On the Frontier Where Faith, Ethics and Medicine Meet

Aasim Padela explores intersections of religious identity, bioethics and health

Padela (center) discussing Islamic bioethics at the Conference on Health-related Issues and Islamic Normativity at the University of Hamburg, Germany.

By Sandra Whitehead

July/August 2022

Internationally recognized thought and research leader Aasim Padela, M.D., has a history of hiking into uncharted territory. An academic Daniel Boone, the Medical College of Wisconsin professor explores research domains that do not yet exist.

Padela’s multidisciplinary research clears new fields to unite ethics, medicine and religious studies. He uses a range of tools from community surveys to assess healthcare disparities to narrative discourse analysis to consider how Muslims are portrayed.

In his “elevator speech,” Padela explains, “I use Muslim Americans and Islam as a model to study how religious identity impacts health behaviors and healthcare experiences, as well as the professional identities of doctors and their practice. I also explore the bioethical guidance Islam offers to patients, providers, policymakers and religious leaders.”

With wisps of gray in his beard, Padela, 41, says it’s time to lead others into the clearing he has staked out in the wilderness. 

A Defining Moment

Born in New York, Padela is the son of immigrants from Pakistan who came to America in the 1970s for postgraduate studies. “Our household was very religious,” he recalls. “I was very comfortable with my identity as a Muslim.”

Padela graduated from the University of Rochester with dual degrees in biomedical engineering and classical Arabic language and literature. As a young man, he “had a long beard and wore a kufi all the time.”

He calls 9/11 “the inflection point” of his life. “Let me tell you the story,” he says. “I am a first-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan on the Upper East Side, looking forward to becoming a physician. I have had EMT paramedic training. 

“After the first class, we have a break. I go outside and some people say a plane hit the World Trade Center. We go into the second class a little after 9 o’clock. The medical school deans come into the auditorium; we don’t know why. Someone says another plane just hit the second tower and the first building has gone down. The dean says, ‘Classes are cancelled. Go call your families.’ 

“Immediately, I went to a friend’s dorm room to see the TV. We saw the second tower go down. I thought, ‘What can I do? I can pray and I can do service.’” Padela and his friends went to the emergency department and volunteered, but in four hours only two people came in. 

“I say, ‘Let’s go down to Chelsea Piers to do triage.’ I tried to get on the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) bus, but the doors didn’t open for me. When I tried another MTA bus, the doors didn’t open. Then it clicked. I realized everyone was worried because I was visibly a Muslim. I knew then that who Muslims are in this society was going to change forever.

“The next morning, the dean called a town hall meeting. I remember sitting with the 110 or so medical students and someone makes the comment, ‘Now Americans know how Israelis feel every day with Muslim terrorists trying to disrupt their peace.’

“I was one of two Muslim students in there. I got up and left the room in front of the auditorium. 

“Later that day, the dean said to me, ‘Aasim, you need to know the patient-doctor relationship is a place where you can inform understandings. A good doctor needs to know about his patient, and a good patient needs to know about their doctor. Two worldviews meet there. You can decide to build bridges of understanding between who you are and what your faith means or not. That leads directly to what I do now. My entire scholarly enterprise comes from that day.”

Setting Out on His Own

In his fourth year of medical school, Padela chose to take a medical ethics elective that Cornell offered in Qatar, where the university was thinking about adopting a medical oath that respected Muslim cultural and religious traditions. He “read everything, literally everything, written in English on Islamic medical ethics,” he recalls. “I wanted to help medical students there feel secure in what their tradition says. I was trying to be a cultural liaison, as I was literate in the Islamic tradition.”

Padela graduated in 2005 and was matched for residency in emergency medicine at the University of Rochester. “Fast forward to my second year of residency. I did research on Muslim physicians to understand how their faith identity intersected with the practice of medicine. I wanted to discover points of conflict.”

After seeing his work, two research-oriented faculty members encouraged Padela to pursue a research fellowship. Another professor told him that the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program would be the top program for gaining research skills and would fund his studies. Padela proposed research on health disparities among Muslim patients and Muslim providers.

“I was asked in one interview what I thought the biggest barrier to my getting into the program would be. I said it will be whether they want to fund a Muslim American or not, especially because I wanted to do research on Muslim Americans and nobody does that work.” The University of Michigan accepted him into the program.

