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Richard Gauvain
The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the major issues in Islamic bioethics, including medicine, clinical practice, genetics, theology, and Islamic law.



For believers in each of the three major monotheistic traditions, ritual performances are often seen as important to both body and soul. The conviction that ritual practice should never slip into something perfunctory or unthinking is especially prominent in Islam, where a statement of “intention” (niyyāh) on behalf of the votary must precede most rituals and is, in itself, treated as a separate act of worship (ʿibādah). To make the point, the thirteenth-century Mālikī jurist Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī (d. 1285) is reported to have remarked of the obligatory Muslim fast during Ramadan that, “in the absence of niyya … [the fast] is [merely a] lack of nourishment” (Powers, 2004, p. 442).

In discussing Islamic ritual performances from the perspective of modern bioethics, one can begin with the relatively narrow definition of bioethics supplied in The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Here, bioethics refers to the “field of inquiry dealing with the moral obligations of health professionals and society in meeting the needs of the sick and injured, [and] providing a framework for moral judgment and ethical decision making in the wake of phenomenal advancements in medicine.” More encompassing definitions include animal welfare and the natural environment (Shabana, 2014, pp. 337–346). As ritual action externalizes key beliefs through physical embodiment and gains shared meaning when performed in specific religio-social contexts—to which animals and the natural environment invariably contribute—there is clearly an overlap between the fields of Islamic ritual studies and bioethics.

To date there has been little systematic consideration of Islamic ritual performances from a bioethical perspective. It would be impossible to survey more than a handful of Islamic rituals from such a perspective here. Rather than attempting to do so, the present article focuses on five ritual practices that, regardless of sectarian affiliation (i.e., whether they are Sunni or Shī‘ī), class or gender, all adult Muslims of sound mind must perform: purification (ṭaharāh); prayer (ṣalāh); fasting (ṣawm); slaughter (dhabīḥah); and funeral rites (janāzah). As shall be shown, these five ritual practices have been discussed from a range of bioethical perspectives.

This article probes the extent to which these five ritual practices were originally explained in terms of their medical and ethical benefits, before surveying some recent reassessments of the same practices by contemporary Muslim scholars whose interests lie in championing precisely these benefits. The article concludes by summarizing some of the key bioethical motives underpinning Islamic ritual legislation and performance, and by suggesting future avenues of research for those interested in exploring intersections between the fields of Islamic ritual studies and bioethics.

Purification (al-Ṭahārah)

The Qurʾān commands believers to purify their bodies before prayer ( 4:43/5:6) and to shun impurity ( 74:5). The details of when and how the different ritual purifications take place—as well as the nature and order of the acts, and the amounts of liquid/purifying substance required—are spelled out in great detail in the ḥadīth literature and legal manuals (for more details, see the entry on “Purity”). The physical well-being of Muslims is obviously of concern to the Qurʾān; this is the reason it permits believers, when ill, to perform their purifications with sand, rather than with water, in a ritual known as tayammum ( 4:43/5:6). The same concern underpins concessions regarding the purity statuses of individuals with chronic illnesses (incontinence, nocturnal emissions, vaginal bleeding, and others), who are permitted to pray despite the likelihood of doing so in a state of ritual impurity. This is not, of course, to say that the Qurʾān or any other early source recommends purification primarily for the sake of believers’ physical health. It is nevertheless possible to locate health-specific interests in the jurists’ classical purity code, such as when Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) attributes the ruling to wash all dogs’ water vessels seven times, rather than once, to the fact that dogs are known to carry rabies (Ibn Rushd, 1994, p. 29).

Contemporary Muslim scholars often emphasize the medical and ethical potential of Islam’s purity code in ways unknown to classical Islam. Whereas the classical jurists were willing to explain aspects of this code as non-rational acts of devotion (i.e., as taʿabbudī), contemporary scholars are more likely to interpret all purity regulations rationally, often in terms of their potential to improve and sustain believers’ good health. On occasion this approach causes more problems than it solves. Consider the case of circumcision, which while only tangentially linked to the formal sphere of ṭaharāh (dedicated to discussions on ritual ablutions and various types of bodily impurities), is nevertheless also referred to as an act of “purification” (ṭahārah) in the legal manuals. Many contemporary Muslims struggle to locate the medical and ethical benefits of circumcision; fewer still are able to justify female circumcision along these lines. For critics of the latter practice, including the late Sheikh of al-Azhar, Muḥammad Sayyid al-Ṭanṭāwī (d. 2010), the absence of any reference to female circumcision in the Qurʾān and the overt cruelty of the act itself means that it should be rejected outright, as having no place in Islam.

