27 Jan 2010

Come to the 'Edge': A Muslim, an Ecologist and Permaculture

“Come to the edge, he said.
They said: We are afraid.
Come to the edge, he said. They came.
He pushed them…and they flew.”

Guillaume Appollinaire

The Cultural Commute

Being an ecologist and a Muslim, I often experience what seem to be two distinct worlds. The first is the world of low carbon lifestyles, non-hierarchical decision making, and compost toilets in which you can’t pee, interspersed with questions like “are you sure it’s vegan?” The other is the world of high carbon jumaa’s, and a string of questions such as “where’s the lamb bro?”, and “what do the scholars say about that?”

Enriching though this cultural commute might be, the overhanging cloud that moves with me is that I often do not feel like a true citizen of either world. Rather, I feel like someone who gets a kick out of living in lands in which I understand the language, but am unable to properly speak it – and whilst I admit that I have to an extent generalised in my description of these two worlds, there are nonetheless elements of reality I have experienced that fit the cultural outlines rather well.

It’s not that I don’t strive for a low-carbon life-style, or that I wouldn’t refer to a scholar, or that I don’t see the value of non-hierarchical organising, for example (I do and would on all three accounts!), but more that associated with the cultures in which these behaviours and comments are norms, can be a cargo of assumptions. These assumptions, like any that are deep-rooted enough, can give rise to blind-spots to perspectives which need wider awareness if those perspectives are to be perceived, given breathing space, and dialogued with.

The Meeting of Worlds

My personal journey, is guided I hope by spirituality, by Islam, and the knowledge that Islam is intrinsically ecological, that the world of a ‘Muslim’ is in truth, inseparable from the world of an ‘ecologist’. However, a commute of the kind I described earlier is inevitable for me on at least two accounts - firstly because of a role I have landed in, as an activist, student and mentor in an Islamic environmental network, and secondly because of my belief that the meeting of worlds can be a place of richness and beauty. Thus, I can find myself conversing with a hard-core anarchist, a mosque regular, a rep from an NGO driven by funding targets and a member of the Transition Town Network all within the space of a few days.

A conversation with a member of any one of the above groups might make me feel both inspired and humbled. In some instances, however, I might feel less an equal party to a conversation and more like a recipient of a robotic sermon from an over-zealous citizen of another world. Whilst after the latter experience, my belief that a meeting of worlds is a great thing could benefit from gentle resuscitation, both instances are nonetheless examples of what permaculturists might call ‘the edge’. 

The Scope of the 'Edge': Permaculture & Islam

‘The edge’ was explained to me during a two week permaculture and activism course I participated in during the summer of 2009 in Devon. One of the course instructors was a woman called Starhawk. A humble character, she is the author of about a dozen books, and also has a wealth of experience in activism, including on the Middle East, corporate globalisation, environmentalism as well as on economic justice. Her approach is such that she is committed to creating the kind of world she wants to live in, rather than simply campaigning against the one she doesn’t. What particularly impressed me about Starhawk (as though the above wasn’t enough!) was her understanding of diversity issues that I had picked up through some of her writings. She seemed be one of the few ecologists in the North who really knew what it was like to be in a marginalised group, and how to be inclusive to those who were.

The other lead instructor, Andy Goldring, in his deliciously animated and energetic style, explained that in terms of natural systems, ‘the edge’ is an area where two eco-systems come together to form a third. For example, this could be where a forest meets with a meadow, or a lake with woodland, or a pond with grassland. Because they contain species from both eco-systems, edges are areas of dynamism, diversity and creativity. Hence, this is why spiral and curved shapes are common in systems based on permaculture principles. A spiral shaped pond offers several times more edge than a rectangular or round one of equal size. This allows for greater interaction and hence gives more opportunity for biodiversity to develop.

Starhawk then followed by pointing out the cultural ‘edge’. In music for instance, the meeting point, or edge
between two musical cultures can give rise to an altogether new musical form. And for me, the presence of two distinct groups, such as certain Muslims and certain ecologists can give its own unique edge experience! Naturally, the meeting point between two systems or social groups is also a vulnerable place where there is potential for tension, though if each system is also given its own space, this provides conditions which can enhance resilience.

A good dose of edge-ness can thus be a blessing, whilst too much, or at least edge without room to breathe, might make us… edgy, I suppose! 

The Qur’ an points to the importance of edge in the context of cultural diversity through the following verse:

O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. (Qur’ an: 49:13)

Islam also values another kind of edge. That is the edge within daily cycles, the junction points between times of the day, such as during sunset and dawn, for example. These points of transition are, for Muslims, a time to
punctuate worldly activity with formal worship through salaat. Performed with presence, it is a step towards the unity behind cultural and natural diversity, the constancy behind change, the unseen behind the seen. A frequent dose of such an experience nurtures an attitude of compassion, something that is essential if the meeting between elements from two worlds is to be a healthy one.

As well as outwardly, there are inner edges. For instance, an over-guarded edge can create in me walls of separation, and herein lies a fragmented consciousness. Yet, if I begin to reflect on how different beliefs I hold exist in the context of each other and deeper levels of my self, then I am opening myself up for new ideas and inspiration. My thinking can become more whole.

