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Before We Enhance Life, Let's Preserve It

By Dr. Aasim I. Padela Before We Enhance Life, Let

For many of us, particularly the sci-fi types and those who work in biotechnology, the future is full of exciting possibilities. We can imagine amazing feats of engineering that allow us to live in space, underwater, or in built environments that are totally carbon neutral. We can anticipate a future free of disease and disability where we live lives of great length and fulfillment. Yet for all the uplifting visions we may have, history and literature tell us that brave new worlds often have their savage reservations. Accordingly, my project takes us a step back and aspires to a future where the essential aspects of human life are protected, where all of us, not only a privileged minority, can enjoy the minimal goods needed for self-preservation.

As a physician, my particular interest lies in the essential dimensions of human health. I see my vocation as one that serves humanity by helping individuals to flourish in tending to multiple dimensions of their health: physical, psychological, spiritual. However, my years as a doctor in the United States have taught me that the healthcare system implicitly prioritizes some aspects of health over others, and that some groups of individuals, usually those of minority backgrounds, receive poor-quality healthcare. This demands remedy, and therefore my project sought to identify, from an Islamic perspective, the essential aspects of life that we are morally obligated to protect. In other words: what are the minimal goods that Islam demands we deliver so that human life, in a universal sense, is preserved and protected? My reading of Islamic theology and law suggests that human life must be preserved before it can be enhanced; that the integral needs for living must be protected before we concern ourselves with human flourishing.

To answer this question, I explored a genre of Islamic law called the maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah, the higher objectives of Islamic law. Islamic theologians hold that Islamic law reflects God’s intents, and that God’s intent in legislating in turn reflects a human interest either in this life or the next. Hence these intents, the maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah, are grounded in the Islamic scriptures, inductively derived, and enumerated in somewhat different configurations by classical and contemporary Islamic scholars. Two of these overarching higher objectives of Islamic law are the preservation of human life and the preservation of intellect. My project sought to identify the essential components of these objectives in order to postulate a conception of human health that Islam holds humankind morally responsible for protecting.

I examined the writings of two maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah theoreticians to uncover their understandings of the essential aspects of the higher objectives of preserving human life and intellect. The 14th century Sunni legal theorist and scholar of the Maliki school Abū Ishāq al-Shāṭibī establishes three ways through which the preservation of life (ḥifẓ an-nafs) can be actualized through Islamic law. First, the legitimacy of procreation must be established, thereby setting the foundations for life to be “produced”. Second, life must be maintained through the provision of food and drink. Third, the provision of clothing and shelter ensures human survival from external threats. Finally, ḥifẓ an-nafs also involves criminalizing the taking of life.   With respect to the essential aspect of the preservation of intellect (ḥifẓ al-`aql) al-Shāṭibī suggests that this involves refraining from intoxicants, as evidenced in the Qur’anic prohibition of drinking and of prayer while intoxicated. 

The contemporary Islamic legal theorist Gamal Eldin Attia embellishes al-Shāṭibī’s conceptions by noting that the provision of security is essential to preserving life, as without security, the taking of life might become rampant. Attia also states that the preservation of life also demands a measure of healthcare services for infectious diseases and disasters can threaten humanity in general.  Furthermore he notes that some aspects of healthcare are needed because harm to some parts of the body significantly reduces the ability of an individual to benefit from his/her life. With respect to the preservation of intellect, Attia renames this objective to the “consideration of the mind” and holds that it encompasses (i) development of the mind through scientific education, building of academies and institutions that support learning and instruction, (ii) preservation of the mind via refraining from intoxicants and untoward cultural influences, and (iii) utilization of the mind through acts of intellectual worship. 

What vision for the essentials of life do we see from these models? Returning to the core question that motivated this research, it appears that both models (and in turn Islamic theology and law) hold that food security, the provision of shelter and clothing, and penal repercussions for life-taking are requisite conditions needed for human life to be preserved (in a universal sense). Attia would add that healthcare services should be provided so that mortal dangers are protected against, while al-Shāṭibī’s framework holds reproductive health to be an essential good required for the preservation of life as well. One can visualize a person who has the essential aspects of health to be a minimally-nourished, clothed individual who has his/her procreative capacity intact, who is free from drug and alcohol addiction and mind control, who has access to education, and who resides in a dwelling that protects him/her from the elements and within a community safe from murder and assault. This is the minimal level of what we as a human community are morally responsible for ensuring that every individual has access to. In my view, from an Islamic vantage-point, when all of us have these essential (minimal) living conditions preserved, human life will be enhanced.