themselves to throw an environmentally friendly iftar.

They didn’t expect it to grow into a national organization. But that one meal laid the foundation for Green Muslims, an organization committed to seeing “Muslims living in the environmental spirit of Islam, striving towards connection with nature and environmental stewardship.” At first it existed only as a series of zero-waste potluck iftars dubbed “leftars”; rather than assemble elaborate meals that used paper plates and plastic cups or utensils to serve everyone, the leftars encouraged people to use up leftovers from previous iftars and bring reusable utensils and containers to eat with.

The events were a hit. Per Green Muslims’s website, they had five times the number attendees at subsequent leftars compared to their first one. It became clear that Muslims in the D.C. area wanted to be engaged with environmental efforts. After all, the message of sustainability is actually quite prevalent throughout Islamic texts. From the Quran itself to individual hadiths, green scripture is abundant. Yet despite all of that, the climate movement at large hadn’t figured out how to engage Muslim communities. Climate movements have historically excluded communities of color, as a comprehensive report illustrated last year, and many Muslims belong to those communities.

Since its inception, Green Muslims has stepped into that space by organizing events around environmental activism. The organization runs its own youth programming, hosts speakers, and provides educational materials, like tips for hosting your own zero-waste iftar. This year, Earth Day falls during Ramadan. Mic connected with Sofia Gilani, Green Muslims’s climate action advocate, and Afnán Khairullah, the organization’s director of sustainability and environmental programming, to talk about fostering an “environmental spirit of Islam.” (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

So, tell me a little about Green Muslims’s history.

Gilani: Green Muslims started around [2007]. It was a group of young professionals living in the D.C. area. During Ramadan, they had this idea of a “leftar” — to bring their leftovers, their reusable plates or Tupperware, and have a zero-waste iftar, essentially. That kind of started the whole idea for it. Since then, it’ s grown. We’re a fully registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit and we do a lot of different events. Our executive director is very passionate about spirituality in nature, especially teaching kids that, so we do a great program for getting kids outside. It’s called Our Deen is Green!. We’ve also partnered with a lot of other local organizations. We’ve done bird walks, cleanups.

On the organization’s website it says a goal was to “create a language of Muslim-based environmentalism.” What does that mean, and why is it necessary?

Gilani: We want Muslims to be khalifas, or stewards of the environment. We believe that God did create everything including this environment. In this current moment, overall, we’re not taking care of it. We're not protecting it. So that’s what we want to do. We want it to be going hand in hand with our our five pillars — how we pray every day, we give donations — [environmentalism] should also be like that. It should be instinct to want to protect [the environment].

Khairullah: We as Muslims rely heavily on the Quran and the anecdotes from the Prophet’s life and his companions. We use that very much as evidence and [to] prove that as Muslims, we’re not separate from nature, we’re a part of it. It’s our responsibility to take care of it and maintain it. And always leave it better than the way we found it.

Your website mentions that Muslims in the D.C. area were really responsive to Green Muslims’s first few events. In addition, it says the group was “filling a void.” I was wondering if you could tell me more about what that void was.

Gilani: At the time that Green Muslims was formed, the environmental movement wasn’t as diverse as it’s starting to get now. [Green Muslims] was a space for Muslims to be in an environmental movement. I see that today, now, with a lot of organizations wanting to reach out to get Muslim involvement. We do a lot of interfaith work. [Green Muslims] gives Muslims this opportunity to be in an organization that’s all them.

“To be Muslim is to be an environmentalist because of all that we’re taught.”

In interfaith work, we are not the biggest percentage of the people there. It’s nice to have Green Muslims to be a resource for people that during Ramadan want to talk with people who know what it’s like — who also know, outside of caring about the environment, what you’re struggling with — instead of having to always explain, “Oh, yeah, Ramadan. We don’t eat from this time to that time. No, not even water.”

That’s a common conversation I have every year. So it’s nice with Green Muslims that you can say “Yeah, we already know what Ramadan is about. We already know very typically what we deal with.” We’re tired. We don’t have too much energy. But it’s also a time where we want to be as spiritual as possible and our best selves and following in the Prophet’s footsteps.

Khairullah: Muslims want to do things in the community. We’re creating a community, but we’re also doing it in the context of being environmental, educating them, and motivating them to get outdoors. Like Sophia mentioned, the environmental movement and campaigns are typically not Muslim-filled spaces. We’re creating [spaces] but also inspiring Muslims to join others in the area. It’s very important because our area, Northern Virginia, has one of the largest Muslim populations in the country. We know Muslims want to care and they just don’t know where to start. We’re giving them a place to start.

Gilani: We’re also able to teach younger kids about how to care for the environment from an Islamic perspective — which is not very common. [Parents] appreciate that we’re teaching them this from a very Islamic perspective in a way that really matters and, I think, trickles up through their families so that we can always continuously have an impact.

Green Muslims
Green Muslims

Green Muslims says a big component of its vision is to “see Muslims living in the environmental spirit of Islam.” This is something that I think a lot of people — mostly non-Muslims, but sometimes Muslims, too — don't know much about. Could you elaborate on what it means to live in the environmental spirit of Islam and to teach that to children?