What Space to Reflect?

Through the financial and ecological crises, strands connecting different areas of life have become more visible. The financial system is, as our relationship with the earth – it is unsustainable - and indeed our financial system, entrenched in money creation, interest-based lending and growth is a core contributor to resource depletion, pollution, climate catastrophe and violence. Simultaneously, with the increasing rate of change that such an economy brings, our attention is like a feather on a stormy day, blown from place to place with no time to settle. Thus, the essential space needed to reflect on experiences, on what it means to live according to the fitrah, for insights to emerge, and to create a world that is more meaningful is being constrained by the world as it is.

Finding the Doors and Walking through

Yet, opportunities for transformation can form with only slight adjustments to our way of life. These opportunities are contained, for instance, in situations in which wisdom and insights can be shared, when skills or talent that any of us has can find their ways to others. This is the nature of many traditions, and skills-sharing has also become common in Transition initiatives, a movement originating in Kinsale, Ireland, that aims to respond to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change. Thus, a dinner invitation can be modified into a pot-luck experience coupled with the sharing of skills or a passion. On the same occasion that we savour some culinary delights, a close friend might teach us how to mend clothes, weave a basket out of items we might otherwise throw away, or grow our own mint on the windowsill. Another friend might share some poetry, be inspired to play out a meaningful sketch, or teach calligraphy.

Thus, a simple and common social event, such as having dinner together can through almost no extra effort become even more sociable and fun, whilst helping to create a more wholesome world. This would be analogous to the example described earlier, of one pond having more edge than another of exactly the same size, simply by virtue of being a different shape. There is greater scope for interaction, drawing out diversity, creativity and resilience. In the social context, it can mean in the example given, deeper human relationships, a move from consumerism to sharing, from corporations to community, and the opening of innumerable doors from which further possibilities can emerge.

The Problem is the Solution

With the environmental crises being widely recognised, green has become the colour of the day – and can thus be a safe paint to use, particularly in a society in which we feel we must struggle hard to be accepted. It is my prayer that our becoming green couples itself with the kind of transformations that are needed to be truly green. With simple changes that enrich relationships, as one important dimension, we can begin to move through the challenges of our time. Thus, by increasing the community ‘edge’, we can help turn crises into transformative, soul nurturing opportunities. It is not always new technologies that we will need, and we must be mindful of the attraction of green consumerism. Ultimately more powerful, more available, and yet more easily overlooked is the poorly tapped potential of the human soul and community spirit, through solutions that we can implement without corporate involvement, solutions that help us better see and appreciate what and who has been there all along.

© Muzammal Hussain 

A version of this article was published in the Oct 2009 edition of Emel magazine.

Wisdom In Nature have organised an Islam & Permaculture Introduction day on Sat 27th March 2010 in Tooting, London. To find out more, please click here


18 Jan 2010

Open space: Communication / Connectedness

Following on from the previous post, a second subgroup came up with the following ideas through their Open Space Process at one of our monthly forums...

People are increasingly isolated from each other despite all the technology related to communication. Technology provides useful tools, but excessive reliance on technology can cause more anxiety-technology is not foolproof.

Educating children (and others) that one does not need to rely on gadgets to communicate, and reliance may diminish real connectedness.

Fun activities/spaces not involving technology (eg-no cellphones, computers).

Get to know neighbors-this builds trust, reduces anxiety parents often have about children, but relevant to nonparents as well. Start here, and build up, expanding circle of people you know and trust.

Open space process: How do we find out what the One God wants?

At a LINE monthly forum late last year we went through an Open Space Process within the context of the world we want to live in. Below are written notes from one of the subgroups. They divided their process into three parts, and following a request additional references were included afterwards...

1. How does God perceive how the world should be?

We are His creation, and as limited individuals we cannot know the Beginning or End.

God revealed (part of) His Truth over time to different people.

People – build up their own picture – spread their own view.

Abrahamic faiths have a belief in the Day of Judgement – where they’ll come to understand God’s full purpose.

Organised religious and secular groups impose on individuals their Way.

Communities should allow individuals to express their own Ways as long as these don’t harm others.

2. If we follow God, restraint comes from inside the individual

From the following weblink

Academics calculate that sociopaths account for about 3-4% of the male population and less than 1% of the female population. Professor Robert Hare from the University of British Columbia is one of the world's experts on sociopaths and psychopaths. He writes of people "completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others".

In the same weblink Professor Hare describes how "they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret".

There is an assumption (in our society) that everyone in the community lacks an internal moral compass and that society has to impose this externally (through laws, inspections and checks, etc). But from the link above we see that about 4 % of the population doesn’t care about others, but the vast majority, 96%, generally do have a conscience or internal moral framework to guide them. Although some people may have difficulty keeping to their framework due to circumstances.

Religion could be a possible external framework for the remaining 4%, where divine justice and/or retribution might give those who have no conscience a personal benefit for treating others better.

