In a society increasingly driven by science and technology, world religions and the communities they inspire remain a vast and rock-solid political force. Going by the numbers alone, Pew Research Center estimated in 2015 that there were over 5 billion people of faith in our contemporary world, belonging to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faith-based cosmologies, including Indigenous and Native belief systems. Despite their outsized influence on so many aspects of our personal, social, and political lives, however, religious thinking and morality have struggled to gain a foothold in debates over a number of critical issues confronting our world today, including climate change and environmental justice, consumer capitalism, and solidarity struggles.
In this four-part series, host and climate correspondent Aman Azhar shines a light on how faith-based cosmologies inform and influence our political conduct, even in the most intimate of ways. These interdisciplinary conversations with thought leaders from different faith groups explore the intersections of religion and the politics of climate change. What sort of political actions do—and can—these worldviews inspire? Do the gods and followers of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have a say in the future of our warming planet? If the answer is a resounding “Yes,” then why can’t we hear their voices more in popular media? Have they been muted? If so, why (and by whom)?
In Part 3 of “Faith and the Fight Against Climate Change,” Aman Azhar engages author Ibrahim Abdul-Matin in a spirited debate about his 2010 book, which many have praised as groundbreaking, “The Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet.” In his book, Abdul-Matin argues that “the earth is the mosque,” and that caring for the planet is enshrined in Islamic teachings. That’s not the message we hear in mainstream Western media, though, which seem to only be capable of stereotypical and largely ahistorical representations of the world’s second largest faith and its respective sects and followers.
Aman Azhar: Hello, and welcome to The Real News Network. I’m your host Aman Azhar and my guest today is Mr. Abdul Ibrahim-Matin. He’s the author of the book Green Deen, which argues that Islam teaches caring for the planet and the species that we share this planet with. Thank you, Mr. Matin for taking out time and speaking with us here today.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: Thanks for having me.
Aman Azhar: So let me fire away by asking how central is the climate justice to the Islamic faith?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: First, I want to preface this by saying that there are in the work that I’ve done developing Green Deen, and also just working in the environmental field. One of the things that we try to do is to try and find ways to connect with other faith groups. And seeing that as another part of the larger environmental movement. And one of the things we wanted to do is to find specific texts, scriptural evidence that points to the relationship that human beings have to the natural world and specifically the human being having a negative or positive impact on the planet.
And I’ll just read briefly. It says, it’s Ar-Rum 30:41 it’s corruption has appeared on the land and then the sea because of what the hands of humans have brought, this is in an order that we give them a taste of the consequences of their misdeeds. And so I’ll just remind is that corruption has appeared on land and the sea because of what the hands of humans have brought. Specifically scholars throughout history of all different communities and schools of thought. I said that this corruption, it specifically points to pollution and that human beings, and they have used this as evidence time and time again, that human beings have a negative impact on the planet. And from my understanding, there is no other scriptural evidence from any of the other Holy books that specifically says that humans have a negative impact on the planet or can have a negative impact on the planet.
Aman Azhar: So it kind of ties into my next question, which is the title of the first chapter of your book is The Earth is a Mosque and looking at it from today, it seems that this mosque reeks of confusion, greed, selfishness, and a pandemic. So what went wrong?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: Well, I think for a long period of time, we’ve been caught up in this one way of looking at it. I think this is another point of scripture in a way people have understood scripture. To say that human beings have a responsibility to be on a planet. We are the protectors or the [inaudible 00:02:28] on the earth, meaning that we are the masters and controls of the earth. And I think for many Christian and Muslim and Jewish scholars have seen that particularly in medieval times up until sort of the industrial age.
As human beings can do whatever they want. We can take from the earth. We can do whatever we want on the planet because we are essentially the gods on earth. I think that there’s a better way to look at that role and that we have a trust and a responsibility to maintain the delicate balance and the bounty of the planet. So to ensure that it will continue to have bounty for future generations. So I think that that what went wrong was that we used that idea that we could do whatever we want. And then we did whatever we wanted. And for hundreds of years, we sort of extracted things out of the planet. We’ve destroyed natural habitats, we’ve poisoned the skies and poisoned the air, we’ve made our water’s murky and undrinkable, and now we’re paying the price.
Aman Azhar: So let me ask you, why did you feel the need to write this book? I mean, do American Muslims or Muslims in general don’t know what their religion says about caring for the planet?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: I would say that American Muslims are, there was some research done sometime ago that America Muslims are very wealthy. American Muslims are by and large, obviously that’s not the, you know, I live in New York city and there was a lot of this huge immigrant populations that aren’t necessarily the typical Midwestern, suburban Muslim communities in large Masjid and that sort of thing. See American Muslims as just like you would see other Americans in the way that in their consumption patterns. So there’s not that as much reflective. They’re not very reflective about how they use their power and use their wealth. And in that sense, there needed to be a sort of, we needed to shake them up a little bit, remind them that their faith has an ecological element as well.
