Muslims Stand Up for Environmental Justice: A Conversation with Huda Alkaff

Huda Alkaff poses with five adults and nine children in front of a wide pile of black bags of garbage in front of a short stone bridge spanning a river.

On May 7, in the days before the beginning of the Islamic month of Ramadan, I spoke with Huda Alkaff, a trained ecologist and environmental educator. Alkaff is founder and director of Wisconsin Green Muslims, a state-wide environmental justice group based in Milwaukee that has received national recognition for its leadership, from Wisconsin to the White House.

Huda Alkaff, in a taupe hijab, smiles at the camera in front of a blue screen that reads "White House Champions of Change / Faith Leaders on Climate"

Huda Alkaff was named one of the 2015 White House Champions of Change for her work with Wisconsin Green Muslims. Photo courtesy of Huda Alkaff.

We discussed two featured projects of Wisconsin Green Muslims: promoting access to solar energy with the “Faith & Solar” initiative, and water resource conservation and management with “Faithful Rainwater Harvesting.” Alkaff also explained the popularity of the current Greening Ramadan initiative, which extends to communities across the country. Alkaff reflected on engagement with various mosques, diverse non-Muslim faith-based organizations as well as the process of building bridges with non-religious environmental groups overall. Religious commitments such as to “stand for justice” (Q. 4:135) energize Wisconsin Green Muslims to “stand up for environmental and climate justice,” as Alkaff explained, with activism that strives for inclusion and equity for marginalized communities.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Anna Gade: Islam and environmental justice are both very broad fields. How did you choose the areas to put your energy into?  

Huda Alkaff: We started in 2005 and we wanted to work on everything. We still do. We divide the year into themes and each month is a different theme. But water and solar energy have touched our hearts. We’re leading the Wisconsin Faith & Solar Initiative, which brings people of faith and spirituality together to care for Earth while reinvesting their saved money into their missions and building stronger communities. We also have the Faithful Rainwater Harvesting Initiative. The abbreviation is FaRaH, which means “joy” in Arabic.

Both initiatives have three components. First, a social and educational component, where we’re building a peer learning circle of those who have built solar or green infrastructure and those aspiring to do so. Secondly, we have the financial component, where we provide free and discounted remote and on-site solar assessments and consultations. We love spreading the good news, telling people “Your site is a solar-promising site.” Thirdly is the spiritual component. We see sunlight and water as the commons. No one owns them, and everyone should have access to them. Both sunlight and water are sacred gifts and sacred trusts. We need to appreciate them and welcome them responsibly into our homes, congregations, and lives.

We believe that people of faith have a great responsibility to stand up for environmental and climate justice.

In our work, we are tapping into the unifying power of solar energy and water. We found through several polls in 2016 and 2017 that solar energy has high approval ratings among people from diverse political, social, geographical, and educational backgrounds—nationally and in Wisconsin.

AG: You recently gave a webinar for a multiyear initiative with the Islamic Society of North America about Greening Ramadan. Can you speak a little bit about that program?

HA: Our Greening Ramadan campaign was one of our first initiatives. It’s not only continuing strong, but it has also spread to many Muslim communities nationally. During Ramadan, the Islamic holy month which begins in a few days, we encourage daily acts, such as carpooling, walking, biking, or using public transit to the mosque; using reusable water bottles, washable dishes, cups, and utensils; eating less meat; planting a tree; performing eco-ablution, as Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did by using two handfuls of water for ablution before prayer; reading the 1,500 verses in the Qur’an that have environmental or nature-oriented messages; power down, pray outside, grow food, waste less, purchase gifts responsibility, etc. They are all posted on our website.

In 2015, the Islamic Society of North America established a green masjid, now called Green Initiative Taskforce, which I’m a member of. We ask mosques to do food and water conservation, energy efficiency, reusable/biodegradable items, recycling and waste reduction, and giving a green khutbah (or lecture) during the month of Ramadan.

Huda Alkaff poses inside with three men and one woman in front of double doors and and a display that reads "Wisconsin Green Muslims"

Huda Alkaff (left) with the Wisconsin Green Muslims’ Water Team. Photo courtesy of Huda Alkaff.

AG: What has the response been in communities and different masjids in North America?

HA: It’s a process. That’s why we call it Greening Ramadan. There are Greening Ramadan campaigns in over 20 states now and more than 90 mosques.

AG: How does being faith-based affect the message, outreach, and activism of your organization?

HA: We believe that people of faith have a great responsibility to stand up for environmental and climate justice, and to address the concerns and calamities of the poor and marginalized communities. They have the lowest ecological footprints, yet they are most impacted by natural and unnatural disasters. It is a moral issue. The Muslim voice and the interfaith voice standing united for environmental justice and care of Earth is instrumental for mobilizing the faithful for the common good.

Huda Alkaff stands behind a solar array, angled down from left to right, wiht a green field and blue sky behind her.

Huda Alkaff works to promote Wisconsin Green  Muslims’ “Faith & Solar” initiative. Photo by Sister Susan Seeby.

AG: You are an ecologist and you have degrees in conservation ecology, sustainable development, and environmental education. How did you come to this work?

HA: Believe it or not, I have been an environmentalist since I was a child. I remember being asked the famous question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” To everyone’s surprise, my answer was: an ecologist, an environmentalist. I was and still am fascinated by nature and all its inhabitants, and I wanted to learn more about them and the connections between them. I earned degrees in chemistry and biology but was yearning for a more interdisciplinary field of study. Ecology is the study of interconnections and interdependence among everything, in space and time.

The continuous attempt at establishing connections and gaining holistic network insights is the driving force for my ongoing work to build strong and sustainable bridges between the environmental teachings in Islam (and other faiths and spiritualities) and my university environmental training.

AG: Is there anything else that you wish that listeners of this podcast would know?

HA: I want to uplift the basic principles of environmental justice that guide our work, which are to ensure public involvement of low-income and minority groups in decision-making, preventing disproportionately high adverse impacts of decisions on low-income and minority groups, and ensuring low-income and minority groups receive a proportionate share of benefits.  

Featured image: Huda Alkaff (left) and members of Wisconsin Green Muslims participate in the Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s 22nd Annual Spring River Cleanup, April 22, 2017. Photo by Burhan Clark.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Huda Alkaff is the founder and director of Wisconsin Green Muslims, an environmental justice organization formed in 2005, connecting faith, environmental justice, and sustainability through education and service. She also serves as a co-chair of the U.S. Climate Action Network 100% Renewable Energy user group. She holds degrees in conservation ecology, sustainable development, and environmental education from the University of Georgia, and has taught environmental studies courses at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. In 2015, Wisconsin Green Muslims received national awards and recognition for their water and climate change-related work from both GreenFaith and the Interfaith Power and Light. Alkaff received the 2015 White House Champions of Change for Faith Climate Justice Leaders recognition, was named the 2016 Sierra Club Great Waters group Environmental Hero of the Year, and was recognized nationally last year by Environment America as one of the Voices for 100% Renewable Energy. She has just received the 2018 Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education Eco-Justice Award. Contact.

Anna M. Gade is a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Environmental Studies in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she teaches core courses in environmental humanities. She has been a faculty affiliate of the Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE) for many years. With a Ph.D. in the History of Religions specializing in Islam from the University of Chicago and a long list of publications on the Qur’an, Gade researches global Muslim responses to environmental change. Her forthcoming book from Columbia University Press is titled Muslim Environmentalisms. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “Praying for Forgiveness: Religious Ethics of Sustainability in Muslim Indonesia” (April 2015). Website. Contact.

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