Humboldtians in Focus

Sharia Versus Genetic Engineering?

By Thomas Eich

How Islamic legal scholars deal with bioethics issues and what role medical scientists play in it all

Sooner or later, anyone following the debate on genetic engineering, biomedical sciences and ethical issues in Europe or North America is bound to come across the assessment that Muslim societies have a much more liberal attitude to all the new things medicine can do. Islamic countries more liberal than western nations? It is probably because people are so amazed at this that the thesis claiming that Islam is progressive when it comes to biomedical issues is so popular – even if it is only partly justified.

“Many of the answers provided by Sunni Islamic law are not actually as positive and tolerant as is often claimed.”

Liberal usually indicates a fundamentally positive attitude towards topics like abortion and artificial insemination or in vitro fertilisation (IVF). However, many of the answers provided by Sunni Islamic law – the vast majority of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis – are not actually as positive and tolerant as is often claimed. Permission to perform IVF, for example, is restricted to married couples, and any form of sperm or egg donation outside marriage is strictly prohibited. Scholars only give their consent if the traditional definitions of marriage and family are not challenged.

For and against in vitro fertilisation: Are Islamic countries more liberal than western nations?
For and against in vitro fertilisation:
Are Islamic countries more
liberal than western nations?
Foto: shutterstock

With regard to abortion, a majority consensus only exists if the health or life of the mother is endangered by the pregnancy. In the last 20 years, there has also been a growing acceptance for the abortion of handicapped embryos during the first four months of pregnancy. On the other hand, there is no majority whatsoever for social indications. Quite the contrary: some legal scholars even recommend banning abortion as the most effective means of forcing young women to refrain from pre-marital sex. Bioethical debate in predominantly Muslim societies is normally defined by the high authority of the legal scholars (ulema). Admittedly, there are now national ethics councils in many countries. However, with the exception of Tunisia, these institutions, in which the ulema are usually in the minority, have not really had a notable impact so far.

Opinion building on cassette and Internet

Far more significant, by contrast, are the religious Sheikhs: they reach an audience of millions every day, in some cases via their own satellite and television channels, as well as on the Internet, in print and via extremely influential audio formats. A classic example is the controversy which has been raging for decades about introducing a kidney transplant programme in Egypt. Political resistance to the programme invokes Sheikh Sha’rawi, an extremely popular scholar even years aft er his death, whose preaching is still widely broadcast and purchased on cassette. Even an autocratic government like the one in Egypt cannot simply ignore the moral authority of a Sheikh Sha’rawi: to this day, no law has been ratified on introducing the programme. Apart from the ulema, whose influence is essentially based on their presence in the media, legal doctrine is also institutionalised – nationally it takes the form of Fatwa authorities, which are state institutions, and internationally the form of the Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA), for instance, created by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. In these latter bodies the influence of medical scientists is often much more tangible, not being restricted to purely scientific or medical matters but often extending right into the fields of ethics, law and theology.

Legal scholars are normally open-minded when it comes to genetic engineering research. And there are a number of reasons why. First of all, there is the Sharia principle that innovations are allowed provided that there are no texts in the Koran or Sunna – the pronouncements and actions of the prophet – expressly prohibiting them, and that they do not contravene any explicit Sharia law, even indirectly. As the fundamental texts do not deal with genetic engineering research at all, and it can usually be justified by saying it serves to fight disease, it is no great challenge to declare it to be consistent with the Sharia.

Trust in medical scientists

On the whole, the larger state or interstate legal bodies tend to place enormous trust in the representatives of the scientific and medical community. In concrete bioethical discussions it is often stated that the decision on a certain issue has to be left to the medical experts. An ethical problem thus simply becomes a medical one as is the case in relation to brain death and organ transplants. Is a human being to be considered dead if the brain has suffered irreversible damage but the body still shows signs of life, such as respiration and heartbeat, even if these are being maintained by machines?

The former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, for example, leaves it up to medical scientists to answer this question. If they say someone is (brain)dead, that person is to be considered dead and the organs may be used for transplants.

“An ethical problem often simply becomes a medical one.”

In a case like this, the commandment to protect the integrity of the human body beyond death makes way for the higher legal and moral property of saving or significantly improving the life of another. However, there are also those who oppose the brain death criterion. They argue, according to the reasoning of the previously mentioned Egyptian Sheikh Sha’rawi, that this reduces the multidimensional nature of a human being to the functioning of a single organ.

This example alone shows that even within one single country there can be no talk of a unified, scientifically liberal Islam. What is clear though, is that the Islamic debate on bioethics will gain in importance: Due to migration every country in the world now has a substantial proportion of people of Islamic faith amongst its population. In western countries independent Islamic consideration of bioethical issues has developed, above all in North America. In Europe, on the other hand, debate is largely dominated by statements originating in the Near East.

In this context it can be assumed that the pre-eminent Arab dominance of Islamic debate on bioethics will decline. Iran, in particular, is gaining in significance, as is Pakistan. At the same time, the authority of international Islamic bodies which concern themselves with bioethical issues, especially the Islamic Fiqh Academy, is growing, and the IFA has the advantage that it is not identified with the government of any one country. Islamic legal bodies at national level, by contrast, will probably forfeit some of their influence: Being government institutions they are directly affected by the general legitimation crisis amongst most of the regimes and ruling houses in the Near East.

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Dr Thomas Eich teaches Islamic Studies at Tübingen University. From September 2008 to February 2009 he is a Feodor Lynen Research Fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA.

Lax Laws, Brilliant Business

The fact that their oil wells will dry up in the not too distant future is leading the countries of the Near East to search for alternative sources of income. One way is to establish biomedical research and treatments in the region, and there have already been a number of success stories, not always with pleasing consequences.

Due to the extreme difference in the level of wages, for example, medical tourists are coming from the rich to the poor countries. At a fertility clinic in Amman in Jordan, for instance, by far the largest group of clients comes from the Gulf states. The income generated by medical tourism is so significant that it warrants its own section in the country’s economic calculations. Patients and clinics profit from the fact that many medical fields are hardly regulated at all and, if they are, more by guidelines and voluntary agreements which they may or may not observe. The clinic mentioned in Amman, for example, offers ethically highly controversial procedures for influencing the sex of the embryo. Admittedly, this is condemned by doctors in the entire region, but it does nothing to alter the fact that couples who, come what may, want to use IVF treatment to produce a son, travel to Jordan if they can possibly afford it. Meanwhile, European clients have also discovered the opportunities offered by trips for treatment to the Near East.

Non-existent or lax laws are turn ing the region into an interesting location for research, too. And, in addition, there are special genetic features. At an average of about 20 per cent, the relatively large number of inter-family marriages by comparison with only one percent in Europe has, over generations, led to the occurrence of particularly rare genetic disorders. Furthermore, the low rate of mobility amongst the population in certain parts of the countries provides a basis for long-term genetic studies spanning several decades. This is the reason why leading members of bio and medical ethics bodies in Lebanon and Pakistan campaign in publications and talks for conducting research in these countries.

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