HUMANKIND’S RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE AND PARTICIPATION IN THE PROCESS OF CREATION BY TECHNOLOGY-ISLAMIC POINT OF VIEW
by Asghar Ali Engineer
CREATION, HUMAN BEINGS, AND NATURE
According to all scriptures it is God who created this universe and all that is within it. According to the Qur’an also Allah is the creator of this universe, of nature and of human beings. There is also the Darwinian theory of evolution. Some support the theory of evolution and reject what is called ‘creationism’ and some people support the dogma of creation and totally reject the concept of evolution. The Qur’an also talks of creation but the question is does it reject the concept of evolution? The answer is essentially a question of interpretation, after all. The most important question is: are the concepts of creation and evolution mutually exclusive? Most people would maintain yes. But I think they are not necessarily exclusive. They are rather inclusive. The question is evolution of what? It is evolution of what exists. The Darwinian theory of evolution, if properly understood and interpreted, does not necessarily reject the idea of creation though it was thought to have done so by some. In fact rationalism was emerging in Europe with great verve in the 19th century and the rationalists were looking for explanations for the coming into existence of human beings and various other species. Darwin’s observations and the theory he built on the basis of the empirical evidence he collected became a powerful weapon in the hands of rationalists. It was almost as if the rationalists were waiting for someone to theorise along these lines and Darwin became their hero who provided them with the much needed explanation.
Those people who held an orthodox religious point of view rejected Darwin’s theory and dubbed it ‘atheistic’ and damned it with all the force at their command. For them belief in evolution amounted to interfering in the domain of God. the human being, according to this point of view, was an humble creature of God and his duty was to submit humbly to the Will of God. He could not interfere with the work of God, let alone aspire to be a partner with Him. Thus creationism and evolutionism were on a collision course. They are even today for many believers. Both creationists as well as evolutionists took a narrow and dogmatic view. In fact creation and evolution both are complimentary rather than contradictory. Both the concepts support each other, if dogmas are discarded. The theologians take a very narrow view of creation, as if creation is a one time perfect product and a result of God’s word ‘be’ and it ‘becomes’. It is this narrow understanding of the concept of creation which is quite problematic. Similarly the rationalists took very restricted view of evolution and totally ruled out the possibility of creation. Such a view is also equally problematic – evolution of what, if nothing exists before. Thus if we talk of human partnership in the process of creation we will have to drastically change our thinking about both creation as well as evolution. However, today according to the believers, it is God and His power of creation that is final and cannot be interfered with. In this view the human being is a mere helpless creature without any power. While the opposite point of view holds the human being as supreme and God is a mere myth and evolution the final reality. It is very difficult to reconcile such opposing and dogmatic points of view and there is no question of human partnership with the divine.
Whatever the point of view one thing is clear that human kind is an integral part of nature. Nature can exist independent of human beings but human beings cannot exist without nature. The very sustenance of human beings is derived from nature. It is nature that sustains humans. Both those who believe in religion and those who do not support this point of view. Those who believe in God maintain that God created the entire universe and at the end human beings and those who reject religious belief also maintain that humans are products of nature. Thus, the relationship between humans and nature is, so to say, beyond dispute.
WHAT IS THE ISLAMIC POINT OF VIEW?
What does the Qur’an says about creation and evolution? If literally interpreted, as the orthodox believers do, the Qur’an also teaches the concept of creation and there is no place for evolution. However, if literalist interpretation is replaced with metaphorical and symbolic, there can be a place for reconciling the concept of creation with that of evolution. As far as creation is concerned the Qur’an says that “And when He decrees an affair, He says to it only Be, and it is.” (2:117). The orthodox theologians maintain that whatever Allah decrees, is created by these words. But many others, specially the modern interpreters do not agree with this understanding of the above verse. Thus Maulana Muhammad Ali, a modern commentator of the Qur’an observes:
“kun fa-yakun is the recurring phrase in which Allah’s act of the creation and annihilation of things is spoken of in the Holy Qur’an. It is not meant by this that there is no gradual process in the creation of things: evolution in creation is in fact plainly spoken of in the very first words of the Qur’an, where God is spoken of as Rabb (Evolver) of worlds, the Fosterer of a thing in such a manner as to make it attain one condition after another until it reaches its goal of completion. It is, in fact, an answer to those who think that the creation of things by God is dependent on the previous existence of matter and soul and the adaptability of their attributes. The argument given here in the word badi^ is that man, who stands in need of matter to make things, also stands in need of a pattern after which to make them, but God stands in need of neither. The verse seems particularly to refer here, however, to the revolution that was to be brought about by the Prophet. It seemed an impossibility to men but Allah had decreed it. And in fact, the revolution brought about in Arabia by the Prophet was so wonderful that the old heaven and earth of the peninsula may be said to have been changed into new ones.”
