Health is a Human Right

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Muhammed Haythen al-Khayyat

The right to life—in Islam’s perspective—is considered the second most important human right, after the right to be free. Proof is in Allāh, the Almighty, saying: “fitnah is far worse than killing” (Sūrat al-Baqarah 191), and also: “fitnah is greater than killing” (Sūrat al-Baqarah 217). This explicit statement demonstrates that “fitnah”, which is “deprivation of freedom”, is far worse than “deprivation of life”; indeed, freedom is more important than life itself, which is not an odd statement, given that freedom is the essence of man’s humanity. Indeed, Allāh, Supreme in His Majesty, prostrated His angels before this free creature, who of his own volition, can believe or disbelieve, obey or disobey, do good or not.
However, in Islam’s perspective—the right to life directly follows the right to freedom. Allāh prescribed on the children of Israel, as well as on others, that “whoever kills another person– unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption on the earth– it is as if he murdered all mankind. And if anyone gives life to another person, it is as if he had given life to all mankind” (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 32). In my view, giving life and killing include both material and moral senses. Clearly, giving life in the noble verse refers to preserving life; indeed, it is exclusively Allāh, the Almighty, Who bestows life in that sense, or say He “grants life and death” (Sūrat Āl-‘Imrān 156), i.e. true life and true death. Thus, when we speak of life as a human right, we mean the right to preservation of life, materially and morally. Therefore, unless the human being enjoys good health and lives in a decent environment, then this right is impaired; as these two rights are integral to the right to life.

Nevertheless, human rights in Islam represent a wonderful and cohesive blend of ‘right’ and ‘obligation’; each right requires the human being to strive to both acquire and preserve it. Indeed, neglecting a right is tantamount to forsaking part of his humanity.
Can you see how Allāh spoke about those who surrendered their right to freedom, wilfully or otherwise, saying: “The angels ask those they take who have wronged themselves, ‘What were your circumstances?’ They reply, ‘We were oppressed on earth,’” (Sūrat al-Nisā’ 97); continuing until: “Those who migrate in the Way of Allāh will find many places of refuge on the earth and ample sustenance…” (Sūrat al-Nisā’ 100).
The same may be said of those who abandon the right to life: “… And do not kill yourselves! Allāh is most merciful to you. As for anyone who does that out of enmity and wrongdoing, We will roast him in a Fire: that is an easy matter for Allāh” (Sūrat al-Nisā’ 29-30).



For this reason, we find in the tradition (ḥadīth) of the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, a unique text found nowhere but in the sayings of the infallible, the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him. This tradition is reported by both al-Bukhārī and Muslim (agreed upon), on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Amrū: “Your body has a right upon you”. Indeed, if fourteen centuries after Islam established human rights, people have elaborated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they are yet to discover the “right of the body”; this is its right on the owner to be fed when hungry, rested when tired, cleansed when dirty, safeguarded from harms, protected from falling into the grips of disease, treated with medicine when sick, and not burdened beyond what it can endure. This is an obligatory right, which, in Islam’s view, cannot be overlooked or neglected in favour of other rights, even if these are rights of Allāh, the Almighty.
Health is a necessary precondition for the preservation of life. Furthermore, it is a necessary precondition for the establishment of Allāh’s law on earth, because Islamic law (sharī‘ah) may only be upheld and maintained properly by living, healthy persons. In “al-Iqtiṣād fī al-i‘tiqād”, Imām al-Ghazālī stated: “soundness of religion, through knowledge (ma‘rifah) and ritual worship (‘ibādah), may only be achieved through healthy body and sustained life”.

For this reason, Islam ranked health immediately after faith (īmān); Ibn Mājah reported the tradition on the authority of Abū Bakr, where the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, said: “No person has been granted anything better after certainty of belief (yaqīn) than good health (al-mu‘āfāh)”. Furthermore, in the tradition reported by Ibn Mājah, al-Ḥākim, and Aḥmad, on the authority of Mu‘ādh b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Khubayb, from his father, who heard from his paternal uncle that the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, said: “… There is nothing wrong with being rich for one who has piety, but good health for one who has piety is better than riches…”. Further, Ibn Mājah reported on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. Muḥṣan al-Anṣārī from his father that the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, said: “Whoever among you wakes up physically healthy, feeling safe and secure within himself, with food for the day, it is as if he acquired the whole world”.
In contrast, health is a major responsibility before Allāh, the Almighty. The Prophet, peace be upon him, says (in the tradition reported by al-Tirmidhī, Ibn Ḥibbān, al-Ḥākim and others, and qualified as authentic (ṣaḥīḥ) by al-Ḥākim with al-Dhahabī concurring): “The first question put to a servant of Allāh on the Day of Resurrection is: ‘did I not grant you health in body?’ ”. He, peace be upon him, also said, in the tradition reported as authentic by al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of Abū Barzah al-Aslamī that: “The feet of the slave of Allāh shall not move on the Day of Judgement until he is asked about four things: about his life and what he did with it, about his knowledge and what he did with it, about his wealth and how he earned it and where he spent it on, about his body and for what did he wear it out.”
Islam draws man’s attention to this blessing, and emphasises that many people suffer abject loss by acting indifferently, and failing to benefit fully from it. Al-Bukhārī and others reported, on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbās, that the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, said: “Two bounties many people are deceived into losing: health and free time”. For this reason, the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, urges taking full advantage and enjoying these bounties. Al-Ḥākim, and also al-Bayhaqī in “Shu‘ab al-īmān”, reported on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbās: “Take advantage of five before five: your life before death, your health before sickness, your free time before becoming busy, your youth before old age, and your times of wealth before poverty”.


