Islam, Disease and Sex: The Legacy of Malik Badri

In early February 2021, I heard of the passing of Dr. Malik Badri, a Sudanese Muslim psychologist who left an indelible mark on the field of Islamic psychology. The tributes that poured in represented what Dr. Badri symbolized following a professional career that spanned various parts of the Muslim world and the United Kingdom. His work, both written and in practice, was pioneering in centering an Islamic approach to psychology, especially in certain Muslim majority countries. This was a part of a wider “Islamization of knowledge” project that reached a highpoint in the 1980s and 1990s, most notably through the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) founded in Kuala Lumpur by the polymath Syed Naquib al-Attas (b. 1931) – an institute where Badri later held academic and administrative positions.

For Badri, a strong Islamic belief and consistent commitment to Islamic ritual praxis was a sure way of guaranteeing soundness of mind, personal happiness, social stability and, ultimately, success in the hereafter before God. It is specifically through Badri’s work on HIV & AIDS that I came to know about him, including his skepticism and critique of Western psychological methodologies and practices and his efforts at securing a place for an Islamic view at the table. It is this part of his work that has remained with me.

I never had the opportunity of meeting Badri personally, though he had visited South Africa in the late 1990s. At the time of his visit I was in secondary school and his trip to South Africa coincided with the launch of a local edition of his book The AIDS Crisis: A Natural Product of Modernity’s Sexual Revolution[1] published by the Islamic Medical Association of South Africa. This was a period when the HIV epidemic was riding roughshod through Southern Africa, infecting millions of people, and when AIDS denialism was the official stance of the ruling party. That stance was vociferously rejected by South African civil society, which ultimately resulted in a Constitutional Court judgement overturning the government’s refusal to provide HIV-positive pregnant women access to treatment to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Currently, South Africa is amongst countries with the highest HIV prevalence at approximately 20 percent of the population.

The heightened awareness of HIV & AIDS resulted in my Islamic secondary school briefly departing from their practice of zero sex education to discussing HIV and potential ways in which to safeguard oneself from contracting it. The solutions that were touted are common to any Muslim – indeed many conservative religious communities: there should be no sexual relations whatsoever outside of a monogamous or polygynous heterosexual religiously sanctioned marital bond and, furthermore, the route to sexual corruption should be halted at inception by prohibiting any non-essential interactions between women and men who do not share immediate biological relations.

“In some ways, Badri’s book resuscitated old tropes and in other ways it provided a novel understanding of the virus in relation to Islam.”

Badri’s book was freely circulated at the time and was celebrated in many Muslim circles as a timely and relevant Islamic intervention in the discussion on HIV & AIDS up until the work of the former South African NGO, Positive Muslims, which was influenced by Farid Esack’s work on liberation theology and HIV & AIDS, countered Badri’s pitiless position with an alternative approach termed a “theology of compassion.”[2] In some ways, Badri’s book resuscitated old tropes and in other ways it provided a novel understanding of the virus in relation to Islam. The first was that HIV & AIDS was a divine form of chastisement, a natural consequence of a sexual libertinism that supposedly had its origins and its continued expression in the secular Western paradigm exported to other jurisdictions. The second was an obsession with homosexual sex as the alleged genuine face of Western modernity’s approach to sexuality and the fundamental locus of a pernicious sexually transmitted infection. Both of these currents gained steam and contributed to the conservative and neo-traditional Muslim approach to HIV & AIDS. These attitudes were confirmed in a shorter chapter that Badri authored about a decade later as part of an edited anthology on Islam and AIDS.[3]

I read Badri’s book in 1999 at the age of 14 and I was fascinated by and dismayed with these two arguments, which came at a crucial moment and colored my view of the epidemic in instrumental ways. The first point went to the issue of God’s justice and compassion. An extremely important ethical dilemma for the religious believer, this type of argument was not new to me but was never compelling. For example, I had already by then encountered claims that one of the causes of the horrors faced by Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s was as a result of their integration into non-Muslim European society, an act which ostensibly meant relinquishing their Islamic identity and relaxing their commitment to Islamic ritual practice. Such claims were not offered in an accusatory way but rather in a pitiful tone emphasizing the suffering one’s own hands may inflict on the self as a direct result of non-compliance with a particular iteration of the divine project for Muslim life. By the mid 1990s, the large-scale havoc and pain of the HIV & AIDS epidemic had conclusively moved to poorer countries, with parts of Sub-Saharan Africa bearing the brunt of this new epidemic, demonstrating that even a supposedly divine bolt of chastisement very soon settles along lines that further marginalizes the vulnerable. Through the delineation of hermetically sealed spheres with an imagined fundamentally unchanging chaste Islamic society on the one side and a perverting and corrupting secular West on the other, Badri committed a fair share of “othering.” Furthermore, he failed to fully recognize the entangled, contextual and dynamic constructions of sexuality in all societies historically.