Two years later, the chair of the committee that had selected Padela pulled him aside at a conference to tell him, “I had to advocate very hard to have you accepted, because you are doing original work. No one else in the country is doing this.”

After three years in the program, Padela earned a master’s degree in health and healthcare research. “I did all these projects on Muslim Americans. It was a great intellectual environment, and my emergency medicine chair and I got along very well.” 

The University of Michigan offered Padela a faculty post, but the University of Chicago recruited him. “I was charmed by the idea that I would have pieces of myself in the divinity school, the ethics center and the medical school and would be able to create a program,” he says.

Along the way, he married and fathered four children. His wife earned a doctorate degree and now does educational consulting work.

Blazing New Trails

In nine years as an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Chicago, and as a faculty member in its MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, Padela joined a group from both medicine and religious studies who explore the intersection of religion, ethics and medicine. He enjoys creating multidisciplinary research opportunities as the director of the Program on Medicine and Religion, and has founded an interdisciplinary platform for research, dialogue and education with the Initiative on Islam and Medicine.

“At the core, my interest is at the intersection of two fields — the Islamic tradition and biomedicine. That is the scholarship I [have] pursued for some 15 odd years,” Padela says.

Padela’s 100+ peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters look at issues like organ donation, healing, genetic engineering and withdrawal of life support through an Islamic lens. At the same time, he assesses health disparities in the Muslim community by considering such topics as the impact of the Muslim ban executive order, beliefs about modesty as regards healthcare utilization, as well as the efficacy of mosque-based education on medical issues. His work has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, BBC and CNN. 

Funding is always the challenge, he says. “No money, no mission. The reality on the ground, if you are an academician in medicine, is you can do clinical work to support your research or you can pursue grants and endowments so that your research and educational enterprises are paid for.

“If within that sphere you are doing Muslim health research, there is almost no money. My focus has been on two domains: Muslim health and healthcare disparities and Islamic bioethics. There is no institute interested in Muslim healthcare disparities per se. There are no foundations that focus on Muslim Americans as a strategic priority population.

“The way the United States looks at disparities are racial, ethnic and sexual orientation. We do not look at disparities of religious communities. However, there are disparities and we have to look at them. But they are not first, second, third, fourth or fifth line of priority for funding. And Islamic bioethics doesn’t exist as an academic field. 

“Even now in my academic career, I have to justify why I am writing about the Muslim population or why I am drawing on Islamic precepts,” Padela exclaims. 

“Our Muslim community has not yet built scholarly foundations to address our own healthcare needs or to have academic enterprises that analyze issues from a Muslim perspective. We need to give voice to those scholars who can do that. We need to coalesce centers and institutions and funders and research centers around that.”

Padela is leading the charge. But, “every few years, the challenge is to get the next grant and then the next. Being as gray-haired as I am now, I can’t live like that all the time.”

Paving the Way for Others to Follow

With his recent move to the Medical College of Wisconsin, Padela’s focus has shifted from blazing trails to building roads. “Research is a part of my life, but not the only thing I do,” he said. “I have crossed that bridge and been successful.”

With an eye to developing the next generation of researchers, Padela is now focusing on using his position as the Emergency Medical Department’s vice chair of research and scholarship to create opportunities for young scholars following his path. He is mentoring five medical students “to increase the awareness that they can do this line of work. I have models I deployed in Chicago and other places [that] I would like to help junior researchers implement.

“I see myself in more of the thought leader, mentor role. I will do my own research in the community and give others opportunities to run with it. They will learn skill sets and be able to do their own projects. I look forward to being a coach, mentor and advisor.”

On the Islamic bioethics sphere, Padela recently published two books and is writing another one. “I would like to complete those projects as a service to the academy and the next generation of folk thinking about this domain, to increase awareness of healthcare disparities and consider how we can help the healthcare system be more culturally sensitive and have [a] better inclusion and accommodation of religious identity.

“I’m in the academy because I want to generate new knowledge. Hopefully, it will be beneficial.”

Sandra Whitehead is an author, journalist and long-time adjunct instructor of journalism and media studies in the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.
[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story appeared in the Wisconsin Muslim Journal.]

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