Rhamis Kent: Islam & Earth Repair

Krystina sat down with Rhamis Kent, a Permaculture consultant who travels all over the Middle East and North Africa advising governments and organizations on how they can engage in ecosystem restoration in order to increase biodiversity and sustain plant, animal, and human life.

In this interview, they discuss his recent article entitled “Restoring the Amanah Through Earth Repair: Islam, Permaculture, and Ecosystem Restoration Work.”

Krystina Friedlander: I want to start by asking you about Ibn Khaldun, a Tunisian historiographer who lived in the 14th century. You wrote that he warned people about the “pleasures of civilization.” What might he say about what we’re seeing now in terms of environmental degradation and industrialization?

Rhamis Kent: Well, I think it’s a proof to what he’s pointing to in his work. The Muqaddimah is a book where he’s examining the causes for the rise and fall of civilizations.

As far as what he means by the “pleasures of civilization,” I think the easier things become, the more convenient our day-to-day living becomes, the more distanced we are from really understanding what it is that we need in order to sustain our lives, the more distance we have between ourselves and the natural world. There’s this artificial separation, a misunderstanding of exactly where we are oriented within that order. It creates a type of lethargy where you become very disoriented, and you don’t realize the impact your actions are having on the things you actually need in order to survive. Ibn Khaldun, he called it very accurately, and we’re seeing the advanced stages of some of the types of decline that he’d spoken of in his work.

KF: You write in the article that “there has been a collective failure to even begin to not only specifically identify industrialization and consumerism as being profoundly flawed systems on a variety of levels—as opposed to being critical of certain aspects of the social and political structures that govern them—but there’s more importantly been an abject failure in specifying and demonstrating a more reasonable alternative consistent with the ethical sensibilities which supposedly define and guide Muslims.” Can you tell me a little more about what you mean here? What are these Islamic ethical sensibilities and how do they fit in to what we talk about when we talk about the environment?

RK: When I wrote that I was specifically referring to Muslims living in industrialized “advanced” economies, consumer-based economies. What we see in a lot of the communities is an effort to try to integrate themselves within those orders as opposed to taking a deeper look to see whether or not those structures and the manner in which they’re arranged and run [are] even consistent with the tradition that supposedly defines them. This speaks to a larger problem of exactly what is it that makes Muslims Muslims? How do they define themselves? I think [that] Islam, by and large, by that measure, is an ethnic and a cultural phenomenon rather than an ethical one. Because the ethics by which industrial societies, and consumer-based societies are run, [are] extremely problematic from the standpoint of the [Islamic] ethics that supposedly define the community that has been trying to stake its claim within that context. We’re really seeing these acute and intensified problems [the effects of industrial and consumer-based societies] taking place within the very heart of the Muslim world. Things that are related to food security, water security, and environmental security.

The Arab Spring—the rise of this phenomenon is often ascribed to social and political drivers. What a lot of people don’t know is that during the time that these uprisings took place there were these huge spikes in food prices, and Egypt happens to be the world’s largest importer of wheat. So this could very easily be seen, not necessarily as the sole driver behind the unrest, but as a nontrivial one. The same thing could be said for Syria. Syria in the last few years has actually been experiencing very serious drought conditions that impacts its ability to have enough water and to produce enough food for the people that live there. And you can go all across the Middle East and North Africa and around the Muslim world, and you’re going to find similar situations where the actual physical conditions under which people are living are going to impact the social and political stability of those regions.

KF: Do you think that there’s something about Islam and about Islamic ethics specifically that is unique, or something specific that Islam brings to conversations about environmental sustainability and degradation?

RK: Absolutely! In the paper there were two pieces that I use as a means of setting up the intellectual foundations upon which my argument is based, and one of them is an article that was written by William Chittick called “Ibn Arabi: On the Benefit of Knowledge.” He sets up the cosmological basis, the epistemological basis, upon which we should understand the world in which we find ourselves, and understand ourselves. So just to quote the portion that I put in the paper, he writes this with specific reference made to defining beneficial knowledge, and this is knowledge with regards to understanding the nature of creation, and our position within that particular arrangement.

