Some Muslim medical students are refusing to attend lectures or answer exam questions on alcohol-related or sexually transmitted diseases because they claim it offends their religious beliefs.
Some trainee doctors say learning to treat the diseases conflicts with their faith, which states that Muslims should not drink alcohol and rejects sexual promiscuity.
A small number of Muslim medical students have even refused to treat patients of the opposite sex. One male student was prepared to fail his final exams rather than carry out a basic examination of a female patient.
The religious objections by students have been confirmed by the British Medical Association (BMA) and General Medical Council (GMC), which both stressed that they did not approve of such actions.
It will intensify the debate sparked last week by the disclosure that Sainsbury’s is permitting Muslim checkout operators to refuse to handle customers’ alcohol purchases on religious grounds. It means other members of staff have to be called over to scan in wine and beer for them at the till.
Critics, including many Islamic scholars, see the concessions as a step too far, and say Muslims are reneging on their professional responsibilities.
This weekend, however, it emerged that Sainsbury’s is also allowing its Muslim pharmacists to refuse to sell the morning-after pill to customers. At a Sainsbury’s store in Nottingham, a pharmacist named Ahmed declined to provide the pill to a female reporter posing as a customer. A colleague explained to her that Ahmed did not sell the pill for “ethical reasons”. Boots also permits pharmacists to refuse to sell the pill on ethical grounds.
The BMA said it had received reports of Muslim students who did not want to learn anything about alcohol or the effects of overconsumption. “They are so opposed to the consumption of it they don’t want to learn anything about it,” said a spokesman.
The GMC said it had received requests for guidance over whether students could “omit parts of the medical curriculum and yet still be allowed to graduate”. Professor Peter Rubin, chairman of the GMC’s education committee, said: “Examples have included a refusal to see patients who are affected by diseases caused by alcohol or sexual activity, or a refusal to examine patients of a particular gender.”
He added that “prejudicing treatment on the grounds of patients’ gender or their responsibility for their condition would run counter to the most basic principles of ethical medical practice”.
Shazia Ovaisi, a GP in north London, said one of her male Muslim contemporaries at medical school failed to complete his training because he refused to examine a woman patient as part of his final exams.
“He was academically gifted, one of the best students, but gradually he got in with certain Islamic groups and started to become more radical,” said Ovaisi.
“You could see there was a change in his personality as time went by. During the final exams he was supposed to treat a female patient in hospital. He refused to do it, even though it would have been a very basic examination, nothing intrusive.
“But he refused and as a result he failed his exams. I was quite shocked and disappointed about it because I don’t see there being anything in our religion that prohibits us from examining male and female patients.”
Both the Muslim Council of Britain and Muslim Doctors and Dentist Association said they were aware of students opting out but did not support them.
Dr Abdul Majid Katme, of the Islamic Medical Association, said: “To learn about alcohol, to learn about sexually transmitted disease, to learn about abortion, it gives us more evidence to campaign against it. There is a difference between learning and practising.
“It is obligatory for Muslim doctors and students to learn about everything. The prophet said, ‘Learn about witchcraft, but don’t practise it’.”