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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.

By Jim Al-Khalili

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.

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Comments (32)

Dr Isam Sidig:

Dear Editor
The Quran tells it ALL about life on Earth , we only lack deep Understanding of this Holy Book , Genetics , Nuclear power, biotechnology , food & health , Geography & History ,, etc , you name it , are all there for researchers from all walks of life , as a chemical Eng responsible for changing raw materials to usefull products , I used my experience and academic knowledge to dig into the holy book to understand one word only ie MANNA , then I discovered that its Gum Arabic a prevention and cure for most LifeStyle diseases , All Holy books described MANNA as best food for Humans , so I looked at the Nutritional fact table and discovered that Manna is 10times richer than fresh cow milk in Calcium and 20Times richer than apple in Dietary Fibre , so I am not surprised to know one day that the secret of the nuclear power lies in that holy Book The Quran
I recommend MANNA for further clinical research

Fact_seeker:

Jim Al-Khalili,
In which country did you do your Masters or PhD from ???? was in IRAN ??

If Muslim countries are known for knowledge & education as you CLAIM !! why can't all the MUSLIMs go to Iran for their Studies instead they crave for educational degrees from non muslim countries like US/UK/Canada/Australia .

Even muslims don't trust thier own educational systems & qualifications!!

see job ads in Dubai, they always clearly ask for WESTERN EDUCATED candidates.

Borderman:

Whatever the interpretation of "when life begins" concerning stem cell research, we must understand, from this article, that the Iranian government, rulers are not Islamo-fascists as they are portrayed in the west. 95% of all information from all sides is propaganda and there is, maybe, again maybe 5% of truth in all this. Everyone on this earth is biased, prejudiced with an agenda one way or another. This is our greatest sin.

ZZim:

Mohammad Alleck, you can believe whatever silly conspiracy tale you want. The US Government doesn't force anyone to buy US Government bonds. The things are freely tradeable on the world market. People buy them becuase they have confidence that they will in fact get their money back. Apparently you, sitting in your Toronto kitchen, are smarter (and know more) than all the finance ministries and all the professional investors in the entire world.

stupid:

American Christian Rullers have no respect for human beings by attacking and killing every nation and person that not comply with Great USA.


center:


Alan Foster,

Glad you told them! Science has no religion; religion does not have its own science.

Mo G.:

as mentioned in previouse comments, iranian ISLAMIC rullers have no respect for human beings,i mean ISLAM itself has no respect in that, when some call it (religion of peace), you will laugh if you knew the history of how islam progressed and how they treated other people. Two books are recommended: Understanding Muhammad by Ali Sina and The truth about Muhammad by Robert Spencer which i obtained through Amazone on line.
So good on the Scientist who always find a way to cheat their stupid rullers to keep up with the world of sience.
do not forget that this goverment has commited crime against humannity by executing more than five thousands of iranian youths in khomeini time, and still kills people by stonning to death and cutting hands and legs opposite sides

Mohamed MALLECK, Toronto, Canada:

Hey ZZIM,

You wrote, at 4:25 p.m. that '... we are not going to the Middle East to steal the Arabs oil, we're going there to make sure it belongs to people who will sell it to us willingly'.

Are you saying "sell it to us and get in return US Treasury bonds that we have no intention of eventually honoring"?

I don't know who are 'we', but certainly that could not include Henry Kissinger and Martin Feldstein who wrote in a WAPO article dated 18 September and titled 'The Rising Threat of Oil Prices' that " The industrial nations must find ways to discourage the creditors (oil producers who have accumulated large forex reserves held in US Treasury bonds) from threatening to sell, or actually to sell, large quantities of U.S. bonds, driving up long-term American interest rates to levels precipitating an economic downturn, or to target particular firms or industries by selling shares acquired by sovereign funds."

Elsewhere in the article they advacote a thinly disguised policy to default on these US debts.

If that ain't grand larceny of the most criminal order, I don't know what would be.

I hope that the Arabs have devised a means of apllying their own version of the Monroe Doctrine should the temptation to take Kissinger's and Feldstein's advice start to take hold.

Secular:

Am I the only one who noticed that, this illiterate imam is allowing stem cell research because in Koran it says the soul enters the body only between 40 - 120 days. What kind of crock is that? Koran also says that child is made from blood clots. Just because in this instance this illiterate imbecile's interpretation was favorable to scientific research does not mean it is a rational approach. Their approach is just as stupid as that of the right wing kooks over here.

Let me tell you if the imbecilic interpretation was came out the other way the scientists would have been put to death. These scriptures are nothing but ramblings of uninformed ignoramuses.

Anonymous:

Drill, baby, drill! Who needs science when we have a total implosion of the financial markets, where the FED has run out of money!!!!

