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Future Generations

Sarra Tlili
The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the major issues in Islamic bioethics, including medicine, clinical practice, genetics, theology, and Islamic law.

Future Generations


As a formal concept in the fields of bio- and environmental ethics, the principle of future generations emerged in the 1960s, when growing concern about new reproductive technologies and intensive modes of economic production led many to question the impact of present human generations on future ones. In the field of bioethics, many have pointed out that noncoital reproduction involved serious physical, psychological, and social risks to the children born through this method, something that necessitated the ethical assessment of their interests alongside those of their parents. In the environmental context, concern for future generations grew out of the realization that current levels of production and consumption together with the resultant ecological footprint threaten the well-being of future human societies.

In both dimensions, the status of future generations raises important philosophical problems. In the field of assisted reproduction, some have raised the question of whether one can have obligations toward “potential people” who may never exist, and whether nonexistence can be preferable to life involving the risk of harm (Peters, 2004). In the field of environmental ethics, some contend that current generations can neither benefit nor harm remotely future ones, not only because the former cannot realistically anticipate the interests and preferences of the latter, but also because the concept of rights cannot apply to nonexistent beings (Partridge, 1990). These problems, however, do not seem to preoccupy Muslim thinkers. Perhaps due to the religious nature of the Islamic discourse and the fact that scriptural and legal sources can be read as showing concern for posterity, Muslim ethicists typically do not question the idea that future generations have claims against current ones.

Future Generations and Reproductive Technologies

Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) have allowed millions of infertile individuals across the globe to fulfill their desire for parenthood, and with the advent of genome-editing technology, the use of human germline modification to treat genetic disorders is drawing near. On the downside, however, ARTs came with a set of unique and often unprecedented challenges, many of which pertain to the children born through these methods. Multiple pregnancies, which remain a salient feature of these technologies, and the use of intracytoplasmic sperm injection in the treatment of male infertility, have been associated with high rates of congenital malformations and other health problems. Statistically, it has been noted “that the overall risk of major birth defects in children born after ART is about 30 percent higher than in children conceived spontaneously” (Ooki, 2013, pp. 31–32). Besides, the fact that ARTs often involve gamete donation can complicate the lives of future children at the social and psychological levels, for example, by exposing them to the social stigma of being born from adulterous relationships and by putting them at the risk of entering unknowingly into incestuous relationships.

Debates about the permissibility of ARTs from an Islamic standpoint consistently bring up the interests of future children as an important consideration, but they generally emphasize the social dimension over the medical one. Muslim jurists do of course consider the physical well-being of the child born through this method a prerequisite for the permissibility of ARTs (Sachedina, 2009, p. 112); however, perhaps due to their limited familiarity with the medical aspect of ART methods, they tend to defer this matter to medical experts.

On the social level, the two points that have been emphasized the most are the child’s right to untainted identity (Sachedina, 2009, p. 103) and her right to inherit from biological relatives (p. 107). In view of this, Muslim jurists, especially in the Sunni tradition, generally allow artificial insemination only if it is restricted to gametes obtained from married couples. Artificial insemination with donor sperm or egg and the use of gestational surrogates is generally disallowed because many equate it with adultery. Therefore, donation is viewed as a violation of the rights of God, but also of the rights of future children as it is assumed that it will damage their social status, thus causing them psychological harm.

The tradition also reflects concern for future children’s economic rights. In Islamic law, biological ties entail economic claims both at the levels of child support and inheritance. This consideration makes many potential Muslim donors reluctant to donate their sperm or egg as they are unsure of the economic obligations entailed by such service (Hudson and Culley, 2015, p. 220).

The mainstream Shīʿī position, however, has evolved from complete banning of all types of third party involvement to approval of these procedures. Morgan Clarke notes that Iran and Lebanon, the two countries with significant Shīʿa populations, are the only Middle Eastern countries that allow gamete donation and gestational surrogacy (2015, p. 35). What is even more remarkable, in Shīʿī culture it is preferable to receive gametes and gestational services from close relatives, including one’s own siblings, even though by other Islamic standards such donation would often be perceived as incestuous (Tremayne, 2015, pp. 74–75). This approach, however, should not be interpreted as a dismissal of future children’s interests, but rather as a rereading of the notions of adultery and incest. Infertile couples and the religious authorities who are comfortable with gamete donation do not see these acts as adulterous or incestuous, as they limit adultery and incest to physical sexual contact between unmarried and closely related individuals.

Future Generations and the Environment

Concern for future generations has also been growing over environmental matters. Modes of intensive production and consumption that emerged with the industrial revolution and continue to grow at an ever-increasing pace have led to major environmental problems, including climate change, depletion of natural resources, destruction of ecosystems, and species extinction. Although the impact of this environmental degradation has already become palpable, it is still believed that future generations will endure the greatest burden of this problem as they may face conditions that will threaten their very survival.

Different approaches have been proposed in response to this situation. The dominant answer, dubbed Weak Sustainability (WS), seeks to integrate environmental care into mainstream economic philosophy. This approach attends to the interests of future generations not by objecting to irreparable damage of the environment, but rather by investing in human resources as a way of compensating for this damage (Lawrence, 2012, pp. 25–26). It also seeks to achieve environmental care by implementing principles such as “the polluter pays” and by encouraging investment in technological solutions to environmental problems. Thus, this modal is satisfied with the incorporation of some improvements into the status quo.

Another model, Strong Sustainability (SS), rejects the substitutability paradigm (the assumption that human resources can substitute for natural ones) and strives to shift society’s goals from maximizing economic growth to maximizing subjective well-being. One of the main goals of SS is thus to shift from a growth economy to a steady-state economy, especially in the North, but eventually also in the South (Herman, 1996, p. 31). It also seeks to cultivate the social and ecological spheres besides the economic one, by promoting social equity, wellness, and ecological care.

