Human cloning sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, why are Muslims thinking about it?
The pace at which technology is growing, a sort of Red Queen’s race situation where the rest of us are running to simply stay in place, behooves us to critically think about the future of biotechnology instead of passively observing. Transhumanism. Robots. Artificial Intelligence. Human clones. After the famous Dolly the Sheep experiment, what was previously murmuring about the possibility of human genetic clones has erupted into a fully-fledged battleground. Researchers and scientists have taken to battle stations in science journals while nations have moved to ban human cloning.
While support for human cloning is currently minimal, the latest research and advancing technology that could put to rest safety concerns might see it escalate in the next few decades. Cloning remains bizarre and far from full conceptualization, considering how far technology still needs to advance, but there is literature by Muslim scholars and researchers on the subject. Dr. Sharmin Islam dedicates one of four sections of her book on four reproductive technologies to human cloning. Dr. Mohamed Ghaly also has a lengthy paper, fiqh (jurisprudence) councils convened on it as early as 1997, and there are a few websites in English where ulema (scholars) have given rulings. Credible literature in English is sparse but not nonexistent (there’s more available in Arabic). The purpose of this short essay isn’t to elucidate the Islamic hukm or legal ruling however, but to start thinking about how our worldview shapes our framing of biotechnology.
Before getting into the bioethics, we need to understand the process of human cloning. Since the objective is to duplicate a full set of chromosomes, human cloning skips over sexual reproduction or the need for gametes. There are two main methods for cloning currently in research, but the most common and efficient is what is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). To summarize a lengthy process, the genetic material of the person is put into a donor egg that has had its own genetic material removed. The resulting embryo is stimulated with an electric current to kick off cell division and then placed into a uterus. Thereafter, the embryo goes through the normal stages of growth and eventual birth. This can all sound a bit eerie, like something out of a movie, but not as flashy – petri dishes and pipettes simply don’t sound futuristic.
Even if one assumes that cloned humans will develop normally and live healthy lives, (a major objection alone and why no one is currently trying to do it), this process, according to Dr. Islam, interrupts the “basic concept of reproduction as approved by the Shari’a, which is the union of sperm and ovum in a legally valid marriage.” Consider the plethora of lineage and generational mismatches if one were to give birth to a clone of a relative, an ancestor, or even a copy of oneself. These are just a few harms human cloning can sow, and these are only concerns at a legal and sociological level, not even theology!
Human cloning analogizes humans to mechanical objects that can carbon copied multiple times over: gametes are malleable ingredients, objects that can be picked apart and put back together. It assumes one simply needs all the parts to build a human being. But we know humans have a ruh or soul, which is not an object that can be created in a beaker. From start to finish, Muslim scientists and researchers must ask: what are our metaphysical considerations? What are the assumptions underpinning arguments advocating for and against human cloning? Is the process permissible? What would be the benefit and harm in this, as defined by the sharīa?
Understanding biotechnology solely in terms of progress – however one defines it – and the freedom to do and gain more without restriction, is devoid of care for society as a whole. It ignores how individual actions amount to collective impact, not simply in this world, but in the next as well.
Spending more than two seconds on the prospect of cloning, and one quickly grows into deep unease. Gone are the fantasies of clone reserves that could serve as on-demand organ replacements or hordes of cloned geniuses. Instead, there is a fissure in our understanding of humanity and what it means to secure progress in the truest sense of the word – not more technology or more efficiency, but a betterment of both our physical and spiritual conditions in preparation for the test to pass into our afterlife. The Islamic concept of good and bad is not limited to this world, but takes into consideration our afterlife. Anything that interrupts that bridge should be swiftly rejected and opposed. This is where Islamic bioethics distinguishes itself from Western secular bioethics, not only in its sources of guidance but in where a division of realms lies. Dr. Islam notes that in debates on human cloning, Western secular bioethics is concerned with safeguarding the autonomy and freedom of parents and cloned children, whereas in Islamic bioethics “this dichotomy exists between God and humans as a whole.”
- Islam, Sharmin. Ethics of Assisted Reproductive Medicine: a Comparative Study of Western Secular and Islamic Bioethics. The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2013. pg 178
About the author: Heraa Hashmi is the Marketing Director of Traversing Tradition. Best known for her research project, Muslims Condemn, she is a graduate in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and has also studied linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter here.