Dr. Shabbir Alibhai

Dr. Shabbir Alibhai

March 31, 2014

There's about one million Canadians who know suicide is wrong, assisted suicide turns doctors into murderers, the state has an obligation to protect life until natural death and that not everything in medicine depends on the freely chosen wishes of the patient.

These people are not Catholic. They're Muslim.

Striking similarities between Catholic and Muslim bioethics were on show at a Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute lecture by Dr. Shabbir Alibhai at Toronto's University of St. Michael's College March 5.

Alibhai practises geriatric and family medicine within Toronto's University Health Network, but he's also a cancer researcher and published bioethicist.

There are differences with Catholic bioethics, often in approach or emphasis, but on end-of-life issues Islamic scholars and Catholic ethicists very often come to the same conclusions, according to Alibhai.

"Assisted suicide is not permitted in Islam," said the doctor.

Any government trying to be moral would not support or legislate to allow assisted suicide, he said. "Active euthanasia is considered to be completely unacceptable."

The parallels with Catholic bioethics are many and notable, CCBI executive director Moira McQueen said at the end of Alibhai's lecture on Islamic Perspectives on End-of-Life Issues and Death.

Fundamental to the Muslim approach to natural death is a concept of the sanctity of life, which can be set aside in only rare circumstances.

"Taking of human life is seen as something that is really considered a disgrace to God," he said. "God is the arbiter of the beginning and the end of life."

The Muslim approach to nutrition and hydration runs closely parallel to the Catholic approach. Like Catholics, Islamic scholars believe food and water are basic necessities of life which families, friends, caregivers and doctors have a duty to provide whether in the normal way by mouth or through an intravenous drip or intubation. The exception is in cases where the treatments do more harm than good.

Organ donation is not only acceptable but to be encouraged because anyone who prolongs or preserves a life is blessed by God.

In Islam, life on earth is transient and our true home is with God in the afterlife. This larger perspective fuels much of Islamic thinking about end of life. Suffering is not to be avoided at all costs, but neither is it something that is good in itself.

"Our bodies are considered a trust," Alibhai said. "We return these bodies to him when he asks."

Muslims have no problem with advanced directives or living wills and many argue for them as a responsible way of helping one's family in a difficult time. The only difficulty comes when an advance directive directs a doctor, nurse or someone else to do anything which contravenes the Quran.


There is a hadith or saying of the prophet Muhammad which undergirds Muslim doctors and health researchers working at the frontiers of science.

"God has created a treatment for every illness," said Muhammad. This encourages doctors to discover and share the correct treatments for diseases.

Muslim bioethics rests on the rights and the duties of both doctors and patients. Patients have a duty to prevent illness and maintain their own health. They must also seek out and follow the advice of doctors when they fall ill.

On the other hand, patients have a right to be seen by a doctor and to receive good advice. Doctors have a duty to prolong and preserve life. If they do this, they receive blessings. If they fail, that's another story.