More curious for me was the second pillar of Badri’s argument which went along the following lines: the aetiology of HIV appeared at first as a non-pathogenic virus that during the period of Western modernity’s sexual revolution mutated through same-sex male anal sex. In other words, HIV is a mutation of a non-invasive virus that was born in the rectums of homosexual men who engaged in passive penile-anal penetration. It was these homosexual Western men that in turn spread the virus to other parts of the world, including via sexual tourism. Altogether, Badri suggested that HIV & AIDS were a divine chastisement specifically aimed at homosexual men who engage in anal sex which then unwittingly transmitted to other parts of the human population primarily through other forms of heterosexual promiscuous sex and intravenous drug use which were not initially identified as the target of this form of divinely mandated biological warfare, even if objectionable and sinful. Badri’s scientifically untenable and impoverished hypothesis pathologizes an entire sexual minority as both the effective cause and transmitter of HIV without any credible scientific evidence and tenuous religious arguments.

“Badri’s scientifically untenable and impoverished hypothesis pathologizes an entire sexual minority as both the effective cause and transmitter of HIV without any credible scientific evidence and tenuous religious arguments.”

To be clear, one can maintain the view that same-sex sexual conduct is illicit based on a particular religious worldview without drifting into the arena of indefensible conspiracy theories, the aim of which is to pathologize a sexual orientation or a category of sexual conduct or an entire sexual minority that was for the most part neither systematically pathologized nor systemically persecuted in any de facto manner in Islamic history. Badri describes favorably the position of “the guilt-laden gay Muslim patient” in “heterosexual, Islamically oriented society” as follows: “His ‘orientation’ is seen as scandalous by his family members, dishonorable by his colleagues, and hateful by the young generation of contemporary Islamic revivalists.”[4] For Badri, the resolution to the problem of same-sex sexual attraction – and by extension the problem of HIV & AIDS – is principally to treat the “learned sexual preference” and “disorder” of homosexuality by orientating the ill individual – who cannot be accepted by Muslim society – towards an Islamic life grounded in the five pillars of faith and cognitive therapy which will result in the ill individual turning heterosexual and developing a negative attitude towards same-sex sexuality.[5] The similarities between Badri’s disgust towards same-sex sexuality and recommendations, on the one hand, and conversion therapy as espoused by modern Western psychiatry until the 1970s as well as some Western Christian approaches to the “problem”, on the other, is interesting given that such an approach demonstrates a stronger genealogical connection to Western approaches rather than to premodern Islamicate societies in respect of the issue of sexual diversity. It is unfortunate that Badri’s work contributed to the attitude that queer people and people living with HIV, as well as those people living with the compounded stigma of being queer and HIV positive – especially in Muslim societies – are collateral damage that can be sacrificed at the altar of sanctimonious Islamic orthodoxies. As far as I am aware, Badri has never significantly modified or retracted these positions and his work on HIV & AIDS continues to circulate in Muslim societies to some extent and accordingly forms a part of his legacy.

“To be clear, one can maintain the view that same-sex sexual conduct is illicit based on a particular religious worldview without drifting into the arena of indefensible conspiracy theories…”

Despite this, Badri’s attempts at securing a role for the Islamic within the discipline of psychology cannot be ignored and his positive impact on many Muslims, including Malcolm X (d. 1965) whom he met and sustained a relationship with, is important to recognize. We are all limited by our worldviews, rarely for the better and often to our detriment, without a sustained self-reflexive mechanism built into our scholarship, our activism, our praxis, and our walking on this earth for “the servants of the Compassionate are those who walk humbly upon the earth” (Q. 25:63). May Dr. Malik Babiker Badri’s sincere and prodigious efforts be recognized in the court of the All-Knowing, his shortcomings forgiven by the Most Compassionate, and may he be welcomed into the mercy of the Most Merciful, an experience and destination that any believer would be relieved and joyous to encounter.



Nadeem Mahomed is an attorney and a postdoctoral fellow at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study, University of Johannesburg. He works on the intersection of Muslim minorities, law and ethics and is in the process of revising his doctoral dissertation on the history of the Ahmadis and heretical polemics in South Africa into a monograph.


[1] Badri, M. 1999. The AIDS Crisis: An Islamic Socio-Cultural Perspective. Durban: Islamic Medical Association of South Africa. Various editions have been published, including in translation.

[2] See Svensson, J. “Islam, HIV/AIDS and activism: a critical analysis of some themes in Positive Muslims’ ‘theology of compassion.’” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. Vol. 24, No. 1, January 2013, 91–109; Esack, F. 2007. “Muslims Responding to AIDS: Mapping Muslim Organizational and Religious Responses.” Observatory: Positive Muslims; and Esack, F., and S. Chiddy, eds. 2009. Islam and AIDS: Between Scorn, Pity and Justice, Oxford: Oneworld.

[3] Badri, M. 2009. “The AIDS Crisis: An Islamic Perspective.” In Islam and AIDS: Between Scorn, Pity and Justice, edited by F. Esack and S. Chiddy, 29–42. Oxford: Oneworld. For a coruscating critique of Badri’s arguments see the chapter in the same volume by Sindre Bangstad: Bangstad, S. 2009. “AIDS and the ‘Wrath of God’.” In Islam and AIDS: Between Scorn, Pity and Justice, edited by F. Esack and S. Chiddy, 43–58. Oxford: Oneworld.

[4] Badri, M. 2009. “The AIDS Crisis: An Islamic Perspective.” p. 34.

[5] Badri, M. 1999. The AIDS Crisis: An Islamic Socio-Cultural Perspective. p. 250-251.