The question touches on two matters. One has to do with what AIDS is; the other has to do with how Muslims as Muslims make sense of it and of similar phenomena. Let us take the first matter first.
What is AIDS?
AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is a viral infection which destroys the body's defenses against disease. Because its effects are dramatic and nearly always fatal, it has been called the plague of modern times. It also spreads very quickly—the number of people infected is reckoned to be doubling every ten months. Moreover, there is, as yet, no reported cure.
AIDS was first diagnosed in 1981. Once initial investigations into it—how the infection is transmitted, how it develops and progresses, and the difficulty of containing, let alone curing, it—became widely known, the popular reaction was panic.
No such infection had been reported before the eighties. How did it originate? Among other conspiracy theories, one was that the virus had "escaped" from improperly controlled experiments in the United States for biological or chemical warfare purposes. There is no proof for this allegation. Nor is there any proof for the other popular theory that the disease originated among a particular species of monkey in Africa, "jumped" into a human being, and was then carried, through sexual contact, to an American visiting Africa who then took it back with him to the United States whence it spread further. The reality is that nobody knows how HIV originated.
There is certain knowledge, however, of how the disease is transmitted. It is transmitted by direct exchange of bodily fluids; in the United States and Canada HIV is most commonly transmitted during sex between homosexual men and by sharing needles while using illicit drugs. Transfusion of infected blood can also cause the disease, and it can be passed on by infected pregnant women to their babies.
It is also known with certainty that some people may be HIV carriers, able to transmit the disease to others without suffering the effects of it themselves. This adds further to the mystery and terror surrounding HIV.
HIV may be epidemic in some parts of the world but, all praise and thanks to God, the least infected peoples are Muslims, whether in Muslim countries or others. The noble values and morality of the Islamic way of life have protected Muslims against such a disaster, even though they have suffered a long and intensive campaign to renounce that way of life. HIV is a visible feature of the impurities that flow under (or along with) so much of the mainstream of the "modern lifestyle"; but, for reasons that need not been gone into here, I think it better to avoid dwelling on theuseless, on what is vain or absurd or immoral. To be frank, even talking around an issue like HIV causes me considerable unease and embarrassment. I therefore touch upon the subject only so far as it can be approached in a way that benefits the understanding and well-being of right-minded people.
Now, as to the second matter. How should Muslims as Muslims make sense of HIV?
How to respond to phenomena like HIV
It is, unfortunately, true that some people have put forward the view that HIV is the referent of the Qur'anic phrase dabbat al-ard which means, literally, "beast of the earth," whose appearance will indicate the nearness of the Last Day. We shall look closely at the content of this view, but there is a general point here which also needs to be discussed.
To read dabbat al-ard as referring to HIV is a particular example of a more general failure to be sufficiently careful in relying upon modern referents for terms used in the Qur'an and hadith. A specific example is the hasty interpretation by some people—intending no doubt to affirm the "scientific validity" of hadith—of the Prophet's warning: "Flee from leprosy just as you would from a lion." These people thought the metaphor of lion very telling because the microbe associated with leprosy seemed to look like a lion. Closer microscopic inspection proved this likeness to be incorrect. Now if any Muslim had believed that what the Prophet said had anything whatever to do with the form of the leprosy microbe, would that Muslim's belief not be vulnerable to the argument that a statement attributed to the Prophet had been established as false.
To make claims of the sort just illustrated can be harmful. To do so without knowledge and understanding of the essential truth of the matter in question is surely wrong. Besides, none of the findings of scientific research are ever absolute. Neither the procedures of research, nor the processes of reasoning about the results of research, are free from error. Indeed, the most widely accepted position among scientists themselves is that the best to be hoped for from science is the gradual elimination, one by one, of past and present errors. Extreme positivist or rationalist doctrines are now generally rejected. It seems most improper, therefore, to seek to understand or explain the Qur'an or hadith on the basis of what is, at best, uncertain and hypothetical, and quite possibly false. The great volume of articles and books produced in this vein in recent times will be open to ridicule in the future. To be sure, there is a reward for sincerity and good intention; but what if sincerity and good intention result in weakening faith and practice instead of strengthening them? What if they lead to Muslims being embarrassed and mocked on account of the naiveté of the arguments put forward on behalf of Islam? It is our view that people who have approached the subject of HIV in this way have erred.
It is surely wiser, worthier in intention and result, to tackle such subjects from a broad, traditionally Islamic perspective. Arguments that do so, however "old" remain fresh, light and appealing. The scope and manner of their explanations maintain a link with the general truths of Islam. Precisely for that reason, they are able to embrace the realities specific to particular circumstances and are therefore always relevant and enlightening. By contrast, arguments that bow to the agenda of modern circumstances are (when they are not wrong to start with) soon out of date.
The traditional teaching begins from the belief that God is, and Muhammad is His Messenger. It proceeds to explain how particular events or entities in the universe, from the smallest to the largest, affirm that belief. That is wholly different from the approach that begins with the assertion of the so-called truths of science, and then hopes, on the basis of such weak, insecure foundations, to build understanding and knowledge of the Creator and the teaching of His Messenger.
