Cosmetic Surgery in Imami Jurisprudence | Part 4 & 5

This is the fourth and fifth short lesson delivered by Ustādh Rafī’pūr – a teacher of khārij – in the city of Mashad, in Madrassah Ayatullah Khūi, on the topic of cosmetic surgery.

We were discussing the narration, “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty.” The chain of transmission of this report is weak due to Qāsim b. Yaḥya, but we said there is another way to strengthen it based on what Shaykh Ṣadūq says in his al-Faqīh.

Regardless, we said this narration cannot be used for the permissibility of cosmetic surgery, nor do we have any narrations that prove the prohibition of it. The most important piece of evidence used by those who prohibit cosmetic surgery is the following verse:

وَلَأُضِلَّنَّهُمْ وَلَأُمَنِّيَنَّهُمْ وَلَـَٔامُرَنَّهُمْ فَلَيُبَتِّكُنَّ ءَاذَانَ ٱلْأَنْعَـٰمِ وَلَـَٔامُرَنَّهُمْ فَلَيُغَيِّرُنَّ خَلْقَ ٱللَّهِ ۚ وَمَن يَتَّخِذِ ٱلشَّيْطَـٰنَ وَلِيًّا مِّن دُونِ ٱللَّهِ فَقَدْ خَسِرَ خُسْرَانًا مُّبِينًا

[4:119] “I will certainly mislead them and delude them with empty hopes. Also, I will order them and they will slit the ears of cattle and alter Allah’s creation.” And whoever takes Satan as a guardian instead of Allah has certainly suffered a tremendous loss.

This verse has been used in at least three discussions:

1) Sex change; as we know Imam Khumaynī allowed this procedure, but Sayyid Khū’ī and most of his students, as well as the majority of Sunni scholars do not allow sex change. Those who prohibit sex change rely on this verse as one of their main arguments.

2) Shaving the beard; ironically, Sayyid Khū’ī says this verse cannot be used to prove the prohibition of shaving the beard but does use it for sex change. Perhaps this was because he did not consider shaving the beard as an “alteration” in Allah’s creation.

3) Cosmetic surgery; this is our discussion.

When you look at the works of tafsīr, you will find a difference of opinion amongst scholars on the meaning of this verse. Shaykh Ṭūsī in his al-Tibyān and Ṭabrisī in his Majma‘ al-Bayān give two possible meanings:

i) Alteration in the creation of Allah means to change something that Allah created in a certain way ontologically. In the past, scholars would give examples of castration and consider it prohibited.

If we take this meaning of the verse, then cosmetic surgery could be considered problematic.

ii) Alteration in the creation of Allah means to bring a change in Allah’s religion. This meaning exists in one narration in Tafsīr al-‘Ayyāshī and this difference of opinion has existed amongst the Shi’a.

Some scholars like Shaykh Ṭūsī also cited the following verse to strengthen the second possibility:

فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا ۚ فِطْرَتَ ٱللَّهِ ٱلَّتِى فَطَرَ ٱلنَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا ۚ لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ ٱللَّهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ ٱلدِّينُ ٱلْقَيِّمُ وَلَـٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ ٱلنَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

[30:3] So be steadfast in faith in all uprightness —the natural Way of Allah which He has instilled in ˹all˺ people. Let there be no change in this creation of Allah. That is the Straight Way, but most people do not know.

These scholars said the creation of Allah is referring to religious inclinations and religious beliefs.

Even though the narration in al-‘Ayyāshī is weak, but it seems to have created a certain perception and mindset about this verse for Shī’ī scholars. A majority of Shī‘ī scholars took this second meaning, while majority of Ahl al-Sunnah scholars took the first meaning.

Sayyid Khū’ī in his discussion on shaving the beard critiques the second meaning while discussing this verse. He says if you take the first meaning, it will result in takhṣīṣ al-akthar. This is because we know cutting or shortening the hair on our head is allowed, or we know we can cut down trees, or dig the earth for water, break into mountains, and hundreds of other things where we are essentially altering Allah’s creation. 

