Science and Sunnah: The Genetic Code
Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed
Clinical Professor of Medicine
University of Louisville School of Medicine
Louisville, KY 40292
President, Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462
On the authority of Abu 'Abd ar-Rahman 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud (May Allah be pleased with him), who said: The Messenger of Allah (may the blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) and he is the truthful, the believed, narrated to us:
Verily the creation of each one of you is brought together in his mother's belly for forty days in the form of seed, then he is a clot of blood for a like period, then a morsel of flesh for a like period, then there is sent to him the angel who blows the breath of life into him and who is commanded about four matters: to write down his means of livelihood, his life span. His actions, and whether happy or unhappy. By Allah, other than Whom there is no god, verily one of you behaves like the people of Paradise until there is but an arm's length between him and it. And that which has been written overtakes him and so he behaves like the people of Hell-fire and thus he enters it; and one of you behaves like the people of Hellfire until there is but an arm's length between him and it. And that which has been written overtakes him and so he behaves like the people of Paradise and thus he enters it. It was related by al-Bukhari and Muslim,
(Ref: An-Nawawi's "Forty Hadith". Translated by Ezzeddin Ibrahim and Denys Johnson-Davis. The Holy Koran Publishing House, Damascus, Syria, 1977, pp. 36-38.)
There are some Muslim thinkers who do not like the interpretation of Qur'an or Sunnah in terms of scientific terminology. However, the author believes there is nothing wrong in attempting to understand or interpret "Islam" in the light of modern knowledge. Through this article the author wants to encourage freethinking, stimulate research ideas among Muslim scholars, scientists and students so that our understanding of Qur'an and Sunnah can be furthered.
This Sunnah deals with the creation of human beings which is mentioned in great detail in Al-Qur'an. However, the astounding and astonishing matter about this Hadith is the angel who blows the breath of life into man and writes down four matters: (1) his means of Livelihood, (2) his life span, (3) his actions, and (4) whether happy or unhappy.
Before the scientific discovery of the Genetic Code and the award of Nobel Prizes to the three discoverers in 1968, it was humanly impossible to scientifically understand this Hadith. In 1990s, we are able to unravel the genetic code with regard to a person's inheritance of certain disease carrying genes. This information may tell us about an individual's life span and/or whether he will be happy or unhappy. Science is yet to discover the genes responsible for a person's "rizq" (food habits, dietetic profile, etc.) and a person's "actions" or behavior such as Type A, B, or C personality.
The present article attempts to show our current knowledge in our ability to perform genetic screening in order to understand a person's inheritance of carrying or developing a certain disease through the study of that person's genes. Our knowledge is still incomplete and we are very far away in attaining the knowledge about the four matters mentioned in this Hadith.
Inside the nucleus of a living cell there are 46 chromosomes which are visible only when the cell divides. The chromosomes are made of DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid. A certain length of the DNA is called the gene. That length of DNA that codes for complete synthesis of a protein is also called a gene. Along the 46 chromosomes of every human cell are some 100,000 genes. The U.S. Government is funding a $3 billion, 15-year Human Genome Project, under the joint leadership of the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, which will allow scientists to know exactly where on our chromosomes each of our 100,000 genes reside. Among these 100,000 genes, there are a few genes, which can be lethal. Every person has a unique set of these seven or eight deadly genes. They are usually hidden, but in the wrong environment or in combination with certain other genes they can express themselves in dangerous ways. Some families carry genetic diseases for generations and they know what type of lethal genes they carry. Most of the people do not know if they carry any genetically defective genes.
In the near future it is possible to get a blue print of our genetic inheritance-and with the knowledge of the most likely cause of our own death. This test can be performed by walking into a physician's office and giving a blood sample with a finger prick. The results of the test reveal if a person has any defective genes that will cause a certain disease or the result may be negative in which case that person will not carry the disease. Most of the adult-onset diseases involve several genes. For example there are at least 17 genes responsible for just one aspect of coronary heart disease-and the genes express themselves only under certain conditions. For most of the genetic diseases it is impossible to predict with a certainty. Geneticists now say that diabetes, hypertension, and cancer run in families. In other words these diseases are genetically inherited. Geneticists can treat adults for the presence of a handful of relatively rare genes - among them those that cause Huntington's disease (causes progressive brain degeneration); adult polycystic kidney disease (causes gradual loss of kidney function); polypsos (this condition leads to colon cancer); hemochromatosis (which could cause liver failure); and certain forms of cancer such as retinoblastoma, some leukemias, and small-cell carcinoma of the lung.
