The Debate on Genetically Manipulated Food

 Bismillah Al-Rahmani Al-Rahim

(In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful)

The Debate on Genetically Manipulated Food

An Islamic perspective

Since 1975, new developments in genetic engineering have had a great impact on food agriculture. Through the technique of transferring a selected individual gene from one organism to another organism, even between non-related species, science made it possible to create a “wonder product”. Today scientists can alter the genetic material (DNA) of a crop so that it becomes tolerant to drought or resistant against plant diseases caused by pests or viruses. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even tried to enact legislation on the approval of a genetically modified salmon in the US market. This “Super-Salmon” grows twice as fast as the ordinary Salmon would. The FDA has assessed that the fish is fit for human consumption and does not pose any threats to human health or to the environment. It would be the first genetically modified animal on the food market.

The US food market is a pioneer in genetically modified food (GMF) production. Approximately 85 percent of soybeans, 70 percent of cotton fields and 50 percent of GM corn are transgenic.[1] Even many Muslim majority countries have indicated a positive attitude towards such new developments in genetically engineered food. Iran imports transgenic food commodities such as edible oil, oilseed and cereals from leading biotech crop countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Canada. The UAE import transgenic basmati and non-basmati rice, tomatoes, aubergines, maize, groundnut, potatoes and cabbage from India.[2] A majority of Middle Eastern countries do not yet have specific regulations which govern foods containing genetically modified ingredients. At present Malaysia holds the lead in conducting research, organising workshops and conferences to find and build a consensus on governmental policies and Islamic responses to transgenic food. But Islamic scholars still debate if such food is even permissible in Islam.

Opponents, such as Greenpeace or Mother Earth in particular, warn that genetically modified food may have a dramatic impact on human health and the environment. Their scientists argue that there have not been enough studies yet and whether and how transgenic food impact human health is still uncertain.

The aim of this essay is to outline an Islamic perspective on the issue of genetically modified food. The paper proceeds in two parts. Firstly, it will briefly assess Islamic ethics on food. Secondly, the debate on genetically modified food will be outlines in relation to Islamic principles. The second part concentrates on genetic engineering and food production, environmental contamination, animals and intellectual property rights.

Food Ethics in Islam

Ethical behaviour in Islam is an essential component of faith. Islamic ethics include components such as behaviour, characteristics and values that are good and pure. The fundamental sources of Islam, the Quran and the Sunna (sayings and actions of the Prophet) provide man with guidelines and obligations that one has to act upon to preserve a good and healthy life. The Quran states:

‘Those who follow the messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, whom they will find described in the Torah and the Gospel (which are) with them. He will enjoin on them that which is right and forbid them that which is wrong. He will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them only the foul; and he will relieve them of their burden and the fetters that they used to wear’ (7:157). [3]

When considering an Islamic conception of food ethics, we need to take either the verses from the Quran or refer to the sayings of the Prophet which relate to rules and considerations regarding food codes. Islamic ethics emphasise food that is good, wholesome, and pure among that which is permissible (halal).[4] Food with these mentioned characteristics are called ‘tayyib’ in Arabic which refers to purity both in the physical and moral sense. [5]

A Quranic verse says: ‘O messengers, eat from the good foods and work righteousness. Indeed, I, of what you do, am Knowing’ (2:172). [6]

So on one side Muslims are provided with guidelines on specific food codes within the primary sources of Islam; but in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of this issue, authentic and scientific knowledge is essential. These two components are essential to issue a legitimate legislation (fatwa) and therefore it is essential for Islamic scholars to work closely with food scientists and experts. Issues and questions that cannot be answered by simply referring to Quran and Hadith are addressed by Islamic scholars (ulamā) by using consensus (ijmā), analogy (qiyās) based on the Quran and Sunna, and the personal effort, judgement or reasoning (id̲j̲tihād) of the qādī. Another important component of Islamic law and with particular relevance for ethics is the concept of “general good” or“public interest” (maslaha).