Due to its controversial nature, the subject of female circumcision often serves as a litmus test via which “traditional” Muslims separate themselves from those arguing for reform. With many women’s rights’ organizations campaigning for female circumcision to be banned, the former group invariably accuses the latter of pandering to the West. For a sensible discussion of this topic from a Muslim perspective—which explores the ways in which the relevant legal material on circumcision is recruited to serve competing political and ideological agendas (see Ali, 2006, ch. 6).

Prayer (al-Ṣalāh)

Muslims are commanded to pray in the Qurʾān (e.g., 17:78; 24:58). Beginning with the saying of the takbīr (“God is Great”), the legal manuals describe a series of movements and utterances to be practiced by every Muslim as they pray. Collectively, this series is known as a rakʿah. Each rakʿah involves four positions: standing, bowing, kneeling, and prostrating. Each movement is accompanied by specific praises to God; and the number of rakʿahs to be performed differs according to the time of day. Scholars differ over minimum and maximum numbers of rakʿahs. However, most Muslims do not consider as obligatory more than four rakʿahs at any given time. The prayer ends with the Muslim wishing peace to his/her fellow worshippers and to the recording angels (taslīm).

The classical jurists agree on most major aspects of the prayer ritual, though numerous minor differences are expressed between and within the various sects and law schools (madhāhib). It is worth mentioning, however, that virtually all Sunnis and most Shīʿīs insist on five daily prayers, whereas certain voices—including a minority of Shīʿī scholars and the Qurʾān Only groups—rule that there should be three, on the grounds that only three prayer times are explicitly identified in the Qurʾān ( 24:58). Replete with references to heavenly and ethical rewards, the legal discussions eschew all mention of the medical benefits of prayer. This is not to say, however, that physical health is not an important factor in Muslim prayer rituals. If incapable of bowing and/or prostrating, sick Muslims are granted a dispensation (rukhṣah) to pray seated; if incapable of praying seated, they should do so reclining (according to many, they should recline in the direction of Mecca). The same concessions are offered to Muslims with disabilities. For the relevant legal discussions from a Sunni perspective, see the chapter on “Ṣalāt al-musāfir wa-ṣalāt ahl al-aʿdhār” in volume 2 of al-Mughnī wa-al-Sharḥ al-Kabīr, a major legal compendium by the Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn Qudāmah (d. 1223) (2004). A summary of the differences between Shīʿī and Sunni rulings on prayer by the Lebanese Shīʿī scholar Muhammad Jawad Maghniyyah (d. 1979), is available at the Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library.

There have been numerous recent studies into the medical benefits of regularly performing prayers. Among such benefits are included prayer’s positive effects on the body’s circulation of blood and digestive system, and its powers to mitigate the effects of cholesterol, to reduce the likelihood of diabetes, heart disease, premature senility and dementia, and to strengthen and increase mobility in the joints, aid cerebral circulation, and improve postural reflex. Indeed, the specific movements of ṣalāh are reported to bring discrete benefits: the act of prostration (sajdah), for instance, in which the votary’s forehead, nose, hands, knees, and toes all make contact with the ground simultaneously, is said to be excellent for the neck and perineal muscles (Ghaznawi, 1977, pp. 21–24). The supererogatory tarāwīḥ prayers, which involve at least eight rakʿahs and are performed throughout Ramadan, are described as the most beneficial for the body (see, e.g., the information provided by the website of the International Islamic Research Foundation at www.irfi.org/articles/articles_1_50/medical_benefits_of_taraweeh_prayers.htm).

The above studies agree that by requiring Muslims to exercise as they worship, Islam adds years to believers’ lives. The same exercises, moreover, retain their value as Muslims grow older and are shown to be particularly effective in improving the medical conditions of the elderly (e.g., Reza et al., 2002, pp. 177–180). The psychological benefits of ṣalāh are similarly noted. These include: the amelioration of stress and “improvement in subjective well-being, [and] interpersonal sensitivity” (Henry, 2015, p. 357).

