Cloning in the Qur'an and Tradition

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Islamic Medicine
Staff member
by Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina


In the present article I will attempt to summarize a wide range of opinions that have emerged among the scholars of Islamic law and theology in its Sunni and Shi`i formulations in the wake of the cloning technology that produced Dolly the sheep. Although the cloning technology that is widely referred to in Muslim literature deals with "embryo cloning," with which this article is mainly concerned, among some scholars there is a wider comprehension of the technology in the way it appears in the scientific literature dealing with genetics. There cloning has been used in three broad areas:
  1. In "molecular cloning" related to genetic research where scientists must make millions of identical copies of genes of molecular size in order to have sufficient material for testing;
  2. In "cell cloning" related to specific cells where cell-lines with identical properties are produced to study small dissimilarities between them; and
  3. In "embryo cloning" related to early embryo development where embryo multiplication is carried out by nuclear transplantation. This is the process of introducing nuclei from the cells of early preimplantation embryos, called blastomeres, into unfertilized eggs from which the nuclei have been removed. It is the blastomeres that are able to produce a new individual.
The ethical-juridical deliberations in the Muslim world have almost exclusively expressed concerns about cloning technology dealing with blastomere separation or embryo splitting and nuclear transplantation in human being. Although the use of blastomere separation in cattle breeding has been in use in the Muslim world, it is the dimension connected with human asexual reproduction that has raised distinctive ethical dilemmas for Muslim jurists.

It is important to state from the outset that despite the plurality of reasoning and judicial formulations based on independent research and interpretation of normative legal sources in Islamic tradition, there is a consensus on juridical-ethical opinions among Muslim religious experts on human cloning. The majority of the Muslims in North America are Sunnis, who follow one of the four officially recognized Sunni legal rites. The Shi`ites form a minority in North America. And even though their scholars differ in their method of reasoning they are in agreement with their Sunni colleagues in flashing the red light to human cloning. In the wake of the latest success in animal cloning prominent scholars representing Sunni centers of religious learning in the Middle East, mainly Cairo in Egypt, have expressed their opinion, which is by now also regarded as an official Sunni position in this country. The Arabic term used for this process in the legal as well as journalistic literature is indicative of the widespread speculation and popular perception regarding the goal of this technology, namely, istinsakh, meaning `copying'. This interpretation is not very different from the fictional cloning portrayed in In His Image: The Cloning of Man (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1978) by David M. Rorvik in the late 1970s when cloning by nuclear transplantation was the topic of the day in North America. It is also because of the popular perception about human copies that can be produced at will through cloning that the leading Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Nasr Farid Wasil, in Cairo has declared the possibility of human `copying' as an act of disbelief and immoral conduct which must be controlled by the government. However, this position is disputed by another leading Egyptian legist Yusuf al-Qaradawi who, when asked if cloning was interference in the creation of God or a challenge to God's will, asserted in no uncertain terms:
Oh no, no one can challenge or oppose God's will. Hence, if the matter is achieved then it is certainly under the will of God. Nothing can be created without God's will creating it. As long as humans continue to do so, it is the will of God. Actually, we do not search for the question whether it is in accord with the will of God. Our search is whether the matter is licit or not.
Although the issue of cloning technology has not been given much serious consideration in Muslim discussions of cellular nuclear transplantation, whether involving somatic or germ-line cells, there is much concern with anticipated biological and social effects of cloning on the underlying Islamic ethical framework and social fabric. For instance, al-Qaradawi raises a fundamental question about the impact of this technology on the human life:

Would such a process create disorder in human life when human beings with their subjective opinions and caprices interfere in God's created nature on which He has created people and has founded their life on it? It is only then that we can assess the gravity of the situation created by the possibility of cloning a human being, that is, to copy numerous faces of a person as if they were carbon copies of each other.

The fundamental ethical question, as al-Qaradawi states, is whether this procedure interferes with growing up in a family that is founded upon fatherhood and motherhood. It is in a family that the child is nurtured to become a person. In addition, al-Qaradawi says, since God has placed in each man and woman an instinct to procreate this individual in the family why would there be a need of marriage if an individual can be created by cloning? Such a procedure may even lead to a male not in need of a female person. Although al-Qaradawi does not state this, biologically speaking, the male may become superfluous, but not the female, since her egg will be needed as well as her womb. Moreover, such an imbalance in the nature will lead to the corruption of human society, leading to the illicit relationship between man and man and woman and woman, as it has happened in some western countries.

