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On Brain Death, Cryptocurrency & Qibla with Shaykh Al-Maghīli

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

​Note: None of the statements here are explicitly endorsed by the writers as the correct answer; we are simply transmitting what was said.

Recently, we had the chance to visit the blessed lands of Adrār and in one of its villages Inzigmir to sit with the teacher of our teachers, Shaykh Ahmed Al-Maghīli, and ask him questions on cutting edge issues that Muslims around the world are facing.

Shaykh Al-Maghīli is one of the most brilliant minds in southern Algeria and one of the few remaining scholars in the world who grew up in a completely Islamic pedagogical system. As chief acting judge for the Azawād region, people turn to him for everything from questions on wudū’ to dispute resolution in business.

Shaykh Ahmed Al-Maghīli one of the top students of Shaykh Bil Kabīr and one of the primary teachers of Markaz founder Shaykh Zohayr Qazzān.

Answering questions on issues where there is no clear precedent is a tricky task. Unless a scholar is a mujtahid muṭlaq¹, he must have a mastery of the theoretical fiqh texts of his madhab as well as be well-researched in qawā’id fiqhiyyah (principles of fiqh), furuq (critical differences in seemingly similar fiqh situations) and the primary sources of the madhab. It was an incredible opportunity then, for us to sit with someone like Shaykh Al-Maghīli who meets these qualifications and ask him the following questions. Accompanying us was our own teacher and Shaykh Al-Maghīli’s top student, Shaykh Zohayr Al-Qazzān.

On Brain Death

  • Q: If there is someone unconscious in the hospital, there is a total loss of brain function, and he is connected to a machine that pumps his heart - if you remove the machine, he’ll die [i.e. cardiopulmonary death]. This machine is quite expensive. Is it permissible for the doctor to remove the plug? In [U.S.] law brain death is legal death.²

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: Brain death is not death (according to an Islamic perspective), so it is not permissible to remove the machine unless the person can’t pay.

  • Q: Who has to pay?

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: The individual has to pay. And heirs have no right to say stop using up the money, because the money is his money while he or she is alive.

  • Q: What if the doctors say there’s no chance of healing and no chance of recovery from this state of “brain death?” Is it permissible to pull the plug then?

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: It is still not permissible, even if it is just the machine that is holding onto the person’s life, [such that] removing it causes the person to die. To give an analogy, the fuquhā’ talk about a drowning person who is held up by a person’s hand - if the person lets go, they are the reason for the person dying.

  • The general principle is, if possible in a shar’iyy manner, a person should be kept alive longer. For example, if a person will die in one of two scenarios, the one where he dies later is preferred. For example, let’s say there is a person on fire on a ship. They are on fire and burning, but if they jump into the water, they drown. They should jump, because at least then the fire will go out and they will live until they drown because it is obligatory to extend one’s life.³

  • Q: The law changed the definition of death. Before, death was cardiopulmonary death. Now, there is brain death and cardiopulmonary death. Could we possibly redefine death to include brain death?

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: Philosophers⁴ say that the self is connected to the mind. But the Muslims say the self is connected to the heart. This is why you find people with parts of their brains missing but still can do things. This is the hikmah [wisdom] behind why we cannot include brain death in death.

  • Q: Going back to the reality of brain death, in reality, it’s not the person who pays for their own treatment but more often it’s the insurance or hospital. What that leads to is other people (through the insurance or hospital) paying for this person’s treatment which costs thousands of dollars per day.

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: That’s unimportant because it’s a fardh kifāyah regardless to pay for the treatment, whether it’s through insurance, the government or just a community of Muslims coming together. So the other people paying through the insurance or hospital are just fulfilling the fardh kifāyah.

  • Sh Zohayr: But sure that applies to us in Muslim country, but in reality many of the people are disbelievers. They could even be hostile and harmful to Muslims. Should a Muslim be paying for their treatment? Do we apply the same rules in a non-Muslim country?

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: In this case, and if they really can’t leave the country and just go to a Muslim country, the insurance is considered a ghasb (wrongfully taken) from them. But it’s wājib to leave to a Muslim country even without the ghasb or for other reasons.

  • In reality, many are looking for escape from the monotonous, non-stop work life in Western developed countries anyway. And the more they are supposedly “developed,” the more they are caught up in the drudgery of an unfulfilling life.

