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  Illness & Health
Health Maintenance

Following the guidance of the Creator leads human beings to experience true health and wholeness.  God grants wholeness, and when humans go astray, guides them in how to maintain and restore it through right action.  Medicine, hygiene and regulations for healthy living are necessary for the maintenance of individual happiness. 

The Prophet serves as the primary model for how to live a healthy life.  His sunnah provides particular practices for tooth care and toileting, eating and sleeping, dealing with excessive anger and joy.  The Prophet is sometimes referred to as a physician or medical doctor because he treated people’s diseases and provided healthcare recommendations; these became known as “prophetic medicine.”

Health is not merely individual, but rather it must include community well-being; hence, moral education and regulation of the community is the chief form of preventive medicine. Humans are responsible for putting divine precepts into practice through the accumulation of knowledge and the creation of just and compassionate structures in society, such as institutions for medical education and practice as well as public health initiatives. 

According to the Prophet Muhammad, “God has created a cure for every illness except death.”  Thus, Muslims are commanded, as both scientist and patient, to “seek the cure.”  The heritage of Islamic medical history and the prominence of Muslim medical researchers today indicate a generally pro-medical science attitude among most Muslims.  Reticence about seeking biomedical care often has more to do with suspicions about motivations and ethics of its structures and providers than with the science itself.

Illness and Suffering

Illness and suffering are a part of the way God made the world.  Muslims generally do not see illness as divine punishment.  God may, however, cause illness as a test, a way of realigning a person with God’s purposes, or a means of cleansing away sins.  Some Muslims also believe that a jinn (alt., djinn) or invisible spirit, may inhabit the body and cause sickness; this is sometimes linked to an act of sorcery. 

During illness, Muslims are to seek God's help with patience and prayer, increase the remembrance of God to obtain peace, ask for forgiveness, give more in charity, and read or listen to more of the Qur'an.  God rewards those who bear their suffering with patience and faith in God’s mercy.  Ultimately, sickness can be a means to a closer relationship with God, the Healer.

Mental Health

For Muslims, spiritual and psychological health are intertwined and often reflect each other.  The Qur’an assumes the ability to live within Islamic norms of behavior and to follow God’s prescriptions.  If one follows the straight path, one will have good mental health, and if not, one suffers from disharmony, often described as an unstable, rusted or hardened heart.  Mental or emotional distress may be expressed somatically, as the locus of emotion, rationality and the soul is located in the physical heart in traditional Islamic psychology.

Mental distress is generally expressed as moral transgression or the result of Divine will.  Thus, Muslims often prefer religious interventions or methods for healing.   Fasting (sawm), repentance (taubah) and regular recitation (dhikr or zikr) of the Qur’an are common features. Regaining connection and intimacy with Allah enables one to gain a cognitive grasp of their situation.  This is expected to reduce motivation for sin and relief from distress, which leads to better health.  Sufis, the mystics of Islam, employ extra devotional practices and rigorous ethical development exercises to tame or annihilate the ego-self and achieve a “restful heart.”

Key mental health values among many Muslims (especially immigrant) include:

  • personal dignity, honor, and reputation;
  • family loyalty or group loyalty above individual needs: one’s behavior must reflect well on others;
  • acknowledging that all things depend on God;
  • piety is the most admirable attribute: regular performance of ritual obligations, prayer, and Qur’an reading are therapeutic resources. 
Jinn May Influence Health

Muslims are more likely to attribute mental illness than physical illness to the action of the jinn, invisible spirits that may inhabit, possess, or influence individuals and families.  Their influence can be positive or negative.  The identification of jinn possession depends on a religious specialist.

While many educated Muslim leaders reject the notion of jinn possession as superstitious, some reserve a place for jinn possession as a possible cause of symptoms that seem resistant to mainstream psychotherapeutic treatment.  For others, mental illness or “difficulty in life” is frequently caused by the action of evil-spirits, winds, sorcery, or the “evil eye” of jealousy.  These Muslims often prefer to consult a religious specialist to exorcise the spirit or to counteract the sorcery or evil eye.  Treatment often includes recitation of the Qur’an, recitation of special prayers or the names of God, and in some cultures the wearing of amulets within which are verses from the Qur’an.

Attitude Towards Death

The “five pillars” of Islam are both the foundation and reminder of obligations a true Muslim owes to God and God’s creation:

  • Shahadah, profession of faith: “I bear witness that there is no God but God, and Muhammad is God’s messenger.” Insistence on the unity of God and belief that the Prophet Muhammad is the final messenger (and thus the Qur’an is the final/complete revelation) unites Muslims as a global community of faith.
  • Salat, ritual prayers:  five times daily, Muslim are commanded to perform ablution (purifying the body) and engage in the cycles of standing, bending, kneeling, and prostrating, while reciting Qu’ranic verses and petitions to God (purifying mind and soul).  This basic obligation is especially difficult in many US workplaces, where schedule and space are often not flexible.  
  • Zakat, giving alms: literally, “purifying” wealth by designating a portion (2.5%) of savings and assets to serve the broader community.
  • Sawm, “fasting” during the month of Ramadan: this dawn-to-dusk fast from food, drink, sexual intercourse, bad habits, and negative emotional outbursts is a time for spiritual reflection, devotional prayers, good deeds, and reuniting with family and friends.  Many Muslims emphasize the value of this annual fast for developing self-discipline, generosity, and solidarity with those who hunger.
  • Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca: All Muslims with the means should perform a pilgrimage during the hajj month, joining an international gathering that breaks down barriers of ethnicity and privilege, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad.

Building on these five pillars, the Shari`ah (lit., “way”) or Islamic law has developed over the centuries to clearly delineate obligations to God and to the broader human community, to create a just society through individual and collective moral action in the world.  Scholars begin by interpreting the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s sunnah (“customary practice,” recorded in orally transmitted reports called hadith).  Scholarly agreement (ijma`) about the congruence of existing cultural and legal practices with these original sources, and reasoning by analogy to apply the sources to new situations, have produced several schools of jurisprudence (fiqh) law.  Contemporary scholars (`ulama) may issue a legal opinion (fatwa) regarding particular issues raised by new technologies or cultural patterns, usually on a case-by-case basis.  These fatwas are particularly relevant with regard to biomedical ethics.

About 90% of Muslims in the world are called Sunni Muslims, because they recognize the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad as a firm example of practice and God’s guidance through the whole Muslim community as adequate for the preservation of true Islam.  Shi`ah (or Shi`i, Shi`ite) Muslims recognize the special knowledge and guiding authority of the Imam, a direct blood descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, as an additional example and authority.  For the majority “Twelver” Shi`ah, legal authority is now invested in an ayatollah (recognized scholar), in the absence of a visible Imam.
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