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Task Force Essay: The (Im)Possible Medicalization of “Breathing the Soul” (Nafkh Al-Rūḥ): Contemporary Islamic Debates on the Beginning of Human Life

November 11th, 2015 | by MuslimScience

by Mohammed Ghaly

Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE)
Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS)
Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU)
Doha, Qatar

The concept of “soul” (al-rūḥ) has always occupied a significant position in the Islamic tradition and has been hotly debated within a wide range of disciplines including linguistics, theology, philosophy and Islamic law (fiqh). One of the main characteristics common to the debates that took place within these disciplines is the elusiveness of this concept, which has usually led to jungle of confusion about the true nature of the soul (Ibn al- Qayyim n.d.; Langermann 2010, 163—180). As far as Islamic law is concerned, both pre-modern and contemporary Muslim jurists agreed that determining the beginning and end of human life is related to the soul. According to them, breathing the soul (nafkh al- rūḥ) signals the beginning of human life and taking the soul (nazʿ al-rūḥ) ushers its end, i.e., death (Wizārat al-Awqāf n.d., 18/265, 39/248). Because of the available limited space here, this article will focus on the concept of “breathing the soul”, how available (medical) knowledge contributed to formulating the perception of this concept among both pre-modern and modern Muslim jurists and how the modern global phenomenon of medicalization influenced the contemporary Islamic discourse on the beginning of human life. These discussions have clear bearing on a long array of bioethical issues including abortion, stem cell research, therapeutic cloning and the surplus embryos remaining from an in vitro fertilization process. However, none of these issues will receive distinctive analysis in this article, but hopefully in forthcoming studies, in order to remain focused on the main issue of this article, namely the intersection between the concept “breathing the soul” and biomedical knowledge.

  1. Breathing the Soul before the Era of Medicalization

The conventional elusiveness of the concept “soul” did not help Muslim jurists to use “breathing the soul” as a standard criterion that can objectively and consistently be measured (miʿyār munḍabiṭ) and through which juristic rulings relevant to the beginning of human life can be construed. Thus, they had to link this concept to more practical criteria that can be somehow more easily and consistently measured. Muslim jurists understood that breathing the soul, based on scriptural references in the Qurʾān and Sunna, takes place during pregnancy. The great majority of pre-modern jurists were in agreement that knowing what is inside the uterus during pregnancy is exclusive to God. In this context, they usually recalled the Qurʾanic verse “Indeed, Allah [alone] has knowledge of the Hour and sends down the rain and knows what is in the wombs.” (31:34).

The statement of the Shāfiʿī jurist al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085) is representative of the mainstream standpoint among Muslim jurists in this regard, “There is no dispute that the child during pregnancy (al-ḥaml) is unknowable. Disagreement is, however, whether it should be treated as (a potentially) knowable” (ʿIrāqī and Ibn al-ʿIrāqī n.d., 4/60). The Ḥanafī jurist Abū Bakr al- Jaṣṣāṣ (d. 370/981) was even clearer on this point when he spoke about the stages of embryonic development inside the uterus as outlined in one of the Prophetic traditions. He stressed that a human being cannot see the unborn child and thus nobody can distinguish between the embryo, which will later develop into a viable child or that which will not. By quoting a number of Qurʾanic verses (13:08, 31:34 and 72:26), al-Jaṣṣāṣ explained that this type of knowledge belongs to the unseen world (al-ghayb) which is knowable only to God and to the angels who are entrusted with the task of writing down some aspects of the embryo’s future life as determined by God (Jaṣṣāṣ 1984, 3/338).

In order to develop consistent criterion for determining the beginning of human life, pre-modern jurists tried to base the relevant juristic rulings on the possible moment of breathing the soul into the unborn. Their main tool to discover this moment was a number of references scattered in the Qurʾān and Sunna (Ghaly 2014, 205—208). Based on consulting these references, the overwhelming majority of the pre-modern jurists concluded that the soul gets breathed into the embryo after the lapse of 120 days of pregnancy (Wizārat al-Awqāf n.d., 2/57). A number of Muslim jurists strictly adopted the 120-day criterion and opined that the embryo before breathing the soul is a non-living being (mawāt) or simply spiritless inanimate (jamād) (Ibn Ḥazm n.d., 4/253; Shawkānī 1993, 3/565; Wizārat al-Awqāf n.d., 18/265).