  • (A funny story here…) One day, a servant of the sultān came upon a man picking vegetables at the riverside so he would have enough food for the coming months. The servant told him, “If you were a servant of the sultān, you wouldn’t need to do all this (work).” The man replied, “If you were content with this (picking vegetables), you wouldn’t be a servant.”

  • (Some time later) Q: If insurance is required by the government and for example, one is paying for health insurance anyway, is one obligated to take a lower level of insurance? Less payment and less benefits?⁵

  • No, once the impermissibility is lifted one can take whatever level of insurance is best.

On Organ Donation

  • Q: Okay so we don’t consider a person who is “brain dead” actually dead in the shari’ah. However, after a person is brain dead, sometimes what happens is the organs are harvested and given to another - especially because the organs are still healthy at the time of brain death. Is this something that’s permissible?

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: No, that is forbidden.

  • Q: Even for the sake of darūrah (absolute necessity) of the recipient staying alive?

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: No, not even for that sake because it’s forbidden to benefit from another’s body parts. And it is for this reason that, for example, eating another human is forbidden (on the stronger of the two positions), even if a person is dying of hunger. There are certain things that aren’t allowed even if there is an apparent darūrah. Because darūriyyāt are in reality decided by the shari’ah.

  • Remember that Allah says in the Quran - إذا دعاكم لما يحييكم (“when He calls you to what gives you life”).⁷

  • Sh Zohayr: And what if the person himself wants to donate his organ? Voluntarily?⁸

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: It is likewise forbidden.

  • Q: So even if he is alive, he can’t consent to giving an organ even when he’s alive? For example, giving away one of his kidneys because a family member has severe diabetes and an affected kidney and needs a replacement kidney?

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: No, not even in that case. What Muslims need to realize is that Allah is the one who gives life and takes it. Medicines, transplants, other aspects are just the asbāb (causes) by which Allah keeps you alive. So if a sabab is forbidden, then the One who created the sabab is saying don’t take it - that is religion. And what is a life without religion? Is that even considered life worth living? Not at all.

  • Q: Do we likewise do qiyas of blood transfers on the transplanting of organs?

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: Not necessarily - rather we say that blood is najis (impure). And because it’s najis it’s forbidden to benefit from it.

On Cryptocurrency

  • Q: Cryptocurrency and chief among them bitcoin is a currency that is a digital currency created by a computer program and distributed first to the miners who help in generating the currency. What do you say about this Shaykh?

  • Sh Al-Maghili: It’s trickery. Fiat money is itself trickery. And digital currency is more imaginary than that. A true sign of the hour…

  • Sh Zohayr: The situation though is that it’s become a reality. People are buying and selling all kinds of items with it.

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: Forget what about non-Muslims countries are doing for now.

  • Shaykh Zohayr: Even in Muslim countries they’re using it.

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: Are the necessary elements of the transaction present? The offering and receiving party? The contractually obliged amounts? Something indicating consent? Is there no gharar (uncertainty) in the amounts?

  • Sh Zohayr: These critical elements of the transaction are present. And there isn’t gharar really. For example, somebody might sell a house for four Bitcoins. The amount is known. The seller is known. The buyer is known. The elements are present.

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: Well, if it’s known and the key elements are there, then it’s permissible to use.

  • Sh Zohayr: Currency - according to the shari’ah - does it have to be physically present? Because the question that comes to my mind when it comes to cryptocurrency is that it’s never really physically present.

  • Sh Al-Maghili: No, it does not have to be physically present.

  • Sh Zohayr: You know, in some sense, cryptocurrency is better than fiat money. Because right now, the flow of fiat money is controlled by governments¹⁰, whereas with cryptocurrency there is no one controlling party.

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: Well, it may be better now, but eventually of course governments will aim to control it if people start using it more widely. That’s the nature of political power.

  • Q: The thing with crypto however is that if it works well no one person can control it. No one body can have power over it.

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: They’ll find some way…

  • Q: How about mining crypto? Is that permissible? The way that proof-of-work mining works is likened to mining gold. There’s a group of “miners” who all try to uncover a code and whoever gets it right, gets a certain amount of the crypto.

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: This sounds like musābaqah. They’re just getting the crypto for free?

  • Sh Zohayr: It’s more like work because you still have to spend money on the internet and electricity to do mining. And they’re not cheap to be honest.

