Bioethics in Islam: Principles, Perspectives, Comparisons

An important questions in Islam, recurrent across time and space, is whether Islamic political theory recognizes rights claims against the state as distinct from rights claims against other members of the community. This continues to be an important subject today, intersecting the fields of law, religion, and moral philosophy. The classical tradition is divided on the matter, with the legal theory of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence saying that rights are to be accorded viareligious authority, while the Hanafi school emphasized the universality of the notion of human inviolability (dhimma)—and the innate rights that derive from it—as God-given, universal, and applicable to all societies from the beginning of time.

Whereas in Western law there is generally a separation between law and ethics, in the Islamic tradition, there is more of a dialectical tension between the two: Where religious inwardness is more highly developed, attitude and intention are weighed more heavily, whereas in its absence however formalism and legalism are advanced as the ethical ideal.

Any analysis of ethics in Islam certainly should consider the masterful work of Toshihiko Izutsu (2002). His point of departure is largely grounded in a scientific rather than religious method and thus his work is an important and innovative contribution to the study of theology in Islam. In his seminal Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an (2002), Izutsu employs a systematic linguistic analysis of key ethical concepts in the Qur’an and examines their “semantic fields.” He then traces the evolution of these ethical concepts by juxtaposing them with the historical and cultural background out of which the Qur’an emerged. Izutsu maintains that the Qur’an has “no fully developed system of abstract concepts of good and evil” (2002, 203). Instead, it operates in very concrete terms whereby “good” and “bad” come to be equated with belief (iman) and disbelief (kufr)—and each is surrounded by a host of related concepts which constitute the Weltanschauung of Qur’anic ethics.

Another one of the more relevant works of late to establish the importance of the Islamic tradition in addressing moral thought is George Hourani’s Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics. Like Izutsu, Hourani is unique in his method insofar as his work departs from the normal orientalist or historiographical treatments and instead focused on the logocentric forms of Islam vis-à-vis ethical formulations and theories of philosophers and theologians. Contra historians and jurists, Hourani is analyzing traditional Islamic ethics from the point of view of modern Western ethical theory. As such, he does not hold to the pre-modern distinction of categories between moral virtues (akhlaq) and religious law (sharia). He defines Islamic ethics more broadly not just as that which relates to character, but also any kind of prescription encompassing the public and private domains as related to practical activity.

When considering religion and culture from a comparative perspective, the question about claim to truth or universality, or about the nature of morality, often arises. Moral issues approached anthropologically or historically suggests that there are multiple possible wisdoms or ways to arrive at a single truth. Knowledge is transmitted through local worlds of families, networks, tribal structures and affiliations—all of which have something very important to impart on morality and the ethical life—and Islam is no different in this respect, having its own rich history and deeply ingrained concept of what constitutes morality and the basis of ethical reasoning. It is thus particularly interesting to examine the links between religious and secular notions of, inter alia, human dignity when considering comparative law, bioethics, and modern discourses on human rights.

Talal Asad offers important tools of critique for problematizing the secular-religious divide and argues that religion as a historical category is often used to justify liberal politics. On the social constructs of religion and privileging of the “universal” over the “local,” he writes: “Saudi theologians who invoke the authority of medieval Islamic texts are taken to be local; Western writers who invoke the authority of modern secular literature claim they are universal. Yet both are located in universes that have rules for inclusion and exclusion” (1993, 8). The same may be said about law and religion vis-à-vis their position in the cultural imagination or as an authoritative voice in society with respect to medical research and bioethics.

As I pursue my research, central to my thesis is that bioethics will play a significant role in the revival of the dialectic between the secular intelligentsia and religious authority. I argue that this relationship is important because the discourse between the two, although often presented as anathema, is not necessarily antithetical. While there is undoubtedly disagreement, the fact that this occurs on the level of category is significant. Do religious versions of bioethics differ dramatically from secular-legal accounts? Or is there an “overlapping consensus”—to borrow Rawl’s famous phrase—on the level of ethical doctrine amongst religious and secular communities alike? The controversy of bioethics in Islam mirrors the current Western discourse on several issues such as stem-cell research and cloning in similar respects; however, a major difference is whereas contrasting opinions in the West play out in the public sphere and often in the parlance of liberalism and with an eye toward legality—with both sides making a claim to a moral argument—the Sunni Islamic tradition derives its ethical and legal norms from first principles and from a highly cogent and developed jurisprudence comprised of theology and legal theory, as articulated historically by the four major juridical schools. That is to say, debate on the issue necessarily involves deep thinking and moral reasoning precisely at the intersection of law, religion, and ethics.

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