Transhumanism, Homo Rapiens & Modern Muslimness
This is another article where I attempt to address some themes and dilemmas of modern Muslimness. Like previous outings, this too is less a coherent article and more a cluster of thoughts or ruminations tied together by the theme of searching for Muslim authenticity in a post-modern, post-monotheistic age.
Our primary legitimation for living in the geographical West, a place which most of us instinctively call home, is to invite our post-monotheistic society, our people, to Abrahamic monotheism (tawhid): ‘O my people! Worship God! You have no other god except Him who you should be worshiping.’ [Q.7:59] This often requires that we first help people reawaken their fitrah, in order that they may leave their comfort zones, question the assumptions of their age, and be authentic Truth-seekers. This task is all the more imperative, given that in our age of enthroning the individual Self, we now face three intertwined existential crisis: a crisis of loneliness, a crisis of alienation, and a crisis of purpose. Anxious, uncertain, unrooted, fearful as well as increasingly aggressive, society has turned its back on the traditional notion of the soul being outwardly directed, to the modern notion of the Self being inwardly focused; with all the attendant traumas and travesties that come cascading down on the human psyche from this inversion. It’s here that the prophetically-inspired wisdom must make itself known and heard, if we are to be healers and therapists and help orientate the soul of society towards God and towards moral joy.
In one celebrated hadith, we read: ‘Indeed, Allah chose [the tribe of] Kinanah from the descendants of Ishmael; He chose Quraysh from Kinanah; He chose the tribe of Hashim from Quraysh; and He chose me from the tribe of Hashim.’1 That the Prophet ﷺ was istafa – ‘chosen,’ or ‘selected’ – is where we get the Prophet’s name or title, al-Mustafa – ‘the Chosen One’.
But there’s another reason why I quoted this hadith with the blessed lineage, this nisbah sharifah, which has an urgent bearing on modern Muslimness. And that has to do with the beginning of the lineage, with the Prophet Ishmael (Ar. Isma‘il), peace be upon him, and the Ishmaelite inculturation into the Arabian landscape. For lest we forget, Ishmael was not born in Arabia. He wasn’t born an Arab. He was born, as per Biblical lore, north of Arabia; in Canaan. He, along with his Egyptian mother Hagar, was brought to the valley of Makkah by his father Abraham, under divine instruction. There he fully settled, there he was raised, and there he grew up into the ways of the Arabs: their language, dress, customs and culture. At no point was there any obligation on him, neither from his father nor his mother, to be Canaanite in culture or Egyptian in speech and dress.
That same Ishmaelite principle of inculturation, that does not expect Muslims to take on anything other than the cultural norms of their respected landscapes (as filtered through revealed counsel), is currently honoured more in the breach than the observance by too many of Ishmael’s spiritual descendants living here in the West. Inculturation is undeniably one of the great lessons of the sacred Ishmaelite story. A British Muslim who insists on wearing Arab or Asian dress, or clings to foreign ‘urf embellishments uncalled for by the shari‘ah, is unlikely to endear monotheism to the wider public who will just see them as alien and unrelatable; and will be unable to envisage how Islam might be for British and Western people. Such a failure of the religious imagination must be swiftly, yet wisely, remedied.
It is said that the emergence of intellectuals who have made a critical paradigm shift in some area or another of human thought is reflective of the intellectual and civilisational culture from which they emerge. This is certainly true of the Islamic intellectual tradition where it had likely taken hundreds of average and above average scholarly intellectuals before any polymath of the calibre of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Hazm, al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Aqil or Ibn Taymiyyah emerged. After God’s grace, the civilisational soil from which any thinker belongs must be conducive for such brilliance to grow and flourish. Historically, the civilisational culture set in motion by Islam created an atmosphere in which scholars felt confident and compelled to fully engage their intellectual milieu, as part of taking on the concerns germane to humanity and to the wider human story.
