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The Depths of Vanity -Ruth Nasrullah


surgery.jpgA few weeks ago I was scheduled for endoscopic sinus surgery and a septoplasty. Since moving to Houston I have suffered from chronically clogged sinuses and allergy symptoms and finally decided to see an ENT specialist, who ordered a CT scan and on the next visit showed me the films, pointing out the ghostly impression of my ineffective sinus tracts. She recommended the surgery, blithely telling me that she had had it herself and was at the mall shopping two days later. That sounded good to me, so I scheduled it.

As the date for the procedure came closer, I started doing more research and found that the procedure is a lot more serious than my doctor had led me to believe. If you can stomach it, search “endoscopic surgery” on youtube (as I did) and you’ll see that the doctor goes into the nose, alters the shape of the deviated septum, then makes her way up into the sinuses, re-shaping and excising portions of them along the way, with the goal of clearing inflamed sinuses and making more room for air to pass through them. It looked disgusting and painful. I spent the week prior to the surgery trying to decide if my symptoms really warranted this surgery. I even had a dream in which the doctor carved tunnels through the inside of my face. By the morning of the surgery I was very, very nervous.

I was actually on a stretcher, in a gown, with an IV in my arm when I decided not to go through with it. When the anesthesiologist came by, the first thing he said was that I was going to be in a lot of pain today and over the next few days and that it would be several weeks before I would feel “normal” again. I lay there and cried for a bit and finally decided there was nothing so wrong with me as to merit the severe pain, swelling, bleeding, restriction of activity, and even the risk – which my doctor did not tell me about – of having to have repeat procedures, endoscopic irrigations, etc. When I left the hospital intact and pain-free it was such a relief.

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Among my considerations in the week prior to the surgery was that maybe from an Islamic standpoint altering my anatomy wasn’t the right solution. As I said, if you really want to know, check out a youtube video and you’ll see what they do with their little clipping and clamping and sucking instruments. I would have no problem with surgical treatment of something life-threatening or dangerous, such as a tumor or cyst. But to undergo it electively is another story.

I wrote an article for Azizah magazine a couple years ago about plastic surgery from an Islamic standpoint. The virtually unanimous consensus of Islamic authorities is that elective cosmetic surgery runs contrary to Islamic principles. Many of the sources I interviewed quoted these verses from the Qur’an:

Allah did curse him [Satan], but he said: “I will take of Thy servants a portion Marked off;
“I will mislead them, and I will create in them false desires; I will order them to slit the ears of cattle, and to deface the (fair) nature created by Allah.” Whoever, forsaking Allah, takes Satan for a friend, hath of a surety suffered a loss that is manifest. (An Nisaa, verse 118-119, Yusuf Ali translation)

The message is that vanity is a base emotion which diminishes your humility in the sight of God and your reverence for what he has created. Although my sinus surgery wasn’t intended to alter my appearance, it was intended to make my breathing easier by “improving” the shape of my nose and sinuses.

The day after my canceled surgery I read this article in the NY Times about a Lasik procedure gone wrong – the author, Abby Ellin, ended up among the small percentage of patients whose vision is decreased, not improved, by the procedure. She writes, “In our quick-fix culture, we forget that there are risks with any surgery, elective or not.” She was less fortunate than me. Somewhere along the way she didn’t absorb the idea that, as she points out, surgical “success” is relative and may mean something different to the doctor than to the patient.

Interestingly, she starts the article by acknowledging that it was vanity that led her to the procedure. Although my surgery was not cosmetic, we were both guided by the idea that remodeling the anatomy is a good way to improve your body’s function. But I’d bet she would agree with me that unless you have a high-risk or life-threatening condition, maybe it is better just to be humble and live with your flaws and challenges.

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  1. MR

    May 13, 2008 at 7:19 AM

    May Allah (swt) make it easy for you. Ameen!

    I’m assuming you get bad allergies. Do you get headaches as well?

  2. True Virtues

    May 13, 2008 at 7:21 AM

    This may sound INCREDIBLY weird, but the symptoms you speak of, try replacing the milk you drink with organic raw milk (difficult to find and in some states it is illegal to sell), it’s highly recommended by some osteopaths, naturopaths, alternative medicine doctors and even some well-renowned strength coaches. Check for more info and to see if you can get some where you live.

  3. Ruth Nasrullah

    May 13, 2008 at 8:58 AM

    Thanks, MR. I get really bad headaches some mornings when I wake up congested – I suspect because I didn’t breathe properly during the night! Part of my problem is allergies/reaction to the incredible pollution here in Houston, but also as the doctor showed me on CAT scan, my sinuses are narrowed and my septum is deviated. There are times when I can actually hear the contents of my sinuses moving slowly through them – they’re actually that constricted. That’s why it seems like a good option would be to reshape the sinuses, but as with Lasik surgery you have to wonder if changing your body is really the way to go. The day of my canceled therapy I bought some eucalyptus products that so far offer minimal relief, but some.

    True Virtues, my first reaction is how gross! But I’ll check it out.

