Medical ethics

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An Islamic Perspective 

Mohammad Iqbal Khan  


  1. Basic concepts of ethics, health, disease, treatment and cure

  2. Muslim contribution in the evolution and development of medical Knowledge and expertise

  3. Ethical issues in Medicine

  4. Moral training and enhancement of patients through medical practice and  prayers

  5. Ethical issues related to medical education

  6. Ethics of contemporary issues and medical jurisprudence

  7. Ethics of research on humans and animals

  8. Relationship of medical practice with pharmaceutical, bio-medical and other industries

  9. Characteristics of a Muslim Physician

  10. Professional Ethics as a science and source of inspiration


Chapter 1

Basic concepts of ethics, health, disease, treatment and cure  

The word ethics has been derived from a Greek word ‘ethicos’ which means character.  ‘Ethics’ consists of moral principles that control or influence a person’s behavior in business or professional domains. Something Ethical is linked in a subtle manner to the set of beliefs and principles of a person that he holds about what is right and what is wrong. Something ethical is morally correct and acceptable. Ethics is the science of morality- a branch of philosophy that is concerned with human character and conduct1. It is a moral system with rules of behavior. 1-2 

Medical Ethics comprise a set of moral rules and principles which guide govern a member of the medical profession in discharging his professional responsibilities in general. 

Bioethics was introduced in 1970 by V. P Rotter as inter-disciplinary ethics, which cut across natural sciences and humanities. Bio Medical Ethics was introduced a little later in 1978 to describe ethical issues regarding research in biomedical sciences. Initially four principles, namely, non-maleficenece, beneficence, autonomy and justice were laid down. In 1979, gene therapy, privacy of genetic information, sex selection, cloning, patents, respect for persons, eugenics, informed consent, etc., were also included in biomedical ethics.3, 4, and 5 

Unfortunately, nowadays the religious, moral and ethical values are on the decline. The society, especially the western, is plagued with moral decay. Families have been disintegrated; divorce rate and number of unwed mothers have increased tremendously. Drug abuse and excessive sexual indulgence are predominant in adolescents and young adults. These developments usually lead to conflict, loneliness, guilt and loss of self-esteem. The result of this malaise shows itself in a variety of pathological disorders. Many young persons are confused about their self-identity. They lose meaning in life and often turn to pseudo religious cults, drugs or suicide. Recent research studies2 confirm that both socio-cultural and personality aspects are responsible for high rate of drug use in the youth. In order to protect the Islamic society and culture from the above mentioned trends, moral, social and inspirational aspects of Islam need to be reinforced.6, 7 

Ethics is as old as human society. Medical knowledge and Islamic scholarship have been inter-related for centuries. Since the birth of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, the moral and ethical values based on Islamic principles have been adopted by medical professionals in letter and spirit. During the life of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, the basic principles of medical practice were laid down in detail and are to date endorsed by modern medical practice. In Islamic manuscripts the process of illness attached to human life and its impact on human society as well as the concepts of health, disease, treatment and cure have been elaborated in a matchlessly intelligent way. Allah SWT declared:” This day I have perfected your religion ( way of life) for  you and have bestowed on you the full measures of My blessing and have chosen Islam as a way of life for you (Qur’an 5:3) Health issues were not out of the scope of this blessed way of life. The Prophet Mohammad, peace and blessings be upon him, himself sought medical assistance and asked his followers to do the same whenever required. The Prophet described illness as a test from God and not a punishment. Moreover the prophet of Islam says “When a treatment is prescribed according to the diagnosis of the disease, Allah bestows cure” 3 This Hadith gives the basic principle of medical practice that treatment should be given in light of the diagnosis to get good results. It may be noted that treatment alone does not ensure cure but is only a means to achieve cure which Allah in His Infinite Grace bestows upon us mortals. Sometimes a prescription is given according to the diagnosis, but the patient is not cured. This concept completely changes a Muslim physician’s attitude, practice and expectations.  In comparison, non Muslim physicians solely rely on their expertise and skills - a narrow approach to maladies and their remedies. A Muslim physician on the contrary, has a very different and broad view regarding disease and cure.9-10 A Muslim physician makes his efforts according to his knowledge, skill and faith in the healing powers of God. His objective is to alleviate the sufferings of human beings, keeping in mind his limitations as have been revealed by the Creator in His book.