ZZim:

The writer of this article is probably just a teensy bit gullible.

Iran frequently announces dramatic scientific and technological “successes” that qickly prove to me fabrications. Recently they said they launched a satellite into space. Nope, rocket blew up in midair. Recently they announce building a couple of submarines. Nope, they don’t even have a shipyard. Recently they announced an amazing new high-speed anti-ship missile. Again nope.

An office full of guys in white lab coats pouring stuff in test tubes looks pretty much the same regardless of whether they are actually accomplishing anything. All they really need to do is build a Potemkin laboratory and shuffle through a few ideologically sympathetic foreign journalists who see what they want to see and then go out and report it as “facts”.

I believe such people are generally known as "useful idiots".

Faramarz Fathi:


jwrigh25:
"This is really amazing - I am shocked that Iran is taking such a sensible position on stem-cell research. If only some of that common sense would seep into their foreign policy... " End of quote.


The Iranian foreign policy has a logn way to go to match that of Great Satan which is vicious and inhuman. And, I am not sure they could match it even if they wanted too.

GOP Republican Wall Street Criminal Acts:

MIDDLE CLASS AMERICANS ARE BECOMING POOR, BECAUSE GOP REPUBLICAN WALL STREET SUPER RICH HAVE STOLEN OUR NATIONALTREASURY WEALTH THROUGH FRAUD SPECULATIONS

GOP Republican Wall Street Super Rich Are Emptying Our National Treasury To Give Each Other $10 Million Dollars Bonuses Every Year While Outsourcing Our American Jobs To Foreign Sweatshops. GOP Republicans lobby for no regulations to steal the United States National Wealth from the American People. This is not GOP Republican patriotism in the least, but treason.

GOP Republican Wall Street Super Rich giving each other multi-billion dollar unsecured loans backed only by a handshake or slap on the back during golf outings and drink parties. Our United States Treasury emptied by these GOP Republicans every year in exchange for Annual Mammoth National Debt forced upon the American People to pay.

GOP Republican McCentury D Student Super Greedy Rich Lobbyist McCain Wall Street OOIIILLLL Millionaire is a weak nominee who lacks the intelligence to receive the 3:00 am call.

Americans are tired of corruption from McBush and his Obscenely Super Rich Wall Street Robber Barons.
Stop Corporate Welfare.
Stop CEO Welfare.
Stop Millionaire Welfare.
Stop the rich from outsourcing American jobs.
Stop giving Golden Parachutes to the Rich for outsourcing American jobs.
Stop the Rich from using Our Public Offices for Private Ill Gotten Gains.
Stop the Rich from stealing Our National Treasury.
Stop the Rich from robbing Our National Treasury and raising the National debt.
Stop the Rich from Tax Avoidance and Tax Havens.
Stop the Rich from importing illegal drugs by the ton and destroying Our Country in the name of Wall Street high returns on investment.
Stop the Rich from eroding Our Constitutional Rights.
Stop the Rich (McBush, Cheney, Rice, D Student Super Greedy Rich Lobbyist McCain Wall Street OOIIILLLL Millionaire) from selling Our America to Saudi Arabia, China, India) in the name of outsourcing American jobs, selling American Banks, selling bulk shares of key American corporations.
Nationalize the American OOIIILLLL Industry for National Defense, if you love America.
America is not for sale now or ever.

Obscene Super capitalistic privileged C students with no business running hotdog stands illegally place themselves, their rich friends, and their rich family members into the highest positions of OUR COUNTRY to maintain, promote, and expand their ill gotten wealth at the expense of Average Americans. Do you still think that lieing GOP Republicans are patriots? I think not.

Greed and stupidity are destroying Our Country and it must stop.

America must get back to moral decency, family values, respect, honor, scholarship, and service to the general Public.

America is about Public Service and not private greed.

Change is happening and America, Europe and the World welcome cooperation.

Out with GOP Republican Wall Street Robber Barons.

In with the U.S. Constitution and the American People.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

We The People Are Voting For Harvard Scholar, Irish-American, and Constitution Law Professor Barack Obama.

mnjam:

Pro-lifers are idiots or hypocrites. A potential person is not a person, any more than an omelette is a bucket of fried chicken. As for hypocrisy, they should understand that if government has the power to prohibit abortion, then it must have the power to compel it. Either such things can be regulated or they cannot.

Garak:

Ahmadinejad as a president wrote: "There must be fundamental problems (i.e. morality, respect for life, education) with a country that produces such a imbecile, grants him a PhD and elects him as a president."

There must be something wrong with a country that grants an imbecile an MBA and elects him President.

Never misunderestimate the American public. As the sage once said, no one ever lost money underestimating the American public.

abe polin:

where's the cake?

