For some Muslims in America, having HIV can be one more stigmatizing attribute that keeps them in the dark and alone in their own faith. Islam is a conservative religion steeped in traditions that go back for centuries. Followers are guided by the Prophet Mohammed and the Holy Qur'an. And, although the holy book stresses the importance of good health, it doesn't directly address HIV or the modes of transmission.
How do Muslims bridge the gap between the principles of Islamic law and HIV education, which includes candid conversations about sex and drug use? One Muslim woman is working on figuring that out -- and the group she founded will host its first retreat this summer.
The Start of an Outreach Program
Khadijah Abdullah is the founder of the non-profit organization RAHMA, based in Washington, D.C. The name means mercy in Arabic, but for this group, the letters stand for Reaching All HIV+ Muslims in America. Khadijah, who has been a Muslim since age three, had an early calling to become an activist for people living with HIV. "When I was in college, I was working part time in a hospital. One time we had a Muslim man that was admitted. I learned that he was living with AIDS. I realized then that I had never met a Muslim with HIV. He was very rude and mean to the nurses on staff. One day I came to work and I was assigned to him. I learned while working with him that he didn't have the support of the Muslim community. He felt alone and isolated. He felt like he couldn't talk to people about what he was going through. I knew then that I wanted to do something about HIV." In 2012, she started RAHMA.
RAHMA is working to break through stigma to create a safe space in which followers of Islam and their allies can speak freely about HIV and create friendships. They offer workshops, trainings and youth education sessions that aim to dispense factual information about sexual health, relationships, community work, HIV transmission and prevention, and much more. RAHMA works with people of all faiths and backgrounds but strives to give Muslims a space to interact.
Dawna, 49, can still recall the day she discovered that her newborn son Joshua had AIDS and she was infected too. "At the time when I found out I was positive, I wasn't Muslim. My son's father infected me. He knew he had it, but he told me that he had a blood disorder. [In the early 80s], HIV wasn't talked about in the black community. We were in a relationship and we planned my son's birth. Two months after my son was born, I noticed that he was doing everything that you would expect a newborn to do except gain weight. And when he cried no tears would come out because he was dehydrated." Joshua was admitted to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, and she was told that he would live to be six months of age. He came home right before his first birthday, and she parted ways with his father due to serial infidelity.
Dawna converted to Islam when Joshua was three years old. She continued to raise her son and keep him healthy. On May 21, 2004, at the age of 15, Joshua lost his battle with AIDS. Dawna credits her family and her faith with keeping her strong through the tough times.
She says there is a purpose for her life and she is working on fulfilling it. "There's a reason why I was infected. Whatever the purpose of it, I accept it. I have my good days and bad days. But I reflect back on my love for my religion. I understand the word of Allah. In the Qur'an, it says that there is no illness on the face of this earth that Allah has not made a cure for except for death. And because of that statement I know that, at some point, I may be cured. If not in this life, than in the hereafter." She now lives with her husband and is in the process of adopting a child. Her daughter has been married for 5 years. She says her daughter is one of her biggest supporters.
The Risks in the Muslim Community
According to surveys from UNAIDS in 2005 the number of Muslims living with the virus in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia neared one million. Followers of Islam may not perceive HIV as a threat because adhering to Islamic tenets (no sex outside marriage, no alcohol or drug consumption, no same-sex activity) significantly reduces the risk of transmitting the virus. But reduced risk does not equate to immunity from HIV transmissionand some Muslims actually do engage in risky behaviors. RAHMA is dedicated to providing much needed education to the community and support to those affected by HIV/AIDS.
In spite of its reserved presentation, Islam is a religion that is very supportive of education and good health. HIV is not specifically addressed in Qur'anic verses but the call for Muslims to be compassionate is very clear. In fact, the Qur'an and some of its prophetic principles can arguably support harm reduction programs because they aim to preserve and protect life. But stigma eclipses the light of the truth sometimes and makes it very difficult for a Muslim man or woman to live openly with the virus. It doesn't help that some Muslim leaders openly discriminate against the LGBT population. Ms. Abdullah explains that she has heard from Muslims who have been shunned in mosques for being positive. "I remember a Muslim who went to the mosque during Ramadan. He was serving food to people who were breaking their fast. Somehow someone disclosed that he was positive. The people were afraid to take food from him. They didn't want to contract the virus." Progressive Muslims are working on ways to break down the barriers to care for their brothers and sisters in Islam while keeping the laws of their faith. Their focus is support not blame.
RAHMA is set to host its first retreat in August. The weekend event offers a designated space and time for Muslims to get educated, build their advocacy voices, connect with others and receive advice from trained professionals. "The retreat will bring together HIV-positive people in a non-judgemental space. They will have support. We'll have networking, some fun activities to relax. We'll have yoga. We'll be training people to become advocates. You don't have to disclose your status. We'll have workshops on medical adherence. We want to let [Muslims] know that they're not alone. We are here to support them. Hopefully we'll make connections that will help us to stay in touch," says Ms. Abdullah.
Candace Y.A. Montague is an award-winning freelance health journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been published in The Washington Post_, The Grio dot com, and the Black AIDS Institute's weekly newsletter among others. Follow her on Twitter @urbanbushwoman9._