A Call for Action: Muslims and Jews Find Community in Nature

A Call for Action: Muslims and Jews Find Community in Nature

A Convergence of Islamic and Jewish Perspectives on the Environment

By Emily Maremont, age 17, California.

In my fifth grade gardening class, I shared a shovel with a girl who had recently immigrated to the United States from Yemen. Here we were—me a Jew, her a Muslim—passing that rusty shovel back and forth across a row of red clay pots. Little did I know at the time, the act of cultivating that rooftop garden followed what our ancestors had done for thousands of years. Ancient teachings from both Islam and Judaism stress the importance of caring for the natural world. In America, the birthplace of the modern interfaith and environmentalist movements, the fight to combat climate change has the potential to foster deeper cultural understanding between Muslims and Jews.

Environmentalist narratives are prominent throughout the Quran. According to Islamic teachings, the essential elements of nature—earth, water, fire, forests, light—belong to all living organisms, not just to the human race. Humans, the guardians of nature, are discouraged from abusing or destroying natural resources: “He is the One Who produces gardens…Eat of the fruit they bear and pay the dues at harvest, but do not waste. Surely, He does not like the wasteful.” Planting trees, purifying rivers, and digging wells are also considered charitable deeds. Preventing water pollution is particularly significant given the role of water in daily worship. In the performance of ablution before prayer, Muslims are expected to exercise moderation as they wash themselves. In Mecca and Medina, The Prophet established the first protected areas in history, known in Arabic as hima. Within the bounds of protected areas, natural resources considered sacred were off limits during certain periods, and logging and grazing were prohibited.

Similarly, the Hebrew principles of bal tashchit (“do not destroy” or “do not waste”) and tikkun olam (“repair the world”) connect to the values of moderation and the sacredness of natural resources found in Islam. Themes of guardianship over nature are also woven into Jewish holidays. During Sukkot, Jews dwell in temporary structures called sukkot (it is a plural of the word Sukkah). Jewish law commands that a sukkah must have a thatched roof made of organic material while allowing a view of the sky and for rain to penetrate. This practice allows Jews to appreciate their relationship to nature more directly. Tu BiShvat, another holiday nicknamed “the new year of the trees,” coincides with the blooming of almond trees after dormancy during winter. Sixteenth century Kabbalists began the tradition of a seder (ritual meal) for Tu BiShvat, in which symbolic nuts, fruits, juices, and wines are featured. In the Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah, G-d says: “Do not corrupt or desolate my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.’” This line resembles the foreboding of many contemporary environmental activists and scientists.

Historically, the natural world has played a major role in the relationships between Muslims and Jews. The Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula resulted in the introduction of new agricultural practices from the Middle East and ushered in an era of general religious tolerance. New crops such as sugarcane and rice became parts of the culture of all who lived there: Arabs, Jews, other Europeans, etc. Sustainable irrigation practices involving the noria (waterwheel) and qanat (underground water channel) increased water supply. Historians call this agricultural transformation the “Islamic Green Revolution.” Córdoba, the capital of the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate (c. 711-1031), became the center of Sephardic Jewish life. Jews from all over Europe migrated to Spain, where the land supported their growing population. There was widespread transculturation of Jewish and Arab cultures in the sciences, philology, and literature. Against the backdrop of a shared, flourishing natural environment, Muslims and Jews coexisted peacefully.

In recent years, many Muslim and Jewish grassroots organizations and individuals have moved to the forefront of environmental activism. Green Muslims uses solar water heaters to heat water for ablution that thousands of worshipers perform in Washington, DC. Other organizations, including Eco-Halal, Green Ramadan, and Green Haj, are working to make Muslim traditions more sustainable. In 2022, twenty major Jewish organizations formed the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition, which is committed to taking action against the urgent threat of climate change.

Youth are also prominent voices in this movement. Muslim American climate activists like Saad Amer and Zahra Biabani are spreading their message through social media, leading protests at the White House, and speaking at the United Nations. The Jewish Youth Climate Movement has chapters across the United States. Young Jews for a Green New Deal incorporates Jewish music, poetry, and celebration into their activism to engage more people. In a variety of ways, American Muslims and Jews of every age are taking up their traditional mantles as stewards of the earth.

Meanwhile, when I am walking through my neighborhood, I never see Muslims and Jews interacting with each other. While there are annual interfaith events between Jews and Christians at my synagogue, I never see similar events between Muslims and Jews. As someone who from a young age has strived to learn and appreciate other faiths, I cannot sit with the prospect that tensions always have to exist between our communities—no more than I can fathom the idea that our efforts to stop climate change are futile. I believe that multicultural understanding springs from having hard conversations about the complex world we live in. What better way to have hard conversations than out in nature, which we all value and enjoy? Yet as the Earth continues to suffer from carbon emissions, pollution, and other issues created by humans, such opportunities for connection are lost before we even realize they exist.

Through climate-focused interfaith partnerships, Muslims and Jews can find common ground. By developing community projects, organizing protests, and lobbying the government, Muslims and Jews can learn about each other’s values and traditions. In the process, they can become more comfortable with being in the same place—passing shovels back and forth underneath the leaves we all pray will change color come autumn, as centipedes march past on the ground and eagles circle overhead.

By Emily Maremont, age 17, California. Emily adds: “I enjoy writing and learning about history in order to gain new perspectives on the world. In my essay, I use a memory from my childhood as a starting place to look at climate activism through an interfaith and multicultural lens.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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