The right to health, or the right to preservation of health, draws its dimensions from two innate (fiṭrah) factors, inherent in the creation of man and the entire universe.

The first is mentioned by Allāh, the Almighty, in the Qur’ān chapter (sūrat), al-Raḥmān (7-9).

“…and [He] established the balance so that you may not transgress in the balance! Give just weight and do not skimp in the balance”.

This comprehensive verse speaks about the ‘balance’ that Allāh, the Almighty, established in this universe’s nature, in its different systems, whether cosmic, environmental, biological, etc., including the human being. It draws attention to this fine, marvellous balance that underpins everything, and warns that imbalance of any kind, whether exceeding boundaries or not doing enough, i.e. excess or negligence, may lead to the worst possible consequences impacting on humankind itself before anything. Allāh says: “O’ Mankind, your rebelliousness is only against yourselves” (Sūrat Yūnus 23).
The second is that “sound proportion (al-sawā’)” is the essence of man’s creation. This is evidenced by Allāh addressing man as follows: “He (Allāh) created you (man), shaped you, and properly proportioned you…” (Sūrat al-Infiṭār 7); also: “He (Allāh) created in due proportion” (Sūrat al-A‘lā 2); moreover “And by the soul and what proportioned it” (Sūrat al-Shams 7), and; “We (Allāh) created man in the best state” (Sūrat al-Tīn 4). The preservation and protection of that pristine state is a principal part of the Islamic law objectives (maqāṣid). As “Islamic law is intended to procure public interests (maṣāliḥ) for Allāh’s servants, and inhibit their evils (mafāsid)”, writes the illustrious scholar, ‘Izz al-Dīn b. ‘Abd al-Salām, in his valuable work, “Qawā‘id al-iḥkām fī maṣāliḥ al-anām”. He follows by explaining that:

“Islamic law is entirely about public interests; it either prevents evils or procures public interests. So if you hear Allāh saying: “O’ you who believe”, then keenly contemplate His instruction following His call. You will only encounter good that He is urging you to claim, or evil He is sternly warning you against, or both. In the Qur’ān, Allāh revealed the evils behind some rulings to emphasise avoiding them, and the inherent public interests in some rulings to encourage pursuing them”.
‘Izz al-Dīn b. ‘Abd al-Salām, may Allāh grant him mercy and reward him abundantly, was right. As indeed, Allāh, the Almighty, says in the Qur’ān: “… That is how Allāh demonstrates the true and the false. As for the froth, it is quickly swept away. But as for that which is of use to people, it remains behind on earth…” (Sūrat al-Ra‘d 17). Thus, Allāh defined that which is beneficial to the human being as the Truth He sent with His Messenger, peace and blessings upon him; He described this by saying: “O Mankind! The Messenger has brought you the Truth from your Lord” (Sūrat al-Nisā’ 170).
Imām al-Shāṭibī writes in “al-Muwāfaqāt fī uṣūl al-sharī‘ah”, that “the Ummah, rather all creeds, are agreed that Islamic law is designed to preserve the five necessities (ḍarūriyyāt), which are religion, life, progeny, wealth, and intellect”.
By Allāh’s will, we find with some contemplation that three of these five necessities, namely life, progeny and intellect, can only be fully preserved by protecting health. It is no wonder then that we find numerous statements in the Qur’ān and the Sunnah of His Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, that assure protection and strengthening of human health; moreover, preserving the original pristine state, which Allāh created, as well as maintaining the healthy balance that Allāh ingrained in man’s frame.


From the Islamic perspective, the right to health consists of three parts; it is a right upon the individual, society, and state, all at the same time.
First and foremost, it is the individual’s right towards himself—as mentioned previously—a feature exclusive to Islam, summarised by the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, as reported by al-Bukhārī on the authority of Wahb b. ‘Abd Allāh: “Your self has a right upon you”.
If we apply Imām al-Shāṭibī’s classification in “al-Muwāfaqāt” (8/2), then the preservation of health “is through two matters: first, that which establishes its pillars and cements its foundations, represented by its consideration from the aspect of existence; and second, that which prevents actual or potential imbalance, represented by its consideration from the aspect of non-existence”. This brilliant classification for all the necessities, conceived by Imām al-Shāṭibī, may Allāh shower him with mercy, applies perfectly to Islam’s guidance regarding preserving health.
Islam’s noble guidance embraces two kinds of measures; those that establish the cornerstones and cement the foundations of physical, mental, and environmental health, i.e. in al-Shāṭibī words, considered from the perspective of existence, and for us, “reinforcing measures” in today’s terms. Otherwise, those measures that prevent actual or potential imbalances affecting physical, mental, and environmental health, i.e. in al-Shāṭibī’s words, considered from the perspective of non-existence, which we label “preventive measures”.
Reinforcing measures include anything that preserves human health and increases health levels. Indeed, it is quite telling that Islam considers negligence, in applying such measures, a form of aggression. For example, nourishment is a measure to reinforce health, while abstaining from good food for no legitimate reason is contrary to, and in Islam’s view, an aggression on health. Proof is in Allāh, the Almighty, saying: “O’ you who believe, do not forbid the good things Allāh has made lawful for you, and do not overstep the limits; Allāh does not love those who overstep the limits, and eat the lawful and good things that Allāh provides for you…” (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 87-88). These verses were revealed regarding some individuals, who wanted to prohibit consuming some foods; this was considered a violation of the right due to health, as you see!
Discussion of details regarding reinforcing measures that enhance human health, and satisfy part of the human’s right on himself in health, are beyond the scope of this study. However, mentioning some blessed textual evidences in this regard will suffice.
Textual evidences regarding personal hygiene, generally, partially, or relating to a specific member, include:

