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Are postmortems allowed in Islam for a valid reason?

Answered as per Hanafi Fiqh by Qibla.com

Answered by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari

Are postmortems allowed in Islam for a valid reason?

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,

A very important and fundamental principle should be remembered with regards to the human body in that the human body, whether dead or alive, is considered sacred according to Islam. Thus cutting it, mutilating it and tampering with it in any way is considered blameworthy and unlawful.

Allah Most High says:

“And verily we have honoured the children of Adam.” (Surah al-Isra, V.70)

A human body is sacred even after death. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “Breaking the bone of a dead person is similar (in sin) to breaking the bone of a living person”. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan Ibn Majah & Musnad Ahmad)

Imam, Abu Ja’far al-Tahawi (Allah have mercy on him) states in the explanation of this Hadith:

“The Hadith shows that the bone of a dead person has the same sanctity and honour as the bone of living person”. (Mushkil al-Athar)

Allama Ibn Abidin (Allah have mercy on him) states:

“A human being is honoured according to Shariah even if one is a non-believer (kafir), and the meaning is that one’s body and organs are sacred. Hence, it will not be permissible to even break the bone of a dead non-believer’s body.” (Radd al-Muhtar)

Thus the human body, dead or alive, has great significance. It is honoured and sacred, and because of the sanctity that is attached to it, it will be unlawful to tamper with it, cut parts of it or dishonour it in any way.

Based on this very important principle, many scholars have declared that carrying out post-mortems is unlawful, because it violates the sanctity of the human body. Cutting and dissecting the human body cannot be considered permissible regardless of what beneficial results may stem out from carrying out a post-mortem.

Moreover, in carrying out a post-mortem, the body of the deceased person will be stripped naked. This, in itself, is also not permitted without a genuine and valid reason, they say.

Also, the body will be denied the many injunctions and rituals prescribed by Shariah, such as promptly burying it, not transferring it from one place to another, ritual bath (ghusl), shrouding (kafn), etc.

Due to the above reasons, these contemporary scholars have declared that post-mortems are unlawful unless when there is a genuine need, such as for criminal identifications and when one is forced by law.

They state that Muslims, living in places where post-mortems become necessary by law, should struggle in order to avoid post-mortems, because the benefits can be obtained from other sources also. However, if one is compelled by law, it would be permitted due to need and necessity.

On the other hand, some contemporary scholars are somewhat relaxed with the issue of post-mortems. They put forth examples of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) where permission is given to cut open the dead body due to need. For example:

If a pregnant woman dies with her baby alive in her stomach, it will be necessary to cut open her body and remove the baby. However, if the baby was also dead, it will not be permitted to cut open her body. (See: al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya and Fath al-Qadir)

Imam al-Kasani (Allah have mercy on him) states:

“If a pregnant woman died with her child trapped in her stomach, then if it is thought the child will be alive, her stomach will be cut open, because we have been faced with two evils and we are choosing the lesser of the two. Cutting open the dead mother’s stomach is lesser of an evil than killing the living baby.” (Bada’i al-Sana’i, 5/129)

Another example is that of a person who unjustifiably and unlawfully swallowed a precious item, like a gemstone, of another person and then died. In such a case, if the one whose precious item he swallowed was to demand compensation, then if the deceased person left some money behind, it will be paid from his leftover wealth. However, if he left nothing behind, his body will be cut open and the precious stone or item will be removed from him and returned to its owner. (See: Fath al-Qadir and al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya)

Thus, in light of the above two examples, this group of scholars give permission for carrying out post-mortems. They state that, based on the rule of “choosing the lesser of two evils” post-mortems would be justified even for medical research and scientific purposes.

The reason being-they say- is that in carrying out medical research on few dead bodies, we are saving the lives of many others. By compromising one aspect (of dishonouring the human body) there is larger benefit at stake. By carrying out post-mortems, medical students will benefit, justice will prevail and also contagious diseases will be controlled. (See: Khalid Sayf Allah Rahmani, Jadid Fiqhi Masa’il, 1/ 203 & others)

In my personal view, I think post-mortems should only be restricted to cases of need, such as when one is compelled by law for the purpose of criminal identification. However, carrying out post-mortems for medical research should be avoided, especially when the objective can be obtained by operating on animals and plastic bodies.

As far as the work of the doctor is concerned, if post-mortem is a legal requirement, then it would be permitted for him/her to perform the post-mortem. However, if that is not the case, one should avoid it.

And Allah knows best

Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari
Darul Iftaa, Leicester, UK

This answer was indexed from Qibla.com, which used to have a repository of Islamic Q&A answered by various scholars. The website is no longer in existence. It has now been transformed into a learning portal with paid Islamic course offering under the brand of Kiflayn.