Thus it will be seen that there are many shades to the word kun i.e. Be. Allah’s command to create. Human beings can certainly play a role in further shaping the things. It is for man to rise to the level both through perfection of technology or value orientation where he can play a role of partnership with Allah in perfection or re-shaping of the process of creation. A noted poet of Urdu Muhammad Iqbal says: “Raise thyself to such level that Allah, before shaping the things will consult thee what thy opinion is!” Is human partnership in divine creation possible and desirable? Can modern technology support the process of creation? Well, there are differing points of view. Some maintain that human beings, being themselves created, cannot become partners in creation or participate in the process of creation. The other point of view accepts such a possibility. In every religious tradition, be it Christian, Hindu or Muslim tradition there is no single point of view. The orthodox viewpoint always differs from the liberal and progressive one.
Before we deal with this question we would like to throw light on the concept of creation in the Islamic scripture i.e. the Qur’an. The Qur’an uses two terms for creation – ibda’ and khalaqa. Both have distinct meaning. Bada’ refers to creation out of nothingness and such an act of creation does not require any imitation of others and anything so created is called badi’. Allah is called mubdi’ who creates without any pre-existing material or without any tools or without space and time. Such an act of creation is only for Allah, no one can assist him or participate with him in this process of creation.
Khalaqa, on the other hand, means to create but it has different shade of meaning. This means creation with tools, with assistance, with pre-existence material and in time and space. However, khaqlaqa when it refers to Allah could be synonymous with ibda’ i.e. creation without any assistance, without any tools or outside time and space. Thus Allah has created this universe, the heavens and earth and for that the Qur’an uses both bada’ (2:117) and khalaqa (3:16). But as for humans the term bada’ cannot be used as human beings cannot create without assistance, without tools and outside time and space. Thus no human being can participate as far as Allah’s creation in the first sense is concerned i.e. human being cannot be badi’ but he can be khaliq. It is in this sense that the Qur’an describes Allah as ahsan al-khaliqin i.e. best of the creators (14:23).
Thus in the latter sense human beings are also creators and can become participatants in the process of creation. Here it will be important to point out that creation cannot be isolated from sustenance and sustenance is not possible without deep concern (compassion) for the creation. Allah is, therefore, described in the Qur’an not only as creator but also as sustainer (rabb) and as Rahman (1:2-3). Allah creates this universe, sustains it and feels deeply concerned for His creation. Human beings thus may participate in the process of creation by participating in the process of sustenance and care for the creation of Allah. To preserve and protect this earth which we inhabit and which is a creation of Allah and to feel deeply concerned for it is very important for us humans. Allah has taken on Himself to be Merciful and Compassionate. The Qur’an says, “He has ordained mercy on Himself.” (6:12). Thus He cannot but be Merciful. Mercy is His very nature. It is this nature of God that sustains this universe. Thus human participation in the sustenance of this universe – this earth as far as human beings are concerned – is participation in the process of creation. Human beings have to design technology to further the process of sustenance of this earth.
As pointed out above human beings cannot create out of nothing but only out of existing material and with the help of tools, and modern technology is the most powerful tool human beings have designed. However, technology being a tool, not an end in itself, has to be such as to strengthen the sustenance of human beings on this earth and the earth itself. Modern technology can be destructive as well as creative. The question is: is our technology such as to enable us to participate in the process of creation and sustenance? Or is it otherwise? There is no categorical answer as there is lot of ambiguity in human action. There is no such ambiguity in Allah’s action as He has ordained mercy on Himself. Among His names in the Qur’an we find Nur (light), Rahim (Merciful), al-Hadi (The Guide), al-Wahhab (Generous who gives in plenty), al-Razzaq (Provider and Sustainer) etc. All these names are Allah’s attributes, which indicate how He looks after His creation and how He is Benefactor of His creation. But for Him the creation would not survive.
