04/02/2014 02:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2014

Improving Healthcare, Saving Lives

If the numerous controversies in the Affordable Care Act have taught us anything, it's that we can no longer ignore the complex relationship between religion and medicine. As a Muslim preparing to enter medical school in August, I have often wondered how to continue my passion for interfaith while working in healthcare. Fortunately, I was able to attend the Annual Conference on Medicine and Religion from March 7-9, 2014 in Chicago. This gathering demonstrated the immense potential for interfaith cooperation in the medical field.

Upon arriving at the opening sessions, I was immediately struck by the diversity of professions represented. I had assumed that only physicians (and only those in specific specialties such as psychiatry) would attend. Instead, I met statisticians, epidemiologists, theologians, lawyers, ethicists, historians and physicians of many specialties, and even other students who shared my interests. One of my favorite sessions compared the perspectives of the Jewish physician Moses Maimonides and the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas on bioethics. Even though these figures lived nearly 800 years ago, many of their writings are relevant to modern discourse on issues such as abortion and contraception. I hope that the next conference expands to include a discussion of medieval Islamic physicians such as Rhazes and Avicenna.

At another presentation, I realized that hospitals and medical schools, like undergraduate colleges, are environments of profound religious diversity. A 2005 survey on American physicians' religious attitudes showed that certain religions are significantly more represented in the healthcare field in comparison to the overall U.S. population. For example, about 2 percent of the U.S. population is Jewish, but nearly 1 in 7 physicians is Jewish. In addition, only 0.4 percent of Americans are Hindus, but over 5 percent of doctors are Hindu. Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, and Mormons are similarly over-represented. Since this study is nearly ten years old, it is likely that this religious diversity has only increased. This means that physicians from various traditions are constantly working together, and with patients who may not share their beliefs. Since religion is an important part of life for many Americans, health professionals should engage with this diversity rather than ignore it.

The medical field is especially conducive to interfaith engagement because the concepts of service and human dignity are always implicit. The interreligious dialogues at this gathering never lapsed into either watered-down beliefs or theological minutiae; rather, every conversation, panel and presentation was geared towards improving healthcare and saving lives. Throughout the conference and even after leaving, I was constantly reminded of a famous hadith from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that encourages medical research, "There is no disease that Allah has sent down except that He also has sent down its treatment." (The Book of Medicine by Sahih Bukhari).

Medicine and religion need not conflict, and can often work together in achieving important goals. Religious leaders often play major roles in communities, and can help institutionalize and legitimize important policies. For instance, by collaborating with local Christian and Muslim communities to promote the use of anti-mosquito bed nets, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation has significantly reduced the incidence of malaria among children in Sierra Leone. In other countries, religious communities have been instrumental in helping to shape norms around abstinence, monogamy, and/or condom use, all of which contribute to a decline in sexually-transmitted diseases. Interfaith engagement on these matters is especially necessary in countries with large religious diversity.

Constructive dialogue between medicine and religion is desperately needed in the policymaking sphere in the United States. In my own research on the Affordable Care Act, I concluded that the initial exemption scheme for the contraceptive mandate was far too narrow to properly accommodate religious objections. For example, nonprofit organizations who desired an exemption from providing health insurance coverage for contraceptives to employees would need to "primarily serve members of their own faith." This is illogical; many religious charities, universities, and schools strive to serve all of mankind out of their belief in inherent human equality. This bizarre scheme (and the ensuing backlash and alleged "assault on religious freedom") may have been avoided if policymakers had consulted with religious leaders before issuing their mandate.

Although significant tensions between science and faith, religion and medicine, and various faith traditions may always exist, I am more interested in harnessing religion as a force for cooperation rather than one of division. In the future, I look forward to working with others in various professions who share my passions for medicine and interfaith cooperation. As a physician, I strive to live out one of my favorite verses from the Quran, an interfaith call to action which references the Talmud, "[Allah] decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever... saves one person -- it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." (Quran 5:32, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a).

A version of this article originally appeared at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.