Throughout the discussion of GMF this article will keep referring to the fundamental sources of Islam in order to relate the matter discussed to the Islamic perspective of food. The purpose of this paper is not to produce an Islamic legislation (fatwā). Rather, it only aims to give insight into the debate on GMF and the complexity of using Islamic sources on the issue. Obviously, the Arabs at the time of the Prophet Muhammad were not able to transfer genes from one organism to another. Hence, answering the question of the permissibility of such food is quite challenging.

What is genetically engineered food?

For thousands of years humans have been altering the genomes of plants to produce desirable characteristics.  Conventional plant and animal farming use techniques such as selective breeding. A plant breeder exchanges genes between two plants so that a better variety is developed. The difference between the traditional and the contemporary breeding is that techniques used today enable an easier transfer of selected traits in a more precise and controlled manner than conventional breeding.[7] Furthermore, scientists are able to exchange genes between non-related species that are alien to each other. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.[8]

There are various ways in which molecular biologists can transfer genes form one species to another. For example we want a corn that is glyphosate resistant. Glyphosate is used as a herbicide to kill weeds. By making the corn glyphosate resistant, the farmer is able to eradicate weeds without destroying his crops. The molecular scientist is taking a gene from a bacterium that contains the glyphosate resistance in its genetic material. (This bacterium was found in the outflow pipe of a Monsanto roundup manufacturing facility).[9]The scientist then allows the bacterium to infect the corn cell and the bacterium transfers the excised gene at the same time. The infected corn cell takes on the properties of the excised gene.[10]The same process is being applied for other characteristics that could help the farm industry such as making the plant insect protected. The cell is infected with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT toxin) that is lethal to insects. The toxin paralyses the insect’s digestive tract and prevents it from eating and starves to death.[11]

Virus resistant genes are also used to make plants resistant against diseases. This process by which genetically modified plants and food are created is called Agrobacterium tumefaciens mediated transformation. Another common process that molecular biology is using is the biolistic method (particle gun). With the help of a device, biologists are able to inject genetic information into cells.

Islamic perspective on altering food

In any discussion of genetically modified foods and an Islamic perspective on the subject, the following verses should be considered:

‘And I will mislead them, and I will arouse in them [sinful] desires, and I will command them so they will slit the ears of cattle, and I will command them so they will change the creation of Allah." And whoever takes Satan as an ally instead of Allah has certainly sustained a clear loss’ (4:119). [12]

Another verse states:

’So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah 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’ (30:30).[13]

One meaning of these two verses refers to the innate inclination towards the oneness of Allah. Every human being is born with this innate inclination. So God created every creature with the fitrah (i.e. God-given nature, also refers to Islamic monotheism). So the verses advise by saying ‘do not change the creation of Allah’, that it will corrupt the inner nature and divert the people away from fitrah with which He has created them. [14] Another interpretation can relate to the direct alteration of living organism and living beings, i.e. physical alteration. In that sense it would address genetic engineering, which manipulates the creation of God and interferes in His divine creation.

While discussing physical alteration, it is interesting to look at the following tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet went through Madînah and saw farmers grafting different species of date-palm seedlings. They did so in order to produce higher yields and resistant date crops. [15]

It was reported that Raafi’ ibn Khudayj said: The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) came to Madînah, and they were pollinating the date-palms.  He said, ‘What are you doing?’ They said, ‘We always used to pollinate them.’ He said, ‘Perhaps if you do not do that, it will be better.’

So they did not do it, and the harvest was lacking. They mentioned that to him, and he said, ‘I am only a human being like you. If I tell you to do something with regard to religion, then follow it, but if I tell you to do something based on my own opinion, I am only a human being’.[16]

This tradition makes the debate on GMF very interesting. Firstly, it shows that even back in the time of the Prophet, Arabs were changing food crops through selective breeding. Secondly, the Prophet ultimately changed his position and admitted that he made a mistake, as he did not have enough knowledge of agriculture and farming. But even more interesting is the fact that he said “If I tell you to do something with regard to religion, then follow it, but if I tell you to do something based on my own opinion, I am only a human being.” This leads to the questions whether secular and scientific matters can and should be primarily decided by the direct teachings from revelation.[17]