The other issue taken up by al-Qaradawi against cloning is based on the Qur'anic notion about variations among peoples as a sign from God who created human beings in different forms and colors, just as He created them distinct from other animals. This variety reflects the richness of life. Such a semblance through "copying" might even lead to the errors of marital relationship where spouses will not be able to recognize their partners, leading to serious social and ethical consequences. From the point of health also one could presume that people will then be afflicted by the same virus. However, al-Qaradawi maintains that the technology can be used to overcome certain hereditary diseases, such as infertility, as long as it does not lead to aggression in other areas pointed out earlier.

The Shi`i scholarly position, on the other hand, appears to treat the term `clone' more in its scientific sense of making identical copies of molecules, cells, tissues, and even animals involving somatic cell nuclear transplant cloning. Hence, it takes the position of endorsing the applications of the technology as long as it provides practical benefit in terms of improved human life, but not human cloning which must take into consideration the best interest of prospective parents and their future children.

Islam and Technologically-Assisted Reproduction

Although since 1970s ethical issues associated with assisted reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization have been dealt with in some detail by Muslim jurists possible human cloning remains to be discussed in full details. The facts about cloning are still emerging. In the light of better understanding of the facts regarding cloning, both through embryo splitting as well as somatic cell nuclear transplantation, and the impact it could have upon the way Muslims conceive of human life and its destiny, it is reasonable to expect revisions in the ethical and legal assessment of these experiments among the scholars of Shari`a, the Scared Law of Islam. Given the success rate of embryo duplication in a number of animal species, reproductive specialists seem to be confident that the technique will improve the success rates of assisted reproductive technology in humans. Accordingly, the legality of human embryo duplication by splitting has been accepted by Muslim jurists as a replication of natural twinning through legitimate scientific intervention. Let me proceed to summarize theological-ethical-legal dimensions of the issues associated with cloning in Islam with due attention to the possible differences in the interpretation of the scriptural sources for these rulings among the Sunni and the Shi`i legists.

The Theological Dimension of the Issue

I want to begin with the teachings of the Qur'an, the Muslim scripture, and see if there is any room for human intervention in the workings of nature associated with reproduction. In Chapter 23, verse 12-14, we read:
We created (khalaqna) man of an extraction of clay, then we set him, a drop in a safe lodging, then We created of the drop a clot, then We created of the clot a tissue, then We created of the tissue bones, then we covered the bones in flesh; thereafter We produced it as another creature. So blessed be God, the Best of creators (khaliqin)!
Muslim thinkers have drawn some important conclusions from this and other passages that describe the development of embryo to a full human person:
  • First, creation of a human being is an act of the divine will. It is this absolute will that determines the embryonic journey to become a full human creature.
  • Second, perceivable human life is possible at the later stage in biological development of the embryo when God says: "thereafter We produced him as another creature."
  • Third, as inferred from the latter reference, the fetus should be accorded a status of a legal person only at the later stage of its development and not in the earlier stage when it lodges itself in the uterus.
  • Fourth, because of the silence of the Qur'an over when exactly the ensoulment occurs in the fetus it is possible to make a distinction between a biological and moral person, placing the latter stage after, at least, the first trimester in pregnancy.
On the basis of some traditions ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad which describe the stages of embryonic development, the majority of the Sunni and some Shi`i scholars draw a distinction between the two stages in pregnancy divided by the end of the fourth month (120 days). However, these traditions, admitted as documentation for such a distinction, are not universally accepted even by the Sunni scholars. The majority of the Shi`i and some Sunni legists have exercised caution in making such a distinction because, as they argue, these traditions do not speak about the ensoulment of the fetus at all. They simply mention the stage when an angel is sent to the fetus. Hence, they regard the embryo at all stages as alive and its eradication a sin.