Sadly, this isn’t the case today; and hasn’t been for a while. There are, however, a few emerging voices in our otherwise all but silent intellectual wilderness. If we’ve learnt anything from the fate of other religions which have engaged the juggernaut of secular modernity, it’s that our capacity to dissent, rather than to conform or capitulate, is our only sane choice – if we wish to be saved from the same pitiful tragedy that befell the various Judaeo-Christian attempts and their morphing into disfigured variants of secular, liberal humanism. The point was poignantly put by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he explained that, ‘the liberal Christian approach assumes that the business of Christian commitment is not to produce lives that participate in the holiness of Christ so much as lives that can be lived with a fairly easy conscience within the arrangement of the modern state.’2
Today, the dominant ethical and intellectual visions of humanity are shaped by the pervasive secular philosophies of liberalism, democracy and human rights; and the religious creed they are rooted in: the religion of progress, consumption and aggressive capitalist growth. But there are unmistakable signs and an ever growing body of hard data from the natural and human sciences that all’s not well. From the spectre of global warming and environmental destruction, to the Intensive farming and the industrial scale animal abuse inherent in it; through to the planned obsolescence policy to ensure consumer goods become unusable after a pre-determined period of time, and the throw away culture that comes in its wake: creating a grotesque amount of unnecessary waste we’re currently dumping into the oceans, the air, or into landfills.
And all this is being driven by corporate greed, a capitalist economic model and its unsustainable demand for more and more growth, and the turbo-consumer culture this has given rise to. Consumption of stuff requires the extraction and use of natural resources (wood, fossil fuels, water, etc.); it requires creation of factories that create huge amounts of toxic by products and carbon emissions; and the use of many of these goods themselves create huge levels of pollution and waste – fuelling global warming, decimating our eco systems, and causing our environmental collapse. Such recklessness and rapacious greed are why the English philosopher, John Gray has dubbed us Homo rapiens.3
Whatever our collective response to this must be is still being hotly debated. But one thing is blindingly clear. If we are to avert this global catastrophe; if we are to significantly pull back from this tipping point, we must radically reign in our levels of consumption; rethink our ways of living and producing, making them sustainable for the planet as a whole; and reevaluate the myth that seduces us into believing that we actually need lots and lots of useless, consumer stuff to make us happy and live fulfilled lives. If we are prepared to rise above this lie that’s been foisted upon us over the past century or so, we might all still have a fighting chance.
That said, we’re still left with the inescapable question that confronts Western Muslim intellectual thought: What can Islam offer today that could constitute ethical progress or better human welfare, as we Muslims seek for settled status as minorities in our Western context?
Transhumanism is the final thing I wish to briefly muse over. Now this might seem a bit like a pie in the sky concern compared to, let’s say, global warming. But hear me out. Depending on who you ask, transhumanism is just around the next corner, or it’s at least fifty years away. But what is transhumanism? ‘Isms’ are always tricky to define; in fact, they are often undefinable. They tend to be a loosely-knit set of core ideas about some philosophy, social movement or behaviour. So again, what is transhumanism?
Those old enough to remember the sci-fi show, The Six Million Dollar Man will recall: ‘Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better … stronger … faster.’ That was back in 1974, where the fictional character was part rebuilt and enhanced using bio-technological (bionic) parts. Today, in the 21st century, surgeons and scientists do a lot of this stuff for real, plus more.
Transhumanism is the idea that human weaknesses such as sickness, ageing and even death could and should be overcome with technology. Science should be used to transcend the biological limitations of human beings – and even the human species – to make them transhuman. This involves augmenting weaker or defective body parts (which already occurs with pacemakers, transplants, prosthetic limbs, etc.) with the latest replacement tech; or editing out defective or debilitating genes (such as trying to identify and remove or turn-off the gene that causes ageing). Linking a human brain to an AI network, or replacing an actual brain with an AI one, is also included in such augmentations or editing. If the end result is Homo sapiens 2.0, or even an entirely new kind of species, then it must be welcomed and actively promoted. Such are the transhumanist contentions and aspirations. In short, transhumanism might be thought of as ‘faith in technology to vastly expand the capabilities of humans.’4
What then should the Muslim response to all this be? What would be the fatwa, and what ethical principles would it be grounded in? If transhumanism, whose cards are already being laid on the table, is just around the corner, then in all likelihood there are Muslims out there, as I write, whose work or research is connected to this matter. Be they medics, surgeons or IT experts at the cutting edge of the biotech field, or software writers, or Muslims working in those tech industries that might be contracted to develop such augmentations or tools for such editing – many of them will want to know where they as Muslims should stand in all of this? To what extent is a Muslim doctor morally obliged to find cures for diseases, and ensure that those diseases never occur again? To what extent is it legally right for a Muslim to edit out those aspects within the body that lead to old age and eventually to death, if we can turn those genes off or make them dormant? Such questions are being asked and answered by many others; and we Muslims would do well to enter the conversation.
