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Religion Compass 8/11 (2014): 337–346, 10.1111/rec3.


Bioethics in Islamic Thought

Ayman Shabana*
Georgetown University

This article gives an overview of Islamic ethical thought and its relationship to bioethical issues. It argues
that Islamic bioethics can be viewed both as a cumulative tradition building on the Islamic ethical
resources and as an ongoing discourse that captures the effort to understand and implement Islamic moral
precepts pertaining to a wide range of issues including the beginning and end of human life, treatment of
the human body, and proper attitudes towards the environment. After a brief introduction on the term
‘bioethics’ and its history, the article is divided into three main sections exploring the foundations of
Islamic (bio)ethics, the evolution and development of medical ethics in the Islamic tradition, and the main
challenges confronting contemporary Islamic bioethical discourses.

The term ‘bioethics’ has a relatively short history that started in the 20th century. While the ex-
act origins of the term are unknown, most researchers indicate that it emerged in the late 1960s
but was formally coined in the early 1970s by Van Renssellaer Potter (1911–2001), who was a
professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin’s McArdle Laboratory for Cancer
Research for more than 50 years.1 He developed a conceptualization of bioethics as a comprehen-
sive science combining ethical values and biological knowledge first in an article highlighting this
vision (Potter 1970) and one year later in a book bearing the term ‘bioethics’ in its title (Potter
1971). Potter argued that the undisciplined progression of scientific research can ultimately put
human existence at risk. Ethics, therefore, is essential for informing and guiding scientific
endeavors to ensure human survival and environmental sustainability. Apart from this broad
conceptualization of bioethics, other views equate and almost limit bioethics to medical ethics
and biomedical research.2 Although the narrower medical connotations of bioethics dominated
the field almost from its beginning, the broader definition of bioethics encompassing
environmental issues has recently gained wider currency as is evident from the common
invocation of the term ‘global bioethics’, which was introduced by Potter to highlight the need
to address bioethical problems at the wider international level (Ten Have 2012). In general, the
term ‘bioethics’ is used at least in three different ways. First, it is used to denote medical ethics
as the discipline examining ethical issues related to health care and medical research. Second, it is
used to highlight the ethical issues related to the interface between the life sciences and
biomedical technology. Finally, in its broadest sense, it refers to the biological aspects of
environmental ethics, which would include animal research ethics and vegetarianism (Walker 2006).

Foundations of Islamic (Bio)ethics

If ethics is defined as a theory of moral right and wrong (Rahman 1985, 13), in Islam, the
foundations of such a theory will have to be Islam’s foundational sources: the and the
Sunnah of Prophet . These sources are replete with moral injunctions covering
the various aspects of human life at the individual and collective levels. For example, at the
individual level, Islam emphasizes the importance of God-consciousness and accountability
for one’s actions. Similarly, at the collective level, it emphasizes the importance of creating an