But it is not true as far as human beings are concerned, though they aspire to be the participants in the process of creation. Allah creates and sends His guides for human beings to guide them to enhance the value of His creation. However, human beings give greater importance to their selfish interests than to the creation of Allah. Human beings even devise utterly destructive technology to promote their selfish ends. We have created nuclear technology in order to destroy God’s creation? Nuclear technology not only wreaks havoc and destroys all that is there on earth but also destructively affects the future generations of human beings, plants, water resources etc. through radiation. Yet human beings, despite being fully aware of the destructive nature of nuclear technology do not desist from creating it. Not only that, several countries have nuclear weapons which together can destroy this earth several times over and also destroy all future possibilities of creation of life for millions of years.
For human beings to participate in the process of creation with God they have to devise technologies which will be life enhancing, not life destroying. For this, human beings have to rise above selfish interests and imbibe positive values contained in the Divine Attributes. As I said human actions are, unlike God, ambiguous and capable of both – life enhancing as well as life destroying. It can be said that Allah also destroys life in the sense that He ordains death – death of all species. But this destruction is not for destruction but for fresh creation. Human destruction, on the other hand, is not only for destruction but also for destroying all possibilities of life to come into existence. Allah in His Mercy has gifted humankind with the precious gift of intellect that has tremendous life enhancing creative potential. This potential can be actualised only when humans rise above selfish interests and devise technologies that can help humanity to flourish. Intellect is not only a precious divine gift but also a powerful tool of human creation. As pointed out above Divine creation does not depend on any external tool whereas human creation does. But God Himself has gifted humankind with the power of reason so that it can assist Him in the process of creation. Thus it becomes the sacred duty of humankind to make best possible use of intellect and become a part of divine process of creation. It is in fact a divine will that humankind assists Him in the process of creation by preserving His creation by devising appropriate technology. That is why the Qur’an says “We created human beings in the best make.” (95:4). This implies that human beings are endowed with all the positive qualities physical as well as mental, corresponding to the functions which this particular creature is meant to perform. It is for man to make best possible use of these innate qualities gifted by God. But the next verse describes his innate evil tendencies also when it says: “then We render him the lowest of the low.” (95:5). A similar statement is made in the verse 91: 7-8 “He reveals to it (i.e. human soul) its way of evil and its way of good.”
Thus human beings have both potentialities – for good as well as for evil in them. It is for them to decide – and human beings are free agent in this sense – whether they want evil or good to prevail. This evil and good is also reflected in the technology human beings devise. Human beings as such in this sense can either be divine agents or agents of Satan. Adam was created – as we read both in Bible as well as in the Qur’an and given freedom to eat fruits of all trees freely except of one which was forbidden to him. However, Adam was tempted by his desire to test the fruit of the forbidden tree and he was expelled from the paradise. The children of Adam also feel tempted again and again to test the fruit of this forbidden tree and thus miss out the paradise of peace and positive creativity again and again and have to live with destruction, violence and conflict.
The human intellect through invoking divine guidance knows what is good and what is bad and yet often opts for what is evil. Human intellect is capable of great creative feats that will enhance the quality of life on earth. And in fact today human intellect has performed these feats of creativity and devised technologies that are life enhancing. We can refer here to production of several life-saving drugs through modern research and technology. Also the technologies available for many intricate surgical operations which were just unthinkable for half a century ago, have certainly enhanced the life span of human beings and also quality of life. But, and this is important to note, these technologies are not available to all human beings. The distribution of income being highly skewed the poor cannot avail of these technological feats. Today despite these miraculous technologies thousands die in the third world even for want of simple medicines. The Divine compassion would not admit of it. As pointed out above the Qur’an describes Allah as the Sustainer of the whole universe of which all human beings are integral part. In the eyes of Allah all human lives have equal value and hence all need to be equally sustained without any discrimination. Thus creation of technology is not enough for participating in the Divine process of creation and sustenance. It is also necessary that it be equitably available to all. It can be equitably available only if the wealth is not concentrated in few hands and all facilities and life enhancing amenities are made available to all. No wonder than that the Qur’an stresses equitable distribution of wealth and strongly condemns its concentration. Thus the Qur’an says, “And those who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in Allah’s way – announce to them a painful chastisement.” (9:34). Again in 59:7 the Book warns that the riches should not circulate among the rich only.
