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Islamic Normativity Regarding Brain Death: Implications for Organ Donation

By Shaykh Arif Abdulhussain

· Academic

Does brain death constitute the death of the human? This question is central to the issue of whether organ donation is permissible in Islam. To answer the question, this paper presents the notions of life, soul, spirit, death, and cessation according to the Qurʾān, Shīʿī Imāmī ḥadīth literature, and the insights of the Muslim philosophers and exegetes. It explains the functionality of the body in terms of the mechanics of the three faculties of soul (the vegetative, perceptive, and intellective) and the two aspects of the Spirit (the notions of ‘the bodily spirit’ and ‘the higher spirit’). It concludes that the functionality of the soul’s perceptive and intellective faculties in the body is contingent upon the functionality of the soul’s vegetative faculties in the brain. Simply put, the sound metabolic activity of the brain cells is the effect of the soul’s connection to the body, hence the former is indicative of the latter. Only the irrevocable cessation of all brain activity signifies the separation of the soul from the body, and hence death. Accordingly, ‘brain death’ as defined by medical convention today is not a sufficient marker for the separation of the soul from the body, and hence death. Therefore, organ donation is not permissible in cases of ‘brain death’; it is only permissible in cases in which all brain activity has ceased irrevocably.

Please note that the paper is a chapter in a book entitled, “Organ Donation in Islam: The Interplay of Jurisprudence, Ethics, and Society.”, Edited by Mahdiyah Jaffer, Aasim I. Padela, and Gurch Randhawa. To purchase a copy of the book, click here.