Originally posted on the Huffington Post.
“How do I make people realize how much they are wasting?” my mom tells me over the phone after becoming frustrated with heaps of trash occupying her mosque after iftar each night.
In recent years, I’ve been talking to my mom about the importance of recycling and how it’s an act of faith. My family didn’t grow up recycling because of environmental awareness. We did it because of the $.05 we got back from the bottle bill. The words “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” floated around us in middle school on bulletin boards and in art projects with little resonance. Growing up in dry California, we were always reminded about conserving water through PSAs and by our teachers. None of it really stuck.
At the mosque during Ramadan, gluttony and waste was all around us year after year. It was normal for the hungry congregation to take multiple Styrofoam plates — one for a date to break the fast, another for dinner and maybe one more plate for seconds. The same goes for cups. Many times food was wasted. Puddles of water were left in the restrooms from wudu. And while this was happening around me, I didn’t give it much thought.
Until I started reading more about what my faith tradition teaches about having humility with creation. In Islam, God identifies nature as a tapestry of signs for man to reflect upon His existence, just as the verses within the Quran are also considered signs, sharing the same Arabic word, ayat. Going further than contemplation of the universe, God bestowed mankind as stewards on Earth, entrusting humanity with the duty to protect and restore balance in the environment for future generations to enjoy the signs in creation.
I started thinking about all of the habits of waste I participated in and saw around me. It was coming from a place of entitlement. Ramadan teaches us through the long days of fasting that we don’t own anything in this world, except for our souls. Our restraint from food and water is a practice in discipline and a way to connect to our inner worlds, with God and with each other. In my fast, when I forgo food, water, buying new things, Styrofoam, plastic water bottles and so on, I remind myself of my power and my smallness. I have control of what doesn’t go in my body — perhaps setting a practice that leads me through the rest of the year. I am small because I know how much I’m dependent on this same food and water. Ramadan teaches me I cannot live an entitled life because of the awareness of my dependence and the impact my small life can have on the world around me through my carbon footprint. This reflection led to action.
I tell my mom about the strides Green Muslims is making in Washington D.C., a volunteer-based group I direct that gets Muslims to think about their role as stewards inspired by our faith. We bought a few sets of reusable tableware that we take to local community events. It is a lot of work to wash the dishes after an exhausting day of fasting but walking out with a tiny bag of trash is worth it. We are holding a zero-trash iftar in a few days where we are asking people to bring repurposed leftovers to share with the group. We created a resource page on our website on how to green Ramadan as well as a photo contest where folks can upload a picture of them reducing their Ramadan footprint creatively.
Even with all of this effort, change is hard and slow. I was working with a mosque in Virginia to add recycling bins this Ramadan and one of the leaders jokingly said I should wait till all the old people die off for change to happen. The joke stung a bit because I know we can’t wait for fresh blood for us to figure it out. Our leaders need to realize that we aren’t jumping on a green bandwagon; our tradition speaks for itself on the mandate to be protectors of this planet.
“I don’t think the leadership will listen,” Mom said. I told her that she has to appeal to what they know. Remind them about how our faith teaches us about humility, awe and wonder. It asks us to think about the rain, the fig, the transition of the night and day and to be like the tree, rooted firmly with branches high in the sky. It teaches us that our rent on this planet is holding God’s bounty lightly so that our children can be struck by the same wonder we feel when seeing the layered petals of a rose encompass a stem.
“Mom, make them feel the plastic in the beaches in their hearts.”
The mosque with the joking leader eventually came around to getting recycling bins. That is 20,000 bottles that won’t be going to a landfill this Ramadan. It’s a small step but it’s pretty big too. Maybe next year we will try for reusable bottles.
Sarah Jawaid is the Director of Green Muslims.