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338 Ayman Shabana

ethical socio-political order. The social ethic of the Muslim community is crystallized in the
collective moral duty of commanding the good and forbidding the evil. The comprehensive
and far-reaching import of these injunctions explains the common designation of Islam as a
complete way of life.3 The describes itself as being a source of guidance (hudá) to moral
excellence (2:2, 17:9). The also indicates that the ultimate goal of the Prophet’s mission
is to fulfill and actualize the value of mercy among mankind (21:107). Elsewhere, it sums up the
purpose for divine revelation and prophecy to be the establishment and realization of justice
(57:25). The normative example of the Prophet as the practical model for Muslims in
approximating the Divine intent in the text serves as the living interpretation of the
ethic. The Prophetic Sunnah capturing his statements, actions, and overall behavior
explains and complements the and serves as Islam’s second most important source.
The corpus of the Prophetic Sunnah provides a detailed map of the Islamic moral life. In a report
describing the purpose of his career, the Prophet noted that he was sent to perfect the code of
good morals (Bukhārī 2000, 100).
In the course of its historical development, the Islamic normative tradition encompassed sev-
eral branches that derive from and appeal to these foundational sources, which include theology,
law, philosophy, and mysticism. Each of these branches developed a unique perspective into the
meaning and structure of Islamic ethics. Muslim theologians were primarily concerned with
defending and justifying the Islamic belief system especially within the context of Islam’s early
development and expansion. Through cultural and intellectual encounter with other religious
and philosophical systems, Islamic creed had to be defended on purely rational grounds. Divine
justice had to be explained and reconciled with human accountability and responsibility for
one’s actions. Two main attitudes were developed during the formative period of Islamic
theology of the third/ninth century. The rationalist attitude, spearheaded by the
school, gave primacy to human reason and its ability to reach an objective understanding of
moral values. On the other hand, the traditionalist attitude, predominant in the Sunni tradition,
gave primacy to divine revelation and emphasized the limits of human rationality. According to this
attitude, the main purpose of rational theology is to establish the existence of the
omnipotent and omniscient God and the veracity of His revelation, which in turn should
define and inform moral values.
Apart from this theological tradition and perhaps parallel to it, Muslim philosophers
developed a rich and vibrant tradition consisting mainly of translations of and commentaries
on classical philosophical thought, especially Greek philosophy. Following the example of the
prominent philosophers of antiquity, Muslim philosophers appealed to human reason to achieve
theoretical knowledge of ethics through rational means. For example, in his book on the
refinement of character, Ibn Miskawayh (d. 421/1030) adopted the cardinal scheme consisting
of the four main virtues: wisdom, restraint, courage, and justice (Ibn Miskawayh 2006, 18–19).
In general, the primary concern of Muslim philosophers was the reconciliation of rational and
religious thought, which are seen as complementing rather than contradicting each other.
The process of integrating and reconciling the classical literary and philosophical thought of
pre-Islamic civilizations (e.g. Greek, Indian, and Persian) with Islamic moral imperatives can
be explored in the diverse genre that came to be known as adab. Literally it means ‘proper
conduct’, ‘good manners’, or ‘appropriate etiquette’, but it was also used to refer to ethics.
The term has also been used to refer to works elucidating the proper manners of functionaries
such as judges, government officials, or different types of professionals such as physicians
(Nanji 1991, 111–5; Rahman 1998, 91).
The mystical or Sufi dimension of Islam seeks to achieve an inner awareness of the religious
spirit. Within this tradition, commitment to moral virtues is one of the important means to
establish an intimate relationship with God. Through rigorous internal and external training,

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Bioethics in Islamic Thought 339

the seeker aspires to achieve higher levels of self-awareness and proximity to the beloved God.
Moral disciplining consists of two main stages involving renunciation of moral vices, which is to
be coupled with or followed by development and inculcation of moral virtues. The
development of a mystical perspective inf luences one’s moral attitude and outlook towards life in
general, which in turn informs one’s view of health and illness. This is true for both the physician
and the patient, who, through the lens of Sufism, see illness not so much as a form of disability
or malfunction but rather as an opportunity for spiritual edification through patience and positive
reaction to the will of the beloved One. This attitude finds support in numerous references in
the foundational sources pertaining to the religious meaning of sickness and the believer’s proper
attitude towards medicine and medication. More particularly, it is rooted in the understanding of
the meaning of true reliance on God (tawakkul) and whether it conf licts with pursuing direct causes
(Al-Dhahabī 1961, 103–4). This was in fact one of the reasons why the validity and viability of
medicine were occasionally questioned. Franz Rosenthal lists three main types of criticism that were
used against medicine. The first was a religious theological criticism asserting the futility of medicine
in the face of Divine destiny. According to this argument, pursuit of medical treatment could
diminish or perhaps clash with one’s faith in God. The second criticism questioned the viability
of medicine and its superiority over the mere adoption of specific rules of conduct such as a
regulated diet. The third criticism emphasized the difficulty of attaining medical proficiency and
the overall imperfection of medicine, which is manifested in uncertainty of results, inability to treat
many diseases, or impossibility of warding off death (Rosenthal 1969, 522–3). Despite these
criticisms, these attacks never amounted to or resulted in total rejection of medicine. The majority
of Muslim scholars chose at least the permissibility of medication and that resort to medicine does
not conf lict with one’s belief and trust in God (Rahman 1998, 48–9)
Out of these multiple branches within the Islamic normative tradition, law has assumed the
most important role as the primary locus of Islamic normativity. Two main reasons can be given
for this characterization of law as the primary indicator of Islamic ethical valuation: the compre-
hensive scope of , which has traditionally been associated with the legal dimension of
Islam, and its unmistakable ethical thrust. The scope of Islamic law includes purely devotional
deeds such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage as well as interpersonal transactions
covering the spectrum of civil and economic domains as well as punishments.
The scope of extends beyond external actions to include human intentionality, which,
according to a famous Prophetic report, is considered the true measure for the evaluation of a
believer’s conduct. When done with the right intention, the most mundane types of human
actions can be seen as acts of worship. This conf luence of the religious and the secular in the
everyday life through the modality of intention is a major feature of Islamic ethics (Moosa 2014,
37–40). is God’s law encompassing His will in the form of commands and prohibitions
as contained in the foundational sources. Fiqh (lit. understanding) is the human effort; on the part
of competent jurists, to approximate this divine will through legal methodology. According to this
methodology, actions of a legally competent person (mukallaf ) fall within one of five main
ethico-legal categories: prohibition, reprehensibility, permission or neutrality, commendation,
and obligation. This classification system provides the underlying ethical structure of Islamic law,
which covers all possible actions of the believer. This explains the prominent role that the fatwas
(considered opinions bearing Islamic ethico-legal significance) have played and continue to play
in articulating normative opinions on emerging issues within particular socio-cultural contexts. A
fatwa seeks to interpret and relate an ethico-legal principle to a specific case, incident, or question.
In general, legal rules are contingent on several factors such as the persons involved, intended
actions, their timings, or duration. Scholarly deliberations over these various considerations in light
of often competing textual references gave rise to a culture that tolerated and celebrated legal
pluralism. This explains the remarkable diversity that signifies the Islamic legal tradition following

