Islam and HIV AIDS
Posted Jan 2, 2008

Islam and HIV AIDS

by Asghar Ali Engineer

Some people will be somewhat surprised as to what relation there could be between Islam and this dreaded disease. Yet there is, and there was international conference on this subject in Johannesburg, South Africa from 25th to 30th November in which more than 250 delegates, resource persons, activists and Ulama from all Muslim countries and Muslim minority countries was held. I was also invited there as resource person to speak from the Islamic point of view.

I was until then under the impression that Muslim countries in general and Muslims in particular are not victims of HIV/AIDS. But when I participated in this conference I realized that quite a few Muslims from different Muslim countries as well as non-Muslim countries were victims of this disease. Africa in particular has the largest number of victims and there are many Muslim majority countries among African countries.

It was for this reason that number of agencies including Islamic Relief, UNO and World Vision supported this conference. I was quite impressed with the number of participants and volunteers, and with the number of sessions in which people participated with enthusiasm. What was more appreciable was that many Muslim women participated and most of them were in hijab (head covering). Almost half the participants were women. And I was surprised when some Muslim women declared from the conference platform that they were HIV positive.

Every day in the morning, first a plenary session took place and discussed various aspects of this disease, and then participants would break into different groups each group consisting of ten persons to discuss things in depth and each group had some expert or experts either from a religious or technical point of view. Many groups were headed by women and in general women participated actively in these groups. Also each group was given series of questions to discuss what was presented in plenary session.

Various groups formed were, for example religious leaders and stigma, causes, consequences and approaches, revealing ones status, stigma and violence, mandatory testing, HIV and rights, core values, adoption/fostering, marriage and testing, men and women’s rights and roles, property and inheritance, female genital cutting and other traditions, life skills/education, the role of the media, reaching women, the role of faith, constraints and opportunities, vulnerable children, grieving and coping, treatment etc. I chose to be member of group headed by a women of Indian origin whose family had migrated to South Africa and she currently lives in Canada. Ms. Sabra Desai, a woman of very liberal and progressive ideas. The group mainly discussed women’s roles. There were five more women of African origin.

Generally Muslims and Ulama in particularly adopt very negative attitude towards those suffering from HIV/AIDS thinking it is the result of a sinful life. They always attribute it to sex outside marriage be it pre-marital or extra-marital. In other words they think it is result of having multiple partners or result of homosexual relations. It is not always true. In fact HIV/AIDS can be contracted in a variety of other ways – husband who is HIV positive infecting his wife who knows nothing about her husband’s infection. And if women becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby, baby is also likely to get infected. Then how can one blame the mother and the child who became victims of man’s HIV infection. In fact we were taken to field visit in Johannesburg where we saw large number of innocent children living in special home. These children otherwise looking healthy and playing were not even aware what disease they are carrying. Their parents had died of HIV/AIDS. Thus it is wrong to carry negative attitude towards all HIV positive patients.

Also, even those who have contracted this disease as a result of sinful act like extra marital relation or drug injection can repent and in Qur’an Allah describes himself as Ghafur al-Rahim and Tawwab al-Rahim i.e. One who is Pardoner and Merciful and Accepter of repentance and Merciful. How then we human beings should can reject them with contempt. Such rejection is more cultural than religious. Religious attitude should be more value oriented than contempt oriented.

Social and cultural attitudes are misunderstood as religious even by Ulama. Also Muslims tend to see everything in terms of shari’ah laws. Shari’ah laws are for either state to implement or for Muslim organizations to decide. It is very different matter. But ordinary Muslims should not immediately develop negative attitude. Law will take its own course, if anyone has broken it and religion in its sense of fundamental values should take different course.

What are fundamental values of Islam as we find them in Qur’an? These values are ‘adl (justice), ihsan (benevolence), rahmah (compassion) and hikmah (wisdom). These are also Allah’s names: Allah is Just (Adil), Benevolent (Muhsin), Compassionate (Rahim) and Wise (Hakim).

Now let us take HIV positive patients and weigh our attitude towards them in the light of these Qur’anic values. Is negative attitude towards HIV positive just? Based on justice? Suppose someone contracted this disease due to non-sinful acts then justice will demand that we treat them with dignity due to any other person. But it would be unjust if we reject him/her just because he/she has HIV without knowing the full truth.

Similarly, if we do ihsan (benevolence to someone) to one who has such disease it would have very positive effect on her/him and we will win her/his heart forever. Allah is also Beneficient for all His servants and so his servants should also be benevolent to all His servants whatever status of their health. And if we treat someone with compassion despite being victim of such disease it will greatly help that person. And through acceptance of such person and preventing others from contracting this disease we will be acting as wise. Rejecting them may amount to spreading this disease further. Such person must be persuaded to adopt preventive measures like condoms so that wife/husband is not infected.