Some of the pre-modern jurists also equated between breathing the soul into the embryo on one hand and on the other hand assuming the shape of a human being which they called of takhalluq or taṣawwur and they believed that both acts take place at the same time, i.e., after 120 days of pregnancy. They argued that before this date the unborn is still “unformed” and therefore not yet a human being (laysa bi āadamī). According to other jurists, distinction should be made between breathing the soul on one hand and assuming the form of a human being on the other hand and added that some of the juristic rulings should be based on the former whereas some other rulings should be based on the latter (Ghaly 2014, 168—170).

  1. Revisiting “Breathing the Soul” in the Era of Medicalization

Some components of the aforementioned pre-modern juristic approach to the concept of breathing the soul was revisited by a number of Muslim biomedical scientists in collaboration with Muslim religious scholars in the light of modern biomedical knowledge which was not available to earlier generations. The direct context of revisiting this key concept in the Islamic tradition was the attempt to demonstrate the relevance of the Islamic religio-ethical system (Sharia) in modern times and that it has inherent capacity to deal with contemporary complicated issues such as the ethical questions raised by cutting-edge biomedical technologies. In 1983, the Islamic Organization for Medical Sciences (IOMS) initiated the series Al-Islām wa al-mushkilāt al-ṭibbiyya al-muʿāṣira (Islam and Contemporary Medical Issues). The IOMS solicited both Muslim religious scholars and biomedical scientists to write and debate on contemporary bioethical questions. The second symposium in this series, organized in 1983, had the title Al-Ḥayāh al-insāniyya: bidāyatuhā wa nihāyatuhā fī al-mafhūm al-Islāmī (Human life: its beginning and its end from an Islamic perspective). Revisiting the two key-concepts “breathing the soul” and “taking the soul” and their relation to respectively the beginning and end of human life was the linchpin of the symposium. Besides this direct context, one also needs to situate these collective discussions into the broader context of medicalization, which already was in vogue and could assume a global character, as to be outlined below.

The impact of medicine and medical concepts has considerably expanded in the last six decades or so, which resulted in significant shifts in knowledge and power. As a consequence, the number of life problems that are approached and defined through the lens of medicine has increased enormously. These radical changes in the landscape of knowledge and power are usually couched in the term “medicalization”, which is often linked to modernity. Academic researchers use the tem medicalization to express “the increasingly global process by which biomedicine has achieved the authority to redefine and treat an expanding array of individual life events and social problems as medical problems and ultimately to make exclusive claims over the body” (Georges 2008, 1).

For more than four decades, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, bioethicists, physicians, and others have been writing about medicalization. They have examined the medicalization of human problems and bracketed the question of whether they are “real” medical problems. Among the various factors that have encouraged or abetted medicalization, analysts speak about the diminution of religion, an abiding faith in science, rationality, and progress in addition to the increased prestige and power of the medical profession (Conrad 2007, 4,8).

Henk ten Have explained that the process of medicalization can assume different forms, e.g. conceptually, when a medical vocabulary is used to define a problem or institutionally, when medical professionals confer legitimacy upon a problem. He also added that medicalization can be a mechanism of social control through the expansion of professional power over wider spheres of life and that it may produce dependency on professional and technological intervention (Ten Have 2001, 299). Although the term “medicalization” was not specifically invoked during the IOMS symposium on the beginning and end of human life, it is clear that many of the abovementioned aspects of medicalization were strongly present during the proceedings of the symposium, as to be detailed in the following section.

