Despite what some, particularly the New Atheists, might argue, Islam is by no means a religion that is opposed to science.
Setting aside Islam’s intellectual history, which boasts many great pioneers of science, as well as contemporary examples of Muslim scientists, one can find directly in the Quran commandments to seek knowledge: “Are those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge alike? Only those of understanding are mindful” (Quran 39:9). However, the Muslim scientists’ profession is seen as an extension of her or his beliefs, and as such, will be governed by certain principles. God-consciousness should envelop them, a taqwa that will have them asking fundamental questions about what they are doing, what they hope to achieve, what the impacts of their research might be, and whether or not it will ultimately benefit their fellow human beings.
While both the Islamic and secular scientist will point to their ethical values, these values can diverge and even contradict each other; perhaps this is unsurprising given that Muslims derive their ethical values from revelation. However, it is not simply on ethics that the two worldviews differ. The Muslim worldview is drawn from revelation which contains a narrative that describes the purpose of life, and also elaborates on the meaning behind human limitations. As transhumanists do not use the Quran as a reference point, it is only natural that they would view the world in a significantly different manner.
It is therefore unsurprising to find that the Muslim differing in several key aspects from the secular scientist when it comes to transhumanism. Transhumanism represents humanity’s most elaborate attempt to create a new reality for our being; it is befitting that such a monumental change would in certain areas sit at odds with those who believe in a heedful Creator.
Do Not Transgress The Balance
One of the most pertinent Quranic verses relevant to this discussion is found in Surah Al-Rahman, “And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance. That you not transgress within the balance. And establish weight in justice and do not make deficient the balance” (Quran 55:7-9). While these verses have traditionally been understood to be in reference to the balance of justice (Al-Jalalayn, Ibn Kathir, Maududi), some contemporary authors have extended their application to a balance within nature and its laws.
Of course, the two meanings are not mutually exclusive, and might even be seen as complementary. This verse is particularly relevant to transhumanism when it comes to genetic interventions, as through such interventions we may irreparably undo a delicate balance that exists within nature. We cannot simply dismiss this line of argument as bioconservative fearmongering as the effects of imbalance created by humans are all around us, from global warming, to extinction of animal species at an unprecedented rate, to diminishing natural resources. While much attention goes to fossil fuels, we are now hearing more and more about the impending scarcity of even more crucial resources such as water, and perhaps not too long from now, clean air. Many of these developing crises were at some level initiated by scientific investigations for which scientists had not adequately considered all the consequences. These investigations moved forward before the complete picture could be understood, and by the time the dangers were discovered, much damage had already been done. “And when they are told, ‘Do not spread corruption on earth,’ they answer, ‘We are but improving things!’ Oh, verily, it is they who are spreading corruption but they perceive it not.” (Quran 2:12-13). Playing with human genes is an enormous step into something that might not be fully understood. Errors at this level could lead to catastrophic fallout. Perhaps what is most interesting in these verses is the commandment to “not make deficient the balance.” This verse suggests that human beings will reach a stage where they can upset the balance; we certainly seem to be in the midst of that stage.
Reflecting further upon the idea of transgressing the balance, two main themes can be identified as relevant. One of these relates to the ill effects of transgressing the balance. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) used as foods are now becoming more common. GMO processes are based on some of the same principles of transhumanist thought, such as the need to improve creation by way of genetic intervention. While this topic is much too broad and deep to be covered within the bounds of this paper, the point that can be made is that the jury is still out on whether GMO foods are harmless
or toxic. Studies have linked GMOs to a range of ailments, including blood toxins,
and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children.
It would be premature to delve into genetically modifying humans, when we have yet to get a grasp on the effects of genetically modified plants and animals. On this level, the warning found in the Quran could be seen as stemming from a sense of protecting our world and ourselves.
