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Sharīʿah, Family Structure, and Genetic Technologies

Ayman Shabana
Georgetown University in Qatar
Editor, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics

Since the emergence of various applications of modern genetic and reproductive technologies, ethicists worldwide, both religious and secular, have grappled with the moral quandaries that these advancements engender. Within the Muslim context, responses have come mainly from Muslim jurists, reflecting the continued influence of sharīʿah on the definition of Islamic normativity. The Islamic legal corpus includes detailed regulations on various aspects of family affairs, which continue to inform related legislation in most Muslim-majority countries. With the development of biomedical technology, however, Muslim jurists have been forced to revisit certain legal opinions and doctrines that were based mainly on pre-modern medical knowledge.

One of the earliest examples is the ruling which pertains to the maximum duration of a viable pregnancy. In the modern period it has been fixed to a single year instead of the extended periods that classical jurists accommodated in order to preserve, to the extent possible, the sanctity of marriage and the reputation of married women. It is important to keep in mind that legal integration of technical applications or revision of legal opinions and doctrines in light of scientific advances remains subject to a process of negotiation that often requires extensive deliberation and scrutiny by both legal and scientific experts within a particular social and cultural context. Some of the main issues at the intersection of genetic and reproductive technologies that demonstrate this process of deliberation include premarital genetic testing, fetal sex selection, and germline genetic modification. These examples show the extent to which these applications affect not only existing family relationships, but also future or prospective ones as well.

Islamic Law and Medical Suitability for Marriage

Contemporary juristic deliberations on pre-marital genetic testing are often placed within the context of classical juristic discussions concerning health and their role in either facilitating the conclusion of marriage or warranting its termination. This includes different rules, principles, and general injunctions that aim to prevent diseases or to encourage their treatment. For example, this would cover criteria for the choice of marital partners, pronouncements on guarding against diseases, and health-related defects sanctioning the dissolution of a marriage.

With few exceptions, contemporary jurists do not oppose pre-marital genetic testing, but they disagree, however, on the extent to which it can be enforced. In general, scholars can be divided into two main groups: those who argue for the enforcement of pre-marital genetic testing and those who argue that it should remain optional. Jurists who argue for enforceability emphasize physical fitness as an important condition for the ideal objectives of marriage, which include sexual gratification and emotional fulfillment. They also emphasize the right of progeny to a healthy life, which involves protecting them against harmful or dysfunctional genes. Jurists who argue for optionality, on the other hand, link their attitude to the question of medical treatment in general, which according to this line of reasoning is considered permissible rather than obligatory.

Supporters of the enforcement model point out the importance of exercising discretion when it comes to the choice (takhayyur) of the marital partner, as indicated in several Prophetic reports. These injunctions on the proper selection of marriage partners can lend support to pre-marital genetic testing, which would equip prospective couples with valuable information regarding their own health as well as the health of their children. In this regard, statements against consanguineous marriages (marriage between closely related people) are read in light of modern biomedical findings linking such marriages with increased likelihood for genetic disorders in the second generation. With regard to physical health, supporters of this attitude highlight the importance of guarding against all types of diseases, whether by contagion or any other means.

While supporters of enforceability emphasize the reproductive function of marriage, supporters of the optionality of genetic testing insist that procreation is not the sole objective of marriage. They also discuss other objectives, such as lawful fulfilment of sexual desire, as well as the establishment of loving and healthy cohabitation. Similarly, while they do not question the considerable advantages of genetic testing, they also emphasize its limitations. After all, genetic testing does not by itself involve any therapeutic value, as all it does is reveal existing, latent, or potential risks. Some question its utility in cases of incurable conditions, noting that negative results in genetic testing do not necessarily mean that the tested individuals are free from genetic diseases in general, but only from the particular genetic diseases for which they are tested. Apart from the immediate and direct disadvantages that it may involve, genetic testing can also result in several adverse moral, legal, and economic consequences that may affect not only the person being tested but also other members of the family. For example, supporters of optionality argue that enforcing genetic testing would open the door for corruption in cases in which someone wants to obtain a certificate without being tested. Moreover, they denounce general condemnation of consanguineous marriage, as the percentage of genetic disorders that can be linked directly and exclusively to this type of marriage can hardly be determined beyond any doubt. Even in the case of genetic disorders, the role of the environment as well as other causal factors cannot be excluded. After all, the Qurʾān includes references to marriage with first cousins (33:50).