This is necessary to point out because though modern technology – be it in the field of health or information or any other field, and through which human beings participate in enhancing the quality of divine creation and enrich it is too expensive and unaffordable for millions of people in developing countries. In fact these people find it difficult to sustain themselves. Even basic health services are not available to them let aloe that latest technology of surgery, transplantation of organs – especially the transplantation of hearts and kidneys. Today these techniques developed by human beings are highly useful in saving lives and aiding the divine act of sustenance. Though these surgical and transplantation technologies are saving a large number of lives and thus enriching divine act of creation, still much larger number of human beings are far from affording them. To create a technology to participate in the divine act of creation is one thing and, more important, to make it available to all those needing it, is something else. Both aspects are equally necessary.
CLONING AND TRANSPLANTATION
Of late there has been breath- taking progress in technologies of creation of life, apart from adding to its sustenance or its enrichment. One can mention here the technology of cloning. Animal clones have already been produced. Dolly the baby sheep was cloned very successfully by the scientists in the Britain. Not only that the Dolly gave birth to three little lambs. According to the news, “Dolly gave birth to two males and one female lamb…” “We are delighted”, said Dr. Harry Griffin, assistant director of the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh. It was a second pregnancy for Dolly, who gave birth to a single lamb. Bonie last spring. All four lambs have the same father, a Welsh mountain ram named David.
According to the news item “Dolly and her lambs are in good health. The births were unassisted and all three are suckling well”, the Institute announced. The birth of Bonnie almost exactly 12 months ago confirmed that despite Dolly’s unusual origins, she is able to breed normally and produce healthy offspring. The birth of these three lambs is a further demonstration of this, the institute said. The Dolly itself was born in the institute in July 1996 after scientists cloned her from a cell from another sheep’s udder. She was named after the singer Dolly Parton. Her creators say it is important to breed from cloned animals to check for any unexpected changes in their offspring.
It was not surprising then that the scientists began working on human cloning also. According to the Daily Mail dated 17th June 1999 scientists in the United States have cloned the first human embryos. Using the methods similar to those which produced Dolly, the cloned sheep they produced a male embryo comprising nearly 400 cells, the British tabloid said. The scientists at the Massachusetts-based advanced cell technology then incinerated the embryo after two days. They wanted to produce human body tissue, which can be used to treat patients with various conditions, including nerve damage, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. A DNA-loaded nucleus of a human cell was extracted from a skin sample from a man’s leg and then inserted into the outer protein of a hollowed out cow’s egg under laboratory conditions, said the Daily Mail. The egg was then placed in a laboratory dish and soaked in a chemical solution, which fooled it into thinking it was a newly-conceived embryo. The cells then reportedly began to develop into an embryo.
These breath-taking technologies have made humankind a real participant in the process of creation. It is no more a mere possibility but a hard reality. But another important question remains which is of ethical and religious nature. Should cloning be permitted. It may not be ethically highly objectionable as long as cloning is confined to animals alone. But when it comes to human cloning serious ethical issues arise. Should it be permitted at all? Some are taking serious objections to animal cloning itself as it paves the way for human cloning. A Saudi Islamic theologian objected to any form of cloning dubbing it as interference in God’s domain. He even went to the extent of saying that such scientists as are engaged in this research should be given exemplary punishment. Of course this can be dismissed as an extreme view. But ethical question remains and cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Even transplantation of organs like kidneys has been greatly misused especially in the poverty-stricken societies like India. Not only that poor people sale their kidneys to the rich patients they are often deceived by Mafiosi which perform operations on false pretexts to remove such vital organs and sale them to the needy rich patients and make huge sums. Many such cases have been reported in the press. Of course legislation has also been enacted but it is not sufficient to check such malpractice. But corruption and malpractice cannot be cited as reasons for disallowing transplantation of organs. Organ transplants have saved lives of many human beings. But still there is no unanimity among the Islamic theologians on the issue. Some still think transplantation of organs amounts to muthla (mutilation of divinely created human body) which is strictly prohibited by the Prophet of Islam. Others, however, argue that it does not amount to mutilation of human body, as organs are not cut from it out of hostility or disrespect but only to save another human life.