  1. “Breathing the Soul” Through the Lens of Muslim Biomedical Scientists

As mentioned above, the IOMS symposium hosted both biomedical scientists and religious scholars to investigate, among other things, how far modern biomedical knowledge can help the participants in the symposium demythologize some aspects of the pre-modern juristic imagination of “breathing the soul”. The gynecologist Ḥassān Ḥatḥūt (1924-2009) said in this regard, “Some of the points to be presented [in this symposium] are entirely novel and the early generations of Muslims did not see or wrote about ….. The problems we discuss here require rational solutions in the first place and textual quotations in the second place. Quoting [early sources] cannot be a valid excuse to circumvent independent legal reasoning (Ijtihād)” (Ḥatḥūt 1985, 55—56). As far as the nature of the embryonic phase prior to breathing the soul, Ḥatḥūt spoke about some opinions adopted by pre-modern jurists, which will not stand the test of modern biomedical knowledge. He referred to the opinion within the Ḥanbalī school of law according to which it is permissible to get rid of the embryo before breathing the soul. Most probably, Ḥatḥūt argued, they based this opinion on their belief that the embryo before ensoulment is not living. Ḥatḥūt stressed that this opinion cannot be accepted in the light of modern biomedical knowledge (Madhkūr, Sayf, Jundī, and Abū Ghudda 1985, p. 303).

With the help of modern biomedical knowledge, Ḥatḥūt proposed, the pre-modern jurists’ perennial problem of determining the beginning of human life can be solved. He explained that available knowledge shows that embryogenesis is an extremely gradual process characterized by continuity and harmony and thus there is no way to pinpoint a specific moment and claim that here human life should have started. That is why, Ḥatḥūt added, the beginning of this life should be counted from the earliest stage in which five main conditions are all applicable to a being, namely:

1) the being has a clear and well-known start,

2) he has the potential to grow as long as he has not been deprived from the causes of growth,

3) his growth would result in a human being as embryo, neonate, child, boy, young man, adult, old man and so forth

4) this being in an earlier stage cannot grow to become a human being

5) the being carries the full genetic code of the human race in general and of this being in specific which distinguishes him from all others throughout the ages.

According to Ḥatḥūt, all these conditions are only applicable to the fertilized ovum and not applicable to any of the stages before or after conception. That is why, Ḥatḥūt argued, human life starts by the very moment of conception. But what about determining the beginning of human life depending on the timing of breathing the soul, which has been central in the thought of many pre-modern and contemporary Muslim jurists? In response to this question, Ḥatḥūt said that breathing the soul is from the perspective of medical sciences a purely metaphysical concept which belongs to the ghaybiyyāt (matters of the unseen world) and thus it is something to believe in as part of our belief in the unseen world but it cannot be examined through scientific methods (Ḥatḥūt 1985, 55—61).

Ḥatḥūt’s approach to the beginning of human life and how it should be determined clearly shows the relevance and influence of medicalization for contemporary Islamic bioethical discourse. Central to this approach is the epistemological power of modern science, particularly biomedical knowledge, and thus it should have the final word about the beginning of human life rather than the, at least partially, flawed interpretations of pre-modern jurists. In order to better understand the case of Ḥatḥūt and his like-minded physicians in the Muslim world within the context of global medicalization, we refer to parallel discussions in the West.

The two associate professors of philosophy at the Canadian University of Sudbury, Carol Collier and Rachel Haliburton, spoke about the influence of the medicalization of pregnancy in Western societies and the development of medical methods for examining whether or not a woman was pregnant. With the medicalization of pregnancy and reproduction from the nineteenth century onwards, Collier and Haliburton explained, it was the physician who would determine if pregnancy began. Within this context of increasing medicalization, physicians started to reject the now “outdated” concept of ensoulment or quickening and to see themselves as responsible for protecting the embryo from the moment of conception.

A statement attributed to a New York physician was seen as summing up the new view of the embryo, “It [ensoulment/quickening] is absurd and false … there is no time from the moment of conception to the moment of birth when the embryo is not a human being … its life is as sacred at one period as at another” (Collier and Haliburton 2011, 190). Although Ḥatḥūt did not go that far by describing the concept of breathing the soul as “absurd”, his approach practically denies it any substantial role in the discourse on the beginning of human life. This point was criticized by some religious scholars like the Jordanian Muḥammad Naʿīm Yāsīn who argued that Ḥatḥūt’s opinion is an indication of being under the influence of the materialists who denies the existence of the soul at all and thus do not give any special consideration to the the soul-breathing incident as a curial point in the gestational development. Yāsīn objected to setting the soul aside and making it a metaphysical concept with no touchable influence in human life (Madhkūr, Sayf, Jundī, and Abū Ghudda 1985, p. 222).

