Dr. Hisham Moharram describes how he lives his Muslim faith with respect to his relationship to food, land and agriculture.
This talk was part of a Food & Faith Convening event held in November 2018 at Duke University. The event was developed through a partnership between Duke Divinity School and the Rural Church Program Area of The Duke Endowment, the Duke World Food Policy Center (WFPC). Convening discussions identified several themes that drive the work of faith communities: moving from charity to justice, food sovereignty, and equitable food-oriented development; moving from charity to justice for the land & environment; the need for bridging and relationship building between practitioners, funders, and the academy; and the need for bridging between faith communities and policy. Additionally, several academic themes for future research were identified focused on cross-faith comparative analysis and the broad impact of faith community-based food systems work.
About Dr. Hisham Moharram
Dr. Hisham Moharram is an American Muslim born in Egypt. He is a plant biologist by formal training, with sixteen years in academic research, who chose to become an agripreneur and an environmental and social justice activist. To serve that dual mission, Moharram started The Good Tree Farm project in 2007. Moharram seeks to engage Muslims and other faith communities in working together to care for people and planet.
I want to thank everybody for attending and the organizers for inviting me. I’ll start with Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim, in the name of our Creator, the most gracious and merciful. It’s an honor to be here today and give you this Muslim perspective. I want to emphasize this is my Muslim perspective. There are many other Muslim perspectives out there that could have been shared, so, I’m not by any means speaking for all Muslims.
I’m going to speak to you about my Muslim faith grounding as I proceed in my work and what it is, that is my work. So I call what I’m doing, “The Good Tree Farm Project,” because it’s going to be what I’m going to be working on probably until the day that they bury me.
In this slide, you can see a verse that describes the origin of the name. If I translate the Arabic for you it would be something like this, “Do you not see how God gives the parable, like a good tree… A good word is like a good tree. Its roots are firm, its trunk is strong, and its branches rise up to the heavens. And it brings forth its fruit and bounty and benefit at prescribed times by the will of its Lord. And God gives the best parables for those who contemplate.” That’s the meaning of the verse in the Qur’an, which by the way, is reflected to some extent in Luke and Matthew as well.
Now, how does Islam impact my vision of a model food system? I was asked to speak to that. So first, what is a model food system? I decided to think about the central theme in Islam to guide me with that. So, basically a Muslim has to live this physical life that his soul is experiencing to please the Creator and be among those whom God loves and rewards in the hereafter. That is actually the ultimate self-focused, I would say, reason to be for a Muslim. We do that, in my view of Islam, by upholding the balance of justice.
In one of the chapters of the Qur’an, verse eight in Surah Ar-Rahman it says, “Do not transgress on the balance.” The verse’s prior to that are all about the natural world. Exactly the kind of transgression that has got us today to where the climate and the environment are experiencing everything, everybody here knows, they are experiencing. To achieve that then, our ethical values become all important, a lot more than what drives most of the economies around the world that is the bottom line. For us, the bottom line needs to be the values we uphold not our bank account and how fat our pockets are. What we give to others is more important than what we take. Doing no harm to any other thing whether it’s species of animal or plant or part of the natural ecosystem – the web of life upon which, by the way, all of our lives depend. And to keep the balance of justice at all times between ourselves, as men and women, between ourselves as different cultures and races and tongues. God said in the Qur’an, “We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another, not to kill one another, not to exploit one another but to know one another. Go to the market, experience the culture and the food and the dress.”
So, for me, the guidance is from the Qur’an. The Qur’an is a whole other set of lectures by themselves, I couldn’t even begin to go there, but the Qur’an in its majesty and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, which are both the authenticated sayings, I emphasize authenticated, of Prophet Muhammad as well as his habits, his traditions from the life he lived, which is the Seerah.
So for me, a model food system would be one where people are freed from the servitude of having to work to secure their food. Can you imagine how many hours we would all save, and our youth in particular would all save if they didn’t have to work so hard simply to eat? What if that became a human right? So, people are guaranteed being able to eat nourishing food, brain development, human potential. Second, it has to uplift and empower. It cannot entrench exploitation and wealth hoarding which is what’s happening. 0.1% we’ve heard that in recent years, and it needs to maintain access to good nutrition, so nutritional equity within the community.
Second, it needs to maximize the local food security. That’s not just important because of politics but because of real climate change effects. When a location we depend on for food like California, experiences a drought and we don’t have access to the plentiful supply of vegetables that they routinely provide to the whole country, that’s an aspect of food security that every one of us, every one of our communities suffers from.
And it must protect the environment. Those are central to what I think a model food system is. So I came up with a model a few years ago, which is The Good Tree Model. In The Good Tree Model, by the way, all of you are included. So if you look at the image of the tree, I had at the beginning and in the last slide, each one of you is either a major root in the root system or one of the smaller roots in the root system but you’re all part of it. So basically, I’ve set up a model whereby communities can own their land. We can set up a partnership between people who will never really be actively farming or engaging in agricultural entrepreneurship because they’re simply contributing their financial ability. But they’re part owners along with the youth of their community, across the minority range that you have so that these youth who would otherwise not have these opportunities to develop their agriculture entrepreneurship potential can. So it’s a partnership between those who have the health and the age and the willingness and those who have the financial ability and those who may have the contacts, etc.
It addresses pollution from industrial agriculture in a real way, on a personal level, on a community level. We go from talking about it to actually doing something, think globally, and act locally. It addresses the economic hardships that are due to built-in discrimination in the system that exists. It addresses the social inequities and injustices because in those gatherings of youth for various types of events and activity, they may not even be related to growing the food, but simply a third space, where Amira a Muslim youth, right? Muslim youth meet up with Jewish youth, with Secular youth, Christian youth, a Hindu youth, and they talk about things that they have a problem within their community and the environment and the future world they want to create for their children, our grandchildren. And you know what? Their innovative potential is a lot more than ours.
So the next most faithful steps, as I was asked to speak to enacting this vision, is to reach out to all of you. You’re part of that good tree. So I’m trying to help communities set this up for themselves. One thing I can provide is motivating potential impact investors. That’s exactly what I did when I raised $580,000 to buy the farm and start the project. It came from teachers whose annual salary was $23,000 and they gave 1,000, or physicians who made several millions a year and they wrote a check for 60,000 after 10 minutes of talking to them. The impact investor doesn’t have to be someone who invests on Wall Street. It can be your next-door neighbor. So basically, I see this as my practical reverence. Look at the roots of that tree, they’re all sitting here. So that’s what I’m trying to create. And I’m here to appeal to you, to partner with me. Thank you.