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FaithScience

What Does Islam Say About Organ Donation?

Can Muslims donate their organs during their life or after death? For #OrganDonationWeek, we examine the leading opinions from the Sunni and Shia legal schools.

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Can Muslims donate their organs during their life or after death? For #OrganDonationWeek, we examine the leading opinions from the Sunni and Shia legal schools.

The information presented in this article is not to be taken as final verdicts on the issue of organ donation. If you are thinking of donating an organ, please speak to a learned scholar before making a decision. This article is for educational purposes only.

Experiments on transferring organs from one body to another first began in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Starting with blood transfusions and cornea transplants, throughout the 20th Century, medical professionals have made breakthroughs in successfully transferring the major human organs, including the heart, kidney and lungs.

Whenever there is a technological or medical breakthrough, Islam pauses to think and ascertain its view of it. Is it haram or halal? And under what contexts or conditions?

Organ donations were not around in the time of the Prophet, so there is no obvious narration that tells us whether it is permissible or impermissible. This means jurists have to interpret what is available from the Quran and Sunnah and take into account the time we are living.

The two major leading schools in Islam, Sunni and Shia, have similar views on organ donation. There are certain aspects of organ donation which can be deemed halal/haram and others that remain a grey area. In this article, we present a summary of the leading and majority opinions.

Can We Donate an Organ During our Life?

The commonly held belief amongst the Sunni and Shia is we can donate an organ to anyone we want during our life – be it Muslim or non-Muslim – as long as it does not cause us significant harm or death and as long as the recipient is in need of it to sustain their life.

This is on the principle of the following verse from the Holy Quran:

and whoever saves a life is as though he had saved all mankind.”

[5:32]

Under this ruling, we can donate a kidney because we have two, and it is known a human can function with one. We could even donate parts of our liver because the liver can regenerate. We obviously can’t donate our hearts because it would lead to our death. We also can’t donate an eye or a lung because it would severely limit our ability to perform normal human functions.

The reason we are allowed to donate to non-Muslims is that the above verse talks about saving a ‘life’, not saving a ‘Muslim life’. The verse does not stipulate conditions on whose life and furthermore goes on to describe how saving a life equals saving of all of ‘mankind’. Once again, it doesn’t say ‘all of Muslims’.

Are We Allowed to Donate Organs After Death?

Here’s where things get complicated because there are other considerations and qualifications to make before a judgement can be made.

When Does Death Occur?

When are we dead? Is it when the heart stops beating or when the brain stops working? Even if a person is motionless and lying in a coma, we can’t take out an organ that would kill them. Their quality of life is poor, but they are clinically alive and so taking out a vital organ that results in death would be murder/manslaughter, which is haram.

Advancements in medical technology have proven that a person can remain clinically alive even when their brain has stopped working. Doctors have realised they can get the heart of a brain-dead person working if they put them on a ventilator. Keeping the heart pumping and working increases the chances of a successful heart transplant, so doctors may even be happy to put a brain-dead person on a ventilator in order to take their heart. But at that point, Islam would deem it impermissible to take the heart out because the heart beating proves they are still living and thus, taking the heart out means killing them.

Complicated!

The good news is Islam does provide a definition of death. The bad news is nobody is able to witness it. In Islam, death occurs when the angel of death fully extracts the soul from the body. The only thing is nobody is able to see that process occurring because it happens in the metaphysical realm.

With no clear and observable definition, both Sunni and Shia jurists rely on medical professionals to provide the definition of death. In layman’s terms, if a doctor says someone is dead, we have to accept their judgement, and thus taking their organs out for donation would be fine, in principle.

Giving Organs to non-Muslims

Giving our organs to non-Muslims while we’re alive is fine (as stipulated above with its conditions). However, after death, Sunni and Shia scholars differ.

A survey of 52 Shia jurists found organ donation permissible after death only to Muslims. Whilst (as far as my reading goes), Sunni scholars that permit organ donation after death do not stipulate that the recipient be Muslim.

For Sunni Muslims, it’s easy enough to act on and implement this view. They can freely tick ‘yes’ to organ donation on their driver’s license form or put it in their will. If they die without making their view on donating their organ clear, their heirs (wife, children etc.) can decide for them. So, if after their death, someone is in dire need of an organ, it can be transplanted from the deceased (even if they did not make their view clear) provided the majority of the heirs agree to it or think that were the deceased were to be alive, they’d happy provide the organ (in the case where the recipient is a close family member and its common knowledge that the deceased would give their permission).

On the other hand, Shia Muslims have to think twice before ticking ‘yes’ to organ donation forms. Because (as far as I know) public sector health services, such as the NHS in the UK, do not allow you to choose who your organs go to based on faith, ethnicity etc. They would simply give the organs to the person most in need. In this case, Shia Muslims are probably better of ticking ‘no’ to government and secular organ donation forms and, should they desire to donate their organs, would need to stipulate the condition of the recipient being a Muslim in their will – where it is allowed to do so.

Is Organ Donation a Form of Human Mutilation?

With respect to giving organs after death, the next issue is of mutilation. Mutilation is prohibited in Islam to the extent the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) forbade mutilating the remains of a dog with rabies. The Prophet also did not allow mutilation in warfare (cutting up a person who was already killed).

Extracting an organ from a dead body would require cutting the body – is that a form of mutilation?

In Islamic law, there is the principle of ‘what’s more important’. With respect to organ donation, two Islamic principles clash:

  1. The impermissibility of mutilating a dead body to preserve its sanctity.
  2. The importance of saving a human life, wherever and however possible (as per the Quranic verse mentioned above).

So, if someone has died but has healthy organs that another person can inherit and live on, which principle wins? In the Shia school of thought, the second principle is more important. Saving a life is tantamount to saving all of mankind, and so it takes precedence.

Furthermore, the main reason mutilation is haram is because it’s degrading. Today, it is possible to extract an organ from the body without degrading it. So, you can take out someone’s heart, lungs, kidney, skin etc. but still make the body look respectable and presentable.

The intention and context behind the mutilation also matter. When Hind, the wife of Abu Sufyan, mutilated the body of Hamza (the uncle of the Prophet), she did it to humiliate him. The context behind the careful, respectable and precise mutilation of a dead body to take out an organ to save someone’s life is entirely different.

In the Sunni view vis-a-vis organ donation vs mutilation, the principle is that you can’t donate your body to science for research as that would result in severe mutilation and degradation of your body.

No doubt, the rulings will change and evolve as science progresses in the area of organ donation.

The information presented in this article is not to be taken as final verdicts on the issue of organ donation. If you are thinking of donating an organ, please speak to a learned scholar before making a decision. This article is for educational purposes only.

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