    What I really should do is find a good book on the medicine of the Prophet (SAW).

  4. True Virtues

    May 13, 2008 at 9:01 AM

    Check Ibn Qayyim’s book on Medicine of the Prophet (saw). If you the background of organic raw milk on the real milk website, you’ll kind of get an idea of what they’re talking about.

  5. ignorantmuslim

    May 13, 2008 at 1:30 PM

    I had septoplasty and turbinate reduction surgery done about 3 years ago.

    It was probably one of the best decisions i ever made in my life. After everything healed up, I realized that I had spent my whole life thinking that having constantly clogged sinuses and blocked nostrils was normal.

    In addition to the surgery, I started to get allergy shots, which made a huge difference in my eczema and other stuff alhamdulillah.

    As soon as my daughter is old enough, I plan to have her start the allergy shots and maybe the septoplasty if it’s needed too. She has apparently inherited all of my problems, and it’s tortuous seeing her suffer.

    I highly recommend getting these things done if the doctor feels that way.

    It’s not like botox or cosmetic surgery – this is a correction to an actual defect, like a cleft palate. It’s just not externally visible.

    wa Allahu ta’aala a’lam

  6. foodi

    May 13, 2008 at 2:07 PM

    hm.. while your doctor may have behaved unprofessionally in his flippant recommendation for the surgery and inadequate explanation of the risks / after effects, i can say that i recently underwent a septoplasty for a similar tho lesser problem. I have for years suffered from restricted airflow through the left side of my nose and this creates a problem for me while sleeping and especially during sinus infections..

    yes there was swelling and a moderate amount of pain ( it is surgery afterall), but within a week i was back to my normal day to day activities. and not to mention, my breathing is much much easier, alhamdulillah.

    i suspect that perhaps you over reacted to the prospect of surgery? either way, maybe you should find a better doctor.

  7. Anisa

    May 13, 2008 at 2:29 PM

    Interesting piece. BarakAllahu Feeki

  8. mcpagal

    May 13, 2008 at 2:47 PM

    Salaam, hope you’re feeling well now iA :P

    I think no matter what kind of surgery you’re going for, watching videos or looking at pictures is a bad idea to begin with. You’re not exactly going to go ‘Oh, that looks fun’ and go for it once you’ve seen it – even if it’s important. I’d understand that type of research if you’re a surgeon or have some sort of medical background – that way you’d be able to understand the pictures/videos, and not get irrationally freaked out. You’re better off reading about the procedure, and avoiding sensational stories of worst case scenarios made real – there’s risk associated with everything, you just have to weigh it against the need.

    I totally agree that elective cosmetic surgery is Islamicly wrong, but I worry about the extent you can take that to. Maybe not in your case, since you had other reasons for not wanting the surgery. But take wisdom teeth extractions – for most people they’re not completely essential. I had mine out because they were impacted, and the gum around one occasionally became infected and inflamed. Was that altering Allah’s creation? After all, Allah clearly willed that I should have impacted teeth, and they weren’t harming my health (just my quality of life!). It took me like a week to recover from mine, and of course there were risks associated – like nerve damage or jaw breakage. Rare, but risky nonetheless.

    Or take orthodontic treatment – most people get it for aesthetic reasons, and again technically you’re changing Allah’s creation. Shouldn’t people with malocclusions just stick to having badly aligned teeth as Allah decreed, and take the associated non-fatal problems as a test from Him – decay due to poor access, risk of trauma, psychological damage of people bulling them for their buck teeth, etc etc…

    You could even that logic to cleft lip, or other deformities that wouldn’t directly cause death. Slippery slope really. Isn’t it safer to say if there’s a sound medical reason for the procedure and it’s not purely for vanity, it’s okay? And I don’t think relief of pain = vanity.

    (by the way, the most disgusting surgery video I ever saw was of the removal of nasal polyps [<– no pictures in these links thankfully!]. I can deal with blood and gore, but for some reason watching fleshy masses in the nose being drilled out with suction really turned my stomach).

  9. samira

    May 13, 2008 at 3:49 PM

    get hold of a copy of the Medicine of the Prophet (pbuh). In sha Allah you’ll find something in there.

  10. Ruth Nasrullah

    May 13, 2008 at 4:01 PM

    Good points by everyone, especially McPagal’s idea of a slippery slope and what constitutes necessary versus unnecessary “alteration.” I agree that the doctor’s attitude – even up to when I was being prepped for surgery, when she just dismissed my concerns – probably influenced how I saw the surgical option. She barely tried any medical treatment before jumping to surgery. However, one of the things that made me feel like I was going for something unnecessary was that my symptoms didn’t seem to be as severe as other people’s. It made it seem all the more “elective” and like I was choosing to get remodeled on a whim.

    FWIW, when I researched the plastic surgery story all the knowledgeable sources I interviewed said plastic surgery for something like a cleft palate is completely okay, as is anything that is life threatening or severely impacts someone’s quality of life.

    What about Lasik? Where on the spectrum do you think that falls?

