To most Westerners, a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, evokes the imposition of a death sentence on author Salman Rushdie and the wearing of head-to-toe coverings, or burkas, on women.
Yet fatwas can also be progressive and bring widespread change. Issued by respected Islamic scholars known as ulama, fatwas are guidelines for the ummah, the worldwide Muslim community, which numbers between 1.3 and 1.5 billion people, according to the CIA Factbook.
The draft text of several progressive fatwas were discussed last week by the ulama at the International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS, organised by the charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), in Johannesburg, South Africa.
One fatwa would approve the use of funds from the zakat (mandatory alms giving) for HIV-positive people, whether Muslims or non-Muslim, regardless of how they contracted the virus, as long as they are poor.
Another fatwa would approve the use of condoms by married discordant couples, where one is HIV-positive and the other is not, to avoid infection.
The findings are not final. As first-opinions, they will be discussed next year at regional and national consultations.
"These are two [potentially] revolutionary rulings here," said Dr Ashgar Ali Engineer, chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, in Mumbai, India.
The use of condoms has long been a divisive issue in the Islamic response to AIDS. Muslim teachings condemn sex before or outside marriage, and reject condoms for both safer sex and family planning.
Yet the views on condoms were not unanimous: "A condom is a necessity sometimes," said Bangladeshi sheik Abul kalam Azad. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend. HIV is an enemy. The condom is the enemy of HIV. If we can save lives with a condom, let discordant couples use it."
Impact on the ground
For charities like IRW, if these opinions become rulings, "we can formulate programmes based on this advice", said Makki Abdelnabi Mohamed Hamid, a Sudanese agriculturalist and head of the Africa region at IRW.
On the ground, the fatwas might smooth operations. "If we are working, say, in Somalia, we can show these fatwas and not be obstructed by local religious leaders," added Hamid.
Zakat, mandated at two percent of an individual's accumulated wealth above a certain threshold, mobilises large amounts of money that could go towards HIV and AIDS work. "People and institutions may now feel comfortable giving money for HIV and AIDS," said Hamid.
So far, the Muslim response to the pandemic has been dogged by "the prejudiced association of the disease with moral depravity", said Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, because the virus is transmitted, among other ways, through illicit sex and injecting drug use, which reinforced its link to sinful behaviour.
Muslims accord great importance to the Islamic holy book, the Qu´ran, and its explanatory notes, the hadith. "AIDS and condoms did not exist at that time. We are faced with new challenges and we need new fatwas to deal with new issues," said Hamid.
The unworldliness of many scholars compounds the problem. "Some religious leaders are not exposed to the real world. We, humanitarian workers, we listen to people's stories," Hamid added.
Being informed about HIV and AIDS also helps. "A human being is an enemy of what he does not know. We need scholars to understand all aspects of HIV and AIDS and try to find suitable rulings," said Lina Al-Homri, a doctor of Sharia (Muslim religious law) in the Faculty of Dawa (Muslim missionary work) in Damascus, Syria, and one of two woman scholars who helped draft the fatwas.
Dr Ikram Bux, a South African physician and HIV/AIDS specialist working in the east-coast city of Durban, shared his view. "On HIV-related fatwas, the ulama should have advisers who are experts on the epidemic," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
Linking science and religion was the keystone of Senegal's response to AIDS, praised as a model by UNAIDS. As early as 1987, when African governments, with the exception of Uganda, were silent about the disease, Senegalese scientists, epidemiologists and health authorities - all Muslim - met with the traditional Islamic leadership to explain the new disease from a scientific, not moral, perspective.
As a result, imams across the West African nation of 12 million were mobilised to send clear messages on prevention and transmission 20 years ago. Today, many Muslim countries and communities have well-established and creative programmes to deal with the pandemic, ranging from assistance for intravenous drug users in Iran and Indonesia to family planning in Afghanistan and street children in Zambia.
Calle Almedal, a senior consultant to UNAIDS and a specialist on community responses to AIDS, was impressed by the variety and quality of work presented at the consultation.
"Muslim NGOs [non-governmental organisations] have low visibility yet they are doing extraordinary work. Like Christian groups 20 years ago, they are too busy working to attend international conferences and brag about it," he told IRIN/PlusNews.