He says: “all of creation makes demands upon man, because he is created in God’s form and has been appointed his vicegerent or khalifa. He has the God-given duty, woven into his created nature—his fitra—to recognize the haqq or the right of things and to act accordingly. It is this haqq that must be known if his knowledge is to be true, right, worthy and appropriate, for this haqq is identical with the khalq or the creation that God has established.” So, in short, beneficial knowledge is knowledge of “the what” and “the why” of ourselves, and of things. In order to know a thing truly, and benefit from the knowledge, we need to know what it is, its reality or its haqiqa, which is nothing but its createdness, its creation and its right, and we need to know how we should respond to it.

So what exactly does it demand from us, rightly, truly and appropriately? To put this into a formula, tahqiq means knowing the reality of God and things and acting according to their right. So, realization is to know things as they truly are and act appropriately in every circumstance. What this speaks to is whether or not we really realize where we are and what we should be doing. If you look at the state of the world and the state of humanity, apparently we don’t know where we are, because why would we do the things that we do on purpose, seeing the destructive effects that our actions have?

KF: Absolutely. You also write about earth repair in this article. What does it mean to actually repair the earth?

RK: There’s a principle within Permaculture design that says “the problem is the solution.” Or, “everything works both ways.” Seeing that we have the ability to tear things down, [that] we have the ability to destroy things, we also have the ability to do the opposite. We can actually engage the problem and reverse the process. We can actually help the earth to repair itself because, I think, we forget that it is alive. It’s a dynamic type of organic infrastructure.

Look at Detroit, Michigan. I was in Detroit in the spring of 2010 teaching a Permaculture design course on the East Side, and I’d never been to Detroit, and the only thing I knew is that it had gone on a pretty dramatic decline with the change in the nature of the economy there. They no longer had a strong manufacturing base and a lot of folks had left the city. So [much] of that infrastructure that had been built as a result of this massive industrialization had gone into disrepair. You have a city that is effectively post-industrial, and a lot of these structures are abandoned or falling apart.

When I got into the city and I had a chance to look around, I was stunned. First of all, because the city is pretty large; it’s about 140 square miles—you can fit Boston, Manhattan, and San Francisco inside the borders of Detroit city and you still have about 20 square miles left—and about a third of the city is vacant. I felt like I was in the rural south. The interesting thing is when you see what is taking over the city. This is a place where a lot of energy had been used to build it up, [and] it’s turning into urban prairie. Literally, it’s turning back into nature, and nobody’s helping it. It’s just doing it on its own.

If you think about it, it’s an indication of the power of nature to regenerate itself, and if it’s able to do that without any help then what would happen if you actually helped it? And if you understood how it works, and if you understood what it’s offering to you, its productive capabilities? Its functional capabilities, in terms of the services that it offers, [and] in terms of the materials that it offers? It’s a pretty amazing, formidable force if you understand how it works and if you can partner with it to do constructive work.

KF: Is that what Permaculture is?

RK: Permaculture is a design science, and really what it seeks to do is find ways for human beings to create the structures that are necessary in order for human societies to thrive, but without destroying the places they find themselves living in. To give you a more formal definition, I’ll refer to the definition given in the designer’s manual written by Bill Mollison, one of the co-creators of Permaculture. He says that Permaculture—that’s actually the combination of two words, permanent agriculture, sometimes it’s called permanent culture—“is the practical, conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and nonmaterial needs in a sustainable way.”

Permaculture developed and emerged, interestingly enough, as a response to a perceived social problem, the social problem actually created by the nature of the economies that we’ve adopted en masse, globally. So Permaculture is a design system that attempts to integrate fabricated, natural, spatial, temporal, social and ethical parts or components to achieve a functional whole. To do so, it concentrates not on the components themselves, but on the relationships between them, and on how they function to assist each other. It’s the arrangement of parts, that design has its being in function, and it is the adoption of a purpose which decides the direction of design. And I think one of the important things about Permaculture is that it’s actually informed by an ethic, so it’s not just about technique. It’s very much about ethics, and the three ethics that define Permaculture are Earth Care, or care of the earth, People Care, or care of people, and Fair Share, fair share of the surplus. Everything about Permaculture design, the technical aspects, operates within those parameters. Unless those things are served, it can’t be Permaculture because ultimately it has to benefit the earth, people, and also has to facilitate the fair share of whatever surplus is generated.

