Citation for Agency

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Mir, Mustansir . "Agency." In The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jan 27, 2022. <>.


Mir, Mustansir . "Agency." In The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Jan 27, 2022).


Does Moral Agency Exist?

Philosophically, the issue of moral agency in Islam arises in the context of the problem of free will and determinism—or, in religious terms, predestination. In Islamic bioethics, the issue arises in connection with decisions a human being is supposed to be able to make in certain medical and health-related situations.

Do human beings possess freedom of action or are their actions predetermined by an omnipotent God? The Qurʾānic verses on the matter seem to point in two opposite directions. Some stress that all power belongs to God and that God has the power to do what He pleases and that He guides and even misguides people in this world at will and will reward and punish them in the next as He sees fit (e.g., 2:165; 3:129, 154; 14:4; 22:14; 74:31), while others state that human beings have the ability to choose between the right and wrong paths and perform good or bad deeds, and will thus become deserving of their recompense in the afterlife (e.g., 18:29; 52:21; 76:3). In early Islamic centuries, a debate arose between two broad groups of theologians, the so-called predestinarians (the later, Orthodox predestinarians—Ashʿarīyah—are distinguished from the early, compulsionist predestinarians—Jabrīyah—by means of their doctrine of human kasb, or acquisition, of acts otherwise created by God, even though the doctrine proved to be problematic) and libertarians (Qādarīyah, who may be called forerunners of the later, theoretically more sophisticated and better-known Muʿtazilah). But, aside from the fact that the attempts to justify either of the two positions would run afoul of much of the nuanced Qurʾānic data on the subject, one may ask whether either position is, in principle, authentically Qurʾānic, for the Qurʾān does not take a philosophical approach to issues of life and conduct á la ancient Greek or modern Western thinkers. The Qurʾānic emphasis on God’s omnipotence is meant to refute those who, in their arrogance, consider themselves above the law and beyond accountability, whereas the Qurʾānic emphasis on human freedom is intended to refute those who take a fatalistic view of life, absolving themselves of the obligation to make moral choices. In its criticism of either position, the Qurʾān does not evince unqualified support for the opposite position. The Qurʾān’s basic stance seems to be that human beings are possessed of a certain degree of freedom, that they are responsible for their actions, and that their accountability is commensurate with the degree of freedom they possess. Thus, when the Qurʾān says that God “created death and life so that He may put you to the test to find out who among you would perform better deeds” (67:2), it clearly attributes agency to human beings. The Qurʾān would not deny that external factors—social, historical-traditional or, in modern terminology, genetic, environmental, or some other—influence one’s actions, but it would reject the idea that such influences causally and inexorably determine all one’s actions. But, quite apart from the theoretical reasoning for or against moral agency, all ethical systems, ancient or modern—whether those coming before or after Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) propounded his famous distinction between theoretical and practical reason—have presumed the existence of human responsibility in order to justify some system of praise and blame, or reward and punishment, and the Islamic ethical system is no exception. The Qurʾān emphatically asserts that, on Judgment Day, human beings will be recompensed justly for their actions (27:90; 45:28; 52:21), that “God is not at all unjust to His servants” (3:182), who will not be treated by God unjustly, not even “by as much as the thread in the crack of a date pit” (4:49, 77; 17:71). The Qurʾān holds human beings responsible for their actions, and it could not do so without presuming the existence of a certain degree of real moral agency on their part.

Scope and Limits of Moral Agency

Moral agency in Islam, one has to assume, has certain prescriptive limits. For instance, 33:36 says: “It is not proper for a believing man or a believing woman, when God and His Prophet have given their judgment on a matter, to have discretion in the matter.” A divine and prophetic decision on a matter—that is, a ruling of the Qurʾān or a ruling in Muḥammad’s normative conduct (Sunnah)—may not be challenged, defied, or ignored. This might suggest that the Islamic ethical-legal theory is essentially divine command theory and leaves little room for independent human moral agency. To be sure, there was a heated debate in classical Islam about the status of divine command in the Islamic legal-ethical theory (for the main positions taken in the debate, see Sachedina, 2009, pp. 36–41). Divine command is certainly one—and the most important—element of that theory, but there are at least three other elements: reason (the Qurʾān not only appeals to reason as the basis for choosing the Right Path, or the right religion, but also cites rational considerations as the basis of many of its prescriptions—as, for example, in the case of the retaliatory punishment [qiṣāṣ] for murder [2:179]); moral intuition, that is, a God-given sense of good and evil (91:8); and conscience (whose negative and positive components, respectively, are al-nafs al-ammārah [12:53], “the reproachful self,” and qalb salīm [26:89; 37:84], the “wholesome heart”). These elements of the Islamic legal-ethical theory together serve as the instruments through which moral agency is mediated in Islam. Thus, while it is true that autonomy understood as an absolute or unqualified human right does not form part of the Islamic concept of moral agency (Sachedina, 2009. pp. 8, 12–13), Islam is not opposed to the idea of responsible, “educated” autonomy—that is, an autonomy grounded in Islamic norms and values.