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340 Ayman Shabana

the emergence of equally credible and authoritative legal schools. In the Sunni world, four main
schools have gained considerable following, and their authority continues into the modern period.
Named after their founding figures, these are the , Mālikī, , and schools. In
the , the three main schools are the , Zaydī, and schools.
If by definition entails the divine moral vision inherent in the foundational sources,
to what extent can the same be said about the human fiqh-based legal rules? Can such rules be
immoral? Can law and morality be always coextensive? The relationship between law and
morality is one of the important themes in legal philosophy in general, and modern bioethical
issues such as abortion and euthanasia bring the distinction between these two categories into
sharp focus (Wacks 2008, 67–84).4 In the Islamic legal tradition, the distinction between law
and ethics can be traced to discussions over the validity of legal stratagems ( ), which stand
for legal devices meant to ensure formal compliance with the letter of the law even if at the
expense of its ethical spirit. They could even be used to evade certain legal responsibilities.5
Similarly, discussions over the meaning of equity or juristic preference ( ) and utility
( ) reveal juristic deliberations over the moral objectives of the law. was developed,
mainly within the school, to overcome the consequences of a strict or straightforward an-
alogical reasoning (qiyās). It illustrates an important tension within the classical Islamic legal paradigm
between emphasis on grounding legal rulings in the foundational texts through analogical reasoning
on the one hand, and achieving the ethical objectives of the law on the other, especially when resort
to analogical reasoning is perceived to clash with a higher moral objective of the law. Similarly,
was employed to justify a social benefit or need which is not directly or explicitly
sanctioned by . A further development to the notion of has been the concept
of the higher objectives of ( ), which aims to capture the intended ends
and goals of . These ends are generally believed to consist in the preservation of five main
values: religion, life, reason, wealth, and lineage. While these legal methods were meant to respond
to newly emerging issues in the absence of explicit references in the foundational texts, classical
jurists sought to circumvent undisciplined, pragmatic, or arbitrary employment of these methods
by anchoring them in indirect textual references and also through specific guidelines. It should be
noted, however, that these legal tools ref lect significant developments in the Islamic legal tradition
following the establishment of legal theory and the formation of the different legal schools. Prior to
these developments, and during Islam’s early period covering at least the first two centuries, the legal
process consisted largely of direct appeal to the textual sources.
In contemporary bioethical discourses, depending on the subject and also particular approach
of the investigator, all these branches of the Islamic normative tradition are utilized with varying
degrees. Authors adopt different methodologies ranging from direct invocation of pertinent
passages from the or the Sunnah of the Prophet to extensive exploration of relevant
discussions in the Islamic theological, philosophical, mystical, or legal traditions. Whether the
question has to do with the beginning or end of human life, meaning of health and sickness,
or scope and limits of human responsibility, the Islamic ethical heritage serves as the general
framework within which responses to modern bioethical dilemmas are construed.

