What Is the Definition Of a Living Organism, According To Islam?

Question: In the Islamic paradigm, what is life?


Wa alaykum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

Dear questioner,

Thank you for your important question.

This is quite a broad and profound discussion, so I will try to deal with it from just a few angles.


Carrion As the Opposite Of Living

One place where the discussion of defining life comes up in the Islamic tradition is when the jurists dealt with the purity of hides, horns, and hair from animals that die without being Islamically slaughtered.

The Qur’an tells us that carrion (literally dead meat) is forbidden for us. [Qur’an, 5: 3] The scholars state that this tells us that everything that was alive and then died without being Islamically slaughtered is legally filthy. Based on this principle they tried to ascertain what it means to be “alive,” just as the questioner has asked.

They all agreed that the meat of the animal that was once alive and then died is filthy. When it came to the various parts of the dead animal they differed, based on their definition of life.

The Hanafis said that the bones and horns would remain pure even if they came from an animal that was not Islamically slaughtered since they do not have blood flowing in them. The Malikis, Shafiis, and Hanbalis held that bones and horns do “die” since they are “alive” in that they grow and feel pain. Sensitivity and growth were thus the definitions of life.

The Shafiis even went as far as to say that hair is alive because it grows. Growth alone is the definition of life.

They all agreed that saliva and sweat of pure animals are pure because it is not alive to begin with.

As we can see, in this discussion their definition of “alive” spans having blood flowing in it, growth, and sensitivity.


Filth Becoming Life

Another place where this is discussed is filth that becomes pure by change (istihala). Although the Shafis do not actually adopt the concept of becoming pure by change (istihala), they do say that if filth becomes pure when it turns into a living being. For example, a fly that was once a maggot that ate carrion is pure, because it became “alive.” Here they clearly mean something becoming a living organism.


Drawing Pictures Of Animate Life

Similarly, when we look at the issue of drawing animate life, we know we are allowed to draw pictures of trees and other things without souls. This would include things like plants or bacteria. Fulfilling the seven criteria of life (movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, and nutrition) clearly would not count. The definition of life here is that is has a soul.


Science and Matters Ignored By Jurists

Before we move on to in vitro meat itself, we need to understand that the jurists knowing and intentionally overlook certain scientific facts. They recognize that the Sacred Law does not look at things on the molecular level but rather on the level that we as humans perceive things. Gases that are invisible, or even fine sprays of liquid that are unnoticeable to the naked are, are considered insignificant when it comes to spreading filth. Wine, for example, is considered to change into vinegar by itself, even though the role of yeasts is (and was) well known. These are just part of the non-pedantic approach that is demonstrated in the Quran and Sunna.


In Vitro Meat

Ibn Tufayl has a profound discussion on “life” in his Hayy ibn Yaqzan.

I pray this helps.

[Ustadh] Farid Dingle

Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Ustadh Farid Dingle has completed extensive years of study in the sciences of the Arabic language and the various Islamic Sciences. During his studies, he also earned a CIFE Certificate in Islamic Finance. Over the years he has developed a masterful ability to craft lessons that help non-Arabic speakers gain a deep understanding of the language. He currently teaches courses in the Arabic Language.