The Question of Cloning
  • Wed, 01/01/2003
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Today, we are encountering things that our ancestors could not have even imagined. Ideas abound that our forefathers would never have been able to understand. This is all on account of the rapid progress made in our scientific knowledge in the past century. “Allah teaches mankind what they did not know.” [Sûrah al-`Alaq: 5] There has been a revolution in our understanding of biology that began roughly 150 years ago and has given us deep insights into the nature of living things. DNA has been discovered and with it the potential for cloning and genetic engineering.

These advances pose many new and challenging questions for scholars of Islamic Law, questions that need to be dealt with on the basis of the immutable principles set forth in the Qur’ân and Sunnah.

What is Cloning?

Before we can discuss the Islamic legal implications of cloning, we have to have an accurate understanding of what cloning is. There are in fact many types of cloning, but this article will first focus on the most dramatic form – reproductive cloning – before looking into the others.

Reproductive cloning is a process whereby the genetic material from the nucleus of an adult donor cell is transferred to a female reproductive cell of the same species from which the original genetic material of the nucleus has been removed. Cell division is then stimulated by electrical or chemical means and a new embryo is formed. This results in a new organism that is genetically almost identical to the donor. The only difference is the mitochondrial DNA, which comes from the egg cell instead of the donor cell, since it resides in the cytoplasm and not the nucleus.

There are problems inherent to this type of cloning. There are genes that are only active during embryonic development that contain the instructions on how the organism is to be formed. If these genes are damaged, they will result in a dead or unhealthy organism. The problem is that in an adult tissue cell, the genes regulating embryonic development may very well be damaged without harming that cell's viability in the least, since those genes are not necessary for the everyday functioning of that tissue cell. Some scientists believe that this may be one of the causes for the high rates of deformity and death witnessed in cloned animals.

Is Reproductive Cloning an Act of Creation?


There have been scholars who have dismissed cloning as unlawful on the grounds that it is an attempt by man to create a life form on his own – to “play God” so to speak. They argue that this is the very reason that image-making is unlawful, and making an actual living organism is far more serious than making a statue.

This argument demonstrates a misunderstanding of what cloning is. Cloning is merely taking genetic material from one organism created by Allah and transferring it to the female reproductive cell of another. No doubt, the person carrying out the procedure chooses the donor organism he wishes to reproduce, but he does not come up with anything new on his own. He can be compared to an animal breeder who selects which animals he wishes to mate in order to produce the desired offspring, except that in this case, he can choose the exact genetic makeup of the desired organism he wishes to reproduce.

Furthermore, the person doing the cloning cannot create the life that is developing in the womb any more than he could create the original genetic material. Allah is the one who brings all that about, Allah says: “He is the one who shapes you in the wombs as He pleases. There is no God but He, the Mighty, the Wise.” [Sûrah Al `Imrân: 6]

Allah makes it clear that every stage of embryonic development is His direct creation. He says: "Then we paced him as a drop in a firm resting place. Then we made the drop into a congealed clot of blood. Then of that clot we made a lump of flesh. Then we made out of that lump of flesh bones and clothed those bones with flesh. Then we developed out of it another creation. So blessed be Allah, the best of Creators!” [Sûrah al-Muminûn: 13-14]

Since we can dismiss this objection to cloning as untenable, we will turn our attentions to other possible implications cloning has for Islamic Law. We will do so by first looking at the implications of cloning animals. then we shall turn to the trickier question of cloning human beings.

Cloning of Animals

Allah has placed animals in our service. Allah speaks about this in many places in the Qur’ân. He says: “And among the cattle are some for carrying burdens and some that provide wool. Eat of what Allah has provided for you.” [Sûrah al-An`âm: 142]

He says: “And the cattle, He has created them for you. In them is warmth and numerous benefits, and of them you eat. And wherein there is beauty for you when you bring them home in the evening and when you lead them forth to pasture in the morning. And they carry your loads to a land that you could not reach except with great trouble to yourselves. Truly your Lord is Most-Kind, Most-Merciful. And (He created) horses, mules, and donkeys for you to ride and as an adornment. And He creates things of which you have no knowledge” [Sûrah al-Nahl: 5-8]

There really is no objection to cloning animals in principle; any more than there can be an objection to selective breeding. However, animals have rights, and these rights must be taken into consideration in whatever we do with animals, including cloning them.