These theologians who do not oppose transplantation of human organs, however, invoke the doctrine of what is called in Islamic shari`ah as the doctrine of darurah i.e. necessity. They argue that the Holy Qur’an even allows eating of pork if a human is dying of hunger and no other food is available. So if a human being is dying and needs transplantation of kidney or heart, it could be extracted from another human person provided his life is not endangered or the donor is already dead. Also, they opine that what is haram (prohibited) in shari`ah should not be used for transplantation. For example, a heart of a pig should not be used for transplantation in the body of a dying Muslim. Many liberal Muslim Indian theologians have discussed these issues at length and compiled their discussions into a volume. There are many Muslim patients who refuse to accept transplantation of organs until permitted by an authentic religious authority. These fatwas (religious edicts) compiled into this volume are highly useful to save lives of such Muslim patients.
AN ETHICAL QUESTION
Cloning, needless to say, is much more controversial than mere transplantation of organs. According to the orthodox Muslim theologians it amounts not only to muthla (mutilation of human body) but amounts to directly assuming the function of a divine creator, which cannot be permitted at all. This is theological objection. But ethical objection has also to be taken into account. Can human cloning be ethically permitted. What is technologically possible can it be ethically permissible? This is most important and fundamental question which needs to be answered satisfactorily. Even scientists and other secular authorities differ on the ethics of cloning let alone the theologians.
Thus Patrick Dixon, and author of Futurewise (Harper Collins), 1998, said in an interview, “Making cloned babies has real dangers. Terrible mutations could result as well as huge emotional risks to the child. What will it do to a cloned son to look at his dad and see his twin brother, his mother and see his sister-in-law? The cloned daughter knows that she will have impacted wisdom teeth on her 15th birthday, she’ll be gray at 40 and suspects her mother is giving her music lessons to prove how talented her own genes are. And there are serious risks of abuse by weirdos and the powerful…..Many people in America are deeply uneasy about deliberately creating an identical twin embryo of an existing person with the express purpose of destroying it for use of its tissues. As a doctor, I know we need gene technology to feed the world and cure disease. But we don’t need human cloning.”
Michael Shermer, a publisher of Skeptic magazine, on the other hand, advocates human cloning and sees no harm in it. Opposing any ban on human cloning Shermer says, “This Promethean theme of limiting knowledge is a common one not only in science fiction, but in science fact. For every mythic Icarus who flew too close to the sun, there are real-life scientists who got their wings clipped for daring to push their frontiers too far. Birth control? Only God can do that. Life extension? Only God can do that. Euthanasia? Only God can do that. We should not be surprised, then, that when a British government advisory commission encouraged the legalisation of research into cloning human tissues and organs for therapeutic uses, it was met with opposition from both religious and secular groups. Cloning? Only God can do that….” Shermer further says “nonsense! Most of us are alive because of medical technologies and social hygiene practices that have doubled the average life span in this century. What’s godly or natural about heart-lung transplants, triple-bypass surgeries, vaccinatios or radiation treatment? What is godly or natural about birth control and birth enhancement technologies? Absolutely nothing. Yet we cheerfully accept these advances because we have grown accustomed to them and, more important, we have benefited from them. I propose that we lift the ban on all research into clonig – including humans. My hypothesis is that nothing evil will befall society. Most of the horror laden scenarios proposed by moralists are already addressed by the law; a clone, like a twin, is a human being, and you cannot harvest the issues or organs of a twin.”
ISLAMIC POINT OF VIEW
Thus it will be seen that ethical aspect of technologies like cloning remains highly controversial. Even secularists differ, let alone the religious authorities. It is a well know fact that in America many conservative Christians are highly opposed to abortion and the pro-life and pro-choice debate is highly emotional. These new medical technologies, even if they immensely benefit human beings and increase their chances of survival, remain unacceptable to many on ‘ethical’ grounds. They not only consider it as undue interference in God’s domain but also immoral.