It could further be argued that these Quranic verses go beyond a warning of the harms that might come from transgressing the balance; these verses could also be seen as a call to intellectual responsibility and humility. The entire philosophy of transhumanism is predicated on the aspiration for superhuman prowess, deifying the human race, and attaining ascendancy. It involves a worship of our future selves. Additionally, there is an underlying irrational assumption that a limited biological organism can achieve limitless conquest in comprehending matters of the universe and subjecting them to our will. Humanity can reach the heights of being able to transgress the balance, while simultaneously possessing the free will to be able to choose to do so. European fiction is littered with characters who transgressed this balance, from Victor Frankenstein and his ill-thought-out scientific endeavors, to Icarus and his unquenchable drive for more. In the Quranic story of Pharaoh and Haman, we see a similar drive to attain supremacy and engage in self-aggrandizement and self-deification:
Pharaoh said: “O Chiefs! No God do I know for you but myself: therefore, O Haman! Light me a (kiln to bake bricks) out of clay, and build me a lofty palace, that I may mount up to the God of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!” (Quran 28:38)
The story of the Prophet Moses and Pharaoh is one of the most frequently recurring stories in the Quran. The Pharaoh can be seen as representing an archetype of the worst type of ruler, using his power to inflict misery on his people, discriminatory, delusional, power-hungry, and narcissistic. The Quranic Pharaoh had indeed transgressed many boundaries; therefore, Moses was commanded to, “Go to Pharaoh. Indeed, he has transgressed” (Quran 20:24).
This particular transgression seems to have been born from his delusional desire to conquer the Divine; Pharaoh said, "I am your Lord, Most High" (Quran 79:24) perhaps due in part to a narcissistic drive. In this account we are given insight in the heart and mind of this despotic ruler. Pharaoh attempted to use the crafts of his age to gain power over what lay before him, and the ancient Egyptians were master builders. We see here a false belief that by way of his craft, Pharaoh believed he could conquer the Heavens, and assume divinity himself. The fate of Pharaoh within the Islamic narrative is well known, and continues to serve as a stark warning to those who pursue the delusion of self-deification.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared—on the lips of his famous protagonist Zarathustra—that human beings should embrace their own self-sufficiency as an Ubermensch
(super-man), declaring the death of God.
But does a declaration of independence from God empower the human being or shackle him to his own delusional pursuit for greatness and conquest? Human beings come together on a basis of mutual cooperation and filling each other's needs, thus establishing norms for social conduct. Perhaps the most dangerous men in human history have been those who thought they needed no one.
The Qur’anic story of Pharaoh provides a key reminder of this lesson.
Another verse from the Quran serves as an even more direct warning against the potential dangers of transhumanism, with Iblis saying:
“I will mislead them, and I will create in them false desires; I will order them to slit the ears of cattle, and to deface the (fair) nature created by Allah…”
And the verse continues:
“...Whoever, forsaking Allah, takes Satan for a friend, hath of a surety suffered a loss that is manifest.” (Quran 4:119)
Here we are warned against defacing the nature of creation. There is a discussion to be had here: does transhumanism represent a defacing or a correction of creation? Amongst Islamic scholarship, the use of corrective procedures and prosthetics that are used to correct a defect are generally encouraged, given the narration of a companion who the Prophet ﷺ instructed to obtain a nose made out of gold after his nose was cut off in battle.
Contemporary scholars have ruled positively on the permissibility of having corrective laser eye surgery.
The key difference between corrective and transhumanist procedures may lie in their objectives; where surgical procedures attempt to correct something that has gone wrong (due to the presence of a biological abnormality, injury, defect, or illness), the transhumanist goal is to improve what is seen as a “half-baked” creation by way of giving us more than we as humans are born with, be it a longer life, more sensory perceptions, and so on. Their starting point is that even a healthy human being is trapped within the bounds of what they have been given, with transhumanist practice offering to give them more. Going back to the example of GMOs, one can easily see where this can lead to harm rather than improvement.
Scientific Intervention vs. Jihad of the Self
Key to the transhumanist worldview is the process of improving humankind by way of scientific intervention, be it increasing memory through psychoactive substances or editing genes in order to eradicate an unwanted facet of a person’s physical or psychological makeup. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has raised several critiques of such interventions. He objects to instrumentalizing human beings, and takes issue with imposing a subjective opinion on how humans “should be” and the resultant violation of autonomy. He has also opined that if one attempts to improve or increase one aspect of a human being, it is natural that another will suffer.
Certainly, Habermas’ ideas about violation of autonomy and instrumentalizing human beings would readily find a home within Islamic thought. Islam places a strong emphasis on autonomy: “And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another…he who groweth (in goodness), groweth only for himself…” (Quran 35:18). The Quran goes further, “O mankind, fear your Lord and fear a Day when no father will avail his son, nor will a son avail his father at all…” (Quran 31:33). Muslims are taught to be responsible for their own actions, and to hold themselves to account, for they will alone be answerable to the Almighty for what they have done.
