Depending on where you want to start the calendar, I'm either a few months or almost three decades late with this piece. On the other hand, I can pretty much guarantee I'm telling you about something you never knew.
Here in this country, the battle lines between science and what we tend to call "conservative" religion are relatively clear: on issues regarding the "beginning of life" such as abortion, stem cell research and the fate of embryos from IVF, the scientists tend to be more flexible than the religionists. Even some religious scientists will argue that the level of uncertainty about how religious doctrine integrates into modern biology is a reason to leave doors open wider than otherwise.
And because that's the way it is here, we naturally assume that's the natural order of things. Surely in every land and across all boundaries of faith, the way it happens here is what we will find there.
Not so much.
Back in 1985, about 80 Sunni Muslim scholars met in Kuwait. Some of them were experts in Islamic jurisprudence. The others were experts in biomedicine. The broad question they tried to address was "Where does life begin?"
The limited agreements they reached were part of a 700-page proceedings that was published afterward. The results influence Muslim bioethics until this very day. You've never heard of it because that 700-page volume was never translated into English. A professor of Islamic studies in the Netherlands finally took it upon himself to summarize the results in English, and offer some context of what happened next.
His paper, titled "The Beginning of Human Life: Islamic Bioethical Perspectives," was published in the March 2012 issue of Zygon, a journal devoted to the confluence of religion and science. I saw the title, was intrigued, and printed out the paper. And saw it was long. And the print was small. So I set it aside, planning to read it. Other topics got in my way. But I never threw that printout away.
I've finally read it. And it's totally fascinating. (You can read the whole thing here.) Giving all due credit to Professor Mohammed Ghaly at Leiden University for his work in producing this summary, here are some of the nuggets I gleaned.
Start with the way that flexibility is turned on its head, from a Western perspective.
In this case, the scientists tend to argue that the full moral human protections are conferred on the zygote either at conception or as soon as it is implanted in the uterus. After all, they say, it's hard to identify a scientific, biological reason for privileging one moment over another. If Allah says that the fetus should ever be treated with the full dignity of a person, that starts pretty much from the first moment. There's no unambiguous scientific justification for flexibility, many of the biologists say.
The theologians, on the other hand, start with their sacred texts. The embryo becomes a human being only with "breathing the soul." For the timing, they search out verses in the Quran and in the sayings of Mohammed, called hadiths, that were passed down in a documented oral tradition from the literal dawn of their faith. And what do they find?
Start with a couple of passages in the Quran:
Allah is explaining to the angels when they will bow down to humans: "Once I perfect him, and blow into him from My spirit, you shall fall prostrate before him. (15:29)"
Allah described how the first human was formed: "Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh], and We made [from] the lump, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. (23:14)"
So God created the first human, but not until the soul is breathed in was he "perfected" and entitled to honor from the angels. How long does it take for that soul breathing process to happen in the womb?
One hadith says: "The creation of one of you is put together in his mother's womb for forty days, then it becomes a clot of congealed blood for a similar length of time, then it becomes a little lump of flesh for a similar period...then the soul is breathed into him."
Which is, if taken literally, 120 days. Before that, is abortion, etc. OK? Discussion ensued.
For comparison, think of Christian theologians turning to Isaiah 44:24: "This is what the Lord says -- your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb..." And Psalm 139:13: "For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb...." And Luke 1:15: "...he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb...."
Back to the Muslim dialogue. Some of the scientists argued that new discoveries in biology put a new gloss on the proper religious understanding of these verses and hadiths. They should be taken, these scientists suggested, metaphorically. Maybe 40 days doesn't mean 40 actual days but some period of time? And maybe one stage of development merges into the next, so there really isn't 120 days? (And let me be clear: the scientists are taking the need to conform with authentic Muslim theology just as seriously as do the theologians.)
Not so fast, say some of the theologians. Metaphor is another word for changing the true meaning. Which is not permitted. "Dr. Ahmad Shawqi Ibrahim argued whenever a scientific opinion or discovery challenges the Quran or the Sunna [teachings], then it means that this opinion is wrong and one day people will find this out."
Both sides get into a discussion about the importance of the nervous system and the existence of the brain. Maybe that's the bright line? After all, brain death is accepted as the marker for death. Perhaps brain life -- measured by electrical activity in the fetus -- should be the marker for personhood?
Everybody agrees that the zygote is entitled to greater dignity that inanimate objects or animal life. But they continue to argue about when the essential quality of personhood is introduced.
Ultimately, there is no total agreement. The religious scholars are unhappy that the scientists can't offer more definitive relevant guidance about the stages of embryonic development. The scientists are not thrilled that the theologians are unwilling to agree about hard-and-fast rules for what is and is not permissible.
Here's a lovely quote from one of the theologians that rings oddly to Western ears tuned to a different key of the discussion:
"We do not understand why some of our brothers from the physicians' group insist in being rigorous in this issue despite the clarity and the flexibility shown by Muslim religious scholars."
Imagine that on, say FOX News from, oh, one of the Catholic bishops. Heh.
In any case, the two sides did arrive at a common statement that, while satisfying neither side, did render some clarity to the argument:
"The beginning of life occurs with the union of a sperm and an ovum, forming a zygote which carries the full genetic code of the human race in general and of the particular individual, who is different from all other beings throughout the ages. The zygote begins a process of cleavage that yields a growing and developing embryo, which progresses through the stages of gestation towards birth.
"Second: From the moment a zygote settles inside a woman's body, it deserves a unanimously recognized degree of dignity and a number of religious rulings, known to religious scholars, apply to it.
"Three: When the embryo reaches the soul-breathing stage, the time of which is subject to controversy, being either forty or 120 days, the fetus acquires greater sanctity as all scholars agree, and additional religious rulings apply to it.
"Fourth: Among the most important of these religious rulings are those with pertinence to abortion as pointed out in article seven of the recommendations of the symposium on 'Reproduction in Islam.'"
Which leaves plenty of room for argument. As Ghaly points out:
"The text, for instance, avoided any reference to the possible differentiation between the beginning of life in the absolute sense and human life in particular, which was very controversial among the participants in this symposium. Further, the text of the recommendations was vague on three crucial points, and each of them was the subject of heated debates among the advocates of the previously mentioned two positions."
Those three points? Is an IUD OK? Depends on whether you start the clock with conception on the conferring of all those religious and moral rights. How about abortion? Ditto. The third issue was about using surplus fertilized ova for scientific research. That was even more contentious, Ghaly said.
The discussions on these topics continued at other symposia and meetings, using the material from 1985 as the starting point, Ghaly said. There was one in 1987, another in 1990, another in 2003. And a highly regarded report issued in 2004.
Whatever the results, among the many interesting aspects of the 1985 meeting as described in Ghaly's summary was the process. People with very strong beliefs and sharply conflicting areas of expertise came together and argued, in the best sense of that word. Even across the years and through the barriers of translation and the academic language of Ghaly's paper, some of the passion that surely roiled the discussions manages to come through:
"For instance, during the final session of the symposium held for discussing the final recommendations, Yūsuf al-Al-Qaradāwī spoke to the aforementioned Hassān Hathūt and Ahmad al-Qadī by saying, 'I kindly ask Prof. Hassān and brother Dr. al-Qadī not to pressure us [namely religious scholars] more than this. For three days now, they have been trying to force their opinion. We have given some concessions, and now they have to give concessions, too.'"
Which, apparently, they did. Not a bad lesson to cross the cultures.