The scope of such autonomy in Islam is quite broad. Notably, 33:36, cited above, talks about matters on which a divine or prophetic judgment already exists, but not about matters that have been left undecided by God and the Prophet. According to Islamic law, human acts fall into five categories—obligatory (wājib), recommended (mandūb), neutral (mubāh), reprehensible (makrūh), and forbidden (ḥarām) (Abū Zahrah, 1958, pp. 23–45; Hallaq, 2009, pp. 84–85). The middle category, the mubāh, as discussed in the works of Islamic law, is fairly vast, giving human moral agency considerable free play. Furthermore, only one of the five categories—that of forbidden acts—limits or abridges moral agency, and even the strictures of this category are annulled or suspended in a case of urgent or pressing need, on the generally accepted principle that necessity turns the unlawful into lawful (al-ḍarūrāt tubīḥ al-maḥẓūrāt) (Abū Zahrah, 1958, p. 353).

Talk of prescriptive limits to moral agency, no matter how wide the scope of that agency, raises a theoretical issue: Is agency under religion at all possible? If the term Islam means submission to God, then can a person who submits to God, making his or her will subject to the will of God, truly be regarded as possessing agency? The question is one of definition. There is considerable merit to the view that “a deliberate self-consciousness about obedience to rules” qualifies as autonomy (Jennings, 2009, p. 77). Thus, a self-conscious decision to follow a path or take a course of conduct—irrespective of whether that path or conduct is conceived in religious or in secular terms—accepting the consequences of choosing that path or conduct, would not represent a negation of agency.

The discussion so far has revolved around personal or individual moral agency. But there also exists in Islam society’s collective or corporate agency, represented by the institutions and policies generated by the practice of what is called in Islamic law maṣlaḥah, “utility, common or public interest” (Abū Zahrah, 1958, pp. 258–268; Sachedina, 2009, pp. 49 ff.). This principle of social or general good gives Islamic law and ethics a decidedly communitarian character. How Islamic law views the relationship between, and the relative claims of, personal and collective agency with reference to various bioethical issues that have arisen in modern times needs investigation. Obviously, though, if exercise of personal agency is likely to jeopardize larger societal interests, the principle of maṣlaḥah will protect these interests at the cost of personal agency (for examples, see below).

Moral Agency in Bioethics

How is moral agency in Islam, as outlined above, employed in the field of bioethics? We will briefly consider selected issues—and only some aspects of these issues—with reference to life and health.

The Qurʾān calls the human being God’s khalīfah, “caliph, deputy, vicegerent,” on earth. This is typically interpreted to mean that human beings are not the real owners but only custodians or stewards of what they have or what belongs to them. This is true of their lives and their bodies, concerning which, accordingly, they are not at liberty to make just any decisions they like but must use their autonomy within the parameters set by Islam. If life is God’s gift to human beings—or, as has aptly been said, it is “not even a gift so much as a loan” (Newman, 1991, p. 109)—then preservation of life and, derivatively, of health, becomes incumbent upon them. The Prophet said, “Your body has claims (ḥaqq) upon you,” meaning that taking proper care of one’s body is an obligation (al-Bukhārī, Kitāb al-Ṣawm, Bāb ḥaqq al-jism fī l-ṣawm, and elsewhere). But does this obligation translate into an imperative to seek medical treatment in illness? The juristic differences over the issue are probably due to the differences in the severity of illnesses as also to the difficulty in determining the severity of an illness in a given case. A life-threatening illness would, by analogy from the well-known Islamic prohibition of suicide, make it necessary to seek treatment, but such necessity does not represent a negation of agency but a subsumption of agency under the higher objective of sustenance of life.

Since life is regarded as a positive good, killing without cause or justification (illā bi-al-ḥaqq) is forbidden (6:151), killing a single person in this way being like killing the entire humankind (5:32). Some ancient Arabian tribes’ practice of burying newborn girls alive for fear of poverty or for other reasons is condemned by the Qurʾān (6:151; 17:31; 43:17–18; 81:8–9). An example of justified killing would be the capital punishment awarded a murderer by a legally constituted authority, such as the state. But is abortion—induced abortion, that is—killing? If abortion is defined as termination of an unborn offspring’s life—and determination of the stage at which an unborn offspring can properly be called a living being in Islam is a controversial matter, especially in light of modern medical knowledge (Hathout, 1991, pp. 106–107; Hathout, 1992, pp. 68–69), though 120 days of pregnancy is often regarded as the dividing line between a living offspring and a non-living one (Rispler-Chaim, 8–9)—then abortion is killing and is forbidden. But, again, the Qur’ānic proviso of illā bi-l-ḥaqq is crucial. Imminent and serious danger to the mother’s health or life can become grounds for choosing abortion (Rispler-Chaim, 8, 12; Hathout 1991, 108); some consider “a risk for the mother, the child or society” grounds for abortion (Atighetchi, 118). The opinion differs in case of a pregnancy caused by rape (Atighetchi, 116–117). A single formulaic answer may not allow for the differing circumstances, cultural and other, of the affected women. A woman who gives birth to a child of rape may, in some cultures, have to live in shame and humiliation for the rest of her life and suffer from psychological trauma, but may, in other cultures, find greater sympathy, tolerance, and support. As such, one wonders if the decision to have or not have the baby should not rest with the mother. Some jurists allow abortion—in the first 120 days of pregnancy only—in cases in which the fetus suffers from a serious defect or disability (Rispler-Chaim, 1993, pp. 8–9, 14–15). But this looks like a slippery slope; it would be easy—and, in some cases, for various reasons, tempting—to add to the list, and one may never know where to draw the line. In all these cases, the question of the possibility of abortion in Islam will have to be framed not in stark terms of autonomy versus lack of autonomy but in terms of an Islamically credible cause or justification or the lack of it.

