Assembling Clones: Adjudicating Future Bodies in Shīʿī Jurisprudence

By Emily O’Dell

Notions in Shīʿī jurisprudence about bodily interventions, such as the mutability of the body and the permissibility of biotechnology to assemble non-normative bodies, are distinct from Sunnī conceptions on these issues. Sunnī fatwās against cloning have been issued by Al-Azhar in Egypt, the Muslim World League in Mecca, the European Council for Fatwa and Research, the Fatwa Council in Palestine, and the National Fatwa Council of Malaysia.[1] Sunnī fatwās frame cloning as a perversion of God’s creation, a producer of disability, a debasement of humans’ status over animals, an aid to single motherhood, and a challenge to inheritance. By contrast, Shīʿī jurists do not see the act of cloning itself as impermissible.

Fatwās produced by leading Shīʿī jurists do not deem cloning itself as intrinsically forbidden, but consider the possible risks and allow for secondary prohibition due to the potential for moral and social corruption. According to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, “Human cloning itself is not in principle forbidden, but given the dangerous risks that can arise, it can be forbidden.”[2] Similarly, Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi believes that cloning may not be inherently problematic, but it may be deemed impermissible due to potential adverse social and ethical consequences.[3] Such opinions are often grounded in specific jurisprudential principles, such as the necessity of not causing harm to oneself or others (lā ḍarar wa lā ḍirār) and the principle of protecting against distress and anguish (ʿusr wa ḥaraj).  A question posed online to Shirazi asks if a cloned human can become a Muslim. Shirazi responds that a clone’s “right to conversion to Islam is unassailable.” [4] In his view, “A cloned human is like any other human being.”[5] Accordingly, a cloned human can follow and practice Islam. A cloned human is thus capable of Islamic conversion, practice, and marriage, as the cloned person can marry anyone who is not maḥram (a clone cannot marry the woman who carried him in her womb or anyone who contributed genetic material to the clone). One notable difference, however, is that a “cloned person does not inherit.” These fatwās on cloning adjudicate the boundaries of future bodies, relationships, and inheritance.

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Fadlallah has critiqued Sunnī views on cloning by offering different interpretations of the Qur’ānic verses used by Sunnī jurists to adjudicate cloning and other bodily interventions. According to Fadlallah, cloning is not “contrary to religious doctrine,” and it is “not a change to God’s creation.”[6] In his understanding, God is the “creator of human beings,” and it is he who created the possibility of cloning. God is also the creator of the hypothetical clone, whose existence would not be possible if God had not placed the “secret of growth” and “mystery of creation” in him/her. Thus, Fadlallah concludes, we humans “did not change the creation of God, but rather God guided us to create and find another form.”[7]

Rather than frame cloning as an interference in God’s work, Fadlallah posits that cloning uncovers God’s mystery and the secrets of the human body in the process of reproduction, and it does not “create a new law.”[8] In response to Sunni scholars who believe that cloning is akin to a satanic act – based on Qur’ān 4:1119[9] – Fadlallah offers a different reading of the verse:

This verse has been a subject of controversy among the interpreters, because according to the apparent understanding, we should not change anything in God’s creation. We should not change the mountains, we should not change the earth, because this is changing the creation of God. This means that God created the universe in a particular image and any development of this image is changing God’s creation.[10]

However, for Fadlallah, this verse prohibits changing the rules and laws of religion and the laws of nature rather than the body and reproduction. Fadlallah gives several examples of bodily difference and bodily interventions to support his stance. He observes: “We find that some people may have been created with a large nose, or a hand with six fingers, or their sex organs may be deformed during pregnancy, or they may be intersexual. Is plastic surgery for these cases a change to the creation of God according to the meaning of the matter?”[11] Similar legal reasoning regarding the mutability of the body is employed in Shīʿī jurisprudence to permit transsexual surgery, cosmetic surgery, and gamete donation.

Regarding jurists who use Qur’ān 30:30 to argue against perceived attempts to change creation (“So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fiṭra of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah.  That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know.”), Fadlallah asks whether this reference to changing “human nature” (fiṭra) refers instead to the notion of tawhid [in the sense that there is no substitution for God’s creation] or to changing one’s religion.[12] Either way, according to his understanding, “we cannot generalize the meaning of this verse” to include cloning—or, by extension, other bodily interventions and technologies.

