By Ameen Kamal, Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research
For Muslims, anything used or consumed must be Halal (permissible), but there are special considerations in times of emergency. A maxim of Islamic jurisprudence says that “emergencies make the forbidden permissible”. In relation to vaccines, a pandemic is one of those times whereby in the absence of choice needed to save lives, more focus should be put in assessing the safety of Covid-19 vaccines over substance or process-related concerns for Halal determination.
Head of the Galen Centre for Health & Social Policy, Azrul Mohd Khalib mentioned how claims of potentially ‘haram’ (prohibited) substances (such as porcine DNA) in vaccines led to the increase in cases of parents not wanting to vaccinate their new-borns.
On this matter, Azrul opined that the claims of porcine enzymes in the production of vaccines should not be a criterion to decide whether it should be used or not. However, this may not be so easy in the context of a Muslim-majority country like Malaysia.
As mentioned in Health Ministry’s MyHealth portal, choosing halal medicine over a haram alternative is a Muslim’s obligation, which is aligned to the words of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) “Searching for halal is obligatory to every Muslim” in a hadith narrated by al-Baihaqi.
Therefore, in the Malaysian context, Azrul’s stance could perhaps be refined to account for special circumstances (such as the pandemic) where safety and human survival are prioritised over Halal issues – but not removed entirely from the equation.
This is a matter of situational prioritisation and one can refer to the concept of ‘fiqh aulawiyyat’ (jurisprudence of priorities) as introduced and thoroughly outlined by the eminent Islamic scholar Dr Yusuf al-Qaradhawi.
The UK Medicines Information (UKMi) – a pharmacy-related service supporting UK’s National Health Service – referred to a 2001 report by the World Health Organization regarding Islamic Legal Scholars’ judgement that “pork gelatine is sufficiently transformed and permissible for consumption”. In relation to vaccines, the UKMi document provided an example of the use of ‘highly purified gelatine’ in intranasal influenza vaccine which claimed that ‘scientific tests’ showed that the origins of the gelatine could not be determined as it is degraded significantly and that no porcine DNA were detected. However, as alluded to by UKMi, not everyone agreed with the WHO document.
In any case, the ‘significant change’ of gelatine mentioned in the UKMi document refers to the concept of Istilahah, which, according to UPM research officer Mohd Aizat Jamaludin who referenced author Nazih Hammad, refers to the “transformation of filth (najs) or haram materials to another form which is different from the original material either in the name, criteria (smell, taste and color) and nature”. Mohd provided an example of fruits produced from plants fertilised with najs as an example of an accepted Istilahah.
According to researchers from University Putra Malaysia (UPM) in a conference paper for the International Conference on Islam, Economy, and Halal Industry, the law also considers the final form of the end product. Likewise, originally-prohibited substances may undergo significant Istilahah into the final vaccine product. Whether or not it is significant is up to the authorities to decide.
However, in measuring these prohibited substances, UKMi highlighted a worrying aspect when it touched on the topic of ‘DNA detection’. On this matter, Azrul alluded that the level of detection of porcine DNA in food products by government agencies goes to the molecular level. It is unclear what this means as far as unit of quantities go but it’s likely referring to small amounts that require instrumentation for detection.
Such levels of measurements/detection in an emergency situation may present an unnecessary problem. A related concern is if this matter is non-constructively and time-consumingly debated under the backdrop of the urgent need to address a pandemic where short and long-term safety of vaccines should be a priority.
The wisdom behind the cleansing method of najs (filth) whereby the determinant to consider one is free of najs is the absence of physical feel/sensation, smell, and appearance. The wisdom is that detection is per the human level of senses – a practical and reasonable standard, even in a non-emergency situation.
This is not to say trace amounts in food or other consumables are not significant. As mentioned, that’s for the authorities to decide. But it is an example of how contemporary Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) which uses the principle of Ijthihad (independent authoritative legal opinion) to make measurements easy.
MyHealth quoted a clear and thorough definition of an emergency by professor of Islamic law at Damascus University Wahbah al-Zuhaili, who is currently the most highly regarded expert in Islamic jurisprudence.
Following Prof. Wahbah al-Zuhaili’s definition, it’s clear the Covid-19 virus and the pandemic are part of an ‘emergency’ situation. Nations around the world are considering ‘emergency’ use of vaccines, which is a reflection of the severity of the situation. This further raises the importance of vaccine safety which should gain a priority focus by both the medical and religious authorities.
That being said, MyHealth article included an important reminder to not use emergency as an excuse and taking the leniency given by Islamic law lightly, as mentioned in the book “Halal and Haram in Islam” by Dr Yusuf al-Qaradhawi.
In addition to ascertaining and confirming a state of emergency, authorities have to determine if there are truly no other alternatives i.e. vaccines that are equally safe, efficacious, and efficient vaccines that do not have any haram/prohibited materials in it. As much as some may want to dismiss this altogether, the Malaysian context may call for authorities making the technical assessments on vaccines to consider bringing in religious authorities in the assessment early on.
Of course, there are opposing views on this matter. For example, Azrul opined that “There should be no need to refer vaccination or any other essential and scientifically proven public health measure to religious bodies and individuals such as the fatwa council, muftis and ulama.”
Nevertheless, as alluded to in the UKMi document, the issue of Halal and Haram is likely to persist as a core decision-making aspect for practicing Muslims in relation to any consumables, such as drugs and vaccines. This may be a more accurate picture representing the sentiment of Malaysian Muslims on the matter.
Relatedly, this may drive significant demand for Halal products. Malaysia has all the right recipe to be a leader in the Halal industry and as global Halal hub. However, Malaysia has to tread carefully and responsibly to ensure that the case for Halal vaccines is ultimately driven by the need to follow the religion, and not driven by mere commercial interests – especially if it interferes with addressing a health and socio-economic emergency.
As reported in the Malay Mail, Halal Development Corporation Berhad (HDC) is working on ‘Halal certificates for vaccines including those for Covid-19’ which may be ready next year. In its efforts, HDC is working with the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) as well as the Malaysian Standards Department (JSM).