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The Virus and the Scriptures: Muslims and AIDS in Tanzania

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This paper examines Tanzanian Muslims' practical and discursive stances on AIDS in relation to the context in which they are produced. The AIDS problematic is interacting with lively debates, as for the last two decades Muslim reformists have been demanding revisions to ritual practice and a more restrictive application of Muslim social norms. The state-sponsored central organisation for Tanzanian Muslims is viewed with distrust not only by reformist, but also many 'mainstream' Muslims, and there is no organisation to provide an inclusive forum for debate. Official AIDS education programmes reached provincial Muslims before the epidemic had become acute, and were initially greeted with the same formulaic, passive acceptance as many other state initiatives. Since AIDS deaths have become more frequent, recommendations for prevention have become the subject of intense debate. Understanding of the epidemic draws on local religious notions as well as Muslim teachings, and invariably focuses on ways of life rather than questions of health narrowly conceived. It indicates increasing scepticism regarding the ability of either local society or the state to achieve 'development' and wariness of the perceived closeness of science to authority. On the other hand, Muslim observers have found ways to relate scientific descriptions of the epidemic to the Qur'an and to accept the epidemic as God's will, without thereby abdicating responsibility for trying to contain it. Ultimately, individuals are on their own in formulating their understanding of the epidemic. There is no clear correlation between reformist sympathies and the acceptance or otherwise of official recommendations, as many other factors, including age, education and personal experience, influence individual stances.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia, V5A 1S6, Canada


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