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Organ donation in Islam: the doctor’s dilemma

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“Whosoever saves a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.” [Qur’an5:32]

Death is a sensitive topic of discussion in most communities. Discussing whether or not to donate your organs after you die may be an even more sensitive subject as people never want to think that anything remotely tragic might befall a member of their family.

Two weeks ago the girl behind the “Get me to 21” campaign passed away. Jenna Lowe was a diagnosed with a rare lung condition in 2007 and in 2014 was the recipient of a transplant. The aim behind the campaign was to get more people to register as organ donors in the hope that they themselves will be able to save a life should the situation call for one.

Organ donation in Islam is a tricky subject, one that most people do not discuss for “religious reasons”. According to two Muslim surgeons in Cape Town, organ donation is permissible, however there is a lack of understanding and perhaps trepidation around the issue in the Muslim community.

“From an Islamic point of view there is no doubt that Muslims can donate organs; the act of donating an organ is not the issue,” Professor Delawir Kahn of Groote Schuur hospital explained.

According to the academic, people are not aware that they could be a living organ donor as well as a deceased organ donor. Professor Kahn is the head of the Department Surgery & Transplantation at UCT and was part of a delegation that addressed the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) this year with regards to the concept of organ donation in Islam.

Professor Kahn deals with issues of living donations and deceased donations. In quick terms, a living donation is usually granted by a relative. For example, if a brother is dying of kidney failure and his sister is a genetic match, she will be able to live a full life with one kidney. It would be possible for her to save her brother’s life by being a living donor.

Death by conventional terms

Deceased donors are most often individuals who die from accidents, heart attacks or strokes, and their next of kin consent to organ donation. In this case, the patient would have been declared dead by medical and legal terms i.e. the patient has no brain function and brain stem is not functioning either. Doctors would then declare the person dead and if he/she is listed as an organ donor then the doctors would approach the family to ask if they may extract his/her organs to save the life of another patient.

“There is no doubt that transplants work very well and to do transplants you need organs,” Professor Kahn said.

“There are a lot of Muslim patients that need transplants that are on the waiting list”.

The waiting list for people in need of organ donations is extremely long and the list of people registered as organ donors is minimal.

“If you look at the number of people on that list, it is minuscule compared to the general population,” Professor Kahn added.

Dr Zunaid Barday, a kidney specialist at Groote Schuur Hospital agrees with Professor Kahn> he says the main problem in South Africa is the waiting list for organ (kidney) donations and the list keeps getting longer.

Dr Barday’s main focus is before and after transplant care for kidney transplantations. He says whilst a patient can live on dialysis treatment, having a transplant is much better for quality of life.

“Kidney transplant is better for a better quality of life because you actually have a functioning kidney whereas dialysis is an artificial way to try and remove toxins from the body,” Dr Barday stated.

The doctors say that the issue in the Muslim community might surround the concept of brain death versus death by conventional terms such as the heart that ceases to beat.

The sensitivity of death

Whilst doctors and legal pundits accept brain death as a sign of death, the Muslim Judicial Council does not.

“It’s not just about the brain death issue that’s a problem. The whole concept of death is also an issue,” Dr Barday added.

“People get anxious when talking about death.”

As Muslims, the requirement after death is that you be buried within a specific amount of time and the extraction process for organ donations can be immediate if the family chooses to donate the organs of their family member.

“You can donate the heart, kidneys, lots of internal organs that you won’t see if when the person is buried,” Dr Barday explained.

In that manner if you do decide to donate your organs, your body will still be buried in the conventional Islamic manner.

Doctors agree that organ donation should be discussed in Friday sermons and in the home where people can be made aware of this option and decide whether, should a tragedy befall them, they would become an organ donor.

“It’s not only the Muslim community that needs more awareness but it’s a problem in the Muslim community,” Dr Barday added. VOC (Umarah Hartley)

Next: MJC perspective on organ donation


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5 comments

  1. Slm, after reading this article I think the real question we should be asking ourselves is do we have a right to donate organs on behalf of our loved ones. As an Ummah we were created by Allah and unto Allah is our return, those organs belong to our creator and thus should be returned with the body of the deceased as that is the essence of being, the body is the shell.

    And Allah knows best.

    1. If you are uncomfortable about making a decision on behalf of other family members perhaps one should consider having a discussion with your loved ones and each person can make clear their wishes should such a situation arise.

  2. As salaamu alaikum,

    What does our Uelama say about this issue? after reading this article, it got me thinking. Is it permissible in Islam or not?

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