|Some Muslim thinkers do not advocate the interpretation of the Qur’an or the Sunnah in terms of scientific terminology. However, the writer believes there is nothing wrong in attempting to understand or interpret Islam in the light of modern knowledge.
Through this article, the writer, Dr. Ibrahim Syed, wants to encourage freethinking and stimulate research ideas among Muslim scholars, scientists, and students so that Muslims’ understanding of the Qur’an and the Sunnah can be furthered.`Abdullah ibn Mas`ud (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
“Verily, the creation of each one of you is brought together in his mother’s belly for forty days in the form of seed, then he is a clot of blood for a like period, then he is a morsel of flesh for a like period, then there is sent to him the angel who blows the breath of life into him and who is commanded about four matters: to write down his means of livelihood, his life span, his actions and whether happy or unhappy. By Allah, other than Whom there is no God, verily one of you behaves like the people of Paradise until there is but an arm’s length between him and it. And that which has been written overtakes him and so he behaves like the people of Hellfire and thus he enters it. And one of you behaves like the people of Hellfire until there is but an arm’s length between him and it. And that which has been written overtakes him and so he behaves like the people of Paradise and thus he enters it.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
This hadith deals with the creation of human beings, which is mentioned in great detail in the Qur’an. However, the astounding matter in this hadith is the angel who blows the breath of life into the embryo and writes down four matters regarding the would-be person:
1. Means of livelihood
2. Life span
4. Whether happy or unhappy
The Hadith Precedes Science
Before the scientific discovery of the genetic code and the awarding of Nobel Prizes to its three discoverers in 1968, it was impossible to understand this hadith scientifically. In the 1990s, we were able to unravel the genetic code with regard to a person’s inheritance of certain disease-carrying genes. This information may tell us about an individual’s probable life span and whether he or she will be happy or unhappy.
Science is yet to discover the genes responsible for a person’s rizq (food habits, dietetic profile, etc.) and actions or behaviors, such as type A, B, or C personality.
In the present article, the writer is attempting to show the current knowledge concerning the ability to perform genetic screening in order to understand a person’s inheritance of, or susceptibility to developing, a certain disease through the study of that person’s genes.
Our knowledge is still incomplete and we are very far away in attaining the knowledge about the four matters mentioned in this hadith. Inside the nucleus of a living cell, there are 46 chromosomes which are visible only when the cell divides. These chromosomes are made of deoxyribonucleic acid (commonly known as DNA). A certain length of DNA is called a gene, and the length of DNA that codes for complete synthesis of a protein is also called a gene. Along the 46 chromosomes of every human cell, there are some 100,000 genes.
The US government is funding a $3 billion, 15-year Human Genome Project (HGP), under the joint leadership of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy (DOE). That project will allow scientists to know exactly where on our chromosomes each of the 100,000 genes resides. Among these 100,000 genes, there are a few lethal ones.
Every person has a unique set of seven or eight deadly genes. They are usually hidden, but in the wrong environment or in combination with certain other genes, they can express themselves in dangerous ways. Some families carry genetic diseases for generations and they know what type of lethal genes they carry. Most people do not know if they carry any genetically defective genes or not.
A Genetic Blueprint: Is It Possible?
In the near future, it will be possible to get a blueprint of our genetic inheritance realizing the most likely cause of our own death. This test can be performed by walking into a physician’s office and giving a blood sample with a finger prick. The result of the test will reveal if a person has any defective genes that will cause a certain disease or not.
Most of the adult-onset diseases involve several genes. For example, there are at least 17 genes responsible for just one aspect of coronary heart disease (CHD), and these genes express themselves only under certain conditions. For most of the genetic diseases, it is impossible to predict with certainty. Geneticists now say that diabetes, hypertension and cancer run in families. In other words, these diseases are genetically inherited.
There are two important questions, which have not been answered so far:
1. Is knowledge of the genetic information itself potentially hazardous to the individual?
2. Will institutions misuse that knowledge to promote their own dominance and control?
There are two types of tests:
1. Prenatal tests that inform future parents of a child’s chances of inheriting a condition that is carried by one of the parents or has caused the death of a family member.
2. Genetic screening tests that tell the adults about their own genetic destiny.
But do we really want to know? Are we willing to learn the details of our genetic destiny — especially when it involves diseases for which there is no cure? Are we capable of understanding the uncertainties inherent in this high-tech fortune-telling?
Adult polycystic kidney disease (APKD) comes late in age and causes a degenerative condition of the kidneys, resulting in the gradual loss of kidney function. It is carried on a single, dominant gene. If a man has this disease, then his son has a 50 percent chance of having that gene, and if he has two daughters, their chance of having the disease is also 50 percent. The genetic test only tells whether a person has the gene that causes the disease, but it does not tell whether that person will get the disease in his UOs or in his late 60s. No treatment exists to prevent kidney failure in polycystic kidney patients.
There is a certain amount of unwillingness on the part of humans to know their future. However, there are individuals who have taken the tests for the occurrence of Huntington’s disease — a neurological disease involving a progressive and untreatable brain and muscle degeneration with symptoms that usually show themselves in the 40s. The chances of inheriting this disease-causing gene are also 50 percent.
Nancy Wexler of the Hereditary Disease Foundation (HDF) says,
“If the information is limiting, enervating, depressing, if it tears at your self-esteem, if it gives you nothing to do, it might be better not to know.”
Wexler devoted her professional life to the search for the gene responsible for Huntington’s disease, which killed her mother and of which she and her sister are at risk.
Scientists stress that the results of genetic testing are ambiguous; genes alone do not determine a disease’s prognosis. One can say whether or not an individual appears to have the gene, and those who have the gene have gone on to develop the disease. But one cannot say anything about when the disease will start and what the course of the disease or the relevant aspects of the illness will be.
The danger comes when imprecise tests are used in order to predict the future and when institutions actually use them to construct the future. For example, this applies when:
• employers refuse to hire or train individuals at high risk of dying in their prime,
• health insurance companies insist on knowing the genetic profiles of their potential subscribers before paying for preexisting genetic conditions,
• schools require a permanent genetic record to anticipate which children will exhibit behavioral problems or learning disabilities.
There is also the danger of using the genetic tests for purposes of eugenics. Eugenics means the deliberate manipulation of the gene pool with the idea of creating a master race. Under this approach, defective people walking around may not be allowed to reproduce for the betterment of society.
Many of the conditions that will be uncovered through genetic studies are not life-threatening, but might not fit into some societal scheme (e.g., genetic dyslexia, genetic shyness, genetic arrogance, and genetic left-handedness).