Islamic Medical Ethics

The Islamic civilization produced one of the most important scientific and medical traditions in
world history despite the common perception that Islam is antagonistic to science and rationality
(Pormann 2011, 1). Historians of Islamic medicine trace the ethical norms that inf luenced
medical science and practice in the Muslim world to two main sources. The first includes
relevant moral principles in the and the Sunnah of the Prophet together with related his-
torical experience starting from the time of the Prophet and culminating in the genre known as

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Bioethics in Islamic Thought 341

the Prophetic medicine. The second includes the range of ethical thought that was selectively
integrated into Islamic culture from the first/seventh to the fifth/eleventh centuries in the wake
of the early expansion of Islam beyond the borders of Arabia. This ethical component was part
of the larger literary and philosophical works that were translated into Arabic during this period.
The Arabic term for healing ( ) and its derivatives are mentioned several times in the
, often with spiritual connotations. The itself is described as a source of healing
(10: 57, 17:82), which has traditionally been understood as covering the spiritual, psychological,
and also physical meanings of healing. In the , humans are described as comprising an
outer being or body and an inner being, which is often associated with the mind, heart, or soul.
The does not seem to support an extreme internal–external duality. These two
components constitute ‘one organized unit’ and that is why the belief in bodily resurrection
has been upheld by Muslim orthodoxy, despite differing attitudes by some Muslim philosophers
and mystics (Rahman 1998, 17–21). The contains some explicit references to some
medical phenomena and healing practices such as human embryology (22:5; 23:13–14) and
the use of honey as a curative agent (16:69). Similar references, even to a larger extent, are found
in the corpus of the Sunnah of the Prophet. They include instructions with both therapeutic
intent aiming to restore health at the time of illness and preventive intent aiming to preserve
health such as warning against overeating. Overall, these references represent the core of the
Prophetic medicine genre, which includes a wide array of topics ranging from specific prayers,
spiritual instructions, and devotional practices (e.g. recitation of specific parts of the );
prescriptions and methods for the prevention of or treatment of certain diseases (e.g. diet and
cupping); and benefits of particular nutrients or types of food (e.g. milk, dates, and honey)
(Al-Dhahabī 1961; Ibn al-Qayyim 2002). At the heart of this genre lies emphasis on the com-
plementarity of the physical, spiritual, psychological, and moral dimensions of the human being
(Rahman 1998, 45). Apart from the purely spiritual and devotional aspects of the Prophetic
medicine genre, Ibn Khaldun notes that much of its substance can be traced to Pre-Islamic
Arabian origins and, therefore, should not be practiced as a matter of religious faith. One may
choose to follow these instructions in order to gain God’s blessings by virtue of emulating the
Prophetic practice, particularly with regard to instructions involving purely religious or spiritual
healing. Their efficacy, however, would depend on one’s strong faith rather than verified
scientific criteria (Rahman 1998, 33).6
The integration of pre-Islamic ethical thought pertaining to medicine is preserved in the
genre of adab al-tabīb (ethics of the physician), which came to represent an effort to combine
classical medical-philosophical thought and the Islamic ethical system. Authors of this genre
aimed to ‘reconcile intellectual and professional concerns with the moral values of the society
of which they were an integral part’ (Nanji 1988, 264). This integration process involved, as
Pormann notes, both adoption and adaptation because it included, in addition to classical Greek
thought, earlier indigenous practices as well as knowledge from other places such as India and
Persia (Pormann 2011, 10). The most important source for medical ethics and practice had been
the Greek medical-philosophical tradition, which survived in the Iranian city of Jundishapur
where Nestorian Christians continued the legacy of prominent ancient Greek figures such as
Hippocrates and Galen. This is the reason this tradition is sometimes described as Graeco-Islamic
when contrasted with the Prophetic medicine, which is described as Islamic (Perho 1995, 44).
The Hippocratic oath for physicians, in its Islamic version, had been preserved and often quoted
along with other ethico-medical aphorisms (Rāzī 1977, 29–30; Ruhāwī 1992, 163–4, Ullmann
1978, 30). The Persian tradition represented another source of inf luence with its emphasis on
the notions of balance and moderation, which can also be found in the Greek tradition as well
as in the Islamic foundational sources (Nanji 1988, 258; Rahman 1998, 91). The literature on
the ethics of the physician in the Islamic tradition reveals that medicine was perceived as a

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342 Ayman Shabana

vocation rather than a mere profession or trade. In addition to emphasis on proper technical ed-
ucation and training, authors of this genre advise that the physician should maintain and inter-
nalize fundamental religious and ethical principles. The physician should also adhere to a regular
routine that involves his private life, personal hygiene, relationship with patients, and overall so-
cial conduct (Ruhāwī 1992, 39–59; Rahman 1998, 92–3).

