Kano strange deaths: What Islam doctrine says about government's plan to adopt 'verbal autopsy'

When the Kano State Government said it will adopt 'verbal autopsy' to unravel the cause of the mysterious death that has claimed the lives of hundreds of people in the State in the last two weeks, it came as a rude shock to many people.

Media reports say 150 people were buried in two days in Kano State. There has been an influx of burials at the cemetery and undertakers and cemetery attendants are also finding the development strange. They claimed they have never seen such spike before and they believe all is not well in Kano State.

At the weekend, no fewer than 13 prominent personalities were reported dead in 24 hours – they include university Professors, newspaper editor, among others. Last Wednesday, Governor Abdullahi Ganduje had described the reports as fake news. After serial denial, the Kano State Government finally agreed to investigate the cause of the deaths, but it said it will only carry out verbal autopsy on the deceased to determine the cause of the deaths against the usual postmortem examination.

Postmortem examinations are used to verify the cause of death and to obtain additional scientific information on certain diseases and enhance education, among many others.

"In medical practice, there is what you call verbal autopsy. What we are doing is going back in history to see if we can make connections," Coordinator of Kano State's Technical Response Team on COVID-19, Dr. Tijani Hussaini, said on Channels Television's Sunrise Daily programme on Monday.

"Remember that Kano is a traditional Muslim place and usually autopsies are not conducted. We do not have burial registers and so it is difficult to say categorically that there is an increase in the number of deaths."

Tijjani's comment triggered an already enraged populace and evoked a flurry of debates and backlashes from different sections of the internet. Strange, obnoxious and barbaric were some of the words Nigerians used to describe the state's position. Many wondered the accuracy and efficacy of verbal autopsy in determining the real cause of the deaths when such process cannot properly diagnose COVID-19 and other deadly diseases.

What, perhaps, is unclear to many is that Tijjani was only reiterating the position of an Islamic doctrine which prohibits performing postmortem examination on a dead person. Aside Islam, several other religions like Judaism, Hinduism also believe that autopsy should not be carried out on a dead person.

Like some of the other religions with several ethical questions about autopsy, Islam believes autopsy is a haram, it delays burials, and causes harm to the body, and remove body parts.

According to an article on emedicine, autopsy is just one of the several other traditions of Islam related to death. When a Muslim is to be buried, "the eyes and mouth should be closed and the limbs should be straightened. The body should be faced toward Mecca, if not already. The body is washed and draped in a specific manner. Muslims are always buried without embalming and are never cremated. The deceased should be buried as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours".

Neusroom findings revealed that the Sharia, the book of Islamic law states that the importance of burying the dead under 24 hours after their death is "in order to bring the dead person closer to what God has prepared for him/her," and to bring God's servant closer to Him because a decayed body is considered repulsive to others.

The Sharia encourages retaining the body in its original form and keeping it as close to the site of death as possible, it is believed that these will be violated if an autopsy is performed on the body.

When contemporary situations challenge Islamic law, scholars known as hadith are sought out to publish a fatwa, or legal opinion on the topic. The Fatwa Committee at al-Azhar, Egypt of 1982 posited that autopsies should be permitted if medical students will learn from them, if justice prevails, and if contagious diseases are controlled.

In 1972, the Arab Republic of Syria said the government can overcome objections by the family (of a deceased person) if the postmortem is used for scientific reasons or to prevent an epidemic.

This was also the position of Imam Abdul Azeez Kewulere, the Chairman, and Council of Imam in Ikeja, Lagos.

Kewulere told Neusroom that, although autopsy is haram and Sharia is against it, but when there is an epidemic, the law must be relaxed to pave the way for scientific research in order to prevent further deaths.

"Sheikh Abdul-Azeez bn Baaz in his fatwa said that carrying out autopsy on a Muslim is Haram. The prophet said: 'breaking the bone of a dead Muslim is like breaking it while alive', however, if it is for security purpose it is permissible," he said.

Speaking on the case of strange deaths in Kano State, the Islamic cleric said the right thing the state ought to do is to allow autopsy because it is allowed in a period of epidemic.

"Sharia does not permit autopsy, as Muslims we accept death as an act of God and don't bother to probe the cause, but in this case when the deaths are becoming unusual and raising concerns, the law can be amended to determine why the people are dying," Kewulere said.
"If you fail to do autopsy because Sharia does not permit it and we all go enmasse to bury those who died from the unknown ailment, we may also be endangering our lives by contracting the unknown disease that killed the people.

"Since government has indicated that autopsy needs to be performed to allow them know the cause and prevent further deaths, Sharia permits that autopsy should be performed in that case."

The Imam said "Sharia says going to the Mosque to pray is the best," and added that if mosques can be shut to prevent spread of COVID-19, then the law on autopsy can be waved because it is the right thing to do.

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