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Will Muslims Take the COVID-19 Vaccine?

According to a Pew research report dated Dec 3, 2020, approximately 60% of Americans will take the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Roughly half of the remainder of adults (18%) said that if more information becomes available about the vaccine's safety, they will reconsider their decision. Assuming the vaccine is as safe and effective as its promotion, we can expect that approximately 80% of the American adult population will voluntarily take the vaccine.

For Muslims, the story is a little different. Muslims are subject to dietary restrictions, usually referred to as "halal." In general, every food is considered halal in Islam unless the Qur'an or the Hadith specially prohibits it. Muslims eat to maintain a healthy and robust physique to contribute their knowledge and effort to society's welfare. Muslims are supposed to try to obtain the best quality nutritionally. It is mentioned in a hadith that a person's prayer is rejected by Allah if the food consumed is not halal.

So, why would this dietary restriction affect whether a Muslim takes a vaccine? The answer revolves around pork products. Pork is not halal. The Prophet Muhammad put pork on the list of foods not to eat. Back in the sixth century, undercooked pork was a source of parasites like tapeworms and roundworms, dangerous little creatures if they got inside of you. The best way to prevent infection is not to eat it. A mandate from Mohammad prevented his community from catching trichinosis. Going a step further, vaccines use pork-derived gelatins as a stabilizer in their storage and transport phase. While derived from pork products, this porcine gelatin is probably free of the bacteria and parasites that contaminated pork in the old days. However, the stigma is still there.

Most vaccines use this gelatin as a standard procedure. Vaccines that prevent measles, polio, diphtheria, meningitis, rubella, and now COVID have used this development and distribution method. Some companies are working on alternative procedures, but they are time-consuming and expensive. The Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis has produced a pork-free meningitis vaccine. The spokespeople for Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca have said that pork products are not part of their COVID-19 vaccines. Sinovac, the Chinese vaccine maker, says their product "was manufactured free of porcine materials." Limited supply and pre-existing contracts will restrict the amount of the vaccine that is halal.

Among Muslim populations, acceptance of vaccines, in general, is mixed. In some countries, programs to eliminate polio and measles have been mediocre. COVID vaccine usage will probably be the same. There are some variables to consider in those populations that we would not usually consider.

First, is a religious principle is called "the lesser of two evils" or sometimes referred to as "the greater harm." If a Muslim is caught between two choices, both unacceptable in Islamic theology, the option would be to take the lesser of the two evils or the one that did not cause more significant harm. It could be argued that taking the vaccine with the porcine exposure would be less evil than falling victim to the virus.

Second, a fatwa, a legal ruling from a religious scholar, can go a long way towards getting Muslims to take the vaccine. A fatwa tells the faithful that immunization is allowable and would be considered halal. However, in a few cases, the fatwa went against the vaccine. In those cases, the religious scholars thought medicine cooked in pork products should not be allowed and said so.

Third, the Islamic principle of "transformation" can be employed to make the product halal. If a forbidden product is fundamentally changed, it is permissible to use it. In this same thought process, if a product is injected into the body versus consumed through the mouth, it is thought to be permissible. Again, this is subject to the opinion of local clerics. There is no central governing body for the Muslim faith in most Sunni Muslim countries so that local imams can make their own pronouncements.

Fourth, in Pakistan, the U.S. search for Osama bin Laden used a fake vaccination program as a cover. Anti-U.S. jihadists throughout the Muslim world have used that ploy to create Muslim insecurity with future vaccine programs.

Most high-ranking Muslim clerics and scholars say that Islam is about protecting life, and they hope few people will reject the vaccine. Several governments are trying to change people's opinions using billboards and radio/TV, and social media engagement. They all admit that communication and persuasion will somehow influence Muslim populations to accept the vaccine.

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