  • “… Do not approach the prayer (ṣalāh) when you are intoxicated, so that you will know what you are saying, nor in a state of major impurity—unless you are travelling—until you have washed yourselves completely” (Sūrat al-Nisā’ 34).
    “It is the right of Allāh upon every Muslim that he should take a bath every seven days, and he should wash his head and body” (agreed upon, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).
    “… when you get up to pray, wash your faces and your hands and your arms to the elbows, and wipe over your heads, and wash your feet to the ankles” (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 5).
    “Ablution (wuḍū’) is part of faith” (reported by al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of Abū Mālik al-Ash‘arī; he said: a good (ḥasan), authentic tradition).
    “Only a true believer continuously keeps his wuḍū’” (reported by Ibn Mājah, on the authority of Thawbān).
    “Perform the ablution, wuḍū’, well” (reported by Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Amrū).
    “Whenever the Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings upon him, wanted to eat, he would wash his hands” (reported by Ibn Mājah, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).
  • “When the Messenger, peace and blessings upon him, performed wuḍū’ he would rub his toes with his little finger” (reported by Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of al-Mustawrad b. Shaddād).
    It was authentically established that the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, “rubbed inside his ears with his index fingers and the back with his thumbs to the front and then rubbed the outside and inside” (reported by Ibn Māja,h on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbās).
    “When one of you performs ablution, wuḍū’, let him inhale water through his nose and then exhale it” (reported by Muslim, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).
    “It was reported that the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, used to wipe the puncta on the inside corners of the eyes” (reported by Ibn Mājah, on the authority of Abū Umāmah). “He who has hair, should honour it” (reported by Abū Dāwūd).
  • When someone defecates he should wipe three times” (reported by Ibn Ḥazm in “al-Muḥallā”, quoting al-Zakhrajī’s nephew, Muḥammad b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Muslim with its chain of narrators).
    “Order your husbands to cleanse with water [after defecation], for I shy from telling them. Indeed, the Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings upon him, used to do so” (reported by al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of ‘Āishah).
    “Clean your gums with water and use the tooth cleaning twig (miswāk)” (reported by al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī in “Nawādir al-uṣūl”, on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh Bishr al-Māzinī).
    “The miswāk is purifying for the mouth and pleasing to the Lord” (reported by al-Nasā’ī and Ibn Khuzaymah, on the authority of ‘Āishah).
    “Five things are innately natural (fiṭrah): circumcision, shaving (the pubic area) with a razor, paring the nails, plucking the hair under the armpits, and clipping the moustache” (agreed upon, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah)
    • Textual evidences regarding a diet, balanced both in quantity and quality:
    “… Eat of the good things We provided for you…” (Sūrat al-Baqarah 172).
    “Eat of the good things We provided for you, and do not go to excess” (Sūrat Ṭāhā 81).
    “And He created livestock. You derive warmth and benefits from them, and some you eat” (Sūrat al-Naḥl 5).
    “He made the sea subservient to you, so that you may eat fresh flesh out of it” (Sūrat al-Naḥl 14).
    “… Eat of their fruits when they bear fruit…” (Sūrat al-An‘ām 141).
    “The human does not fill any container that is worse than his stomach. A few mouthfuls to support his spine suffice the son of Adam. If this is not possible, then a third for food, a third for drink and a third for his breath” (reported by al-Tirmidhī and others, on the authority of al-Miqdām b. Ma‘dī Karib)
    • Textual evidences regarding marriage, for its effect in preserving physical, mental and sexual health:
    “And Allāh has given you spouses from among yourselves” (Sūrat al-Naḥl 72).
    “… He created for you from amongst yourselves spouses to live with in tranquillity, and he created affection and compassion between you…” (Sūrat al-Rūm 21).
    “Marriage is of my Sunnah, and whoever breaks away from my Sunnah has nothing to do with me” (reported by Ibn Mājah, on the authority of ‘Āishah).
    “O’ young men! Whoever among you can afford it, then let him get married…” (reported by Ibn Mājah, on the authority of Ibn Mas‘ūd).
    “The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings upon him, forbade celibacy (desisting from marriage)” (reported by al-Nasā’ī, on the authority of ‘Āishah and Samurah b. Jundub).
    • Textual evidences regarding giving each part of the body its share of healthcare, working within the limits of its capability, strengthening the body through suitable exercises, and doing everything that procures benefits for the human being:
    “Your eyes have a right over you” (agreed upon, on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Amrū).
    “Do what you can bear” (agreed upon, on the authority of ‘Āishah).
    “The strong believer is better than the weak believer” (reported by Muslim, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).
    “Be diligent in [seeking] what benefits you” (reported by Muslim and Ibn Mājah, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).

