As the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme has accelerated, optimism about its effectiveness has been rising. According to the Office for National Statistics, more than nine in 10 people are now keen to get a jab, up from 78% in December. But there are significant racial disparities. The Royal College of General Practitioners reports that enthusiasm within Asian and black communities dips by between two-thirds and a half, and – as many imams have acknowledged – the suspicion of vaccines is disproportionately high among Muslims.
Why? Influential traditions warn that innovations sometimes come with danger, and a fear of God can produce fatalistic attitudes towards disease: even viruses are part of creation, after all. But the most distinctively Islamic concern is much simpler. Lots of believers worry that vaccines contain pork.
The belief isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound to non-Muslims. Chemically purified gelatine (like the gooey albumins found in salmon and egg whites) is useful to stabilise the active ingredients of many drugs. Manufacturers have been stepping up the search for substitutes, but animal products are therefore common in injectable solutions.
That’s led Muslims sometimes to worry that they might be haram, forbidden. Indonesia’s most authoritative religious body denounced inoculations for meningitis in 2008 (which, quite counter-productively, disqualified thousands of unvaccinated Muslims from hajj later that year), and a similar condemnation in 2018 contributed to a major measles outbreak. In parts of northern Pakistan, Somalia and Nigeria, false rumours about polio vaccines haven’t just endangered children’s health; hospitals have been torched and clinicians have been murdered.
The fear of life-saving medicines is ironic – not least, because Arab physicians such as Ibn Sina once made Islamic culture synonymous with scientific progress – but mercifully, hardline opposition is confined to ultracautious conservatives and reckless extremists. There’s a lot more support for vaccinating children in south Asia and north Africa than in Europe (the rate in France is lowest of all), and anti-vax sentiment is consistently high in only two Muslim-majority states: Indonesia and Nigeria.
Most sharia scholars, meanwhile, justify haram ingredients by invoking a concept known as “transformation” (istihala) – essentially, a recognition that things can change – which has been loosening things up ever since it explained 1,200 years ago why the Qur’an’s disapproval of wine didn’t rule out cooking with vinegar. Jurists have also reminded Muslims that necessity and public welfare take priority in emergencies, and stressed Islamic law’s five goals (the maqasid al-sharia) – which include the preservation of life.
These traditions inspired muftis in Moscow to declare last week that even if scientists had used gelatine in Russia’s Sputnik vaccine (which they deny), inoculations would be permissible. Though Chinese vaccine manufacturers have been vague about what’s in their products, Indonesia’s Ulema Council has called Sinovac “holy and halal”, while scholars in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt endorsed Sinopharm with observations that dietary restrictions matter less than human lives. Sharia-compliance has been even smoother with the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. All three manufacturers say they contain no animal derivatives, and stamps of approval have come from the British Islamic Medical Association, the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America and the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia.
That’s important. It’s helping imams allay community concerns, and encouraging sheikhs to get jabbed on television. But fine points of Islamic jurisprudence also distract from a bigger picture. It isn’t humility before God that’s fuelling doubt. It’s an uneasy suspicion of powerful figures whose hostility to Islam is presumed. Iran’s supreme leader has forbidden vaccine imports from the US and UK, regardless of ingredients, simply because he distrusts both countries. Egypt’s retired grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, hasn’t worried about gelatine, but he’s suggested on his TV show that Covid-19 might be a biological weapon linked to 5G technology and 100,000 orbiting satellites. In the name of “anti-Zionism”, people are rehashing the familiar slur that Jews spread disease, while a petitioner to Pakistan’s high court has alleged that Muslims are being injected with not just pig and chimpanzee DNA, but trackable microchips too.
Political scepticism is endemic in the Muslim world, and it isn’t always unjustified. At least one conspiracy theory involving the vaccination of Muslims was certainly real: the 2011 operation to locate and kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad started with a CIA intelligence-gathering operation disguised as an inoculation drive. But it’s no accident that the plots now being imagined by some Muslims resemble fantasies associated with secular cults such as QAnon. Global communications networks are enabling anxious people everywhere to share ideas they might ordinarily dismiss as paranoid or ridiculous. That illustrates the crucial challenge posed by this pandemic: though it presents a universal threat, heightened alarm is obscuring the value of joint action.
That’s inherently narrow-minded. Vaccines owe their very existence to multicultural collaboration. The experimental treatments that culminated in Edward Jenner’s first inoculation in 1796 grew out of smallpox precautions learned from the Ottoman empire and China, which reached America independently through a north African slave. And the medical benefits of multiculturalism aren’t just historical. The couple who synthesised the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are both Germans of Turkish Muslim origin.
At the risk of emphasising the obvious, no one can sensibly maintain therefore that it’s Islamic to oppose vaccination. Too many people who contract disease for want of immunisation already live in Muslim-majority states, and though Covid-19 doesn’t have a religion, it discriminates by race. Research has established clearly that black and Asian people are disproportionately infected and hospitalised, and mortality statistics suggest they are more likely to die. As sharia scholars have said many times, vaccination isn’t merely a permissible choice for Muslims. Because it helps to protect others, it is what they call a fard kifaya – a collective obligation.