Mistreatment of animals is a serious sin. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “A woman was consigned to the punishment of Hell because of a cat that she confined until it died. She did not feed it or give it drink, nor did she free it so it could feed on the vermin of the Earth.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim]

Therefore, we can give the following guidelines for the cloning of animals, as proposed by Dr. Sâmî al-Mâjid, professor at the Islamic Law College in Riyâdh:

1. There must be a clear benefit for humanity in cloning the animal. This benefit could be in the way of scientific research or from medical treatments and products derived from the process.

2. Any harm to humanity that might result from cloning the animal must be outweighed by the benefit.

3. No unnecessary harm or suffering should occur for the cloned animal during the course of its life as a result of its being a clone.

This last condition needs to be further elaborated upon. So far, cloning has proven detrimental for the animals that have been cloned. We have already mentioned that cloned animals are highly prone to deformities, disabilities, and early death. These problems might be inherent to cloning itself. It seems that during embryonic development, the activation of certain unstable genes is dependent on which parent the genes come from. Since there are no actual parents for a cloned embryo, this leads to animals whose genes act abnormally. Research on cloned mice has shown that such abnormal gene-expression patterns are not restricted to embryonic development, but continue into adulthood.

If such suffering is inherent for cloned animals, it has to be weighed against the benefits that such cloning brings to humanity. For instance, commercial benefits like enhanced food production, would not be justified in Islamic Law if it means that the animal would have to live its life in pain. Other purposes, like further scientific research, may justify the continued cloning of animals under such conditions, though it will be necessary for those involved in such research to keep the suffering of the subject animals to an absolute minimum.

Cloning of Humans

The human being has a unique position in Islam. Allah says: “Verily, we have honored the children of Adam” [Sûrah al-Isrâ’: 70] For this reason, Islamic Law seeks to preserve the sanctity of human lineage. In fact, lineage is one of the five universal human needs all Islamic legislations seeks to preserve, along with faith, life, reason, and property. This is one of the chief reasons why adultery and fornication are prohibited in Islam. It is the reason why an adopted son must carry the name of his biological father and why a married woman must retain her maiden name.

Allah says: “Call them by the names of their fathers; that is more just with Allah.” [Sûrah al-Ahzab: 5] The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Whoever knowingly claims that someone besides his real father is his father will be forbidden to enter Paradise.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim]

For this reason, it is clear that cloning humans has to be prohibited by Islamic Law. Cloning confuses lineage far more than adultery. In a case of adultery, we cannot be sure of the lineage of the child due to uncertainty about the father. At least we can say with confidence who the mother is and attribute the child to her.

With a clone, we do not have even that. Who is the cloned child’s mother or father? The child is genetically almost identical to the person it was cloned from. It is not the result of a mother and father who each contribute to the child half of its total chromosomal makeup, since only one person contributed the full set of chromosomes. Therefore, as Islam understands the terms mother and father, a cloned child would not have a mother or father. Instead, it would have a single 'nuclear donor’. If a man cloned himself, we could neither call the child his son nor the son of the woman who gave birth to him. The child would most closely resemble his twin brother! However he will not be the man’s brother since he did not come from that man’s parents. The child would be neither his son nor his brother, but an entirely new type of relationship: his clone. This relationship is not and cannot be recognized by Islamic Law. The clone will still be a human being with the rights, dignity, and sacredness of a human being, but he will be a human being without a lineage.

Cloning goes against the wisdom of Allah creating two sexes. Cloning is by definition asexual reproduction. This can cause great harm to sexual beings with the complex genomes that they possess, even if cloning can one day be carried out with perfect success. For one thing, cloning will still rarify the gene pool with all the negative consequences that it brings. For instance, if the original donor is highly susceptible to a certain illness, all the clones will be as well. They will not benefit from the gene shuffling that sexual reproduction provides.

This might, to some extent, be permitted in the case of animals, just like inbreeding is permitted with animals, but it is definitely not allowed in the case of humans. This is one aspect of the wisdom behind the prohibited degrees of marriage in Islamic Law that states that a man cannot marry his sister, his niece, or his aunt.

This goes without mentioning the harmful social repercussions that asexual reproduction could have for society and its potential to destroy the institution of the family.

DNA Cloning (Recombinant DNA Technology)

DNA cloning is also referred to as molecular cloning and gene cloning. This is the process by which a specific fragment of DNA is copied. Often the DNA fragment of interest is placed within a cloning vector – such as a bacterial plasmid – to produce copies of that DNA. In this way sufficient amounts of a given fragment of DNA can be generated for study. Often, the DNA is then transferred to a foreign host cell, like a bacteria cell, a yeast cell, or a mammalian cell.