  11. Gohar

    May 13, 2008 at 8:08 PM

    If’s it’s halaal (i.e. not contradicting 4:119) then i can’t see myself turning down Botox when i’m older. It looks fab. You don’t want to reach a stage when you can’t bear to look at your own face in the mirror.

    Having said that, i suppose its then hard to criticize others for running after nosejobs and silicon implants, as they will inevitable often use the same argument for what they are doing, although the two scenarios do still feel different to me.

  12. Nadia

    May 13, 2008 at 8:24 PM

    Alhamdulillah it’s good that you did your own research and stuck to your instincts and didn’t get the surgery done. Some people have told me to do the laser eye surgery as a “quick-fix” to my weak eyesight, but I’m always too suspicious of such procedures and the risk involved which has kept me away from them so far. Contacts work just fine! But I’ll say again that I’m glad you were able to make a decision you were comfortable with mashallah, instead of relying on your doctor’s words, like most people end up doing.

  13. Ruth Nasrullah

    May 13, 2008 at 8:49 PM

    I’m already at a botox-able age ;) but I don’t think I’d do it. There are far more changes that come with middle age than wrinkles, and you just have to find a way to accept them.

  14. Siraaj Muhammad

    May 13, 2008 at 11:15 PM

    I had one of my front teeth knocked out many years ago by an repeated elbows to the face (grabbing a rebound next to a college basketball player) and had to have surgery for that. I remember that day, they had someone who was seeing it for the first time, and the dentist told that person, you may not be able to handle it the first time, so be ready to leave, and leave he did, within one minute. I didn’t feel any of it and the tooth works quite well, alhamdulillaah.


  15. Afzal

    May 15, 2008 at 7:40 AM

    I use a nasal drop for the congestion and it helps alot.

  16. Abu Hafsa

    May 15, 2008 at 10:17 AM


    I think you just chickened out and are using the religion as an excuse.

  17. Ruth Nasrullah

    May 15, 2008 at 10:31 AM

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Abu Hafsa. I didn’t cancel the surgery because of religious reasons.

  18. mcpagal

    May 15, 2008 at 5:30 PM

    Lasik is laser eye surgery right? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it really.. I mean, the alternatives are wearing glasses (which aren’t exactly natural) or contacts (which have just about the same effect as surgery except with more hassle). It’s not really vain, it’s just for convenience. Personally, I’m sticking with contacts right now – I’d be too worried to mess with my eyes. I know the chances of something going wrong are remote, but if you did end up with damaged eyes you’d regret it forever. It’s not really fixable…

    Here’s another one: orthognathic surgery. It’s basically the process of moving the jaws – either making the top one bigger and the bottom one smaller if the patients lower jaw sticks out too far (with the bottom teeth in front of the top one); or the other way round if the bottom jaw is too far back. It can make a huge difference to a persons life, but it’s really invasive (since they’re basically breaking the bone up and re-setting it). Is that okay? Does bad jaw alignment count as a deformity?

    There’s also surgery that can be done to pin ears back if they stick out too much – I think that’s bordering on the unnecessary side, since you can cover up sticky-outy ears with your hair or whatever, and there’s no medical need. But can you explain that to a kid who’s getting bullied for their ears?

    I saw a program on TV a while ago, it was about this guy who had a huge tumour covering his whole face. It really was hard to look at, and he stayed at home a lot because of the abuse he got on the street. The fact was, it wouldn’t have gotten so bad if he’d had surgery at an earlier age when it hadn’t progressed so much – but his mother was a Jehovah’s witness and refused to let him have a blood transfusion :(

  19. Atif

    May 16, 2008 at 11:48 AM

    I know that Sr. Ruth weighed the benefits against the risks/harms, but if you improved your quality of life, wouldn’t that make you a better worshipper of Allah (by being less sick and offering more quality ‘ibadah)? I haven’t seen this mentioned yet. This intention would be one of the biggest factors for me if I had such a decision to make.

  20. Abu Hafsa

    May 16, 2008 at 4:54 PM

    Sister Ruth,

    You’re welcome.

    Our deen makes things like this very easy.

    Everything we do in life has a risk asosciated with it. We weigh the risk/benefit according to the best of our abilities, then pray salat-ul-istakhara and then go ahead with our decision, relying on Allah (SWT). It’s quite simple.

    There is no need to come up with philiosophical./religious gymnastics because you felt squeamish going under the surgeon’s knife. And BTW, every surgical procedure is like what you saw on you tube – and it looks pretty bad to most lay people.

  21. Rema

    October 9, 2008 at 9:54 PM

    A little late I know…. but I was just informed of this article today.

    InshaAllah i’m scheduled to have this surgery at the end of the month. I have never been able to breath through my nose properly for as long as I can remember. I never thought it was a big deal until recently. I found out that constantly breathing though your mouth is not healthy becuase there is nothing to filter the air like in your nose. Without proper airflow, other symptoms also arise like not sleeping properly, headaches, etc. InshaAllah I hope that the surgery will help me and improve other areas in my life as well.

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