Developments in the science of genetics have aroused the interest of scientists, as well as the rest of us in some fundamental questions of our life and given them some urgency.
What does our humanity consist in?
Do we have an unalterable nature in virtue of which we can be considered the humans we are, or is our nature a tabula rasa on which culture, the environment and now genetic engineering dictate what they want?
Do we have a soul, and if so, what is the difference between it and our bodies? What is its relationship with the body?
It was natural for believers in God to be more concerned with such questions, and to give answers to them based on the teachings of their religions. I am glad to be given the honor of participating in this vital discussion and to be given the opportunity to present what I consider to be an authentic Islamic view on these important issues.
I am concerned here mainly with the question of human nature. If the nature of a thing is the collection of qualities which make it the thing that it is, then everything must necessarily have a nature. We might differ about some of the qualities of a thing, whether they can be counted among those that form its nature, but we cannot say of something that we know and deal with that it has no nature at all, or that its nature is constantly changing. This is a matter of logic. There should therefore be no dispute about the fact that human beings have a nature that makes them the beings they are. There should also be no dispute about the fact that this nature must be fixed, because if it changes then the thing that has the new nature must be something different from a human being, just as water or oxygen must be something different from the water or oxygen that we know and deal with if their nature changes.
The question should not therefore be about whether or not humans have a nature, or whether or not that nature is changing: it should be about the kind of qualities that make them the beings they are.
We are all agreed that we have bodies, and that these bodies have a nature in virtue of which they need for example certain things for their existence. We are also agreed on the fact that we have certain mental qualities without which we cannot be the human beings that we are. A being that is intrinsically unable to think, or will, or know, cannot be a human being even if it had a body that looked exactly like that of a human, and even if it had some of the other mental qualities of humans. Thus, if genetic engineering could bring some being like these, we should not say that it changed the nature of humans, but that it came up with a new being that has nothing to do with us. Assuming this to happen, it will not abolish human beings; normal humans will continue to exist and be reproduced in the natural way they have always been.
The question would then be: is it in our interest, as normal humans, to allow something like this to happen?
The answer of a believer in God would be an emphatic no! Why? Because he believes that no being can have a nature that is even equal, let alone superior, to that of a human being. Anyway, this should be the position of a Muslim.
Humans, according to Islam, have many qualities that distinguish them from other creation, but these qualities are not of equal importance. Let us start with what, according to Islam, is ‘spiritually’ common to all creation and then deal with humans as a special creation.
The Entire Creation is Muslim
Every created thing worships its Lord; each according to its special makeup. The Qur’an gives us some details of this worshipping that is common to all creation.
Allah says, “Do they seek a religion other than Allah’s, when all have submitted to Him in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him they will be returned.” (Q, 3:83)
Allah says, “Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth glorifies Allah.” (Q, 59:1)
Allah says, “Do you not see that to Allah prostrates whoever is in the heavens and whoever is on the earth, as well as the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, the animals, and many of the people!” (Q, 22:18)
Allah says, “To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and the earth. All are obedient to Him.” (Q, 30:26)
Humans, a Special Creation
Human beings are a special creation; but they are no exception to the fact that their essence is that of being servants of God. They are however distinguished from all other creation by certain qualities that make them the special beings they are with a degree above other created things.
First, Adam, the father of all human beings was created in a special way. God tells us that He created him with his own hands when He said,
“One whom I have created with My two hands.” (Q, 38:75)
Second, He told the angels to prostrate themselves to him once he was created, when He commanded them,
“Prostrate yourselves before Adam.” (Q, 2:34)
Third, He breathed into him a spirit (called in Arabic ruh) with which He did not endow any other animal with. He said,
“I am going to create man from clay. When I have fashioned him and breathed into him his soul created by Me.” (Q, 38:71-2)
Fourth, He made all that is on the earth subservient to humans,
“It is He Who created for you all that is on the earth.” (Q, 2:29)
Fifth, He endowed them with dignity,
“We have honored the progeny of Adam and carried them on land and sea, have provided them with good things, and have preferred them above many of those We created.” (Q, 17:70)
Sixth, He taught him what the Qur’an calls the names of things in virtue of which he became more knowledgeable than the angels,
“He taught Adam the names of all things, then He showed them to the angels and said, ‘Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful.’ They said, ‘Glory be to You, we have no knowledge except of that which You have taught us. It is You, who is the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.’ He said, ‘Adam, inform them of their names,’ and when he informed them of their names, He said, ‘Did I not tell you that I know the unseen in the heavens and the earth? I know what you reveal and what you conceal.’” (Q, 2:31-3)
Body and Soul
The human body and the human soul are two different entities with different sets of attributes and functions, but they are in many ways connected and interdependent.
The fact that they are distinct is stated in many Islamic texts: First, in the creation of Adam, the soul was breathed into an already created body,
“When I have fashioned him completely, and breathed into him the soul that I created, then fall down in prostration to him.” (Q, 15:29)
Second, when a human child is born it is born as a living thing but without a soul.
“The soul is breathed into it when it is about forty days old.” (Bukhari)
Third, when a person dies, his soul leaves his body,
“Allah takes away the souls at the time of their death, and during the sleep of those that have not died. He keeps those for whom He has ordained death and releases the rest for an appointed term. In this are signs for a people who reflect.” (Q, 39:42)
Fourth, if a person goes to paradise, he will have a body with a nature different from his present worldly body, though he will continue to have the same soul.