Aman Azhar: So have you managed to shake them up?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: If you had asked me that question when the book came out, I would say a little bit. But of late, I’ve been extremely impressed with the younger generation. I would say gen Z and gen Y young folks that are really stepping up and really taking… I’m actually looking at a list there’s about 15 different Instagram accounts where young Muslims have sort of taken their Islam and the environment and they’re taking it all in different ways where they’re really saying, it’s not just about let’s protect the planet and preserve the natural areas, but also let’s create sustainable products. And there’s a huge growing movement of young Muslims that are really taking that to heart.
Aman Azhar: And do you think that kind of an activism when we see an Instagram or Facebook for that matter is really tying into the national political discourse in any way at all? Because the only instances that we hear the references of religion in the national debate is in a negative connotation, really. So is it more symbolic activism? Or is it really paying some dividends looking at this situation, the climate as well?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: That’s a great point. I think if you had asked me that question maybe five years ago, I would’ve said, “Well, I’m not sure if these efforts are really useful.” But the reality is that more young people and people who are greater numbers are getting their news from different sources. They don’t trust CNN and Fox News and MSNBC. They may have value and merit, but they’re not really going to them for their primary news source. Or, and also, what do you go to news for? You go to news to get inspired. You go to news to get an idea of what opportunities are available to you.
And I’ve truly think that there’s other young people are finding that they can find those, that sense of a source of inspiration and the information that they need from other sources, from people like their peers or people that are doing work in fields that they want to get involved in outside, and you’re not going to find those things and not represented in mainstream media. So they’re really just saying, “You know what? I’m going to create this, or I’m going to find it.” You know, a good friend of mine was saying, “I’ve found that leaders and voices online that are speaking to me in ways that would never be found on the corporate media.” And so I think that they’re bypassing corporate media, and I think corporate media is sort of on notice, that their days might be numbered.
Aman Azhar: Do you think the religious discourses or the faith really have a lot of pull on people in this day and age, with so much of competing demands from so many other mainstream discourses?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: Yeah, I think that that’s a great point. Do people even care anymore? Are they looking for that kind of, yeah. I think that they are. This is an existential crisis that the world is in right now. The only other time that we’ve been able to explain a global phenomenon like this pandemic is thinking about is like the flood. This is at the scale of that because every human being community will have a story of what they were doing in this particular moment. So I do think that people are looking for a deeper meaning, right?
Barack Obama was elected President, but there was not a fundamental power shift. It was a sort of a nip and tuck reform. And it didn’t shake the foundations or transformed the way that our society is structured so that the powerless are becoming more powerful. So I think we’re seeing that representation just for the sake of itself isn’t the answer. Having people that look like you in power isn’t necessarily the answer, if they’re not going to do anything fundamentally different. And so people are looking now, they’re saying, “Wow, those things don’t matter anymore.” There’s a lot of lies that are being sort of uncovered. And in that they’re saying, “Well, where is the deeper meaning?” And a lot of folks who are saying, “The deeper meaning perhaps is in some of the traditional sources and let’s understand those traditional sources before we throw them out.”
Aman Azhar: So is there a really, a worthwhile effort on the part of the interfaith communities in the United States to put their weight behind the movement for climate justice and tackle climate issues?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: Practical expressions of interfaith work are more important now than just your old fashion, a bunch of it’s almost sounds like a joke about a bar. You know, you get a man and a priest and a rabbi. They walk into a bar together. Now you have the man and the priest and a rabbi they get at a press conference and they say, “We’re brothers.” But then nothing happens after that. I think what’s happening now is that people are saying, “Well, let’s not just talk about it. And let’s, maybe we don’t even need to talk about the nuances or our faith or the differences in our belief. Let’s just actually get to work.”
Aman Azhar: But the question though remains, why are these voices muted in the national mainstream debates? And especially the national politics, we’ve heard lots of candidates, democratic candidates included. And we did not really listen to any of the references to the faith or the calling of the faith in terms of tackling the challenges of today. And there’s no bigger challenge than the pandemic. And it’s what might have caused it, including the climate issues.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: I teach at Baruch College, and I usually have all the students stand and they give me all their wallets and their cell phones and their money. And I had them put it all on the table. And then I have everybody in the class stand up and stand in the corner. And then two people in the class stand near the wallet and the cell phones and the money. And then I asked them, what is keeping the people who are the large group of people from getting their money and their stuff back?
And that’s just a sort of a class representation of the 1%. The 1% really has nothing, except for just the idea that they are in charge, the idea that they are in command of things. Institutions reinforced their power and their controls. Institutions like schools and even the religious institutions reinforced this idea of this power structure, this power dynamic. What I think we need to do is when we talk about reform. Reform would say, we’re still going to keep power, but maybe you can have some seats, or we’re still going to keep power, but here I’ll give you your wallet back. In this context, I’m saying we need transformation. Transformation is different. And that’s where we need to move the needle. And I think what’s the problem with the mainstream media is that they don’t want any voices about transformation.
They only want voices that will maintain the existing power dynamic. If you are about poking at this structure and the system, and saying, “This needs to fundamentally change from the bottom to the top.” They are not interested in hearing from you.