  • Proof-of-work is not an easy matter to understand. I sat for two to three days straight with them explaining math and computer science to understand what’s going on.

  • Q: There’s also a second method generally - proof of stake. According to the size of your stake you get a portion of the newly mined currency.

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: Seems like non-shari’yy means of earning money.¹¹

On the Qibla

Sh Zohayr: If you consider the spherical nature of the world there are two problems the people in America face calculating the qibla:

1. At a certain point you can go either way to Mecca, either go to the west or to the east. So which way is the qibla?

2. Planes actually go northeast from North America to Mecca because it is the shortest distance. But if you look at a 2D map, the straight line is generally to the southeast. So which way is the qibla?

Planes generally fly the great circle route (northeast from North America) as it is the shortest distance.

Drawing a straight line on a standard map to Mecca from North America would suggest a southeast Qibla.
  • Sh Al-Maghīli: As for the first question, you consider which way is more used by travelers - do they more often go to the west or east? Consider the direction that most often both the planes and ships take when they want to go towards Mecca.

  • Sh Al-Maghīli: As for the second question, you consider the direction that is most direct to travel even if it is longer. The straight line on a 2D map is more direct to travel because you don’t have to constantly change your direction and use instruments to slightly change your directions as you’re traveling.

  • The shari’ah came even to simple people without advanced technologies and cultures, and if you made them travel in the direction of the shortest distance it would be difficult. So too the qiblah should follow this simpler direction.

  • This relates to the concept of indirect oppression. You are oppressing simple people by telling them they have to follow a route that can only be determined through complex calculations. Another example of indirect oppression is when people go on multiple hajj trips in this day and age. Haven’t you considered that there are many others trying to go to hajj just once? How can one go many times and crowd other people out?

[1] A mujtahid muṭlaq is a scholar who has the capability of extracting legal rulings from the Qur’ān and Sunnah directly and has created his own framework or usul for extraction. The last major scholar to have claimed this level was Imām Jalal-ul-Din Al-Suyuti, a prolific ‘ālim who wrote in over 200 different ulum. Still, most scholars at his time rejected his claim of being a mujtahid because the bar for reaching the level of mujtahid mutlaq is incredibly high.

[2] In the U.S., states use a definition of death that includes death by neurological criteria (“brain death”) to constitute actual death. Some states however have some reasonable accommodations for families that do not abide by this definition. Only one state, New Jersey, allows challenges of brain death on religious grounds (for an example of this, see the Jahi McMath case), in which case a cardiopulmonary criteria is used. Thus, in New Jersey, a patient may be medically declared brain dead but cannot be declared legally dead, and is provided continuation of health care coverage.

[3] It’s important to note that fuquhā’ often bring extreme scenarios to demonstrate the extent of a principal. This is not a sign of them being out of touch, but rather it is them being precise in conveying the meaning.

[4] In the Islamic knowledge tradition, philosopher is not the meaning in its modern sense. Instead. it refers to ancient Greco-Roman philosophers and the Muslim scholars who embraced more of their core premises.

[5] Considering that the ḥukm (original ruling) is that insurance is impermissible because it is a contract where one side of payment (the premium) is known and the other amount (the potential claim) is unknown. However in fatwā, the insurance could be obligatory.

[6] The U.S. has an opt-in organ donation system, meaning one must actively indicate their desire to be an organ donor - through their driver’s license, advance directive, or at the request of family members. The U.K. has an opt-out system, meaning all adults are considered to have consented to organ donation (with some exceptions), unless they have actively recorded a decision to not be an organ donor.

[7] What gives us life - that is a life worth living - is obedience to Allah’s commands. So, if we stay alive by disobeying Him, is that a life worth living? [Al-Tashil Li-Ma’āni Al-Tanzīl, Ibn Juzayy]

[8] See note 4.

[9] Here there is an exception made for darūrah (absolute necessity).

[10] Governments can manipulate the value of fiat money in a number of ways. For example, for many years, China kept the value of the yuan low by selling yuan and buying dollars.

[11] Unfortunately, we did not get sufficient time to sit with Sh Al-Maghili long enough to get a definitive answer on proof-of-work mining and proof-of-stake staking, but his preliminary thoughts seem negatively inclined.


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Transcribed by students Tariq Patanam and Heraa Hashmi. Done in consultation with and approved by Markaz teacher Shaykh Zohayr Qazzān.

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