Cities, the Climate Crisis, and Islam

February 12, 2020

2020 World Urban Forum

Between the 8th and 13th February 2020, Abu Dhabi will host the Tenth Session of the World Urban Forum, “the foremost international gathering for exchanging views and experiences on sustainable urbanization in all its ramifications”.

As it is organised and convened by UN-Habitat, it is fitting that the scale of urbanisation is reflected by the current UN-Habitat executive director Maimunah Mohd Sharif, who recently highlighted that “by 2050, around two-thirds of people will live in the cities.

The most marginalized will be poor people living in coastal areas affected by this climate crisis”.

The Climate Crisis in Urban Spaces

The extent of the climate crisis will have far reaching effects on cities, particularly coastal cities. In Europe, for example, the majority of the largest cities have areas that are susceptible to rising sea levels and “port cities in developing countries – such as Kolkata, Shanghai and Guangzhou – are as vulnerable.”

Rising sea levels are not the only dangers being faced by coastal cities. Further (less physical) challenges are posed by the fact that cities are often capitalist, consumerist and their established structures mean it is difficult for them to adapt to the crisis regardless of how much warning they have or willingness there is to adapt.

What about Faith and Religion in City Spaces?

Most debates around the climate crisis tend to be secular and often reflect the reality of global North cities in particular.

However, awareness around the climate crisis should not be secular in a world where 80% of the global population is religious and people are strongly guided by their religious principles.

In a world where one quarter of the population are Muslim, messages for action and awareness should be targeted at specific religions in order to promote greater responsibility towards the environment and our role in saving the planet.

For example, the UN has acknowledged the importance of religion through the ‘Faith for Earth Initiative’: an interfaith initiative with a corporate strategy to engage faith-based organisations in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The initiative argues that “tapping into the spiritual wealth of people and their beliefs accelerates people’s engagement and the organizational drive to contribute.”

Effects of the Climate Crisis on the Hajj

In August 2019, a study conducted by researchers at MIT in the US caused a stir in the media and across the internet, when it argued that “because of climate change there is an increasing risk that in coming years, conditions of heat and humidity in the areas of Saudi Arabia where the Hajj takes place could worsen, to the point that people face “extreme danger” from harmful health effects.”

The research galvanized an awareness around the impact of the climate crisis in a Muslim-majority context.

It highlighted the reality of how the climate crisis would affect almost one quarter of the world’s population, as millions of Muslims perform one of the pillars of their religion in going to Mecca in Saudia Arabia.

While we often hear about the impact of climate change, it becomes hard to quantify its impact until it begins to affect our personal spaces – and Hajj for Muslims is a very personal and important space.

The research, which prompted a climate change campaign by the biggest Islamic faith-inspired humanitarian NGO Islamic Relief, showed that “summer days in Saudi Arabia could surpass the “extreme danger heat-stress threshold”.

2020 is considered to be especially high risk because Hajj falls during the summer months.

Toxic Air in Lahore

Mecca is not the only city at risk from the climate crisis and there are many other Muslim-majority cities being impacted.

Lahore (Pakistan’s second largest city), for example, has some of the most toxic air in the world.

Because development and economic growth are often considered as counter to environmentally-friendly practices, there are those who regard the air pollution as a necessary evil.

However, rather than just being an inconvenience, “in 2015, an estimated 135 000 Pakistanis died due to air pollution…Perhaps more crucially, the study found that air pollution costs Pakistanis more than 42.3 million disability-adjusted life years…where air pollution is concentrated, that amounts to more than a year of every single urban citizen’s life.”            

Rising Sea Levels in Alexandria

Another example is the city of Alexandria in Egypt, where the population of around 5 million are under threat of rising sea levels.

Warmer climates mean that sea levels are rising, threatening the coastal city and prompting the government to reinforce defenses, which were once used to protect citizens from invading nations, against the invading ocean.

This is a shared reality, as data shows that “the current rate of sea-level rise [globally] is the fastest it’s been since 500 years before this city was founded in the 4th century BCE.” One of the greatest challenges faced by the climate crisis is the disparity between those affected in the global North and those in the global South.

Much like Alexandria and Lahore, there are not always the capacity or resources in global South cities to adapt quickly enough.

Mohamed El Raey, professor of environmental studies at Alexandria University, asked “how can it be that Egypt is among the 10 most vulnerable countries and yet is number 104 in terms of adaptation measures?”

Saving Lives Through Action

These are only a few of many examples where cities are being devastated by the climate crisis and citizens are impacted negatively on a day to day basis.

The predominantly Muslim MENA region is particularly susceptible to “some of the more severe consequences of warming, including lethal heat waves, extensive drought and rising sea levels” as a result of climate change.

The challenge for Muslim-majority cities is balancing the consumerist and developmental priorities of city living with the principles inherent in Islam that promote protection of the environment.

In the words of Fazlun Khalid, founder of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, “Islam is inherently environmental, but modernity has induced all of us to distance ourselves from nature”.

In a study conducted by HAD, as part of the Academy’s pioneering Action on Climate and Consumption (ACC) project, the centrality of the Quran to promoting environmental sustainability is clear.

It is argued that “the tools for sustainability were already latent in Islamic tradition”.

Reviving these might offer added value in the fight for action against climate change, which is not only about saving the history, heritage and culture in major cities, but about saving the lives of the world’s urban residents.

Written by Dr. Vanessa Malila

Research & Development Officer