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THE AIDS CRISIS IN AMERICA
AND THE RESPONSE OF THE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY:
THE CHALLENGE AND THE CHARGE
An African American Muslim Perspective - Submitted by Amir Al-Islam
According to a report presented at the 12'h World AIDS Conference which was held in Geneva in April of this year, at the end of 1997, there were 30.6 million people world wide living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and over one-third are young people between the ages of 15 to 24. Dr. Peter Piot, Executive Director of the United Nations AIDS Program (UNAIDS), stated that the most severe HIV epidemic in the world is in Africa, south of the Sahara, where over 21 million people are infected. For example, in Botswana and Zimbabwe, the rate of infection is 25%--that means, one out of four adults in the country is infected. More alarming is the fact that by the year 2020, there will be over 40 million orphans in those countries which are most infected with HIV.
Although in most industrialized nations, the spread of HIV is leveling off, or even declining due to strong prevention programs. AIDS is quickly becoming a plague of the marginalized people, those who don't have access to combination therapy with anti-retrovirals, drugs that combat the human immunodeficiency virus in the body which forestalls the development of AIDS. AIDS has so ravaged Africa that it rivals history's greatest epidemics and the overwhelming majority of the 21 million people infected with HIV will die because they live in countries that do not have adequate healthcare and cannot afford the costly medication which keeps the virus in check.
As the AIDS epidemic rages out of control in the developing world, there is a growing crisis evolving in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there is a 31% decrease in the death rate of those persons with AIDS, due to preventive measures and drug therapy. However, AIDS has become the leading cause of death among African Americans between the ages of 25 to 44, surpassing homicide. African Americans, who constitute only 19% of the U.S. population, now make up 57% of the new HIV infections and for black youth, between the ages of 13 to 24, the infection rate is over 63 percent.
A disease which was earlier identified with gay White males, now afflicts the heterosexual Black community with a vengeance. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, the American religious community has failed to speak out on this critical issue. The Black Church and African American Muslims have been virtually silent, reticent in the face of an epidemic that threatens to annihilate a generation of black people. Why hasn't the African American religious community been more vocal? I do not know the reasons for the ambivalence of the Black church. However, my intentions are to investigate this deafening silence which permeates the Muslim community in America about the AIDS crisis and perhaps come up with an approach which leads to what I call a "paradigm of engagement," a conceptual framework in which Muslims can get involved in the struggle to eradicate this disease. This process begins with an interrogation of the fundamental aspects of Islamic epistemology, which, in my view, will inform and enlighten us about the prevailing attitudes of Muslims about AIDS.
Then and only then, will we be in a position to mobilize the tremendous moral and spiritual power of the Islamic community to address the AIDS crisis. The first order of business is to explore the phenomenon of Islam in America, which remains an enigma to most Americans.
ISLAM IN AMERICA
According to the American Muslim Council, a research think tank in Washington D.C., Islam is the fastest growing religion in America. Presently, there are approximately 7 to 8 million Muslims in the U.S., made up of African Americans, immigrants from over 50 countries, Hispanics, and a growing number of white Americans. However, the largest population of Muslims in the U.S. are African Americans, who comprise over 3 millions of the total Muslim population. Both immigrant and African American Muslim communities have their own distinct cultural legacy and historical trajectory in America, which play decisive roles in determining issues such as identity, and shapes attitudes and perspectives about critical issues such as AIDS.
The Immigrant Muslims
The first Muslim immigrants arrived in America in the 1870s, and were principally Arabs from Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. By the 1920s, however, Muslims were migrating in large numbers from the Indian sub-continent. Many of the immigrants were escaping political turmoil in their native lands and were seeking economic opportunities in the west. A large percentage of them intended to come to America, make money and go back home. However, most adjusted to the American way of life and stayed and eventually sent for their families. In order to maintain their customs and respond to social issues such as marriage, burials and the education of their children, the Muslim immigrants began to organize and establish mosques and Islamic centers, first in Midwestern cities such as Cedar Rapids, Detroit, Chicago, and later in other major cities in the northeast.
Although many immigrant Muslims took advantage of the economic opportunities in America, securing jobs, professional careers and establishing businesses, they, non-the-less, made every effort to insulate themselves from what they considered to be, the negative aspects of American culture. They established social and educational institutions to promote their ethnic and religious traditions and values and to protect their children from behavior which they deemed immoral. The immigrants made every effort to raise their families in closed environments and usually married among their own ethnic and religious groups. As a result of this communal and cultural insularity, many immigrant Muslims avoided the at-risk behavior which is associated with AIDS. However, there are no statistics to determine how many immigrant Muslims contracted HIV through blood transfusions. And as the number of Muslim immigrants increase in America from those areas where there is a high incidence of infection, it is expected that the number of AIDS cases will increase. In addition, as immigrant Muslim children become more exposed to American culture and move away from their religious teachings, the allure of pre-marital sex and other at-risk behavior becomes more attractive, which could result in an increase of infections. Overall, however, there is a perception that AIDS in the American Muslim immigrant community still remains negligible, and this is one factor which contributes to their silence about the epidemic.