As for the preventive measures in relation to man’s right upon himself, these are founded in Allāh, the Almighty, saying: “… and do not kill yourselves…” (Sūrat al-Nisā’ 29); furthermore, He, the Almighty, said: “… and do not cast yourselves into destruction…” (Sūrat al-Baqarah 195); also the saying of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, that: “Harm shall not be inflicted (ḍarar), or reciprocated (ḍirār)” (reported by al-Dārquṭnī on the authority of Abū Sa‘īd al-Khudrī; al-Ḥākim described it as authentic according to Muslim’s criterion) (ḍarar implies causing harm to the self, while ḍirār means causing harm to others). Furthermore, Allāh, the Almighty, says: “Abandon wrong action, outward and inward…” (Sūrat al-An‘ām 120); moreover, Allāh, the Almighty, saying in Ṣūrat al-Baqarah (verse 219) regarding alcoholic drinks and gambling: “There is great wrong in both of them and also certain benefits for mankind. But the wrong in them is greater than the benefit”; here Allāh established wrong and benefit as opposites, where wrong is harm, which—as we see—is prohibited in the Qur’ānic text.
Islam legislated how this human right can be fulfilled, by instructing man to adopt all means of disease prevention; since taking precautions assures prevention. The Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, said; “Whoever avoids evil will be protected against it” (reported by al-Khaṭīb in his “Tārīkh”, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).
In addition, the Qur’ān and the Sunnah contain numerous references to various kinds of preventive measures for the human being to protect himself. Here we mention a few examples:
• Avoiding exposure to infection:
“Stay well away from committing fornication/adultery. It is an indecent act, and an evil path” (Sūrat al-Isrā’ 32). “Stay well away from committing indecencies, whether openly or in secret” (Sūrat al-An‘ām 151).
“What I fear most for my nation (Ummah) is that they practice the acts of the people of Lot” (reported by Ibn Mājah and al-Bayhaqī, on the authority of Jābir).
“If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it…” (reported by al-Bukhārī, on the authority of Usāmah b. Zayd).
• Avoiding injury:
“…When you halt for the night while travelling, avoid (pitching your tent on) the road, because it is the path for animals and abode for vermin by night” (reported by Muslim, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).
"When any of you goes to bed, he should dust off his bedding with the inner extremity of his lower garment, for he does not know what might have come onto it since he left it” (agreed upon, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).
“Extinguish the lamps when you got to bed; close your doors; tie the mouths of your water skins; and cover any food or drink” (reported by al-Bukhārī, on the authority of Jābir).
“If anyone spends the night on the roof of a house with no stone palisade, Allāh will withhold His protection” (reported by Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of ‘Alī b. Shaybān).
“The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings upon him, forbade solitude: in that a person sleeps or travels alone” (reported by Imām Aḥmad, on the authority of Ibn ‘Umar; its chain of narrators (sanad) is authentic, applying al-Bukhārī’s criterion).
Avoiding harmful substances, such as intoxicants, narcotics and smoking:
“They ask you about intoxicants and gambling, say there is great wrong (i.e. harm) in them…” (Sūrat al-Baqarah 219).
“Intoxicants, gambling, idolatrous practices, and divining with arrows are repugnant acts of Satan’s work, so shun it…” (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 90).
“The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessing upon him, forbade every intoxicant and anything causing languidness” (reported by Aḥmad and Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of Um Salamah).
“Indeed, every intoxicating substance is unlawful; every narcotic is unlawful; any substance that intoxicates if consumed in quantity, then a small amount is unlawful; and anything that veils (dulls) the mind is unlawful” (reported by Abū Nu‘aym, on the authority of Anas b. Hudhayfah).


The foregoing addressed the human right in personal health. On the other hand, the individual’s right to health upon society is also both a reinforcing and preventive right.
The reinforcing right is concerned with anything that increases and enhances health levels, and takes many forms.
For example, a child has a right on its parents to provide it with healthy nutrition, represented primarily by breastfeeding; in complying with Allāh’s command: “Mothers should nurse their children for two full years, for those who wish to complete the full term of nursing…” (Sūrat al-Baqarah 233); also “… and the period of his weaning was two years…” (Sūrat Luqmān 14).
In addition, it is his right upon his parents to provide him with sufficient immunity, necessary to protect him against infectious diseases, by ensuring appropriate immunisation. This is included in the general injunction to care for children in every way that ensures their wellbeing, and not neglect their right; to comply with the saying of the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him: “…Your offspring have a right upon you… So grant everyone their due right” (agreed upon, on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Amrū), and his statement: “The man is the guardian of his family and he is responsible for them; a woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and his children, and she is responsible for them” (agreed upon, on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Umar).

