For some people, our calling is so obvious, it’s unavoidable, even when we try to let it go.
Born in Jambi, Indonesia, home to rainforests, temple ruins, and the endangered Sumatran tiger, environmentalist advocate and “Green Queen” Nana Firman considers herself a “daughter of the rainforest.”
Though she spent most of her childhood in the capital city of Jakarta, she regularly returned home to visit her grandparents in the village amidst mountains, waterfalls, and lush green fields.
On weekends, Nana’s family would go to Puncak to hike, breathe in clean air, and take a break from the congestion of urban hustle.
Even at school, Firman was actively involved in nature and science clubs, continuously looking for opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and marvel in Allah’s creation. Engraved in her consciousness is the Islamic concept of human beings as stewards of the earth, which has guided her life’s work and mission.
Answering the Eco-Call
Firman started her career as an urban planner in Jakarta. Following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) desperately sought on-the-ground expertise. She was invited to join relief efforts in northern Sumatra to assess the extent of coastal damage and propose restorative measures that were environmentally-responsible. Electricity supply and internet access were limited in the region, but overcoming those logistics was much easier than convincing local residents to change their ways.
The region most affected by the tsunami was Aceh, home to a conservative Muslim community that had little concern for sustainability. Residents wanted their homes just as they were and had no interest in discussing renewable materials or mangrove restoration.
However, at the encouragement of a friend, Firman began to code-switch and communicate environmental principles through verses of the Qur’an and the nature-conscious teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). By teaming up with Hajj Fazlun Khalid, founder of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES), Firman co-wrote a curriculum to train scholars and imams about eco-Islamic principles and how to put them into practice.
Initially, the skeptical community rejected the idea of being trained and taught by a woman, but Firman’s experience and credibility made her an undeniable resource. Her four-month assignment became a four-year commitment.
When Firman returned to Jakarta, she directed her attention towards building a sustainable city and tackling energy consumption issues which led her to become a fellow and then trainer for Leadership in Environment and Development (LEAD).
In 2012, to the chagrin of her local comrades and colleagues, Firman accepted an offer of marriage that meant relocating to California. Her tropical world was turned upside down, but she was relieved to take a break from the demands of international travel and environmental work.
Firman looked forward to homemaking and settling into her new home and life. However, only days after her arrival before that year’s Ramadan, eco-duty called once again. Iftar meals at her local mosque were wasteful and she couldn’t keep quiet about the excess she saw. With her husband’s encouragement, she spoke to the imam of her new community. There was little improvement that could’ve been made at that time, but the imam pledged to work with Firman in developing greener practices for their mosques and others around the city going forward.
When Azizah Magazine caught wind of Firman’s work, she was approached for an article on Climate Change. To her surprise, she would become the ‘cover girl’ for the magazine’s issue about Muslim women in the green revolution. International attention posited Firman as the go-to eco-Muslimah. Consequently, she was invited to attend the World Islamic Economic Forum, speak at TEDxNantes, contribute to the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, alongside curriculum development and programming to advance domestic and international climate change activism.
Additionally, Firman focuses a great deal of effort on greening the Muslim community. She currently serves as Muslim Outreach Director for Green Faith, an interfaith non-profit that inspires environmental action rooted in religious teachings.
This year’s Ramadan coincided with Green Faith’s latest campaign called ‘Living the Change’ which encourages believers to make more environmentally conscious choices regarding food consumption, energy use, and transportation. Though a pescatarian for 20 years, Firman had been considering going vegetarian for Ramadan and finally decided to do so.
At the invitation of the Green Ramadan initiative, she collaborated as an advocate for #meatlessRamadan and publicly shared the veggie meals she enjoyed at home or in reusable containers brought to the mosque.
Just as Muslim vegans and vegetarians worldwide regularly experience, sometimes rice and salad are the only plant-based offerings at the mosque. This frustrates Firman. It seems that the ummah has an insatiable appetite for meat in spite of the controversies around ethically-raised options that are both halal (permissible) and tayyib (pure).
She is regularly challenged by meat-loving believers who emphasize Prophet Muhammad’s love for meat. But Firman doesn’t shrink or squirm in articulating the prophetic precedent of infrequent meat consumption as well as the severity of current circumstances. She doesn’t condemn eating meat but identifies a plant-based diet as the most responsible choice for the majority of us who are disconnected from the land and the animals that graze upon it.
Reflecting on her decades of environmental work, Firman sees a hijacking of what it means to be ‘green.’ The focus now is on what to buy versus how to live. Firman recalls that being green used to mean hiking, being in nature, and reflecting on the creation, not a trend of what to buy or how to dress. Nonetheless, even after more than twenty years of preaching sustainability, there is no shortage of work to be done, and Nana Firman continually answers the call to keep doing it.