This form of cloning has been around since the 1970s and is widely used in molecular biology research.

In and of itself, there is no reason to prohibit this type of cloning. Its ruling is contingent on what it is being done to achieve. If DNA cloning is carried out for lawful purposes that can benefit humanity and expand the horizons of knowledge, then it is lawful. If it is employed for evil, then it is prohibited.

Therapeutic Cloning

This is also referred to as embryo cloning. It involves the production of human embryos for medical research. This procedure is not intended to produce cloned human beings, but rather to generate stem cells that can be used to study human development and to treat disease. These eggs are never planted in a womb and are never brought to term. It is hoped that one day, human stem cells may be used as replacement cells in the treatment of such diseases as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.

Stem cells are produced in a fertilized human egg after it has divided for five days and has become as blastocyst. The extraction of these stem cells destroys the embryo. Egg cells need to be collected from women’s ovaries. The nuclear genetic material is then removed from these egg cells. Thereafter an adult tissue cell (like a human skin cell) is inserted in the egg’s nucleus. The egg is then stimulated to initiate cell division.

One day therapeutic cloning might be able to generate tissues and organs for transplants. The DNA would be extracted from the patient needing the transplant and inserted into an egg. After this egg starts to divide, embryonic stem cells would be harvested that could then be transformed into any type of tissue. These stem cells would be used to generate an organ or other tissue that genetically matches the recipient and that could then be transplanted into the patient without the risk of tissue rejection. In the future, this could significantly reduce the need for organ donors. It is important here to mention that such organs would be grown in isolation and not as part of a complete organism.

This procedure brings up the ethical question of the definition of human life. We are dealing with a human embryo. Does this embryo in the first few days of its existence enjoy the rights and the sanctity of a human life?

The majority of scholars permit abortion during the first 120 days of pregnancy out of necessity on the strength of the hadîth: "One of you is brought together in his mother’s womb for forty days as a drop, then likewise as a clot, then likewise as a lump of flesh. Then the angel is sent to him and his soul is breathed into him.” [Sahîh al Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim] Many scholars have drawn from this hadîth the conclusion that the human form is not endowed with a soul until 120 days after conception.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of scholars only allow abortion within this time period when there is a physical or emotional necessity involved, like a high possibility that the baby will be born deformed or in cases where the woman has been raped. Though the soul has not yet been breathed into it, it is still a potential human life. One question that must be asked is whether the potential lives that may be saved in the future warrant destroying a human embryo. The answer to this question, taken in isolation of other considerations, would probably be in the negative.

However, there are other matters to consider. A far more essential question is whether such an embryo can even be said to constitute a potential human life. We can safely say that the unfertilized egg does not constitute a human life. We can also safely say that the process of artificial fertilization that is going on in the laboratory is not being done with the intention of producing a human life. (If it were, it would be prohibited for the reasons we have already discussed in the section on human cloning.) We must also consider the fact that even if the embryo were not destroyed by the extraction of the stem cells; it would have no chance of survival on its own, since it is not in a womb or even in an artificial environment that could bring it to term. Finally, the time of its destruction is very early on in its development – five days. This is an extremely short period of time.

Because of these differences, and in consideration of the benefits that could be realized for humanity from this procedure, we incline to the idea that therapeutic cloning of this sort is permissible. However, these questions warrant further investigation.

Dr. Sâmî al-Mâjid offers the following statement about therapeutic cloning:

If the meaning of this procedure is to produce fully cloned adults, children, or even a fetus so that its organs can be used as substitutes for another, then this is categorically prohibited. The reason for this is that we are dealing with a human life created by Allah, even though it is a clone. Its limbs and organs cannot be put on the market – even if it is still a fetus – since it is sacred. However, if it is possible to clone specific organs in isolation, like a heart or a liver or a kidney to be provided to those who need such organs, then this is something welcomed by our religion and worthy of reward, because of the benefits that it brings to humanity without bringing harm to anyone.

One final objection that is sometimes raised for all unnecessary medical procedures involving human reproductive cells, is that they require the exposure of the female sexual organs to a doctor without there being a pressing medical necessity for the woman being exposed. This objection has been levied by a few scholars against a host of medical procedures – like in-vitro fertilization – that are not critical to the health of the patient. However, considering the real and potential benefits to humanity from this research, we maintain that such an objection should not be used to prohibit therapeutic cloning, even for those scholars who prohibit fertility treatments on these grounds.

And Allah knows best.