Islamic Bioethics
Bioethics grew out of the centuries’ old discipline of medical ethics, but it is primarily meant to
address the emerging ethical questions associated with the increased role of medical machines
intervening between physicians and patients, which not only increase the prospect of restoring
health but also create the impression of extending life itself. With the advent of advanced
medical techniques such as kidney dialysis, organ transplantation, and artificial ventilation, the
boundaries of life and death had to be redrawn. Consequently, moral assessment of concepts
such as benefit, harm, and justice had also to be renegotiated ( Jonsen 2003, 11). But to the
extent that bioethics is not limited to medical ethics, it also covers the full range of ethical
questioning and inquiry involving the human body, the life sciences, scientific research, and
the environment (Bakar 1986). The 20th century witnessed remarkable breakthroughs in the
life sciences, especially in the areas of molecular biology and genetics. The genetic revolution,
associated with the discovery of the human DNA, promises to find solutions to medical prob-
lems that are thought hitherto impossible. But these tremendous prospects, in turn, stir ethical
qualms over unregulated scientific research compromising fundamental ethical and religious
values concerning the sanctity and dignity of human life. These concerns are not the result of
mere hypothetical pessimistic predictions or excessive precautions, but they were rather fueled
by actual precedents involving infringement of fundamental moral values concerning human
life. The atrocious abuses of human subjects in scientific experiments in Nazi Germany as well
as subsequent abuses in scientific trials gave impetus for the formulation of ethical standards that
should govern the conduct of scientific experimentation (e.g. the Nuremberg Code). In the age of
globalization and mass communication, access to advanced medical techniques is available world-
wide. In the Muslim world, as elsewhere, the fruits of Western modernity in all fields including
medical technology are often accessible to those who can afford them. On the other hand, the side
effects of modern technology often result in global crises, such as global warming, whose conse-
quences indiscriminately touch all the inhabitants of the globe but disproportionately impact the
poorer segments of the world population.
The past few decades have witnessed increased scholarly interest in the emerging field of
bioethics in the Muslim world as various stakeholders strive to articulate a coherent discourse
that is both responsive to modern bioethical dilemmas and faithful to Islamic religious, ethical,
and cultural norms and sensitivities. One of the challenges that Islamic bioethics has to contend
with is the attitude towards ethical universality and the extent to which an ethical discourse has
to be religiously or culturally-specific in a modern globalized world, especially as far as
professional ethics is concerned. The reality of today’s world is marked by religious and cultural
diversity rather than homogeneity. Supporters of ethical universality argue that admitting ethical
diversity would amount to discrimination and even chaos. On the other hand, supporters of the
principle of respect for religious and cultural diversity argue that the call for ethical universality
often boils down to the domination of Western philosophical and ethical discourses. A global
discourse on bioethics will have to address this issue and ensure that universal ethical principles
are informed by fundamental religious and cultural values to enhance their legitimacy and
acceptability. One of the main methodologies in bioethical research has aimed to identify and
define the basic moral principles of bioethics. The most famous account identifies four main

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Bioethics in Islamic Thought 343

principles: autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice (Beauchamp & Childress

