According to research published last week by US scientists, hajj is set to become a danger zone. As soon as next year, they say, summer days in Mecca could exceed the “extreme danger” heat-stress threshold. The news comes just weeks after over 2 million people completed their journey of a lifetime. The environmental threat to the holy pilgrimage is a panic button for British Muslims like me, signaling that the climate crisis is endangering an age-old sacred rite.
Hajj is a pillar of Islam that I’ve yet to undertake, and the physical endurance required will only become more gruelling in coming decades – scientists predict that heat and humidity levels during hajj will exceed the extreme danger threshold 20% of the time from 2045 and 2053, and 42% of the time between 2079 and 2086.
Environmental stewardship may well be advocated by my faith – the Quran states that humans are appointed as “caretakers of the Earth” and the prophet Muhammad organised the planting of trees and created conservation areas called hima – but it hasn’t mobilised Muslims on a mass scale for what the world needs now: a global eco-jihad.
Fazlun Khalid, founder of Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences and author of Signs on the Earth: Islam, Modernity and the Climate Crisis, has been on a green mission for over 35 years, but his biggest challenge has been to motivate Muslims. “Islam is inherently environmental, but modernity has induced all of us to distance ourselves from nature. The reason I don’t give up is my grandchildren – what kind of planet will they inherit? How can they perform hajj under those conditions?”
Khalid previously gathered a team of scholars and academics who drafted the Islamic declaration on climate change adopted at the International Islamic climate change symposium in Istanbul in 2015 (an event co-sponsored by Islamic Relief, a global charity that is again calling on Muslims to take action now if they want to safeguard the pilgrimage for future generations). Maria Zafar of Islamic Relief UK said: “Hajj has physically demanding outdoor rituals which can become hazardous to humans. It isn’t only Mecca, other sacred sites will be at risk too, like the religious sites in Jerusalem, the Golden Temple in India – it will affect what we hold dear to our hearts. We think that climate change is distant from us, but there is no area of life that it won’t touch.”
If we are truly to tackle a catastrophe as huge as the climate crisis, we have to make it personal. Without a personal stake, it remains an abstract and we unite in perpetuating it. So if money is the only form of emotional investment for some, and if economics wields more power than the will to save our planet, we must use it. Next year Saudi Arabia is hosting the G20 summit, so let’s pressure the country to consider the financial threat due to a loss of religious tourism. Hajj is lucrative: economic experts have said revenues from hajj and umrah (a lesser pilgrimage undertaken any time of year) are set to exceed $150bn by 2022.
“For the Saudis, hajj is more precious than oil,” says Dr Husna Ahmad, CEO of Global One, who’s been campaigning for a greener hajj for years. Ahmad created a green guide to hajj in 2011, and is now working on a green hajj app, which she plans to launch next year if funding is secured.
With approximately 100m plastic bottles left behind each year after the pilgrimage ends, it’s clear that action is desperately needed. Slowly, Saudi authorities are beginning to implement a more environmentally friendly hajj by installing recycling points around the holy sites, and they aim to cut waste volumes by two-thirds by 2030. Pushing for change has been a struggle in the kingdom, but apathy is a wider problem. It’s bound up in socio-economic deprivation, and too often “saving the planet” is seen as something for the rich, a kind of green elitism.
“Right now in the UK it feels like middle-class white women – and Sadiq Khan – are the only ones taking up the baton,” says Ahmad. “We know that climate change started with the European industrial revolution and poverty is inextricably linked to that.
“People are trying to survive, you can’t blame them if climate change is not their priority. This is why achieving the UN sustainable development goals are high on my agenda.”
The climate crisis does not exist in and cannot be tackled in isolation. While the big dogs must green-up their institutions and businesses, grassroots activists need better relations with governing bodies, more Muslims need to get involved with the broader debate and we all need to rethink our lifestyles – cut down on meat consumption, use less packaging and step back from throwaway consumerism.
We all have a part to play – institutionally, socially, morally, economically and religiously. Whether it’s through the lens of our conscience, faith or finance, it’s imperative to find our own catalyst for action. If the threat to hajj can motivate Muslims, then that’s all for the good.
• Remona Aly is a journalist and commentator