A Muslim Pharmacist on Why It’s OK to Receive the Vaccine During Ramadan
In April, just as COVID-19 vaccinations became more widely available, millions of Muslims began observing the holy month of Ramadan – by keeping fast from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from any food or water, and focusing instead on worship, charity, and building community.
With the intersecting timelines, some Muslims rushed to vaccination sites before Ramadan begun, while others wondered if getting the vaccine while fasting would invalidate their fast. Others worried about dealing with vaccine side-effects while fasting. Islamic scholars and doctors around the world came together to assure the global Muslim community that taking the vaccine wouldn’t tamper the fast – as it goes into the muscle, not the bloodstream, and is not nutritious.
Still, some remained hesitant.
In conversation with IFYC, Ishaq Lat, clinical pharmacist and chair of the Health Awareness committee at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) in Chicago, talks about mass vaccination drives at the mosque, and how they tackled vaccine hesitancy among community members.
What's the history of the MCC and your role in the organization?
The MCC was established 52 years ago in 1969 by a group of Muslims from diverse backgrounds, and it’s the oldest and largest Islamic [non-profit] organization in the Chicagoland area. I'm sure there were other prayer centers, but this was the first established incorporated mosque in the area. It’s also recognized by civic leaders and community leaders as a place to sort of identify an official Muslim perspective on different aspects, political matters, or socio-economic matters, cultural, and of course religious matters. There's a good amount of intersection between faith and public health in our work, especially over the past year.
The MCC was obviously affected just like most other mosques out there in terms of having a limited congregation size, in having to adapt and pivot a little bit to having more of an online presence, while still trying to reach its community members. The work that MCC does isn't limited to strictly offering prayers. It involves a fair amount of community outreach, charity distribution, community connection, and counseling services, in addition to a greater approach to public health.
As the chair of the health awareness community, we've looked to engage our community members and improving their public health and improving the general health of the community. We started last year by offering a flu vaccine in cooperation with the local pharmacy, thus getting many of our community members inoculated against the flu. In the fall we offered to set up COVID-19 test sites as cases went up. We set up several different COVID-19 testing sites at both of our locations in the city and in the suburbs as well. The engagement and turnout were fantastic and through these events we got an insight into what our capacity was, and how we could continue to serve our larger community as the vaccines began rolling out.
What has the work looked like around vaccination efforts?
As a pharmacist I had the insight into the different vaccines, how to store them, how effective they were, and I also knew what is needed to put together a successful community clinic. So, we partnered with local organizations and pharmacies to host large scale vaccination drives, and our intention is to continue doing them until all of our community members that are interested in taking the vaccine, have been able to do so. And that doesn’t just include our seniors – but also the children, soon the vaccine should be approved for 12- to 15-year-olds too.
The first few events we’ve done have been large vaccine drives as the demand was so great, people wanted to get vaccinated, especially before Ramadan or at the beginning of Ramadan, so that they could have a safe month of observance. A big benefit was that we were able to use not just our prayer center, but also other spaces and facilities in our locations to ensure that a large number of people can get access to the vaccine. We’ve vaccinated close to 1600 people so far – including Muslims and non-Muslims. Come summer as things open up more, we hope to host events where people can celebrate Eid with food and also get vaccinated in the same place. We are thinking of different ways in which we can bring the community together and give them easier access to getting vaccinated.
What has the reception been like to these vaccine drives?
A really nice thing about our event was that it was open to both Muslims and non-Muslim communities. There was a general outpouring of support and appreciation for our work – we received thank you cards, compliments, Facebook comments – people were so happy that our event was open to people beyond the Muslim community. People were grateful that they could bring their elderly family members to the drive when they couldn’t get appointments elsewhere.
Another thing is I've been able to interact with a lot of undocumented families who fear getting vaccinated or were unable to find places where they could get vaccinated, and there’s just a general distrust of institutions in the community. Which is why faith-based organizations have such a unique opportunity to step up and help with the general welfare and community wellbeing. There’s a certain level of trust and rapport with faith-based organizations that people lack today with other institutions, so it really is important to utilize that relationship at a time like this.
What about community members who were hesitant to get vaccinated, especially because of Ramadan? How did you accommodate them?
We connected with our Imam and made sure that there was permissibility in administering a vaccine while fasting, and there was no disagreement there anywhere – so we shared that message with our community members through social media and other platforms.
One thing that can't be overstated is simply having the event inside the masjid (mosque), by itself, adds a level of credibility and permissibility that's inferred that otherwise would be lost. We addressed the vaccine hesitancy in two ways – first, we spoke to the topic directly, but also to in a way that was subtle, just by having the event at the location where it was inferred that it was permissible and not a concern.
There are small pockets of individuals that are still hesitant about getting vaccinated during Ramadan, they are worried about the side effects of the vaccine. We have been reassuring them that it’s permissible to make up your fasts later, your health comes first. They are worried about feeling fatigued or, you know, rundown, and having to make up a fast. I think for a small contingent of people the side effects might destroy them until after Ramadan, but hopefully they will be able to get back on their feet and make up the fasts later. But most people are okay about dealing with it and are looking forward to getting fully vaccinated.
What are some other challenges you continue to face with the vaccination efforts?
Misinformation is a pretty big issue, especially within the immigrant Muslim community. People are reading stories on WhatsApp and forwarding them – and a lot of them are not directly misinformation, but misinterpretation of facts – kernels of truth that are twisted and exaggerated into things that aren’t true. For example, recently there was a large group of people sharing stories coming out of India about people who are fully vaccinated and still dying from COVID-19 – and that's not entirely true. But these stories are out there for anyone to consume, and for those who are hesitant, these are enough to dissuade them from getting vaccinated.
Most minority communities in general have a mistrust of institutions, and especially the government. The government hasn't helped them always, and it has been a source of either oppression, or other harm, for minority communities and minority faith communities. So, when the government is endorsing a large public health initiative, there’s distrust around that as well. Especially because it’s not just the U.S. government, but often the countries they emigrated from, their governments haven’t helped them or treated them well either.
But the fact I want everyone to remember is that the U.S. has a mortality rate of 1.8 percent. Which means that of every 1000 vaccinations given, 18 lives will be saved that would’ve otherwise been lost to the virus. The three vaccinations that are available in the U.S have proven to be 100% effective in preventing deaths during clinical trials of over 120,000 people. So, it’s important for our community members, both Muslims and non-Muslims, to remember that by getting vaccinated you’ll be helping save lives that would otherwise be lost.
What’s a message you’d like to give to people who are still on the edge about getting vaccinated during Ramadan?
Every day you're not vaccinated is a greater risk of you contracting COVID. The virus is still out there, and if you get infected, you won’t just be sick for a while – in extreme cases people have died after struggling for days in the hospital. So, if your aversion to taking the vaccine is based entirely off the side effects of the vaccine, you also really must weigh the risk of contracting COVID by itself.
It is permissible within our religion to defer, or to make up your fast later if you're feeling sick. That is a well-known exclusion. And so, it’s okay for you to make the accommodations you need for your health – religion intends to make life easier for you. Your chance of being healthier and being able to live beyond Ramadan is greater if you get vaccinated as opposed to not getting vaccinated and risking your health.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.