 The debate on genetically engineering in agriculture

Genetic engineering for increasing Food Production

According to Monsanto (one of the leading companies in the production of genetically engineered seeds) genetic engineering makes yield stability and more sustainable forms of agriculture possible. The company even argues that world hunger can be minimised and livelihood of millions of people in the developed world can be improved. For instance, more reliable and constant levels of food production can be achieved by introducing drought tolerant seeds. Especially for farmers in hot countries, the risk of yield loss can be mitigated when experiencing drought stress.[18]In addition, the amount of water usage in food farming is quite high. Through the introduction of drought tolerant seeds, water can be used for other purposes such as for human consumption.

GE could even make food more nutritious. Genes responsible for producing vitamins or minerals can be inserted in rice for example providing a higher concentration of vitamins. Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem in the developed world. It may render individuals blind and millions of people die from diseases, which healthy people could survive. Supporters of the so-called Golden Rice claim it could help millions of people.

If we look at Islamic teachings, Muslims are obliged to improve the living standards of the poor via charity (zakat) or by feeding the poor or by using our resources that God provided us with in this world. A tradition of the Prophet mentions:

‘Whichever believer feeds a hungry believer, Allah feeds him from the fruits of Paradise on the Day of Resurrection. Whichever believer gives drink to a thirsty believer, Allah gives him to drink from the 'sealed nectar' on the Day of Resurrection. Whichever believer clothes a naked believer, Allah clothes him from the green garments of Paradise.’[19]

In addition, there are many Quranic verses that motivate Muslims to conduct research and investigate God’s creation. The Qur’an says:

‘Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding. Who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], "Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire’ (3:190-191).[20]

On the other hand organisations like Greenpeace and Mother Earth claim that introducing and producing GMF has serious consequences for human health, food security and the environment. One of the most crucial issues within GMF is the fact that scientists do not yet know what consequences it will have on humans and animals. There are studies that found negative impacts of GMF on test animals. For instance, a research project of the University of Caen in France found that GM corn leads to an increase in the occurrence of tumours and to an early death in test animals.

As mentioned in the discussion of Islamic ethics and food, food is only permissible if it is good, wholesome and pure (tayyib). But if there is scientific research providing information on negative impacts on human health and still scientists are not sure whether GMF has risks on human health, how can this food be considered tayyib?

Opponents argue that introducing GM crops to third world countries would not eliminate world hunger, which is primarily caused by inequalities and disparities in the allocation and distribution of resources, rather than a lack of food as such. Security of food supplies are another aspect to a complex challenge.

Genetic Engineering and the Reduction of Environmental Contamination

A main goal of the introduction of genetically modified food was crop protection. As seen in the above discussion on genetic engineering, such protection can vary from increased virus to herbicide tolerance and to insect resistance. Supporters of genetic engineering claim that it enhances more sustainable forms of farming as it reduces environmental impacts of food production and industrial processes. The use of herbicide tolerant - or insect resistance seeds reduce the usage of herbicides and pesticides chemicals. These chemicals heavily contaminate soil and water and have negative impacts on human health.

Islamic teachings place an emphasis on a sustainable form of agriculture. It is a duty for every Muslim to protect and conserve natural resources, as God has created them. There are many different reasons why Muslims have to keep the environment safe and healthy.

The Quran says:

‘So whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it’ (99:7-8).[21]

This verse teaches us that God does not only reward or punish a Muslim for his deeds towards other humans, but a person is accountable for his/her deeds to every living organism. The Quran goes even as far that it considers humans, animals and nature as Muslim, i.e. everything in this universe that submits to the will of God is being called Muslim (submissive). Islamic scholars believe that everything, which submits to God and celebrates His glory, is evidence that nature has to be regarded as a living being with intrinsic values.[22]

The Quran says:

‘Do you not see that Allah is exalted by whomever is within the heavens and the earth and [by] the birds with wings spread [in flight].Each [of them] has known his [means of] prayer and exalting [Him], and Allah is Knowing of what they do’ (24:41).[23]