Gilani: It’s truly just teaching children — who have such big, open minds and such curiosity — about why you should care about the environment. Going back to being Allah’s creation, about everything being interconnected: I do the climate action work. I’ll bring in whatever I can, whatever is relevant to this conversation and what our kids are interested in. We do one event on watersheds. I talk about how a watershed works, how the pollutants work in the systems. Then we backtrack and [say], “Allah created all this. And we came in here. We built houses and factories and roads the way that we’ve done and now we’re impacting our environment.”

Being able to teach it from that perspective, I think it gives them a really good starting point in their lives. Outside of Green Muslims, I have done environmental education. I’ve always been a very strong proponent for teaching kids, because they have so much curiosity. They haven’t been jaded. You can sow that seed of curiosity and passion in them, and just let them run with it.

Khairullah: Growing up, my religiosity and my environmentalism were two separate things. I didn’t really make the connection until later on in my life. Then I found that helping kids make that connection from early on is really key and makes a difference because now they’re our future. They’re gonna grow up more consciously, and they’re gonna grow up knowing that environmentalism and Islam go hand in hand.

To be Muslim is to be an environmentalist because of all that we’re taught. But it’s very easy to be separated [from that] because it’s human nature to want to keep up with the times — live with all the most recent trends and have all the current things. But that’s not living sustainably, nor is it living Islamically.

Do you have any favorite verses in the Quran and hadiths? Any stories that relate to environmentalism that you really use within your personal life and your organizing?

Khairullah: Yes, I do. The Quran was revealed more than 1400 years ago. It was revealed by a prophet so these are prophecies. And there’s evidence of talking about climate change and pollution. There’s a verse that talks about the balance. It can be interpreted as, Well, we’re skewing the balance. When we talk about greenhouse gases, climate change, [and] accelerating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — we’re exceeding that balance.

Gilani: One of my favorite verses is: Allah has created every [living] creature from water. And of them are those that move on their bellies, and of them are those that walk on two legs, and of them are those that walk on four. Allah creates what He wills. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent. Holy Quran, An Nur 24:45.

Why this means so much to me is that we all know that the human body is made up of 70% water, and that water is necessary for survival. It drives home the fact that Allah created everything very intentionally and that all living beings were created by him. So, who are we to damage this planet that he created? Who are we to pollute the water that we all need? I see or hear this verse and I right away think of the intersectionality of the climate movement and that Muslims should care for this planet and all of God’s creations.

And a hadith that kind of ties it all together for me is: The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “If anyone cuts the lote tree, Allah brings him headlong into Hell.” Abu Dawud was asked about the meaning of this tradition. He said, “This is a brief tradition. It means that if anyone cuts uselessly, unjustly, and without any right, a lote tree under the shade of which travelers and beasts take shelter, Allah will bring him into Hell headlong.” Sunan Abi Dawud 5239, Book 43, Hadith 467.

This is a hadith that shows the importance of taking care of our planet. Allah has 99 names; including the Most Merciful, the Most Sacred, and the Great Forgiver. But despite His mercifulness and how forgiving He is, He is also willing to punish those that unjustly take down trees, which we see now happening where corporations have monetized the destruction of the natural environment. Muslims can and should apply these verses and hadith into how they’re seeing the world and use it as motivation to fight for a livable future because all living creatures deserve a livable planet, as well as because there is punishment for the careless and unjust damage that the planet is experiencing.

Green Muslims

Why is it important to focus on Muslim communities? Some might argue that religion and spirituality don’t really matter or have a place within these movements.

Khairullah: I would say, well, because the Muslim community matters and that’s why we should be there. There really isn’t a separation. I think Islam is a lifestyle — it’s not just a set of beliefs. It’s a lifestyle and so we shouldn’t be excluded. And we’re equally impacted by policies — that’s why we need to be part of the movement. We need to be cognizant of what change we’re able to make. That’s why we have to engage our community.

Gilani: It’s not about politics and religion. I think it’s about the unit that we can form to combat it. But also, Black Muslim communities have systemically been impacted by policies and climate change. When you can easily identify a group of Muslims who are going to be impacted, [it’s important to] acknowledge and support [the] fight against that. That’s where we can all come in and help this issue. And if there are other communities that have their specific negative impact of climate change, we can all go in and support [them]. I think that voice is the biggest thing.

You don’t even have to really bring religion to the table. But on the back end of things, to know that there’s a community that supports you is really important. You’re not ever having to do this fight alone. Climate work is really hard. It’s really heavy. I say that to people all the time. It can sometimes be disheartening. Being able to give that voice, give that unit, give support is really important. You want that support from people that think like you [and] know things like you. I think that’s the great benefit of having having support from the same community.

Anything you want to add?

Gilani: I want to cement to people that our individual actions, yes, they do matter. But overall for climate action, we really need to fight against the corporations and the policies that are refusing to make changes so that we normal people can live a sustainable life. I commend anybody who does climate work, no matter how big or small they think their impact is, because we’re all fighting for this much larger picture. And if you’re doing your best, you’re doing good enough. If you want to learn more, do that. If you feel like you’ve done as much as you can, that’s fine. Again, if you’re doing your best, then you’re doing good.