Genetic Engineering

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:

"Verily of 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." (Qur'an 4:119)

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 are isolated.

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!

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