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Genetic Engineering And Islamic Law
Oct 1, 1997

Recombinant DNA technology has not developed quickly. Only after decades of basic research and the accumulation of extensive knowledge did the current technology become feasible and available to the many scientists who now use it. It was the direct result of two previous revolutions in the biological field-the discovery of the secrets of the DNA molecule and the discovery of restriction enzymes.

The first revolution began when scientists agreed that DNA is the genetic material. Study showed that a DNA molecule is made up of nucleotides, in turn made of deoxyribose sugar, a phosphate molecule and one of the four nitrogenous bases: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. Each DNA molecule has two strands that are twisted in a helical form, as discovered by Watson and Crick. The sequence of nitrogenous bases in the two strands determines the genetic information inherited.

The second revolution was the discovery in bacterial cells of special enzymes, the restriction enzymes, which have the property of being able to cut DNA at a specific point in the sequence.

Recombinant DNA technology was initially developed as a tool to allow scientists to obtain many copies of DNA segments so that it could be studied further biochemically. It actually began with the first studies of the genetics of bacteria and viruses that infect bacterial cells, bacteriophages. A bacterium can accept segments of new DNA and incorporate this foreign DNA into its own chromosome. To a genetic engineer this is a desirable property. The incorporated DNA is henceforth replicated and transcribed along with the cell's original, native DNA.

Usually foreign DNA is not added directly into a bacterial genome, but into a plasmid, a small circular DNA molecule that exists outside the main DNA of the bacteria. Plasmids are cut by restriction enzymes that cleave the plasmid. In addition, foreign DNA is cleaved with the same restriction enzyme and then combined to the plasmid which is now called a vector. Such a combination is possible only if both DNA molecules are cut by the same restriction enzyme, because of the complementarity of the single strand sequence obtained after the cut. The vector is then injected to the bacterial cell. If this foreign DNA contains a gene, then the cell will acquire new characteristics and is said to be transformed, as a new product, not found in normal bacterial cells, has been produced.

Since the first day of its discovery, recombinant DNA technology caused dramatic changes not only in the field of genetics, but also in many other fields where it has useful applications. The most important of these are such medical applications as production of useful proteins on a commercial scale. In 1982, human insulin, produced by bacterial cells that contain human insulin gene transplant, reached the market. Insulin is a hormone needed daily by millions of people with diabetes. This insulin is also better for some patients who cannot tolerate the slight differences between human insulin and previously marketed insulin taken from pig and cattle livers. Another protein produced in this manner is human interferon, so called because it interferes with replication of viruses in the human body. Genetic engineers were also able to synthesize, by the method explained above, the enzyme urokinase. This enzyme is responsible for dissolving blood clots in blood vessels, the brain or lungs.

Secondly, genetic engineering offered a solution to a number of pollution problems. Scientists were able to transform some aquatic bacteria and introduce into them the characteristics of other bacterial cells found in oil wells. These transformed bacteria can consume oil spills present in water which contaminate the aquatic environment and endanger aquatic life.

There are many other applications of this new and fast-developing technology. Among them: safer vaccines made by engineering a weaker version of the disease-causing agent; enzymes for industry and pesticide accidents produced by engineering bacterial cells that have an enzyme to convert the waste to harmless substances; creating improved strains of crops and farm animals; and replacing defective genes in the human genome.

Not surprisingly, this scientific revolution has raised questions in many people's minds about its possible negative effects. First, are the transgenic crops safe to eat? Since the new genes and the proteins they encode contain the same nucleotides and amino acids found in all our food, there seems to be little risk from most new genes. However, new crops must be checked to ensure that any new protein produced does not interact with the plant normal chemistry to produce toxic substances. In addition, any plant engineered to produce toxins that fend off insects or disease must be tested to see if the toxin content endangers human consumers. Several experiments are already under way in which genetically engineered plants have been tested outdoors. Researchers watch to see whether such plants are as good under field conditions as in the laboratory, whether they die out or become established and whether they stay put or spread beyond application sites. Genetically engineered crops are also being field-tested.

There has been considerable controversy about the safety of such experimental release of genetically engineered plants into the environment. People have also worried about the possibility of an accident in a genetic engineering laboratory. Suppose a strain of bacteria for a dangerous toxin were let loose on the world? Most workers feel that the chance of this happening is slight because safe-guards and safety procedures are already in place. The bacteria used in recombinant DNA technology experiments are usually E coli, a species universally found in the human intestine. Further, the genetic strains used in the laboratory have been developed so as to be unable to survive outside their test-tube homes. The danger is further reduced by the regulation of laboratories doing DNA recombination research.

However, the biggest anxiety was over the aspiration, expressed by some scientists, to clone human beings. Such a possibility, if ever realized, would undo one of the most important characteristics of our species, the non-existence of two absolutely identical human beings. Some people tried to justify investigation of this possibility by saying that it could 'duplicate' geniuses like Einstein!