The second important principle is described in hadith in these words: “There is no disease for which Allah has not created a cure, except for senility (On the authority of Abdullah Bin Masud- Masnad-e Ahmed). This hadith has been also narrated by another narrator with a slight difference in words. The Prophet said: “Allah has not sent down a disease where He has not created a cure for that disease; somebody knows it and others do not.” (Ibne Majah-Hadith 3397). Two very encouraging points have been emphasized. This statement clearly indicates that, firstly, treatment and cure is possible for every sickness and no disease is incurable. There is no room for disappointment. Secondly, this also inspires the Muslim physician to find out the very appropriate way and means of treatment for an ailment. This aim can only be achieved through research obligatory on a Muslim physician. The Holy Qur’an says “Those who ponder upon the creation of heaven and earth and say ‘O God, you have not created this in vain” (Al Imran-3:191). Doing research is obligatory for all Muslims and specifically for those who are involved in the treatment of human souls and bodies to find the best possible treatment for the ailments of fellow human beings. Research is also obligatory keeping in view the stress Islam lays on excellence. The Holy Qur’an says “Could the reward of excellence be any thing but excellence? (Qur’an-55:60) and our Prophet Peace be upon him said “A Muslim does his job (Performs his duties) with excellence”.  Inferior quality of professional work and poor performance are disapproved in Islam.11

It is the hallmark of a Muslim physician to keep himself abreast with recent findings in his area of specialization. “Seek Knowledge from cradle to grave”. Al-Hadith) Allah has ordained to read and acquire knowledge in the very first revelation of the Qur’an, “Read! In the name of your Lord Who created man from a leechlike mass. Read! Your Lord is most Gracious, who taught man what he knew not” (Qur’an 96: 1-5). Allah has affirmed that He has revealed knowledge to man and distinguished man from other creatures by bestowing upon him knowledge. “He taught Adam the names of all things” (Qur’an 2: 31-32). The only thing that makes man superior among all the creatures of Almighty Allah is knowledge and the power to integrate knowledge. Moreover, transmission of knowledge to fellow human beings is another very important quality of man. A Muslim in general and a Muslim doctor in particular can never shirk the responsibility of acquiring knowledge and transmitting it to others.  Creation of knowledge is a very important aspect of human life in general and of a medical doctor in particular. “Those who remember Allah while standing, sitting and lying on their sides, and meditate on the creation of heavens and the earth and say “O Lord, You have created this not in vain”. “O Lord, save us from the punishment of fire” (Qur’an 3: 191). Pondering over the creation of Almighty Allah is one of the important qualities of a Muslim without which his faith is incomplete.                                                                                         

This compulsion is reflected very well in the professional life of Muslim doctors who know from a well known Hadith that “there is not a disease for which Allah has not sent a cure”. This clearly indicates that there exist treatment and cure of every ailment. If we do not know the remedy for a particular disease, we have to search for it because we have a firm belief that the cure is possible. Being a Muslim doctor, we carry more responsibilities than a non Muslim doctor. Doing research and finding the ways and means of effective treatment for a particular disease is a prominent aspect of the faith of Muslim doctors.12Seeking knowledge and improving one’s understanding is one of the fundamentals through which we recognize The Creator. “Behold in creation of heaven and the earth and the alteration of night and day, there are indeed Signs for men of understanding” (Qur’an- 3:190).                                                                                                                          

