Vaccinations Are Not Un-Islamic—Muslim Scholars Reveal Truth on Anti-vax Propaganda

Two women working to vaccinate children against polio, an infectious disease that causes paralysis and death, were recently killed in Pakistan, a country where Islamist groups have hindered efforts to eradicate the disease.

The victims, a mother and a daughter, were taking part in an immunization campaign in the restive Balochistan region, marred by violence at the hands of Sunni Islamist organizations. They were shot dead in the southwestern city of Quetta on Thursday (January 18).

Although no organization claimed responsibility, such attacks are often carried out by Islamist groups, which claim vaccinations are un-Islamic and/or an alleged plot by the West to sterilize local populations.

The Pakistani Taliban have long run a campaign against health workers in the country and issued several fatwas (religious edicts) prohibiting vaccinations in territories under their control.

The group declared that polio drops were "poison" in 2012, one year after reports emerged that American secret services had faked an anti-polio campaign in Pakistan to collect DNA samples to locate terrorist Osama bin Laden.

CIA Agents were believed to have recruited a senior Pakistani doctor, later arrested by the Pakistani intelligence, to organize the vaccine drive in Abbottabad, where bin Laden was eventually located and killed in 2011.

Pakistan health workers
A Pakistani relative mourns beside the body of a polio worker in a ambulance outside a hospital following an attack by gunmen in Quetta on January 18, 2018. A mother and daughter polio vaccination team were gunned down January 18 in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta as they were immunizing children, police said, the latest deaths in the country's long campaign against the disease. BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Killings of health workers and security forces paid to protect them mounted. In 2014, female polio vaccinator Salma Farooqi, part of an anti-polio campaign, was abducted, tortured and killed by militants. The brutal murder cast light, one again, on the dangers health workers face as they try to stamp out the disease in the country.

Health workers also face constant threats in Afghanistan and Nigeria, the two other countries where insurgencies and anti-vax campaigns have hindered efforts to eradicate polio. Militant groups in these countries also claim vaccinations are "un-Islamic" and an attempt to thwart the will of God.

Nigeria is also thought to be the only country that halted transmission of polio, only to find the "indigenous virus again."

Vaccinations are difficult to carry out in areas controlled by Islamist outfit Boko Haram, which opposes to any form of Western influence in occupied territories, including Western medicine.

Polio in Afghanistan
Polio
polio
Pakistani children suffering with polio affliction

Hard-line clerics and prominent Muslims

Hard-line clerics have contributed to spreading the anti-vaccine narrative. In Pakistani rural areas, where the disease tends to be prevalent, some clerics have been claiming that the effects of polio are a curse from God, a punishment.

Disinformation, illiteracy, as well as clerics declaring vaccinations an American plot, led to thousand of parents refusing to let their children be vaccinated in the 2000s.

Similar claims were made by clerics in the Muslim-majority northern Nigeria, where some preachers suggested vaccines were un-Islamic as diseases were God's will.

A 2014 study on the attitude of Nigeria towards medicine states that the un-Islamic theme to justify anti-vax campaigns emerged when "Islamic preachers began to publicly campaign against the exercise, raising the issue of its compatibility with the Quran and the teaching of the prophet in the Hadith."

Some Islamic clerics also issued fatwas saying that people who became paralyzed or died as a result of refusing vaccinations would be considered as "martyrs."

Nigeria polio
Veiled women walk past the Haye dispensary on February 8, 2013 in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, where gunmen on motorized tricycle killed seven female polio immunization workers. Ten polio immunization workers, nine of them women, were killed and five others injured in separate gun attacks on two polio clinics in the city. AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier in January, some hard-line clerics in Muslim-majority Indonesia said immunizations are un-Islamic, arguing that they contain products from 'haram' (Arabic for 'forbidden') animals such as pigs and dogs. These anti-vaccination claims have sparked fears it will be difficult to prevent a diphtheria outbreak in the country.

Leading anti-vax campaigner Dewi Hestyawati, who defines herself as a Holistic Islam Health Activist, told ABC News that alternative therapies can combat diseases such as diphtheria and polio.

"The Prophet shows us that immunization should come from the regular daily consumption of healthy substances; honey, herbs, olive oil, dates and goat's milk. If we don't follow that, we can be easily infected with diseases," she said.

Her views echo those of Majid Katme,the head of the Islamic Medical Association in the UK, who in 2007 urged Muslim parents to stop vaccinating their children.

"If you breastfeed your child for two years - as the Quran says - and you eat Quranic food like olives and black seed, and you do ablution each time you pray, then you will have a strong defence system," he said at the time.

Counter-narrative

Health officials and Muslim groups distanced themselves from Katme's claims. In Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan some clerics—as well as the governments—have been encouraging people to vaccinate their children.

But what does Islam say?

Yasir Qadhi, a prominent American Muslim scholar of Pakistani descent, believes that religions are intepreted and there are no unilateral positions on certain subjects, including vaccinations.

"However, the normative understanding of mainstream Muslims, and the widespread practice across the Muslim world, is that such vaccines are effective, and hence, recommended to use," he told Newsweek.

"The basic Islamic principle of 'preservation of life' would dictate that anything that helps life, including the usage of medicines, should be resorted to as long as there is nothing inherently immoral or impure in the acquisition or use of the medicine."

Qadhi, described as "one of the most influential conservative clerics in American Islam", added that he, as well as family and friends, had their children vaccinated.

Polio in Afghanistan
An Afghan health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Kandahar on January 17, 2018. Polio, once a worldwide scourge, is now endemic in just three countries - Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images

Farooq Aftab of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, an Islamic religious movement that originated in British India, told Newsweek that Islam encourages the advancement of research, including medical, and "service to humanity."

The London-based activist and public speaker on Islamic issues sees no contradiction between his faith and vaccinations. "Ultimately though it is for parents to decide whether their children should be vaccinated, but from an Islamic perspective there is no restriction," he said.

"In 2009, when swine flu vaccinations were being given by the authorities to the elderly and children, the Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, said that such vulnerable groups should go ahead with the jabs. This is true Islam.

"It is important that those in positions of leadership portray the true teachings of Islam and adopt the practises of the Holy Prophet Muhammad who served humanity and was known as the Mercy for Mankind," Aftab said.