The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource
Follow Us Follow Us on Facebook Follow Us on Twitter Download Our App 
Professionals >> Visit The Body PROThe Body en Espanol
  • Email Email
  • Printable Single-Page Print-Friendly
  • Glossary Glossary

A Look at HIV/AIDS and Muslims in Zambia

An Interview With Sheikh Ali Charles Banda

September 2008

Sheikh Ali Charles Banda
Sheikh Ali Charles Banda
While at The XVII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2008) in Mexico City, I met with religious leaders from around the world. They talked about their struggle to find a way to address HIV/AIDS within their traditions.

Sheikh Banda, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Sheikh Ali Banda. I come from a country called Zambia. I am Muslim in faith and also as the Mufti of the Muslims of Zambia. A Mufti is what you call the hierarchy of the Muslim leadership, the leader of all the Muslims in Zambia, you say. I am also in charge, meaning I'm an Imam and sheikh, of one of our Islamic centers in Zambia, where we have a school with a mosque and many other activities around that place. Also, I am a representative of the Muslim World League in Zambia and a board member of ANERELA [African Network of Religious Leaders].

Do you get any trouble from other Muslims in your community for being involved in this HIV/AIDS movement?

I cannot deny that fact that there are some Muslims, sheikhs and imams, and the general Muslims, who still feel that this issue is not really in the Muslim community. They'll tell you that a true Muslim cannot have HIV, or cannot be HIV positive. So there are some circles amongst the Muslim community where they still feel that HIV is out there, and not in the Muslim communities or family.

So how do you deal with that?

Of course, it's a mammoth task, but the way we are dealing with it is that, as Muslims, we understand Islam is a comprehensive way of life -- meaning that when we interpret the religion of Islam, or the Islamic faith, we say it is a comprehensive way of life, meaning it encompasses all what a human being needs.

Hence, Islam should have a say on HIV and AIDS, unless we are denying the fact that Islam is a comprehensive way of life. Then, Islam has no solution, has no say about HIV and AIDS. But if we agree that Islam tells us or teaches how a Muslim is supposed to conduct himself and how to live all his way of life, then Islam should have something to say about HIV.

That is the starting point, and that is where many Muslim leaders find themselves caught up in that world, that all things Islam talks about -- how you should do business, how you should conduct yourself at work, and many other things -- but why should it have anything to say about HIV?

So from that, now, we -- it is a process, of course -- discuss it with religious leaders. We have had a number of trainings through ANERELA, and also through the partnership with World Vision, where we have workshops and trainings for imams and religious leaders.

ANERELA also has brought this platform that, for the first time, if I may speak of Zambia, in particular, have had imams and sheikhs and Muslim women leaders who have come to me and told me about their status ... something which never happened.

Now, because of my association with ANERELA, and people having a place where they can go and confide in, this has really helped. So just to answer your question, this is the beginning point, where we discuss about the comprehensiveness of the teachings of Islam. Many Muslim scholars come to appreciate, to say yes; we need to talk about this. And how can we talk about something which we don't know? Again, that is another process.

How deep is the training? How many imams have been trained? How many people of faith have been trained. Does this go on in many mosques?

Inside, internally, as Muslims, we have had a number of trainings. But I feel that through my interaction with ANERELA and the trainings where I've done with ANERELA, I find that just reading from the scriptures -- I mean, from the Koran, the Hadith, and the teachings of Islam -- without understanding the scientific aspect on how the virus is transmitted to another person -- makes an imam not able to make an informed Islamic point of view on HIV and AIDS.

So it is the training now. We are combining the scientific facts of HIV and AIDS, how it is spread, and vis-?-vis how can we respond Islamically and in what the Koran tells us. For example, HIV prevention and all these things. What is condom use? What does Islam say about condom use? And many other preventive measures.

So the training is both scientific and Islamic, and with other partners like World Vision, which has the Channels of Hope, which is a comprehensive training specifically targeting religious leaders, which has a faith response in the process of the trainings, has really highlighted and helped many imams, not only in Zambia, but in many other countries, which have conducted these workshops and trainings.

A question that is often asked is, what do you say when people of faith say that HIV is a punishment from God for sinning?

I think this is very much prominent, if I may talk specifically about Islam, where there are many quotations which people refer to. One such example is the famous saying of the Prophet Mohammed, where he said that when fornication and adultery becomes rampant, then expect that God will send a disease which has never been seen by their ancestors. Meaning, a disease will befall the people which has never been seen.

Now, many sheikhs and imams translated these to say this is the result of the pandemic. This is the HIV, and it is a punishment from God. But again, it is also contradictory in itself, because there are many epidemics and pandemics which have been there. You talk of cholera in Africa. You talk of syphilis. It killed a lot of ... Malaria today has killed a lot of people. And many other sexually transmitted diseases.

So which one is it? Again, we go back and -- this is why I mention about the Channels of Hope training manual, which we train with the Muslims -- because these issues are addressed.

