Understanding the Islamic perspective of Covid vaccines

by BERNAMA / pic by BLOOMBERG

KUALA LUMPUR – While Malaysia awaits its first consignment of the COVID-19 vaccine next month, certain quarters are still disputing the safety and halal status of the vaccine shots.

Malaysia has so far entered into joint agreements with the World Health Organisation’s COVAX facility as well as the United States-based Pfizer-BioNTech and United Kingdom’s AstraZeneca for its vaccine supply.

The rollout of the first 12.8 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses is expected to begin in Malaysia at the end of February 2021 and will cover 20 percent of the population with its two-dose regimen.

Even though health and medical authorities worldwide have stressed the safety of the vaccines, which are instrumental in helping to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, anti-vaxxers (people who oppose any form of vaccination) and conspiracy theorists continue to pound social media sites with their “propaganda”, including allegations that the vaccine shots contain substances forbidden by Islam.

WHAT IS ISTIHALAH, ISTIHLAK?

Freelance preacher Dr Abdul Rahman A. Shukor said the issue concerning the use of prohibited substances in vaccines has already been settled following lengthy discussions on the matter by religious scholars.

To that effect, many local and international fatwas or rulings issued with regard to vaccines can be referenced, he said, adding that the concept of istihalah and istihlak was applied in current fatwas related to the issue of a vaccine’s permissibility.

“Istihalah is a natural process that affects the legality (from forbidden or haram to halal) (of an edible substance) due to changes in its elements. (In other words) a substance obtained from a haram (prohibited) source that has undergone changes in its chemical structure and physical characteristics and has been turned into another substance with other characteristics… it, therefore, becomes halal and pure. This is the view of the Hanafi school and agreed upon by well-known scholars Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Sheikh Wahbah Al-Zuhaili,” explained Abdul Rahman.

The istihlak concept, meanwhile, refers to a substance that contains a tiny quantity of a prohibited element and into which higher quantities of pure elements are added, thus, eliminating the properties and characteristics of the original element in the substance.

SAVING LIVES MORE IMPORTANT

Abdul Rahman, who is syariah advisor to Islamic banking institutions, told Bernama the question of syariah (Islamic law) does not arise if a vaccine is produced from pure substances and is not harmful to humans and used only as a protective measure against an infectious disease or epidemic that poses the risk of death.

Vaccines that contain prohibited elements, meanwhile, are divided into two categories.

“For the first category, if there is another alternative that is purer and derived from trusted sources, then vaccines containing prohibited elements cannot be used. This is the basis of fatwas on vaccines.

“For the second category, if there is no other alternative and an emergency prevails, then the vaccine with the prohibited elements is allowed to be used in order to save lives and in keeping with the objective of syariah. In other words, no vaccine would be allowed to be used without strong justification,” he said.

Citing decisions taken by the Muzakarah Committee of the National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs (MKI), he said it permitted the Mencevax vaccine which has bovine (cow) elements and is used to help prevent meningococcal meningitis. However, the Menomune meningitis vaccine containing a mix of bovine, porcine (pig) and avian elements was prohibited.

He added that the committee, however, later reversed its fatwa on this vaccine after researchers succeeded in producing a vaccine that was free of substances sourced from animals.

Referring to Malaysia’s decision to use the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer, Abdul Rahman said it is understood that this particular vaccine is made from messenger RNA (mRNA, a genetic material that encodes the viral protein) and does not contain any live COVID-19 virus.

“Hence, the question of whether this COVID-19 vaccine is made from forbidden substances doesn’t arise. Moreover, during the manufacturing stage, the substances used in a vaccine undergo repeated screening and purification so much so that its original elements cannot be detected when the vaccine reaches the end-stage. In other words, the vaccine’s contents will have no prohibited elements.

“Hence, Muslims in this country need not have to worry about the allegations that the (COVID-19) vaccines have elements prohibited by Islam,” he added.   

QUESTION OF HALAL, HARAM DOES NOT ARISE

Meanwhile, Universiti Utara Malaysia senior lecturer in Islamic business studies Dr Mohd Murshidi Mohd Noor said the majority of contemporary Muslim scholars are of the view that vaccines containing any porcine element can be permitted for use provided that the istihalah process has taken place properly and the structure of the original substance has been altered completely.

“However, if there’s any doubt over the istihalah process, then it cannot be used,” he said.

He said istihalah is a process whereby the original substance, including its characteristics, transforms into another substance.

And, he added, as far as the COVID-19 vaccines are concerned, existing information shows that none of them contain porcine or bovine ingredients. Hence, the question of whether the vaccines are halal or not does not arise.

Mohd Murshidi also supported the MKI Muzakarah Committee’s stand on the use of the COVID-19 vaccine. In a meeting convened on Dec 3, 2020, the committee agreed that the use of the COVID-19 vaccine is compulsory for certain groups identified by the government and permissible for others.

Malaysia’s COVID-19 vaccination programme, meanwhile, is expected to begin in early March. The vaccination will be done in stages over 12 months and the government hopes to inoculate 27 million people or 80 percent of the population by the first quarter of next year.