In response to the critical remark raised by Yāsīn, Aḥmad al-Qāḍī (another physician supporting Ḥatḥūt’s approach) said that they actually have adopted this approach in order to save human beings, including their souls, (by arguing that abortion is unethical from the moment of conception) which would seem less valuable if they said that human life starts on a later date (Madhkūr, Sayf, Jundī, and Abū Ghudda 1985, 269, 288).

By going deeper than the surface of this discussion, we can observe that the linchpin of the debate is not about recognizing or denying the existence of the soul but rather about who has the authority to determine the beginning of human life (physicians or religious scholars) and how to determine it (through biomedical knowledge or through reading and interpreting relevant references in the religious scriptures).

According to Ḥatḥūt and the like-minded participants in the IOMS symposium, the power of modern biomedical knowledge weighs heavier than that of the religious discourse. It should be noted here that the list of those who advocated the thesis proposed by Ḥatḥūt included both biomedical scientists and religious scholars and the same holds true for its opponents, as we shall see below. Muslim religious scholars who were convinced and impressed by what Ḥatḥūt proposed tried to show how references in the Islamic scriptures could be metaphorically interpreted in order to fit within the “scientific imagination” of embryology and its relevance to determining the beginning of human life.

The religious scholar ʿAbd al-Qādir al-ʿAmmārī tried to reconcile between Ḥatḥūt’s thesis and the central Prophetic tradition, which is usually quoted in Islamic juristic literature on the question of the beginning of human life, known as the tradition of Ibn Masʿūd (for full text of the tradition, see Ghaly 2014, 2101). The apparent meaning of the tradition (al-ẓāhir) indicates that the unborn goes through three consecutive stages during pregnancy, each of which takes forty days and after the lapse of the three phases (i.e., 120 days), the unborn gets ensouled by the angel whom God has entrusted with the task of breathing the soul. According to al-ʿAmmārī, holding the opinion that human life starts by the first day of pregnancy is not necessarily contradictory to the purport tradition of Ibn Masʿūd because it is open for various interpretations. The text of the tradition, al-ʿAmmārī explained, divides between each of the three stages with the conjunction “then” (in Arabic thumma), which is usually seen as a coordinating conjunction and thus implies that these stages are chronologically ordered.

However, this is just one of the grammatical functions of “then” (thumma) in the Arabic language but not necessarily its only function, al-ʿAmmārī argued. For instance, this conjunction can sometimes be used as a synonym for the conjunction “and” (in Arabic wa) and in this case does not imply any chronological order. Al-ʿAmmārī held that “then” (thumma) in the tradition of Ibn Masʿūd can best be interpreted as “and” (wa). For instance, when reviewing the same stages mentioned in the tradition of Ibn Masʿūd, the Qur’ān sometimes uses the conjunction “then” (thumma) (22:05) and sometimes another conjunction, viz., fa (also usually translated in English as “and”) (23:13). This means that “then” (thumma) is not necessarily meant here to convey specific chronological order. According to this reading, the three stages mentioned in the Prophetic tradition, including breathing the soul, will all take place during the first forty-days of pregnancy. In the light of this proposed metaphorical interpretation, al-ʿAmmārī argued that determining the beginning of human life by the moment of conception when the sperm fertilizes the egg will not be contradictory to relevant references in the Islamic scriptures.

Again, one can observe the influence of “medicalization” in al-ʿAmmārī›s explanation for the standpoint adopted by pre-modern Muslim jurists. According to him, all Muslim jurists opined that the embryo has no real life before the lapse of four months during pregnancy, basing themselves on the apparent meaning (ẓāhir) of the tradition of Ibn Masʿūd, because “Medicine was not as advanced in their time as it is now and they did not have the today’s technologies which monitor the movements of the child inside the [mother’s] abdomen”. Al-ʿAmmārī stated that modern biomedical knowledge is equivalent to sense perception (al-ḥiss) and to what has been rationally (ʿaql) and empirically (wāqiʿ) approved. He added that whenever the apparent meaning of a prophetic tradition proved to be contradictory to sense perception (al-ḥiss), rational thinking (ʿaql) and empirical reality (wāqiʿ), then it must be metaphorically interpreted (ʿAmmārī 1985, 172—79).