While classical sources understood the need to include physically disabled individuals in the community’s ritual provisions, there remains scant research regarding the degree to which today’s Muslims are doing this. Rooshey Hasnain et al. controversially argue that, although “the Prophet Mohammad, the Messenger of Islam, took special care to ensure that people with disabilities were able to come to prayers,” the same degree of care is not evident in many mosques in the United States. These authors claim that the current situation reflects the “immigrant origins and limited awareness of measures to accommodate the needs of congregants with disabilities.” As a result, they conclude, disabled Muslims are “relatively more isolated than their counterparts in other faith-based institutions” (Hasnain et al., 2008, p. 27).

Fasting during Ramadan (al-Ṣawm fi Ramaḍan)

Qurʾān 2:185 instructs all Muslims to fast—no food, drink, or sexual intercourse—during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. The same verse exempts those who are sick or traveling from fasting, but expects them to make up the days missed once they are able to do so. The ḥadīth and legal literature confirms and elaborates upon the Qurʾānic instructions. There is virtual unanimity among jurists, then, that all healthy Muslims who have reached the age of puberty are legally obligated to fast. Alongside travelers and sick individuals, those not of sound mind, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are also exempted from the obligation to fast. Certain Shīʿī sources observe that the fast of a sick individual (who risks damaging their health further by persisting in fasting) is not accepted. This is the opinion of Muhammad Jawad Maghniyyah, for instance, see Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library: “Fasting under Five Schools of Islam,” point 2; for most Muslims, by contrast, this person’s fast stands, though it may be “disliked” (makrūh). Both Sunnis and Shīʿīs require most individuals with an exemption from fasting to make up their fast at a later date. All agree that the menstruant and woman with lochial bleeding are forbidden from fasting, and that they are only expected to make up their days of fast, not the individual prayers that they have missed. When breaking the fast, many Muslims adopt the Prophet’s habit of eating an odd number of fresh dates or, if these are not available, of drinking milk or water. For the relevant details and ḥadīths, see the chapter on “Fasting” in Sayyid Sabiq’s Fiqh al-Sunnah (1990, pp. 609–656).

The Qurʾān prescribes fasting (“as it was prescribed to those before you”) so that Muslims achieve “taqwā,” a word translated by commentators as referring to a quality seen in those who demonstrate “self-restraint” (Yusuf Ali), who are “righteous” (Sahih International), who “ward off evil” (Pickthall) and, perhaps most accurately, to those who are “God-fearing” (Arberry) ( 2:183). Elsewhere, though not in a verse linked specifically to Ramadan, the Qurʾān hints at a complementary rationale for the fast by permitting Muslims to eat and drink of whatever they like, but warning against doing so to excess, “for God loves not the wasters” ( 7:31). The vital ethical component of the Ramadan fast, eloquently summarized by al-Qarāfī in relation to niyyāh, was remarked upon in the introduction. For Sunnis the reward of someone who forgets his/her fast and curses is diminished (Sabiq, 1990, p. 640); while Shīʿī authorities declare that the fast of anyone fabricating messages about God and/or the Prophet or remaining too long in a state of sexual impurity (janābah) is void. For a summary of these matters by the contemporary Iraqi Shīʿī scholar Allamah Muhammad Jawad Maghniyya, see Ahl al-Bayt Digital Islam Online Encyclopedia: “Fasting under Five Schools of Islam.”.

If fasting trains Muslims to reflect upon their religion while (and by) exerting control over their physical bodies, few classical Islamic texts make any direct reference to its medical benefits. Once again this is not to deny that early Muslims saw a connection between diet and physical health. The Qurʾānic admonishment to avoid excessive eating and drinking was strengthened by an appeal to the logic of medieval medicine, which often perceived the stomach as the cause of all diseases (J. Christoph Bürgel, 1976, p. 57). The same belief goes some way toward explaining the Prophet’s caustic assessment of the human belly: “The son of Adam will never fill a container with something worse and more evil than his stomach. It will suffice him some morsels (food) that will keep him on his feet, otherwise, he should divide his stomach into three parts: one third for his food, the other for his drink and the other third for his breath.” This ḥadīth is cited ubiquitously, though generally left unreferenced, in modern Muslim sources (e.g., Al-Khayat, 2004, p. 20). The same ḥadīth is concretely referenced in al-Ṭibb min al-Kitāb wa-al-Sunnah by Sunni physician and polymath Abd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī (d. 1231) (1998, p. 14).

