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The Saudi investor had to decide whether to put money into the American company that had invited him to view its experiments. This wasn't a political matter, even though after September 11, many Saudi businessmen were uneasy about their investments in the United States. The American government's pursuit of bank accounts linked to Al Qaeda had already caused significant financial damage to Arab investors who had no ties to the organization.

But this time, the decision hinged on other considerations. The company was seeking funding for experiments that genetically alter a natural food product so it may be used as an anti-typhus drug. The Saudi businessman wanted to know if such an investment would be acceptable from the religious standpoint, since it involved a tampering with God's creations.

The four leading companies developing projects that involve genetic engineering are Monsanto, Novartis, Dupont and Hoechst. Three are now under examination by the Islamic Council, which will rule on the propriety of investing in their stocks. The tremendous potential benefits of cloning and genetic engineering are not at issue. What concerns the Islamic scholars are the moral questions involved. For now, the consensus among Islamic religious institutions is that cloning and genetic engineering are permissible, as long as the subjects are not human beings.

Cloning was discussed at a 1997 conference in Jiddah. At issue was whether the cloning process constitutes an encroachment on the status of Allah as the creator of the world. The conclusion was that while Allah was indeed the Creator, His creation included cause and effect. In other words, when a person plants a seed in the ground, that is the cause, but whether the plant sprouts and blooms is up to Allah. Hence, cloning is viewed as the cause, while the effect is controlled by Allah.

Get thee a mufti

Islamic religious scholars are increasingly being asked to give answers regarding the compatibility of major scientific developments with accepted religious practice. Special councils that examine the religious legal aspects of such matters exist in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the United States and a number of European countries. Each such body has the authority to issue its own interpretation, which every believer is then welcome to accept. Islam has no institution similar to the papacy. There is no single figure whose edicts are to be adhered to by the entire Muslim world, and from which any deviation would be tantamount to straying from the faith. As in Judaism, in Islam the rule of thumb is "Get thee a rabbi" (or mufti, as the case may be). Individual Muslim believers may accept the rulings of religious arbiters anywhere and are not obligated to follow the prescriptions of a religious arbiter in their own country. Hence, an Egyptian believer can use the Internet or place a phone call live to one of the Arab satellite stations to pose a question to a religious arbiter and receive an answer on the spot. If he isn't pleased with the answer, he can turn to another arbiter, as long as the latter is recognized as an adherent of an orthodox school of thought.

The situation is different when it comes to a ruling from which national legislation will arise. For instance, when the Egyptian government wishes to enact legislation pertaining to the status of women, it must consult with the Al Azhar Research Institute and obtain its approval for the proposed legislation. The new law will be enacted by the parliament, a civil institution, but it will derive its authority from religion - as represented by Egyptian scholars and not some random arbiter. The same holds true for legislation pertaining to medicine or genetic engineering; before becoming national law that applies to hospitals or research institutions, it must first go through a similar process of obtaining religious approval.

One complex question is whether artificial insemination is permissible. On an Internet site that provides Islamic legal answers to medical questions, Dr. Imran Sidiqi, a geneticist, explains Islam's position on everything pertaining to artificial insemination. He says that, according to Islam, the procedure is permissible, on condition that the fertilized egg is implanted in the womb of the woman from which it was harvested and not in the womb of a surrogate. The insemination must be from the sperm of the woman's legal husband during the time of their marriage, not after a divorce or following the husband's death.

But this is just the beginning. A further question is what should be done with the surplus fetuses produced, in some less sophisticated techniques, from the eggs of a woman who wished to become pregnant. Once a successful pregnancy is established, the surplus fetuses that began life in the laboratory were normally destroyed. To this query, Sidiqi responds that one must look at the basic question of when a pregnancy is judged to have occurred as well as what constitutes abortion. He explains that Islamic law says that a pregnancy is not fully recognized until 40 days after conception. As proof, he cites the Islamic penal code that says that if a man attacks a pregnant woman, causing the miscarriage of her fetus, his punishment shall be less severe if he did so while she was in this initial period of pregnancy.

Another question arising from artificial insemination is whether it is permissible to use a surplus fetus for research purposes, if such research could save human life. "Unlike the Christian attitude, our answer is that, in the initial period of pregnancy, even if the fetus was created in the laboratory, it is not considered a human being," says Sidiqi. "If it is not placed in the woman's womb, it will not be able to grow and thus it will not develop into a human being. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with performing research on fetuses."