But first, how is such cloning done? The removal, by special techniques, of the haploid nucleus of an unfertilized ovum; then the addition to this anucleated ovum of a diploid nucleus taken from any somatic cell. The new ovum then acts as a fertilized egg and starts to divide and develop in the uterus of the female to whom it is injected. Dr J. Gordon, from Stanford University, said that these experiments were done on frogs and two identical frogs were produced, albeit after a great many trials. And lastly, as everybody must have heard, the identical of a sheep was also produced in Scotland. However, scientists guess that they will be able to perform such experiments on humans in the not unforseeable future. An indication of this came when Dr Jerry Hall, of George Washington University, and his colleagues, were able to produce several identical embryos from only one fertilized egg. This experiment was done by replicating the genetic material of a fertilized egg and introducing it to another unfertilized anucleated ovum.

Another fearful dimension of genetic engineering lies in the possibility of adapting and amending certain characteristics, thus of producing a 'superbreed.' Dr Samia Timatmi, Professor of Human Genetics in the National Centre for Scientific Research in Egypt, has said that scientists have found that it is possible to change particular human characteristics, such as eye colour and height, even intelligence. However, she adds that the aim of scientists at this stage is to seek cures for different genetically carried defects and diseases. Dr Yahya Zakariya, of the same institution, is less sanguine about what is possible. He considers that changing human characteristics is not so easy for many reasons. First, the attempt to change one gene might lead to unknown consequences. Second, he points out that usually a single characteristic is not controlled by a single gene but by a complex set of genes. Because scientists do not yet know and cannot isolate these genes, it seems that the notion of producing a 'superbreed' still belongs to the realm of science fiction not fact.

The general public's unease over genetic engineering experiments has not always stopped at the level of verbal protest. It turned into action when hundreds of people demonstrated near the laboratories of George Washington University against the work of Dr Jerry Hall and his colleagues. Demonstrators described this work as scientific chaos and called for the prohibition of such fearful experiments.

In view of such unease, it is only proper to ask how the Islamic religion considers such experiments and possibilities. How does it regard the positive aspects of genetic engineering? Do Muslims consider such experiments and research to be in conflict with Islamic beliefs and Qur'anic verses or permissible under the general Qur'an injunction to human beings to make observations and experiments, to study and reflect on nature?

Before trying to answer these questions, we should first note that research in this field is still very new. Most Islamic legal experts have therefore paid little attention to this field. They seem to regard the research as if it were only hypothetical and not something that is opening up practicable options and doing so very rapidly. For example, Dr A. Abu Farha, Head of the Qur'anic Sciences department in Al-Azhar, having said that Islam urges man to study and experiment so long as this is for the benefit of the human race, added that the Islamic attitude towards such research is caution. However, other jurists have realized the importance of recombinant DNA technology, and the need to regulate it to secure its benefits and to contain its dangers. As a result, they called for more attention to be given to this subject in particular and to the field in general. Dr Ahmed Sharaf-Eddine showed, in his paper submitted to the Conference on Reproduction in Islam, held in Kuwait in 1983, that the danger of such experiments lies in their consequences for unique, distinguishing human characteristics such as mind and self, which are highly esteemed in Islam. He argued that research in this field must, because its results are going to be applied to the human race, be governed by the basic rules of the Islamic religion.

A view widely held among Islamic scholars is that new concepts in science will never be contradictory with Islamic fundamentals because any new hypothesis will not become established fact or truth unless it falls in agreement with the Qur'an and Sunna. Even though neither the Qur'an nor the books recording the Sunna are scientific books, and though the decision for every single eventuality is not directly stated in them, they do contain general rules that can be applied to every eventuality and enable a rational decision to be taken. God says: Nothing have We omitted from the book (6.38). By using the different sources of legislation, scholars can work out appropriate decisions for different or new situations. However, no one individual scholar can give a detailed, specific decision concerning genetic engineering experiments, especially in these decades, where legal decisions concerning the new developments in science are taken in annual conferences where contemporary Islamic scholars assemble.

Some scholars have initiated the task of applying the general principles of Islamic Law to the recent advances, in order to facilitate a final ruling on both the positive and negative sides of genetic engineering. Dr Abdel Satar Abu Guda, in his paper submitted to the Conference on Reproduction in Islam, stated that, if the aim of such experiments is to cure and help the victims of genetically inherited diseases, then one can say that Islam encourages such technology or at least permits it, since such action falls under the general Islamic injunction to treat disease and bring benefits to the human race. According to the well-known saying of the Prophet, upon him be peace, that for every ailment (except old age) there is a remedy, the search for cures to inherited diseases must be legitimate. In addition, genetic engineering applications on plants are, according to Dr Abu Guda, permitted in Islam as they aim to increase the benefits to mankind from plants, which falls under the Qur'anic verse (31.20): Do you not see that God has subjected to your use all things in the heavens and on earth?

