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Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Approaches to Muslim Biomedical Ethics: A Classification and Critique

Dabbagh, H., Mirdamadi, S.Y. & Ajani, R.R.
Bioethical Inquiry (2023).


This paper provides a perspective on where contemporary Muslim responses to biomedical-ethical issues stand to date. There are several ways in which Muslim responses to biomedical ethics can and have been studied in academia. The responses are commonly divided along denominational lines or under the schools of jurisprudence. All such efforts classify the responses along the lines of communities of interpretation rather than the methods of interpretation. This research is interested in the latter. Thus, our criterion for classification is the underlying methodology behind the responses. The proposed classification divides Muslim biomedical-ethical reasoning into three methodological categories: 1) textual, 2) contextual, and 3) para-textual.


There is widespread recognition among Muslim scholars dealing with biomedical ethical issues that context plays an essential role in forming ethical principles and judgements. The context-sensitive approaches in Muslim biomedical ethics respond to the requirements of modern biomedical issues by recognizing the contexts in which scriptural text has been formed and developed through the course of Muslim intellectual history. This paves the way for bringing in different context-sensitive interpretations of the sacred texts through different reasoning tools and methods, whether they are rooted in the uṣūl al-fiqh tradition for the contextualists, or in moral philosophy for the para-textualists. For the textualists, reasoning outside of the textual boundaries is not acceptable. While contextualists tend to believe that contextual considerations make sense only in light of Sharīʿa law and should not be understood independently of Sharīʿa law, para-textualists believe that moral perceptions and contextual considerations are valid irrespective of Sharīʿa law, insofar as they do not neglect the moral vision of the scriptures. The common ground between the majority of the textualists and the contextualists lies in giving primacy to the Sharīʿa law. Moral requirements for both the textualists and the contextualists are only determined by Sharīʿa commandments, and Sharīʿa commandments are the only basis on which to decide what is morally permissible or impermissible in biomedical ethical issues. This is an Ashʿarī-inspired approach to biomedical ethics with respect to human moral reasoning (Sachedina 2005; Aramesh 2020; Reinhart 2004; Moosa 2004; Moosapour et al. 2018).

Para-textualists, on the other hand, do not deny the relevance of Sharīʿa, but treat the reasoning embedded in Sharīʿa as being on a par with moral reasoning in general. Thus, if there are contending strands of moral reasoning on a particular biomedical ethical issue, Sharīʿa-based reasoning will need to compete with other moral reasoning on the issue. If the aḥkām (religious judgements) are deemed to be reasonably sound, then for para-textualists there are no grounds for not accepting them. Although using and referring to Sharīʿa might work in many cases, it is not the case that Sharīʿa is enough in every case to judge on moral issues. For instance, morally speaking, it is not enough to refer to Sharīʿa when someone is choosing or refusing euthansia or abortion. For para-textualists what matters most is how Sharīʿa morally reasons about the permissibility or impermissibility of an action. If it is morally justified to euthanize or abort, we are rationally (and morally) bound to accept it, and if it is not morally justified, we will then either have to leave our judgement about choosing or refusing euthanasia or abortion or find another context-sensitive interpretation to rationalize the relevant commandment derived from Sharīʿa. Thus, the departure point for the para-textualist approach is moral reasoning, whether it is found in moral philosophy, Muslim jurisprudence, or elsewhere (Soroush 2009; Shahrur 1990, 2009; Hallaq 1997; An-Na’im 2008). Para-textualist methodology tries to remain open to the possibility of morally criticizing religious judgements (aḥkām), while remaining true to the moral vision of the scriptures. This is a Muʿtazilī-inspired approach to biomedical ethics (Hourani 1976; Vasalou 2008; Sheikh 2019; Farahat 2019; Reinhart 1995; Al-Bar and Chamsi-Pasha 2015; Hallaq 2014).