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A Beginner's Guide to Muslim Bioethics

By Brandon Keim


When Sunni and Shiite scholars disagreed over the ethics of cloning animals, I wondered whether there were other bioethical conflicts in the Muslim world.

Are Muslims split over stem cell research and genetically engineered crops? Generally speaking, do they approach biotechnologies in the same way -- or variety of ways -- as Western cultures?

I posed the question to a handful of Muslim bioethicists. The first to respond was Brown University anthropologist Sherine Hamdy. Wrote Hamdy,

I think it would be easy and reductionist to make this into yet another 'Shiite vs. Sunni' issue, but there has always been a wide space of interpretation and widely debate even within the Sunni Muslim world about various biotechnologies including cloning. Most religious sources say that if a given technology, e.g. cloning is for beneficial purposes and the good outweighs the negative (if there is potential for human cures, etc.) then it is permissible, others have cautioned about the potential danger of creating a 'super race' of people, most of the disagreement is actually about the understanding of the technology itself and what impact it might have.

Would it be a bit too easy and reductionist, I asked, to then say that Muslims are less inclined to take an absolutist position and instead base their judgments by weighing the risks and benefits of each case? Replied Hamdy,

Yes, that is generally how Islamic law characterizes itself, as one sensitive to contingencies; as taking the social context into account (see for example, the intro to Harvard scholar Baber Johansen's book Contingency in Sacred Law.)

Of course there are always people who are extremists and who take absolutist positions -- but as a scholarly orthodox tradition, Islamic scholars have generally incorporated social contingencies into their opinions about the permissibility of modern practices, especially with the legal tool of "maslaha" -- which is a calculus of weighing particular benefits against risks (measured both socially and spiritually); the current Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gumaa is an example of a scholar who is trying to educate ordinary Muslims against the dangers of absolutism because the context is always so important.

King Faisal University bioethicist Hamza Eskandarani [pdf] followed up with a list of medical and reproductive technologies permitted under Sharia law:

[Intra-uterine insemination], [In vitro fertilization], [Intra cytoplasmic sperm injection], etc. are permitted for married-only heterosexual couples.

No donation of any sort is allowed. Surrogacy is also not permitted. However, some Shea clerics permit the use of donated embryos and oocytes as practiced in Iran.

Freezing of sperm, oocyte, embryo, and ovarian and testicular tissues are permitted so long as the samples are kept in conditions which will not permit them to be mixed, donated, or utilized outside marriage.

Sex selection can be performed in case of medical necessity or family balance (although some Islamic scholars object to it).

Embryo reduction is still debatable and we have to wait for clear Fatwa (casting of opinion or non-binding but authoritative religious proclamation); some scholars permit it on the ground of life-threatening to the mother and other fetuses.

Micromanipulation is permitted to overcome infertility cases as well as investigate the resulting embryo but not to mix cells or DNA. It is believed that ensoulment of the embryo happens after 40 days of fertilization and research on embryo should not be permitted after day 14 of the fertilized egg. [...]

Gene therapy is permitted which as long as the benefits outweigh the detriments.

Reproductive cloning is not permitted, however, therapeutic cloning is allowed as long as the cloned cells are derived from a completely legal source.

Interesting stuff, and in some ways more progressive than I expected. It reminded me of the article that turned me into a Wired reader: Howard Rheingold's account of cell phone adoption among the Amish.

Image: Illustration from a 17th century manuscript by Mansur bin Muhammad Ahmad.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Brandon Keim's Twitter and feeds; Wired Science on Facebook. 

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