The general consensus of the scholars on the aspirations to change human nature by playing with the genetic make-up of human beings is negative. They are of the opinion that experiments so directed are but the response to the orders of the devil since they aspire to change the innate quality of the human race. God says (4.119): They call but upon Satan, the persistent rebel. God did curse him, but he said I will take of Thy servants a portion marked off. I will mislead them and I will create in them false desires; I will order them to slit the ears of cattle and to deface the fair nature created by-God. Whoever forsaking God, takes Satan for a friend has surely suffered a loss that is manifest. Because God has created humans in a perfect way (We have indeed created man in the best of moulds (95.4)), no human experiment

can create a better human being. Also God prohibited anything that can alter human consciousness transiently such as alcohol, drugs, and witchcraft, the effects of which can cause people to ruin themselves in body, mind and character, as well as financially. By analogy, scholars argue that the same general principle of preserving human character should apply to attempts to alter character by genetic intervention.

Shaikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali expressed a very clear opinion on the attempts to produce a 'superman.' He said: 'If we consider human fancies and use medicine to realize them, what is likely to happen? We will damage this world.' He added that we should master 'ethical engineering' rather than genetic engineering. Dr Muhammad Al-Mutajali considered that cloning human beings and seeking to produce a 'superman' are to be prohibited on the bases of the verse, No change there is in the work wrought by God (30.30), which proscribes such fundamental alterations. He added that such an action could led to the confusion of lineages and ancestry.

Broadly, the consensus seems to be that the use of science for the benefit of the human race is acceptable in Islam, but that fundamental changes in the fundamentals of human nature and (consequently) human relationships are not acceptable. Man should not think that because he has been able to modify the genetic content of plants, he is at liberty to do all that he desires to do in this life. God says (10.24): The likeness of the life of the present is as the rain which We send down from the skies: by its mingling arises the produce of earth which provides food for men and animals till the earth is clad with its golden ornaments and is decked out in beauty. The people to whom it belongs think they have all powers of disposal over it. There reaches it Our command by night or by day and We make it like a harvest clean-mown as if it had not flourished only the day before! Thus We explain the signs in detail for those who reflect.

Scientists at the end of the Conference on Reproduction in Islam recommended that it is legal to use recombinant DNA technology to produce chemicals and drugs needed for the benefit of society and for the elimination of harm. However, the recommendation is general. It is not restricted to human recombinant DNA technology, i.e. there is no detailed ruling on every specific aspect of these new experiments. (The decision may be contrasted, in this respect, to that taken in Makka a decade ago concerning in vitro fertilization.) What is clear from the recommendation is that human cloning is prohibited because it does not fall within the ambit of the general legal principle: 'The removal of harm and the obtaining of benefits.' Also, human cloning would result in many unanswerable questions. For example, How can we regulate the relation between the original person and his copies? A person could, in theory, be his or her own parent! What are the consequences for the laws of inheritance? Moreover, human cloning, if ever realized, would annul human relationships based on the family, as marriage would no longer be the way to get children, something that plainly ignores or even contradicts the law of God who says (30.21): And among His signs is this that he created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them and He has put love and mercy between your hearts. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect. How would humanity fare without love and mercy between the hearts of men and women? What would be the character of children reared in the absence of a family environment or one lacking in such qualities?

There is a further, also fearful, dimension to the problem. What are the likely consequences between nations if one nation is able, long before the others, to realize this dream of producing a 'superbreed'? Or the likely consequences within even a single nation? Clearly, only the 'best' citizens with 'perfect' mental and physical health, will be cloned, or would it be only the richest and most powerful? In either case, discrimination is inevitable and will inevitably lead to conflict.

The hope of producing a 'superbreed' or cloning 'supermen' is based upon a wildly optimistic estimate of the capacity of human scientific knowledge and of human wisdom in the use of it. It cannot but lead to (if it does not already derive from) a denial of Divine authority and power.

The Qur'an states (76.1-3): Has there not been over man a long period of time when he was a nothing not even mentioned? Verily We created man from a drop of mingled sperm. In order to try him We gave him the gifts of learning and sight. We showed him the way: whether he be grateful or ungrateful.

In sum, not all genetic engineering applications are prohibited and not all are allowed. Those directed towards the benefit of the human race are allowed, but those used to fundamentally alter human nature and God's work are prohibited. Science must be controlled by religion and ethics because a scientist with no restraints is but a devil.


  • Al-Jundi, Ahmad, Conference on Reproduction in Islam. Ministry of Health, Kuwait, 1983.
  • Beck, Liam et al., Life, 3rd edn. Harper Collins. New York. 1991. 'Genetic Engineering' Ahidati, 20 (52). p.15.
  • Mashing, Abel Rahman, 'Transplantation of identical human embryos', Al Moslemoon, 12 Nov 1993, no 458, p.7.
  • Verma, I. 'Gene Therapy'. Scientific American, Nov 1990 V 263 No 5, pp.34-41.