N THE FIELD OF GENETIC ENGINEERING, it has today become possible to change certain features of life. But in the age when the following verse was revealed, no one could imagine such a thing in his wildest fancy. Below is the relevant verse and its translation:
... And he (Satan) said, 'I will assuredly take a fixed portion from Thy servants;
'And assuredly I will lead them astray and assuredly I will excite in them vain desires, and assuredly I will incite them and they will cut the ears of cattle...' 1
The idea of mutilation of animals by chopping off their tails or slitting their ears is not what is meant here by the Quran. It simply refers to the common practice among the Arabs in pre-Islamic times to make incisions in the ears of animals marked for sacrifice to various gods. However, what follows in the same verse is of a far more dramatic and revolutionary nature. The verse ends by attributing to Satan another malevolent intention, to incite mankind to bring about changes in the pattern of God's creation. The verse continues:
... 'and assuredly I will incite them and they will effect a change in the creation of Allah.' And he who takes Satan as a friend besides Allah has certainly suffered a manifest loss. 2
The possibility of changing the nature of God's creation was not an idea that people of earlier times could have entertained. Clearly the verse is speaking of possibilities that had not yet dawned on the horizon of earlier eras. To inflict superficial injuries or to make small changes, through incisions for example, is quite a simple process and lies within the reach of man of all ages. However, the possibility of man bringing about substantial changes in God's creation has always been beyond the reach of human imagination, prior to the most recent times. The addition of genetic engineering as a new branch of scientific study is only a decade or two old. Yet this branch of science is moving rapidly to the stage against which a clear warning had been delivered by the Quran fourteen hundred years ago. Man has already started interfering with the plan of creation and to some measure has succeeded in altering the forms of life at the level of bacteria, insects etc. A few steps further and it may spell disaster. Some scientists have already started sounding the alarm. But unfortunately, to reverse the wheel of experimentation in this field already seems to be beyond their power.
Scholars are divided in two camps regarding the very ethics of genetic engineering. Some are throwing up their hands in alarm, whilst others argue that we should develop this field to its fullest extent so that we may discover the secrets of creation. They believe that technological developments in this field will brighten the future of man.
In America the debates are ferociously raging between the two camps which approve or disapprove of genetic engineering. Some legal suits and litigations against the unrestricted experiments of genetic engineering are pending in the courts of the United States. It is argued that already the experiments have defied the scientific expectations of what should have resulted from the transfer of genes from one species to another. In some cases the deviation from the expected course is surprisingly greater than even the sceptics could suspect. Until now, however, things have not gone completely out of hand. The experiments carried out on certain strains of bacteria and crops are proving beneficial for enhancing agricultural produce and protecting it from certain diseases. But it is far too early indeed to exult in these small transient gains.
What ultimate effects the new synthetic strains or altered species will have on the ecology in the future, cannot be assessed until the behaviour of the altered strains is closely and minutely monitored for a few successive generations. The danger of the disaster which they may spell is, however, real and substantial. If not strictly monitored, injudicious experimentation with genetic engineering could let loose some unpredictable form of life which may defy human control. The certainty with which the Quran has warned against the punishment of meddling with the creation of God bodes ill for the future of life on earth. Allah knows best if man will ever cease to play God. Can any measure, short of extinction, teach him the lesson in humility?
T IS WRONG however to infer that this verse condemns all possible usage of genetic engineering. Any branch of science which is pressed into the service of His creation and employed to protect, rather than change it, is certainly not discouraged. If for instance genetic engineering is employed to correct faults in genetic codes caused by accidents, this can in no way be dubbed as interference with the Divine scheme of things. Again, if damage to genetic codes by disease or imprudent medication is attempted to be corrected through genetic engineering, this is certainly not what is condemned in the above verse.
All said and done, it cannot be overemphasized that scientists should not be given a free hand to trifle with the grand scheme of Divine Creation. They must thank their lucky stars if grave accidents have not already happened. They will have none to thank but themselves if they do. We do hope that the world governments will keep a strict watch over the trends and scope of experimentation in the field of genetic engineering. What hangs in the balance is the honour and dignity of the human species within the animal kingdom. We do hope and pray that mankind will be spared the torment of haplessly watching the day when it will be mastered by the synthetic slaves of its own creation.
- Translation of 4:119–120 by Maulawi Sher Ali. (Note: The word 'Satan' in brackets has been added by the author).
- Translation of 4:120 by the author.