There is a common misconception, even among certain segments of the Muslim population, that Islamic law is ossified and for some strange reason Muslims have stopped thinking about challenges of the modern world. This is of course not true and like any other living tradition Muslims have been thinking about and debating about challenges of the modern world in their own unique way. While tens of thousands of fatwas are given every day, it is unfortunate that only the strange ones get media attention. A word of advice and caution for our readers (Muslims and non-Muslims), while anyone can give a fatwa not everyone is qualified to do so. It is important to check not only the credentials of the person giving the fatwa but also if they have consulted a domain expert if they do not have sufficient knowledge about the subject.
First a glossary of some helpful terms from Islamic law (definitions from Wikipedia), folks who have read Frank Herbert’s Dune may already be familiar with some of these since Frank Herbert borrowed these terms from the Islamic sources with some change in meaning!
Fiqh: The word fiqh is an Arabic term meaning “deep understanding” or “full comprehension”. Technically it refers to the body of Islamic law extracted from detailed Islamic sources (which are studied in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence) and the process of gaining knowledge of Islam through jurisprudence.
Fatwa: Fatwa in the Islamic faith is the term for the legal opinion or learned interpretation that the Sheikhul Islam, a qualified jurist or mufti, can give on issues pertaining to the Islamic law. The person who issues a fatwā is called, in that respect, a Mufti, i.e. an issuer of fatwā, from the verb aftā = “he gave a formal legal opinion on”. This is not necessarily a formal position since most Muslims argue that anyone trained in Islamic law may give an opinion (fatwā) on its teachings. If a fatwā does not break new ground, then it is simply called a ruling.
Ulema: Ulamāʾ, singularʿĀlim, “scholar”, literally “the learned ones”, also spelled ulema; female is alimah (singular) and uluma (plural)), is defined as the “those recognized as scholars or authorities” in the “religious hierarchy” of the Islamic religious sciences.
In Science Fiction questions often come up regarding how Muslims would react to certain situations and new technologies e.g., pray in space in zero gravity, permisibility of lab grown meat, rulings on cloning human beings, stem cell research (to which Muslims are actually quite open) etc. The first question that we address with respect to the fiqh of Science Fiction (which will become Science fact in the very near future) is about Vat or Lab grown meat. The following is a question that was asked by one of our readers on Twitter. It is answered by Musa Furber. Here is his official biography which also includes his qualifications to answer this question:
Musa Furber is qualified to issue Islamic legal edicts (fatwās). He received his license to deliver edicts from senior scholars at Egypt’s official fatwā institute Dār al-Iftā’ al-Miṣriyya including Shaykh Dr. Ali Gomaa. He studied traditional Islamic disciplines for over 15 years with numerous scholars in Damascus, Cairo, and elsewhere. He also holds a BA in Applied Linguistics from Portland State University, and an MPA from Dubai School of Government. He worked at the Tabah Foundation from August 2008 through the end of 2015. He resides in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Question: Would vat-grown meat (not pork) which is never actually part of a living animal, be halal?
Answer: If halal synthetic meat might be beyond us today, there doesn’t seem to be anything that necessarily rules it out as a possibility. The harder the scifi and the nearer it is to our own time, the less room there is to imagine that today’s problems have been solved. Halal synthetic meat is a problem for hard scifi set in 2020; it’s isn’t much of a problem for softer scifi set in 2100. In vitro meat still requires cells from an animal and some approaches culture it in animal nutrients. I have not seen anything well-research written on the subject. There is a newspaper article but the source is not particularly trustworthy or authoritative when it comes to religious matters and they have a history of getting it wrong (e.g., the UAE Mars fatwa that never was). Unless the original cells come from an animal that was slaughtered correctly and is halal to eat and the growth process is free of filth (so no animal blood used as a growth nutrient), there will be no decent grounds for rejecting it.