The Unspeakable: HIV/AIDS in the Muslim Community

The health issue of HIV and AIDS is generally one that evokes emotion amongst those affected, their families and the wider society. Similarly, it is not one of the topics, themes or issues I usually discuss (perhaps due to its highly personal nature). This topic is especially sensitive and considered a cultural taboo by some members of the Muslim community, which is largely due to the stigma and stereotypes attached to those who are living with HIV. The unwillingness to discuss this issue may result in some sufferers hiding from their loved ones the fact that they have the virus – in turn living with the disease in silence.

HIV is an acronym for Human Immunodeficiency Virus; it is a virus that weakens the body’s defence system impeding it from being able to successfully fight infections and diseases. It is the virus that exists in bodily fluids such as blood, vaginal discharge and semen which leads to AIDS. AIDS is acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, in which the person who has developed AIDS is affected by certain infections and cancers because their body’s defences are weakened. According to statistics from the UNAIDS Global Project (2013), in the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) 260,000 are living with HIV in which 3,000 of new diagnoses are amongst children. In South & South East Asia there are 3.9 million people living which HIV positive with 21,000 new HIV diagnoses amongst children, and 222,000 AIDS-related deaths.

Contrary to popular misconceptions regarding HIV, one will not be infected with the HIV virus through everyday actions such as: handshaking, sneezing, coughing, sharing cutlery and crockery nor kissing. Rather HIV can be obtained through more intimate contact such as from an infected mother to her baby (womb, through breastfeeding or during labour), unprotected sex or through sharing unsterilised injection equipment. Likewise it is a disease that is not limited to people who are homosexual, those who are heterosexual can also be capable of contracting the virus.  

 

Why HIV/AIDS is not discussed much within the Muslim community?

Generally speaking sexual matters are not something that is widely and openly discussed within the Muslim community for a plethora of reasons, but the main reasons are due to cultural sensitivities and cultural perceptions of modesty as opposed to Islam as a religion.

Under the guise of causing “controversy”, “temptation” or “distress”, there has been reluctance amongst some members of the Muslim community to discuss sexual matters such as HIV that affect Muslims not just in the Muslim world, but also here in the UK. This does nothing to ameliorate the condition of those who suffer from the virus, but rather fosters a climate of fear, desolation and apprehension to manifest, therefore making it harder for those vulnerable to gain support and medical help. While it is accepted that when discussing intimate matters such as sexual health modesty should be ensured, this should not be used as a shield to restrict people from giving attention to such issues in order to placate the cultural sensitivities of a few. Additionally, stigmatising and developing a judgmental attitude towards those who have contracted HIV does little to give them support – by judging these people you do not define them, but rather yourself. Within the community it is unfortunate that some people have just about as much sympathy as a school of piranhas, it seems that the Islamic teachings of mercy and compassion as exemplified in the character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) may have slipped their memory and practice.

Modesty in Islam does not negate the discussion of intimate and sexual matters. Evidence for this can be seen within the life and ways of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), in which both men and women alike did not feel embarrassed in discussing sexual matters and personal hygiene issues in order to obtain beneficial knowledge. During the times of the Prophet, there were instances where women would come to the Prophet in private regarding personal matters pertaining to menstruation and female personal hygiene. The Prophet (pbuh) has said, “Blessed are the women of the Ansar (citizens of Madinah): shyness did not stand in their way for seeking knowledge about their religion.” (Bukhari & Muslim)

 

What can the Muslim Community to help?

Although Islamic teachings make sexual contact between married couples permissible, one should not be oblivious or develop selective amnesia to the fact that there are people within the British Muslim community who are not as practicing in comparison to others. There are Muslims that have premarital and extramarital relationships. These practices are apparent and they do occur, such actions are contrary to Islamic practice and should be abhorred. In our behaviour towards Muslims living with HIV and AIDS we should show compassion towards these individuals, and should not be shun, condemn or socially ostracise them. In helping those affected, further information can and should be provided to their loved ones and the wider community on ways to support them medically, spiritually and emotionally so they also can feel part of the Muslim community. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said: “It is compassion which Allah has placed in the hearts of His slaves, Allah is Compassionate only to those among His slaves who are compassionate (to others).”

Education amongst members of the Muslim community, especially amongst the elders, would be immensely beneficial in dispelling misconceptions concerning those with HIV but also gaining a generational understanding – perhaps in their time it was a virus not widespread. Additionally there should also be appeals made to Muslim religious community and public figures such as scholars, speakers and imams in raising the much needed awareness as to those living with HIV and AIDS through their lectures and publications.

As the issue is something that cannot be hidden, it is only hoped that by initiating discussion and actively supporting those affected that the situation can be alleviated – unless we initiate dialogue the cycle continues. 

Advertisements

Making a case for the Interfaith child: Debunking myths, stereotypes and rhetoric

Perhaps one of the topics that are not as often discussed is that of interfaith children and their experiences, especially those relating to Muslim/Christian marriages as opposed to Jewish/Christian marriages. Interfaith children are those who are growing up (or interfaith adult for those who have grown up) where either parents are of different faiths – or one parent has no religious affiliation. Within the British Muslim community, there are many children, young people and adults who are growing up or have grown up in a household where their father is a Muslim and their mother is of another faith which is usually (although not exclusively) Christian or Jewish. Interfaith children arouse wonderment and awe often being subjected to a lot of questions about how they “survived” growing up, what made them chose their faith (or the lack of) and if they “feel” more of one faith than the other.