These and many other references from the Qur’anic verses greatly emphasize the need to recognize the strength of understanding human structure, functions, and factors responsible for the initiation of the disease  process and the theory to deal with that process. The value and importance of acquiring current knowledge and state-of-the-art expertise for a physician has been stressed greatly in the Qur’an and Hadith “You shall not follow those matters of which you have no knowledge, surely, the use of your ears and the eyes and heart- all of these, shall be questioned on the day of judgment” (Qur’an 17-36). The importance of acquiring adequate knowledge and expertise is further stressed in the Hadith “Those who practice medicine without acquiring knowledge of medicine will themselves be responsible for their deeds” (Ibne Majah). Before commencing medical practice, it is obligatory for a Muslim physician to obtain the required knowledge and skill, and to remain at the cutting edge in his field of interest in medicine.13 it is further stressed in another Hadith “That a Muslim performs his duties with excellence”. One cannot achieve excellence in his professional skills without constant effort and desire to excel in his profession. Other very important principles of Medical practice are Shukr and Ahsān. This principle is explained in the Qur’an: “If you remained thankful to the Almighty, He shall bless you with more but if you are thankless His punishment is verily very severe” (Qur’an Ibrahimy Verse -7). Indeed, We have created man from the germinal fluid drop (containing both sexes) so that We may test him, we give him the faculty of hearing and sight. Then We guide him to the Right Way. Now it is his choice either to be grateful or to be a disbeliever (Qur’an 76: 2,3). 

The Muslim doctor is obliged to acquire the best possible knowledge and expertise and has to deliver his services to ailing humanity without any discrimination and without any worldly gain.  If a patient can pay for the consultation, it is fair enough to take the fee. But if he is unable to pay, the physician cannot refuse his services. If a physician refuses to give his services because he is not being paid, he is committing sin. Out of the several rights which a Muslim has on another Muslim fellow is, “Whenever he falls ill. he is being visited by other Muslim fellows; whenever he is consulted for some matter he must impart his consultation with the best of knowledge and taqwa”. A Medical professional is directly responsible to his/her fellow human beings. He has to abide by the basic principles of dealing with human beings throughout his life with utmost care and vigilance. “Blessed be He Whose hand is the kingdom of the universe and has power over all things” (Qur’an 67-1,2).The One who created death and life, so that he may put you to test to find which of you is the best in deeds”. Life is, therefore, a test for every individual. The more you have the more you will be asked for whether you live in humble slums or in snobbish suburb. Moreover a Muslim physician strongly believes that he is not only accountable for all his deeds, but he is quite hopeful that until he is abiding by the divine guidelines he shall never go astray. “Surely it is for us to give guidance” (Qur’an 92-12). Allah is also clear about the purpose of his creation. Being a true believer, he clearly understands that he is accountable for all his deeds and if he shall abide by and practice accordingly, he shall get reward in this life and in the hereafter.  “Those who have accepted the true faith and do good deeds shall be admitted among the righteous” (Qur’an 29-9).

It is the prime requirement for every Muslim in general and for every Muslim doctor in particular to understand and believe in that Allah will raise him or her to the high rank only, when he will acquire the knowledge. "Allah will raise up, to (suitable) ranks (and degrees), those of you who believe and who have been granted knowledge".Qur’an-58:11. A Muslim scholar believes that in order to achieve this high rank, there are prerequisites for the scholar of knowledge to fulfil, of which the most important is to have his/her knowledge intended for the sake of Allah and in the best interest of the Muslims and humanity.

The selection of an approach towards life and its goals depends upon how clear our concepts are regarding basic issues of our existence. The sources we acquire knowledge from are of utmost importance. It is not possible for a human being to find right answers to the basic questions of life through reasoning, an analysis of the available data and the collective wisdom acquired through centuries of human experience alone. Employing a scientific method of inquiry and reasoning, we can arrive at certain conclusions which are half-truths or truths for today, and which may not stand the test of time tomorrow. To arrive at the whole truth and the final answer requires something more.15-16  

An important fact is that a human being makes only one appearance on the world stage. His total asset is the limited span of time he has. He is never going to return to this world. It is not possible for him to demand a second term after he has wasted the first. He cannot take the plea: “Alas! I built my whole life on the basis of wrong assumptions. I may kindly be given another chance to rectify my errors”. 

This one and only chance to live on earth needs careful consideration and planning. Our position in the universe needs to be understood. Our objectives in life and the course we take to realize them needs to be determined carefully. 