I do not doubt that the Muslims who try to reconcile current knowledge and current events with the Qur'an and hadith are well-intentioned. In doing this, they mean to affirm the statements of the Qur'an and hadith. As against certain attitudes provoked by over-confidence in the natural sciences, in positivism and rationalism, they aim to demonstrate that Qur'an and hadith do not contradict but concur with the results of experimentally verified scientific inquiry. They hope to communicate something about Islam to those scholars, thinkers and their students, whose world-view is too narrowly circumscribed by the norms and procedures of scientific investigation. For the reasons explained above, their efforts are sure to receive some criticism in the future. However, to say that their approach is totally or only harmful would be an ill-considered and hasty judgment. The wisdom of Qur'an and hadith do not need any external support—their authority, soundness, and rightness appeal directly and naturally to human intuition and conscience. That said, we should not over-criticize sincere efforts to present additional, external evidence that tries to get rid of the dust that prevents our poor minds from grasping the correspondences or compatibilities between the absolute truths of Islam and the insecure "truths" of science; but what we must, and do, reject is that the truth of Qur'an and hadith should be made to depend upon verification and confirmation by scientific data which are, as explained above, incomplete, disconnected from the meaning and purpose of life as a whole, and vulnerable to change as the borders of human ignorance change.
Let me now turn to the matter of HIV in relation to dabbat al-ard.
The phrase occurs both in the Qur'an and hadith. Dabba connotes any entity that creeps, crawls or moves upon the earth on its legs. God describes in the Qur'an all species of animate (moving) creatures of the earth as dabba:
God has created every being (creature) from water: of them there are some that creep on their bellies; some that walk on two legs; and some that walk on four. God creates what He wills. For God has power over all things. (Nur 24:45)
From its use in its context, we see that dabba could refer to any of the creatures known to humankind, from micro-organisms to dinosaurs. Yet, there are some that are not known to us, and still others that God will create in the future, as He wills. The HIV virus which leads to AIDS may be among those micro-organisms which have recently become known.
The term is used again, in other Qur'anic verses, when God affirms that He provides sustenance for each of the creatures of the earth. For example:
There is no moving creature on earth but its sustenance depends on God . . . . (Hud 11:6)
How many are the creatures that carry not their own sustenance. It is God who feeds both them and you . . . (Ankabut 29:60)
But the dabba mentioned in the question occurs in this verse in the chapter Naml:
And when the word is fulfilled against them (the unjust), We shall produce from the earth a dabba (beast) to face them. It will speak to them, because humankind did not believe with assurance in our signs. (Naml 27:82)
The "when" to which the verse alludes is that time when the task for which all creatures were created, namely to display the Names and Attributes of God, is concluded, and the earth is no longer needed to serve as an arena of exhibition. Such an exhibition was held because God wills Himself to be known and affirmed. When God is not known and humanity turns away from His signs and rejects the Truth, when the believers, gradually decreasing in number, are finally no more, and the corrupted world is no longer needed, God will decree both human beings and the world to be destroyed. In order to fulfill this decree, God will produce a dabba, which speaks, from the earth. Whether it speaks by voice or gesture or by some other means, it will tell that there will no longer be sincere believers in the signs of God from then on. That is, the appearance of dabba will signify that the quality of belief and of believers will no longer improve, but rather decay and weaken and eventually become extinct. Moreover, the fact that the verses alluding to Resurrection come just after the verse just quoted indicates that dabbat al-ard is among the most important and last of the signs of the end of the world.
Dabbat al-ard is one, probably the last, of the ten signs of the Last Day. Study of the verse in its context, makes it clear that all Islamic life, movements and values, will come to an end, new believers will not succeed those before them, and those who believe in God will lack conviction and certainty (yaqin). One explanation is that science and philosophy will have progressed so far, such enthralling technological inventions and discoveries will have been made—human beings, keen on "creating" something, will have attempted to manufacture human beings; they will have produced robots and tried to deliver the administration of affairs to them—that the world will be filled with individuals claiming (and believing) that "I created this or that." And people who make such a claim can never attain certainty (yaqin) in their faith and knowledge of God. That is a part of what could be inferred from the full context of the verse.
Dabbat al-ard occurs in the hadiths of the Prophet with the same general meaning as in the Qur'an. The hadithspoint out the things dabba will do, such as: "Dabba will emerge, travel all over the earth and be seen everywhere . . ."
Now as to whether dabbat al-ard has anything to do with HIV:
Can HIV be associated in any way with dabbat al-ard?
Firstly, while it may be correct to say that HIV is one aspect or one part of the whole reality of dabbat al-ard, it is not correct to say that it isdabbat al-ard. For, if HIV is made the only referent of the phrase, the relevance of the verse is thereby restricted and would not survive the problem of HIV. Many diseases have visited humankind in the past, devastated many lives, and later been cured or forgotten. Abu Dawud narrates a hadith from Umm Salama: "God did not create an illness but He provided its cure." In other hadiths, we learn that only death and growing old are incurable. That means that there must be a cure for AIDS, as it were, waiting to be discovered.
