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.