Wellbeing, wells and water in trees: an interview with Salaam Seekers Muslim Women’s Outdoor Activities Group

Wellbeing, wells and water in trees: an interview with Salaam Seekers Muslim Women’s Outdoor Activities Group

by Kim-lin Hooper

I took part in ‘A Mindful Maharani Meander’ in the Chilterns Walking Festival, led by Festival newcomers, Salaam Seekers, attracted by the promise of both local history and mindful relaxation.

I came away with this and so much more: stories of the complex historic relationship between Britain and India, awe-inspiring facts about trees, warm, friendly conversation, and an insight into the Islamic faith’s relationship with nature.

Walk leaders Sarah Ahmed and Farat Hussain of Salaam Seekers, and Henry Scutt of the Sulham Estate told me more about their journey in setting up the group, and their commitment to supporting Muslim women’s health and wellbeing and positive perceptions of Islam.

How did you start Salaam Seekers?

Farat: Sarah and I met about a year ago at Aisha Masjid, Reading. We were both helping at British Islamic Gardens, creating a community garden at the mosque where people of all backgrounds work together.

Sarah: I’d met Shaheen, the director of British Islamic Gardens, at a walk leader training organised by Reading Voluntary Action.  I’d been going through a trying period, and had started walking at a friend’s suggestion. I thought, I’d love to share my experiences of the outdoors with other Muslim women.

Farat: I loved volunteering at the garden, and I’m doing a horticultural course with RHS, but growing vegetables isn’t my forte! Sarah wanted to lead a walking group and asked if I’d help. I love ornamental plants and walking, so here was a chance to put my knowledge to further use.

Henry: It was around this time that I was looking for a project to support.  The English countryside can feel like a very white, middle-class place, and I wondered what could be done to make the countryside more welcoming to people from other backgrounds. I commissioned Natalie Ganpatsingh of Nature Nurture CIC to organise an art in nature project on the Estate together with British Islamic Gardens, which is how I met Sarah.  That was the seed out of which Salaam Seekers grew.

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What are the aims of the Salaam Seekers group?

Sarah: Salaam means “peace”.  The group is all about seeking peace within ourselves, amongst one another, in nature, and from our faith.  Growing up, I never used to walk in the countryside. More recently, I started to wonder ‘how do people know where to go?’ Since I have started building my navigation skills, I have that knowledge and can share it. Part of the aim of the group is to create a lovely atmosphere, full of positive energy, and to support each other.  It’s about a feeling of sisterhood, that we are genuinely there for each other.  It’s also about coming closer to our Creator through being in nature.  On some walks we have had a section where we walk in silence so people can be fully aware of the beautiful things around us.  It just brings a whole different feel to the walk.

Farat: We both took a Mental Health First Aid course to feel more equipped to be there for people. We learnt to look out for signs, when to listen, when to speak, when to give advice. People need to talk and get things off their chest. We also work hard to make the walks appropriate to the experience level of the group.  We don’t want anyone to not come back because it was too much of a challenge. It’s about making sure nobody feels excluded.

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Henry: There’s also an element of normalising the sight of Muslims in the countryside.

Farat: There are all sorts of negative perceptions about Muslim women and Islam in the media, and we all agreed that we wanted to help break these down. If a prayer time falls within our walk, we will stop to pray.  Many other walkers may not have seen that before.

Sarah: Since we’ve been out and about we’ve had nothing but smiles from everyone we have met along the way.

How did you find leading your first walk in the Chilterns Walking Festival and why did you choose that route?

Sarah: I thoroughly enjoyed leading the walk.  We had a group of both Muslim and non-Muslim ladies who were really lovely.

We chose the route because of the history.  My parents were originally from India and sometimes there’s an assumption that the developed West provides charity for the poor East. The Maharajah’s Well story challenges that narrative. The Maharajah of Benares funded the well, to help the villagers in Stoke Row who didn’t have enough clean water.

We’ve also just led a walk in the North Wessex Downs Walking Festival.

Read more about The Maharajah’s Well

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Sarah, you’re a self-confessed dendrophile (tree lover), and you mentioned tree-planting being valued in Islamic teaching?

Sarah: Oh, I love trees! I find them so majestic and calming to be around. The more I learn about them, the more the love grows! I wonder if I got that from my grandfather? He was a ‘Chief Forester’ in India.

Farat: The grafting of trees in the Stoke Row cherry orchard is amazing – one tree can support the life of another.  The xylem tubes in trees are tiny strands that are the width of a hair, but cumulatively they’re taking water up trees that can be 100 metres high. Trees communicate between each other over miles using funghi – like a community – it teaches us that people should also work as a community.

Sarah: In Islam, charity has many forms, whether you’re offering food, or service – even giving someone a smile. When you plant trees, it’s considered an act of charity in the Qu’ran because insects live there, birds and people eat the fruit, bees feed off the nectar, we gain shade. There’s a teaching that says, “If a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him. – Authentic saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)- Sahih Bukhari.

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Do you have a favourite place in the Chilterns or elsewhere, and future plans?

Sarah: To be honest we’re still exploring. Going out and about in the Chilterns for us is quite new. We tended to travel abroad on amazing family holidays when I was growing up, but not so much locally. I’d love to plan walks that incorporate local crafts such as lacemaking. That thought was inspired by my young niece’s lacemaking skills. She has made some beautiful pieces!

Farat: I’m from Yorkshire so know the north really well, the Lake District, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales. I love Malham Tarn and Bolton Abbey.  I still have so much to discover in the Chilterns, the Cotswolds and the North Wessex Downs!

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Do you have any tips for anyone wanting to start up a walking group?

Farat: There are so many beautiful walks on our doorstep. We’re so blessed in the UK. Grab a friend and say ‘lets go out for a walk’. It doesn’t have to mean going far from your own home.  It’s just about getting into the habit.

Sarah: My tips would be, go on a navigation course. We did a navigation course with Philippa from Pipsticks Walks and have also recently completed Lowland Walk Leader training with Heather Mitchell from Wild Heather. We hope to do our assessment with her too! It’s a great way to gain confidence getting about in the countryside. Also, get a pair of light walking boots or shoes.

Sarah is currently reading: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.

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Many thanks, Sarah, Farat and Henry for sharing your story.

We hope Salaam Seekers will visit the Chilterns again soon, and take part in future walking festivals. Keep us up to date with your adventures!

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