Tomb of Salim Chishti, Fatehpur Sikri, India
As a Muslim physician, I face a strange conundrum. On the one hand, I am proud to be part of the discipline of modern medicine, which has led to miraculous breakthroughs that have advanced the way we understand the body and treat its various diseases. On the other hand, I am restrained in my admiration, for I realize that this very discipline, due to its unshakeable commitment to a mechanical philosophy of nature, has obscured our view of the qualitative and spiritual meanings of the human body. Modern medicine, like a Promethean fire, gives light but also burns. While it may shed light on the complex workings of our body, it blinds us from seeing the deeper spiritual message that is woven into our flesh and sinews and flows through our arteries and veins.
Many Muslim scholars acknowledge that there are ethical challenges that stem from modern medicine and its technologies, but very few consider the metaphysical concerns that arise from its mechanistic view of the human body. In fact, despite the growing number of Muslim physicians around the world, very few see any issue at all with the current scientific understanding of the human body.
I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth.
— Rene Descartes1
As someone who has recently passed through the hoops and hurdles of becoming a physician, I can say for certain that the mechanical conception of nature continues to pervade all aspects of medical theory and practice. From day one in anatomy class to the final years of preparing for board exams, we as physicians are acculturated to speak in the language of mechanism and understand the body as a complex amalgamation of parts and sub-parts, almost identical to a complex machine. The mechanistic paradigm clothes our understanding of the body in the language of industry. It slowly begins to creep into our consciousness during medical school and eventually takes firm root as we graduate, when as qualified physicians, we speak of the body as if it were in fact, as Descartes once dreamed, an earthly machine. A look at any modern medical textbook will corroborate this finding. For instance, it is common to read in introductory biology books that the cells of our body are like “factories” with “machinery” that can transcribe and translate DNA, like parts of an assembly line, until a specific protein is produced. Likewise, in human physiology textbooks, our endocrine organs are likened to advanced thermostats with feedback loops, the lungs are bellows, and the heart is a pump.