Perceiving the thesis presented by Ḥatḥūt and others (viz., human life starts by the first moment of conception) as uncontested “scientific fact” equal to sense perception (ḥiss) and empirically approved information (wāqiʿ) was challenged by other physicians who participated in the IOMS symposium like the gynecologist ʿAbd Allāh Bāsalāma and the neurologist Mukhtār al-Mahdī (Bāsalāma 1985, 77; Madhkūr, Sayf, Jundī, and Abū Ghudda 1985, p. 215). In his paper submitted to the symposium, al-Mahdī presented an alternative “scientific” view about the beginning of human life and its relation with the concept of breathing the soul. Al-Mahdī argued that this concept was so elusive for pre-modern Muslim jurists and with no scientific equivalent to the extent that determining the beginning of human life by examining the nature of this concept was a mission impossible. Now, al-Mahdī explained, embryonic developments can be monitored and in some cases even controlled and manipulated. Thanks to these modern scientific advancements, a specific embryonic development can now be pinpointed and we can state that it is an indication of breathing the soul and thus the beginning of human life (Mahdī 1985, pp. 64—65).

Instead of the five conditions proposed by Ḥatḥūt, al-Mahdī spoke about five embryonic developments taking place during the twelfth week of pregnancy, exactly after eighty four days, which all indicate the emergence of a distinct human being, namely 1) the movements of the embryo start to become complex and harmonious rather than hectic, 2) the emergence of breathing-like movements in order to get oxygen because the lungs do not work during pregnancy. These movements are strong indicators that the brainstem started to work because respiratory control is one of its functions, 3) the embryo experiences consequent and regular activity-rest rhythms where periods of locomotor activity get usually followed by periods of rest and sleep, 4) some research papers showed that electrical signals produced by the fetal brain emerge in the twelfth week and can also be measured. These signals indicate that both the cerebral cortex and the cerebral hemispheres started to work and 5) the onset of fetal movements which do not have a sudden, jerky or spastic quality and thus convey new significance. These new movements are responses to exterior alerts such as these of the Doppler ultrasound while moving on the belly of the pregnant woman.

This means that specific brain centers have caused these movements and started to make the embryo aware of anything abnormal that might happen around him and thus enable him to distinguish between these abnormal exterior alerts on one hand and the normal sounds and movements including these of the mother’s heartbeats on the other hand. Al-Mahdī added that these new developments which take place in the twelfth week and which also coincide with the fact that the brain gets fully shaped and starts to function represent a turning point in the fetal development (Mahdī 1985, pp. 68—69).

Mukhtār al-Mahdī was also keen to demonstrate that his (neurological) thesis about the beginning of human life is not contradictory to the relevant references in the Islamic scriptures, especially the aforementioned tradition of Ibn Masʿūd. He argued that the three stages mentioned in this Prophetic tradition should not be taken as three distinct and successive stages each of which continues for forty days. He said that the tradition of Ibn Masʿūd was also reported in another canonical collection of Prophetic traditions (i.e., Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim) with a little addition, viz., instead of “then he becomes a clot of congealed blood (ʿalaqa) for a similar period” according to the text reported in the canonical collection of al-Bukhārī, the text of Muslim reads, “then he becomes in this a clot of congealed blood (ʿalaqa) for a similar period”. “In this” here, al-Mahdī argued, means that the ʿalaqa stage starts during, and not after the end of, the nuṭfa stage and the same holds true for the muḍgha stage, which would also start during, and not after the end of, the ʿalaqa stage. So, we have here three overlapping and not three distinct forties and thus the total should not be 120 days but less than this. Bearing in mind that the embryo witnesses a turning point in the twelfth week, then the total of the three overlapping forties should be calculated as eighty-four days and this is the date of breathing the soul (Mahdī 1985, pp.70—71).

