Transhumanism and the better life

 While some try to ‘enhance’ and ‘augment’ the human condition, we should all remember that this life is only a transition to the Hereafter. 

‘UMAR ibn ‘Abd al-Aziz (d. 720), ­celebrated and highly regarded as a mujaddid (renewer) of Islam and one of the finest rulers after the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, once sought a sage’s counsel.

He wept upon being told, “Nobody from Adam down to your father was safe from death. Now your turn has come.”

In the 2006 film The Fountain, Hugh Jackman played the character Tom Creo, a laboratory scientist who starts to view death as a ­disease when his cancer-stricken wife Izzi dies just as he discovers a cure.

Losing a loved one to a terminal illness is often a heart-breaking experience. While it may turn some to the lifelong noble work of treating diseases, there are those who even go beyond their limits of responsibility, treating death itself as pathological and taking it upon themselves to “cure” it.

As history demonstrates very well, what began as fiction has quite often been translated into well-­funded concrete efforts.

In his book Physics of the Future, theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku discusses the possibilities of merging man with machine, replacing his disease-ridden or ageing organic parts with robotic ones and endowing him with super­human qualities and immortality.

As envisioned by British biologist Julian Huxley who coined the term “transhumanism”, with the unpre­cedented exponential growth of Artificial Intelligence, machine­-learning, nanotechnology, and robotics as well as advancements in biotechnology, pharmacology and genetic engineering, technological convergence could – to use the parlance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – “enhance” and “augment” the human condition.

It is pretty tantalising. However, there are still issues of deliberate inaccessibility and unjust monopoly that need addressing.

On the one hand, the promises of newer technologies often elude poorer segments of the society, tending to benefit only the rich and powerful who would pay large sums in order to lay their hands on so-called “human enhancement technologies” (HET).

It is not merely thought experiment; there are people who spend fortunes getting implants and undergoing body-altering ­surgeries.

On the other hand, it is a quest that could end horribly. A situation could be created where only a handful of elites would monopolise access to HET.

As English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller puts it in The Holy State and the Profane State: “yea they which play with the ­devil’s rattles, will be brought by degrees to wield his sword, and from making of sport they come to doing of mischief”.

God warns in the Holy Quran how far evil men would go with devilry. Before his humiliating death, the terribly dominating Pharaoh, supported by his regime and vast resources at his disposal, declared himself as supreme being and demanded a monument be built so he could challenge God after being admonished for his transgressions (28:38).

While the controversy surrounding the anti-ageing sentiment is largely semantic, the reality of death as “natural” and disease as “pathologic” is that they are only causalities designed for the way human beings are wired to think.

God is perfectly capable of causing death in the absence of disease; it is only due to His customary way of acting (sunnatu’Llah) that we are able to have first-hand experience of His Power.

Thus, He says, “And it is God who withholds and grants abundance, and to Him you will be returned.” (2:245)

Man possesses the inherent propensity to long for unlimited power as well as everlasting life (encapsulated respectively in the Arabic terms mulk and khuld), which makes him vulnerable to satanic temptation (7:20). Without divine guidance, the imagination stemming from that inner drive would turn people into little Pharaohs themselves.

Think about the people who bought the patent rights to life­saving drugs only to sell these ­medicines at cut-throat prices; they betray and unjustly exploit those in dire need.

Thus, secularisation produces the sort of mentality that attempts to wrongly actualise in the here-and-now what rightly belongs to and that which can only be realised in the Hereafter.

The Holy Prophet instructs us to treat illnesses but we are also reminded of the ephemeral nature of life in this world, which is transitionary to the Hereafter, where there is the infinitely better life (93:4).

For this reason, Muslim artisans of the past, such as in Andalusian Spain, worked to recreate only a vision of the Garden; admiration and beautification are acts of piety, as opposed to denying the inevitable by attempting to create “Heaven on Earth”.

In a recent Saturday Night Lecture held at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation, the centre’s ­founder Professor Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud expounded on how our civilisation’s scientific and technological development may improve its trajectory while we take the opportunity to better ourselves morally, spiritually, and intellectually.

Ultimately, it is to produce people whose good deeds live on and do not die a humiliating Pharaonic death.

Muhammad Husni Mohd Amin is ­senior research officer at Ikim’s Centre for Science and Environment Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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