Another aspect of Islam and environmental ethics, and very relevant to GM food, is the concept of the stewardship or vicegerent (khalīfah). God entrusted part of His power on earth to man, so that he may take the leadership and the responsibility over all other beings and everything in this world. This leadership and the way man is supposed to maintain the world has to be in accordance to God's rules. So Muslims have the duty to keep this world healthy, balanced and safe so that not only present generations could meet their needs but also enabling future generations to meet their needs. That would imply for example sustainable agriculture should be pursued. A tradition of the Prophet Muhammad confirms this:

‘If any one deprives an heir of his inheritance, Allah will deprive him of his inheritance in Paradise on the Day of Resurrection’.[24]

According to Greenpeace and Mother Earth it is not true that by implementing herbicide tolerant and insect resistance crops, less pesticides and other chemicals need to be released on the fields. It is actually the opposite.  Nature adapts to the weed and insect resistance and in the long term even more and stronger pesticides have to be used to protect the yield of the farmer. In addition, the use of insect resistant crops affects organisms and animals that are non-target species such as birds, butterflies and other microorganisms.

Another issue that farmers would face is that once GM plants are released into the environment it will likely result in GM genes being carried away from the field in which the crop is growing via pollination.[25] Consequently GM crops can spread uncontrollably. This would have dramatic consequences on the transparency of the food market as GM products and non-GM products are mixed in the food chain. (The uncontrolled spread of GM pollen can also lead to problems with regards to intellectual property rights.  The issue of intellectual property rights will be discussed on a later part of this essay).

Opponents of GMF claim that by introducing GM crops, environmental contamination is not being eliminated but instead further advanced. It also has to be taken into consideration that there are more sustainable forms of agriculture that actually do not need or use pesticides except to a small extent. If farmers would not adopt such unsustainable practices, then maybe it would minimise the need to introduce herbicide or insect resistant seeds.

If the claims of opponents should turn out to be accurate, then the usage of GM crops and food would contradict Islamic rules and principles. But as previously mentioned in the discussion, the precise consequences of GMF are not yet known. The question that arises here is whether it is halal (permissible) to introduce GMF to the food market, even though it is quite uncertain what impacts such a step would bring with itself?

Animals and Genetic Engineering

As mentioned earlier in the introduction, not only plants are subject to genetic manipulation, genetic engineering is also used on animals in order to enhance the appearance of desirable characteristics. The first animal that was approved for human consumption (according to the FDA) is a salmon type called AquaAdvantage. It grows faster and is twice as big as normal salmon. Scientists are already creating various other genetically manipulated animals. For instance, scientists attempted to solve the problem of overheated chickens exposed to hot weather conditions in breeding boilers with genetic manipulation that would render them featherless. Such research is of course not only being conducted on livestock to improve production traits and disease resistance; but also for other purposes such as new medical developments (i.e. to create therapeutic proteins in milk or blood or to produce vaccines and medicines) or to enhance deeper and further understanding of genetic engineering in mammals. For example, through GE it is possible to breed rabbits that glow green in the night by inserting jelly fish genes into the rabbit.

With regards to using GM livestock for human consumption, the same argument can be applied to GM vegetables and other non-meat food. The precise impacts on human health are still contested and remain subject to further research, which will allow us to establish whether this food can be called good, wholesome and pure and permissible to eat form an Islamic consideration.

If we look at genetic engineering in all its aspects, it has great advantages for human welfare and scientific developments. But animal experiments raise major ethical and Islamic issues with regards to welfare. There are many problems with performing experiments on animals. One of the problems, for example, is the increasing laboratory use of GM animals. The same research is being carried out in many laboratories in this world, which means a large number of animals die or suffer unnecessarily. Furthermore, many GM animals are not being kept species-appropriate.

God created the animal for our human purposes, that man can take advantage and improve his living standard by using animals. As this Quranic verse states:

‘It is Allah who made for you the grazing animals upon which you ride, and some of them you eat. And for you therein are [other] benefits and that you may realise upon them a need which is in your breasts; and upon them and upon ships you are carried (40:79-80).’[26]

But as earlier discussed man carries the responsibility of being the khalīfah on this earth and leading the world in a just and good manner by implementing God's rules.