ZZim:

Hey Siddiqi, we're not going to the Middle East to steal the Arabs oil, we're going there to make sure it belongs to people who will sell it to us willingly.

You need to stop assuming we think like you. We don't.

rb:

Dear Ahmadinejad as a president:

"There must be fundamental problems (i.e. morality, respect for life, education) with a country that produces such a imbecile, grants him a PhD and elects him as a president."

Except for the PH.D., I guess you could say the same thing about George Bush.

Dr. Abdullah A. Siddiqui:

As far as I know, Muslim culture never looks down upon education or knowledge. The Key word is "ILM" which means knowledge in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic and probably in Turkish. So, I am not surprised that the Muslim fundamentalist Government permits stem cell research. If any Muslim discourages acquisition of knowledge (eg of Westerrn know-how or western values), he probably does that to guard his own turf, and not because of any religious reason. It is unfortunate tht American conservatism has developed such a dislike toward Stem cell research. I also see a very clear contradiction in their thinking matrix (if this is the righ word); while defending the right of an unborn embryo vehemently and with passion, they would gladly go to distant lands and kill "fully born" humans to carry out their plan to steal their oil.

Dr. Abdullah A. Siddiqui:

As far as I know, Muslim culture never looks down upon education or knowledge. The Key word is "ILM" which means knowledge in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic and probably in Turkish. So, I am not surprised that the Muslim fundamentalist Government permits stem cell research. If any Muslim discourages acquisition of knowledge (eg of Westerrn know-how or western values), he probably does that to guard his own turf, and not because of any religious reason. It is unfortunate tht American conservatism has developed such a dislike toward Stem cell research. I also see a very clear contradiction in their thinking matrix (if this is the righ word); while defending the right of an unborn embryo vehemently and with passion, they would gladly go to distant lands and kill "fully born" humans to carry out their plan to steal their oil.

J. Conrad:

Could you name some of the scientists and what they are working on?

Kurt:

WHERE'S MY TUNIC

"Most people don't know that the trousers they wear were invented the the Persians long before Persia was invaded by Alexander the Great (al Iskandar in Arabic, Iskandar Beg in Turkish). Alexander's troops made fun of the Persians for their trousers."

So those are the goofballs who invented these ridiculous things. I often wish I could just chuck these trousers, which stain, and need pressing, and creasing. I think a nice tunic with a toga for formal occasions would much more interesting and comfortable.

Ahmadinejad as a president:

There must be fundamental problems (i.e. morality, respect for life, education) with a country that produces such a imbecile, grants him a PhD and elects him as a president.

Rob:

There is not a dimes worth a difference between the two religions.
Both in their extremism have terribly harmed their countries.
The religious right in the US will cap off what will become the new dark age.

ZZim:

RE: "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. "

Wow, you're right, that's extremely unpalatable. Who would ever suspect the Islamists would be capable of disrespecting Human life enough to conduct scientific research that destroys Human embryos? Crazy.

Alan Dean Foster:

There is no such thing as "Islamic" science anymore than there is Christian science or Buddhist science, or animist science. Science is the search for knowledge and for answers, and it stands outside religion. An imam may vet projects, but he cannot vet results.

Gary:

Iran is a country that executes children for engaging in homosexual behavior. I don't think that they have an appreciation for human life that we should be trying to emulate.

Steve Allen:

I lived in Iran for 9 years and loved the people enough that I married one of my Iranian students here. For those who would like to know more about Iran (which means 'noble' as does Eire) there are two books I recommend. "In Search of Zarathrustra" by Paul Kriwaczek (which I have read three times now) and "Spirituality in the Land of the Noble" by Richartd C. Foltz which I am now reading for the second time. Most people don't know that the trousers they wear were invented the the Persians long before Persia was invaded by Alexander the Great (al Iskandar in Arabic, Iskandar Beg in Turkish). Alexander's troops made fun of the Persians for their trousers.

Max in Philadelphia:

While the supposed tyrannical and theocratic Iran is going forward in stem cell research, we are still entangled with dinosaur-like ideas from the top of our government.

Now, just when we thought we are coming out of that era into a brighter one, we have a candidate for vice presidency who espouses the same backward agenda.

To put salt on the wound, she is also ahead in the polls!! I am sure I will wake up any minute and find out this is all a bad dream.....

pete451:

I love it, Iran more enlightened than america.....who'd have thunk it. Go IRAN.

Jeff Wagner:

Hooray for Iran! I still think that they will be our allies again eventually. Too smart and cultured a country to allow fundamentalism to prevail forever.

jwrigh25:

This is really amazing - I am shocked that Iran is taking such a sensible position on stem-cell research. If only some of that common sense would seep into their foreign policy...

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