Due to the increasing significance of pre-marital testing in general and genetic testing in particular, such tests have often been incorporated within family law legislation throughout Muslim-majority countries. However, while some countries make them compulsory, such as Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, and Qatar, others keep them only optional.

Islamic Reproductive Ethics and Boundaries of Genetic Intervention: The Case of Fetal Sex Selection

One of the options that a couple may explore after preimplantation genetic screening (PGS) is fetal sex selection, particularly when a genetic disorder is associated with one sex more than the other. In this case, the technique is proposed as a therapeutic procedure rather than an exercise of preference for a particular sex over the other. Apart from the technical possibility of the procedure, fetal sex selection often raises two main theological questions: potential conflict with God’s will, and potential risk of unsettling the balance of male and female distribution. The first question emanates from several scriptural sources indicating that knowledge of embryonic life belongs solely to God (e.g 3:3 and 31:34). These scriptural references imply that divine knowledge controls one’s sex during the early stages of embryonic life.

In general, juristic opinions on this issue reveal three main orientations, which could be termed as liberal, restrictive, and intermediary. The liberal orientation emphasizes the religious merit of discovering the secrets of the universe, which is the explicit goal of science. Ultimately, this search for the hidden secrets of the universe cannot escape divine knowledge, which remains a matter of theological belief. Moreover, human ability to control fetal sex cannot escape God’s will or command. As much as human knowledge is facilitated by divine knowledge, so also is human will, which is facilitated by the divine will.

On the other hand, a more restrictive orientation is expressed by those who are concerned about the use of this technology to facilitate aborting female fetuses. This technology, therefore, raises the risk of facilitating modern forms of female infanticide (mawʾūdah), in comparison to the pre-Islamic Arabian practice. Accordingly, Islam’s attitude on this issue should be total rejection of technical intervention in fetal sex selection. Any form of explicit or implicit bias against women would conflict with the original spirit of Islamic legislation and should therefore be condemned, whether before or after birth.

This exchange of views shows that one of the main grounds for disagreement between proponents of the restrictive and liberal orientations is whether fetal sex selection is fundamentally a theological or merely a legal-jurisprudential question. While the former emphasizes the theological implications of the issue, the latter insists that this should be pursued as a regular legal-jurisprudential question. Between these two main orientations, a third attitude urges caution and advises against rushing into premature conclusions. Proponents of this attitude note that more time is needed in order to be able to judge on the basis of actual results in the real world.

In general, juristic opinions on the use of technical means to achieve fetal sex selection can be divided into three main attitudes: permissibility as long as there is a justified psychological, social, or medical need; total prohibition; and restricted permissibility in cases of necessity for therapeutic purposes only.

Between Genetic Intervention and Genetic Enhancement: The Case of Germline Modification

Because of its impact on the constitution of future offspring, germline genetic modification often invokes religious reservations associated with the notion of changing God’s creation. The term “germline modification” typically refers to changes that affect germ cells, such as those within the egg or sperm, which therefore become inheritable by impacting prospective children. Similar to procedures such as reproductive cloning, germline genetic modification raises serious concerns about the potential impact on the structure of the family as well as the larger social order in the future. Although these procedures have not yet been tested in humans, many researchers argue that it may only be a matter of time.

