Islamic Beliefs About GMOs
In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich predicted that the United States would face a major food shortage in the 1970s and 65 million Americans would starve to death between 1980-1989. In the rest of the world, said Ehrlich, the situation would be worse.
But Ehrlich was wrong. Humans developed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are strong, sturdy, pest resistant, and beautiful to behold. Not only did the United States not face a major food shortage in the 1970s that caused millions to starve, but agriculture flourished around the world in previously difficult places like Mexico and India. Now, in 2015, farmers are still farming and people are still eating.
But does this mean GMOs are a good thing? Religious groups aren’t sure. Both Sunni and Shia Islamic scholars have weighed the ability of GMO food to feed a growing population against the negative theological, ethical, environmental, and health issues they raise. But Islamic beliefs about GMOs are unclear.
Changing Creation to Feed the Hungry
Islam requires Muslims to obey Sharia law, or the “way” or “path” detailed in the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad. The scope of Sharia is quite broad; it covers criminal and civil justice, as well as personal and moral conduct. But, despite its broad applicability, Sharia doesn’t provide a clear answer on GMO foods. For example, while the Quran teaches it’s a sin to change Allah’s creation (4:119), it also tells Muslims to feed the hungry (76:8-9).
There is an Islamic tradition or story about the Prophet Muhammad that provides some direction. Muhammad was said to have once witnessed farmers cross breeding different species of date palms together to produce higher yields. After he told the farmers to stop and they obeyed him, their yields decreased. When the farmers told Muhammad this, he replied that he is only a human being and the farmers should go back to cross breeding to produce higher yields.
The story shows that changing creation is not a new thing — Muslims were doing it even back in the time of Muhammad. It also shows that the practice was condoned by Muhammad if it could be viewed to benefit farmers and reduce hunger. As Fatima Agha al-Hayani, a female Muslim scholar who has written and commented on several aspects of the Islamic religion, said, GMO food can “carry God’s work, alleviate hunger and suffering, secure justice and equity for everyone.”
But not everyone agrees. Majid Katme, a highly respected personality within the Muslim community in the United Kingdom, wrote a letter to the British government on behalf of the United Kingdom Islamic Medical Association. In the letter he quotes from the Quran and asserts that there is no need for GMO food because creation is perfect and humans have no right to manipulate anything God created. He ends the letter emphasizing the Association’s position that there are no benefits that would accrue to Britain from GMO food.
Is GMO Food Halal?
Despite the debate, many scholars and organizations have determined that GMO food is halal, or fit for consumption by Muslims, and does not violate Sharia. In 2003, the Indonesian Ulemas Council approved the importation and consumption of GMO food by Indonesian Muslims. The Islamic Jurisprudence Council and Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, the main North American halal certifying body, have also found that foods derived from GMO crops are halal.
But some question these determinations. After a 2010 conference in Malaysia resulted in a fatwa (ruling on a point of Islamic law) that GMO food is halal, many Muslims expressed their shock.
Writing for the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences’ publication, Mohideen Abdul Kader, Vice-president of the Consumer Association of Penang Malaysia, said “The Shariah-compliance of GM is being discussed in a profit-motivated context, manipulating Islamic scholars into issuing highly controversial fatwas in support of GM. These discussions are failing to consider biotechnology from an Islamic perspective, ignoring not only the harm that GM causes to the environment but the way it undermines the integrity of God’s creation.”
Right or Wrong or Both?
Debating Islamic beliefs about GMOs seems to go in circles; some say it’s not a sin to change creation if the change feeds the hungry, and others say that feeding the hungry harms the environment and negatively changes creation. It’s clear that the ethics of GMOs are not clear, but maybe that’s because there are both good and bad aspects to genetic modification and we, as humans, just don’t understand all the implications of the practice.
As Muhammad recognized as he watched the farmers graft date palms — it may not work to always deny or promote a practice. Maybe before acting, it’s best to understand.
Read more about the theological implications of GMOs:
Jewish Beliefs About GMOs
Featured image of farmer in dry field available on Flickr.
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