Q. There have been a few incidents of people stranded in the wilderness, on mountain tops, etc. and they had to resort to cannibalism to survive. I can't find anything in the Qur'an that speaks to this; can you please enlighten me from an Islamic perspective if cannibalism is allowed when it is a matter of life or death?

A. The law of the Qur'an does not refer to cannibalism even in emergency situations, most probably because the scenario is deemed so unlikely an extreme that it is almost impossible. Yet, the general philosophy of law in the Qur'an seems to deal with it, and the reliance by jurists comes from a common verse and set of legal maxims. Q2:173 states: "Forbidden unto you are dead meat, blood, pork, and what has been consecrated to other than God. But whoever is compelled, without desire nor exceeding the limit, then there is no sin upon him. Indeed, God is forgiving, merciful." This shows then that in cases of emergency, that which is normally forbidden becomes allowable in order to preserve life. Cannibalism, it seems, would fall under this category. The jurists have based upon this verse one of the major law maxims designed to reflect this: "al darura tajlib al taysir -- emergency brings permission." This is phrased differently by some, such as "al darura tubih al mahdhuraat -- emergency makes legal that which is forbidden." They then detail such cases through the use of maxims such as "al amr idha daaqa, 'itta sa'a, wa idhaa ittasa'a daaqa -- if a matter becomes straitened, it grants license, but if it becomes more relaxed, is more stringent in its regulations." This trite paraphrase is made to ensure that the full extremity of a situation is felt before embarking upon the relaxation of what is taboo. If, for example, I am stranded in a situation where I have a companion with me, and there is a pig, I cannot attempt to cannibalize my companion, but we must rather share the pig first. If after that, we both survive, then we would have to exert all the possibilities of our endurance, etc. If he dies, and I have no perceived way of surviving, then I would make use of his carcass. The second part of the saying comes to bear if, for example, while I am in the process of eating the body, I happen to come across other food. In that case, the situation is now not as dire, and the rules become more stringent. May it be that these discussions remain for us solely in the dimension of speculation.

Posted August 7, 2013