While it appreciated that interfaith children may have certain life experiences that perhaps somebody that has grown up in a single faith family may not have encountered, some interfaith children have had negative experiences within the British Muslim community. Some interfaith children and adults may recall instances where some members of the Muslim community did not make them feel welcome, or did not consider them “really Muslim”. While it is accepted that professing to be Muslim cannot be Christian simultaneously, the fact that a child or adult comes from an interfaith background is something that should not be turned into an issue of contention.

Aren’t you confused?

One of the many (patronising) questions that people who have grown up in interfaith environments and households get asked concerning their upbringing is whether they are “confused” or how they “survived”. Conversely, some are inundated with questions as to whether they have an affinity towards one faith as opposed to another – this can often play into the boundaries of emotional tennis. Growing up with an interfaith background does not always necessarily lead to confusion, rather the experiences and advantages of growing up interfaith children have is that of literacy in both religions – a dual faith education.

This is especially helpful in demystifying misconceptions and media driven rhetoric pertaining to Islam, and engaging the wider society in understanding. As a second generation interfaith child and convert to Islam, I have benefited immensely from a dual faith education. It has been especially helpful to me in actively defending and making a case for Islam and using my Catholic education for dialogue and comparative religion, along with breaking down stereotypes of Muslim women in everything I do.

Does it create disunity?

Growing up in an interfaith setting promotes a sense of transparency concerning the different faiths, especially when a child or young person reaches the age of reasoning and is capable of acknowledging the differences between the two faiths in deciding which faith to follow. Due to be raised in an interfaith family, children being raised as Muslim or have decided to convert to Islam, can serve to educate their non-muslim relatives and friends about the religion. This does not always mean that one has to be overly proselytising, but in a climate where there are a lot of negative opinions against Muslims, something as simple as your good actions and approach may alter the opinions that some hold.

As to the misconception that being raised as an interfaith child may create disunity, in a lot of cases it is often the contrary. This is because when two parents are of different faiths, the need to maintain harmony and cohesion especially where children are present fosters a climate for understanding to ensue, as a child’s early experiences of difference and diversity will start in their home environment. Having said this, it should not be disregarded that there are some instances where disharmony in an interfaith marriage do occur and while this is the case, how it is tackled it more character defining than the problem itself. Dialogue, patience and understanding are vital in ameliorating situations that may give rise to the possibilities of conflict, thus maintaining tolerance and peaceful co-existence.

You have a “watered down” understanding and implementation of Islam

Some interfaith children and adults can be subjected to pre-judgements and assumptions that their understanding and implementation of Islam is not as “pure” in comparison to those who have grown up in household where both parents are Muslim. In making these presuppositions this does not define them, rather this is character defining for the person who held such an idea. God knows best as to the internal state and religious observance of an individual, we do not have jurisdiction to adjudicate on such a matter. In many experiences of interfaith children, especially my own, being raised in an interfaith environment could mean that the non-Muslim mother can be supportive in aiding the child to become a diligent and practicing Muslim. How many instances and images have you seen of the non-Muslim mother taking her children to the Madrasa to enhance the Islamic education of her children? How many times do you find it the case that a non-Muslim mother is more encouraging towards her children becoming upright and practicing Muslims than some Muslim mothers who discourage such practices and are not practicing themselves?

Unfortunately, these attitudes are hindering many Muslim children with interfaith backgrounds from becoming integrated and accepted into their religious community. Religious observance is not solely down to the parents one has, but rather it is the commitment, love and conviction (along with piety) that one has toward the religion of Islam that is the true defining factor in your relationship and standing with God.

In debunking the misconceptions regarding Muslim children who have grown up in interfaith environments, more should be done to make them feel more welcome and included in the British Muslim community. They represent a rising trend that may lead to the gap understanding and tolerance being bridged, the potential for children and adults with such backgrounds make then not only outstanding exemplars of tolerance in Islam, but tomorrows leading orators and defenders of Islamic monotheism.

 

The “Don’t Judge Me” Syndrome: What does it really mean?

Upon my conversion, more specifically during my years of regularly engaging with members of the Muslim community in England, I have noticed a growing increase in certain attitudes. Many Muslim figures in the American Muslim community have often commented and discussed this growing trend as it affects many. In the British Muslim community there has been a growing increase of people using the phrase “Don’t judge me” or the Tupac-inspired variant “Only [insert God or Allah, whichever you prefer] can judge me”, this is often advanced as a defence mechanism when other Muslims (seemingly those who appear more observant of their faith) question and correct the modes of behaviour and speech that are contrary to the practices and teachings of Islam.

