An Interview with Dr. Mohammad Omar Hussaini
A year ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Mohammad Omar Hussaini, a hematopathologist at Moffitt and active Shaykh (Islamic scholar) in the Tampa Muslim community. Together, we sat down to speak about aspects of Dr. Hussaini’s medical training, particularly about how he balanced his medical training with his pursuit of Islamic scholarship, as well as how that scholarship plays into his practice as a physician. In addition, we also sat down to speak at length about religious perspectives on organ donation. It’s an area with which Dr. Hussaini is very familiar, both through his work as a pathologist and through his authorship of a thesis: Organ Donation, Classical Hanafite Perspectives. Together, we further went into the permissibility of organ donation while also preserving the sanctity of one’s body from an Islamic point of view.
So what motivates someone to travel all the way to South Africa right before their final year of medical school?
That was one of the first questions I had for Dr. Hussaini, whose unconventional path in medicine led him to a year-long sabbatical at Darul Uloom Zakariyya, an Islamic university founded in 1983 in Lenasia, South Africa. The university is known to attract students worldwide with the intent of training students in memorization and recitation of the Qur’an, as well as Islamic judicial thought and legal rulings. “For me, it was about continuing to follow down the path I had started back when I was a kid,” Dr. Hussaini explained. “I began my Islamic studies when I was 16 years old. During my summers in Chicago, I would go to study Arabic and memorize the Qur’an. I spent time in the Madrasa (educational institution) just reading as much as I could, not just from the Qur’an but also the works of past scholars, and that progressed even as I went into undergrad. Even in undergrad, I tried to choose an easier major in psych so I had time to keep up with my Islamic studies. Because of that foundation and path I laid out for myself, finishing the final year of my Islamic scholarship was a big priority for me. So I requested to take a year off before my fourth year of medical school to do that.”
“What is the bigger khidma (service), to study the deen (religion) or become a doctor?”
As I asked Dr. Hussaini about his time in South Africa, he recalled a memory that particularly reaffirmed his choice to finish his Islamic studies while there. “One of the deans at the school, Shaykh Radha ul-Haq, I used to sit at his house all the time when memorizing the Qur’an. Between sessions, I used to tell him about my ideas on how I’d someday give back to the community. But he told me that none of those were good reasons. Islam doesn’t need your money or fame, if you’re going to do something it’s because of the khidma itself.” He then posed the same question to me that his mentor had once posed to him. “What is the bigger khidma, to study the deen or become a doctor? For me, I couldn’t say I was sincerely studying medicine if I wasn’t studying the deen. And to do that in Darul Uloom, that was game-changing. My experiences before that were different, I was just a normal American kid. But to study from the source, you find a thing of real beauty.”
As we went on, he further explained to me how those experiences have since found their way into his interactions with patients. “When you start immersing yourself in that spiritual realm, all that stuff you talk about in theory, it’s not just stories in the Qu’ran, it’s real life that happens. My spirituality has informed every patient interaction. It has reminded me that you can’t be a good doctor because if you make too many mistakes, those are mistakes you will be responsible for answering on the Day of Qiyamah (judgement). You have to treat every patient with principles of modesty that are within our religion, treating them as your equal and explaining every little thing that you’re doing to them as a physician. If you’re attentive about those small things, you also consider the big things as a habit. I think that speaks to why Islam was spread so rapidly throughout the world. That kind of modesty and respect, it bleeds into the modern contemporary world to this very day. It’s still powerful because those kinds of values are always going to be important to people.”
What key criteria do you consider from an Islamic perspective for organ donation?
Wholeness of the Person: “So this the idea of intactness is not something new to Islam. There’s a certain sanctity to the human being which emphasizes that we don’t desecrate graves or chop up people. Christianity too saw human beings as needing to be whole on the Day of Qiyamah.” This idea of wholeness that Dr. Hussaini was talking about referred to ideas on how we ourselves don’t fully own our bodies. Rather, we are in what Dr. Hussaini deems as a “trust” between ourselves and God. “You can’t self-mutilate or self-harm something that Allah ultimately owns,” he explained. “But this isn’t to say that there are not circumstances where a person does have purview to use their body for a higher cause. If you’re in a fire, it’s permissible for me to save you despite the harm that comes to myself. While it’s contextual, the nobility to save another supersedes that harm.”
Viability: So then where do those particular contexts come into play? “There’s a sliding scale to Islamic jurisdictions; as one side becomes more certain, we can also affirm up the ruling more confidently.” From a Muslim point of view, as well as some Judaic perspectives, organ transplantation’s permissibility thus lies in how successful the transplant will end up being. “To give a comparison, blood donation is pretty widely accepted. To some degree, it’s accepted to receive blood because blood can be regenerated every 120 days. It’s not like you’re giving something away completely. But more importantly, that pint of blood is literally life-saving. It’s a clear on/off. While we’re not quite there with transplantation, there’s enough of a preponderance of evidence that you need to harvest and ultimately transplant organs for people that need a lung or heart. Not saying that this is exact, but even if you have, for example, a 30% shot, it will be helpful.”
Commodification: This was a murkier area for both of us as we wondered to what extent you could create systems to harvest organs. “With any donation, there has to be a clearly identified need. However, thinking about this ahead of time is difficult. Consider certain organs that always require a need like kidneys or lungs. From a systemic level, you would need to donate organs to fulfil that general need, so perhaps that’s where these organ donor cards and registries would come into play.” With that being said, he also emphasized care in not letting this sort of access swing too far in the other direction. “You need to be careful not to let this aspect of use become a commodification of human beings. While we aren’t there with organ transplantation, we are still in a human trafficking crisis, and that’s really happening. If that were to devolve with organ harvesting too, that could affect rulings on its permissibility. But most medical and academic institutions still have integrity, so I don’t really foresee that happening.”
“If there’s a need, just do it.”
By the end of our conversation, I was still a bit unsure where Dr. Hussaini stood overall on the subject of organ donation. And granted, it was a tough question to definitely answer. “As you dig deeper into the literature, you almost start drowning in all of the different arguments. It sort of becomes theoretical, you know? By the end of my own thesis, I was confused. So I went to ask one of my teachers, the Grand Mufti (jurist) of South Africa, in this long hallway up to the mountain you’d go get to get to him. And he told me, if there’s a need, just do it.” I was taken aback by such a simple answer and pressed further as I asked what that meant next to all of the past literature and rulings we’d spent an hour discussing. “Maybe it just takes someone of that stature to say something like that. I don’t have very many qualms about whether you get a transplant. Perhaps you could consider the harms vs. benefits, and there are some weird scenarios. But at the end of the day, Ahsan, it shouldn’t be a question whether to save someone’s life.”
There was an odd appreciation in me when hearing such a simple message. Despite all the research and criteria I had sifted through, both in Dr. Hussain’s thesis and in other works, the biggest thing to really remember was what it meant to do something that could save another person’s life. At the end of the day, organ donation is a simple yet powerful act, and there certainly is a need right now for more organ donors. There are over 106,000 people currently on the national transplant waiting list, with 17 people dying each day while waiting for an organ. Given that need, please do consider signing up to become an organ donor through the Health Resources and Services Administration, both here in Florida and through your home state’s registry.