80 Muslim scholars came together to ponder this question. Here's what happened.
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'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?