Thursday, April 28, 2011

Green Deen - review

In Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet, Ibrahim Abdul -Matin attempts to show how an environmentalist/conservationist belief system and lifestyle are “deeply imbedded in the Muslim tradition from a variety of perspectives.” Abdul-Matin is an American-born Muslim who attended Hamza Yusuf’s new Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California before returning to his native New York to further his education and pursue work in line with his family tradition as a community activist or policy advisor. His thesis is that six Islamic ethical principles or ideas form a framework of an environmentalist ethos. The six principles he addresses are tawhid, which he describes as the Oneness of God and which he often expounds in a sense of the interconnectedness of all subjects of Creation, ayat, or the idea of signs of God being everywhere including in humanity and nature, khalifah, which he views as the idea of humans as stewards of the Earth, amana, described as a divine trust for humanity to protect the planet, adl, interpreted in context as a call toward just use of resources and treatment of Creation, and mizan, explained as living in balance with the whole of Creation.

After a nice forward by Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison, Abdul-Matin divides his discussion into four main parts: waste, energy, water and food. For each, he briefly outlines the environmental issues and tries to show how American Muslims are working to solve these issues by highlighting certain individuals as examples. He also sometimes refers to hadith or Qur’anic verses or in some other way tries to connect one or more of the six principles (tawhid, ayat, amana, adl, khalifah, and mizan) to solutions.

As far as the quality of this item for someone interested in following a "Green Deen", a way of life that emphasizes responsible use of resources as part of and in line with Islamic teachings, his advice and outlines are mostly rather pedestrian. The historic and scientific background information in this book tends to be drastically oversimplified. The author fails to address any scientific debate over some claims made, and he makes sweeping gestures around history, at one point seemingly suggesting that there has been one smooth arc of progress from humanity as environmental devils toward fulfillment of the Islamic ideal of humans as proper stewards of the world’s resources. However, as an overview or introduction, these aspects are adequate.

The writer finally seems to catch his stride about 1/3 of the way into the book. He presents many solid, standard ideas for topics such as making a “Green Mosque” through energy audits, weatherizing, adding off-grid energy sources, avoiding use of disposable dishes and bottled water, incorporating ride-sharing plans, composting food waste, using low energy appliances, getting LEED certification on new construction, growing a community garden, and so on. He also does a fair job of describing a relationship between the modern political landscape and the unjust appropriation of natural resources by some governments and makes an impassioned argument against bottled water. He further succeeds at demonstrating through example that many American Muslims are working on environmental issues in a variety of contexts, although the book would’ve been well-served to have had even more such examples.

Abdul-Matin admits in his introduction to a few limitations that do affect the overall quality of the work. His attempts to tie his chosen six Islamic principles to his overall discussion are often weak. The connections are there, but insufficiently supported in the writing. He becomes extremely repetitive, beginning sections with nearly identical wording and retelling some facts and stories multiple times. The questions he ends chapters with often leave them feeling unfinished rather than bringing them to a satisfying conclusion. He excessively uses the phrase “Green Deen” as if it were a religion or mantra of its own, separate from Islam, in contradiction to his correct contention that Islam and a conversationist stance are already perfectly aligned. And, he presents some content that involves fiqh in ways that may be incorrect for some schools of thought. For example, while making a strong case for organic and free range zabiha meat, he nonetheless claims that eating meat slaughtered by People of the Book is religiously acceptable – a claim that is certainly not a unanimously held position.

As a whole, this work lacks in sophistication or nuance, but succeeds in filling a necessary niche in the available literature. A reader will find some content of worth in this effort, although may not be satisfied by the book as a whole. A youth group interested in leading its community toward more environmentally sound practices may find some inspiration and ideas in its pages and may benefit from the effort to employ an Islamic foundation, but will not find a clear, practical guide on how to accomplish its goals; the author leaves it to the reader to figure out how to put the ideals, ideas and examples into action in one's own particular context.