Like most environmental thinkers, Muslim environmentalists tend to favor the SS model, which they present as more consonant with Islamic teachings and doctrines. For example, Islam’s insistence on the principles of justice, God-consciousness, balance, and moderation are perceived as naturally conducive to a sustainable society that shuns consumerism and promotes inter- and intra-generational equity (Jayyousi, 2012). Some also argue that attention to future generations is implicit in Islamic teachings and doctrines. For instance, the fact that one of the five underlying objectives of Islamic law (maqāṣid al-Shariʿah) is “the protection of progeny” led Zubair Hasan to conclude that the tradition seeks to insure “inter-generational equity in the distribution of wealth and prosperity, conservation of resources, and sustenance of the environment” (2006, p. 8; emphasis in the original).

These readings of the tradition are not implausible and, if heeded, may produce a favorable impact on Muslims’ attitudes toward the environment. It is however important to point out that the anthropocentric premises on which these interpretations are founded may be counterproductive. These readings are also inconsistent with more traditional ways of assuring environmental care among Muslim societies.

As some environmentalists point out, basing environmental care on the principle of future human generations implies that our moral duties toward the nonhuman world are derived from our duties to other humans. Nature’s instrumental status is indeed common to both the weak and strong versions of sustainability, as both systems’ primary concern is to protect the needs and interests of future humans (Taylor, 2011, p. 11). The anthropocentric premise implicit in this approach has often been blamed as the main underlying cause of the current environmental crisis. It is therefore doubtful that the notion of sustainability, whether in its weak or strong versions, can achieve the profound paradigm shift that is needed for a comprehensive solution of current environmental problems.

Moreover, although the principle of preserving natural resources for the sake of future human generations is not inconsistent with Islamic teachings, this justification does not stem from traditional sources. A survey of Islamic literatures shows that premodern Muslims treated nonhuman life with care and abstained from damaging the environment not out of concern for future generations, but rather because they viewed the nonhuman creation as possessing God-given sanctity (ḥurmah). The Qurʾānic attribution of spiritual features to all beings also inspired respect and deference for the natural world among the pious Muslims (Tlili, 2017). Likewise, fear of legal accountability and, more importantly, of accountability in the afterlife has deterred many Muslims from the abuse of nonhuman life (Tlili, 2015, p. 228). Environmental care was thus shaped by theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, factors.

At the concrete level, the Muslim world is currently one of the major contributors to environmental degradation. Being part of the developing world, Muslim majority countries tend to prioritize economic growth over sustainability and to emphasize intragenerational equity over intergenerational concerns. Combined with political unrest and climate factors linked to some Muslim countries’ geographical locations, these choices can be uniquely high stakes to future human and nonhuman generations especially in the Middle East.


  • al-Jayyousi, Odeh Rashed. Islam and Sustainable Development: New Worldviews. London: Routledge, 2012.
  • Clarke, Morgan. “‘Islamic Bioethics’ in Transnational Perspective.” In Assisted Reproductive Technologies in the Third Phase: Global Encounters and Emerging Moral Worlds, edited by Kate Hampshire and Bob Simpson, pp. 30–45. New York: Berghahn, 2015.
  • Hasan, Zubair. “Sustainable development from an Islamic Perspective: meaning implications and policy concerns.” J.KAU: Islamic Economics 19, no. 1 (2006): 3–18.
  • Herman, Daly E. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
  • Hudson, Nicky, and Lorraine Culley. “Knock, Knock, ‘You’re my Mummy’: Anonymity, Identification and Gamete Donation in British South Asian Communities.” In Assisted Reproductive Technologies in the Third Phase: Global Encounters and Emerging Moral Worlds, edited by Kate Hampshire and Bob Simpson, pp. 214–229. New York: Berghahn, 2015.
  • Lawrence, Peter. “Justice for Future Generations: Environment Discourses, International Law and Climate Change.” In Environmental Discourses in Public and International Law, edited by Brad Jessup and Kim Rubenstein, pp. 23–46. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Ooki, Syuichi. “Nationwide Study of Assisted Reproductive Technology and Multiple Births with Accompanied Birth Defects.” In Advances in Reproductive Technology Research, edited by Ignatz Sanger, pp. 1–70. New York: Nova Biomedical, 2013.
  • Partridge, Ernest. “On the Rights of Future Generations.” In Upstream/Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, edited by Donald Scherer, pp. 40–66. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Also available at gadfly.igc.org/papers/orfg.htm.
  • Peters, Philip G., Jr. “Future Generations, Reproductive Technologies and Obligations to.” In Encyclopedia of Bioethics, Stephen G. Post, editor in chief, 3d ed., vol. 2, pp. 936–942. New York: Macmillan, 2004.
  • Sachedina, Abdulaziz. Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Principles and Application. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Taylor. Paul W. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. 25th anniversary ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Tlili, Sarra. “Animals Would Follow Shafiʿism. Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence to Animals in Medieval Islamic Texts.” In Violence in Islamic Thought from the Qur’an to the Mongols, edited by Robert Gleave and Istvan Kristo-Nagy, pp. 225–244. Oxford: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
  • Tlili, Sarra. “I invoke God Therefore I am: Creation’s Spirituality and its Ecologic Impact in Islamic Texts.” In A Global History of Literature and the Environment, edited by Louise Westling and John Parham, pp. 107–122. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Tremayne, Soraya. “Whither Kinship? Assisted Reproductive Technologies and Relatedness in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” In Assisted Reproductive Technologies in the Third Phase: Global Encounters and Emerging Moral Worlds, edited by Kate Hampshire and Bob Simpson, pp. 69–82. New York: Berghahn, 2015.
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