The Qur'an and the traditions provide no universally accepted definition of the term `embryo' with which we are concerned in our deliberations about cloning. Nor do these two foundational sources of the Shari`a lend themselves to recognize the modern biological data about the beginning of life from the moment of impregnation. A tenable conclusion, derived by rationally inclined interpreters of the above-cited verse of the Qur'an, suggests that as participants in the act of creating with God (God being the Best of the creators), human beings can actively engage in furthering the overall well being of humanity by intervening in the works of nature, including the early stages of embryonic development, to improve human health.

Nevertheless, the Qur'an takes into account the problem of human arrogance which takes the form of rejection of God's frequent reminders to humanity that God's immutable laws are dominant in the nature and human beings cannot willfully create `unless God, the Lord of all Being, wills.' (81:29) `The will of God' in the Qur'an has often been interpreted as the processes of nature uninterfered with by human action. Hence, in Islam human management of genes made possible by biotechnical intervention in the early stages of life is regarded as an act of faith in the ultimate will of God as the Giver of all life as long as such an intervention is undertaken with the purpose of improving the health of the fetus or increasing the chances of fertility for a married couple.

The Ethical Dimension of the Issue

At the center of the ethical debate about cloning in Islam, as pointed out by al-Qaradawi and other Muslim scholars, is the question of the ways in which cloning might affect familial relationships and responsibilities. In large measure, Muslim concerns in this connection echo the concerns voiced by Paul Ramsey about the social role of parenting and nurturing interpersonal relations. Islam regards interpersonal relationships as fundamental to human religious life. The Prophet is reported to have said that religion is made up of ten parts of which nine- tenths constitute interhuman relationships, whereas only one-tenth forms God-human relationship. Since the fundamental institution to further these relationships is a family and since human cloning interferes with the workings of the male-female relations, Muslim scholars have advised their governments to exercise extreme caution regarding this technology.

Since the George Washington University Medical Center success in duplicating genetically defective human embryos by blastomere separation in 1993, some Muslim thinkers have raised questions about maneuvering of human embryos in IVF implantation in terms of their impact upon the fundamental relationship between man and woman and the life-giving aspects of spousal relations that culminate in parental love and concern for their off-spring. Islam regards spousal relationship through marriage to be the cornerstone of the prime social institution for the creation of a divinely ordained order. Consequently, Muslim focus in the debate on genetic replication is concerned with moral issues related to the possibility of technologically created incidental relationships without requiring spiritual and moral connection between a man and a woman in such embryonic manipulation. Can human intervention through biotechnology jeopardize the very foundation of human community, namely, a religiously and morally regulated spousal and parent-child relationship under the laws of God? It is for this reason that among Muslim scholars the more intricate issues associated with embryo preservation and experimentation have received less emphasis in these ethical deliberations. To be sure, since the therapeutic uses of cloning in IVF appear as an aid to fertility strictly within the bounds of marriage, both monogamous and polygamous as recognized in the Shari`a, Muslims have little problem in endorsing the technology. The opinions from the Sunni and Shi`i scholars studied for this article indicate that there is a unanimity in Islamic rulings on therapeutic uses of cloning, as long as the lineage of the child remains religiously unblemished. In other words, to preserve the integrity of the lineage of a child reproduction must take place within the religiously specified boundaries of spousal relationship.

Besides the significance attached to the spousal relationship for bearing and nurturing of children, another issue in Muslim bioethics is the problem of determining the moral status of the technology itself. In the world dominated by the multi-national corporations Muslims, like other peoples around the globe, do not treat technology as non-moral. No human action is possible without intention and will. In light of the manipulation of genetic engineering for eugenics in the recent history, it is reasonable for the Muslims, like the Christians and the Jews, to fear political abuse of the reproduction technology through cloning. With its emphasis on spiritual equality, Islam has refused to accord validity to any claims of superiority of one people over the other. The only valid claim to nobility in the Qur'an stems from being godfearing.

From an Islamic standpoint it is morally and religiously wrong to employ cloning technology for purposes other than therapeutic. To cross that permissible boundary lays enormously grave responsibility on humans in terms of genetic improvement of quality of human life, the authority that can make these decisions with necessary foresight and wisdom, and the criteria that can be used in evaluating the risks and benefits of such interventions.

