Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Muslims and AIDS


Altaf had written some comments about his experiences with HIV positive patients, and the larger question of Muslims and AIDS. I did a 6-month internship with the organization he mentioned, Positive Muslims. To recap, Positive Muslims is a Cape Town-based support and care group working with Muslims living with AIDS. It has three main focus areas: counseling, education and awareness, and research. I mainly worked in the latter two areas. I helped organize amazingly successful workshops with the youth and men, the latter including various imams and community leaders. Needless to say, the organization is doing much-needed work in a country so ravaged by AIDS.

I also contributed to the larger "Theology of Compassion" project Altaf and Farid Esack have mentioned. I worked on an essay entitled "HIV/AIDS and Islam/Muslims –A Critical Survey of Available Resources, Networks, Organizations and Other Material." Below, I'll just post some of the more pertinent excerpts of the otherwise lengthy survey:

First, here is a response to Altaf's query concerning any Muslim organization in the U.S. that is addressing the issue of AIDS:

ix) National Muslims AIDS Initiative
Type: Organization
URL: www.angelfire.com/az/azizpage/nmai.html
Islamic Ideological Tendency: Liberal
Relativity: 7

The National Muslim AIDS Initiative is perhaps the only one of its kind in the United States. Based in the Bronx, New York, it is a project of “Health Force: Women and Men against AIDS”. The stated mission of the initiative is threefold: a) to raise awareness within Muslim communities of the urgent need for AIDS support, education, and prevention; b) to increase the sensitivity of key non-Muslim agencies such as hospitals and service providers, as well as non-Muslim caregivers, to Islamic customs, concerns, and institutions; and c) to assist Muslim agencies in AIDS impacted areas to secure appropriate government and private HIV/AIDS funding. The project provides invaluable information and services for a Muslim community that, despite living in the West, is largely ignorant about the matter and believes itself to be immune from AIDS and all of the concomitant issues. In addition, the sections of the group’s website on “Islamic Guidance” and “Islamic Perception of HIV/AIDS Prevention” are notable for the compassionate and humane stance taken, with Qu’ranic and Hadith injunctions which support this position. There is a strong emphasis on what type of life a good Muslim should lead, but what is left out is the heavy moralizing and judgmentalism that characterize more traditional Muslim groups.

Here is a critique of the influential Muslim intellectual, Malik Badri, and his approach to the crisis of AIDS:

Dr. Malik Badri is an influential thinker in the Muslim world known for his sustained “Islamization of psychology” program. He has called upon Muslims “to refuse to uncritically accept Western psychological theories and practices and to revise them according to the Islamic world view.” Dr. Badri, whose views have been popularized throughout the Muslim world, can be classified as having a highly traditional perspective on the correct, Islamic approach to the crisis of HIV/AIDS.

A critical examination of Dr. Badri’s two well-known booklets on “AIDS Prevention” patently reveals the conservative nature of his socio-religious message. One booklet, which is subtitled “Failure in the North and Catastrophe in the South: A Solution,” begins by interrogating the “Danish model of prevention,” wherein “safer sex” strategies are promoted, such as using condoms when necessary, avoiding high-risk HIV positive groups such as prostitutes, and avoiding the multiple use of syringes and needles, particularly if one is a drug user.[1] Dr. Badri asserts that this method has been a failure since HIV/AIDS rates still continue to go up globally. However, what belies this argument is that, although AIDS has increased globally, it has decreased in many Western countries where there has been greater education and openness around issues of sex and sexuality. Opposing Dr. Badri’s theory is the fact that the major increase in the AIDS pandemic is taking place in precisely those areas where there is a lack of access to education and awareness of issues of sex, sexuality, and HIV/AIDS, particularly of the various disease prevention methods.

The essence of Dr. Badri’s objection to the Westernized HIV/AIDS prevention model is that it in no way attempts to address and limit the promiscuity and personal behavior of individuals, and that it simply wants to provide ways of continuing society’s immoral status quo while attempting to prevent some of its most negative aspects, such as the spread of HIV/AIDS. So, according to him, the Western approach is one of “doing its best to solve such serious problems by changing the outside environment and doing very little or almost nothing to change the ‘inside’ of the people who create such problems.”[1] Dr. Badri is certainly correct that personal behavior and agency is enormously important in beginning to address the rapid spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS. However, individuals and their behavior do not operate in a social vacuum; rather, we are all located in larger socio-economic contexts with their own specific circumstances that can often be highly conducive to, and in fact may directly cause, certain types of risky behavior.

In this regard, the dominant Western prevention strategy, despite its correct emphasis on issues of sex education and proper preventive methods, fails to go far enough and examine larger structural and systemic issues of poverty, inequality dynamics of class, gender, and race, and irreverent market commoditization of our bodies, sex, and sexuality, factors which undoubtedly contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Dr. Badri’s internal purification method seems to be lacking as a preventive tool mainly because it isolates the individual from his/her larger context, and fails to see how patriarchy and lack of access to education, employment, and health care all contribute to the socially and politically sanctioned ignorance and injustice amongst Muslim communities. While his suggestions of being more “devout” Muslims by increasing reliance on Muslim rites and rituals, such as prayer and making Hajj and Umrah, may have some merit in regard to affecting our personal choices and behavior, Dr. Badri remains silent on the external milieu within which all these decisions are made, therefore implying that Islam has nothing concrete to say to our worldly social, economic, and political affairs.

The booklet subtitled “Role of Governments, the Media and Organizations” strongly argues for the imposition of a culture of strict, narrowly-defined “Islamic ethics” in Muslim society. Dr. Badri condemns the lax, and even favorable, attitude in the West toward issues such as sex outside of marriage and homosexuality, and claims that only a conflicting, stern, and authentically Islamic approach can be an appropriate solution to a crisis such as HIV/AIDS. According to Dr. Badri, “ . . . in Islamic sex education, chastity and virginity are also highly valued, promiscuity and sodomy are banned and condemned,” and it is the job of schools and the media to promote these messages by all possible means.[2] Not only are the major ideological institutions of Muslim society supposed to graphically display the human and “Islamic” consequences of a Muslim’s deviation from moral behavior, but according to Dr. Badri, the Islamic state must also endorse various sorts of penalties and punishments to discipline rebellion and “un-Islamic” actions, such as homosexuality or promiscuity. Dr. Badri’s demand that the Islamic state ought to codify and implement major restrictions on personal & social behavior and liberties fails to base itself in the right of the community (ummah) itself to forge a consensus (ijma) on these complicated issues. Any prior assumption that the type of public and personal law one particular Muslim community desires will also be so desired by another Muslim community elsewhere in the world is grossly mistaken.

A good summary of Dr. Badri’s approach to the whole of issue of Islam and HIV/AIDS is provided toward the end of the booklet in section 9, entitled, “Islamic Versus Western Law: A tale of civilization conflict.”[3] Here, he reiterates how the Muslim countries need to stop aping the West and formulate their own Islamic responses to crises such as HIV/AIDS. However, Dr. Badri’s claim that simply having Muslim countries “returning to their spiritual and moral roots” would solve all of the problems of those societies seems rather farfetched. The weakness of this argument is clearly demonstrated where Dr. Badri asserts that, “Muslim states should…realize…that their (the citizens’) spiritual happiness are more essential and rewarding in the long run than temporary financial relief...,” referring to the effects of a financial crisis that might ensue because of Muslim governments’ promoting the type of programmatic implementation of Islamic law that Dr. Badri advocates.[4] History has shown us that most of the so-called “Islamic states” have had rulers and upper classes which have fared very well financially in even the worst of catastrophes that have afflicted their nations, while it has been the mass of ordinary working people who have suffered the brunt of it, disastrously. In addition, the implementation of various rigid restrictions on personal and collective behavior has often translated to forms of social control that have enormously benefited the corrupt and venal rulers of so-called Islamic states. It has allowed them to completely silence their people’s voices and to appropriate complete power and decision-making to themselves. Dr. Badri’s strong emphasis on penal codes and the severest of punishments to deal with social problems shows a remarkable degree of lack of care, compassion, and commitment to address the structural issues of poverty, women’s subjugation, and increasing inequality causing so many to be increasingly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and other social ills.
[1] Ibid., 17.
[2] Malik Badri, AIDS Prevention: Role of Governments, the Media and Organizations (Qualbert, South Africa: Islamic Medical Association of South Africa, 2000) 20.
[3] Ibid., 23-30.
[4] Ibid., 25.

7 comment(s):

  • Wow, Abu Dharr, this is a very interesting article. It is good to know that Positive Muslims and the Muslim AIDS support group in the Bronx are providing counterweights to the Badri approach. I think we've found a couple of suggestions for a suggested Zakat list for Eid 1426!

    By Blogger Anna in PDX, at 1/05/2005 01:21:00 AM  

  • Salaams

    In the UK, the following 5 page booklet on HIV/AIDS is available on the Islamic Mission website:


    And I quote: "Scientists have also pointed out that given the minute size of the virus, it can easily penetrate the molecular structure of a condom which, therefore, provides very little protection."

    Clearly Papism is having more of an influence on Islamic thought than anyone realised.

    Dr. Malik Badri is a nice man really, but remind me never to sleep with anyone who has been to one of his lectures!



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 1/05/2005 08:02:00 AM  

  • this was incredibly well-written, Abu Dhar. But most importantly, I find this extraordinarily useful- an analysis that points towards possible, effective solutions. Thank you!

    By Blogger Leila M., at 1/05/2005 09:05:00 AM  

  • As Salaam U Alaikum,

    Imam talib Abdur-Rashid of MIB (mosque of Islamic brotherhood) in harlem, and my imam, Imam Siraj Wahaj of At-Taqwa masjid in brooklyn both also hare involved in the spiritual and economic needs of HIV+ memebers in the jamaats....

    i will read this atikul tonite...

    By Blogger malangbaba, at 1/05/2005 12:34:00 PM  

  • malangbaba, what kind of work do they do? is it done formal, or informal? maybe you can interview them?

    By Blogger redwood, at 1/06/2005 09:12:00 AM  

  • Salaam,

    it thinks the work within the masjid is informal, but they connected to some formal orgs...

    i will look into interviewing them....

    By Blogger malangbaba, at 1/06/2005 10:12:00 AM  

  • There's a wonderful chapter called "Under the Prayer Rug" about Muslims with AIDS in Steven Barboza's 1994 collection American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X. The article was written by Tarajee Abrdur-Rahim, a courageous sister who contracted AIDS from her husband and became an early Muslim AIDS activist, helping and serving others with the illness and helping people to talk about it, in the face of great denial.

    This book is a real treasure: a collection of first person stories from all kinds of U.S. Muslims--immigrants, converts, and second or third generation. Part of it deals with the history of the Nation of Islam, so not everybody in it is Muslim in the orthodox sense (though the people who followed Abdul Malik al-Shabazz /Malcolm and Warith Din Muhammad are, of course), but that part is also fascinating and valuable information to have.

    By Blogger Karima, at 1/07/2005 05:03:00 PM  

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