Before the launch of the vaccination campaign, the opinion of the Council of Ulemas, Indonesia’s leading authority on Islamic law, was eagerly awaited. On Friday, January 8, the head of the fatwas (or Islamic legal opinions) commission, Asrorun Niam, declared the Chinese vaccine from the Sinovac group “halal” (conforming to the Muslim standard).
A decision that should facilitate the vaccination campaign in this 88% Muslim country, supposed to begin Wednesday, January 13 with the injection of the Sinovac vaccine to President Joko Widodo. Indeed, if Indonesia has already pre-ordered 329.5 million doses, it has so far received only 3 million, all from the Chinese group, its main supplier. In this country of 267 million inhabitants, the most affected in Southeast Asia by the coronavirus outside India, vaccination is a crucial issue in order to stop the epidemic.
A key decision to overcome reluctance
With a free campaign for all and strong communication around the vaccination of the president, himself a Muslim, the authorities are trying to remove all reluctance, including religious ones. With 88% of inhabitants claiming to be Islam, the decision of the Council of Ulemas is part of this strategy, although, as Delphine Allès, researcher at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) and specialist in South-East Asia, “This is only an advisory opinion issued by a very followed reference and linked to public authorities”.
However, in 2018, a fatwa issued by the same council of Ulemas which qualified a vaccine against measles and rubella as “Haram” (illicit according to Islamic norms), without prohibiting injection to Muslim children, had generated reluctance among many parents and compromised the success of the vaccination campaign. Many laboratories, such as Pfizer or AstraZeneca have already communicated on the absence of pig products in their formula, but Sinovac has not publicly revealed the composition of its doses.
“There have been a lot of rumors and false information regarding the presence of pork in vaccines against the coronavirus, I think this decision is a way of countering them”, explains Delphine Allès. In fact, a member of the Indonesian health ministry contacted by Al-Jazeera said last week that the government would await the council’s decision.
“The preservation of life is placed above all else”
However, the decision remains limited to Indonesia. Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, researcher at CNRS and author of the book The halal market or the invention of a tradition (ed. Seuil), recalls that “What is true from the point of view of ‘halal’ in Indonesia is not true in Algeria, Morocco or elsewhere in the Muslim world”. Neighboring Malaysia, where Islam has state religion status unlike Indonesia, has chosen not to make halal certification mandatory for coronavirus vaccines, while developing an assessment in the coming months.
Would such certification be possible in France? For Kamel Kabtane, rector of the great mosque of Lyon, which issues halal certifications by the Ritual Association of the Great Mosque of Lyon (ARGML), the question is subordinate. “We were not asked to certify the legality of a vaccine. We could do it, but I think it’s a secondary concern in a serious time. “ Ghaleb Bencheikh, president of the Fondation de l’islam de France, goes further and condemns an attitude close to rigorism. “This question denotes the neurotic obsession with conformity to religious norm. A simple principle stands above everything: that of the preservation of life. “