Therefore the change in the creation of Allah (swt) must be a very specific type of change, which is either ambiguous or we can resort to the narration as a contextual indicator to say creation of Allah (swt) means the religion of Allah (swt).

Unfortunately, that narration is weak and we cannot use it as a contextual indicator here, however the problem of takhṣīṣ al-akthar has to be responded to. In the tafsīr of Ibn ‘Āshūr in his al-Taḥrīr wa al-Tanwīr, the argues this change in creation is not a reference to any change, rather it is referring to Satanic and impermissible changes to creation. For example, at times you want to cut down a specific type of tree for some purpose, but this is very different to chopping down all those trees and letting them go extinct. Likewise, making changes to your body which are Satanic or which make you resemble disbelievers, it is these type of changes that the verse is referring to and Satan encourages people to do these changes.

As per this, cosmetic surgery will not be impermissible, but if the surgery is done in a way where a certain Satanic culture is being promoted and created, then that would be problematic.

This is one way to reconcile the view of the Ahl al-Sunnah who totally consider cosmetic surgery impressible, and most of the Shi’a scholars who consider it permissible.

As for the second approach which is expediency based, they will look at the verses of the Quran that speak of human creation. For example, Allah (swt) says:

لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا ٱلْإِنسَـٰنَ فِىٓ أَحْسَنِ تَقْوِيمٍ

[95:4] Indeed, We created humans in the best form.

خَلَقَ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضَ بِٱلْحَقِّ وَصَوَّرَكُمْ فَأَحْسَنَ صُوَرَكُمْ ۖ وَإِلَيْهِ ٱلْمَصِيرُ

[64:3] He created the heavens and the earth with truth, and He designed you and perfected your designs, and to Him is the destiny.

۞ وَلَقَدْ كَرَّمْنَا بَنِىٓ ءَادَمَ وَحَمَلْنَـٰهُمْ فِى ٱلْبَرِّ وَٱلْبَحْرِ وَرَزَقْنَـٰهُم مِّنَ ٱلطَّيِّبَـٰتِ وَفَضَّلْنَـٰهُمْ عَلَىٰ كَثِيرٍ مِّمَّنْ خَلَقْنَا تَفْضِيلًا

[17:70] Indeed, We have dignified the children of Adam, carried them on land and sea, granted them good and lawful provisions, and privileged them far above many of Our creatures.

These verses show Allah (swt) has generally created us beautiful already. Even the verse that says Allah (swt) dignified us, though there is a discussion on whether this verse is speaking of an ontological reality or a legislative, at the very least ontological reality is definitely there. These verses in reality should be a part of our religious culture, where Muslims should know they are created beautiful, instead of being duped by perceptions of beauty created by ungodly people.

Scholars who approach law based on expedience also often look at things from a societal perspective, rather than an individualistic perspective which is what traditional law is based on. In traditional law, a jurist will be asked whether cosmetic surgery is permitted or not and they will say it is permitted. However, when you look at things from a perspective of societal and political expediency, you will not just look at a single individual rather you will take into consideration the overall impact of a certain policy on society.

Scholars may argue that permitting cosmetic surgery without any boundaries will lead to a culture in society that goes against verses of the Quran that speak about how Allah (swt) has created us beautiful in general. This is problematic and policies should be made to limit this procedure to very exceptional circumstances.

If after all this, a person still wants to get cosmetic surgery because they get depressed over a certain part of their body as it is not in accordance with the norms of society, they are mocked for it, or they are embarrassed due to it, etc. and this results in mental health issues, then there is nothing against cosmetic surgery.

This is a brief overview of the jurisprudential discussion on cosmetic surgery. There are numerous particular matters that can be discussed further for those interested, such as, whether a wife need her husband’s permission to do cosmetic surgery. We did not find evidence that say she needs his permission.