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Selma Cook

Browsing through various Islamic discussion forums on the Internet this month as I often do in order to choose current topics of interest to my readers, I came across some disturbing conversations having to do with health and medicine in which Muslims debated whether or not Muslims should go to the doctor for reasons such as pre-natal care and cancer screening, both of which fall under the category of "preventive medicine." I was shocked to find many of the forum's participants discouraging such visits to the doctor, asserting that it is the will of Allah if a particular individual is to become ill, and that it is the will of Allah if that person is to be cured or not. Therefore, according to their way of thinking, Muslims should not waste their time and money in the field of preventive medicine. Perhaps more surprising that that, however, is the fact that many of the people putting forth such views are highly educated western converts to Islam who have often grown up with the luxury of preventive medicine, a field which is just beginning to open up in many of the developing countries and which has the potential to improve the lives of many people as illnesses are detected and treated in their early stages.

Islam is a highly practical religion which has always allowed and encouraged the practice of medicine. Muslims such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) were early pioneers in this field and laid the groundwork for generations of doctors to come with their detailed studies of the human body and its mysteries. Many references to health and medicine are made in the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammed (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), and we should take of our physical selves just as well as we take care of our spiritual selves in order to remain healthy and worship properly. After all, this life is an amazing gift from Allah, and He created us with bodies in order for us to live a certain way; to neglect your health is to disrespect the creation of Allah and to put your own self at a distinct disadvantage as you deal with the challenges of everyday life.

Many Muslims understand and agree with the above points but cannot make the connection between them and the field of preventive medicine. One woman asks, "Why should I have pre-natal care when it is up to the will of Allah whether or not my baby is born healthy? After all, I am not going to have an abortion if I find that my baby has a problem." This woman (and many more like her) may not understand the purpose of pre-natal care, which is not to rid the world of unhealthy babies but to promote the good health of mothers and their children. Just because some non-Muslims have abortions when they find an unborn baby has a deformity or other problem does not mean that Muslims have to do the same thing. I think of my good friend and sister in Islam who did not have pre-natal care during her first pregnancy because she suscribed to the "whatever will be will be" theory. Imagine her shock when her baby was born with Down Syndrome, and she found herself in complete ignorance about this condition. Had she consented to take the routine test to screen for it in her fourth month of pregnancy as is typically recommended, she could have used the remaining five months before the birth of her child to educate herself and prepare psychologically for this unusual situation.

Another woman I know rejected pre-natal care during her third pregnancy because she had already had two easy pregnancies and thought she knew everything there is to know about giving birth. Her rejection of pre-natal care also included a rejection of hospitals so she chose to deliver at home. No one expected that the baby would come out feet-first and that she would have to be rushed to the hospital emergecy room in the middle of the night in order to deliver her baby safely. Had this woman been receiving pre-natal care, the doctor would have monitored the position of the baby in the final weeks of pregnancy and possibly been able to turn the baby around with his or her hands in order to let the baby come out head-first as is preferred for the sake of both mother and child. This is a common and very useful procedure.

With regards to cancer screening, it is just outrageous to characterize it as non-Islamic. For one thing, many tumors caught in their early stages can be eliminated before they have a chance to grow, spread and destroy the body. In the later stages of cancer, patients can receive treatments which can alleviate some of their suffering. While no definitive cure for cancer has been developed until now, it does not mean that there never will be a cure. Doctors don't come up with such cures out of the sky; they need to study, do experiements and test various treatments in order to come closer to reaching this goal. Though it is ultimately up to the individual whether or not to try existing treatments and therapies, it makes sense that someone should at least be aware of the fact that he has cancer so he can make informed choices about his care.

Anyone who makes an effort to learn about the Islamic perspective on medicine will quickly understand that the principles of preventive healthcare are in harmony with the Islamic way of life and that there is nothing noble or preferred about causing one's self to suffer without due cause or to live in ignorance of his body's inner workings. The fact is that Islam prefers prevention to cure in all aspects of life and that this approach is also of great benefit in matters of health.

The missing link - who has the cure?The vast beauty of Islam incorporates every aspect of life. Even that of health, and how to perceive and treat illness.