Can Islamic theology and philosophy inform the ethical debate about CRISPR?

March 1, 2019 • 8:00 am

I was appalled to see a letter to the editor in Nature written by three authors, from, respectively the Jordan University of Science and Technology (Irbid, Jordan), Hashemite University (Zarqa, Jordan), and the University of California at San Diego. You can click the link above or the screenshots below to see the title, authors, and content.

As you may recall, CRISPR is a new gene-editing technique that has great promise for selectively changing DNA sequences in ways that scientists want. You may also recall that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, used this method  to alter the DNA sequences in embryos of twin girls (born last fall) in a way that would supposedly make them resistant to infection with HIV.

In most countries such an experiment would be unethical and illegal, flouting many government regulations on genetic engineering, and it’s not clear why he would alter embryos not in any obvious danger of getting HIV as adults in such a way. In fact, Jiankui’s research was also banned in China, and he flouted the regulations.

After a big outcry by scientists throughout the world, the Chinese shut down Jiankui’s lab and have started a police investigation of the researcher. He may well go to jail. (Now there’s word that a second gene-edited pregnancy is on the way.)

Some day we may have the ability to do this kind of experiment safely, but this kind of rogue science, which carries possible dangers to people developing from gene-edited embryos, is off limits for now—and should be.

But below, three Muslims—at least I think they are, for who else would write such a letter—tell us that our debates on this issue can be informed by Islamic theology. Read and weep (the article by Benjamin Hurlbut mentioned in the first line is here):


Whatever this theology did to buttress science in medieval Islam—and I’m not sure it did—it has nothing to say to us today. Every single consideration purporting to derive from Islamic thought can be derived in less tortuous ways from secular ethics. Does it have a positive social benefit? Is CRISPR safe? Did the parents have informed consent? Are there safer ways to protect people from HIV? You don’t need religion to ask those questions.

In fact, sans Islam, these questions were already part of the debate about Jiankui’s experiment, and had nothing to do with Islamic philosophy or theology. What the authors are doing here are twisting and squeezing certain aspects of that tradition to make it seem as if Islam has something meaningful to say about CRISPR experiments. Make no mistake: their intent is to make Islam look good, and prescient as well.

It doesn’t, and we’d best stay far away from theologians of any stripe when debating these issues. The debate should be in the hands of biologists, physicians and secular philosophers, where it remains now. If we start dragging in Islam post facto, it doesn’t serve to advance the debate, but only to give a false authority to a religion. Does it matter if one quarter of the world’s population is Muslim? After all, there are 2.1 billion Christians compared to 1.3 billion Muslims. Does this mean we should give Christian religious ethics precedence?  We can certainly ignore the voices of rabbis, though: there are only 14 million Jews on the planet.

The same goes for Christianity; we can also ignore what priests and ministers have to say. Why are they experts in bioethics? Talk of “souls” has nothing to add to this debate. Contra Hurlbut and these three authors, there’s no need to add theologians to the debate about a scientific technique, for all they have to add is opinion based on unscientific and delusional beliefs.

Nature, like the BBC, has often been soft on faith, but it mystifies me why the journal published this letter. Any guesses? Is the journal trying to show that it welcomes religious input into science and technology?

h/r: Vampyricon

35 thoughts on “Can Islamic theology and philosophy inform the ethical debate about CRISPR?

  1. Just pointing out that the five principles mentioned don’t reference religion at any point and seem rather commonsensical.

    The abstract gives little reason to reject this out of hand except for the unfortunate Islamic marketing. Could be the paper itself is more tainted with theology.

    1. As JAC pointed out, those principles are what any thoughtful atheist would have come up with, but I suppose they should be given a place at the table.

      The only problem I see would come up in further discussion. The atheist bases those principles on reasoned thought. The theist says they are ultimately based on a commandment from God. I can see that causing problems down the line

    2. The authors call this a “traditional Islamic approach”, so it clearly comes out of religion. And I don’t care whether it’s religion or philosophy: until I know otherwise, I assume that this is Islamic, as the authors say.

      To take just one example, look up “Yaquin” (“Yaqueen”) on Wikipedia, and you’ll see how connected with Islam it is.

      The purpose of this letter is not to give us guidelines for bioethics, but to make us more friendly to a religion.

      1. This was likely exquisitely carefully written to have this exact magic spell – to “sound” ok as a distraction while escorting religion in the periphery.

      2. Or more submissive to it. I find meaningful the mention that “Muslims make up one-quarter of the global community today”. As Hitchens wrote, Islamists like to intimidate us by pointing out the number of Muslims.

  2. I’ll take the headline as I am busy :

    “Traditional Islamic approach can enrich CRISPR twins debate”

    1. Why is it always “enrich”? Religion can “enrich” science – what does that mean? Yuck!

    2. What the headline of course really means is that victims of Islam find it meaningful that they can, in one moment, have a great time at their supernatural magic show, and in the next moment, produce truth claims about nature. It is completely meaningless, even more so when claimed to be produced by scientific illiteracy.

    Another author might argue with the same weight that going to the Van Gogh exhibit at the art museum can enrich the CRISPR twins debate.

    The question is : so what?

    1. Yeah. The next “what word or phrase usage ticks you off” thread I’m gonna have to go with “enrich.”

  3. The ethical principles discussed in the article are pretty common ethical principles, that were elaborated by Muslim theologians over Greek philosophical bases (just like Christian theologians elaborated their own theology largely on Platonism).

    I’d say that if we need guidance over successful philosophical approaches we can skip the Muslim middlemen and go straight to the Greek source.

    Also, Urf (“common knowledge” or “custom”) is actually a principle that can severely hinder scientific research at times.

