Islamic Rulings on Dissection



By Suheil Laher

(abridged from Dr. Muhammad `Ali al-Barr, al-Tabeeb: Adabuhu wa-Fiqhuhu (The Physician: his Etiquettes and Jurisprudence), co-authored with Dr Zuhayr Ahmad al-Siba`i, Dar al-Qalam / al-Dar al-Shamiyyah, Damascus / Beirut, 1413 / 1993, pp. 165-183.)

    1. Islam considers the human being to be noble, and the human body as subject to respect and sanctity.

“Verily, We have honored the Children of Adam…” [Qur’an, 17:70]

The Prophet has said, “Breaking the bone of a dead person is like breaking it when he is alive.” [Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Ahmad, Bayhaqi. Malik (who reported it as a saying of Ummul-Mu’mineen `A’ishah). Sh. Shu`ayb Arna’ut authenticated it (Sharh al-Sunnah (5/393)]

The Prophet also prohibited mutilation. [Bukhari, Tirmidhi, Nasa’I, Abu Dawud, Ahmad, Darimi]

  1. Nevertheless, the study of medicine is considered a noble pursuit in the service of mankind, and that without which an obligation cannot be achieved can itself become an obligation. Imam al-Shafi`i is reported to have said, “[True] knowledge is of two categories: knowledge of religion, and knowledge of the body.” Qadi Abu’l-Waleed Ibn Rushd, also a philosopher and physician, said, “Anyone who undertakes dissection increases in faith in Allah.”
  2. Physicians in the Muslim world have practised dissection, and written books on it, since earlier times. Prominent in this field were:
  • Abu Bakr al-Razi (d. 311 AH), a prominent physician.
  • al-Husayn ibn `Abdillah Ibn Sina (d. 428 AH), the famous philosopher and physician, known in the West as Avicenna.
  • al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (d. 430 AH), the famous opthalmologist.
  • Qadi Abu’l-Waleed Ibn Rushd (d. 595 AH), also a prominent Maliki jurist.
  • `Ali ibn al-Hazm Ibn al-Nafees (d. 687 AH), also a Shafi`i jurist, he is credited with discovery of the lesser circulatory system before William Harvey.
  1. Jurists of earlier times did not directly address the issue of human dissection. The closest issues which are recorded in the classical juristic literature are the following:
  1. The permissibility of cutting open the belly of a deceased woman, if it should transpire that her womb contains an unborn infant who is expected to live.
  2. The permissibility of cutting open the belly of a deceased person who had swallowed an object of value which either belonged to someone else who demanded its return, or belonged to the man himself but was demanded by his heirs.
  1. The first jurist who is known to have written specifically about dissection and its permissibility, was the erstwhile Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, `Allamah Ahmad ibn `Abd al-Mun`im al-Damanhuri (d. 1192 AH / 1778 CE, a highly educated man, he wrote profusely on jurisprudence, medicine, astronomy and surveying), in a treatise entitled al-Qawl al-Sareeh fi `Ilm al-Tashreeh (The Explicit Word on Dissection). He expanded on this treastise, in a commentary thereof entitled Muntaha al-Tashreeh bi-Khulasat al-Qawl al-Sareeh fi `Ilm al-Tashreeh (The Pinnacle of Dissection, the Quintessence of the Explicit Word on Dissection.) His successor at al-Azhar was Shaykh Hasan ibn Muhammad al-`Attar (d. 1834 CE), who had also had medical education, and who wrote a number of treatises on medicine and dissection. It was during his time (1827 CE) that a medical college was established in Cairo. When the head of this college, a Frenchman, began to dissect bodies before the students, they were outraged. Shaykh al-`Attar was instrumental in convincing this pioneering class of students of the importance of dissection, explaining that it contributes to the knowledge of medicine, which in turn is a communal obligation.

On 26 Sha`ban 1356 AH (31/10/1937 CE), Shaykh `Abd al-Majeed Saleem, erstwhile Grand Mufti of Egypt, issued a fatwa on the permissibility of dissection, based on the principle that Islamic regulations are based on preponderant advantages, and that a lesser harm can be borne for the attainment of a higher benefit, the loss of which would be more harmful. Shaykh Hasanayn Makhlouf of Azhar issued a fatwa in 1951 CE, reiterating the permissibility of dissection for justifiable purposes. Thereafter, fatawa came in succession from different parts of the Islamic world. Among the more recent of these was the research of the Permanent Committee for Academic Research and Fatwa in Saudi Arabia (21/7/1392 AH), the verdict of the Body of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia (20/8/1396 AH), and the verdict of the Rabitah Fiqh Academy (Safar 1407 AH / 10/1987 AH).

These fatawa held dissection to be permissible for the following purposes:

1 – Forensic medicine: Investigation of a criminal case, to determine cause of death, or the nature of the crime, where dissection is the only means for the judge (qadi) to obtain this information.

2 – Autopsy, Necropsy: Investigation of various diseases which call for dissection to cast light on what precautions and medications can be utilized for such diseases.

3 –Anatomy: Learning and teaching medicine, as is the case in medical colleges.

And Allah knows best.

One thought on “Islamic Rulings on Dissection

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