Sumayya Allen is a Permaculture Designer for Sustenance Design. She is also the Flower and Herb Farmer/Coordinator for Truly Living Well’s Center for Natural Urban Agriculture in Atlanta, GA. She was first introduced to sustainable agriculture nearly 20 years ago, when in 1996 she travelled to New Mexico, USA to work at an organic agricultural co-operative on a Pueblo reservation. The experience hooked her into the field of sustainable agriculture. Sumayya learned that it was more than just growing clean, organic food for people – it was also about building and strengthening community bonds, maintaining cultural integrity and creating jobs in a way that was nurturing and restorative to the earth. At the co-operative, she was also able to help plant and harvest some carefully saved indigenous varieties of chillis, corn and squash.
Seeds are the foundation of most of the foods we eat, and growing food from healthy seeds is a passion of Sumayya’s. It’s important to fight to preserve the biodiversity of our food – especially by saving heritage and heirloom varieties from extinction. Dr. Vandana Shiva’s work with food and seed sovereignty impacted and guided Sumayya on her own journey to serve. Sumayya explains: “I’m most influenced by the peasant women farmers worldwide who feed the world while are at the same time fighting for justice, equality and dignity. I am reminded and inspired daily by their efforts to preserve biodiversity and genetic resources, their struggles for access to land and their unrelenting fight for food sovereignty. These unsung heroines are my motivation to continue my work and calling to grow healthy soil, food and communities.”
After her transformative stay in New Mexico, Sumayya moved back to Atlanta and began working at a health food store and at a farm outside Atlanta. Because the landowners were an older couple, she spent a lot of time working by herself out in the fields. She used the solitude for mindful meditation, and it was a time when Sumayya says she was “wide open.” She was reading Qur’an, looking for answers, contemplating creation and establishing her relationship with Allah (SWT).
Sumayya was awed by the fact that she could hold two seeds in her hand and know that one would grow into a squash plant and one would grow into a sunflower. She was forced to acknowledge that there is a divine code written into the seeds that determines what they will become. She reflected on the bounty that is provided for us on earth – the soil where we can grow all of our medicine, clothing, shelter and food. Everything we need to survive is provided through the earth. Sumayya rightly calls this phenomena “Divine Design”.
In those days, she was blessed with a great number of understandings and insights – especially from Surah Al-Baqarah. Sumayya was especially inspired by Allah’s verses that speak of eating of the good, pure and clean things that He has provided for us, verses like Al-Baqarah:168 and Al-Baqarah:172. Sumayya also paid heed to Allah’s warning to the Children of Israel when they were ungrateful for the pure food they received from Allah and wanted more variety. Allah I admonished them, saying “[…] ‘Would you exchange that which is better for that which is lower? […]’ ”(Al-Baqarah:61). Sumayya did a lot of praying outside by herself. Then, about a year after leaving New Mexico, Sumayya converted to Islam.
After converting, Sumayya was taken aback to learn that many Muslims in her community did not share her passion and commitment to growing and consuming healthy food to sustain a healthy planet. She remembers being surprised at her first Ramadhan iftars that consisted of mainly rice and meat – with few vegetables to be seen. Drinks were served in styrofoam cups that were left strewn about on the ground after meals. Sumayya had converted to Islam because of her deep-rooted passion for health and humanity – inspired by the Islamic duty of stewardship of the planet she had read about in the Qur’an – but she found few other Muslims who undertook the stewardship role with the same solemn dedication.
Sumayya now aims to foster care, observation and stewardship the first Saturday of every month by leading sacred hikes in local forests and wetlands. She takes an eager group of adults and children out into the “wild” to teach them foraging techniques, plant identification and spiritual musings as they go. Getting everyone outdoors into their natural world connects them with family, place and especially to the native trees and plants. She shows them the patterns on the leaves and slows them down long enough to observe differences.
Sumayya believes that Allah (SWT) gave Adam (AS) names and knowledge to use and share upon being appointed steward and protector of the earth. Allah (SWT) states in the Qur’an “And He taught Adam the names – all of them. [..]” (Al-Baqarah:31). Knowing the subtle differences in order to properly name things in our world is one of the unique characteristics that differentiated Adam u from the angels.
Sumayya believes that we can only protect and preserve the nature which we know – in much the same way that we are protective of our family and friends. If we can learn to observe our native habitats – to see the niches that the plants fill, to know their uses and dangers, and call them by their proper names – we will be more likely to form protective feelings for those living things. For us to step into that stewardship role, we have to move from being mere residents and graduate into being inhabitants in and of our natural environment.
Sumayya also emphasises the importance of learning and volunteering locally for those interested in entering the broad field of permaculture. Understanding local ecosystems is crucial to success.Sumayya explains, “I advise anyone who is interested in getting involved in this work to begin by volunteering. There is so much you learn from hands-on work experience that you cannot learn by reading – it is a great way to apply the conceptual knowledge gained from reading and studying. Most importantly, [volunteering] is a great way to network and meet others who are doing the work. This will help tremendously in building your experience and will work in your favour when a job opening becomes available.” Also, institutions like Gaia University offer degree-seekers some alternatives, and even the traditional colleges and universities have emerging new programmes in sustainable agriculture, agroecology and ecological landscape design.
When Sumayya first began learning and training in permaculture and sustainable agriculture, she was most drawn to the practice by the fact that it is a conscious design process guided by a set of ethics and principles. Sumayya now also applies a set of guiding ethics and principles to her own work: she strives to “serve the Most High and all of His creation in a way that brings health and vitality to the landscape and its people.”
To learn more about permaculture concepts, organic gardening, how foods and natural environments affect our physical and emotional health and the current state of global environmental affairs, here is a list of recommendations for further study:
FLOW: For Love of Water
Dirt! The Movie
Back to Eden
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, and Fair by Caro Petrini
Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison
The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
Soil Not Oil by Vandana Shiva
Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture by Eric Holt Giménez
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
Janet Kozak is founder and COO of the PR and communications firm Resoulute. She’s an entrepreneur driven by business insights and boundless creativity. Janet’s most interested in women-owned business development and social causes including public health issues and domestic violence education in Muslim communities. She founded an online advocacy and support group, Muslim Women Against Domestic Violence and Abuse, and also recently spoke on the topic of financial abuse at the 2nd International Conference on Women’s Empowerment in Karachi, Pakistan.
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