Genetic Engineering has particularly
attracted lengthy discussions amongst Islamic scholars because of
a phrase in the Quran about "changing God's creation."
According to the Quran, after Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin
by eating from the forbidden tree, he was dismayed to see them repenting
and being forgiven and honoured by their mission to planet Earth
as God's vicegerent.
Satan asked the Lord to grant him
another chance to prove that humans are not that trustworthy after
all. If allowed to test them on earth, Satan disclosed some of his
plots to confound them saying:
Thy servants I shall most certainly take my due share, and shall
lead them astray and fill them with vain desires. And I shall command
them so that they cut off the ears of cattle (in idolatrous sacrifice),
and I shall command them and they will CHANGE GOD's CREATION."
The regard for this verse among Islamic
scholars and medical practitioners also affects their decisions
on such issues as sexual conversion operations.
Fortunately, however, the consensus
is that this Qur'anic verse cannot be invoked as a total and radical
ban on genetic engineering. If carried too far it would conflict
with many forms of curative surgery that also entails some change
in God's creation. Many ethical issues are raised by scientific
development of genetic engineering. The creation of new virulent
bacteria for use in biological warfare was a serious concern of
the early seventies when the technology of recombinant DNA was first
described. Such an application is clearly wrong. Applications such
as the diagnosis, amelioration, cure or prevention of genetic disease
are acceptable and even commendable. Gene replacement is essentially
transplantation surgery albeit at the molecular level. The pharmaceutical
possibilities of genetic engineering will open tremendous vistas
in treatment of many illnesses and the possibilities in agriculture
and animal husbandry might be the clue to solving the problem of
famine the world over.
The main concerns about genetic engineering
lie in the area of the unknown and unsuspected future. The possibility
of grafting new genes not only in somatic cells but also into germ
cells thus affecting coming generations, could later be associated
with tragic self perpetuating mutations. The hazards of atomic radiation
were not apparent for some time, nor could the damage be repaired,
and the stakes with genetic engineering are far more serious. The
introduction of genetic material from one species into another,
practically means the creation of a new species with mixed features.
If pursued with man's inclination
for seeking the unknown until it is known and the unachievable until
it becomes achievable then mankind may be confronted by patterns
of life yet to appear on the biological stage. Science might think
that everything is under control while the case is not really so.
Further, manipulating the human progeny might be extended beyond
combating disease to the cultivation of certain physical characteristics
considered desirable leading to elitism and discrimination against
(normal) individuals who lack those characteristics. Worse still
is the manipulation of behaviour if genes determining behaviour
The principle of tampering with the
human personality and its capacity for individual responsibility
and accountability would certainly be condemned by Islam. The technology
itself, attracts large capital for investment, and its investors
will inevitably seek maximal financial return. Many scientists have
already exchanged their ivory towers for golden ones and the spirit
of open and altruistic cooperation for trade-secrecy and patenting
forms of life.
Moral concerns have been voiced that
bear on equity, justice and the common good. Perhaps it is time
for a comprehensive public debate and the prospective formulation
of an ethical code for genetic engineering. A long story is in the
waiting, and it is just beginning to unfold!