KF: You’ve worked on a number of different Permaculture projects across the Muslim world from Somalia and Yemen to Jordan. Could you tell us what your objectives were, as well as some of the successes and challenges of working in those communities?

RK: What makes working in the Muslim world so interesting is that, by and large, a lot of the places that I’ve found myself working in—and usually I’ve been working pretty closely with Geoff Lawton, director of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia—is that these are the places that are really the most in need of the kind of work that we do. Typically these are going to be places that are the most water-stressed, and by virtue of being water-stressed they’re going to be challenged in terms of their ability to produce food.

A lot of these places happen to be receiving quite a bit of international aid—and anybody that knows anything about international aid regimes [knows that] they often are pretty disruptive in terms of the effects that aid has on the local economies. A really great example is Somalia. Somalia over the last handful of years has been considered the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that Somalia was food self-sufficient up until the late seventies, and then eventually The World Bank and the IMF were invited in for the purposes of giving loans. And of course there are certain conditions attached to being given a loan, and those conditions disrupted local markets. It discouraged the continued work of the agricultural sector, undermined the prices of everything from livestock to annual crops, and of course this ended up adding to the situation that arose from the civil war that’s been happening there for the past twenty plus years.

You’re seeing a lot of similar situations throughout the region. I’m continuing to work on a project in Afghanistan where we hope to encourage the establishment of horticultural systems, tree crop systems, that can provide an income for folks in Afghanistan aside from those things that are used to feed the drug economy. Interestingly enough, they make more money growing pomegranates than they do growing poppies because you’re able to produce more pomegranates in weight per unit area. So we’re finding that there are quite a few people that are interested in becoming involved in that kind of agricultural activity, because it’s something that’s viable, it’s a lot safer than growing drug crops and it’s a lot less destructive. And they’re seeing that they have a real future in doing this.

I think the reason why this kind of work is important in [parts of] the Muslim world—the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia—is because it addresses problems related to human security. It’s not just about addressing environmental problems, but [is] a piece of the puzzle in addressing issues related to creating stable societies, because if you don’t have a resource base from which to be able to function, then you’ve really got a problem.

KF: What do you think Muslims need to hear about what’s going on environmentally right now?

RK: Well, so many of these environmental [problems] impact the Muslim world. It’s something that isn’t going to fix itself, it’s a problem that has to be actively engaged. [This is] something that is very much part of this tradition.

So for example, one of the works that I often point to is a book by an Andalusian scholar, Ibn al-Awwam, who lived at the height of the Muslim civilization in Spain, called Kitab al-Filaha or the Book of Agriculture. This book has been lauded by non-Muslim scholars. There was a book by a man named G.T. Wrench called Reconstruction by Way of the Soil, and in [it] he does a survey of human civilizations throughout history all over the globe, and when he gets to Spain, he talks about this system of agriculture that had never been seen in the world before. And in recounting [it], he dedicates an entire chapter of the book to a retelling of the Sirah of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, because what he’s suggesting was that this whole system of agriculture was inspired by the ethical example of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. I found [this] remarkable—of all the things that could have been discussed in his book about this system of agriculture, he found it necessary to dedicate an entire chapter to a retelling of the history of Islam and the history of the Prophet ﷺ.

I thought that spoke volumes as to the importance of Muslims as a community, to really focus their attention on this activity, because it really embodies the ethics that this community is supposed to be about. It’s not just about your individual ritual worship. It’s actually about “what are you doing in the world to make it a better place?”

I think it’s very interesting to see the types of unrest that we see in the Muslim world because those ethics really aren’t being upheld. Until the ethics are pushed to the forefront, and it’s no longer about the cultural or the ethnic issues taking precedence—until the ethics take the form of a living praxis that isn’t just concerned about this insular community, that actually is concerned with the whole of humanity, and all of life on the earth, and the condition of the earth … really that’s what the vicegerency is supposed to be about in the first place. Until that happens, I think we’re going to continue to see the problems that we see in the world, simply because we’re not doing the job that we were given. Because that’s the job we were given, very explicitly.

