Dilemma? As the Muslims worldwide go through the Ramadan as part of their faith obligations, there is a concern about taking the Covid-19 vaccine during the same season.
In some places, they administer the vaccine after breaking their fast in the evening to avoid compromise with their faith, while others have had to take it because it is mandatory at their places of work. Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi finds out how this dilemma between faith and science is treated.
During the last Ramadan, governments consulted with scientists and religious leaders to restrict Muslims from congregating in prayers, as most mosques, like all places of worship, were locked to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
For Muslims keeping home in such a season of special spiritual importance was such a sacrifice but Islamic leaders also had to consult with scientists to answer their following on whether they are exempted from fasting due to coronavirus.
Almost a year later, the world is not anywhere close to flattening the curve as countries struggle with new variants and strains of the virus.
But this Ramadan coincided with another phase of anti-coronavirus vaccination. In Islam, fasting prohibits deliberate, eating, drinking or ingesting any substance, between dawn and dusk. Those exempted are the sick, the insane, pregnant women, the elderly, and travellers.
This has prompted a debate among scientists, clerics and the faithful across the world as to whether taking the coronavirus vaccine belongs to the prohibited category.
In other countries especially in Asia, Europe and the US, the leaders shed the light on this timely topic, with some mosques volunteering as immunisation centres to boost the exercise, but here, the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, remains silent on the topic of vaccination during Ramadan.
In his pre-Ramadan message, Sheikh Muhammad Waiswa, the acting director of Sharia at the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC), mostly emphasised the same standard operating procedures Muslims have followed since last year.
He also declared that with the government-imposed 9pm to 5.30am curfew still in place, Taraweeh—the ritual night prayers, usually performed in congregation in mosques, should be conducted at home.
Even Muslim Members of Parliament brought the debate of lifting of the curfew to the House arguing that the status quo would likely affect Muslims observing Ramadan.
But both the UMSC and the legislators did not address the importance of vaccination and whether Muslims can take it during Ramadan, which left many wandering for answers.
Take the vaccine
However, in a phone interview, Sheikh Waiswa, of the UMSC said the mufti of Uganda Sheikh Shaban Mubajje approved the vaccination exercise by publicly taking his jab alongside his team.
Initially, vaccination is voluntary but many workers, including frontline medical workers and educators have found it an obligation to take it, lest they lose their jobs.
Now what should a Muslim do when the vaccine can be construed to compromise Ramadan fasting?
“A Muslim should take the vaccine,” says Swaleh Kiswiriri, a medical doctor and proprietor of KLM Clinic in Bweyogerere.
“We all know the importance of Ramadan fasting. But we also know the importance of health and life. We know Covid-19 is real and we have examples of our brothers and sisters who have died of it. So under the circumstances, a sober Muslim should take the vaccine even during fasting, to save life.”
Kiswiriri, who usually lectures on health and nutrition issues at Makerere University Business School mosque and seasonal darasas (Islamic seminars), adds that it will save your life as well as your job.
On the side effects
Dr Kiswiriri knows that most Covid-19 vaccines, including AstraZeneca, which is used in Uganda, cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, thirst and body pain, among other side effects.
Halima Ndagire, a teacher in Zirobwe, Luweero District, can attest to this. She took her first AstraZeneca jab on April 7, and suffered serious joint pain, mild fever, and mild headache for about five days after the vaccination.
Her second shot is due June 2, but we asked her whether if it coincided with Ramadan she would take it anyway.
“Of course,” Ndagire, a mother of three, says.
“I cannot afford to miss the second shot because it would render the first one useless.”
After all, Ndagire adds, that she learnt from some clerics that the Covid-19 vaccine, unlike injections of supplements, does not contain nutritious elements, which negate fasting.
Sheikh Waiswa also concurs with the view that the vaccine is not nutritional hence not the type that affects one’s fasting.
What if the side effects recur? Would she break the fast? “It depends, if it is the same magnitude that I suffered after the first shot, I would continue fasting, ” Ndagire says.
But if the side effects are so severe they cannot allow one to fast, Dr Kiswiriri says, one is allowed to skip or break the fasting until the body allows to resume. That exemption is derived from the existing freedoms given to people who are sick, with the obligation to compensate the lost fast after Ramadan.
Dr Kiswiriri, however, cautions Muslims to strike the balance between commandments and exemptions, by resuming their fast as soon as the body allows.
“The essence is to keep healthy so that you continue worshipping your creator,” he says.
“Don’t be inflexible serving your religious duties, just like you should not abuse your rights to neglect your duties.”
Meanwhile, the best source of relief to the Ugandan Muslims could have come from Saudi Arabia, where the grand mufti ruled that receiving the coronavirus vaccine while fasting does not invalidate the fast. Saudi Arabia is the cradle of the Islamic faith, being home to two of the holy places—Mecca, where Muslims go for annual pilgrimages, and Madina, where Prophet Muhammad lived and died.
Most Ugandan Muslims subscribe to the Sunni majority and most fatwa issued in Saudi Arabia apply in Uganda.
“The Covid-19 vaccine does not invalidate the fast because it is not considered as food and drink. The vaccine is administered intramuscularly, so it does not invalidate the fast,” Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh said, according to Arab News last month.
The grand mufti’s declaration concurs with the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Abdul Latif Al Derian and scientific findings, elsewhere.
“The vaccine enters blood vessels and not the stomach. Therefore, taking it does not affect ‘roza’ (fasting). Only because of ‘roza’, Muslims should not avoid taking the Covid-19 vaccine,” an edict issued by Darul Ifta Farangi Mahal, in India, quoted by Business Standard, partly read.
Qari Asim, an imam in Leeds, who also heads the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, told the BBC that before receiving or rejecting the vaccine during Ramadan, “you need to ask yourself: do you take the vaccine which has proven to be effective or do you risk catching Covid-19, which can make you quite ill, and you may potentially miss the whole of Ramadan and possibly end up in hospital?”
Ahmed Abdirahman, a respiratory therapist at a Portland hospital and community service coordinator at the Maine Muslim Community Centre, in Portland US, according to Khaleej Times Americas says: “If you miss a day because of the effects of the vaccine, then that is not a sinful act.” He echoed Dr Kiswiriri’s point that “Protecting lives is the ultimate goal in Islam.”
Dr Farzana Hussain, a senior general physician at The Surgery Project in East London, says according to the BBC: “The Koran says saving your life is the most important thing: ‘To save one life is to save the whole of humanity.’ It is a responsibility of a practising Muslim to take their vaccine.”
Dr Kiswiriri adds that Covid-19 is an emergency and the response should be as such.
“We also must obey leaders,” he added, invoking Surah An-Nisa (4:59) from the holy Koran: “O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.”
“We also must obey leaders,” he added, invoking Surah An-Nisa (4:59) from the holy Koran: “O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.” Swaleh Kiswiriri, a medical doctor and proprietor of KLM Clinic in Bweyogerere.