Sound as it may be, this answer is still not sufficiently comprehensive, because artificial insemination entails social issues as well. One Internet arbiter says that a woman is permitted to carry another woman's egg that has been fertilized by her husband's sperm. But the arbiter does not have a clear answer to the question of to whom the baby belongs - the husband or the egg donor. "Caution should be used in such cases," he urges.

One questioner wishes to explore another possible angle: What happens if the sperm is taken from a man in order to inseminate his wife, but then the husband dies before the procedure is performed and the insemination is done after his death? The answer: "The child shall be ascribed to the sperm donor (he will carry the father's name), but he will not be his heir, and Allah knows best."

The vastness of modern scientific knowledge and the rapid pace of new developments have led faithful Muslims to inundate religious legal arbiters with questions, especially those arbiters who are able to provide quick answers via the Internet. For example, one questioner wrote: "I have recently become aware that science can determine paternity on the basis of genetic testing of blood from the child and the father. What happens if the father suspects that his wife cheated on him with another man and a genetic test proves that the child is actually the son of the other man? Should one behave in accordance with this information or according to the laws of the shari'a (Islamic legal code), which say, `The child belongs to the marriage bed'"?

The answer: "The rule that says `the child belongs to the marriage bed,' i.e., to the legal parents, is intended for those who are unsure of the child's paternity. If, via a blood test or other means, a person acquires information that leads him to a conclusion at variance with this rule, he must act upon it. But the woman's adultery cannot be proven this way nor shall she be subjected to the penalty for adultery unless her adultery is proven according to the rules set down by the shari'a."

Infringement of man's superiority

The greatest difficulty in making modern religious rulings lies in finding a reasonable compromise between the words of the Prophet Mohammed (whose teachings sometimes appear to be contradictory), or the oral tradition that was subsequently created, and the new scientific and technological reality. One example of how challenging this can be is the issue of organ transplants. The Prophet declared that the breaking of a dead person's bones is akin to the breaking of a live person's bones. However, the Prophet also says that saving a single life is akin to saving an entire world. A possible compromise found by arbiters in Egypt is that organ transplants shall be permitted only if done in God's name - in order to save His creatures - and on condition that it is done voluntarily.

This compromise was even accepted in Saudi Arabia, where King Fahd publicly congratulated the heads of the Saudi health services on the occasion of the one thousandth kidney transplant. But, according to the interpretation of the more extreme sages, such as those at Albinura University in Karachi, Pakistan, organ transplants are forbidden for three reasons. The first: "Allah created the world to benefit mankind. Man can use any divine creation - such as minerals, animals and plants - for his benefit. But not other human beings, since that would constitute an infringement of man's superiority."

The second reason is that man is the perfect example of God's expertise. "The human body is equipped with a computer-like machine and with senses like sight, hearing and speech. Modern science cannot, either now or in the future, produce something similar. The senses were given to man in trust." In other words, man does not own his organs, hence he does not have the authority to give them to someone else.

The third reason relates to the concern that if organ transplantation were permitted, it could spawn a trade in human organs in which the poor would seek to sell their organs to earn money. Consequently, many poor people would be buried without certain organs. Another worry is that murders would increase as the incentive to collect human organs grew.

This position is among the most extreme to be found in Islamic jurisprudence; it derives from the most radical branch of Wahabi thought. Albinura University, where it originated, "educated" many students who went on to become terrorists in Kashmir. Yet the university rector's opposition to scientific innovations did not prevent him from approving the construction of an Internet home page for the institution or the opening of a new branch in the United States.

"The dilemma of innovations in religion is not just a religious issue," explains a Turkish cleric who works in his country's civil service. "Religion is connected to the political entity that exists in each country. Here, in Turkey, it's the government that determines the limits of religion and therefore, there is hardly any problem in adopting technological innovations in genetics or organ transplants. In Egypt, the situation is different. The public is much more religious and the regime has to cope with radical Islamic organizations. Therefore, it cannot deviate too much from accepted religious doctrine. Lebanon is hardly interested in creating a state religious doctrine, while in Saudi Arabia, the only way innovations can be adopted is through religion. On top of all that, we now have the Internet, a major innovation itself, which is depriving local clerics of their monopoly on legal interpretations. Now you can go choose your religious authority and, depending what he says, you'll know if Islam is renewing itself or moving backward."