This area of inquiry highlights that transhumanist interventions may work against free will. Free will is a responsibility that opens the door to individuals choosing to engage in behavior that is harmful to themselves, those around them, and society as a whole. Islam is certainly not against eradicating undesirable thoughts and behaviors; engaging in the struggle to do this is one of the core aspects of being a Muslim. But it calls people to do this by way of a struggle against oneself (jihad). Having the potential to do evil is part and parcel of having a truly free will. This is not viewed as a flaw in our designs, as the transhumanist posits; rather, Islam views this as being an integral part of the Divine design.
The recognition of our human deficiencies may in fact be hard-wired to our motivational drives as human beings—we act because we have needs to fulfill, hopes, goals, and aspirations. Imagine a utopian world where human beings were so technologically sufficient that they didn’t need to move or exert any effort at all, their brains electrochemically stimulated to be in a constant state of endorphin-induced pleasure, their bodies technologically equipped to require no conscious intake of food or output of waste. In such a state they would find their lives entirely bereft of value or purpose—why exist at all with no ultimate goal or quest, no obstacles to overcome, no aspirations to achieve? Is that really a desirable endpoint for human existence? Nietzsche’s Last Men, devoid of challenge, robbed of aspiration, contented in their small world, “ineradicable as the flea,” believe themselves to have found happiness.
Leon Kass’s words are even more scathing, “in his moment of triumph, Promethean man will become a contented cow.”
Coming from the psychological perspective, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularised the notion of “flow”; his thesis centres on the idea that humans are at their happiest when they are immersed in a challenge which is within their level of efficacy.
Without challenge, this would never be possible. More anecdotally, it is common to hear an individual describing the sheer feeling of pleasure and worth that is derived from overcoming an obstacle.
The Islamic position could be described as seeing the human being as being born into a good state (“We have certainly created man in the best of stature” Quran 95:4), who is then challenged with the realities of the world and the human condition; it is this struggle that causes some of humanity to “fall” (“Then we return him to the lowest of the low” Quran 95:5). It is adhering to God’s guidance, as laid out in revelation, that allows humans to succeed: “Except for those who believe and do righteous deeds, for they will have a reward uninterrupted” (Quran 95:6); “He has succeeded who purifies it, and he has failed who instills it [with corruption]” (Quran 91:9-10).
This places the Islamic worldview in conflict with that of the transhumanist school in regards to what constitutes human nature. Man’s nature and creation is not “half-baked” as Bostrom writes; rather, humanity is created from a divine source with divine purpose. The task then falls to each human being to struggle and preserve their goodness, by way of inner struggle (al-jihad al-nafs), rather than biotechnological intervention. This struggle is rooted in humanity’s unique position of possessing free will, as opposed to other forms of creation who operate within a more limited scope of what we might define as choice. Muslims see this bestowing of free will as being one of the divine secrets. God responded to the angels, when they asked him why He would create a species who can fall to corruption, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know” (Quran 2:30). On reading the transhumanist goal of eradicating humanity’s ills, such as rape, lying and cheating, by way of biotechnological or genetic intervention, one must ask how this can be done while preserving free will. It is difficult to reflect on this and not find oneself thinking of Huxley’s dystopia.
Bostrom argues that transhumanism can be utilised to eradicate inequality, listing equal access to transhumanist technology as being one of the significant goals of the movement. The latter concern for transhumanists is born from the conception that many have about the inevitable inequality associated with new technologies. One cannot separate a science from the context within which it is being developed. The biases that are inherent to the wider governing worldview of a society are likely to be replicated and imprinted upon the knowledge and practice that is developed within it. In his writings on Islam and nanotechnology, Musa Furber describes unequal access to nanotechnology between nations as leading to a “nano divide.”
Furber also mentions concerns regarding the directions that such research takes. This point is particularly pertinent as we are already witnessing the effects of biases that occur in the direction which research goes within the medical community; tropical diseases that affect more than 1 billion people are understudied due to the fact that the majority of sufferers are impoverished. This makes the disease relatively non-lucrative for pharmaceutical companies, as well as less pressing, due to the psychological distance between those who make key decisions within the field and those who are suffering the effects of the ailment.
Aldous Huxley once wrote, “Science in itself is morally neutral; it becomes good or evil according as it is applied.”