When I said this in plenary session many HIV/AIDS patients thanked me for my attitude in the light of Holy Qur’an which would be so helpful for them. In fact if one accepts such patient one can not only give him/her longer life but make him/her repentant if this disease has been contacted through sinful act. Rejection will only result in dejection and frustration and may worsen the situation of the patient.

There were quite a few eminent Ulama from different Islamic countries as these Ulama and Imams can play very positive role in spreading awareness among Muslims and hence making them understand real causes of HIV/AIDS would be extremely useful. A fatwa committee of these Ulama was constituted to discuss this problem in great details and finalise fatwas in this respect. I was also included in this committee from India.

There were two main issues before the committee of eminent ulama who came from Syria, Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Indonesia some other places. One issue was regarding condoms. Can use of condoms be permitted? The other issue was of use of zakat money, especially for non-Muslim poor patients suffering from HIV/AIDS?

Both the issues were hotly debated. Generally Ulama felt use of condoms cannot be permitted as it will encourage sinful acts of adultery or fornication. They gave examples from western countries that condoms are freely distributed even among school children and condom machines are installed in public places like railway stations and universities. Thus condoms are responsible for spreading sinful life and hence cannot be permitted.

I explained to them no one is advocating that condoms be freely distributed as in the western countries. There is fundamental difference between our culture and western culture. Again it should be realized problem is of cultural nature. In Muslim countries social and cultural values are very different. No one would permit free distribution of condoms. Our attitudes towards sexual life are much more rigid and would make fundamental difference.

I also pleaded that condoms are means, not an end. Means can be misused and can also be used properly. If made proper use of, condoms can help prevent spread of HIV and if misused can help spread it. Here we are concerned with prevention of disease rather than its spread. If a husband has contracted HIV in some or the other way and does not use condom while going to his wife, will infect his wife and also probably the child she gives birth to. Our fatwa would never allow condoms to be freely distributed in schools and universities or through vending machines as in the western countries. But we will advocate its use with strict warning that moral values are primary and it should be used only in marital life, not otherwise.

The condom packets can also carry the warning as cigarette packets carry certain warnings of health hazard. However, certain people will always misuse it and that is for government or society to take care of in collective way. Condoms per se cannot be held responsible for it.

A question was also raised should doctors who are Muslims should advise people to use condoms or should they advise not to use them. It was pointed out that doctor is concerned with physical health whereas Ulama and Muftis are concerned with spiritual and moral health. Doctor’s duty is to prevent spread of physical disease and that alone should be his main concern. On the other hand, Ulama’s main role is prevention of moral disease or moral corruption and they have to play their role effectively. A doctor should not, for sake of guarding morality, let disease spread to other innocent persons. This argument was finally accepted and it was decided that use of condoms could be permitted by Ulama subject to certain strict conditions and chemists should be allowed to sale condoms to married couples and a Muslim government could also allow its use in restricted way.   

Another important issue was spending zakat money on non-Muslims suffering from HIV/AIDS as non-Muslim agencies often support Muslims suffering from this disease. Again stand was taken by Ulama except two among them that zakat cannot be given to non-Muslims. We maintained this stand is not Qur’anic nor is it in keeping with the Sunna. The verse on zakat in Qur’an (9:60) lays down that one portion of zakat be spent on what Qur’an calls Mu’allafat al-Qulub (for those non-Muslims whose hearts are to be won) and under this Prophet (PBUH) himself gave money to those Arabs who had not accepted Islam but were sympathetic to it.

Thus both Qur’an and sunnah support the concept of giving to non-Muslims. However, Qur’an itself does not use the word. ‘Muslim poor’ but only poor. Also, this verse provides for riqabi i.e. freeing prisoners, for ibn al-sabil i.e. travelers and fi’sabil Allah in the way of Allah. All these categories like freeing prisoners or for travelers and in the way of Allah are open to interpretation in favour of non-Muslim poor and needy for support. Thus this verse is so categorical that no one can maintain that non-Muslims cannot be entitled at all.

But still some Ulama said it should only be for Muslim poor and none else as there are so many needy among Muslims. Some said that non-Muslims can be provided from general charity (sadaqah) but not from zakkat. I said there is no separate category as sadaqah in Qur’an and for zakat Qur’an uses the word sadaqah and the verse (9:60) begins with the word sadaqat. Then one Egyptian ‘alim quoted Imam Shafi’I that he is also of the opinion that a portion of zakat could be spent on non-Muslims. That finally clinched the issue and it was then unanimously decided that a portion of zakat could be spent on non-Muslim needy, which could include those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Thus both fatwas for use of condom and for spending part of zakat money for non-Muslims were finalized and read out in plenary session. It was also decided that these two fatwas will be presented to other Ulama of Muslim countries and their opinion sought in their favour so that Muslims could advocate use of condoms for genuine and legitimate purpose (within married couples) and a portion of zakat to be spent on non-Muslim poor, especially HIV/AIDS patients in need of help. It was unanimously approved in plenary session also.