The Prophet stated: ‘If you must kill, kill without torture.’[27]

He also said: ‘He who takes pity (even) on a sparrow and spares its life Allah will be merciful on him on the Day of Judgement.’[28]

Intellectual Property Rights

Normally farmers use new seeds from one harvest and plant them in the soil for the next crop production. This is different with hybrid seeds. Farmers who use GM seeds need to buy new ones after every harvest from the manufacturer. Thus, farmers are committed to a contract that forbids saving seeds. To achieve better transparency and security in this system, Monsanto introduced a technology called terminator into food crops, which produce plants that grow sterile seeds.[29] With this technique, it is easier for Monsanto to protect its intellectual property rights. This leaves farmers in a state of dependency on seed producers and constitutes a great loss in their autonomy.

But these intellectual property rights and patents can also affect neighbouring farmers who are not using GM seeds, as transgenic pollen pass on their characteristics to neighbouring crops. While Trish Jordan, director of public and industry affairs for Monsanto Canada, states that ‘it is not, nor has it ever been Monsanto Canada's policy to enforce its patent on Roundup Ready crops when they are present on a farmer's field by accident’[30], there have been a number of legal disputes in such cases. For instance, there was a case involving litigation between a farmer (Schmeiser) and Monsanto. Monsanto found roundup-resistant canola on Schmeiser’s field although he never purchased any. He claimed that GM pollen from neighbouring yields affected his crop and insisted on the ownership of his seeds. In 2004 the Canadian Supreme court decided in Monsanto’s favour.[31]

There is a degree of inconsistency in Monsanto claims that it wants to eliminate world hunger and enhance a more sustainable agriculture especially in third world countries, when it makes farmers dependent on GM seeds and makes them loose their autonomy through patent regulations.

The Prophet Muhammad said: ‘Whoever withholds food (in order to raise its price), has certainly erred!’ [32]

Islamic scholars need to examine the issue of GM Food and intellectual property rights and patents and to conclude whether it is compatible with the fundamentals of Islam. Islamic legislations should protect farmers and other individuals from pure profit considerations of GM companies.

The discussion on GM food and Islamic ethics is ambiguous and broad and this essay did not discuss all topics and issues linked to the topic such as transparent labelling and pork genes in vegetables and so forth. Islamic positions on the permissibility of GM food are not transparent, very contested and still need further awareness and research from Islamic scholars. Islamic judges engaging with this matter need to receive transparent and accurate information about genetic engineering and genetically modified food by relevant experts.
Iran’s Ayatullah Muhammad Ali al-Taskhiri is quite optimistic about the outcome of biotechnology.[33] But he also said that ‘there should be no haste in making ethical decisions as long as the scientific results are inconclusive’.[34] Dr Hasan Ali al-Shadhili from Egypt regards GMF with sensitivity. While he has a positive viewpoint on biotechnology, he also is concerned about the harmful effects.[35] Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa on the permissibility of GM food. It regards GM food as safe and healthy, but stresses the necessity of labelling GM products if GE ingredients exceed 0.9 percent.[36]  Even though there are only few fatāwā released and Islamic stances are ambivalent, Muslim majority countries already importing transgenic seeds and food as for instance Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Malaysia and Iran.


This article has given an account of the issue of transgenic food in relation to Islamic principles. The first point that has to be considered when looking at GE and Islam is that Islam only regards food as permissible to eat if it is tayyib (pure and wholesome). So on one side food has to be healthy for human consumption, but on the other hand it also has to be produced by honest means. Islamic ethics stress on doing good and avoiding harmful actions. Whether genetically engineered food is permissible in Islam is quite difficult to establish as there is no direct information on GE in the Quran and Hadith, as it did not exist at that time. There are statements in the Quran and in the Hadith on changing the creation of God but they are ambiguous.