Not surprisingly contemporary Muslims often choose to emphasize Ramadan’s message of self-restraint by pointing to the global problems caused by ever-increasing rates of obesity and related diseases. Fasting, like the dietary laws and prohibitions on alcohol and drugs, is thus perceived and presented as encouraging a healthy lifestyle, one in which an individual’s physical appetites are rigorously monitored and, when necessary, resisted. Muslim specialists are careful to point out that a month’s fast poses no danger to an average person’s constitution (see, e.g., Azizi, 1996, 241–246). Carried out responsibly, the positive effects of fasting may include weight loss in overweight individuals as well as decreased serum levels of glucose and cholesterol (Neghab, 2007, 968–971). Several studies report an increase in HDL cholesterol during Ramadan suggesting “a theoretical decrease in cardiovascular risk” as a result of fasting (Karamat et al., 2010, 139–147). The positive effects of observing the fast during Ramadan may continue for several weeks after the end of the month (Shehab et al., 2012). Embedded in this literature there are innumerable reminders that only individuals who are in good health and not passing through unusual circumstances (such as pregnancy) should fast. The frequency with which this warning is repeated is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) acknowledgment that many Muslims persist in fasting even when they are exempted, or forbidden, from doing so.

From a bioethical perspective, the focus of much recent scholarship—neatly summarized and referenced for present purposes in a series of articles published by the Journal of Pakistan Medical Association—lies in exploring the effects of fasting on individuals who are not legally obligated to do so. There has been, for instance, significant research into the effects of Ramadan fasting on individuals with diabetes (El-Sayyed and Sabet, 2015) and among pregnant woman (Almond and Mazumder, 2008). Not surprisingly, some scholars combine an interest in the two conditions to report on the effects of fasting on pregnant women with diabetes (Pathan, 2015). Other studies tackle the relationship between fasting, heart disease, and diabetes (Khan 2015). Research has also been carried out into the effects of Ramadan fasting among elderly Muslims, particularly those with diabetes and other illnesses (Azzoug et al., 2015).

Ritual Slaughter (al-Dhabīḥah)

By permitting believers to eat only the meat of animals upon which “God’s name has been mentioned” ( 6:118; 6:121), the Qurʾān arguably ensured that ritual slaughter would always be an act of central importance in the lives of Muslims. The importance of ritual slaughter, and the subsequent eating of legally permitted (ḥalāl) meat, to the construction of Muslim identity is communicated in a ḥadīth: “Whoever recites our prayers and worships in the direction of our qiblah and eats the meat of our slaughtered animals, that person is a Muslim who has the protection of God and the protection of His messenger” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, I:82–3, quoted in Freidenreich, 2011, p. 144).

Sunnis and Shīʿīs adopt different approaches to who can perform ritual slaughter and which meats are, therefore, permissible to eat. Sunnis generally allow other Muslims to consume the meat of animals slaughtered by Jews, Christians, and Magians, but not polytheists, atheists, or apostates; while Shīʿīs insist that the animal must always be slaughtered by a Muslim. Meanwhile, regarding the act of ritual slaughter itself, there are few differences of opinion between Islam’s main branches and even among the law schools themselves, wherein the jurists elaborate in detail on the Qurʾān’s relatively sparse instructions. It is this act of killing animals in a ritually prescribed fashion that interests and challenges contemporary Muslims, particularly those with bioethical concerns.

The act of ritual slaughter occurs as the main arteries in the neck, along with the esophagus and vertebrate trachea, are severed with one swipe of a sharp, non-serrated blade. As the knife moves over the jugular, it is recommended or required to invoke the name of God (bism Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm). The slaughter must be performed by someone with the relevant knowledge. And no part of a slaughtered animal should be cut off before the animal is completely dead. For an example of such regulations, see Ibn Qudāmah’s chapter on “al-Dhabīḥah” in al-Mughnī (2004), vol. 8.

The killing of animals for food is fully sanctioned by all classical authorities providing it takes place according to the above regulations. Whether or not the classical legal authorities systematically expressed any deep concern for animal welfare is debatable. As Sarra Tlili shows, however, it is clear that many jurists did appeal to the Qurʾān and, in particular, the ḥadīth traditions to warn Muslims not to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals (Tlili, 2015). According to a number of sound ḥadīths, the animal that is to be sacrificed should be treated gently, never slaughtered in the sight of other animals, and dispatched only by an expert using a sharp blade. In a ḥadīth included in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, one of Sunni Islam’s six canonical ḥadīth texts, the Prophet reminds his listeners that, as He desires “proficiency in all matters,” God also wants Muslims “to perform dhabīḥah [slaughter] well”—“Let each one of you sharpen his blade and spare suffering to the animal he slays.” (For the relevant ḥadīths, see Tlili, 2015, p. 6.) For an interesting, bioethically informed discussion of the classical jurists’ relative clemency and wisdom in developing the dietary and slaughter laws, see Nurdeng, 2009.

