(Dr Muhammad Mohiuddin’s interview on University of Maryland’s website).
Earlier this month, a team of surgeons from the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) in Baltimore made history by transplanting a genetically modified pig heart into David Bennett, a 57-year-old patient with a bad heart. This led to a lot of enthusiasm medical community and gives hope to millions of people around the world who wait for organ transplants for years, often dying without getting one.
This has also resulted in religious outcry by many, especially among the Jews and Muslims, who consider pigs as unclean, and are prohibited from consuming pork products. For Muslims, the thought of even touching a pig is often met with contempt. Often times Muslims would engage in many prohibited acts such as premarital sex and drinking alcohol but pork is always a no-no even for the non-observing Muslims.
The Medical Story
Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, a graduate of Dow Medical College at Karachi, Pakistan is a Professor of Surgery and Director of the Cardiac Xenotransplantation Program, and his team at UMSOM made history by doing the first ever pig-to-human heart transplantation. He was also part of the surgery team that has worked for decades on researching the genetic manipulation of the pig organs to avoid human rejection. He and his team also developed an immune-suppressing drug procedure to help ensure the host body did not reject the pig hearts. Dr. Bartley Griffith, director of the Cardiac and Lung Transplant Programs at that institution was one of the main surgeons who performed the transplant surgery.
David Bennett, who had irregular heart beat, was not a viable candidate for the heart transplant. The pig heart he received had 10 genetic modifications, including the removal of four pig genes and the addition of six human genes to ensure the organ does not get rejected.
So far it is reported to be working fine without any rejection attempts by his body. This has far reaching implication in the field of organ transplantation and is welcome news for millions of people who are waiting for a heart, liver, kidney, pancreas or other organs.
But is getting a pig’s heart not forbidden for Muslims and Jews?
Back to the religious debate:
The prohibition to eat pork is clear and unambiguous in the Qur’an and the Old Testament.
He has only forbidden you what dies of itself, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that over which any other (name) than (that of) Allah has been invoked; but whoever is driven to necessity, not desiring, nor exceeding the limit, no sin shall be upon him; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. The Qur’an 2:173
Leviticus chapter 11 details what types of animals are allowed and what types are forbidden.
Of all the land animals, these are the ones you may use for food. You may eat any animal that has completely split hooves and chews the cud. Leviticus 3-4
It goes on to name many animals that cannot be consumed for food, including the pigs.
The pig has evenly split hooves but does not chew the cud, so it is unclean. You may not eat the meat of these animals or even touch their carcasses. They are ceremonially unclean for you. Leviticus 8-9
Therefore, the pig heart, even if genetically modified would be considered non-halal and non-kosher, right? Wrong.
Let me start by a disclaimer: I am not an Islamic jurist or an expert on Islamic law or Fiqh. But a review of the verses from the Qur’an makes it rather clear, as far as I am concerned. Why is getting a pig’s heart halal and kosher? Let’s dig a little deeper. I would hate to speak for my Jewish cousins but the same rules and exceptions also seem to apply for them, as noted below.
Even though eating the flesh of swine is prohibited, there are exceptions, like in so many of the religious rulings.
Say: I do not find in that which has been revealed to me anything forbidden for an eater to eat of except that it be what has died of itself, or blood poured forth, or flesh of swine– for that surely is unclean– or that which is a transgression, other than (the name of) Allah having been invoked on it; but whoever is driven to necessity, not desiring nor exceeding the limit, then surely your Lord is Forgiving, Merciful. The Qur’an 6:145
Forbidden to you is that which dies of itself, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that on which any other name than that of Allah has been invoked, and the strangled (animal) and that beaten to death, and that killed by a fall and that killed by being smitten with the horn, and that which wild beasts have eaten, except what you slaughter, and what is sacrificed on stones set up (for idols) and that you divide by the arrows; that is a transgression. This day have those who disbelieve despaired of your religion, so fear them not, and fear Me. This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed My favor on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion; but whoever is compelled by hunger, not inclining willfully to sin, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. The Qur’an 5:3
First of all, getting a pig’s heart transplanted in your body is not the same as eating pork. Secondly, as the verses above show, even eating the pork is allowed when you are compelled and have no other choice to survive. Life is considered precious and sacred and one must do everything in his/her power to protect it.
And then the following verse really makes the point even more clear, though not in direct relation to eating pork.
For this reason did We prescribe to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all humanity; and whoever saves a life it is as though he saved all humanity; and certainly Our messengers came to them with clear arguments, but even after that many of them certainly act extravagantly in the land. The Qur’an 5:32
The command to the Israelites mentioned above can be found in Talmud.
“Therefore the man was created singly, to teach that he who destroys one soul of a human being, the Scripture considers him as if he should destroy a whole world, and him who saves one soul of Israel, the Scripture considers him as if he should save a whole World.” (Babylonian Talmud- Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)
In other words, if you are using pig to save a life, you are saving all of humanity! You put the Quran’s verses quoted above giving an exemption in case of hardship, and verse 5:32 (and the corresponding passage from Mishnah) together and you will get the answer yourself. But to be clear, I am not suggesting or recommending that it is OK for Muslims (or Jews) to eat pork or use pig products under normal, non life threatening situations or other conditions without the “hardship”, when other alternatives are available. As a a matter of full disclosure, I do not eat or consume pork products myself.
But in David’s case, it was necessary to get the heart, albeit from a pig, to save a life.And there are/will be many situations where there is no good alternative to save a life.
So kudos to Dr Muhammad Mohiuddin and Dr Griffith for their groundbreaking work.
The article was inspired by a YouTube video by EngineerMuhammad Ali Mirza, a Pakistani-based religious scholar.