The two theses on determining the beginning of human life presented respectively by the gynecologist Ḥassān Ḥatḥūt and the neurologist Mukhtār al-Mahdī may look at first sight on opposite poles; one of them tries to exclude the concept of breathing the soul from the discourse on the beginning of human life and the other one tries to bring it to the heart of the discourse. Also lengthy discussions including arguments and counter-arguments, which I reviewed somewhere else (Ghaly 2014, 157—208), took place between the advocates of each thesis during the IOMS symposium. I argue, however, that the two theses share a strong common ground by starting from identical premises, namely (over-)confidence in biomedical sciences and strong belief that “scientific” knowledge can give clear guidance about how to determine the beginning of human life and may put an end, or at least minimize, the jungle of semantic and hermeneutic confusion which characterized the pre-modern Islamic discourse on this issue. To my mind, these shared premises between the two theses indicate the presence of the phenomenon of medicalization in the proceedings of the IOMS symposium, especially at the conceptual level as mentioned above by Henk ten Have, although the term was not explicitly mentioned. Both Ḥatḥūt and al-Mahdī shared the vision that biomedical knowledge can help determining the beginning of human life but they disagreed on how this knowledge will be integrated within the context of an Islamic discourse on this issue.

The presence of such two seemingly opposing theses (sharing the same premises but presenting different conclusions) on the beginning of human life did weaken the power of medical knowledge and its impact on Muslim religious scholars who participated in the IOMS symposium. For instance, ʿAbd al-Qādir al-ʿAmmārī, who was first impressed by Ḥatḥūt’s thesis, expressed his confusion and frustration after listening to the differing views presented by the biomedical scientists. He said that physicians should be blamed for disagreeing with each other because, unlike the religious scholars, they have plenty of medical and scientific tools to settle these disagreements (Madhkūr, Sayf, Jundī, and Abū Ghudda 1985, 221). The same holds true for the ex-Minister of Religious Affairs in Egypt, Ibrāhīm al- Dasūqī who got confused because of these disagreements and the Jordanian religious scholar Muḥammad Yasīn who could not find clear answers from the physicians about when the formation of brain starts and when it comes to completion (Madhkūr, Sayf, Jundī, and Abū Ghudda 1985, 223, 225, 250).

Consequently, throughout the proceedings of the IOMS symposium, increasing numbers of both religious scholars and biomedical scientists expressed their doubts if biomedical knowledge can give a decisive answer to the question, when does human life begin? They started to go back to the references in the Islamic scriptures searching for a possible answer to this question (Madhkūr, Sayf, Jundī, and Abū Ghudda 1985, pp. 202, 204, 217, 221). This attitude was exemplified by Jordanian religious scholar Muḥammad al-Ashqar who decided to write a post-script for his paper on the beginning of human life, which was completely dedicated to examining the aforementioned tradition of Ibn Masʿūd from the perspective of a traditionalist (muḥaddith) without involving any pieces of biomedical information (Ashqar 1985, 440—444).

In the last session of the IOMS symposium, which was dedicated to discussing the final recommendations, almost all the participants were approaching a compromise in which they tried to achieve a certain degree of balance between biomedical knowledge on one hand and references in the Islamic scriptures on the other hand. Only two physicians remained difficult to convince, namely Ḥassān Ḥatḥūt and Aḥmad al-Qāḍī. Shaykh Yūsuf al- Qaraḍāwī, who chaired the last session of the symposium, addressed the two physicians by saying, “I friendly ask Prof. Ḥassān and brother Dr. al-Qāḍī not to pressurize us [viz. religious scholars] more than this. For three days now, they have been trying to force their opinion. We have given some concessions and now they have to give concessions too” (Madhkūr, Sayf, Jundī, and Abū Ghudda 1985, p.659).

At the end, the final recommendations of the symposium echoed the trial of the overwhelming majority of the participants to achieve the aforementioned balance. These recommendations read:

First, the beginning of life occurs with the union of a sperm and an ovum forming a zygote, which carries the full genetic code of the human race in general and of the particular individual, who is different from all other beings throughout the ages. The zygote begins a process of cleavage that yields a growing and developing embryo, which progresses through the stages of pregnancy towards birth.