This conference on Islam and HIV/AIDS was also supported partly by non-Muslim fund and that also required that Muslims also spend their funds on non-Muslims be it from zakat or general charity in addition to zakat from rich Muslims. When we visited a home for HIV/AIDS we found many Muslim children in the home run by Christians. So Muslims should also contribute to such homes where non-Muslim victims of HIV/AIDS are given shelter.

Another issue which was discussed in our group no. 4 was, amongs others, female genital cutting or female circumcision. Generally it is maintained that it is part of sunnah. Since this group consisted of more women and three men (liberally inclined) it was not difficult to agree on maintaining that it is not part of Islamic teachings.

I explained that it is basically a tribal custom which originated in some African countries and since shafi’i school also originated from Egypt (Imam Shafi’I lived in Egypt, he accepted some of local customs and traditions) he also provides for female circumcision. The tribals adopted female genital cutting for depriving women of sexual pleasure arguing that if their genitals are not cut, they may get corrupt before marriage. The Ismaili fiqh also originated in Egypt it also provides for female circumcision and in India only Bohras who are Isma’ilis practice it, not other Muslims.

Another male participant in discussion quoted Prophet’s (PBUH) hadith that female genitle should be cut gently. I said this hadith is not unanimously accepted and prophet of Islam was so much for gender equality that it is quite unlikely that he would require female genital to be circumcised. The hadith might be of later origin when female circumcision was introduced. Any way circumcision, female or male, is not obligatory in Qur’an but even male circumcision is called sunnah. Of course male circumcision is quite healthy and even reduces chances of HIV/AIDS where as injury caused due to female circumcision is likely to enhance chances of HIV/AIDS. Thus in any case while male circumcision is useful while female circumcision is against women’s right to enjoy sexual pleasure like men.

The Indonesian participant who is of Shafi’i persuasion also supported my viewpoint and it was unanimously decided that female circumcision be opposed as part of anti HIV/AIDS campaign. This measure was recommended by group 4 to be part of conference declaration.

There also was discussion on women, discrimination and violence in our group. One Syrian participant pointed out that Qur’an permits beating of women in verse 4:34. I said it has been wrongly interpreted by mostly male theologians. The word daraba is used in Arabic language in several different ways and according to Imam Raghib who compiled dictionary of Qur’an 13th century gives several meanings one of which is for male camel to go near female camel.

If we take wadribuhunna in verse 4:34 it would mean after they are persuaded (after their rebellion) go near them. Yet another meaning given by modern feminist interpreters of Qur’an is to strike away i.e. send them away. Also beating women is not in keeping with overall approach of Qur’an towards women’s rights. Qur’an clearly declares equality of women’s rights in verse 2:228) and verse 2:229 requires man to retain his wife with kindness.

If we read verse 4:34 in conjunction with verse 2:229 which requires wife to be treated with kindness how beating can be permitted. Beating is opposite of kindness and thus it is wrong to say Qur’an permits beating of wife. A Muslim women has equal dignity and must be treated by husband with dignity. However, wife beating, even honour killing is quite common in Islamic world.

Also women who contract HIV/AIDS are beaten up by their husbands and often deserted. This is un-Islamic especially when husbands themselves are often responsible for infecting their wives with HIV/AIDS. Thus we must campaign for women’s rights and wife beating must not be considered as husbands’ right. This aggravates HIV/AIDS infected women. An African woman who declared she is HIV positive also told the audience that she was having three children and her husband deserted her. She married again and man married her with full knowledge that she was HIV positive and yet deserted her after some time.

Thus such heart rending cases clearly show that men and women from Islamic world should be made aware of rights of women so that they do not maltreat women and do not consider them as their property as they do now. If they have rights on women, women also have rights on their husbands, as declared by the Qur’an in 2:228.

All the members of group 4 agreed with this viewpoint and the Syrian participant who had earlier pointed out that Qur’an gives husbands right to beat also changed his view and agreed with this interpretation.

Thus the conference on Islam and HIV/AIDS opened new vistas for delegates who had come from all over the Islamic world and gave them programme to campaign for the rights of victims of HIV/AIDS and also dispelled the illusion that Muslim world is an exempt from this dreaded disease.  The Islamic world is also facing this problem. It is different thing that it is difficult in these countries to obtain correct statistics. Due to cultural reasons and fear of ostracism often victims suppress information.

It is also true that incidence of HIV/AIDS is somewhat less in Islamic world for number of reasons. In Islamic world cases of sexual profligacy is rather limited and male circumcision also helps reduce chances of HIV/AIDS. But it should not be taken as cause for celebration as this disease is spreading in Islamic world too otherwise there would have been no need to organize this conference.

I am sure the conference served its purpose and would go a long way to increase awareness among Muslims and caution them to take protective measures and create appropriate funds for the help of HIV/AIDS patients. I must say Mr. William, a convert to Islam some 14 years ago in Netherlands, was the moving spirit of this conference and he took great pains to make it successful.


Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai.  (Islam and Modern Age, January 2008)