Negligence in children’s rights, in such a way that causes loss of life is an extremely serious matter; as Allāh, the Almighty, says: “In loss are those who kill their children out of folly and ignorance” (al-An‘ām: 140). On the same subject, the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, says: “It is enough sin for a person to neglect his dependents” (an authentic tradition, reported by Abū Dāwūd and others, on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Amrū).
Every human being has the right to live in a healthy environment. According to Islam, that may only be achieved in two key ways. The first, cleaning the environment, and the second, raising the level of those elements maintaining its balance.
The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, urged cleaning the environment saying: “The deeds of my people, good and bad, were presented before me, and I found the removal of harmful objects from the road among their good deeds…” (reported by Muslim and Ibn Mājah, on the authority of Abū Dharr). He also said: “Faith (īmān), has over seventy branches… the least of which is the removal of harmful objects from the road…” (reported by Muslim, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah). He also said: “Removal of harmful objects from the road is an act of charity” (reported by al-Bukhārī in “al-Adab al-mufrad”, on the authority of Abū Dharr).
The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, used to urge the people to: “… clean your courtyards” (reported by al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of ‘Āmir b. Sa‘d from his father).
On the other hand, the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him was keen to encourage agriculture, so as to increase the plant resource, and add to a sound environment; he said: “If the Hour comes while you have a shoot of a plant in your hands and it is possible to plant it, you should plant it.” (reported by Aḥmad, on the authority of Anas b. Mālik). He also said: “If a Muslim plants a tree, or sows a field, and men, beasts, and birds eat from it, all of it is charity from him” (reported by Muslim, on the authority of Jābir). He also said: “Whoever revives barren land, then it belongs to him” (reported by al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of Jābir). Further, he said: “He who sows a field or plants a plant shall be rewarded by Allāh for all those ‘awāfī that eat of it” (reported by Yaḥyā b. Ādam in “al-Kharāj”, on the authority of Abū Usayd). He also said: “Whoever revives an infertile piece of land, then he shall have reward from it; for all the creatures (al-‘āfiyah) that eat of its produce. It is an act of charity from him” (reported by Yaḥyā b. Ādam, on the authority of Jābir b. ‘Abd Allāh). (‘āfiyah and ‘āfiy; pl. ‘awāfī: any seeker of sustenance, whether human, animal or bird).
The rightly-guided Caliphs followed this blessed guidance. Yaḥyā b. Ādam reported in “al-Kharāj” (89), on the authority of Muḥammad b. ‘Ubayd al-Thaqafī that: ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, the second Caliph, may Allāh be pleased with him, issued a decree, saying: “Whoever revives a piece of land, hitherto uncultivated, has most right to it”.
Yaḥyā b. Ādam also reported, in “al-Kharāj” (46), that the Caliph ‘Umar, may Allāh be pleased with him, said: “O People! Help yourselves. If the seven—or he said the nine—of you are in a village they can, with Allāh’s Permission, bring it to life”. A man came to Caliph ‘Alī, may Allāh be pleased with him, and said: “I found a wasted piece of land, whose owners were unable to cultivate, and so I leased water and cultivated it”. ‘Alī said: “Eat with gratification! You are a corrector not an evildoer; a restorer not a vandal” (al-Kharāj: 63).
Yaḥyā b. Ādam reported that ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz wrote: “consider the land of al-Ṣāfiyah in your vicinity, and offer it for sharecropping on a fifty-fifty basis. If not, offer it for a third share basis; otherwise offer it up for up to a tenth share basis. If nobody takes it, then give it away for free; otherwise, spend on it from the Muslim treasury” (al-Kharāj: 62).
As for the preventive right due on society, in simple terms, it is to stop harm being inflicted upon others (ḍirār), in compliance with the directive of the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him: “Harm shall not be inflicted (ḍarar), or reciprocated (ḍirār)”, and “Whoever harms others, Allāh will cause him harm” (reported by Ibn Mājah and Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of Abū Ṣarmah). The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, also said: “By Allāh, he is not a believer! They said: whom, O’ Messenger of Allāh, may he ever fail and lose? He said: one whose neighbour does not feel safe from his evil” (agreed upon, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah). Also his statement: “… restrain yourself from doing wrong to people; indeed, it is charity that you bestow upon yourself” (agreed upon, on the authority of Abū Dharr).
Allāh, the Almighty, says: “And those who undeservedly insult believing men and women will bear the guilt of slander and flagrant sin” (Sūrat al-Ahzāb 58). The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, adds: “He who believes in Allāh and the Last Day, let him not harm his neighbour…” (agreed upon, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).
Therefore, it is a right upon the individual towards members of his society, for example, that none of them should smoke inside a closed vehicle, whether car, aeroplane or carriage; and cause harm to all his travelling neighbours, by exposing them to the dangers of inhaling this noxious substance. If a Muslim is prohibited from smoking, even if alone, and exposing himself to causes of sickness and death, then it being prohibited in regard to others is even more obvious. The person next to you in a plane seat is a neighbour; the same in a public place; the neighbour inside the house is both a neighbour and relative. Allāh, the Almighty, in surah al-Nisā’, verse 36, commands excellence (iḥsān) towards neighbours, starting with neighbours, who are relatives, and those who are not, as well as passing acquaintances. Indeed, exposing any of them to the harms of smoking is no act of excellence, rather it is blatant abuse and patent harm .
The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, considered that it is the right of all members of society on the individual, to take all necessary precautions to prevent any injury or harm; for example, he said: “Whoever enters our mosques or passes through our markets holding arrows with him, he should grip them by their heads, lest he injure any of the Muslims” (agreed upon, on the authority of Abū Mūsā).
The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, considered it a right upon every member of society to not expose himself or anyone else to contagion. Besides coming under the universal rule, which proscribes harm, whether inflicted on the self or others, there are also a number of textual evidences specific to this matter. The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, said: “sick camels shall not be allowed to graze or drink with the healthy” (agreed upon, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah). His saying: “No infection and no evil omen”, is similar to the statement: “Harm shall not be inflicted, or reciprocated. As such, this is a prohibition of transmitting infection rather than denial of it”, and Allāh knows best. Therefore, in my view, a man has a right on his fellow human being, carrying a contagious disease; the latter should voluntarily isolate himself from gatherings, public assemblies, and mosques, until completely non-infectious.
The same applies to the right of all members of society on the individual to have a clean and healthy environment. In particular, polluting the environment was explicitly prohibited; the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, said: “Whoever harms the Muslims in their thoroughfares, deserves their curses” (reported by al-Ṭabarānī in “al-Kabīr”, with good (ḥasan) chain of narrators). Prophetic guidance also included: “None of you should urinate into still water” (reported by Ibn Mājah, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah). He also said: “Guard against the two things, which produce cursing.” He was asked what they were, and said, "Relieving oneself where people walk, or where they sit in the shade” (reported by Muslim, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah). He also said: “Be on your guard against three things which provoke cursing: defecating in the watering places and on the thoroughfares, and in the shade” (reported by Abū Dāwūd on the authority of Mu’adh b. Jabal).

