Islamic Science Makes a Comeback
For many, Iran conjures up images of angry ayatollahs and scientist bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. But physics professor and author Jim Khalili sees another side to Iran, one where Islamic teachings and science have propelled the country to the forefront of stem cell research. Islamic science - often seen at odds with Islam despite the religion's history of medieval innovation - is making a come-back.
Many areas of scientific research in the West seem these days to be mine fields of ethical and moral dilemmas. When such research is carried out in countries regarded as enemies of the West, such as Iran, the alarm bells not surprisingly ring even more loudly. But while the U.S., Israel and others agonize over what to do about Iran's fast-developing nuclear program, another area of research altogether seems to be quite unexpectedly flourishing there.
On a recent visit to Iran with a BBC film crew while making a television documentary series, I was allowed unrestricted access to a thoroughly modern research laboratory. The Royan Institute in Tehran is a place that is carrying out, by any sensible measure, world-class work in genetics, infertility treatment, stem cell research and animal cloning, all in an atmosphere of openness that was quite dramatically at odds with my expectations.
What struck me most was the way the state authorities overseeing the research - for it is certainly closely watched - seem to have dealt with the ethical minefields of parts of the work, in stark contrast to the vociferous opposition to it from some quarters in the West.
While at the Royan, I spoke with one of the imams who sits on their ethics committee. He explained that every research project proposed must be justified to and vetted by his committee to ensure that it does not conflict with Islamic teaching. Thus, while issues such as abortion are still restricted in Iran (it is allowed only when the mother's life is in danger), research on human embryos is encouraged.
I was certainly taken aback when he quite rightly pointed out that the only thing produced in embryonic stem cell research is a clump of cells, which is far from what could be defined as a human fetus.
The fundamental question here, as it is in the rest of the world, is: What defines life? Many, but by no means all, Christians believe that human life begins at the moment of fertilization -- a notion not shared in Islam or Judaism. The Christian argument is based on the idea that the fertilized egg contains everything that is needed to replicate and grow and that this is sufficient. But is the "potential" of becoming a human being really enough?
This is more than just a metaphysical issue. From a purely scientific perspective, an embryo just a few days old is no more than a bundle of homogeneous cells in the same membrane that do not function in a coordinated way to regulate and preserve a single life. So while each individual cell is "alive", it only becomes part of a human organism when there is substantial cell differentiation and coordination, which occurs around two weeks after fertilization. Therefore a more sensible definition of the beginning of life is that it takes place gradually during the fetus's development, long after the embryonic stem cells stage where there is only a "potential" for life.
According to Islamic teaching, I discovered, the fetus becomes a full human being only when it is "ensouled". This takes place anywhere between 40 and 120 days after conception, depending on various interpretations of the Qur'an. So the research at Royan is not seen as playing God, since it takes place long before the soul has entered the body of the unborn fetus.
There is much that the West finds unpalatable about life under Islamic rule in Iran. But when it comes to the controversial subject of genetics, Iranian scientists don't let religious doctrine hold them back.
Jim Al-Khalili is a professor of physics, author and broadcaster in the UK where he teaches and carries out his research in theoretical nuclear physics. He is currently working on a new series for the BBC called Science and Islam and is writing a book on medieval Arabic science.