Spirituality, Religious Wisdom, and the Care of the Patient

Faith and Care of the Patient:
An Islamic Perspective on Critical Illness

Faiz Khan, M.D.
drfanaaz@aol.com

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Faiz Khan, M.D. is on the staff of Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Hillside, Queens.  He is a member of the Board of Directors of the ASMA Society for Islamic Spirituality and serves as the Assistant Imam at the al-Farah Mosque in Manhattan and at the Islamic Center of Long Island.  He has served as a panelist for the United Nations Committee of Religious Non-governmental organizations and for the New Seminary's Interfaith Retreat on Spiritual Balance.

Before discussing the Islamic perspectives with regard to the psychological issues that arise in those stricken with critical illness, it is important to lay some groundwork regarding Islam.  This is necessary due to the incredible disparity that exists concerning a basic understanding of just what defines Islam in terms of doctrine. 

Most of what will proceed about this topic will ring a familiarity to those who are acquainted with their own faith traditions - and this is by, dare I say, Divine design.  This is true since Islam, in terms of fundamental beliefs and paradigms, does not claim to be a new or even separate 'religion.'  Indeed, today's over zealous parochialization and rigid segmentation of things based on external appearance, including 'religion', runs counter to the Islamic scriptural admonition to never allow 'religion' to be a divisive issue.  Thus far, the term 'religion' is surrounded by inverted commas, and that is because I wish to draw the readers' attention to defining the term 'religion.'  The term religion may safely be defined as that path that seeks a state of peace or submissiveness of the human self toward Divinity.  This is what Islam exactly means in the Arabic language.  One who practices this way is titled Muslim.  Hence, we may conclude that the term Islam simply means religion.

The term Islam and its lexical derivatives are used throughout the Qur'an.  "Qur'an" literally means recitation - and is the title of what Muslims consider a revelation from Divinity Itself in the Arabic language. This was a language spoken by the dwellers of the deserts of Arabia who were immeasurably attuned to the ways and realities of creation and the cosmos and developed an incredibly potent and rich language medium whose nuances and depth takes years to master for even the greatest savants of language.  It should be mentioned that Qur'anic Arabic is not at all the same as colloquial Arabic spoken today.  The very sounds, cadences and words of the Qur'an are considered the Literal Word of God as either revealed directly, or through angelic medium, to a highly purified and saintly figure named Muhammad who lived in the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula. One may often witness Muslim patients reciting litanies or passages of the Qur'an in an effort to unlock alleged healing powers that emanate from it's authentic recitation; Anecdotally one may hear of positive results of such practices, and I am aware that studies have been done in an attempt to demonstrate their therapeutic value.

The Qur'an also defines itself as a scripture; in it we find the doctrine that Islam began with the Primordial Couple - Adam and Eve.  The term Muslim is employed in reference to Noah and Abraham.  Islam is considered that perennial way of peace and submission to The Sacred as practiced by numerous saints and prophets mentioned in the Qur'an such as the above, as well as Lot, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, Job, Jonah, Moses, Aaron, John, The Virgin Mary, and Jesus, as well as others.  This way was crystallized during the mission of Muhammad, and those who follow his precedent have adopted the title Islam as a proper name signifying their respective faith tradition that encompasses ritual, law and spiritual development.  The sentiments of Zarahustra of the Parsi tradition, Buddha, as well as that which underlies the Hindu doctrines -  all echo the sentiment of Islam as defined above.  Hence the Islamic tradition embraces that which is authentic in all faith traditions; as an extension, the Muslim who understands her or his religion will theoretically feel at home with any who believe in One God, accountability of ones actions before Divinity, and righteous conduct. 

In fact, the Qur'an does not address itself to only those who follow the precepts of Muhammad, or Arabs, or the contemporaries of Muhammad; the call of the Qur'an is to any believer in God who wishes to deepen her or his relationship with The Creator.  The Qur'an explicitly validates other faith traditions and recognizes that sincere practice in what is authentic in them provides legitimate vehicles to Divine Proximity.  There is no such concept as monopolizing Divine Grace based on outward labels or form practiced by any particular group or tradition.  At the same time, however, Muslims consider that tradition which was elucidated by Muhammad as the most authentic.

I've been asked to elaborate on Islam in the context of spiritual issues facing the critically ill because of the "unavoidable religious dimension" inherent in such a scenario.  The whole approach to the topic reveals a curious aspect in today's contemporary academic climate.  Post-modern secular humanistic thought - the paradigm that gives rise to and colors academic institutions, seeks to neatly and quite rigidly compartmentalize and even isolate various life issues.  On some levels this is, I believe, appropriate. However in others it may be a hindrance.  In our scenario, this pattern may serve in disallowing both patient and caregivers to deal with exigencies of the critically ill in a wholesome and fulfilling manner - despite poor medical prognosis. 

From the Islamic perspective, there is no essential demarcation between sacred and mundane, or the secular and spiritual.  All of life's activities are infused with a spiritual dimension - echoing as it were, Divine remembrance - so as not to consider the material (including our earthly life) as an end unto itself.  As testimony that this sentiment is characteristic of not only Islamic tradition, but also almost every traditional civilization, one often encounters the fact that healers have usually been well versed in the spiritual dynamics of their respective faith traditions - many were even masters in these fields.  A little knows fact is that the Latin term psych means soul - which, unlike today's implicit view, was never considered fettered by a solely rational, inductive, deductive, or purely mental faculty - and certainly neuro-chemical manipulation would likely have been seen as a vulgar (but at times necessary) form of behavioral modification and transformation.  By tacitly closing itself to the realms of metaphysics and refusing to submit itself to thousands of years of accumulated wisdom from faith traditions which, in addressing the inner peace attainable by humans, have too much in common to disregard - the field of psychology/psychiatry have done a great disservice to postmodern humankind.

Continued
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