African American Muslims
The African American encounter with Islam began in Africa, where significant numbers of African slaves, who were brought to America, were Muslims. Documents are extant which detail numerous slaves who even maintained their Islamic practice during slavery. However, the most significant development of Islam among African Americans began during the early 1900s with what is
called "proto" Islamic movements, such as the Moorish Science Temple. By the 1920s the Ahmadiyyah Movement, which originated in India, began converting African Americans to their interpretation of Islam. However, the largest and most influential "proto" Islamic movement began a decade later with the advent of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam grew into one of the most powerful and influential social movements in African American history, second only to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
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Elijah Muhammad was responsible for attracting a large number of followers to the Nation of Islam during the early 1930s and 40s. However, it was Malcolm X, a new convert from prison, who attracted the majority of followers. Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam in prison in 1947, and during the 1950s was principally responsible for increasing its ranks. He quickly moved up in the organization from Minister to National Spokesman and close confidant of Elijah Muhammad. However, after finding out about Elijah Muhammad's infidelities, Malcolm lost confidence in his "divine leadership" and eventually left the Nation of Islam. In 1964 Malcolm made his famous Pilgrimage to Makkah and converted Orthodox Islam, the form of the religion which originated in the 6' century in Arabia.
In 1965, Malcolm X, Al HaJj Malik Al Shabazz, was assassinated. Two members of the Nation of Islam were charged with his murder. A decade later, in 1975, Elijah Muhammad died and appointed his son, Wallace D. Muhammad, to lead the organization. Wallace Muhammad had already rejected his father" teachings and was practicing "orthodox Islam, and upon taking the reigns of leadership of the Nation, he quickly transformed it into the orbit of the orthodoxy. This event was not, however, without controversy. Minister Louis Farrakhan, an understudy of Malcolm X, after accepting Wallace's leadership, eventually left the organization and reverted to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and re-established the Nation of Islam, which still continues today. In addition, it is important to note that there were other African American Muslims who were not members of the Nation of Islam but were adhering to "orthodox" Islam as early as the 1940s. And after Malcolm converted to the orthodox teachings, large numbers of African American embraced Islam.
Presently there are African American Islamic centers and schools throughout the United States. While there is a large second generation of African American Muslims, the majority, however, are converts to the faith. It is commonly understood that Islam has been one of the most significant forces of reform in black America, transforming the lives of thousands of persons, who had succumbed to the subcultural lifestyles of crime and substance abuse. After becoming Muslims, however, these same individuals transformed their lives and are now productive citizens who are leading the fight against crime and immorality.
The unique ability of Islam to function as a catalyst for the social transformation of African Americans is attributable to its strong emphasis on disciplined behavior and its contribution to the development of a positive sense of self. However, before conversion, many African Americans were engaged in behavior that is considered at-risk, particularly drug abuse, and as a result, we are now witnessing increased incidences of AIDS in the Muslim community. This is not to say that there are no Muslims who are engaging in a-risk behavior, but from all indications, the overwhelming majority of Muslims that contract AIDS fall victim because of past behavior.
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The Challenge - Islam: Its Epistemological and Eschatological Tradition
AIDS is one of those topics that most religious people prefer to avoid, so if you ask some of the Muslim leaders about AIDS in their community, they would say "Muslims don't have AIDS." In their attempt to put the best construction on the state of moral behavior within the Muslim community, Muslims, oftentimes are in denial and this does a disservice to those persons who are suffering from the disease, regardless of the cause.
While there are differences in language and cultural background between African American Muslims and Immigrants, they share an epistemological and eschatological tradition which is, in my view, principally responsible for shaping and forming their attitudes and perspectives about most issues, particularly AIDS. This tradition has as its center, the Holy Quran and the documented life and example of Prophet Muhammad of 6th century Arabia.
In order to become a Muslim, one takes Shahada, which means bearing witness that: There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is hisfinal Prophet. This declaration of faith, in essence, means that a Muslim believes that there is only one God, one Supreme Being, who has no partners or sons, who they call Allah, and that Muhammad Ibn Abdullah of Arabia, is the last and final Prophet. Inherent in this declaration is the act of submission to the Supreme Being, the Creator of the Universe, who has the exclusive authority to prescribe a way of life which guarantees success in this life and the promise of paradise in the hereafter.
While Muslims are required to believe in all of God's scriptures, including the Torah and Gospels in their original form, they, however, are required to follow the divine instructions embodied in the Holy Quran, which they consider the final revelation from God. Muslims have 7 cardinal articles of faith: 1) belief in one God 2) belief in God's Angels 3) belief in all of God's prophets 4) belief in all of God's scriptures 5) belief in divine destiny 6) belief in the day of judgement and, 7) belief in the resurrection. In essence, Muslims believe that God revealed religion in stages, at different times in the life and development of human beings and that Islam represents the final stage of guidance. The faith of a Muslim is confirmed by 5 obligatory acts of worship: 1) belief in the oneness of God 2) prayer 5 times a day 3) giving of alms to the poor 4) fasting during the month of Ramadan, and 5) performing pilgrimage to Makkah once in a lifetime.