2009). Important questions for Islamic bioethics include the articulation of relevant Islamic
principles as well as elucidation of the extent to which they overlap with other formulations
of basic bioethical principles (Sachedina 2007, 2009; Shabana 2013a,2013b).
Another question is the role of traditional authority in the articulation of answers to bioethical
challenges and the extent to which these answers are informed by the perspectives of the other
stakeholders in the interdisciplinary field of bioethics. The crisis of religious authority in modern
Islam is multifaceted. In the modern period, it can be traced to the emergence of dual
educational systems, separating traditional religious education and modern Western-style
education, which have been enforced in the Muslim world since the period of Western
colonization. Modern science has, therefore, developed in isolation from the Islamic intellectual
tradition, which has, in turn, created a gap between modern Western science on the one hand
and the Islamic scientific as well as normative legacies on the other. This intellectual and
normative bifurcation has manifested itself in the various Muslim responses to the challenges of
Western modernity including those pertaining to bioethical issues. The accommodation of and
reaction to modern science in the Muslim world as well as the unref lective deployment of the
Islamic ethico-legal heritage in the treatment of modern bioethical problems characterize the
main challenges facing contemporary Islamic bioethical discourses (Bouzenita 2011). This is
manifested in the absence of comprehensive Islamic ethico-legal frameworks within which
bioethical questions should be examined (Sachedina 2009).7 In most cases, treatments of modern
bioethical problems rely almost exclusively on disparate and independent religious opinions or
fatwas (e.g. Rispler-Chaim 1993).
The articulation of normative authority is by no means an easy task in light of the above-
mentioned diversity within the tradition, which continues into the modern period. Moreover,
intra-religious and sectarian divisions, such as the example, which are rooted in the
origins and structure of religious authority, have had significant implications on important
bioethical issues as demonstrated in relevant discussions on assisted reproduction (Inhorn &
Tremayne 2012). On the other hand, the question of authority has also to take into account
the perspectives of the life sciences as well as the other social and human sciences in the inter-
disciplinary field of bioethics. One of the most important developments that aimed to address
the diversity of expertise that bears on modern (bio)ethical problems has been the establishment
of transnational scholarly institutions that provide a forum for both Muslim jurists as well as
scientists and experts to discuss emerging technical questions and share perspectives prior to
issuing ethico-legal assessments of these questions. But these institutions differ in important ways
concerning decision-making procedures and consensus building mechanisms, which could have
implications on the decisions and resolutions that they issue on controversial questions such as
brain death and cadaveric organ donation (Eich 2011; Moosa 1999; Sing 2008, 108; Padela et al.
2011). A related question, in light of the development of modern social sciences, is the extent to
which the formulation of Islamic ethics and responses to bioethical challenges depend merely on
Islam’s normative sources or rather on the intersection of the social and economic factors
shaping the lived realities of Muslim populations. (Eich & Brockopp 2008, 5–7). The past
few years witnessed a significant increase in scholarly interest in this subject which is illustrated
by a number of special programs, academic conferences, and research projects dedicated to the
exploration of Islamic perspectives on bioethical issues. These activities have, in turn, resulted in
a considerable increase in the volume of publications on the broader theme of Islamic bioethics
(Ghaly 2013).
In light of the above remarks on the development of bioethics within the Muslim context, its
main features, and the challenges that it has to address, Islamic bioethics can be perceived as both
an incremental or a cumulative tradition and an ongoing discourse. Islamic bioethics builds on

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344 Ayman Shabana

the full range of the Islamic normative tradition, which has developed during the historical
progression of Islam itself on the basis of its foundational sources. It also integrates and extends
the rich and diverse tradition of Islamic medical ethics comprising the genres of the Prophetic
medicine and the ethics of the physician. As a discourse, Islamic bioethics engages the full
spectrum of ethical quandaries associated with the advent of medical technology, advances in
the life sciences, and impact of modern technology and lifestyles on the environment. In its
response to these ethical quandaries, Islamic bioethics captures both the human understanding
of the divine expectations inherent in the Islamic moral precepts and the aspiration of believing
men and women to preserve and implement these precepts.

This publication was made possible by NPRP Grant # [5-1390-6-043] from the Qatar
National Research Fund (a member of Qatar Foundation). It has also been supported by Qatar
Foundation Research Excellence Award. The statements made herein are solely the responsibil-
ity of the author.

Short Biography

Ayman Shabana teaches Islamic studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service
in Qatar (SFS-Q). Prior to joining SFS-Q, he taught at several institutions including the
University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Florida
International University. He received his PhD from the interdepartmental program of Islamic
studies at the University of California, Los Angeles with a concentration on the development
of Islamic legal and ethical norms. He received his MA from Leiden University in the Netherlands
and his BA from al-Azhar University in Egypt. He teaches and writes on several topics including
Islamic legal history, Islamic law and ethics, human rights, and bioethics. He is the author of
Custom in Islamic Law and Legal Theory (Palgrave 2010) in addition to several academic journal
articles, which appeared in Islamic Law and Society, Journal of Islamic Studies, Zygon: Journal of Religion
and Science, and Medicine Health Care and Philosophy. During the academic year 2013–2014, he was
a visiting research fellow at the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School.