Muslim discussions on these questions often address potential scenarios and associated ethical-legal implications, as well as guidelines that should govern research in this area. From a theological perspective, germline genetic modification inspires discussions on the concept of creation (khalq) and whether such genetic intervention can challenge the exclusive attribution of this act to God. In general, contributions by Muslim scholars emphasize the Islamic conception of creation as a divine act. This becomes clear in juristic discussions on issues such as reproductive cloning and surrogacy. From an ethical-legal perspective, genetic modification raises the question of guardianship and the boundaries of prospective parents’ authority over their prospective children. In other words, would parental guardianship in this case include the ability of parents to manipulate the genetic structure of future children? Would such authority ultimately have implications on the identity of these children and their character? And to what extent would it change the perception of prospective children as unique and idiosyncratic individuals, rather than another type of consumer good? In light of these questions, jurists also emphasize the distinction between a preventive or therapeutic intervention, which is seen as warranted and permitted, and a non-therapeutic intervention, considered unwarranted and unpermitted. From a social perspective, genetic modification raises several issues pertaining to social justice and accessibility. If such an option becomes available, critics argue, it would widen the gap between those who can afford it and those who cannot. Moreover, in the long run, enhancement, or at least certain types of it, may even become a standard procedure for the economically privileged, which would further disadvantage poorer segments of the society. The most concrete social implication that many participants raise is the risk of rejuvenating eugenic tendencies and the impact this may have on the definition of what is normal or average, let alone broader attitudes toward disability and disabled persons.

Structure of the Family between Genetic Determinism and Genetic Manipulation

The above analysis shows the power of genetic technology and its various applications in influencing both existing and prospective family relationships. Such power is expected only to increase in the future, thereby necessitating careful moral evaluation of the various applications. Within the Muslim context, the process of moral assessment is highly dependent on the Islamic normative framework, which is often dominated by juristic pronouncements in the form of fatwas. The examples explored in this essay, however, reveal the theological vision underlying these discourses. Any systematic effort to answer the questions that genetic technology raises would, therefore, need to address the theological assumptions associated with issues such as divine creation, human nature, original disposition, and also scope of human freedom. Moral assessment of the various genetic applications involves meticulous balancing of their anticipated benefits against their potential harms. At this stage of scientific research, genetic testing offers remarkable diagnostic advantages with only limited therapeutic options. The unprecedented diagnostic power of genetic testing is sometimes invoked to support arguments promoting genetic essentialism, determinism, or reductionism, which often ignore environmental as well as other types of factors. On the other hand, genetic applications can enable greater levels of intervention and manipulation of living organisms, as the above discussions concerning impact on prospective family members illustrate. As much as genetic technology continues to evolve, resulting in ever-increasing applications and capabilities, Muslim discourses seek to keep up with these developments by offering at least tentative assessments, most notably as a result of collective deliberations within transnational institutions. Judging from the sizeable volume of publications citing these deliberations (mostly in Arabic), this cumulative body of moral insights would be indispensable for exploring Islamic perspectives on these new questions.

Already, certain broad lines can be identified in the available literature. For example, on the issue of premarital genetic testing, Muslim scholars are unanimous on the importance of educating the public and raising awareness about this procedure, especially in places where consanguineous marriage is a common practice. Jurists, however, are divided on whether it should be enforced, but even those who argue for its enforceability insist that this should not impact prospective couples’ decision to proceed with marriage even in the event of positive results. With regard to fetal sex selection, most jurists approve of it for medical purposes. They disagree, however, when the procedure is undertaken for family balancing. Finally, with regard to germline genetic modification, another distinction is made between preventive, therapeutic intervention and non-therapeutic enhancement. A near consensus exists on the permissibility of the former case only.

Ayman Shabana is the editor in chief of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics, which is being published first on Oxford Islamic Studies Online. You can find a full table of contents here. This article is adapted from "Transformation of the Concept of the Family in the wake of Genomic Sequencing: An Islamic Perspective." In Islamic Ethics and the Genome Question, edited by Mohammed Ghaly, 80-110. Leiden: Brill, 2019.

Further Reading

Al-Bar, Mohammed Ali, and Hassan Chamsi-Pasha. Contemporary Bioethics: Islamic Perspective. New York: Springer 2015.

Inhorn, Marcia C., and Soraya Tremayne, eds. Islam and Assisted Reproductive Technologies, Sunni and Shia Perspectives. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.

Sachedina, Abdulaziz. Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Principles and Application. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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