Aman Azhar: And do you think in going forward, there’s going to be any hope in terms of this basic matrix being changed from top down, from the grassroots to the way up? Do you really see that happening in a time so given the gravity of the situation that we feel today?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: The framework that I operate within is around basically saying we are in a transition from an extractive economy based on extracting things out of the ground and extracting people from place to place through slavery and colonialism, all these projects, from the extractive economy to regenerative one where we heal earth.
So for example, we were talking to folks in Jordan and in parts of Yemen where they’re literally going into deserts and making deserts bloom again. We have the technology, we have the energy, we have the will. We just haven’t focused on that. So I think that we are, and the problem is to get us off of this extractive economy, we’re addicted to oil and addicted to sugar and addicted to drugs that fundamentally, we’re sort of part of this economy to get us away from that. We need to move into this regenerative way. It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. So I don’t know if in my time we are going to definitely see a dramatic transformation that I would like to see, but I do know that we have to set up the people that are coming after us so that they can make that happen.
Aman Azhar: I moved my last two questions. And I think what I’m asking now is do we need religions to care for the planet?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: I think that we have, that’s a good question. That’s like one of those existential questions that shakes you a bit. From my understanding of the way that as a Muslim, I literally physically come from the earth. What I am part of physically comes from the planet earth. When I die, my body will go into the ground and my body will recede away. And it will go back into the planet earth. We are inextricably linked to this planet. This is our planet. So I do think that we have a fundamental responsibility because we have conducted all of our fairs and all of our life to ensure that it is maintained and taken care of. Now, religion holds people account and sort of reminds people of that.
And I think that that’s the role of religion in some ways, it’s to remind people that they have this fundamental relationship with nature, and that they can not extract themselves from that relationship. And we have to treat the planet the way we want to treat ourselves. And that means that it will enable us to actually have a good life. So if you want to live a good, happy, healthy life, you have to treat the natural world around you in a way that you would want to treat yourself. And I think religion facilitates that conversation. Religion reminds us of the importance of that. Now you don’t have to have that, obviously. I think it’s great that there’s a lot of humanist expressions that really isn’t it in the same way. And I think usually when it comes to people that are really caring for the planet, you don’t actually care what perspective they’re coming from.
You really come at it. But the fundamental thing is that we’re in this together. And I think that that’s one of the beauties of all the different paths and phase and walks of life is that if you understand your fundamental humanity, your responsibility to each other, then you’re not going to get caught up in those details. But that faith allows you to be more focused and to be more mindful.
Aman Azhar: I’m all for this expression of hope, but also looking at the situation which we’re in today. Do you think for a moment that organized religion have failed us in terms of motivating their followers to care for the planet?
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin: I think so, a hundred percent, I think so a hundred percent, I think, you know, you have it for centuries. Basically religion has basically facilitated large scale mining industries, each tradition, and in terms of the large religions on the planet, Islam and Judaism and Christianity we’re part and we’re leaders of the slave trade. You can’t say that none of them were not, they were all part of it. So they were all part of the whole project that put us in this situation that we’re in today. And then they doubled down on it when they found oil in places like Saudi Arabia and other places, when they said, “Oh, we can make more money out of this.” I think greed was a fundamental factor. And I think religions have typically wrapped themselves in rulers and facilitated the installation of rulers that oppressed people, without a doubt. Organized religions, have a big, big problem and have always had that problem. And that’s where this constant tension between the flock and the faithful and what they’re supposed to do and holding their religious leaders and political leaders accountable.
I’ve always felt that if you are a good… I actually was once on a panel or not, I wasn’t on the panel. I was actually just a volunteer at an event. Where the Dalai Lama was there. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Syed are two American Muslim leaders and scholars of merit, and they’re relevant in a global scale. Imam Syed was the one who gave the funeral service for Muhammad Ali, just to give context. There was a bunch of other religious leaders there from all different faiths, every single faith you can imagine. And they were on a stage. And what was the thing that was connecting them all? They were all laughing, they’re all smiling, but they all [inaudible 00:16:33] essentially said the same thing. If you are dedicated to your faith and dedicated to your tradition, you don’t have time to tell someone else how to live.
And I think that that’s a lesson for us, is that you can come from all different angles, but if you are focused on doing and following your path and following your tradition, you’re not going to try and impede someone else’s others’ path, someone else’s path or their tradition. And I think that that’s an important lesson. I think for religious groups is that they’re constantly trying to impose their will on other people. And then this time we know that faith is not by you can’t force faith on anybody. You can’t impose your religion, you can’t make someone become a Muslim. You can’t force someone to become a Christian.
And I think that the heavy hand in this of religious scholars sometimes and heavy handed of religious institutions has definitely turned people away.
Aman Azhar: Well, that also brings us to the end of this conversation. Thank you, once again, Mr. Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, for speaking to us today and for your efforts to highlight the climate urgency through your advocacy and through your writing. Thanks also to our audiences for tuning in, you can look us up at therealnews.com. And for myself and the crew at The Real News for now it’s goodbye and be well.