In Islam, it is widely recognized that mature persons of the opposite gender who are non-Mahram, refrain from any physical contact. Given the practical and comprehensive nature of our faith however, there are exceptions to this rule. One of these exceptions is when a physician or a nurse is treating someone of the opposite gender.
At the time of the Prophet (PBUH), many female Companions as well as the Prophet’s wife would volunteer to accompany him on military campaigns in order to nurse and tend to the wounded in battle. Among these magnificent women is the infamous Rufaidah bint Sa’ad Al-Ansariyah from Madinah. (1) She trained for years under her father who was the equivalent of a physician at the time. Soon, she acquired a unique skill set for treating the sick and wounded. She also proved to be a capable leader and organizer of many field hospitals set up to treat those injured in battle and help transport them to safety. Her work saved the lives of many and the Prophet (PBUH) often sent his male Companions to her specifically for treatment. For example, she would remove arrows from the bodies of injured men and establish haemostasis. In times of peace, Rufaidah set up a tent in front of the Mosque in Madinah which served as a clinic. In many instances she also fulfilled the role of a social worker by addressing social issues which lead to disease. She was not only known to be a compassionate healer and a leader, but also a skilled teacher. Her work was so immensely appreciated by both the Prophet (PBUH) and by the Muslim community that she was rewarded for it on numerous occasions. (2)
Rufaidah was not alone in her service to her community as a healer. Umm ‘Atiyyah, whose real name was Nusayba bint Harith al-Ansari also tended to casualties on the battlefield and performed simple procedures. Layla (Al-Shifa) bint Abdullah was an exceptionally intelligent and learned woman from Quraish. She used a preventative treatment against ant bites which the Prophet (PBUH) approved and asked her to teach other Muslim women including his wife whom she taught how to write. Al-Shifa was held in such high regard for her knowledge and skills that she was appointed by the caliph ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab as a market inspector in Madinah. (2)
Once permanent hospitals were erected in the 8th century to provide public healthcare in the Muslim world, many Muslim women skilled in medicine were employed, treating all patients. (2)
Muslim women have therefore played a pivotal role in treating the sick and injured of both genders since the time of the Prophet (PBUH). Based on evidence (ahadith) supporting this claim, scholars have concluded that women may indeed treat men. By analogy, they have also established that men may treat women. (1) Dr. An-Naseemi elaborated upon this ruling by stating that it applies in cases of necessity which he defines as follows (1):
- There is no physician/nurse of the same gender whose skills the patient trusts OR
- There is no physician/nurse of the same gender who is of the required specialty OR
- A physician/nurse of the same gender is unavailable.
When performing the physical exam on any patient, including those of the opposite gender, it’s important to ask for their consent, to make them as comfortable as possible, to safeguard their dignity by only uncovering the area you are examining sequentially, and to only examine what is necessary based on your medical judgement. These are basic forms of etiquette taught to us by our beautiful faith.
Allah knows best.
- The Islamic Guideline on Medicine by Yusuf Al-Hajj Ahmed
Women at the Time of the Prophet Muhammad by Elmira Akhmetova