    In islam, “urf” refers to common knowledge outside the Qu’ran or the ahadith and which is not deliberated about by theologians. It’s a mix of cultural traditions and “common sense”.

    Historically, “common knowledge” was used, for example by defenders of the Ptolemy system to reject the Copernican system, over the “common knowledge” that if Earth moved around the Sun animals and plants would fall off, just like people fall off a horse when the horse is “too fast”.

    (The concept of inertia came later, thanks to Galileo).

    The Paradox of Stevino is also an early example of scientific research going against “common knowledge”.

    Even restricting the field to ethics, anti-LGBT prejudice was “custom” and “common knowledge” in “Christian” countries until relatively recently, and still IS “common knowledge” in “Muslim” countries.

    Introducing theological concepts into scientific practice isn’t very productive. Religious contributions to the discourse on ethics (including bio-ethics) are also overrated.

    1. Well, firstly we must look at the great principles of the great scholars. Firstly, the principle of yada yada yada. Secondly, the ooggyy booogy doo-doo principle. Thirdly, the phfrrppptty zingy dingy ding-dong.

    1. Yes, like “what do we do with gay people”? The great philosophers and theologians of modern Iran have said, “Well, a gay man can continue to have sex with other men so long as he undergoes gender-reassignment surgery and has his penis cut off. Otherwise we execute him.”

      There’s a bioethical solution!

  4. The thing about the emergence of ethics from a secular origin is that it demonstrably has the ability to change and evolve to reflect our current values. Religious ethics can not do that.

    A century ago it was widely held as unethical to allow women to vote, or hold positions of power — the latter in part because they would be too delicate to handle it. But we have changed our view on that and on many other things.
    But as I said, ethics that are at the core of religion is often in stasis and can even be centuries out of date. So let’s not kid ourselves that any established religion is a reliable reference point for modern ethics.

    1. “secular”

      This word prompted this thought :

      Because religion knows no bounds, I wonder what’s keeping it from going forth and claiming religion itself is secular? Or it could even claim “supersecular” status, which, essentially, it already does? I mean, religion certainly has the Sophisticated Theological(TM) oomph to do it, right? Heck, I almost WANT to see it!

      Any satirical writers out there looking for a project, that’s your cue. Go for it.

        1. Clever – It has a (sp)ring to it…. actually spring is coming – is there a play on “Easter”, I wonder …

      1. Well, I’m afraid that there are plenty of Christian apologists who will assert that secular humanism “really” derives from Reformation theologians such as Erasmus; and will not allow that Enlightenment thinkers such as Hume or Paine, let alone those pesky reductionist scientists, have anything to contribute at all.

  5. As others have noted, at least the first four principles are simply common sense and already considered in scientific research, which has nothing to do with Islam. The fifth sounds like a great excuse to stop scientists from pursuing certain kinds of research and experiments because people (especially Muslims, in this case) don’t like them.

    And I’m sick of this myth that Islam was somehow the basis for the scientific/mathematical developments in Islamic areas centuries ago. All of that progress was made before Islam became more dominant in everyday life and the theocracies became more controlling. The fact that Muslims or people in Muslim countries were responsible for advances doesn’t imply in any way that Islam was responsible for these advances (the fact that those advances stopped as Islam became more of a controlling force suggests the opposite). It’s like saying Galileo’s efforts were the result of Christianity’s brilliance and scientific value.

  6. There’s an is and ought confusion in your approach. We don’t need religion and theology to help us discover facts, but great many people listen to theologians to inform their values.

    The problem is that these people have something to say about such matters, whether we like it or not. This is also a fact, that they have authority over a lot of people.

  7. Just keep in mind: while Europe was under dirt and plague, Muslims, following real philosophy, disguised as religion, created a clean society. There are humans minds behind everything, and there’s no reason to invalidate something just because the word “religion” is involved. Religious doctrines are also philosophy applied to a social context.

    1. “Religious doctrines are also philosophy applied to a social context”? You mean, philosophies like “women can be divorced by repeating ‘I divorce you’ three times”. Like “homosexuals should be killed”? Like “apostates and atheists should be killed”?

      No thank you, I don’t want anything to do with those tenets, nor with the religion that supports them.”

      And, by the way, Europe is no longer under dirt and plague, and it is only Muslim countries that have the death penalty for blasphemy. What kind of whitewasher are you?

    2. I find it highly unlikely that Muslims had it so good while Europeans were battling plague. This sounds similar to the arguments some make about how wonderful life was before the Enlightenment. Something doesn’t smell right. And what’s a “clean society” anyway?

  8. As always, thanks for a firm but fair evaluation of this strange bedfellows style of encroachment.

    Here, free of charge, could be your response/post next a similar question comes up.

    “Can theology inform ethical issue?”

    “No more so than common sense.”

  9. Unfortunately, the cat is still out of the bag on theologians playing ethicist, especially in bioethics. I dare say that in the light of all the Christian, Jewish and Buddhist theologians who have been doing this for a long time we better be used to the other religions increasingly do this. Should we take them seriously? Not any more than any others.

    BTW, for any of my fellow Ontarians: I believe this is part of the problem with the “Catholic managed” or whatever the proper term is hospitals here.

  10. Islam CRISPR Bioethics Seminar… oh my giddy aunt!
    we will be all over the god believer genes making sure every individual has two copies of each.
    But there are none!
    … we will be all over the god believer genes making sure every individual has two copies of each.

    1. Respect for what? Believing in illusions, many of which are harmful? Sorry, but religions should be treated with either flat-out rejection, sarcasm, humor, or even contempt, depending on the occasion. I “respect” religions no more than I “respect” someone’s belief in Bigfoot. Why should I respect delusional beliefs?

      And don’t tell me what would do me good. I am doing just fine, thank you. I suggest you go over and comment at BioLogos.

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