Islamic Bioethics

April 25, 2012

By Raafay Syed


I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference on Islamic Bioethics at Yale University. I went in expecting to learn more information about how bioethical dilemmas might be responded to from an Islamic perspective. Surprisingly, I walked out with deep confusion regarding what “Islamic Bioethics” even means, let alone what the Islamic positions are on various topics.


The conference was organized into three panels composed of three or four presenters each. The panels were then followed by a round-table discussion in which Sherine Hamdy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown University, synthesized the major points of the presenters and subsequently critiqued them.


It was in this context that Hamdy first raised the question of what we mean when we talk about “Islamic bioethics,” a phrase that had been used so loosely throughout the conference but had not been adequately explored.


While she didn’t offer her own definition, she pointed out why it is important to think about the way in which we use the phrase. She noted that our discourse regarding Islamic bioethics should be situated in the socio-political contexts in which Muslims live alongside non-Muslims.


According to Hamdy, when we adopt such a standpoint, the following question is pressed upon us: By carving out a distinct domain for Islamic bioethics and focusing on legal, or textual, arguments from within the tradition, are we (Muslims) at risk of “otherizing” ourselves further, and excluding ourselves from participating in the broader bioethical discussions in secular public life?


Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina’s keynote speech also touched on very fundamental concerns. He started by making a key distinction between “Islamic ethics” and “Islamic law” claiming that the latter has only limited use in bioethics methodology while the former represents the way to move forward. He also emphasized the need to develop a more robust framework of Islamic theological ethics and incorporate this model into our moral education.


The fundamental concerns raised by Hamdy and Sachedina allowed many in the audience to appreciate the complexity and diversity involved in Islamic bioethics. At the same time, many members of the audience were frustrated at the fact that they were not able to receive clear and straightforward answers to questions such as, “What is the Islamic position on abortion?” Non-Muslim clinicians often have Muslim patients and want to know the answers to these questions to be able to deliver care with appropriate sensitivity to the needs of their patients.


This tension between the appreciation of complexity and uncertainty on the one hand and the need for concrete guidance on the other, was a key issue throughout the conference.


Based on my brief exposure to Islamic bioethics at this conference, I am left with the impression that the field is still in its infancy and is attempting to define its identity. As it develops and grows, the most important and formative questions are all up for grabs for any one willing to stick their neck out and make a contribution.


Raafay Syed is an undergraduate intern at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, and is majoring in Philosophy and Public Health Studies. He is primarily interested in virtue ethics, research ethics involving the cognitively impaired, and philosophical issues related to end-of-life care.




Islamic Bioethics 101

Islamic bioethics or better yet, Muslim perspectives on bioethics is an emerging field, far more in its infancy then, say, Christian or Jewish perspectives on bioethics.  By and large, early explorations into bioethical questions arguably originate in Jewish and Christian thought, whereas Islamic thought is only now beginning to contribute to the contemporary bioethics discourse though its engagement with medicine is centuries old.  I make the distinction between “Islamic bioethics” and “Muslim perspectives on bioethics” to highlight a serious issue of essentialism that often emerges when trying to discuss an entire religion as being timeless and ahistorical with clear, unchanging “opinions” and “laws.”  Muslims, on one hand, can be understood as those who ascribe to a certain definition or understanding of Islam.  Muslims, like members of all faiths, vary significantly in their opinions and philosophical positions, yet they share something that connects them all under the identity of “Muslim.”  Islam, on the other hand, in its most abstract form, is a concept that can be understood as a civilization, religion, culture, philosophy, etc.  Hence, there is no particular normative position that can be ascribed to Islam without first asking the more meta question, “what is Islam?”  Outside of this inquiry, many arguments attempting to provide the “Islamic position” fall into a fallacy of ambiguity, i.e., reification.  We must be very critical of arguments that begin with “Islam says” and that are made without any previous qualifier.  Islam is not a concrete thing that speaks or holds positions, rather, Muslims hold opinions and values that they ascribe as being “Islamic.”  Furthermore, Muslims are not homogeneous, so the way in which we study Muslim communities and populations needs to be very cognizant and acknowledging of the diversity.


For sake of brevity, I will continue using “Islamic bioethics” though I mean Muslim perspectives on bioethical issues.  Islamic bioethics scholarship is in need of two important developments.  First, a normative position needs to be established that serves a more deontological role.  Currently, traditional juridical scholars control the domain of prescribing what is or what is not permissible in the legal sense, relying heavily on the works of four primary scholars from the 7th and 8th century.  Much of the scholarship in Islamic bioethics, as it is seen among Shari’a or juridical councils, is devoid of any ethical inquiry and heavily reliant on legal interpretations of religious texts.(1)  If we begin to understand Islam as a type of deontology, we can start outlining specific principles and virtues that can be later referenced when examining ethical dilemmas.  Second, more descriptive ethics work is required to expand the understanding of the unique issues various Muslims face in healthcare or research settings.  Descriptive work can inform what Muslims believe about morality, how their beliefs change with time, how they behave in situations of moral distress, how well do they comply to existing moral norms or normative Islamic values, etc.  Descriptive work lends itself to informing our understanding of normative arguments, testing the empirical components of normative theory, and even helps demonstrate the implementation of a normative idea/standard. (2)


Islam, as a tradition over time is immensely rich with medical history/innovation, philosophical thought, legal theory, etc.  Secular bioethics as a field can expand meaningfully with the inclusion of Islamic thought, the same way it gained initially from the inclusion of Christian and Jewish thought.  But before this begins, those interested in Islamic bioethics must begin to set definitions, create frameworks, examine the history of Islamic medicine, and explore Muslim populations further.


– Abbas Rattani

1. Sachedina A. Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Principles and Application. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

2. Sulmasy DP, Sugarman J. The many methods of medical ethics (or, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird), in Methods in Medical Ethics, Ed. Jeremy Sugarman and Daniel P. Sulmasy.  Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010.

Abbas Rattani, MBe, is a research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. One of his interests is in Islamic perspectives of bioethics.

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