The Islamic point of view has never been unanimous. There is no concept of church in Islam and no one authority can issue a religious edict and expect it to be accepted universally by all Muslims. Muslims are not only divided into numerous sects and schools of jurisprudence but also among the liberals and conservatives. Thus there cannot be any unanimity on these questions also. Of course so far human cloning has not been seriously debated in the Islamic world. In fact so far this question has not been raised in Islamic countries, as it is still not conversant with it. But more common view would be that it is interference in Allah’s work.
But if one goes by the Qur’anic spirit technology of cloning should not be rejected outright. The Qur’an invites the believers to reflect deeply on Allah’s creation and in fact those who so reflect are indulging in an act of worship - `ibadah. The Qur’an repeatedly invites the believers to reflect deeply about oneself and the universe how it has been created. Thus the Qur’an says, “ Do they not reflect within themselves? Allah did not create the heavens and the earth and what is between them but with truth, and (for) an appointed term.” ((30:8). Yet in another verse it says: “Those who remember Allah standing and sitting and (lying) on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord, Thou has not created this in vain! Glory be to Thee!” (3:190)
These verses equate deep reflection on creation of universe and all that is in it with worship. Thus this act of reflection on creation is very significant. It is this attitude which creates a scientific mind which explores the mysteries of creation and tries to participate in the process. Such an act of reflection on God’s creation is, in no way, challenging His authority, as some orthodox theologians maintain, but is rather to reinforce His authority. It is such reflection, which makes human beings appreciate the intricacies of Divine creation, and to devise technologies to try to either recreate them or make them survive longer through these technologies. Today the scientists are trying to map the chromosomes and understand the intricacies of DNA, genes etc. It is through study of these basics of life that various possibilities including prolonging life or bringing to life the extinct animals have arisen. Now the DNA science can even enable scientists to rebuild a dead dodo.
According to one report scientists are to extract DNA from a dodo for the first time, raising the prospect that the animal whose name is synonymous with extinction could be resurrected. The British experts will recover fragments of genetic material from a preserved head and foot kept in Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History. The research will identify the closest living relative and may pave the way for the species to be resurrected one day. These technologies, similarly, will enable the scientists to modify and improve the quality of human life. Thus according to the British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking the advent of a new and improved kind of “genetically modified” human beings will be inevitable in the centuries to come. Again such possibilities are not devoid of ethical controversies. Any technology for that matter can be misused, as pointed out earlier. However, use or misuse can be, to some extent, controlled by suitable legislation. Again it is these technologies which have made it possible to prolong human life. It is said that the children born today will be able to live to 130 because of medical advances. For the first time the scientists have quantified the extra years that breakthroughs in human genetics, organ cloning and the biology of ageing will add to people’s lifespans. They believe that by 2050, scientific advances will be adding 50 years to the current average age of 75 for men and 79 for women, precipitating radical changes in the way people live, plan their careers, spend their leisure time and raise their families.
Modern technologies, it will be seen from above discussion, have tremendously increased the human potential for participating in divine creation. Today humankind is not only trying to understand human biology but also the remotest galaxies, stars and planets hundreds of light years away. As the noted theoretical physicist Michio Kaku from the city University of New York put it “We are making the transition from discerning the laws of nature to becoming masters of it.” In other words scientists are trying to play God and this potential is going to increase tremendously in the new millennium.
No religion, much less Islam opposes this. Islam invites human beings again and again to master the understanding of the nature of divine creation. It is only the `Ulama, (those in possession of knowledge) the Qur’an says who can better appreciate the great power of divine creation and it is these `Ulama from amongst the servants of Allah who really fear Allah because the know what the Divine Power is! (35:28). Only the `Ulama can really have a sense of humility as they know the vastness of divine creation. And it is these `Ulama who, being in possession of the knowledge of creation, can devise technologies to participate in creative activities. Such participation as improves the quality of creation is quite praiseworthy as human being is also a divine creation and being graced with the most precious gift of intellect can become an instrument of improvement of quality of life on this earth, if not in the entire universe. The deeper reflection about life, on one hand, and, on the vastness of the universe on the other, makes him really humble and enables him to fear God in the real sense. Thus by studying the universe and the process of life on earth human being fulfils the most important duty Allah has charged him with. The participation in the process of creation through these humanly devised technologies to improve the quality and span of life is real act of worshipping God.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai