Combating HIV/ AIDS: An Islamic Perspective

. 12/1/06

The story of the AIDS is thus the story of how we live and want to live today, of what we make of our desires and how we want to fulfill them, of what our moral and ethical preferences are and of what value­ system we want or don't want to abide.

AS mankind faces global terrorism today causing death and destruction, there is another terrorist that threatens to kill us from within. The global scourge of HIV / AIDS is undeniably the instrument of death that an ever growing number of people the world over are carrying within itself. We don't need to repeat the figures. We all very well know this data of sorrow. What, however, we don't know very well or tend to ignore is the question as to how we have allowed this source of sure death to build its dwelling within us. And the AIDS is not the only source of death and destruction that we are now destined to live with. There are many others in league with it-the hypertension, the diabetes, the obesity. All this is in one way or the other linked to the way the world is and the way the world civilization has evolved through the last century.

The story of the AIDS is thus the story of how we live and want to live today, of what we make of our desires and how we want to fulfill them, of what our moral and ethical preferences are and of what value­ system we want or don't want to abide.

It all started first in the West. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution came an entirely new mode of economic activity that was to impact all the traditional structures of life and thought. Under the weight of the intense pace of urbanization traditional social structures started crumbling, with the family as the biggest casualty. With the family were also gone the traditional protections and psychological props that man had hitherto been gifted with. The human individual was now all-alone, free to do whatever he or she wanted to do. This free man embarked upon a journey of unprecedented material advance­ment. But this idea of progress was also accompanied by an idea of destruction. The two World Wars apart from causing unimaginable death and destruction left millions of people who have nothing to hold on, nothing to fall back upon, and nobody to love and care. These millions were merely physical existences, devoid of all spiritual bliss. And to fulfill their inner void, they came together body to body, heart to heart. And it was somewhere along the way of this free sexual togetherness that the AIDS had a chance to creep in.

Other societies followed suit as the Western model of development was adopted by almost all the nations of the so-called Third World as they got independence. The same efforts for industrialization were followed by the same intense urbanization setting in motion the similar processes of social dislocations and migrations. The result is the same. There are now millions of individuals in these societies who are driven by an intense desire, to be free, to go beyond all moral codes, to express themselves freely in every form. They are free physical existences who care nothing for the hollowness gathering in and around their inner beings. But it is sad that there is something in our biologies that does not approve of this wanton pleasure-seeking and tends to destroy the party.

The phenomenon of estimated 4.3 million people living with HIV/ AIDS in South Asia tells the story rather too harshly. The countries of the region India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives are still to a very large extent traditional societies. The majority of the people in these countries, particularly of rural areas, follow the codes of conduct sanctioned by their faiths or customs. Most of the people in the region are Hindus, followed by the Muslims and Buddhists. All are regulated in their sexual behavior by their respective moral codes. But the figures of HIV/AIDS incidence show that the traditional bonds are breaking and faiths or customs are unable to hold.

Since Mathew Arnold lamented in his famous poem The Dover Beach about the tide of faith fast receding:

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.”


The faith leaders have been crying themselves hoarse that while freedom is man's natural right and a basic condition for the development of human personality, the idea and urge of freedom should not be stretched to the extent that the very foundations of human life, society and civilization are shaken. They have been issuing warning signals that freedom of sex should be exercised only to make mature and informed decisions to choose right marriage partners and not for sexual license, which breeds permissive­ness and which in turn would spell disaster. Nobody heeded these voices of sanity. And the disaster struck. What then should be done to salvage the situation and undo the damage? God does not forsake His creatures, no matter how much they disobey Him. So how those who profess to know and serve Him can leave His creatures in the lurch. A lot is already being done to identify the real causes and arrest their spread to prevent the pandemic from growing further. But the entire strategy seems to be more or less centered around prevention through raising awareness about safer sex practices and promotion of condoms. The message carried by this strategy is nothing but to allow one to go to as many women or men provided one has a pack of condoms. Is it really the right strategy? It is no doubt effective as a step towards crisis management but as a long term and sustainable plan of prevention it seems to be doubtful. The basic reason being that it touches only the surface.

Any HIV/AIDS prevention strategy that aspires to be long lasting and effective must touch the places where all the disasters are seeded, the human mind and heart. It must have all the resources and advocacy to move the inner most core of human beings. And it is the power of faith that can still move men and women to opt for the better.

Islam is quite clear in matters of sexual ethics and choices. There are explicit Islamic injunctions prohibiting all pre-marital and extra-marital sex. All sexual activity, according to Islam, has to be within the bounds of marital partnership. Any sexual relationship beyond marriage is sin and unlawful, liable to punishment. Islam recognizes the power of sexual urges but it does not allow them a free play but tries to channelize them to be positively invested in fullsome human development.

Advocacy and awareness are then the most potent and effective devices for prevention. Sex education is one such way that can playa pivotal role in eradicating HIV/AIDS. Islam is very positively oriented towards sex education. Almost one-third of the sharia (Islamic Codes) deals with the matters of sexual ethics and marital life which include the needs of biological growth and growth needs of the children. The Prophet of Islam had allowed his wives to disclose all important details of their marital life to serve as guidelines and precedents for the faithful. The Prophet's traditions thus contain a vast literature on the subject. Books like Beheshti Zevar, compiled by a very revered Islamic scholar of the last century, Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, who belonged to the Islamic University of Deoband in India impart sex education with all important details and have been traditionally used for the purpose in Muslim families. But this all has been within the limits of decency. Islam does not allow the glorification and eventual commodification of sex that the sex education tends to end up in most of the cases.

Stigmatizing the HIV/AIDS victims is undoubtedly inhuman. No faith can allow this to happen. It is like rubbing salt to the injury. All human beings succumb to weaknesses of one or the other kind as it is only human to err. But as God is beneficent to all His creatures we should all show love and acceptance to all who are unable to resist their temptations and curb their desires. It is the youth between the ages of 15 to 24 who are the most likely victims of the HIV/AIDS as they are the ones who are the last to resist their temptations. People of such tender age and innocence are most often not at all in a position to make informed choices. The faith leaders are duty-bound to go to them with all human love and compassion to enable them to fight out the inhuman stigmatizing and discrimination they have to face as HIV/ AIDS victims.

I must admit that Muslim organizations are not playing a proactive role in combating this scourge by spreading awareness. It may be because these organizations have not yet faced or realized the gravity of the challenge. It is, therefore, important to know more precisely the prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS among Muslims as compared to other communities. Such studies would be helpful in knowing the magnitude of the problem and evolving suitable strategies to deal with it. Second, the governmental and non-governmental organizations need to approach Islamic organizations and motivate them to be partners in such efforts. Wherever, this has been attempted, results are encouraging.

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