What my clients are to do with human remains, the body, particularly organ donation is one that I have struggled to counsel on and is much different from Islamic Inheritance.
In learning about organ donations specifically, I have come across efforts by Muslims to explain why it is or is not ok. I hope you can benefit from this post. Maybe you won’t have a definitive answer, but you will start the struggle that will allow you to make a decision and be at peace with it.
Extremism in Defense of Medical Science is no Vice
In the early years of my practice, I did a lot of litigation around medical issues. I used to take depositions of doctors and had to get to know medical controversies reasonably well. The lawyers at a large firm I worked at all decided to go, as a group, to the “Body Worlds” exhibit. It was remarkable. It included a mother and unborn infant, sliced in half. There was someone playing basketball, his outstretched arm towards the sky, and his brain on the floor. These were real bodies on display- once living, breathing human beings, using a plastic preservation process to display once-living people in vaguely artistic ways. All of these people donated their bodies.
I was impressed by the exhibit. At the same time, I did not understand why someone would permit themselves to be put on display in this manner, with a sense of flair and artistry that was not suitable for what I was seeing. It was disrespectful and undignified, at least in my view.
In elementary schools, it is common for children to dissect frogs. Medical students and other students of the anatomy need human corpses to slice up. Can we, for educational purposes, donate our bodies as specimens for medical students cut up? How about using those remains for a museum exhibit?
For the Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA), there appear to be no restrictions on this kind of thing.
The problem with this type of conclusion, outside of any fiqh concerns (which I am not that interested in now since I’m not considering it), is that it’s hard to imagine most Muslims buying this.
You have honor, as does your body, which Allah has entrusted to you. Instinctively I’m not too fond of the idea of donating your whole body. However, if you prefer this, you have the Islamic Medical Association of North America to back you up.
You Have Dignity, Muslims Have Shown It
Muslims have well-founded rules on how to treat the human body. We know that there is dignity in your body, and we cannot defile it. We don’t do autopsies (though we make exceptions), we don’t cremate bodies, we don’t keep bodies in a freezer to give a party planner time to pick out venues and work with their schedules, book guest speakers and live music performances.
In most Muslim communities, the wheels are in motion for the burial right away. We wait for a death certificate (or a certificate for burial), but not much more. One fantastic thing about the Muslim community is that we prioritize burial like no other. As a general matter, we are better at it than anyone I have ever seen.
Whenever I advise Muslim clients about burial instructions, at least clients in the areas I serve most frequently, I often (not always) tell clients not to worry too much about it. Those who conduct Janazah and burials in the Muslim community don’t need your help. If you already bought a burial plot in a cemetery, you can write that down with information about the burial plot you purchased. If you have a preferred person to conduct the ghusul in your community, that is great. Most people don’t have these preferences.
One of the instructions that we have on burial is that it needs to happen as quickly as possible. A significant concern with donating organs (other than the dignity issue) is that it will delay the Janazah.
There are two times you can donate your organs. When you are alive, and when you are dead. You can give away more of your body when you are dead than when you are alive (obviously). Both situations have Islamic considerations.
The client concerns I deal with regularly have to do with organ donations after death. There is a significant difference between donating a life-saving organ to someone who needs it and displaying your organ for a museum exhibit.
While we might assume one way a doctor can order up a 3D printed heart available the next day, that kind of technology does not exist now. Now doctors need to get them from human bodies.
As you might imagine, the answer to “can I do this” is not as clear in Islam. Almost ever since transplant technology became available decades ago, fatwa councils have been telling Muslims since the 1950’s that donating organs is beneficial and that you should do it. If you think about it, societies with large Muslim populations would have difficulty saving lives through transplant technologies if there was a widespread view that organ donations were haram.
To further accommodate medical technology, governments, and religions worldwide rapidly redefined the definition of death itself. It used to be that if your heart was still pumping blood and you were still breathing, you were alive. Those days are long gone. We legally define “brain death” as death. Brain death is not a “persistent vegetative state,” It is not a coma, but where the brain is not working at all. This whole thing happened to accommodate organ transplants.
Still, I know many Muslims are deeply uncomfortable with organ donations. I don’t think it is clear that you should be an organ donor. Before you decide, give this careful consideration.
A Helpful Resource
To help you make this decision, you can do worse than consulting with the University of Chicago’s “Initiative on Islam and Medicine.” They have a helpful infographic on the various considerations for Muslims. While it is clear Dr. Asim Padela (who leads the initiative) has an opinion, and the fact that it has logos of transplant agencies on it gives you a sense of what that is, the information presented is objective. It does not hide the fact that scholars do think organ donation is prohibited in Islam and why, at least in general terms. They also show the alternative as well as a description of the need. Check it out here.
This subject is about the dignity of your body and your legacy. It is not a subject where I would point my finger at you and tell you what to do. If you struggle with it, you are not alone.
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