The issue of organ donation and organ transplant is a typically modern one, and one can approach it only in light of broad Islamic legal-ethical principles, even though indirect arguments in support of or against organ donation and transplantation have been adduced from the Qurʾān and Sunnah (Rispler-Chaim, 1993, pp. 32–33). If one’s body does not really belong to one, then, theoretically, one has no right to donate one’s organs in one’s lifetime or after one’s death for use by others (for a distinction, first, between donating an organ in one’s lifetime and donating it after one’s death, and, second, between donating regenerative and donating non-regenerative body tissue, see Rispler-Chaim, 1993, p. 31). On the other hand, if preservation of life is a fundamental objective in Islam, then one might justify, for example, a brother’s donation of a kidney to save a sister’s life where the donation will benefit the organ recipient either without causing the donor grievous harm or causing harm acceptable to the donor. But one can imagine many complex scenarios in which benefit and harm are difficult to assess or weigh, rendering a definitive judgment on the advisability of organ donation nearly impossible (on the legal dialectic of benefit and harm in Islam in this connection, see Sachedina, 2009, pp. 66–70). In any case, organ donation must remain a voluntary act (Rispler-Chaim, 1993, p. 35; Hathout, 1991, p. 115).

Can one decide to take one’s own life? If life is sacred then suicide is forbidden, and that, in principle, is the Islamic legal and theological position on the matter (Rosenthal, 1946, p. 245). A major inducement to suicide is despair, and despair is called “disbelief” in the Qurʾān (12:87; 15:56 says that only “those gone astray” despair of God’s mercy). A badly wounded Muslim soldier took his own life by falling on his own sword, prompting the Prophet’s remark that the soldier would not enter paradise (Rosenthal, 1946, pp. 243–244). But does a Muslim patient have a right to die and can he or she invoke that right? The Islamic teachings on the need to place trust in God (tawakkul) would militate against any such idea. The same is true of unbearable suffering as cause for suicide. Such suffering, moreover, is hard to define, and, still further, the patient undergoing such suffering might, in deciding to put an end to his or her life, be acting out of impatience or frustration rather than the pain itself. We may note that the distinction in current bioethical thought between killing and letting die is not known to Islamic law, and while an active putting an end to one’s life would be patently rejected by Islam, one’s decision to give such advance directives as withholding of extraordinary measures to prolong life when a patient is declared to be brain dead, in a persistent vegetative state, or in an advanced stage of terminal illness, would not seem to contravene any Islamic religious principle or legal injunction. Neither would such contravention seem to occur if, in light of the above-noted concept of maṣlaḥah, society, as a corporate agent, were to arrogate to itself the right to make such decisions, since the question of allocation of medical resources for patients is not only a financial one but, in view of the Islamic egalitarian ethics, a religious one as well.


Islamic bioethics is in its first stages of development, even though several studies examining aspects of Islamic biomedical theory, and also biomedical practices in parts of the Muslim world, have appeared in recent years (Atighetchi; Brockopp; Brockopp and Eich; Sachedina). Islamic treatments of bioethical issues usually draw on the juristic decisions, rulings, and opinions that make up the classical Islamic legal-ethical tradition called Shariʿah (cf. Sachedina, 2009, p. 4). But that tradition is largely premodern and needs to become sensitized to the issues and problems that have arisen in modern times. This means that, mainly, the insights to be drawn in bioethics from that tradition will have to be drawn afresh from the larger and fundamental principles of that system—the Qurʾān and the Prophet’s Sunnah being the chief sources of that system, with the principles of precedent-based analogy (qiyās) and consensus (ijmāʿ) being next in importance—rather than from its specific constructs and prescriptions of classical times. It also means that while that tradition can certainly provide religious, moral, and legal guidance and direction, study of it must be complemented by the knowledge furnished by the advances made in modern medical science. In fact, “in view of the ever-evolving state of medical technologies, jurisprudential edicts must remain provisional, subject to further clarification and dialogue among physicians, theologians, and politicians, and not as absolutely binding as they are portrayed in public” (Sachedina, 2009, pp. 164–165). All this has relevance for both theoretical and practical issues, including the specific issue of moral agency, which needs to be discussed and developed, keeping in mind, on the one hand, the Islamic norms and prescriptions and, on the other, the findings and trajectories of modern biomedical thought.


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