Can we say it is a punishment? Islamic teachings tell us anyone who is born is born free of sin. But how can we say a child who has contracted HIV, or got infected during birth from the mother; can we say he or she is a sinner? No, it is not that way. And there are many other forms of transmission. This is where, as I mentioned earlier on, the aspect of also empowering the imams with the scientific facts of the virus comes in. Because that's when they will understand and make informed decisions.

So the understanding that it is a punishment from God, even at many high levels of Muslim scholars, many Muslim scholars are of the opinion that we cannot say disease is a punishment of God, per se, because in some other teachings of the same prophet, he's saying if God wants to forgive somebody of the things he or she has committed, he may give him a disease as a way of relieving him from the sins he has committed. So, again, disease can be a blessing. It is a two-way thing. In short, we are saying HIV is not a punishment from God. And many of the scholars -- and I think this is now cooling down in the Muslim sectors. There are only a few who are really not participating in these activities, and people who are not really trying to interact with people living with HIV.

Can we say all people who are living with HIV are sinners, and all those who are not HIV positive are not sinners?
It's only when you live with someone living with HIV, or yourself, you are infected; that's when you can really understand that really, that it's not a punishment. If it was, then all the people who have committed adultery and fornication were going to be sinners. We know that there are some Muslims who are involved in fornication and adultery and not all of them are HIV positive. Can we say they are not sinners? This is why we always pose the question of saying: Can we say all people who are living with HIV are sinners, and all those who are not HIV positive are not sinners? This is the question which we pose when we are discussing with the imams.

So we are coming towards the understanding that it is not a sin; but rather, it is a way of trying to bring us back to reflect a blessing, in this case, to understand deeper our teachings, and to show our concern to other people.

The pandemic, or the HIV, has brought cooperation and working partnerships with many other faiths, and has really set an example. So we could say it is a blessing in disguise, to some extent.

Another question I wanted to ask is, what do you think people of faith need to understand about HIV-positive people?

What they need to understand, first and foremost, is that they are human beings. Secondly, they should understand that they are called to facilitate, in helping and assisting the people who are living with, or affected, by any kind of calamity. That is their duty. Now, if they are denying this fact, it's denying their role, or the responsibility they are called to, as people of God.

The other thing that they should understand is that it is not because somebody is a sinner or not a sinner for him to be living with HIV. We have seen a very dedicated couple, a very dedicated woman, Muslim woman, in terms of religious matters. But three years, four years down the line, you hear that she's living with the virus. And you wonder: Is she a sinner? OK. We have, as I mentioned earlier on also, people who are involved in accidents and other calamities. This is another aspect, which many Muslims overlook.

You know, the Islamic tradition is that, when a person dies, we bury within 24 hours. As Muslims, the way we conduct our funerals is, you wash the entire body, the way you wash a person. You can bathe a person, or a baby. So during that process, if somebody died of an accident, blood is still there, and the virus, under those conditions, will still be active. Many people have contracted the virus through that. So we cannot say that these are sinners. I may request of the religious leaders of people of faith that they need their support, and they need encouragement. They need to be encouraged because we have many examples.

Even people who were chosen Islamically, people who were chosen by God, were affected by certain calamities. Not that God did not like them, because God does not look at somebody because of his status. As Muslims, we have a good example in the prophet, whom you call Job. In the Koran we call him Ayub. His calamities in the Koran goes in detail and talks about how he suffered and how the people stigmatized him. And this was a lesson for the Muslim, that we should not stigmatize, we should not look at a person, judge a person, because of his status of a disease, or his suffering.

So then why do you think stigma is still so prevalent?

People are getting more and more involved in the HIV and AIDS. I can't deny the fact, including myself -- being one of those imams who stood in the mosque and talked about HIV as a curse from God, and God is punishing the disbelievers, people who don't believe in God. That time is long gone because now we have a good number of Muslims who are living with the virus. Many Muslims have died. Many Muslims have died in the hospitals. We have seen many imams and sheikhs living with the virus.

Are they public? Are they public about their status?

That is another aspect of stigma. It is very easy to have just a male member in the mosque to talk about their status. They have got a good number. But there are very few imams who have come in open. In many countries I've visited, there are very, very few. But I know. What I know: it is like an example of hippo. You only see the nose outside of the waters. But down there, there is a big, huge body down there, lying under the waters. So the problem we might see it as the noses of the hippo. But the problem, really, is very big. I'm referring to the imams and the sheikhs amongst those people who really should come out. This would make a very big change. This will lessen the stigma.

There are many aspects people look at because they could be removed from their mosques. They could not be allowed to teach the children at the Koranic madrassa, and other places. So, really, this is what their fear is. But if I may give an example of Zambia. Because they have a kind of security that the person in leadership is very much involved with HIV. He talks about his status. He talks about the status of his relatives. And people now have the confidence to come in. It has to be leaders to take the lead in talking about their status, and also talking about HIV and AIDS.

Thank you so much for talking with me and for all that you do to make a difference.

Thank you very much.

  • Email Email
  • Printable Single-Page Print-Friendly
  • Glossary Glossary

This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
More Personal Stories on Islam and HIV