Q. I have heard Muslims say that we are not allowed to donate body parts. Why is organ donation un-Islamic?

A. Organ donation is one of the most Islamic things a person can do. There is the aspect of death and life, and for a person to give life by the donation of an organ is beautiful. The Qur'an says: "You will never achieve birr (true piety) until you spend of that which you love..." (Q3:92) Infaaq is used to mean spend, but could mean any aspect of giving at a cost to oneself. This is a clear ayah on the issue. Some Muslims hold the view that giving the organs to banks is bad, because it is possible that a kafir or an enemy of Islam could receive the part, but this is nonsensical. In the first place, it is probable that such a person will become Muslim. Secondly, Islam does not allow for such conjecture when the saving of a life is at stake. Thirdly, the only scenario I can think of for disallowing organ donation is where a sworn enemy of Islam and Muslim are present, each knowing about the other, and the enemy still says: "Even if you save me, I will curse God."

There is another verse in the Qur'an which we need to contemplate carefully. It states:

"Because of this did We ordain unto the children of Israel that if anyone slays a human being - unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth - it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind…" (Q5:32)

As Muhammad Asad has observed, the expression: "We have ordained unto the children of Israel…" does not, of course, detract from the universal validity of this moral; it refers merely to its earliest enunciation. Now the latter part of the verse: "If anyone saves a life…" does not specify that such a life should belong to a Muslim, hence this business about kafir, etc., is totally irrelevant (and as explained earlier, the aspect of conversion is always there).

There are several positions that may be considered legally correct. It may be stated, for example, that in a situation where the community is aware that an organ is needed, then in such a case, it becomes a fard kifayah to answer that need. When an individual is recognized as having such an organ for donation, and only that individual fulfills the medical specifications (e.g., genetic compatibility, etc.), then it may be said to be a fard ayn. In such a case, if the Muslim shirks his/her responsibility, and it resulted in the death of the patient, it may be considered tantamount to murder.

This view, however, presents some problems. The penalty for murder is known, so can it be imposed when in fact no clear act of murder has occurred? Can we coerce a person to give up body parts? If we are bilateral in terms of being given (for the most part) two of each organ, then certainly such duality is for maximum performance. Therefore, to force an individual to give up an organ is to deny the person his/her maximum capability. This is tyranny, which is forbidden by God, and makes it incompatible with good.

So what should we do? It would seem that the best approach to take is that of the strongest exhortation, and then leave it up to the individuals concerned. At the very least, we must let the Muslim community know that organ donation is by no means forbidden, and in fact forms one of the highest level of good deeds. So far, we have discussed the aspect of a living person donating while continuing to live. Like encouragement should be given to people for signing such allowances that would allow for donation in the case of accidents, etc., where the person's organs may be removed for donation once the doctors have declared that person dead. In a case where the dying/dead person has not signed, and his/her family is approached by doctors or relatives of a person needing a transplant, all Muslims should liken that to the case of giving charity in the person's name, one does not ask permission to do that.

Posted December 28, 1998