Recalling how, in our wider definition of bioethics, animal welfare plays a role, it is probably accurate to say that slaughter is the most discussed of all Muslim rituals from a modern bioethical perspective. Here the attention of both Western media and academia, much of which has been very critical, puts Muslims on the defensive. By contrast with circumcision—as noted, neither male nor female circumcision is mentioned in the Qurʾān; while legally recommended by most scholars, the latter is practiced within a comparatively limited number of Muslim communities—the fact that, from the legal perspective, animals must be ritually slaughtered to be edible is supported by most modern Muslims, though debates have emerged in recent years. With the rise of animal welfare movements in the twentieth century, there has been growing pressure on Muslim communities, particularly in the West, to change traditional slaughter practices so as to require the pre-slaughter stunning of animals. In 1958 in the United States the Humane Slaughter Act was passed requiring all animals to be rendered insensible prior to being slaughtered. Likewise, stunning animals before slaughter was made compulsory in most European countries during the 1960s (Bergeaud-Blackler, 2007, p. 967). More recently in 2009 the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe concluded that “the practice of slaughtering animals without prior stunning is unacceptable under any circumstances” (Zoethout, 2013, p. 658).

The numbers of Muslims living in both America and Europe have risen dramatically since the 1970s due to immigration from the Maghreb, former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Despite intense, often heated discussions, only a few countries—Greece, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Norway, and, as of 2014, Denmark—definitively rule that Muslims must follow European slaughtering practices by stunning all animals prior to slaughter (Bergeaud-Blackler, 2007, p. 967). In other European countries, and in America, Muslims benefit from the preexisting dispensation traditionally extended to Jews. In some places, such as Denmark and Finland, the decision to permit ritual slaughter without stunning has become a political litmus test for attitudes to immigration. Different rulings on the permissibility of ritual slaughter may often be explained as the result of contrasting attitudes toward the relationship between state and religion (Havinga, 2010).

Muslim attitudes to the question of stunning are more varied than those expressed within the Jewish community (the latter tends to reject stunning outright on the grounds that, for its meat to be kosher, an animal must be healthy and uninjured before it is slaughtered). Numerous Muslim slaughterhouses in the West have incorporated stunning into their ritual slaughter procedures. Such concessions are given on the condition that key aspects of this ritual are not contravened. Forms of stunning that can kill the animal before it is slaughtered—thus rendering its body, by Islamic legal standards, “carrion” (maytah)—are not, for instance, permitted on the grounds that the Qurʾān prohibits the consumption of carrion ( 5:3). For this reason, the British Halal Food Authority permits water-bath stunning of poultry and electric-tong stun for larger animals and does not permit captive-bolt stunning, percussion stunning, or gas stunning, all of which carry a risk, it is argued, of peremptorily killing the animal before exsanguination takes place. The need to minimize animal suffering is, therefore, acknowledged by many Muslims. Halal Watch, an organization that monitors the conditions of slaughter institutions throughout the Muslim world, has run workshops to draw attention to the need to improve the conditions of animals in Muslim slaughterhouses in Egypt and Turkey (www.halal-slaughter-watch.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/ 27.09.2014_Azhar_halal_slaughter.pdf)

Calls for stunning animals before slaughter are made less often by Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries. But they are made. Noting that the Qurʾān permits Muslims to eat the food of “the People of the Book” (Jews and Christians) ( 5:5), the influential Egyptian sheikh Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī has declared that, providing that there is no suggestion that the animal was dedicated to any deity other than God, Muslims living in non-Muslim majority countries may eat the meat of animals that were stunned before slaughter, or even killed “by means of electric shock or the like” (al-Qaraḍāwī, 2013, pp. 59–60). (It is worth noting that this ruling implicitly permits Muslims to eat the meat of animals killed by atheists.) In 1978 the Egyptian Fatwa Committee agreed that the meat of animals subjected to electronarcosis remains ḥalāl. While choosing not to enforce stunning, authorities in other countries, particularly in the Gulf, recommend that people no longer slaughter in their homes; concomitantly, these authorities claim to be taking steps to monitor and improve the existing standards of their slaughterhouses (see, e.g., Harnan, 2013). For a comprehensive review of the matter and a forceful argument in favor of improving animal welfare in Muslim countries and permitting some types of pre-slaughter stunning, see the article published by a number of Muslim scholars, “Stunning and Animal Welfare from Islamic and Scientific Perspectives” (Nakyinsige et al., 2013).