From an observational and analytical viewpoint, the foundations of “don’t judge me” syndrome are built upon meta-ethical moral relativism and normative moral relativism to be specific. Moral relativism is the position that moral truths are relative and that given such relativity, nobody is objectively wrong or right therefore we should just tolerate such behaviour irrespective of whether we agree with it or not. As you can expect, where this amount relativity is allowed to flourish it may lead to potentially dire and disconcerting results.

The question that is often presented and debated is as to whether people can judge.  Let’s explore this:

Can people judge, and how far does the “Don’t Judge Me” Syndrome extend?

Before this can be explored, we need to set the context in which the term ‘judge’ is meant in order to clarify any misunderstandings. Judging in this context may mean assuming a superiority complex where you see something (usually negative) being done improperly and because you have pointed to this out, somehow this makes you better than the person you corrected simply for that fact. This is not from Islam and if anything is a type of arrogance which needs to be identified, tackled and eradicated. Correspondingly, it is these types of attitudes in this community that particularly alienate those who may have a desire to learn and implement the deen on both an individual and collective level but experience struggles with regard to understanding and implementation for a multitude of reasons.

As to the matter of whether people can judge, it is maintained with the general consensus view amongst Muslims that in certain circumstances and matters it may be permissible to make judgements. The Messenger of Allah, Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings upon him) is reported to have said: “I have been ordered to judge people according to their outward condition.” Henceforth, from this we can conclude that as human beings (more specifically as believers of Islamic monotheism) we do not have the jurisdiction to make judgements and assertions concerning the intentions, sincerity or internal state of a fellow brother or sister in Islam. Furthermore this standpoint is also echoed in various verses of the Qur’an such as: Surah Yunus, verse 109 in which Allah says: And follow what is revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and be patient until Allah will judge. And He is the best of judges.

Also in Surah Al-A’raf, verse 87 Allah clearly states: And if there should be a group among you who has believed in that with which I have been sent and a group that has not believed, then be patient until Allah judges between us. And He is the best of judges.

Likewise the idea that human beings only have jurisdiction to judge others on that which apparent, and also reaffirming the supreme authority of God, is also exemplified in Judaeo-Christian scripture. “But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.“[1] – 1 Samuel 16:7 (New International Version).

He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” [2] – Luke 16:15 (New International Version).

However, this does not give the green light to some members of the Muslim community who want to persist in their wrong-doing under the defence of “don’t judge me.” This most certainly cannot be used especially in situations where your sibling in faith has corrected an improper action in accordance to the prescribed etiquette in Islam. If anything, rejecting advice from a believer with good intentions displays a form of stubborn arrogance which will make them accountable to Allah. People with such mind sets should seriously ponder whether this defence mechanism would be plausible before Allah on the Day of Recompense.

Also, as human beings it is part of our nature to use our intellect and intuition to make judgements and other forms of decision making. We do so as a part of our natural function in order to discern between that which is good and that which is harmful to us, Allah through his mercy has given us this innate and instinctive ability. If we further investigate this notion, we can see that universally across all societies we have a form of law which is there to maintain order and foster stability. In doing so, criterias are constructed to ensure this and therefore used in order to judge the citizens accordingly. Certainly when seeking employment people are judged in regard to skill, behaviour, competence, qualifications and a range of other professional and personal factors.

The irony is that many of the people that advance the phrase “don’t judge me” are the very same people who are unlikely to use this same reasoning with regard to the law of the land which judges the behaviour of its citizens.

How does this affect the British Muslim community?

The impact that “don’t judge me” has upon the Muslim community is that it leads to many comprising irrefutable principles, rulings and teachings of Islam (which may occur through not correcting improper actions, accepting a concept that is contrary to Islamic principles or refraining from advising a fellow believer) in order to gain an acceptance by the wider society under the guise of “tolerance and open-mindedness”. By doing this, one is not actually helping the condition of the Muslim community; rather this is appeasing the liberalists and secularists of our society and not conducive to solving the issues that permeate. Additionally, this contradicts the Islamic notion of enjoining in the good and forbidding the evil – all for the sake of not appearing “judgmental”, “backward” or “dogmatic”. The hypocrisy of the whole affair is that in the midst of appeasing such entities many seem virtually oblivious to the hypocrisy of liberalists and secularists, in that whilst they advocate the notion of plurality of thought and speech in a democratic society, they support such ideas just as long as it is not dichotomous to the socio-political status quo validated and maintained by the masses.

Perhaps majority of Muslims, especially those living in the West, can agree that these are amongst the greatest challenges currently facing the Muslim Community. Having said this, it provides all the more reason for us to be united in not compromising Islamic mandates – this should be an obligation upon us both collectively and individually even if it means being socially ostracised.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] This is taken from the New International Version of the Bible. This verse was meant in the context of when Samuel anoints David as king, in which God is said to have discouraged those from looking at outward appearances as the defining factor in measuring a person’s worth. Similarly, this highlights the fact of human beings not having the authority to judge the heart or internal state of a person with only God having the authority and jurisdiction to do so.

[2] This is taken from the New International Version of the Bible. This verse was meant in the context of the Pharisees who were immersed in worldly things and engulfed in their love of money. They were told previously they could not serve two masters at once – i.e. they could not love money and God simultaneously.