It seems likely that any inequalities present within our societies today would naturally be extended to any new scientific or technological developments. The prediction that transhumanist developments will help to eradicate inequality seems deeply mistaken. Observing what is currently going on within transhumanist practice reveals a clear pattern of it being the playground of the rich. Leading figures such as Elon Musk are often millionaires if not billionaires, with Musk commanding a fortune of 15.6 billion U.S. dollars, while the laymen and women engaging in the likes of cryogenic freezing have to part with a sizeable $20,000, making such technologies unavailable to the majority of the world’s inhabitants. Far from being an eradicator of inequality, it seems likely that transhumanism will involve the rich developing tools for the rich, leading to even higher levels of inequality within society. Keeping wealth within certain circles, and not distributing it amongst wider society, is advised against in the Quran; Muslims are instructed to distribute wealth to those in need, “...so that it will not be a perpetual distribution among the rich from among you…
Prolonging Life and Enriching It
Many transhumanists include amongst their goals the pursuit of immortality. While attaining eternal life is a goal shared by most religious faithful, including Muslims, trying to achieve it in this world (dunya) is foreign to the Muslim mind. The Islamic narrative is clear: this life is but one part of the journey of the human and success does not involve prolonging it, rather, it is found in emerging from it, by way of death, having lived a life of goodness and repentance.
The Prophet ﷺ told his companions:
Be in the world as if you were a stranger or a traveler along the path. If you survive till late afternoon, do not expect [to be alive in] the morning. If you survive till morning, do not expect [to be alive in] the late afternoon. Take from your health before your sickness and your life before your death.
Prophetic sayings such as this paint a picture in which the world of this life is not meant to be perfect, nor is it something Muslims should cling to. It is only by taking the concept of the afterlife out of the equation, as many transhumanists have, that the pursuit of longer (and perhaps everlasting) life seems worthwhile.
However, Islam should not be seen as a body-denying religion. Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad highlights this point in the context of transhumanism; while elements of Christianity, and some of the core ideas behind Buddhism, center around the denial of the body, Islam gives the body its due, and its owner has a responsibility over it.
It must be cleaned at least a few times per day, and nourished with food that is not only halal
(permissible) but tayyib
(good and pure) too; it should be kept well-groomed, perfumed, clothed with clean clothes. Even after death, when the soul has departed, the body is washed, clothed, and prayed over. Islamic opposition to transhumanist thinking does not stem from a denial of the body, or this life as a whole. Muslims believe that Islam treads a fine balance between the extremes of body denial and the quest for bodily immortality.
While transhumanists claim to be on the path towards enriching lives, the Islamic position might deem their focus to be hollow; focusing on prolonging life rather than giving it meaning, focusing on crudely improving the mind’s faculties rather than organically purifying it, and focusing on giving us more avenues of sensory perception, rather than better utilizing the senses that we have already been given. Dr. Nazir Khan makes a strong case for the existence of a form of transcending human limitations already present within the Islamic tradition. While one would not employ the term transhumanism due to the philosophical and ideological baggage of that term, there exists an idea within Islam regarding the improvement of one’s sensory perceptions, as well as one’s heart and mind, not altogether different to the transhumanist goal of improving these faculties. Khan writes that the enemy of improved sensory faculties is being in a state of heedlessness (ghafla
). He quotes the great Islamic scholar, Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 1350), “If heedlessness dominates most of someone’s time, the tarnish on his heart grows in proportion. And if the heart is tarnished, it ceases to reflect things as they are…and if the tarnish builds up, blackens and envelops the heart completely, the heart’s reflective quality and perception will be totally lost…” This connection between one’s heart and the rest of one’s body is ever-present within the Islamic worldview, but seems to be completely ignored by secular approaches. Khan uses the famous hadith
, when the Prophet ﷺ quoted the Almighty, to further back up this line of thought; “My servant continues to draw closer to Me with voluntary acts of worship until he becomes beloved to Me. And when I love him, I become the hearing with which he hears, and the seeing with which he sees” (Nawawi 38). He also quotes Imam al-Shawkani (d. 1250 H) who wrote, “God supports a servant’s faculties with His Divine Light such that the paths of guidance become intuitively obvious and the allure of worldly seductions vanishes.” Here we see what might be called Islamic transhumanism, characterized by the link between one’s devotion to the Almighty and how well one can perceive the world around them.
While it proposes that an individual’s faculties can improve, it is a different form of improvement than that proposed by secular transhumanism, and the difference reflects the difference between the two worldviews. The Islamic endgame is a better hereafter and a more spiritually and morally enlightened human, and so improvements to the self brought about by “Islamic transhumanism” lead to an ease in performing good, by being better placed to perceive the world as it is. The atheistic endgame is a maximization of this life, in terms of length and merriment, and so this brand of transhumanism aims to increase human experience in this world.