Some Muslim scholars, notably modern Saudi Arabian Salafī authorities, deny that the meat of animals stunned before being slaughtered is ḥalāl. Two practical objections to stunning are invariably raised. First, there is always a risk that the animal will die from the effects of stunning rather than from the act of slaughter itself; if this happens, the meat becomes carrion and is forbidden to Muslims. Second, as stunning reduces bloodshed, the blood may congeal and become trapped in the flesh; as the consumption of blood is prohibited in the Qurʾān ( 5:3), this meat automatically becomes forbidden to them. Muslim objections to the use of stunning and concomitant defenses of traditional forms of ḥalāl slaughter often develop into impassioned denial of the accusation that Islam encourages cruelty against animals. This is true of both Sunni and Shīʿī sources.

On occasion, Muslim detractors of the practice of stunning seek to turn the tables on their critics by claiming that, rather than sparing suffering, stunning is in reality crueler than traditional slaughter methods. According to this argument, while animals may appear to be suffering during slaughter by cutting the jugular and carotid artery, “the flow of blood to the nerve in the brain that causes the sensation of pain is stopped” (see, e.g., Sinha, et al., 2012). Similarly, rather than focusing on the controversial and divisive question of stunning, many Muslims emphasize the risks of eating meat that is not fully exsanguinated (see, e.g., Azeez, 2013, p. 33).

Funeral Rites (al-Janāzah)

The Qurʾān does not mention funeral rituals. Leor Halevi demonstrates how early Arabian and Iraqi funeral practices differed as regards various matters, including the washing of the corpse. Nevertheless, Halevi concludes that most jurists had come to agree upon the basics by the ninth century (Halevi, 2007). The following regulations are distilled from the chapter on funeral rites in Ibn Qudāmah’s al-Mughnī (2004). In agreement with the Prophet’s advice to “hasten the funeral rites,” there is a consensus of opinion that the funeral should take place quickly. The corpse is to be laid out, the private parts (al-ʿawrāh) covered by a clean, unembroidered sheet, then washed. The bowels should be evacuated. Most jurists argued that the corpse is to be given both a minor and major ablution (wuḍūʾ and ghusl), and that the body should be washed either three or five times, with a cleaning agent. The final wash should be with camphor or some other type of perfume. Men should wash men; and women should wash women. The majority of jurists agreed that wives may wash their deceased husbands; and permitted husbands to wash their deceased wives. Those who objected to this idea argued that, with the death of a spouse, the marital relationship concludes. In such a view death is analogous to a final and irrevocable divorce, a situation that involves the husband divorcing his wife three times. Most jurists rejected this logic; while a minority even permitted divorcees to wash their ex-spouses (providing the divorce had not been irrevocable). If no member of the family is available to wash the corpse, the jurists ruled that the responsibility to do so falls to a learned member of the community. Accordingly, the one who performs the ablutions is expected to perform the major ablution (ghusl) after s/he finishes the ritual, although for reasons discussed below most scholars recommend, rather than impose, this ruling. If the deceased died as a result of trauma, washing is recommended if possible. If there is a possibility that its integrity will be compromised, the corpse should be purified through lustration with sand (tayammum). Stillborn children who do not show signs of life (by emitting a sound) are not prayed over, but, providing the fetus is older than four months, s/he may be washed. Bodies are to be buried in graves deep enough to conceal the odor of the body so that animals do not disturb the grave. Most jurists disliked or prohibited the burial of bodies inside the mosque. One influential opinion states that the body should be buried facing the qiblah.

Underpinning these regulations, there is a clear concern to protect and preserve the dignity of the deceased. In one Prophetic ḥadīth washing a dead person is described as an especially meritorious act: providing the washer “conceals what he sees [in terms of smell, appearance, and so forth], God will grant him forgiveness forty times over” (al-Nawawī, 2007, ch. 154). Key to preserving the dead person’s dignity is an insistence that his/her private parts remain unseen by anyone other than a close relative or spouse. Some scholars permit menstruants and women suffering from lochial bleeding to wash the dead, but most prefer not to. In these ways the discourses of modesty and purity become intertwined in legal discussions on dying and death. Besides that of the Muslim who dies in a state of iḥrām (i.e., during the annual ḥajj pilgrimage), the only corpse that is not to be ritually washed belongs to the martyr—an observation which reminds us that one further discourse, pertaining to jihād, is also discernible here. For the ruling on the martyr, see, e.g., Sabiq, 1990, “al-Ṣalāṭ alā al-shahīd,” p. 438–439.