The concept of a Creator of the universe has always been present in human mind although denials of His existence have also been very common. During the times of The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), the polytheists would admit that Allah was the Creator and the Sustainer of the whole universe. They believed that He provided them with sustenance, sent down rain from the sky, and caused crops, vegetables and fruits to grow. The concept of Allah remains in the sub-conscious of even those who deny the existence of Allah. They admit the existence of Allah at some stage of their life. Pharaoh arrogated himself to the status of god and apparently continued to deny the existence of Allah, the Lord of the universe, for almost all his life, but when he was drowning, he cried out, “I believe that there is no god except Him in Whom the Children of Israel believe” (Qur’an- 10:90). Though he had denied the existence of Allah for the whole of his life because of his wrong assumptions and desires of the self, the reality became clear to him in the face of his own imminent death.17  

1.1- The reality that the Qur’an exhorts 

“He enables you to traverse through land and sea, so that you even board ships. They sail with them with a favorable wind, and they rejoice, but then come a stormy wind and the waves come to them from all sides. They think they are being overwhelmed. They cry unto Allah, sincerely offering their duty unto Him, saying, “If you deliver us from this, We shall (O Allah), all truly show our gratitude.” But when He delivers them, behold! They transgress insolently through the earth in defiance of right! O mankind! Your insolence is against your own selves; an enjoyment of the life of the present, but in the end, to Us is your return, and We shall show you the truth of all you did.” (Qur’an- 10:22-23) 

Keeping in view the above verse from the Holy Qur’an, we can say that admitting the existence of Allah and accepting the fact that human beings can neither ascertain their status and position in the universe merely on the basis of their limited knowledge, nor can they set the objective of life for themselves, there is no other option but to resort to Allah for guidance. This is the reality that Allah has referred to in the Holy Qur’an in these words: 

Verily, We take upon Ourselves to guide. (Qur’an- 92:12) 

The light of guidance was bestowed upon the very first human created by Allah. Adam was not only the first man but also the first Prophet. Allah continued to send down Prophets for a very long time. Prophets would come to different nations in different parts of the world and show people the right path. Through these Prophets and the revealed books, human beings acquired the knowledge of the hidden and unseen worlds – knowledge that they could not acquire without these sources. 18 

Along with the knowledge and information about the creation of the universe, the unity or oneness of Allah, His Being, His attributes and powers, important information was given about the Day of Judgment: that human life does not end with the occurrence of death. There will be another life, on the Day of Judgment, to make men and women accountable for their deeds during their first life in this world – to give those rewards or punishment.

This also proves that the scheme of life is founded on the principles of Tuhid (Unity of God) and His divine revelations only. There is a realization about this fact among all human beings, ‘with the certainty of knowledge’ provided by Allah and Qur’an refers to this fact as ‘Ilm-ul-yaqeen’. 

Among all the creatures in the universe, only these two have been created for a test: human beings and jinn. Allah says, 

Exalted is He in Whose hands is the Kingdom of the universe; He has power over all things. He Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is the best in deed. He is All-Mighty and All-Forgiving. (Qur’an- 67:1-2) 

In a test, there are usually three conditions that need to be fulfilled. First, the candidate for success should be told the do’s and don’ts of the test scheme. Allah sent down Prophets and books to this end. Second, the guidelines provided should be easily understood. These should not be beyond senses, far from reach. The candidate should be able to hear, see, understand and recognize them as authentic and issued by the testing authority. Allah says in the Holy Qur’an:

Allah is He who brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when you knew nothing and He gave you hearing and sight and intelligence and affection, that you may be grateful (to Him). (Qur’an- 16:78) 

The third condition is a full freedom of choice, right or wrong, good or bad, virtue or vice. Man has been given full freedom to choose whatever path he wants to choose for himself. He is neither pulled toward the right path, nor pushed to the wrong. Lack of freedom of choice defeats the very purpose of the test. The Qur’an, in Surah al-Dahr, not only talks about this freedom but also of the two other pre-requisites of the test: 