* Correspondence: Georgetown University – School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Education City Doha P.O. Box 23689, Qatar.

Albert Jonsen designates the 40 years between 1947 and 1987 as the period during which bioethics emerged as ‘a distinct
discipline and discourse’. The starting point commemorates the conviction of 23 Nazi physicians of war crimes by the
Nuremberg Tribunal and the formulation of the Nuremberg Code. The end point, although arbitrary, marks the time by
which bioethics has been consolidated as an academic field ( Jonsen 2003, xii).
For example, in the Encyclopedia of Bioethics, Warren Thomas Reich defines ‘bioethics’ as ‘the systematic study of moral
dimensions – including moral vision, decisions, conduct and policies – of the life sciences and health care, employing a
variety of ethical methodologies in an interdisciplinary setting’, (Post 2004, xi). Reich argues that the word ‘bioethics’ and
the field it came to describe were concurrently developed in 1970/1971 by Van Rensselaer Potter at the University of
Wisconsin and Andre Hellegers at Georgetown University (Reich 1994; Reich 1995). For a recent exploration of the
history of the term, see (Ten Have 2012).
Instead of defining Islamic (biomedical) ethics in terms of reference to Islam’s sources, Jonathan Brockopp suggests
another dynamic definition in the form of ongoing discussions over the appropriateness of some attitudes and actions.
Islamic biomedical ethics in this sense is perceived as a response to the failure of secular ethics to formulate effective

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Bioethics in Islamic Thought 345

universal norms on the one hand and to the increasing role of religion in shaping medical ethics in general on the other
(Brockopp 2002, 226). It is difficult, however, to imagine these discussions in total isolation from the Islamic sources.
On the one hand, such discussions would derive their authority from the Islamic normative sources and, on the other,
the social context within which these discussions take place is in many ways shaped and influenced by these sources.
Hallaq argues that the dichotomy or sharp distinction between law and morality is one of the main features of modern
Western philosophy associated with the emergence of analytical positivism, mainly as a result of the writings of John
Austin (1790–1859). Law in this sense is closely linked to politics and the modern state’s monopolization of the power to
make law. This positivist view of law does not entail any correlation between law as such and law as it ought to be
(Hallaq 2009, 249–256). Hallaq notes that the extension of this modern understanding of the relationship between law
and morality to pre-modern (especially non-Western) legal and moral systems is problematic (Hallaq 2009, 269).
One example is avoiding the payment of the obligatory alms (zakāh) by temporarily transferring one’s property before the
completion of one full year, which is a condition for the payment of zakāh on various types of property exceeding a certain
amount known as .
Historians of Islamic medicine posit various answers for the emergence of the Prophetic medicine genre. For example,
Manfred Ullmann suggests that it was an effort, on the part of Islamic orthodoxy, to replace the medical authority of
pagan authors such as Hippocrates or Galen with the religious authority of the Prophet. Fazlur Rahman, however, notes
that it could be seen as an attempt, on the part of Muslim scholars, to create an accessible medical handbook that would
be useful to many people. It could also be seen as an attempt to maximize the spiritual significance of medicine or to
create an alternative to the medical tradition created by philosophers such as Ibn Sinā (Avicenna)(Ullmann 1978, 5;
Rahman 1998, 42; Perho 1995, 78). It is interesting to compare the debate on the emergence of the early forms of
‘Islamic medicine’ in response to the pre-Islamic forms (mainly Graeco-Alexandrian), and the debate on the emergence of
the modern version of ‘Islamic medicine’ in response to modern Western medicine, which is generally perceived as the
main and dominant paradigm against which all types of alternative medicine are viewed with skepticism (see, for
example, Adib 2004).
In terms of methodology, scholars disagree on the extent to which such framework should be grounded in the Islamic legal
tradition, or a particular school within this tradition (e.g. Hanafi or Shafi’i), or rather in the larger Islamic ethical tradition.
See, for example, the Islamic Medical and Scientific Ethics (IMSE) digital bibliography containing more than 3000
resources on the subject: It is part of the Islamic Bioethics Project, which is a multi-
year research project based at Georgetown University in Qatar.

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