There are two important questions, which have not been answered so far. The first one is whether knowledge of the information is itself potentially hazardous to the individual; and the second one is whether institutions will misuse that knowledge to promote their own dominance and control.
There are two types of tests: prenatal tests and genetic screening tests. The prenatal tests inform future parents of a child's chances of inheriting a condition for which the parent is a carrier-Tay-Sachs disease, sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis- or of inheriting a condition from which a family member has already died-muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, beta-thalassemia. The genetic screening test tells the adults about their own genetic destiny. But do we really want to know? Are we willing to learn the details of our genetic destiny-especially when it involves diseases for which there is no cure? Are we capable of understanding the uncertainties inherent in this high-tech fortunetelling?
Adult polycystic kidney disease comes late in age and causes degenerative condition of the kidneys resulting in gradual loss of kidney function. It is carried on a single, dominant gene. If a man has the disease, then his son has a 50-50 chance of having the gene and if he has two daughters, their chances of having the disease is also 50-50. Usually this disease strikes when one is in his or her 110's. The genetic test only tells whether a persons has the gene that causes the disease, but it doesn't tell whether that person gets the disease in his UO ' s or in his late 60's. No treatment exists to prevent kidney failure in polycystic kidney patients.
There is a certain amount of unwillingness on the part of humans to know their future. However there are individuals who have taken the tests for the occurrence of Huntington's disease which is a neurological disease, a progressive and untreatable brain and muscle degeneration with symptoms that usually show themselves in the 40's. The chances of inheriting this disease
causing gene is also 50-50. Those who took the test and whose results were positive, there were no instances of suicide and only one of severe depression, and one marital breakup among the 71 patients screened.
Nancy Wexler of the Hereditary Disease Foundation says "If the information is limiting, enervating, depressing, if it tears at your self-esteem, if it gives you nothing to do, it might be better not to know." She devoted her professional life to the search for the gene for Huntington's disease which killed her mother and for which she and her sister are at risk.
Scientists stress that the results of genetic testing are ambiguous: genes alone do not determine a disease's prognosis. One can say whether or not an individual appears to have the gene, and those who have the gene have gone on to develop the disease. But one cannot say anything about when the disease will start, what will be the course of the disease, and what will be the relevant aspects of the illness.
The danger comes when imprecise tests are used inorder to predict the future, and when institutions actually use them to construct the future: when employers refuse to hire or train individuals at high risk of dying in their prime; when health-insurance companies insist on knowing the genetic profiles of their potential subscribers before paying for pre-existing genetic conditions; when schools require a permanent genetic record to anticipate which children will exhibit behavioral problems or learning disabilities. In United States genetic discrimination already exists. The risk of increasing the number of people defined as unemployable, uneducable or uninsurable exists. Genetic tests can identify employees who are susceptible to workplace toxins and companies may prohibit hiring such employees because they may contract occupational illnesses. 17 companies out of 500 had used genetic tests within the last 12 years, and 59 were considering the possibility. There is the danger of using the genetic tests for purposes of "eugenics." Eugenics means the deliberate manipulation of the gene pool with the idea of creating a master race. Defective people walking around may not be allowed to reproduce for the betterment of society.
Many of the conditions that will be uncovered through genetic studies are not life threatening, but might not fit into some societal scheme: genetic dyslexia, for example; genetic shyness; genetic arrogance; genetic left-handedness.
It is known that left-handed people have shorter life expectancies, which is relevant to insurance companies. But left-handed people may suffer for lack of knowledge whether left-handedness occurs for reasons other than genetic. They may be construed from birth as brain-damaged.
Allah is all knowing.