The Legal Dimension of the Issue in view of the Principles of `Equity' and `Public Interest'

In Islam although religious, ethical and legal dimensions are interrelated, it is important to underline the legal doctrines that bear upon the decisions made by Muslim legal scholars in endorsing or prohibiting cloning. Without adequate legal reasoning based upon careful interpretation of the Qur'an and the traditions, in addition to certain rationally derived principles and rules, no Muslim legist can issue judicial decisions on the subject. In connection with embryo cloning the legists invoked the two fundamental principles of `equity' (istihsan) and `public interest' (maslaha) to furnish a religious basis for their legal decisions about the subject. These two principles function as supplementary procedures to derive rules that can be applied to formulate new decisions outside the strict letter of law. Since the subject of technologically-assisted reproduction has no precedent in the classical juridical tradition, Muslim legists depend heavily on the scientific information supplied by researchers to deduce their judicial decisions.

In addition, there are three major subsidiary principles or rules applied to resolve ethical dilemma and derive judgements related to all bioethical issues, including cloning:
  1. 'Protection against distress and constriction' (`usr wa haraj);
  2. 'The necessity to refrain from causing harm to oneself and others' (la darar wa la dirar), and
  3. 'The rule about averting causes of corruption has precedence over bringing about benefit' (dar'u al mafasid muqaddam `ala jalb al-masalih).
It is obvious that in light of the limited knowledge that we have about who would be harmed by cloning or whose rights would be violated, Muslim legal rulings are bound to reflect a cautious and even prohibitive attitude to the cloning beyond treatment of infertility or assessment of genetic or other abnormalities in the embryo prior to implantation. Whereas the recent breakthrough in mammal cloning provides a unique opportunity to the scientists to fathom the secrets of God's creation, it also carries with it grave and unprecedented risks. Nevertheless, since we do not will unless God wills, can this breakthrough in cloning be regarded as part of the divine willing to afford human kind yet another opportunity for moral training and maturity? The Qur'an seems to be suggesting that embryo splitting is just that opportunity for our over all maturity as members of the global community under God.


The recent opinions expressed by the Grand Mufti of Egypt and other Muslim legists around the world confirm my assessment of the ethical issues associated with cloning. A unanimity has now emerged among Muslim scholars of different legal rites that whereas in Islamic tradition therapeutic uses of cloning and any research to further that goal will receive the endorsement of the major legal schools, the idea of human cloning has been viewed negatively and almost, to use the language of the Mufti of Egypt, "Satanic." A further recommendation among Muslims seems to be discouraging even research aspects towards improvement of human health through genetic manipulation because of the rule of prioritization based on the principle of distributive justice. In view of limited resources in the Islamic world and the expensive technology that is needed for research related to cloning, Muslim legists have asked their governments to ban research on cloning at this time. Since technologically-assisted reproduction in Islamic tradition is legitimized only within the lawful male-female relationship to help infertility, somatic cell nuclear transplant cloning from adult cells for therapeutic purposes will have to abide by the general criterion set for this technology. In the case of cloning specifically for the purposes of relieving human disease, there is no ethical impediment to stop such research which on the scale of probable benefit outweighs possible harm. I believe that research in human cloning from adult cells in the course of reproduction treatment should be allowed with necessary regulatory clauses to restrict abuse under penalty. My opinion is based on the principle of `averting (and not interdicting) causes of corruption has precedence over bringing about that which has benefit.

In our religiously and ethically pluralistic society where there is a search for a universal ethical language that can speak to the adherents of different religious and cultural traditions, Islamic tradition with its experience in dealing with matters central to human interpersonal relations in diverse cultural settings can become an important source for our ethical deliberations dealing with the ideals and realities of human existence. For instance, I am deeply concerned about the way we shy away from considering the subjective dimensions pertaining to human spiritual and moral awareness in setting our goals for research in human embryo. Our policies in the matter of cloning should be seriously informed from the perspective of corrective as well as distributive justice. On hearing my Christian and Jewish colleagues on human cloning I feel that there is a consensus to look into prioritization of our national resources to achieve fair distribution of health care resources in our country. From a stand point of our moral commitment to the principle of distributive justice, it will be hard to justify a heavy investment in embryonic research related to human cloning without addressing some immediate and serious problems of poverty in our own backyard. Moreover, as the leader of the world community, the U.S.A. has a responsibility to share its material as well as scientific resources with other underprivileged nations whose immediate needs do not go beyond treating common diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.
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