Verily We created man from a drop of mingled sperm, in order to try him; so We gave him (the gifts) of hearing and sight. We showed him the Way: Whether he is grateful or ungrateful (rests on his will). (Qur’an- 76:2-3) 

Allah Almighty, through Prophets and books, has told man that his success in this test depends on his believing in the unseen, doing good deeds, and observing piety: 

And those who believe and work righteous deeds, them shall We admit to the company of the Righteous. (Qur’an- 29:9) 

The reward for success in this test is promised to be given not only in the Hereafter but also in this world:  

If the people of the towns had but believed and feared Allah, We should indeed have opened out to them (all kinds of) blessings from heaven and earth; but they rejected (the truth) and We brought them to book for their misdeeds. (Qur’an- 7:96) 

By the same token, those who fail in the test of this life will have a bad life in the Hereafter and face penalty: 

Whoever turns away from My Message shall have a wretched life in this world; and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment”. (Qur’an- 20:124. 

Another verse goes: “This is how We recompense (in this world) those who transgress the bounds and do not believe in the Revelations of the Lord. And the torment of the Hereafter is more terrible and lasting. (Qur’an- 20:127) 

After acquiring Faith, man has to fulfill two types of responsibilities, which determine his deeds as good or bad. First category is that of responsibilities toward Allah Almighty – called Huquq-Allah, and the second category is that of responsibilities towards fellow human beings – Huquq-ul-Ibad. Huquq-Allah include all acts of worship (prayers, fasting, obligatory charity (zakat), pilgrimage, Jihad (struggle in the way of Allah), striving for earning lawful (halal) livelihood, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, enforcing Allah’s law and adopting an attitude in all matters of life that entails Allah’s pleasure. This is piety. In the Qur’an, Allah has shown us how we should behave in all matters of life. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) illustrated it through his life example for he is the ‘role model’ for those who seek Allah’s pleasure. The criteria for us are contained in the teachings of the Qur’an and the life example of the Holy Prophet, known as Uswa-e- Hasana.20-21

      The most important among Huquq-ul-Ibad is a pleasant treatment to parents. Then there is the injunction of dealing honestly and humbly with close relatives, neighbors, travelers, prisoners, the destitute and the poor, widows and those who are facing problems, patients, and Allah’s family at large (i.e. all human beings. Allah’s Prophet (pbuh) has told us that all people are like Allah’s family). It is our duty to assist them and strive to remove their problems. Dealing with all and sundry in good manner, with a smile, and politeness is also very important in this regard. We should see if the family of Allah needs financial help and should make it sure that their needs are fulfilled. A Muslim does not commit injustice to anyone, does not deprive anyone of his right, and never leaves his brother helpless. To hurt the feelings of others, backbiting, leveling baseless allegations is among the sins Allah dislikes the most. We shall be held accountable on the Day of Judgment for both Huquq-Allah and Huquq-ul-Ibad. 22-23 

Huquq-ul-Ibad assumes particular importance in medical profession. A doctor remains in continuous contact with human beings who seek his help either for themselves or for their near ones at the time of ailment and difficulty. A God-fearing doctor who upholds the principles of Islamic ethics and professional honesty and integrity has ample opportunities to earn good name in this life and great reward in the life hereafter.  

Every Muslim has to pay the right of other Muslim fellow as narrated in the hadith that if a Muslim brother falls ill, it is the duty of another Muslim to visit him and when he seeks consultation it is the duty of his fellow Muslim to respond with honest consultancy according to the best of his knowledge and Taqwa (God fearing).24, 25                                

Apart from many other rights of a Muslim on another Muslim, two important aspects of this act of Ibada are directly related to medical profession. A doctor has to provide medical consultation to his patient whether paid or unpaid. If a person is unable to pay the consultation fee of a doctor, a Muslim doctor has to provide consultation free of cost according to the best of his knowledge and expertise. Though charging consultation fee is permissible within limits. 26, 27, 28                                                                                                  

By the same token, those who fail in the test of this life will have a bad life in the Hereafter and will face penalty. Allah Almight says: 

Whoever turns away from My Message shall have a wretched life in this world; and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment. (Qur’an- 20:124) 

This is how We recompense (in this world) those who transgress the bounds and do not believe in the Revelations of the their Lord. And the torment of the Hereafter is more terrible and lasting. (Qur’an- 20:127). 

