Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the third year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
One of the most amazing places I've ever visited has to be the Maldives. For those who are unfamiliar, it is a country made up of many islands scattered throughout the Indian Ocean. Its landscape is beyond beautiful and one that I will always carry an image of.
In 2010 I was invited to visit twice, first in the summer and then a few months later in the winter. At that time, the country was still in an early stage of transitioning to a democracy. My work had me engaging different governmental offices, ministers, rehab centers (there's a lot of heroin), and groups on how to deal with religion on the ground. Islam is the official religion of the country and as the country adapted towards a new mode of governance and explored what that meant for its national identity, religion became a regular part of the conversation. In between my first and second visit there were a lot of changes, both in the public and private spheres. Amidst the gangs, criminals, drugs, gaps in education, religion, and social welfare, what was most alarming to me was the disappearance of four islands in the time that I was gone. Literally, they were just washed away by the ocean.
Abu Qatada, may God be pleased with him, narrated: "A funeral procession passed by God's Messenger who said, 'Relieved or relieving?' The people asked, 'O Prophet! What is relieved and relieving?' He said, 'A believer is relieved (by death) from the troubles and hardships of the world and leaves for the Mercy of God, while (the death of) a wicked person relieves the people, the land, the trees, (and) the animals from him.'"
In Islam, there is a lot of emphasis on ensuring that the rights of creation are honored. From the smallest of animals to the earth itself, the idea of mindfulness extends to humans and beyond. The world is being turned upside-down and our consciousness is drummed out in pursuit of consumption. My wife and I went to Houston a couple of weeks ago and it was easily 10 to 15 degrees cooler there than in NYC. How does that make sense? We went to Alaska a few weeks before Ramadan started and saw massive glaciers that we were told would no longer exist soon. The world itself is literally changing, and in large part that's as a response to the way we treat it.
Last night, one of our community members, Somayya Ali, came to iftar with two of her friends and colleagues, Peter Adams and Angelica Pasqualini. They all work on climate change at Columbia University and graciously shared with me and my friend Omar Gaya some of the things that they are doing. When I asked them what was the most critical or alarming thing that people fail to realize about our treatment of the environment, Peter responded, "We don't really get how we are making other people's lives hard from the lifestyles we have chosen to adopt."
Our consumption is having a drastic impact on the world around us and it has an impact on people elsewhere. The over-consumption of the wealthiest nations, including our own, lends towards a need of fulfilling demand elsewhere when our own resources fun out. Our mistreatment of our land has not taught us to treat land better, but rather encouraged us to go and find land elsewhere to ruin also. The water we need to feed the mass quantities of livestock that we breed to consume in our franchises or to take the multiple showers and baths we take in a day, is water that others than don't get to drink. Grains that we produce go to feed these animals as well, not because we're trying to take care of the animal, but because we need them to be well-fed for when we turn them into the fast-food sandwiches that we enjoy eating. That's water and grain that we are taking out of other people's mouths.
To make something go against its natural disposition is problematic in Islam. Corporations breed chickens to have bigger thighs and breasts. Livestock is fed reprocessed carcasses and excrement. The atmosphere is filled with substances and gases that it isn't meant to harness. To get what we want, we mistreat others. That's essentially what it comes down to.
The increase in global temperature leads to an increase in storms and hurricanes and other natural disasters. These in turn necessitate lives being destroyed and billions of dollars being spent to rebuild. When you consume too much, it has to come from somewhere. When you waste too much, it has to be put somewhere. Both extremes have consequences. The world produces sufficient amounts of everything to satisfy our basic needs. Our greed is what becomes hard to satiate.
I'm not an expert on the environment. I am expert on my own habits though. Ramadan can teach me how little I really need and how oblivious or how awake I am to the world around me. All those things we learn and hear and become desensitized to are actually real. The way we treat the world is indicative of how we treat ourselves and each other. I am more focused on satisfying my needs rather than what makes sense for many others and myself.
In one narration the Prophet Muhammad said, "Whoever plants trees, God will give him reward to the extent of their fruit." In another he said, "Whoever reclaims and cultivates dry, barren land will be rewarded by God for the act. So long as men and animals benefit from it He will record it for him as almsgiving." He designated land in his city for the purpose of being a conservation area so plants and animals would be preserved. He inculcated in his companions such a respect for the earth that when Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, was leading an army into battle, he commanded the soldiers, "Do not cut down trees and do not kill animals except that which is needed for food." To be a Muslim is to be compassionate. That compassion is meant to extend to all creation:
It has been narrated on the authority of Abdullah bin 'Umar, may God be pleased with both of them, that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, passed by a person performing wudu (ritual washing). He said: Do not waste. Do not use more water than you need it."
In these last few days of Ramadan, reflect deeply on what you really need and how you can play a role in encouraging a better mindfulness of our treatment of rest of creation. Turn the lights off, don't shower for hours, recycle and don't use Styrofoam. Become involved in community efforts and inform yourself of the consequences our consumption yields, both the apparent and the indirect. Just because we don't see it and we don't experience it, the aftermath of our decisions are things we will see be accountable for. Let's be those who try to make the world better in every sense of the word and not those whose absence is the only thing that will bring it benefit.