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The Need for Islamic Ethics in Medicine

Mateen A. Khan, MD (Trenton, NJ)

As new diseases and treatment modalities arise, health professionals and patients increasingly find themselves facing dilemmas – ranging from birth defects to end-of-life care – that are as much scientific as they are moral. Medicine, as a field, requires a strong ethical directive. However, personal experience and historical references testify to the fact that human intellect alone is often incapable of reaching objective ethical standards or does so in a contradictory manner. More than just outlining the permissible (halāl) and the impermissible (harām), Islam provides the Believer with a worldview and wide-ranging guidance – a guidance not only in our personal lives, but in our professional lives. Not only in our health, but also in our sickness. Similarly, we have come to appreciate in modern Medicine that a holistic approach to patient-care is imperative. We are so much more than biology. With an ethics-based approach, the Muslim health professional can tread a path of greater clarity and purpose.

In Medicine, there is a higher purpose for the student of ethics. Health professionals are honored as agents of Allah as they seek outpatient ease and treatment. The Prophet ﷺ was once asked if there was benefit in Medicine. He replied, “The One who allowed the disease [also] sent the cure.” The cure is from Allah, but its means is the practitioner. Implicitly, in these words, and explicitly in prophetic actions, patients are directed to seek out medical expertise with some Shari`ah rulings predicated on the opinion of a capable medical expert. Their responsibility is to seek out expertise, our responsibility is to serve as the conduit to divine mercy. If we align our intentions properly, we are honored by Allah in this world and benefit ourselves greatly in the Hereafter. The Prophet ﷺ also said, “He who alleviates the suffering of a brother out of the sufferings of the world, Allah would alleviate his suffering from the sufferings of the Day of Resurrection.” This is evidenced in the statements of scholarly greats such as Imam al-Shāfi`ī, who said, “I do not know of any science more noble after the sciences of the permissible and the impermissible than Medicine,” and the great number of Islamic scholar-physicians such as Shaykh Rashīd Ahmad Gangohī. Since then, the two fields have diverged due to the tremendous knowledge required, but both experts of Islamic and medical sciences retain a need to learn Islamic medical ethics.

As health professionals, knowing and understanding Islamic medical ethics fulfills a personal need. It removes the burden, guilt, and anxiety that often accompanies moral decisions dealing with life and death issues. Studies suggest that by practicing Medicine with a clear moral compass “physicians, other healthcare professionals, and healthcare organizations also potentially benefit, but not only because of the satisfaction of conducting themselves in a professionally ethical manner. These groups will benefit by reducing burnout and its personal and professional consequences if attention to health care ethics and values reduces the realities or the perceptions of “incongruence” in these areas between healthcare professionals and the healthcare organizations with which they are associated.”[1]

However, beyond personal contentment, the Muslim health practitioner must also keep the broader good in mind. Indeed, the AMA code of medical ethics concurs, “As a member of this profession, a physician must recognize responsibility to patients first and foremost, as well as to society, to other health professionals, and to self.” An Islamic ethics-based approach to Medicine promises best outcomes spiritually and physically for the individual practitioner, his or her patients, and the community at large. Often, the layperson finds themselves at the mercy of a medical system that is constantly changing, ambiguous or contrary to Islamic morality. Decisions on seemingly impermissible medications to surrogacy can be a great source of anxiety and stress. Increasingly, the Muslim layperson when confronted with such ambiguity or unease in the modern ethical system is looking to their religion for guidance. The characteristic of the All-Wise (Al-Hakīm) means that He has directed us towards our own benefit. Often, the patient will first look to health practitioners for an ethical answer based in religion, and so, it is imperative that we be familiar with the topic. The burden falls upon us to provide initial direction and in complex situations, coordinate a team-approach involving medical and Islamic legal experts.

Every Muslim practitioner should consider it incumbent to learn a certain degree of Islamic medical ethics. Indeed, behind every creation lies the mark of the Creator. He has not left us without guidance. One must only seek it out. Doing so provides ethical direction and beneficial purpose for the health practitioner, patient, and community at-large.

O Allah! The Lord of the people, the Remover of trouble! Heal, for You are the Healer. None brings about healing but You; a healing that will leave behind no ailment.[2]

[1] Mayo Clin Proc. 2011 May; 86(5): 421–424.

[2] Sahih al-Bukhari 5742



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