When picturing Southern California, many people envision a place notorious for its decadence, materialism and over-consumption. While Hollywood and its bling do tend to steal the spotlight, there is, fortunately, another side to Southern California – a green side.
Many Muslim families who live in this area are committed to an inspiring, eco-friendly lifestyle that could easily be implemented elsewhere in the world. Though they embrace a variety of different ecologically aware practices, the mantra of these Californians is the same: “We respect the earth for the sake of Allah (SWT).”
Cloth Diaper Diva
“Living green has become second nature because that is how I was raised,” explains Shahnila Ahmad, a mother of three. “My mom always told us that we will be accountable to Allah I for everything, including things we use and waste. We were always reminded not to turn the water on full blast and to turn it off while brushing our teeth. And not to keep the doors of the refrigerator open for too long. I see it as living according to the principles of Islam. Now I tell my own kids that we do these things and more, because Islam teaches us to take care of the earth.”
She and her husband, Saaqib Rangoonwala, incorporate many other earth-friendly initiatives in their home, including recycling and repurposing glass and plastic containers, minimising disposable products, conserving water, dressing warmly indoors in order to reduce energy use on heating and paying bills online to reduce paper waste. Even with all that, Shahnila believes the biggest impact they have on the environment is the use of cloth diapers for their three children. “I have occasionally used disposables while travelling and absolutely hated collecting bags of diapers that will be sitting in a landfill for a very long time,” she says.
Lyla El-Safy, along with her husband and three children, go above and beyond a typical earth-conscious lifestyle. Recycling paper and plastics with their city’s curbside collection is just the tip of the iceberg for this super-green family. “We use electricity so minimally that when I looked into solar energy, I was told it would not be cost effective,” says the northern California native, who now lives in the southern part of the state. “I keep a compost bin to compost food scraps and paper products. We also have backyard chickens for eggs and rabbits for meat. We feed lots of food scraps to them. We repurposed an old toy box and wood scraps to make the coop and hutches. In addition, we buy as few pre-packaged grocery items as possible and try to buy in bulk.”
Like Shahnila, Lyla learnt eco-friendly practices from her parents. “I grew up green in Berkeley, California,” she says. “The 60s and 70s were a progressive time. My family always composted and recycled. So as an adult I just kept on.”
While some Americans see the trend to conserve, reuse and reduce as a fairly modern phenomenon, those who have lived in less developed countries know that over-consumption is not such a problem as elsewhere. “Waste” is almost unheard of in less affluent nations, since people habitually make good use of their resources. Asma Ahmad, who heads a nonprofit group for Muslim homeschoolers in Orange County, points out, “For those who have been influenced by the ways of our parents or our time abroad in lesser privileged countries, using less, wasting less, reusing are all just a natural part of life. We couldn’t imagine living any other way! Unfortunately, living in this society can influence you in the opposite direction because of the carefree use of resources.”
In their own home and at work, Asma and her husband Umer Khan, senior director at SpaceX Corporation, instill many earth-friendly practices that seem like a novelty in the U.S. “I encourage the kids to take bucket baths and challenge them to use only one bucket of water,” says the homeschooler. “We don’t buy toys and rarely buy clothes as we get enough through hand-me-downs and gifts, Alhamdulillah, and then we pass those along further. We use cloth towels instead of paper towels. For 99 percent of our schoolwork and printing needs and even for my board meeting agendas, we use paper which is already used on one side. Umer brings used paper home from work and we get it from junk mail and expired flyers. My kids would be horrified if a piece of paper with one side blank made it to the recycling bin!” she continues. In addition, she says, “All our major appliances are energy efficient, and insha Allah we will soon be getting an electric car for Umer’s daily commute to L.A.”
Tara Tariq, an urban planner and mother of a ten year old who recently relocated to Dubai from Southern California, takes conservation very seriously. “Knowledge of the damage we are doing to the environment is ineffective unless it’s tied to a catalysing ethos or personal ideology,” Tara explains. “In our case, this ideology is our profound deen, Alhamdulillah. Without Islam’s constant reminder of every individual being a sovereign caretaker of themselves, their possessions and their environment, then I think we would’ve easily relaxed into our regular lifestyle of heedlessness. Alhamdulillah, gaining Islamic knowledge continues to keep us focused on the important basics: that water is a precious resource, food contains our rizq and should never be wasted and a Muslim keeps their environment clean at all costs.”
One of Tara’s main initiatives is “eliminating many of beauty and body care products commonly advertised and sold as ‘absolute necessities.’ There is so much unnecessary stuff we place on our bodies,” she explains. “Many people are unaware that the life cycle of these products doesn’t end at the shower drain, but these chemicals leach into natural water systems and are a huge headache for water treatment plants across regions in North America. Fortunately,” she adds, “if one is not a DIY type of person, there are many natural and/or almost-natural products sold at special health stores. But really, we don’t need three different types of shampoos and conditioners – these commonly-cited beauty tips are simply a marketing gimmick.”
In addition to eliminating unnecessary cosmetics, Tara says, “I ditched all toxic cleaning products that I had at home and minimised my tools to baking soda and vinegar. I’ve never looked back since – it’s that effective a combination.”
Tara educates her daughter about environmental issues by example and also by watching and discussing documentaries like March of the Penguins, The Crimson Wing, Turtle: the Incredible Journey and Blackfish.
For Shaista Azad, J.D., and her family, “waste ” is a dirty word. “We produce almost no garbage in our household,” she says. “We buy carefully, recycle and compost everything. I use three different composting techniques. I keep a compost pail next to my kitchen sink and put any and all material for composting in it. This includes kitchen scraps, coffee filters, tea bags, dryer lint, junk mail, etc. Then I compost it by one of three methods: I can toss it to the worms in the vermiculture worm bins, which produce very rich compost but take time and effort to harvest. Or I bury it in the two-foot-deep mulch beds I’ve built around the fruit trees, which directly adds rich compost to the trees over time. Or, the most convenient, is to dump it into the tumbler compost bin. My goal with the tumbler is not to produce compost for harvest, but rather to almost completely eliminate trash. I’ve been filling it for years, but it always has room for more.”
Each of these resourceful families has a unique blueprint for a green lifestyle, but they are united in their belief that caring for the earth is their duty as Muslims. Just as many of them learnt eco-friendly practices from their parents, they are passing along this important legacy to their children.
Laura El Alam is a frazzled but grateful wife and mother of four in Southern California. She fervently hopes that her attempts at raising her feisty children (2 toddlers + 2 teens) will pave her path to Jannah.