The notable thing in these traditions is the use of the word ‘curse’ and its derivatives, signifying: to be expelled, ostracised, and banished; this indicates that the perpetrator of these acts, which pollute the environment loses any social status, and becomes a pariah in his society.
There is a fine gem in associating defecation with shaded areas, because the sun destroys the germs in the faeces, while shade protects them, and allows propagation. Therefore, the first preventive measure for environmental protection is not to pollute it with anything harmful to people. This begins with the smaller environment, namely the home or any closed place accommodating a limited number of people. It is not allowed, indeed, it is unlawful (ḥarām), to pollute such places by say, cigarette smoke, whose harm to health is today proven beyond doubt. Then, to the environment in the vicinity, where it is unlawful (ḥarām) for factory owners to dump their factory waste into communal waters, or release untreated, unfiltered factory smoke polluting the city air, which people breathe. Indeed, ‘noise pollution’, which upsets people is unlawful, even under a religious pretext. Allāh says in the Qur’ān: “… and lower your voice” (Sūrat Luqmān 19); and says: “And remember your Lord in yourself, in all humility and awe, without raising your voice” (Sūrat al-A’raf 205). Finally, the wider global environment, harmed by fluorocarbons, used in atomizer sprays and refrigeration devices, and nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons produced by car exhausts. These are all substances that, on one hand, deplete the ozone in the higher strata of the atmosphere, thereby exposing the world and its inhabitants to the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. Yet, at the same time, help in the generation of ozone in the lower strata of the atmosphere increasing asthma attacks, irritating the larynx and the respiratory system, destroying plant systems and retarding growth.
The second preventive measure for environmental protection is not to deplete the elements essential to its well-being.
The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, forbade the excessive use of water, even for cleaning and purification and provided a personal example in this regard. He used to bathe with the equivalent of a sā‘ (less than two litres) of water and take ablution with one mudd (less than half a litre). (Reported by Abū Dawūd and Ibn Mājah, on the authority of Jābir and ‘Āishah, and al-Tirmidhī and Ibn Mājah, on the authority of Safīnah).
Imām Abū ‘Ubayd reported in “Kitāb al-ṭahūr”, on the authority of Abū al-Dardā’, that “the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him came to a river and took a large vessel, and filled it with water. He then moved away, and performed ablution (wuḍū’). Some water was left over, which he poured back into the river, saying: may Allāh give it to another human being or animal or suchlike, to benefit from it”.

‘Amrū b. Shu‘ayb, quoting his father, from his grandfather, said: “A Bedouin came to the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, and asked him about ablution (wuḍū’); so the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, showed him, washing each part three times, and then said: this is how you make ablution (wuḍū’); anyone, who exceeds this, has abused, transgressed, or acted unjustly” (reported by Ibn Mājah and al-Nasā’ī; Abū Dāwūd reported a similar tradition, on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Amrū).
The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessing upon him, also said: “In this nation (Ummah), there will be people who will exceed the limits in purification as well as in supplication” (reported by Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. Mughaffal).
Another important example of conserving those things that keep the environment healthy is to protect animal and plant wealth.
The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, said: “If anyone cuts the lote-tree, may Allāh throw him headlong into Hell” (reported by Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. Ḥabashī).
The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, was the first to establish environmental reservations, banning the felling of trees or killing of animals within. “The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessing upon him, declared Madinah a protected area, a mail post (3 miles) in each direction; and directed that no tree shall be uprooted or felled, except what is needed to drive a camel” (reported by Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of ‘Uday b. Zayd). He also “… prohibited the cutting of any of the trees of Madinah…” (reported by Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of Sa‘d b. Abū Waqqāṣ). He also said about Madinah, “Its game is not to be chased (or disturbed)… and it is not acceptable for its trees to be cut, except for what a man uses to feed his camel” (reported by Abū Dāwūd). And he said: “I forbid that any trees between the two lava mountains of Madinah, should be cut” (reported by Imām Aḥmad, on the authority of Sa‘d b. Abū Waqqāṣ). About a valley in Taif the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, said: “Hunting game, and cutting the trees of Wajj is unlawful” (reported by Imām Aḥmad and Abū Dāwūd, on the authority of al-Zubayr). Imām Abū Yūsuf said in “al-Kharāj” (104): Mālik b. Anas narrated that he was informed that the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, forbade cutting trees within twelve miles in and around Madinah, and prohibited hunting within four miles around it. Abū Yūsuf said: Some scholars have said that this is to be interpreted as intended to preserve the trees.
These meanings became deeply ingrained in Muslims’ psyche. Imām Abū Muḥammad Ibn Ḥazm in “al-Muḥallā” says: “practising excellence towards animals is an act of righteousness and piety. Whoever does not help in giving the due care and attention would have helped in sin, aggression and has disobeyed Allāh, the Almighty…”