Second: From the moment a zygote settles (yastaqirr) inside a woman’s body, it deserves a unanimously recognized degree of dignity (iḥtirām) and a number of religious rulings, known to religious scholars, apply to it.

Three: When the embryo reaches the soul-breathing stage, the time of which is subject to controversy, being either forty or 120 days, the embryo acquires greater sanctity (ḥurma), as all scholars agree, and additional religious rulings apply to it.

Fourth: Among the most important of these religious rulings are those with pertinence to abortion as pointed out in article seven of the recommendations of the symposium on ‘Reproduction in Islam’” (Madhkūr, Sayf, Jundī, and Abū Ghudda 1985, p. 676).

  1. Concluding Remarks: Religion and (Philosophy of) Science in Focus

By examining the contemporary collective discussions of Muslim religious scholars and biomedical scientists on the beginning of human life, a number of analytical and critical remarks need to be highlighted because of their benefit for enriching the contemporary science and religion discourse, particularly within the context of the Islamic tradition. The main target of the IOMS symposium, whose published proceedings constituted the main body of this study, was to discuss the beginning human life from an Islamic religio-ethical perspective. This was already stated in the very title of the symposium; Human Life: It Beginning and Its End from an Islamic Perspective (fī al-mafhūm al-Islāmī). However, the power of modern biomedical knowledge was so omnipresent throughout the proceedings of the symposium to the extent that different attempts were made to “biomedicalize” the key theological concept of “breathing the soul” which has always been central in the debate on the beginning of human life throughout the history of the Islamic tradition. This indicates the global outreach of the phenomenon of medicalization and that the Islamic tradition was no exception in this regard.

However, it seems that medicalization in the context of the Islamic bioethical discourse has its own specific characteristics. In the mainstream medicalization literature, diminution of religion is usually mentioned as one of the social factors that have encouraged or abetted medicalization (Conrad 2007, 8). The case of the IOMS symposium shows that exactly the opposite (viz. increasing interest in reviving religion) can be the driving force behind medicalization. Not only the Islamic Organization for Medical Sciences (IOMS) but almost all (individual and institutional) theorists in the field of contemporary Islamic bioethics share the common goal of proving that the Islamic religio-ethical system (Sharia) is still valid in the era of modern biomedical technology. Thus, medicalization here is not presented as a substitute for religion but as a tool for understanding the religious tradition in a new or better way and to make it compatible with modern reality. Anyhow, both groups (biomedical scientists and religious scholars) realized that none of them can claim exclusive authority over such sensitive issues and how they should be approached and addressed. Both groups learnt that scientists cannot solve the moral questions alone and religious scholars cannot argue without the updated scientific knowledge.

Also the proceedings of the IOMS symposium revealed, at least to certain extent, the image of biomedical sciences or science in general in the mindset of contemporary Muslim religious scholars. It seems that (some) religious scholars believe that science conveys certainty (yaqīn) and its results should be definitive (qatʾī), otherwise it will not be real science and thus it should not be taken seriously. They think that Islamic legal reasoning (fiqh) conveys probability (ẓann) because it is based on reading and interpreting words and passages which are open for different interpretations and this whole hermeneutical process is a human endeavor which is usually susceptible to error. On the other hand, (biomedical) scientists should not have this problem because they deal with materials that they can observe, check and double-check and thus many religious scholars wondered why scientists would disagree with each other!

This (flawed) perception of science shows that Muslim religious scholars still need to know more about what science exactly is and to get more information about the nature of scientific knowledge and how specific pieces of information can be categorized within the traditional typology that jurists are used to (e.g. certain, probable, uncertain, etc.) Additionally, both biomedical scientists and religious scholars need to distinguish between “scientific pieces of information” on one hand and the values and ethical concepts that these pieces of information may imply. Mixing between the two aspects or presenting both of them under the label of “scientific information” or even “scientific facts” will continue to trouble and disturb the debates on key issues like the breathing the soul and its relation to the determination of the beginning of human life. To my mind, these problematic issues in the current collective ijtihād on bioethical issues can be considerably improved by involving philosophers of science, besides the (biomedical) scientists and the religious scholars, who can provide these two groups with significant insights on the issues they address.

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