Just to illustrate that, I think you’re familiar with the book The Animals Versus Man in the Court of the Djinn, that was written by the Ikhwan al-Safa’, the Brethren of Purity. The entire point of the book was to illustrate that point. The argument of the animals to the humans was “we’re doing our job, you guys aren’t doing your job.” We’re seeing that same theme play out now. I think this is an opportunity to pick up that torch that we’re supposed to be carrying.

KF: What does that look like for someone who wants to put those ethics into practice?

RK: It’s interesting—before we spoke I sent you an article written by a gentleman that I’ve been working with over the past year or so, an environmental filmmaker named John Dennis Liu. We had collaborated on a film project that was done for a production company in Holland. The movie was called Green Gold, about a large-scale ecosystem restoration project that was done on a place called the Loess Plateau in China. This area of China is actually considered to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. Long story short, they were able to successfully restore this previously degraded portion of the country. It was so degraded that it was no longer able to produce reliably and it had become subject to repeated droughts and flooding, dust storms. It became a real blight, a really serious problem. Ten years were set aside to actually do the work necessary to regenerate the area. And you’ll see this in the movie—it’s a miracle.

Loess Plateau Restoration: Till Niermann, Wikimedia Commons (CC), Erick Fernandes/World Bank

You see the film, the footage of what the place looked like before, the project that was undertaken and what it has done, and it’s incredible; you think “why can’t this be done all over the world?” So I point to that project as an example of the kind of work that can be done in any number of places if the skills and the thinking are able to be transferred. Permaculture—and there are others besides Permaculture, there’s Holistic Management, Keyline Design, there’s Bio-intensive Farming—all of these regenerative ecological sciences can be learned and implemented to reverse the damage that’s been done globally. Really I think there’s a call for the [Muslim] community to really pay attention to this.

One of the recent developments of the work we had undertaken in Yemen is that we were able to talk to some prominent Muslim scholars from Hadramaut. We were able to get a very, very strong endorsement for this activity from Habib Omar. So strong, in fact, that he said—and these are his words, these are not my words—this is something that we have to do. It’s wajib for us to undertake this activity. The reason why he spoke so strongly about [Permaculture] is that it leads to the point that this community really needs to be about ethics again, and no longer just about identity politics or pet issues that may apply to one portion of the community but not another. This really has to speak to the entire ummah, and the ethics that are supposed to define them. Because someone of his stature has so strongly spoken out about this, to the point that he sort of—in western American vernacular—put his money where his mouth is, we’re in the midst of embarking on a pretty significant project with the region. We taught a design course in Tarim about a year ago, and we had proposed some projects, and the establishment of a training facility in Hadramaut. Hopefully people will come to the region to learn [Permaculture design], and then we can send them to places where [they] are able to undertake these types of projects and they can lead these kinds of activities anywhere and everywhere around the globe. Lord knows we do need those folks and need those skills, and need for [this work] to be undertaken in a major, major way, if we’re true to what it was the Prophet (sws) had charged us to do.

KF: That’s awesome—I’m eager to hear about your work down the road and see where all these different projects go, and insh’Allah to feature your work on Beyond Halal more and more.

RK: Well, frankly I’m hoping that we can be partners in this. Because all the things that you are doing with Beyond Halal are in lockstep with what it is that we’re trying to call people to. So projects like yours are going to be very integral in getting the word out and being able to attract attention and be a rallying point for getting folks to come out and get involved, and getting communities to become involved. You need to be a very important co-conspirator.

KF: Insh’Allah! I think that there’s a greater awareness and a growing consciousness about what our role is as Muslims, and what we bring to the table as ethical believers. We have this really beautiful ethical system in addition to a complex legal system.

RK: I’m glad you mention the legal system that has been developed within this tradition. I think the focus that we’ve had on the legal aspects of the tradition can sometimes go a bit astray. Again, going back to this idea of ethics and the importance of ethics—a lot of things related to the field of law are technique, and you can justify doing unethical things if you understand the technical aspects of law. We see this happens in Western law all the time, and we’ve also seen this happens within the confines of Islamic law, where people can justify doing really unseemly things if they’re able to access certain aspects of texts and can leverage certain legal mechanisms that, ethically speaking, really contradict the tradition. So there’s a real need to push to the fore the ethics that are supposed to define the tradition. And hopefully the legal portions of the tradition can reinforce, or rather reflect, the ethics that make us who we are. Or, who we’re supposed to be, I should say.

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