Secondly: while there are indeed many cases of AIDS in some countries, the epidemic is nowhere near of the dimensions reached by (for example) tuberculosis in the past; nor, in the present, does it affect as many people as does cancer. These illnesses might also be referred to as dabbat al-ard. In fact, in view of the numbers of their victims, it might be more appropriate to do so. However, we should qualify any such statement by adding explicitly that tuberculosis or cancer, likewise, could only be aspects of the whole reality of dabbat al-ard. Tuberculosis and the plague were defeated by the medication and treatment granted by God to humankind, and (almost) erased from the book of dabbat al-ard. Some cancers in early stages of growth can now be successfully treated. May the treatment of HIV also be soon found. The plague used to be a nightmare for people in the past. In Amwas, it killed 30,000 people from among the Companions. We rarely hear of such large death-tolls now, except for a very few incidents in remote parts of the world. That plague, because it caused such widespread and fatal epidemics, might well have been calleddabbat al-ard. But it was not. Similarly, at the present time, cancer is a great killer all over the world. But, by God, improved treatments and a cure will be found. Now, in terms of the death-toll arising from it, cancer is a likelier candidate for the description of dabbat al-ard than HIV. But when cures are found for either or both, do not those who insist upon a narrow interpretation of either as dabbat al-ard, risk leading people toward a weakening of their trust in the Qur'an and hadith?
The phenomenon of HIV may well be one aspect of the whole reality of dabbat al-ard or carry out one part of the work that dabbat al-ard is to do in the future. Similarly, cancer may be the same sort of thing and undertake a small part of the work of dabbat al-ard. On the other hand, dabbat al-ard itself, which is a great sign and means of declaring to human beings that true faith is wearing away, something that, as we indicated earlier, may follow from the abuse of science and technology, is a unique entity, very different from its constituent aspects. It will be a phenomenon far removed from the familiar and, on account of its sheer oddity, its being alien (gharaba), difficult to grasp.
As we noted above, the emergence of dabbat al-ard will mark the end of all Islamic values. However, as stated in the eighth verse of the chapter Saf in the Qur'an: God will most certainly complete His Light (His favor of Islam). Now, if dabbat al-ard were indeed to appear on the earth, it would be a fatal blow to our hopes, because its appearance signals the end of certain belief (yaqin) and knowledge of God. There will be an end of it and decline from then on. But, as we know that there will be an Islamic revival and awakening, that once again Islam will gain its due position in the balance of the world, and that the Muslims world-wide will seek and find the guidance of their Prophet Muhammad let us have done with talking about dabbat al-ard! We are not expecting it now. It will appear very near the Judgment Day, which is a time of terror for unbelievers. To hold a contrary view is in opposition to belief and a blow to our hopes.
If speculation may be permitted on such a matter, there are many entities, real or potential, which could be candidates for the role of dabbat al-ard. Mechanized imitations of human beings or advanced robots—something that, for the present, mainly preoccupies science fiction writers—to which people have consigned rule over their affairs are a possibility. Now the Qur'an indicates that there are entities yet to come into existence whose nature is known only to God and is not knowable by human beings. That is, these entities will be wholly alien to how human beings think or feel: lacking any notion of compassion, the robots—should they turn hostile—will not heed human excuses, pleas, tears—nothing will move them.
Such a possibility gives considerable cause for alarm, even to the very scholars and scientists managing and developing the technology to produce such machines—so much so, that they envisage the possibility that after these advanced robots have been programmed and launched into space, they may defy their instructions (malfunction) and start to fight and devastate everything. If such machines can really exist, they might well be considered a serious candidate to be dabbat al-ard.
However, these are no more than speculative musings. We too should be cautious and prudent. Self-operated, self-maintained and motivated advanced machines, or concocted viruses, inexplicable epidemics, minuscule, abhorrent creatures yet to appear, unknown factors in diseases resulting from use of so-called weapons of mass destruction—any of these might represent dabbat al-ard, which speaks the death of, first, the human spirit and, then, of the body.
It seems to me that approaching the subject of dabbat al-ard in this way may, firstly, preserve respect for the relevanthadiths and verses of the Qur'an, and secondly, not improperly restrict their meaning.To summarize: I certainly hold that those who relate phenomena like HIV to Islamic sources without sufficient reflection and caution are nevertheless quite sincere in their intentions. But sincerity is only one aspect of dealing responsibly with such multifaceted questions; interpreting them in the way they do is wrong and misleading. Personal sincerity is one thing; being respectful and loyal to the essential truths of hadith and Qur'an is quite another.
 Bukhari, Tib, 19; Musnad, 2/443.
 Muslim, Iman, 249, Fitan, 118; Tirmidhi, Tafsir, 6; Musnad, 2/201, 491.
 Bukhari, Tib, 1; Ibn Maja, Tib, 1.
 Abu Dawud, Tib 1; Tirmidhi, Tib, 2, 5; Ibn Maja, Tib 1; Muslim, Salam, 88-89; Ibn Maja, Tib, 6.
 See Ibn 'Abd al-Barr, Isti'ab, 4/1711; Ibn Kathir, Bidaya wa al-Nihaya, 7/90-91; Ibn Athir, Kamil fi al-Tarikh, 2/560.