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God is in the garden: a conversation with Sheik Mustafa Umar

Shaykh Mustafa Umar at his office at the Islamic Institute of Orange County.
Shaykh Mustafa Umar at his office at the Islamic Institute of Orange County.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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To mark Earth Day this year, we’ve been exploring how the faith of Southern Californians shapes their attitude towards nature.  We’re calling our series, “God is in the garden,” inspired by a quote from George Bernard Shaw:  "The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there."

On Tuesday I profiled Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. On Wednesday, it was Father Christian Mondor of Saints Simon and Jude Catholic Church in Huntington Beach.  Today  it's Sheik Mustafa Umar, head of education at the Islamic Institute of Orange County.

Even behind a full beard, Mustafa Umar looks younger than his 31 years. Islam’s green values, he says, are much older. 

“Now it’s becoming a little bit more trendy to be concerned about the environment,” Umar says. “But for Muslims this is not about buying into some trend. This is something that has been built in for 1400 years in the Koran.”

In that central text of his faith, what’s built in is the idea of stewardship.

“The Arabic term is khalifa,” he says. “Caliph was basically the one who basically took charge after the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, passed away. So it means somebody who is in charge on behalf of someone else.”

Khutbah (sermon): "Fulfill Your Responsibility Towards the Earth" by Shaykh Mustafa Umar. from Islamic Institute of Orange County on Vimeo.

Umar says Muslims have two jobs on earth: to worship god, and to protect what belongs to god, the resources of Earth, and the universe.

“Our position of actually being here is that of what’s known as a viceroy. Or a deputy,” he says. “Take care of everything on this earth including the animals and the plants and the mountains and everything. With authority comes responsibility. We’re allowed to utilize these things. But we’re not allowed to abuse them.”

That idea did not resonate with Umar when he was growing up as a self-described rebellious teenager in Cerritos and Tustin. He didn’t become interested in Islam until college. He ended up pursuing advanced Islamic studies in Europe, India, and Egypt. He still hadn’t thought that much about the environment until one of his teachers translated Al Gore into Arabic to reveal the similarities between being an environmentalist and being a Muslim.

“I started thinking, you know what? If I really want to be following Islam completely, like I would like to do, I need to make some serious adjustments in my life,” Umar says. “So that’s when I started, buying an eco bottle for water. We put a recycling can in our own house and everything.”

He thought, too, about the Islamic prohibition on wasting food.  Then he began to notice a related, but hidden waste: take-out chopsticks. Billions of them, thrown away each year, millions of THOSE by Muslims.

“Greenpeace of China actually said you need to plant like 100 acres of forest just in China in order to make up for the daily production of these chopsticks that are being used,” he says, sounding a little shocked. “And the forests, they’ve already been decimated in Malaysia and Indonesia, both of which are Muslim majority countries.”

Turning down wood chopsticks with take out food is a personal choice, but Umar says that choice shouldn’t salve one person’s conscience. Instead he believes it’s one act that fulfills a Muslim’s responsibility to his community.

And Umar says his community needs to do more.

In a recent sermon he told a story from the Koran in which Allah talks about the corruption of the earth’s resources.

“Why did this corruption manifest itself in this earth?,” he reads in Arabic and English. “So that they might taste some of the things that we’ve done. Today we’re tasting those fruits. We’re tasting the change in our air quality. We’re tasting the change in our water. We’re tasting the change in the forests that are decimated. We’re tasting the climate change.”

Besides preaching, Mustafa Umar teaches his faith at the Islamic Institute. He says his environmental values are still growing.  For now, he hopes to grow environmental awareness and even activists in southern California’s Islamic community.