“Rather, it is obligatory to irrigate palm trees if not doing so means the death of the palm trees; similarly, for crops; the proof is what Allāh, the Almighty, says: “When he leaves you, he sets out to spread corruption in the land, destroying crop and progeny, and Allāh dislikes corruption” (al-Baqarah: 205).
Abū Muḥammad said: “So, denying animals what they need for living, fodder or grazing, and leaving the watering of fruit trees and crop until it wastes and dies away, is, in Allāh’s words, corruption on earth, and destruction of crop and progeny, and Allāh, the Almighty, does not love such acts!”.


As for the individual’s right to health upon the state, it is founded on the following principles espoused by the Islamic state:

  1. Man is honoured: the Qur’ān says: “We (Allāh) have ennobled the children of Adam” (al-Isrā’: 70). This entails keeping him in fully healthy and well.
  2. Islamic law was designed to preserve the five necessities, namely: religion, life, progeny, wealth, and intellect, as stated by Imām al-Shāṭibī in his “al-Muwāfaqāt fī uṣūl al-sharī‘ah”; indeed, it is clear that three of these five—life, progeny and intellect, cannot be fully preserved except by protecting health.
  3. Every human being has a right to life; human life is sacred, respected, and defended. One human soul is equal in value to all human beings. Allāh, the Almighty, says: “And if anyone gives life to another person, it is as if he had given life to all mankind” (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 32). An attack on the life of any human soul, even if it were a foetus, an old man or handicapped person… is aggression against all human beings: “whoever kills another person– unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption on the earth– it is as if he murdered all mankind” (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 32).
  4. Justice (al-‘adl) and pursuing with excellence (al-iḥsān) are two of the most important values: al-‘adl in Arabic, the language in which the Qur'an was revealed, also embodies the meaning of equality, as Almighty says: “… or fasting commensurate (‘adl) to that…” (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 95), i.e. the equivalent in fasting.
    Excellence (iḥsān) is another of the most wonderful expressions in Arabic—the language in which the Qur’an was revealed. This is because first it includes the meaning of ‘good quality’, where the word, ḥasan, also signifies good quality (jayyid). Allāh, the Almighty, gives glad tidings to: “those who listen well to what is said and follow the best of it (aḥsanah)” (Sūrat al-Zumar 18). Quality is required in everything… everything. Indeed, the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, says: “Verily Allāh has prescribed iḥsān (excellence, proficiency, perfection) in all things…” (reported by Aḥmad and Muslim, on the authority of Shaddād b. Aws).
    However, the word, iḥsān, also encompasses that gentle, compassionate touch that we miss, or almost, in modern medical practice. It includes the attitude of giving, where one wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself; rather, he prefers others over himself, even if he is experiencing great need.
    iḥsān also embodies a roused conscience, and acute mindfulness that Allāh, the Almighty, sees every act and behaviour. As the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, says: “iḥsān is to worship Allāh as if you see Him” (reported by al-Bukhārī and Muslim, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah).
    These values have been applied in the area of the human right to health, from the birth of the Muslim civilisation, to which we belong, and of which, we are proud.
    • Sick people enjoyed the right to be looked after by the state. Among the many examples, al-Balādhrī reports in “Futūḥ al-Buldān” that: “ ‘Umar, may Allāh be pleased with him, when he arrived at al-Jābiyah of Damascus, he came across Christian people suffering from leprosy; he decreed they be given from the alms (al-zakah) and a regular supply of food”.
    • Children—any child—had the right to state care; in “al-Ṭabaqāt” by Ibn Sa‘d: “ ‘Umar decreed 100 dirhams (silver coins) to be paid for each new-born baby, rising to 200 dirhams as it grew. He also imposed a monthly supply of food fitting to the child’s needs, received by the guardian, continuing, year on year. He would advise taking good care them, with their expenses and surrogate nursing costs, covered by the state treasury”.
    • The weak, the disabled, and the elderly had rights to state care. The dhimmah agreement (affording non-Muslims the protection of the state) between Khālid b. al-Walīd, and the population of al-Ḥīrah, stated that: “I granted them that: any old man becoming too weak to work, or afflicted by any disease, or had been rich and was now impoverished, and his co-religionists began giving him charity, then: (1) his jizyah is set aside (i.e. he is relieved from paying taxes), and (2) he and his dependents are supported by the Muslim state treasury, as long as he resides in Dār al-Hijrah and Dār al-Islām (i.e. in the Islamic state)”. This was mentioned by Imām Abū Yūsuf in “al-Kharāj”.
    It is clear from these examples that the Islamic state considers the right to health as a ‘human right’, without discrimination on the basis of colour, race or religion. Moreover, the Islamic state’s support and care for the person starts from birth by securing healthy breastfeeding, continuing into old age, by securing provision to ensure healthy living. In between these two, the state leaves no sick, incapacitated, disabled or injured person, but generously affords them the necessary care.
    All people, generally, regardless of any consideration whatsoever, had the right upon the Islamic state to enjoy equal access to healthcare, preventive or curative. This is the essence of the slogan or concept, "Health for All”, which the World Health Organization is promoting fourteen centuries later.