Of course, as with other big questions of this nature, scholars in the Islam-is-a-modern-religion brigade will unsurprisingly, as well as uncritically, endorse it by way of the usual desperate and delinquent claims of Islam being the religion of science and progress, and all that Islamic modernist dross. But for most of our jurists and theologians, I suspect, a red line will have been crossed at some point. For anything which so fundamentally alters our outward human form or essential Adamic nature will be subsumed under the Quranic injunction: There shall be no altering of Allah’s creation, [Q.30:30] and the celebrated hadith of the imago dei: ‘Indeed, Allah created Adam in His own image.’5 Where exactly this line should be drawn will, in all likelihood, be open to its fair share of juristic ambiguity and theological debate.
Some gadgets or technology might be able to exist side by side with us humans, without them notably altering our social patterns. But other kinds of tech are far from neutral; they can dramatically alter what people will be like because of them. The task of a futurist (futurologist) is less to predict what gadgets and tech we’ll have in the future, and more so to envisage how such tech will shape us, or even how it can make us more amenable to transhumanism. An urgent aspect of Muslim scholarship, then, must be devoted to these macro questions of futurology, as well as supply us with wise, critical, and practical guidance on how we can best evaluate our use of technology in the light of Islamic ethics, Adamic norms and fitrah values. We might currently flinch at the very idea of transhumanism. But technology bends us into behaving in a particular way. It moulds us into seeing the world in a particular way. It disciples us. And it has a marked tendency to sneak its values into us at almost every turn.
Let me wrap up with this thought. While discussing certain issues surrounding AI upgrades, the historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari conjectures whether such technology, rather than heal the currently huge inequalities brought on by globalisation, could actually exacerbate them. He says about the already super-rich, who already monopolise the fruits of globalisation, that they might finally have something truly worthwhile to do with their huge wealth. ‘While hitherto they could buy little more than status symbols, soon they might able to buy life itself. If new treatments for extending life and for upgrading physical and cognitive abilities prove to be expensive, humankind my split into biological castes.’6 He says that if the super-rich use these upgraded or edited abilities ‘to enrich themselves further, and if more money can buy them enhanced bodies and brains, with time the gap will only widen.’7 He concludes with this bleak prediction: ‘The two processes together – bioengineering coupled with the rise of AI – might therefore result in the separation of humankind into a small class of superhumans and a massive underclass of useless Homo sapiens.’8
This isn’t the only bifurcation to be concerned about. Even if these technologies were to steadily become affordable to the masses, such that they too could be uber-humans, there’s still the matter of Islam’s blessed conservatism. Believers are required by faith to conserve revealed teachings; conserve prophetic ways of living; and conserve the sacrality of mind, body and soul, and the higher aims for which the Maker created them. So possibly, while the affordability of such technology does not yet trickle down to the masses, there will be a bifurcation between the rich and the poor; between the haves and the have-nots. But that will diminish as the tech becomes more affordable. The greater bifurcation; the greater clash, however, is very likely to be between the masses of bioengineered transhumans who, as per Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, continue ‘looking with amazement and Islamophobic contempt upon the Muslim ummah where, I suspect, the majority of people will not engineer their children in order to produce a generation of superhumans.’9 What’s unfolding now is just the tip of the iceberg of a much greater divide. Yet risking such unpopularity and scorn, due to clinging to what is divinely revealed and prophetically inspired (instead of pandering to Godless acts of progress), is the ummah’s responsibility. Being too apologetic or overly strategic isn’t really the prophetic way. One has to risk unpopularity. But this must be done with considerable wisdom, foresight and discretion.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Muslim, no.2276.
2. Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 42.
3. Gray, Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 397, 401.
4. Shatzer, Transhumanism and the Image of God (USA; Interverasity Press, 2019), 39.
5. Al-Bukhari, no.6227; Muslim, no.2841. I’ve discussed this hadith, along with its meanings and implications, in: Man, Universe & Macro Theology: Created in God’s Image.
6. Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 75.
7. ibid., 75.
8. ibid., 75.
9. In a video lecture, entitled: Transhumanism and Islam.