The Third International Convention of Islamic Medical Association of North America, Kuala Lumpur, 10 July 1995
We feel privileged to host this conference and hope that your deliberations will contribute to the enhancement of the Muslim societies' knowledge of medical science and health care.
Looking at the available data on a global basis, the health care situation in Muslim countries leaves much to be desired. Often, obsession with defence and security has left the medical and health care needs unattended to as such needs occupy a low rung in the order of priorities of many Muslim governments. The high rate of infant mortality, low life expectancy and the prevalence of common curable diseases warrants that health issues occupy a more urgent place among us.
Poor health care is often associated with a host of other social and economic ills such as low productivity and low education attainment. This is precisely the reason why expenditure on health care, as in education, must be viewed as a long-term investment which will contribute towards productivity and other social and economic improvements.
The low regard for health issues among Muslim intellectuals in public discourse is indeed ironical. It has been displaced by the pervasive discourse on power. Power is regarded as the panacea for all ills, and its public discourse has such a powerful attraction, almost becoming an opium to the elites, that it beguiles them from addressing the urgent social and economic needs of the ummah in a pragmatic and realistic way.
To my mind, the discourse on health care should rank high among our many concerns because the overall health condition is one of the criteria for measuring the well-being of the Ummah. In this regard, a large part of the Muslim world today would be able to make rapid strides in social and economic development if there is a concerted effort to raise public awareness on hygiene, a better knowledge on nutrition and no effort is spared to institute preventive medicine to eliminate curable contagious diseases. From our own experience, medical research should be relevant to the social context and directed at eliminating common diseases. We can say with satisfaction that through the dedication of our own doctors and medical researchers we have been able to free our people from tropical diseases such as malaria.
From the perspective of the Islamic tradition, healing of the sick was generally regarded as the highest form of "service to God" after the prescribed rituals. Health and medical concerns in Islam were shot through with religio-ethical motivation and valuation. Islamic physicians regarded medicine as a religious calling because it helped men and women to help others preserve and restore their health.
Historically, this religious motivation also set into motion certain processes, theoretical and practical, that formed the spiritual and cultural backbone of the Islamic medical institutions. The practical phenomenon was the proliferation of auqaf or the pious foundations through the world of Islam to support health institutions.
We can indeed take pride that the civilization of Islam has been among the most progressive in establishing clinics and hospitals. Although the establishment of hospitals proper did not begin until the Abbasid caliphate, the Umayyad had already set up institutions for lepers and the blind where servants and guides were employed to help the inmates. Muslim statesmen were known for their concern for the plight of the sick. An Abbasid Vizier, Isa ibn Ali, took the financial management of a hospital to task for withholding funds. He said:
"The hospital is more deserving of these funds than other items because those who come to the hospital for treatment are helpless people and its benefit is very great. Please, let me know why hospital funds have fallen short for these successive months, particularly at this time of winter with such cold weather."
It would be shameful indeed if in these more enlightened times, we turn a blind eye to the health care requirements of our people.
For many developing countries the responsibility for health care falls squarely on the government. For the benefit of the poorer members of the society, medical treatment must be priced as cheaply as possible or be provided free of charge. In Malaysia, even as we proceed with privatization and downsizing of the public sector, health and education are among the very few sectors that have escaped the sharp axe of our budget trimmer. On the contrary these are the services that enjoy the privilege of additional funding for we view this as investment in human capital whose returns are beyond measure.
Be that as it may, no sector is free from scrutiny especially as we embark on new approaches to improve the quality and efficiency in the delivery of government services, public health care being one of them. We reckon that as a country progresses economically and as the number of the affluent multiplies, the financial equation in the funding of health care services requires rationalization. We do not dispute the fact that the government has the moral obligation to provide cheap medical treatment for the poor and we will never shirk that responsibility. However, it is morally reprehensible for the government to subsidize the medical requirements of the rich at the expense of the poor. The growth of private hospitals in recent years means to the fact that more Malaysians can now afford to pay for quality and improved services. As a result, there is a noticeable gap between the condition of government hospitals and that of private ones. A country like Malaysia, which continues to rewrite its own record in economic perfomance, must strive to provide adequate public medical services of high quality to its people. For us to undertake this we must come to an arrangement for the sharing of responsibility in the supply of services and for the maintenance of our hospitals and clinics.
The contribution of modern medicine in improving the quality of life is beyond dispute. This is not to say that modern medicine is not without its own weaknesses. In fact some have taken it as a cause célebre to find fault with modern medicine in order to promote alternative medicine. A review of the scientific and medical traditions of the great Asian civilizations, such as Islam, China and India, continues to enlighten us on the diversity of approaches towards healing and human well-being. The appeal of the holistic approach towards medicine and healing is growing and there is greater appreciation towards the scientific component of the traditions. We must certainly keep an open mind on these issues but we must also protect our society from charlatans masquerading under the same of alternative medicine, including those with Islamic names. In this regard the words of advice from of a 10th-century physician Abu Bakr Rabi al-Bukhari is quite pertinent. He said: "One must know some basic medicine in order to preserve his health so that quacks will not be able to destroy him."
The words of al-Bukhari should encourage the Muslim to exercise extra caution towards those making extraordinary claims about the efficacy of their so-called "Islamic Medicine" which in recent years have gained some popularity. While we are taught to recite certain doa and prayers for some illness, it is certainly wrong to expect a cure without undergoing proper treatment. Indeed the greatest disservice to the Islamic tradition that has produced names such as Ibn Sina, al-Razi, al-Zahrawi and Ibn al- Nafis is to allow the spread of an erroneous conception of Islamic medicine, that of an art of healing confined to the use of immolents, and recitation of the verses of the Qur'an and doa. Without proper knowledge of anatomy, physiology and pathology, these so-called practitioners of "Islamic medicine" today attribute most of the diseases they encounter to jinns and other supernatural factors. In Malaysia, the fruits of billions of ringgit spent by the government to provide sophisticated and state-of-the-art medical technology and expertise, will not be fully enjoyed by the Muslims if this misconception of Islamic medicine prevails. It is indeed the task of our Muslim doctors to eliminate this erroneous conception and strive to promote sound understanding and scientific thinking in our society.