When does human life begin?
One of the more contentious bioethical and legal issues is about the beginning of human life. Nor is it difficult grasp why, for beyond political rhetoric it is a subject of considerable philosophical and legal debate and raises a number of questions which are profoundly difficult to answer. Biomedicine can roughly differentiate when life becomes viable, that is, at which point a fetus could survive as an infant if a mother gave birth prematurely; it can likewise recognize potential complications either in the development of the fetus or the health of the pregnant woman. Yet other questions are not as easy to answer, precisely because they tend to fall more in the spectrum of philosophy or personal belief: what constitutes a human being? What is a person? Is a potential life accorded the same rights as an actual life? For that matter, are there rights to begin with automatically, or are there criteria that must be met in order to procure rights? In short, questions that strike at the very core of who we are.
A number of these questions were debated by Muslim theologians and legal scholars in the pre-modern world when considering contexts of abortion or issues surrounding paternity. In the modern world, these questions have grown to include in vitro fertilization and surrogacy amongst others. Muslim scholars continue to grapple with these bioethical questions as the medical sciences grow more advanced and technology allows us to have ever more control over the basic aspects of reproduction, growth, and development. Per the question, When does human life begin? for example, Mohammed Ghaly analyses in an important article, “The Beginnings of Human Life: Islamic Bioethical Perspectives” some of the newer discussions and positions Muslim scholars have taken vis-à-vis contemporary bioethics and independent legal reasoning (ijtihad). Complementing this discussion is also a seminal article by Ayman Shabana, “Paternity Between Law and Biology: The Reconstruction of the Islamic Law of Paternity in the Wake of DNA Testing.” Shabana shows how classical rulings pertaining to paternity issues continue to hold higher authority, even despite the advent and availability of modern technology that would ostensibly challenge that authority. This is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the possible change in perspective with regard to how religious authority is derived and its relationship to the medical sciences.
When considering the question, When does human life begin, therefore, it is important to parse the language of the question carefully to note that it is not asking when does “life” begin, but rather when does “human life” begin. We might rephrase it as: When does a human being begin to exist? In other words, when do we consider this living thing to be properly human, part of the species homo sapiens? Establishing the point at which a human being comes into existence is important insofar as it is at that point that we would seriously consider that human life possesses some sort of special moral claim over and above other kinds of life in general. In the Islamic tradition, this point is generally recognized as 120 days after conception, at which time, according to the Hadith, the process of “ensoulment” occurs; that is, the time in which the soul (rūḥ) enters the fetus post-conception.
In view of this, authority about what constitutes human life is not based solely on biology or medicine but rather upon a Qur’anic verse and a Hadith—both of which are foundational texts of Islamic law and indispensable to understanding context. In the Sura (chapter) entitled, al-Mu’minun (the Believers), the Qur’an mentions the stages of life:
“And certainly did We create man from an extract of clay. Then We placed him as a drop of sperm, firmly fixed. Then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood, and of that clot We made an embryo; then We made out of that lump, bones, and clothed the bones with flesh. Then We developed another creation out of it. So blessed is God, the best of Creators” (Qur’an 23: 12-14).
There is also an explication found in a Hadith—a verbal transmission or explanation from the Prophet. According to the Hadith, found in the collections of the two most authentic authorities, Imam al-Bukhari and Imam Muslim, the Prophet discussed in detail the developmental periods between these stages as mentioned in the Qur’an. ‘Abdallah ibn Mas’ud narrated that the Messenger of God ﷺ said:
“Each one of you is constituted in the womb of the mother for forty days, and then he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period. Then God sends an angel who is ordered to write four things. He is ordered to write down his deeds, his livelihood, the date of his death, and whether he will be blessed or wretched. Then the soul is breathed into him…” (Sahih al-Bukhari: 3036).
Based on the above Qur’anic verses and Hadith, the jurists inferred that the soul enters the fetus at around 4 months, or 120 days, after conception. Thus, when the fetus reaches the age of 120 days (approximately the middle of the second trimester), it no longer remains a mere living organism but develops potentiality. Given the dual metaphysical nature of Islamic law, the fetus is a potential human being, but it is the presence of a soul which constitutes an essential part of the human. That is, the physically potential human being is “ensouled” at a time denoted by scripture: The fetus is potential and the soul actualizes humanity at which point it is considered to be a living human being. This corresponds also to the point at which most organs are differentiated and the fetus begins to acquire a human shape. But it also means that should the fetus die after this point for whatever reason, he or she would be given a proper burial and the funeral prayer would be offered as if he or she died as an infant. The implications of this tradition is that being human is not determined solely by biology but through receiving a soul after an appointed time following conception. It is the presence of this soul then which corresponds to moral viability and the establishment of certain rights, including life, support and sustenance, and the protection of lineage.