To understand the role of a Muslim doctor, let us have a general idea about the texts in the Qur'an and the Hadith relating to the subject. Allah says in the Qur'an about moral disease and cure in several suras (chapters). He says:

"O mankind! There hath come to you a direction from your Lord and a healing for the (disease) in your hearts, and for those who believe a guidance and a mercy."(Qur’an- 10-57) 

The "direction" in this verse to the Qur’an itself is considered a sure cure to any moral or psychological disease that may afflict true believers. The following proves it:

"It (Qur'an) is a guide and a healing to those who believe." (Qur’an-41, 44)

There is no doubt that genuine belief in Allah can be the best cure for most of our psychological disturbances. It brings peace to our hearts as one reckons to his Creator and resigns in Him. The Qur’an says: 

"But He guided to Himself those who turn to Him in patience, - Those who believe, and whose hearts find peace and satisfaction in the remembrance of Allah: for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find satisfaction and peace."(Qur’an-13, 27-28) 

Moral disease has been frequently expressed as disease of the heart. For instance, depicting the psychological picture of the hypocrites (Munafiqeen) Allah says: 

"In their hearts there is a disease; and Allah has increased their disease: and grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves)."(Qur’an-2, 10)

Transgressors, disbelievers and ill-intentioned individuals suffer from a moral weakness - a disease in their hearts. This term has been repeated about thirteen times in the Qur'an. 

From the physical point of view, there are many verses that mention the ailing persons, granting them due permission for fulfilling some commissioned obligations. For instance, the ills allowed not to keep the fasting during Ramadan, (Qur’an-11, 184), not to observe the usual ablution (Qur’an-4, 43), not to abstain from cutting his hair during the pilgrimage (Qur’an-11, 196), not to respond to the call of Jihad (Qur’an-9, 9 1) etc. In general, the ailing person is treated as a special case and is given due chance to recover and is always given special treatment and allowances. 
It is believed that Allah is the ultimate healer. Ibrahim (P.B.U.H.), arguing with his people about the omnipotence of Allah, said,

"...(Allah) who created me and it is He who guides me, who gives me food and drink, and when I am ill, He cures me..." (Qur’an-26, 80) 

However, Allah directs the need for treatment by ascribing a healing potentiality to honey produced by bees: "...there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colors, wherein is healing for men (humans)... "(Qur’an-16, 69) 

The Hadith, as usual, has revealed to us striking facts concerning disease and cure. Our Prophet (P.B.U.H.) informed us that the general rule is that there is a cure to every disease, whether we are aware of it or not. We know at present that our cells produce antibodies to defend us against the agents of disease: the viruses and virulent bacteria. Homeopathic philosophy is based on helping the body to overcome disease by giving the sick very small doses of drugs that would stimulate the same symptoms in a healthy person if given in large quantities. In simple words, the well-established Hadith narrated on the authority of Ibn Maso'ud "Allah has not inflicted a disease without prescribing a cure to it, known to whoever knows it and unknown to whoever does not know it." (Cited by Ahmad of Nayl-al-Awtar, V. 9, p. 89),. This Hadith is a confirmation of the natural law of auto-resistance and self-defense. It also indicates the necessity for discovering cures to our diseases. He (P.B.U.H.) has been reported to have said - on the authority of Usama Ibn Shuraik - when a Bedouin asked him whether be should seek treatment: "Yes, servants of God seek treatment; God has not sent a disease without sending a cure for it, known to whoever knows it and unknown to whoever does not know it" (cited by lbn Majah, Tirmizi and Abu-Dawood). And again, on the authority of Abu-Huraira, the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) has been reported to have said; "Allah has not sent any disease without sending a cure for it" (cited by Ahmad, al-Bukhari and Ibn Majah).29, 30, 31, and 32. 



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