Sameer Zaheer

Climate Change: It’s a Muslim Problem

By Sameer Zaheer

When one thinks of Muslim problems, places like Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan pop in the mind. Perhaps, Somalia and Darfur, if one reads beyond headlines. Certainly, Muslims in those areas are afflicted, but together these areas represent only a fraction of the Muslim world. However, there are a set of problems that affect a vast majority of Muslims in the world. One of these problems is climate change.

Climate change will adversely affect the world and Muslim majority countries are no exception. Decreased food production, as well as the melting of Himalayan glaciers and rise in sea levels will affect the lives of millions of Muslims. Economic difficulties, natural disasters and creation of refugees (due to disasters) can often disrupt the stability of a region. In fact, climate change has the potential of igniting armed conflict in much of the Muslim world.

Modern day climate change, sometimes called global warming, corresponds to the general increase in the earth’s temperature. Such a change will cause sea levels to rise (because of thermal expansion of water and melting of glaciers), and will alter the distribution of precipitation. Catastrophes such as flooding, drought, spread of disease, desertification of previously fertile areas are being predicted as a consequence.

Impact of climate change on the Muslim world Climate change will adversely affect the world and Muslim majority countries are no exception. Decreased food production, as well as the melting of Himalayan glaciers and rise in sea levels will affect the lives of millions of Muslims. Economic difficulties, natural disasters and creation of refugees (due to disasters) can often disrupt the stability of a region. In fact, climate change has the potential of igniting armed conflict in much of the Muslim world.

Decreased food production Since 1980, increased temperatures have already been causing a reduction in the global yield of wheat, maize and barley. The 2009 Report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) warned of depletion of agricultural land and spread of disease (e.g. malaria) in Arab countries.

Melting of Himalayan glaciers An increase in the melting rate of the glaciers of the Himalayas can have devastating impact on Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, home to 1/3 of the global Muslim population. Indeed the Indian Space Research Organization has reported shrinking glaciers, and a recent study found that the temperature there had increased 2.2 ◦C over the past 20 years. Subsequently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted increased flooding over the next 30 years, and then a sharp reduction in the water supply that feeds these three countries.

Rise in sea levels The AFED reported that 12% of Egypt’s farmland is at risk due to rise in sea levels, while another UN study suggests 8 million people will be displaced in Egypt if the sea level rises by just 1 meter. A rise of sea level by a foot, which could happen as early as 2040, would render 12% of Bangladesh’s population homeless. The risk of rise in sea levels presents an even greater problem in island Muslim countries. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, announced in 2007 that it could lose about 2,000 of its 18,000 islands by 2030. The problem is so bad in the Maldives, another island Muslim country, that the current government is considering purchasing land to relocate the country’s entire population!

Causes of climate change Modern day climate change is attributed to a number of factors, but one stands out above all others: increased greenhouse gasses as a result of human activity. Since the Industrial Revolution humans have been releasing an increased amount of greenhouse gasses such as CO2 and methane at an unprecedented rate. This only accelerated in the post-world war II period. While there are many sources of emissions, burning fossil fuels has caused 75% of these emissions over 20 years.

It’s sad that there are many who deny either global warming, or the human cause of it, or both, despite the scientific evidence. The current evidence on climate change was assessed by IPCC and hasn’t been challenged by any national or international scientific body.

While Western countries contribute disproportionately to the problem, the rest of the world isn’t without blame. As of 2006, China and India were amongst the top 10 CO2 emitters, while on a per capita basis, the top four emitters were Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain. And while Indonesia doesn’t directly emit a lot of greenhouse gasses, its destruction of its lush rainforests is making a huge contribution to CO2 emissions, since trees soak up carbon dioxide when they’re alive. Greenhouse gas emissions, the chief cause of climate change, are a problem worldwide.

What we can do about it Many approaches can be taken to solving the problem of climate change, and no one approach is necessarily superior. Let’s look at how we can use Islamic principles of simplicity, foresight, dialogue and prayer to tackle the problem.

Simple lifestyle If we look to the Sunnah of the prophet (peace be upon him), we see that he lived a lifestyle that was in accordance with the resources available, and one that did not exalt him above others. His bedding was crude, and he had few spare clothes. According to one report, there was hardly a day when the prophet had two square meals. During the digging of the trench, he starved just like the rest of his companions. Of course, the prophet’s intention was not inflict pain upon himself, it was only to conform his lifestyle with both the resources available, and so that his lifestyle was similar to everyone else.

Yet one of today’s problems is that some of us are consuming far more than others. These over consumers, then, tend to have a bigger carbon footprint (a measure of CO2 emissions per person). This overconsumption can be seen in our desire to constantly buy everything and waste much of it once we’re done. It can be seen when some of us will drive everywhere, instead of walking, biking, or taking transit as much of the world does. Ask yourself: if the prophet knew that much of Muslims and mankind was living with limited means, would he engage in such an extravagant lifestyle?

Foresight Whilst in prison, Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) was inquired of the interpretation of a dream. He explained that there would be seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine. He then advised that the surplus food production during prosperity be saved to make up for the deficit during famine. Prophet Yusuf was advising people to not just focus on the short-term but also on the long-term.

One of the biggest excuses given for the lack of action on climate change is that it will harm our economy today. While it is true that cutting greenhouse gas emissions today is not the best for our economy, we can’t ignore the catastrophic consequences of such inaction upon our future. This useful lesson for our leaders can also be applied to our every day lives. For example, buying energy saving appliances today will help reduce the change in climate tomorrow, not to mention the savings in electricity costs.

Dialogue The Qur’an tells us to call upon people to do good, and for them to shun wrong. While this is an obligation upon everyone, Canadian Muslims are in a unique position for dialogue. As Muslims, we can influence the ideas of the Muslim world. Many of us are immigrants, and still have close ties with our family in our native countries. We can use these ties to educate them about the issue. But we also have ties to influential people. For example, Dr. Tareq al-Swaidan, who often visits Canada and speaks to Muslims here, is also influential in Kuwait, which is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gasses per capita. Perhaps Muslims can have dialogue with the eminent scholar so that he raises awareness for the issue in his native country.

As Canadians, we can lobby our leaders and politicians to adopt policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We can raise awareness about the issue by organizing talks, distributing literature, using social networking and in many other ways. Finally, we can act as good role models for everyone else by reducing our own consumption. There are many Muslim activists in Canada protesting against wars in Palestinian territories and Afghanistan. It’s high time we started protesting against greenhouse gas emissions.

Prayer In the Qur’an, Allah asks us to call upon Him in prayers and He promises to answer them. Given that mankind is dependent upon Allah in every way, we certainly won’t be able to stop climate change without our Creator’s assistance.

However, our prayers need to be accompanied by action. The prophet always made prayers, but he also strove in his missions as hard as could. We, too, need to work hard to fight climate change, while asking Allah for help in this noble endeavour.

After all, the Qur’an says: “Verily, Allah does not change the condition of a people unless they change their inner selves.” (13:11)

Sameer Zaheer is a Master's Student in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto and currently writes for The Muslim Voice. Engineering has taught him the value of sustainability, and Islam has taught him to always remember those less fortunate than him.

Originally published online on March 21 2012 in The Muslim Voice, a publication of the University of Toronto - Muslim Student Association  (