A Sunnah-Minded Approach to Medicine for the Practitioner
By Dr. Mateen A. Khan (Trenton, NJ)
Like everything in Islam, the philosophy of practice for a Muslim health practitioner starts with the kalimah. Bear with me on this. The first half of the kalimah explains the reason for our being here. There is no deity other than Allah. As such, there is no creator or sustainer other than Him. We and everyone else exist simply because He willed us to exist. This is not a matter of debate or choice. Rather, it is a reality. The sooner you accept this reality, the sooner you can move forward in life. How should you live so that you’re maximizing your life’s potential? The second half of the kalimah answers this question. Muhammad ﷺ is Allah’s messenger. The way to maximize your life’s potential is to follow the prophetic path as laid out in revelation. When examining the main themes and purposes of revelation, we find one of life’s obligations is the protection and preservation of life itself. The Qur’an states:
وَلَا تُلْقُوا بِأَيْدِيكُمْ إِلَى التَّهْلُكَةِ ۛ وَأَحْسِنُوا ۛ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ Do not throw yourselves into destruction and do good. Indeed, Allah loves those who do good.
Life is precious and calls for good actions as a means of Allah’s love. After examining the primary sources of Islam—the Qur’an, Sunnah, and scholarly consensus, Islamic scholars determined five things to be the purpose of religion (maqāsid al-sharī`ah). From the five maqāsid al-sharī`ah, we find three of them to be directly related to health and of great importance to the health practitioner: preservation of life, mind and mental health, and offspring.1
In numerous narrations, the Prophet ﷺ placed great importance on health.
أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم كَانَ يُكْثِرُ أَنْ يَدْعُوَ: اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَسْأَلُكَ الصِّحَّةَ، وَالْعِفَّةَ، وَالأَمَانَةَ، وَحُسْنَ الْخُلُقِ، وَالرِّضَا بِالْقَدَرِ The Messenger of Allah ﷺ used to supplicate, “Oh Allah, I ask You for health, restraint, trustworthiness, good character, and contentment with the decree.” Al-Adab al-Mufrad
لاَ بَأْسَ بِالْغِنَى لِمَنِ اتَّقَى وَالصِّحَّةُ لِمَنِ اتَّقَى خَيْرٌ مِنَ الْغِنَى وَطِيبُ النَّفْسِ مِنَ النِّعَمِ “There is nothing wrong with being rich for one who has piety, but good health for one who has piety is better than riches, and being of good cheer is a blessing.” Ibn Mājah
The Sunnah is a reflection and exposition of the Qur’an. As such, it is no surprise to find the Qur’anic command of encouraging the good and prohibiting the evil reflected in the prophetic guidance of preservation of health and prevention of sickness. This applies both to the individual as well as the public.
At the individual level, the prophetic path entails personal hygiene in the form of bathing, cleanliness after using the bathroom, brushing the teeth and tongue, trimming and removing certain hair, trimming the nails, keeping your clothing and personal spaces clean, etc. Any Muslim will immediately realize that there is an overlap between our physical health and worship. All the aforementioned practices, if done with the intent of obeying and emulating the Prophet ﷺ, are credited as acts of divine obedience and worship entailing divine pleasure and reward. Not mentioned above are the obligatory rituals of washing—wuḍu and ghusl—that fall directly into the realm of worship as precursors to prayer and Qur’an recitation. Similarly, preservation and promotion of mental health is found in apparent ritual actions like Allah’s remembrance (al-zikr), Qur’an recitation, and in the prayer (al-ṣalāḥ).2 Although, their primary benefit is spiritual, their health benefits are obvious.
At the public level, the path calls for removal of filth from spaces, prohibition of urinating in areas frequented by people or used by them like water sources, cautious separation of animal vectors from humans, encouraging physical activities like swimming, archery, and horse riding, and making places and times for relaxation. Communicable diseases in the form of outbreaks are regulated using quarantines.3 Although also beneficial on the individual level, prohibition of intoxicants and harmful substances has clear public health benefits in creating a productive, stable, and viable community. Truly, the Muhammadan path is not a path of pointless rituals benefiting neither the Creator nor the creation.
It’s very important that we realize the point of these practices was not primarily to bring a life of ease in the world. The Prophet’s ﷺ purpose was not to be a master health practitioner nor a public health policy-maker way ahead of his time. Rather, these practices bring spiritual benefits that are less visible to the naked eye and untrained mind. His ﷺ purpose was to show us a path that connects us back to our Creator and allows us to comprehensively see the world with ourselves included—the physical and the meta-physical, the seen and the unseen, the rational and the spiritual.
Let’s continue further with the relationship of treatment and worship as it pertains to us. A man asked the Prophet ﷺ, “Should we not seek treatment?” In answer, he ﷺ turned towards the group before him and called on them as worshipers and servants of Allah by saying:
“O worshipers and servants of Allah (Yā `Ibād Allah)! Seek treatment because Allah has not placed a single ailment without also placing a cure…”4
This command is not obligatory in all situations. Nonetheless, it is a call upon us as worshipers to deal with our illnesses, anxieties, and health problems with a particular mindset. Seek treatment from Allah as a means of closeness to Him rather than just another biological hurdle in life to overcome. It is also an indication to health practitioners to specialize in their respective fields to best help these worshipers. As mentioned above, one of the purposes of the Sharī`ah is preservation of health entailing that when one becomes ill, he or she should seek out a cure. Imam al-Dhahabī wrote, “Medical treatment is Sunnah because the Prophet ﷺ did it and ordered that it be done.”5 I would take this one step further and add that treating an ailment as a trained practitioner is itself a Sunnah as he ﷺ treated people and prescribed medications himself.6 Including an intention to obey and emulate the Prophet ﷺ in this respect can be a source of divine pleasure and reward. The Prophet’s ﷺ command, “Give help to the troubled,”7 and the Qur’anic injunction, “If you help [the deen and people of Allah], He will help you”8 should always echo in our minds.
When we understand this about Islam, we will cease to be surprised by its teachings. Did we expect something less from Allah and His messenger ﷺ? Instead, we will be surprised at how we have practiced for so long without our practice advancing our progress on the prophetic path. Muslim health practitioners will need to be at the forefront of advocating and participating in personal and public health. Not only because they are purveyors of up-to-date, evidence-based health practices, but primarily because they strive to incorporate a philosophy that draws from the unseen (al-ghayb), benefits us spiritually by emulating the Prophet ﷺ, and brings us closer to Allah.
1 In order of importance, the five are preservation of religion, life, mind, offspring, and property.
2 Although with weakness in transmission, it has been reported that in the ṣalāḥ, there is a cure. Ibn Mājah 3458
3 The Prophet ﷺ said, “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.” Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5728
4 Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2038
5 Al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī li al-Dhahabī
6 Jābir said, “The Prophet ﷺ cauterized Sa`d ibn Mu`ādh from the wound of an arrow.” Abū Dāwūd 3866
7 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1445, Sunan Abū Dāwūd 4817, and others
8 Surah Muḥammad 7