These tenants are prescribed by God in order to assist human beings to develop the spiritual strength necessary to practice virtuous conduct and avoid sin. So, the foundation of a Muslims belief and world view is teleological, seeing the world in terms of a divine will or plan, with a distinct purpose. Muslims see belief in God and obedience to God as an essential element of salvation and reward and this is achieved through prayers and righteous conduct. In addition, they see disbelief and disobedience as actions and behavior that earn God's wrath and punishment, in this world and the hereafter. Consequently, AIDS, viewed through the prism of "sin," is brought on by at-risk behavior that displeases and disobeys God, and therefore will result in punishment. So, by a sinner contracting AIDS, it is a confirmation of God's promise that whosoever disobeys Him will suffer his wrath. So, many Muslims look at the disease as a sign of God's truth being manifest and a warning to "believers" to obey God's instructions. The Holy Quran emphasizes over and over again the importance of obedience to God. The following are two verses which focus on obedience and good deeds:
To Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth; so that He rewards those who do evil according to their deeds and He rewards those who do good with what is best. (Holy Quran, Yusuf Ali, 53-3)
Fear the fire, which is prepared for those who reject Faith: and obey God and the Apostle; that ye may obtain mercy. (Ibid, 131-132)
Another critical point to understand is that Muslims are not only required to obey God individually and collectively, but they are required to enjoin others to engage in righteous conduct:
Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting all that is good and enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, they are the ones to attain felicity (Ibid, 3.104)
In addition, the identity, position and status of a Muslim is determined by the performance of good deeds:
You are the best of people evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong and believing in Allah. (Ibid, 3.110)
So, in actuality, Muslims consider themselves among the best people, if they adhere to the dictates of God's instructions and conform their behavior in accordance with His
divine instructions. And AIDS is often seen simultaneously as a confirmation of God's promise to punish those who disobey Him and an affirmation of one's faith that God keeps His promise. So, for Muslims, there are critical questions which must be considered regarding AIDS: 1) should Muslims separate the at-risk behavior associated with AIDS from the disease? 2) should Muslims advocate safe-sex or other preventive measures which, are
often philosophically and theologically contradictory to their faith? 3) and finally, how do Muslims speak out, advocate, and care for those who have been stricken "by God" for their sins?
This is truly problematic for many Muslims, and in order to attempt to mobilize the Islamic community to address the epidemic of AIDS, discursive networks must be created which deal with these critical issues. I maintain that there is a way out of this quagmire. I believe that we can establish a modality in which Muslims can engage in the struggle to rid the world of the scourge of AIDS, while maintaining their religious and moral world view, and not compromise their religious beliefs. This "paradigm of engagement," however, must be deeply ensconced in the traditions and ethical teachings of Islam and operate within the Islamic conceptual framework. First, I argue that it is impossible for a Muslim to discuss AIDS outside of the framework of moral and ethical behavior. In other words, people in the secular world should not expect Muslims to think or operate outside of their religious and spiritual value system, because it is precisely this value system that determines their identity, self-concept and world view, i.e.who they are and what they believe. So, it is within the Islamic framework that I propose the following:
1) That Muslims seal with the person with AIDS as a fellow human being who is ill and draw from the sources of the Holy Quran, which focuses on Allah's mercy and forgiveness:
Say, 0 my servants who have transgressed against their souls; despair not of the mercy of Allah: for Allah forgives all sins: for He is oft-forgiving, most merciful. (Ibid. 39-53)
2) That Muslims reflect on the essence of Allah's message, which commands them to help those that are less fortunate.
3) That Muslims become advocates in support of more health care and medicines, and education, particularly for African Americans who are witnessing an increase in HIV infections. That they remember the famous words of their Prophet Muhammad who stated:
I heard the Messenger of Allah saying: He who amongst you sees something abominable should modify it with the help of his hand- and if he has not strength enough to do it, then he should do it with his tongue (speak out against it) and if he has not strength enough to do it, then he should hate it in his heart, and that is the weakest of faith. (Hadith 365, reported by Abu Sa'id al_khudri)
4) That Muslims support and become advocates for an increase in funds for HIV/AIDS research. This is supported by the teachings of Islam which state:
It was reported that the Prophet said: " Verily, Allah has not let any malady occur without providing its remedy. Therefore seek medical treatment for your illnesses." (Hadith reported by Anas ibn Mas'ud and documented by Ibn Majah)
5) That Muslims provide education for the Muslim community about ADDS, so that in the event that non-Muslim members of their families are infected, they will know how to care for them.
6) That Muslims develop strategies to care for members of their congregations that are infected but may be too embarrassed to come forward.
7) That Muslims remember what the Quran says about Prophet Muhammad and mercy:
" We have sent you 0 Muhammad as a mercy to the worlds. "
In closing, the discourse on AIDS must be reframed if we are to fully engage the religious community in this battle. We cannot afford to leave anyone out. We need all of the support that we can get to eradicate this disease and God willing, we will be victorious