Centering the debate as one about the mutability of rules and laws versus the mutability of materiality, Fadlallah posits that transforming materiality can unveil spiritual insight into the mysteries of the universe. Another relevant verse Fadlallah addresses is Qurʿān 2:102: “And from these two [angels] people learn that by which they cause division between man and his wife; but they injure thereby no-one save by Allah’s leave. And they learn that which harmed them and profited them not.” Reasoning from this verse, Sunnī critics of cloning have concluded that changing the structure of the family is forbidden, yet Fadlallah argues, “This verse is only about doing something that virtually ruins the marital relationship and corrupts the relationship between man and woman. It cannot extend so much to cover cloning, at all.”[13] Thus, cloning is not a threat or harm to the marital bond.

Similar to many bioethicists today in the west, Fadlallah is in favor of adjudicating future technologies before their creation and development. From this perspective, there is never any need to wait to consider, weigh, and judge the potential dynamics of a human being interfacing with a future technology and the social, ethical, and legal consequences that may ensue. For example, when asked if cloning could be used to combine humans and animals into a new kind of creature, Fadlallah noted: “The problem is not the scientific discovery of cloning or gene engineering, but the use of thisinformation in demonic ways, if you will.”[14]  Fadlallah stresses the intentions and applications of science to assess whether a technology would be of future benefit or harm to humans. Thus, it is not science that holds the potential for evil, he contends, but the intentions of scientists who should always be moving science in the direction of good.

Fadlallah did not think that human cloning would pose a problem for humankind in the near future because its use would likely be limited due to high costs. However, he believed that the idea of cloning would become normalized over time, just as the initial furor and surprise over “test tube babies” eventually passed and IVF became a popular technology to help those who cannot naturally conceive.

Fadlallah is against both “absolute rejection” and “absolute acceptance” in his fatwās. He acknowledges that his views could change in the future, and embraces a flexible pragmatism.  Should a new point of view or vital information emerge, he notes: “I am ready to engage in dialogue with it. If I find out I was wrong, I have the courage to back down.”[15] Thus, just as his fatwās support the mutability of the body in Islamic jurisprudence, so too does he conceive of his own fatwās as mutable.

Leading Shīʿī jurists have considered biomedical technologies for the assemblage of engineered and future bodies permissible on the grounds that these bodily technologies are not inherently impermissible and the use of biotechnology does not transgress the work of the creator. The adjudication of clones, along with that of transsexuals and gametes on similar legal grounds, reveals a split in how the body is conceived, assembled, and judged in Sunnī and Shīʿī jurisprudence. For Shīʿī jurists, imagined bodily interventions in the future do not usurp the work of the creator, but rather unveil God’s majesty. In the words of Fadlallah, “science reveals the mysteries of the universe, and when we discover the mysteries of the universe, we discover the mystery of the greatness of God.”[16]


[1] Al-Azhar in Egypt and the Muslim World League in Saudi Arabia issued fatwās against human cloning that urged governments around the world to legally ban it. The Fatwa Council of Palestine banned cloning in 2002 on the grounds that “such experiments can cause deformities with serious consequences.” The National Fatwa Council of Malaysia also issued a fatwa against cloning in 2002.

[2] Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, “Cloning,” The Official Website of the Office of His Eminence Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani, accessed February 8, 2020,

[3] Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, “Cloning Ruling,” The Official Website of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, accessed February 8, 2020,

[4] Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, “Cloning Ruling,” The Official Website of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, accessed February 8, 2020,

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Problems of Reproduction: Interview with Marja’ Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah,” Bayynat, accessed February 8th, 2020,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Fadlallah, “Jurisprudence of Life,” Official Website of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Fadlallah, Accessed February 8th, 2020,

[9] “And surely I will lead them astray, and surely I will arouse desires in them, and surely I will command them and they will cut the cattle’s ears, and surely I will command them and they will change Allah’s creation. Whoso chooses Satan for a patron instead of Allah is verily a loser and his loss is manifest” (Qurʾān 4:119).

[10] “Problems of Reproduction: Interview with Marja’ Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah,” Bayynat, accessed February 8th, 2020,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Fadlallah, “Jurisprudence of Life,” Official Website of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Fadlallah, Accessed February 8th, 2020,

[14] “Problems of Reproduction: Interview with Marja’ Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah,” Bayynat, accessed February 8th, 2020,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Fadlallah, “Jurisprudence of Life,” Official Website of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Fadlallah, Accessed February 8th, 2020,

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