We must stop climate change before it makes Hajj impossible

September 5, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Here’s Shahin Ashraf of Islamic Relief on one reason why the climate emergency should matter to Muslims. The piece brilliantly illustrates Alex Evans’ argument that climate activists need to tap into the deep narratives provided by the world’s major religions if they are to get the drastic changes we need.

Like most Muslims who’ve been privileged to perform the holy pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), I will never forget my experience.

I was in my early 20s and I experienced a deeply spiritual connection. Embarking on this physical and spiritual journey with Muslims from across the world, all dressed in white, reminded me that we are all equal: men and women, young and old, rich and poor. The whole experience was breath-taking.

As one of the five pillars of Islam, Hajj is expected of every Muslim who is financially and physically able to carry it out. This year’s Hajj attracted more than 2.5 million people.

But research published this week shows that the future of the holy pilgrimage is now at risk.

According to scientists at the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), should the world’s carbon emissions continue in a business-as-usual scenario, temperatures in Mecca will rise to a level that the human body cannot cope with from as early as next year.

I am aware that some of us Brits have a reputation for not tolerating the sun. But this is not simply a case of moaning about the weather: summer days in Saudi Arabia could, as soon as next year, surpass the ‘extreme danger heat-stress threshold’ set by the United States National Weather Service. In other words, it will be too hot too Hajj.

When skin temperature reaches the ‘extreme danger’ level, combined with a certain level of humidity in the air, sweat no longer evaporates efficiently, so the body can no longer cool itself and overheats. Heat strokes, particularly for the elderly, can be fatal.

When I went to Mecca, it was mid-April and it was already incredibly hot. On average pilgrims walk up to 15km a day. I cannot imagine what it must be like when Hajj occurs in the summer months.

As a Muslim, I find it incredibly sad that such a vital component of my faith will be threatened due to climate change, and that if temperatures continue as they are, the next generation of Muslims will lose a core part of their faith identity.

The future is looking bleak, but it is not yet too late to save Hajj. Crucially, mitigating climate change through reducing emissions could limit the severity of these temperatures. And this will mean that our brothers and sisters, our children and our grandchildren, will be able to continue to perform this vital part of our faith.

According to the research, if we continue to coast along burning fossil fuels, conditions will exceed the extreme danger threshold 42 per cent of the time between 2079 and 2086 – when Hajj falls within summer months.

But acting to stave off the impacts of climate change could reduce this threshold from being passed to 19 per cent of the time within the same time period.

At Islamic Relief we are already seeing communities we serve bear the brunt of extreme weather linked to climate change. In Bangladesh, our brothers and sisters are seeing their homes washed away; communities across East Africa are being ravaged by drought; and now, every Muslim in the world has something dear to them at risk.

It is vital that we do everything we can to act, and that we do so fast.

We are urging the Muslim community to step up. Think about how you can limit carbon emissions through making changes to your own lifestyle, whether that’s adapting your diet, travelling more sustainably or making a commitment to only buying ethically-sourced or second-hand clothing.

Call on your elected representatives to pressure political leaders to set ambitious targets for their national contributions to carbon emissions by this time next year, when we will be building up to COP 2020 – the biggest UN climate change conference since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015.

In the UK, we are asking the government to achieve the net-zero greenhouse gas target by 2045, rather than 2050, the target set earlier this year by former Prime Minister Theresa May.

I have three children, and to think that they might not be able to perform this crucial and wonderful requirement of our faith is heart-breaking. The climate crisis has been largely created by the burning of fossil fuels by industrialised nations, with the richest being most culpable. It is the world’s young, and the poorest, who are bearing the brunt. It is time we got involved in this fight.

Shahin Ashraf MBE is the head of global advocacy at Islamic Relief