Supporters of GMF claim that introducing transgenic seeds and food have great benefits for human mankind and the environment including: minimising world hunger and enhancing sustainable agriculture. Yet, opponents such as Greenpeace and Mother Earth argue that it does exactly the opposite: health impacts are not known yet and environmental contamination even increases.

Islam stresses on feeding the hungry and helping the poor and it also enhances a sustainable form of agriculture. But as seen in the above discussion the consequences of GMF are uncertain, so it is very difficult from an Islamic viewpoint to declare it as beneficial or not.

In relation to animals and GE, Islam also offers guidelines that believers have to follow. Here as well, the question of negative impacts on human health remains. Animals need to be treated as species appropriate and are not allowed to suffer and killed for no reason.

The final point of this essay concentrated on intellectual property rights. GM seed companies hold intellectual property rights and patents on their products. Hence famers are not allowed to use new seeds from one harvest for the next, and thus rely on purchasing new seeds for each season. This also raises issues with neighbouring yields that are affected by the transfer of GM pollen.

In conclusion then, it can be said that Islamic scholars need to seriously investigate the issue of GMF and prove its conformity to principles established within Islamic sources. Such an investigating necessarily requires close collaborations between traditional areas of scholarship with modern natural and life sciences. The presentation of the issues and challenges outlined in this paper is intended to serve as a starting point for further in-depth examination and debates on the subject.



[1] OrganicConsumers

[2] Landais (2007)

[3] altafsir 7:157

[4] Moosa, (2009), p.136

[5] ibid.

[6] 2:172

[7] Majālī (2001), p.92

[8] World HealthOrganization

[9] Adler (2011)

[10] Shaw (2005), p. 216

[11] ibid., p.221

[12] 4:119

[13] 30:30

[14] Tafsir Ibn Kathir

[15] Moosa (2009), p.138

[16] Muslim, Hadith 2361

[17] Moosa (2009), p. 139

[18] Monsanto – DroughtGardHybrids

[19] at-Tirmidhi, Vol.4, Book 11, Hadith 2449

[20], 3:190-191

[21] 99:7-8

[22] Al-Ghazali (2009), p.7


[24] at-Tirmidhi, Hadith 3078

[25] Shaw (2005), p. 225

[26] 30:79-80

[27] Masri (2007). p. 34

[28]  An-Nasai, 7:206

[29] Hanani (2005), p.5

[30] Schubert (2002)

[31] Supreme Court Judgment (2004)

[32]  Islamweb – Prophetic Prohibition against economic monopolies

[33] Mossa, p.145

[34] ibid.

[35] ibid.

[36] USDA ForeignAgriculural Service



Shaw, I. C. (2005). Is it safe to eat?: Enjoy eating and minimize food risks. Berlin: Springer.

Majālī, ʻAbd -S,

Mehmet Ergin,

Mouneef R. Zouʻbi.

(2004) Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering for Development in the Islamic World: Proceedings of the Conference on Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering for Development in the Islamic World Held in Rabat, Morocco, 22-26 October 2001. Amman: Islamic Academy of Sciences


Jerry Adler (May 2011). The Growing Menace From Superweeds. Scientific American.

EbrahimMoosa (2009) Genetically Modified Foods and Muslim Ethics (in 'Acceptable Genes? - Religious Traditions and Genetically Modified Foods), New York: Sunypress


YasminHanani (2005) Islam and Biotechnology: With special Reference to Genetically Modfied Foods; Philadelphia:Metanexus Institute

Robert Schubert (2002) Schmeiser wants to take it to the Supreme Court; CropChoice editor

Canadian Supreme

Court Judgments (2004) Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser


Organic Consumers


World Health Organization

Monsanto – Drought Gard Hybrids

Genetic Manipulation of Animals

Tafsir Ibn Kathir:

USDA Foreign Agriculural Service

Islamweb – Prophetic Prohibition against economic monopolies

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[…] further in-depth examination and debates on the subject.” – Isabel Schatzschneider, The Debate on Genetically Manipulated Food: An Islamic Perspective, […]

[…] further in-depth examination and debates on the subject.” – Isabel Schatzschneider, The Debate on Genetically Manipulated Food: An Islamic Perspective, […]

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