I am delighted to conclude with some health rights that have nowadays started to emerge and become more visible, in keeping with the rapid pace of scientific progress, and the evolution of peoples’ understanding, and the ethical values and principles that govern their conduct and behaviour.
Among these rights is the baby’s right to life. Muslim jurist opinions have differed on this issue, but not in principle; indeed, they all agree that the baby is a human soul, and that whoever gives it life, it is as if he had given life to all humanity. However, the creative juristic effort (ijtihād) of some of them was based on the traditions relating to the moment the soul is breathed into the baby (nafkh al-rūḥ). However, Imām al-Ghazālī, may Allāh have mercy on him, was endowed with penetrating insight—validated by late twentieth century knowledge. He stated that the baby, goes through two phases: in the first, it is a sedate entity that the mother does not feel, and in the second it is tangible, where the mother feels its movement. We now know that this is at the end of the fourth month, because the foetus’ arms, legs, and body have grown in size, so that it can hit the wall of the uterus with its punches and kicks.

Al-Ghazālī said that life starts at the beginning “when the man’s water (sperm) mixes with the woman’s water (egg), and ‘the thing’ (the fertilised egg in today's language) falls into place (where it attaches to the uterus), where undermining that process is a crime. This crime is more reprehensible after the soul is breathed into the body, reaching a horrendous peak once the living baby has been born. This was the case of female infanticide practised by the Arabs in the pre-Islamic era.
Other Islamic law (sharī‘ah) rulings relating to the foetus support al-Ghazālī view, including the fact that a pregnant woman sentenced to death, would have her execution stayed, until she gave birth and finished breastfeeding, even if the pregnancy had resulted from adultery (the account of the al-Ghāmidiyyah woman). By the same token, causing abortion of the foetus, even inadvertently, attracts a financial penalty, known as ‘al-ghurrah’, a class of blood money (al-diyyah).
Among these rights is the right of the husband and the wife to have children, and to pursue that through legitimate medical means, as long as it is within the scope of the lawful in Islamic law. In other words, only using a husband’s sperm and his wife’s egg, while they are in a state of marriage.
Among these rights is the right of a person needing an organ or a tissue transplant from another; this includes blood transfusions, corneal transplants, and other transplantable organs. Society must ensure that the patient's health needs are met, so long as no harm is done to others. The Muslim state must regulate this in a way that ensures adherence to Islamic guidance. Donating blood, a kidney, or other organs discharges ‘a duty to be fulfilled only by a limited number of qualified persons’ (farḍ kifāyah), on behalf of the whole society.
‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, may Allāh be pleased with him, judged that if a person dies of starvation in a group, then that entire group is liable to pay blood money (diyyah), as if all its members were complicit in killing that person. It is possible—and Allāh knows best—to apply analogy (qiyās) and equate that to the death of a person if to save his life it was sufficient to donate blood or an organ to him, where that does not cause the donor any harm. The basic principle in this case is the saying of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him: “You see the believers, in their affection, mercy and sympathy, towards each other, like one body, so that if any part is unwell, then the whole body will come to its succour with sleeplessness and fever” (agreed upon, on the authority of al-Nu‘mān b. Bashīr). Also: “A Muslim is a brother to the other Muslim; so he should not oppress or betray him”, and in another narration, “and he does not let him down” (agreed upon, on the authority of Ibn ‘Umar). Allāh, the Almighty, said in counting the attributes of the believers: “… And prefer them to themselves, even if they themselves are needy…” (Sūrat al-Ḥashr 9), and also: “And if anyone gives life to another person, it is as if he had given life to all mankind…” (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 32). Blood transfusion to one suffering blood loss, or a kidney transplant to a patient, whose kidneys are irreversibly damaged, is to give life in a physical sense. Likewise, a cornea transplantation allowing a blind person to see, is to give life in a moral sense. Both fall under the title of giving life, to which Allāh, the Almighty, refers in this noble verse.
Discussion of these rights, evolving day by day, is quite involved. Nevertheless, it is sufficient for us to adhere to the abovementioned verses and traditions, while adding to them the words of the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, urging and encouraging: “He who relieves (naffas) (in another narration, farraj) a worldly grief from his brother, Allāh will relieve (naffas) (in another narration, farraj) from him one of the griefs of the Day of Resurrection; and whoever shields or hides the misdeeds of a Muslim, Allāh will shield him in this world and in the Hereafter” (reported by Muslim and others, on the authority of Abū Hurayrah). The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, said: “The believer is brother of the believer under all circumstances: he protects him against loss and defends him in his absence” (agreed upon, on the authority of Ibn ‘Umar).
… and Allāh speaks the Truth and guides to the Way.

Source note:
This was published in:
Seminar held at the Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London on 10-12 Muharram 1420 AH / 26-28 April 1999. Human Rights in Islam, translated from Arabic, 2004, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, p 211-358.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.

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