The classical jurists engaged in lengthy discussions on the etiquette of mourning and on how to console the next of kin. Indeed, in the degree of attention they paid to all aspects of behavior surrounding the funeral, the classical jurists demonstrated a profound awareness of the effects of death and dying on the individual and his/her community. Yet while funeral rituals have attracted recent attention by Islamicists and ethnographers, little detailed research from a bioethical perspective has been carried out in the field of janāzah by either Muslim or non-Muslim scholars. When this connection is made, commentators merely note the implicit emphasis on hygiene; the instructions for the washer to wash both the body and him/herself are typically recognized as evidence of classical Islam’s advanced hygiene code. One interesting article, which goes some way toward rectifying this lacuna, investigates the lack of provisions offered to Muslim parents whose children are stillborn (Shaw, 2014). Here the author notes that, while there is “religious ground for giving a stillborn baby of Muslim parents a Muslim funeral,” in contemporary socioeconomic contexts this often does not happen (Shaw, 2014, p. 94).


While the Qurʾānic and legal literature on ritual performances demonstrates a clear concern with Muslims’ physical well-being, a fact reflected in the dispensations granted to those who are ill and/or incapable of fulfilling their ritual obligations, the specific and long-term effects of ritual activity on Muslim health have only recently begun to be explored. Among Muslims engaged in this task, there is pride regarding the holistic benefits of rituals that are key to the faith, such as purification, prayer, and fasting. In each case Muslim medical specialists are able to demonstrate how their ritual performances protect and preserve believers’ health. Underpinning this scholarship, there is a desire to explore the wider potentials of Islamic ritual using a bioethical lens; and, it may be noted, the curiosity and confidence of modern Muslims is generally in agreement with the approaches of the classical scholars who drew up Islam’s ritual legal system.

It is worth also noting, however, that many approaches to Islamic ritual by medical specialists (both Muslim and non-Muslim) are undertaken with the simplistic assumption that Islam is a unified and uniform phenomenon. Subsequent research too often takes for granted that there is only one set of regulations regarding the ablutions, or one way of performing prayers, or of washing the dead. The intricacies of Islam’s ritual legal system, within which multiple opinions are expressed and tolerated, are rarely acknowledged or entered into. Such an approach is understandable: when aggressively confronted by critics on controversial subjects such as ritual slaughter and female circumcision, the tendency has been to find the most “modern”-sounding alternative and present this as the only Islamic option. This approach is, however, unfortunate, in that it runs counter to the otherwise bold spirit that informs so many discussions—on matters such as abortion, fertility treatments, euthanasia, and cloning—in the burgeoning and necessarily controversial field of Islamic bioethics.

It is to be hoped that, in choosing to explore the bioethical potential of existing Muslim ritual laws and practices, more scholars will acknowledge that significantly different ways of thinking about the body are enshrined within the classical ritual material. A few straightforward examples suffice to make this point. For instance, most Sunnis agree that dying constitutes a major form of intangible impurity (ḥadath) and, therefore, that the deceased should receive the major ablution (ghusl) so that his/her impurity is lifted. Shīʿīs, by contrast, believe that a corpse communicates an actual and contagious form of impurity (najāsah). Such impurity cannot be purified. For those familiar with Islamic purity law, this is a significant difference, one that suggests fundamentally dissimilar understandings of how death affects the human condition. The ruling by the famous Ẓāhirī scholar Ibn Ḥazm (d. 994), that the janāzah rites may be performed over any organ of the human body, however small—rather than over an intact corpse, as most scholars rule—is similarly thought-provoking (Sabiq, 1990, p. 438). Indeed, rather than focusing solely on normative ritual practices, it is worth remembering that Islam is replete with fascinating ritual performances that tell contrasting stories of the relationship between our physical bodies and ethical selves. It would be interesting, for example, to reflect upon the bioethical—rather than the theological and/or anthropological—meanings inherent in the Shīʿī mourning rituals of ʿAshūrā, or the bioethical ramifications of the Mevlevi’s whirling dance.


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