However, we should not forget that this research could be unreliable as it is a model of humankind described by humans themselves.

3. If we understood The Truth of what God wants from us in this life, we would understand everything (including everyone else), but this is not possible for humans on Earth.

As we become more faithful and more pious – we risk becoming more arrogant. We risk thinking we each have The (Only) Answer. We need to be self-critical of our own opinions – no one (human) has The Answer … each life is a separate journey.

In Islam, this arrogance that the pious risk getting is known as ujb

Ujb is a feeling of exaggeration of one's virtues and good deeds, their overestimation and satisfaction with them, accompanied with a sense of superiority on their account. A person with ujb considers himself free from all shortcomings and faults. In contrast, a feeling of pleasure and delight on performing virtuous deeds, accompanied with a sense of humility and modesty before God and gratitude for His favours is not ujb, but is a praiseworthy trait.

… In addition, a person afflicted with ujb never cares to rectify himself. Rather, he considers himself as a pious and virtuous person. He belittles his sins and never thinks of purging himself from them, and ultimately leads himself to eternal damnation. The dark curtain of ujb covers and corrupts his intellect, making him blind to his own shortcomings, and prevents him from achieving any kind of perfection.

A similar concept is known in Christianity too. It is easier to see the problems or faults of others than our own hypocrisy.

"You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye”.

Once we think we have found The Answer we risk closing-up to further ideas. We should aim instead to get the best out of our circumstances and the best out of each other.

God only puts burdens on each soul up to its own capacity; we don’t have to attempt to work beyond our capacities. God wants for us ease, rather than strain and stress. His Will is to guide and teach us.

“… ALLAH burdens not any soul beyond its capacity…” Sher Ali translation, Holy Quran, 2:286

“… ALLAH desires not that HE should place you in a difficulty but HE desires to purify you and to complete HIS favour upon you, so that you may be grateful…” Sher Ali translation, Holy Quran, 5:6

Wisdom is the realisation that we can only aim to journey closer to the Truth.

On our journeys through life we should keep seeking, keep recognising our own limitations, and keep trying to support each other along the way.

6 Jan 2010

What's in a name - from LINE to WIN

by Wasi Daniju and Muzammal Hussain

Think for a moment about the last time you named something. A child perhaps, or a pet. Maybe something you created - a sculpture, painting, poem or song. Maybe a group or a team. Or maybe just a pet name for someone close. In this variety of cases, the time, thought and reflection put into deciding on this name no doubt varied, depending on the import placed on what was being named. In just about every case, though, the name chosen would be likely to reflect aspects of the named thing that you consider important, elements of it that you would want people to get an idea of as soon as they hear it.

Thus it was with LINE - London Islamic Network for the Environment, founded in 2004. The name encapsulated certain elements of the group and its aims. It was a practical name, demonstrating the group’s foundation on Islamic principles, and the focus of our activities, the environment.

In recent discussions of our ethos, our values and the actions that we take, however, we felt that actually, there were certain fundamental aspects of our ethos, values and actions that are not captured and reflected by this name. We agreed that actually, our scope is beyond the environment, and wider than 'Muslim'. These are not new ideas for the group, this has always been true, but time and experience have led to the emergence of a need to clearly express this. And so, from this reflection, our new name was chosen: Wisdom in Nature.

The drawing out of wisdom includes a process of reflection and sensing deeper connections to knowledge accumulated over time. It enables us to get to the essence - this requires both the heart and the mind. Developing wisdom necessitates transfomation, and a transformative approach has always been central to the group. We engage in deep dialogue and reflection, taking the time needed for wisdom to emerge, both within ourselves and as a collective.

When considering the word ‘nature’, the first thing that tends to come to mind is the natural world around us - the incredible and fascinating beauty of the flora and fauna, the amazing way in which billions of organisms coexist harmoniously, the peace and tranquility that can be found, sometimes in even the wildest of landscapes. By nature, we also consider our natural disposition, our innate nature, or fitrah, that pure state in which we were created . By living according to the fitrah, we more naturally fit harmoniously into the wider creation that we are a part of.

And thus the name ‘Wisdom in Nature’ encapsulates two intertwining ideas, that we hope our group embodies. Through reflection and sensing, we look to learn from the wisdom of the world around us. Rather than an over-attachment to new human-made sciences and technologies, we also consider the value of learning from the lessons that nature has to offer. In a number of places in the Qur’an, it is mentioned that in the world are ‘signs for those who reflect’. We believe that careful contemplation of the harmonious systems and beauty of the natural world can not only draw us closer to the Divine author of the works, but can also help us to discover solutions to the ecological and social imbalances present in the world today.

Furthermore, we believe that there is something innate in us that echoes nature’s methods - something in our own natures that holds an answer to the quandary we find ourselves in, if only we are able to reflect deeply enough, and listen to the quiet voice within.

We had an exciting and fruitful time as LINE. We now look forward to our future as Wisdom In Nature, and hope that, especially given the reflection in its choosing, we are able to maintain our ethos and be true to our name.

For more information about WIN's ethos and history, please visit our website here.