Jazib Mehmood, Student Jamia Ahmadiyya International, Ghana
The cover story of the January 2023 issue of National Geographic UK, “Living Longer and Better”, was eye-catching. The article sums up everything that is happening in the exciting, almost unbelievable field of ageing; whether there are things we can do to slow down, reverse, or otherwise change the process of growing older. (www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/aging-cure-longevity-science-technology-feature)
Speaking about everything from recombinant growth hormone treatments to cellular reprogramming, the fascinating work on human longevity seems to show great promise and might – in the foreseeable future – extend lives by decades.
Dreaming of immortality
There are valid reasons to be fascinated with the idea that we might live longer than we do today, or even that we might stop ageing altogether. Death is, after all, the one unchanging variable in an equation of life that has a great many unseen aspects. Time affects us all, and there is nothing we can do to stop the inevitability of our finiteness.
This has not stopped Man from dreaming of immortality, whether it is the fountain of youth or the elixir of life. And although we have, shall we say, “not quite reached there”, we have managed to increase our average life expectancy remarkably.
Now, all the evidence seems to suggest that human biology can be optimised for greater longevity. It is no wonder that investors are pouring billions into this field. Over the past few years, investment in the industry has come from tech tycoons, overnight crypto millionaires, and most recently, Saudi royals. (Regalado, A. 7 June 2022. Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow ageing. Retrieved from MIT Technology Review: www.technologyreview.com/2022/06/07/1053132/saudi-arabia-slow-aging-metformin/)
This work is powered by artificial intelligence, big data, cellular reprogramming, and “an increasingly exquisite understanding” of the molecules that keep our bodies working. Some researchers even talk of “curing” ageing. (National Geographic, January 2023, Vol. 243, No. 1, p. 45)
The science of human longevity
There are, however, significant hurdles in this field that are yet to be solved. Although human life expectancy has more than doubled (to 73.4 years), this gain has come at a cost: a staggering rise in chronic and degenerative illnesses. (www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/mortality-and-global-health-estimates/ghe-life-expectancy-and-healthy-life-expectancy) Ageing remains the biggest risk factor for cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, and just about every other major illness.
However, scientists now feel that they are in a position to tackle the one last great obstacle that stands in the way of mankind. We are learning more about other animals that live far longer than we do. Great strides in gene therapy also point to the very real possibility that very soon, humans might reach what is believed to be the natural maximum human life span: 120 to 125 years.
For example, Greenland sharks usually live for about 250 years, and some live even longer. Ocean quahog clams from the seabed north of Iceland can live up to 500 years or more. Mole rats also live very long lives.
Then, there are some hotspots around the world where a concentration of longevity among the general population has excited some curiosity among many scientists, who believe the habits of the people of Japan or Italy, among others, might lead us to understand what we need to do to naturally increase our life spans.
But the field is still young. The science of human longevity was not very promising until about 30 years ago when molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon altered one gene in small roundworms and doubled their life span. The mutants even acted younger as well. (The Guardian, 7 March 2013; www.theguardian.com/science/2013/mar/17/cynthia-kenyon-rational-heroes-interview)
Similarly, in 2006, a Japanese stem cell researcher, Shinya Yamanaka, discovered how to reprogramme adult cells and return them to an embryonic-like state (and subsequently won the Nobel Prize). This revolutionised cell biology, and now, researchers are trying to use his technique, called cellular reprogramming or epigenetic reprogramming, to “reverse ageing” and eradicate the illnesses that come with it. (www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-aging-reversible/)
There have also been significant developments in reversing immunological ageing by using recombinant human growth hormone, a drug used to treat children with short stature, that could rejuvenate the body’s defences against disease (www.cell.com/molecular-therapy-family/molecular-therapy/fulltext/S1525-0016(04)01310-3). However, it comes with an increased risk of some cancers and type 2 diabetes, which means some other drugs would be needed to combat the adverse effects of the hormone.
Scientists are also deeply interested in bats, which control inflammation so well that they can harbour viruses without getting sick (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190226112401.htm). Chronic inflammation, which often progresses as we age, is a major factor in more than half of all deaths worldwide.
With all this thrilling evidence in view, as a Muslim, one naturally wonders whether there is any evidence in Islam that would indicate that man can forestall death.
Upon reading the Holy Quran, it becomes clear that Islam has a unique view on life and death in that the end of all physical life is death – inevitable and final. This is no random affair either. Rather, it is the eternal law of God that frees the human soul from the shackles of its physical habitat (i.e., earth) and enables it to start its journey on the road to limitless spiritual development.
First of all, Allah the Almighty has attributed the ordaining of death to Himself. Allah states:
نَحْنُ قَدَّرْنَا بَيْنَكُمُ الْمَوْتَ وَمَا نَحْنُ بِمَسْبُوقِينَ
“We have ordained death for [all of you]; and We cannot be prevented.” (Surah al-Waqiah, Ch.56: V.61)
Subsequently, the Quran makes us understand that death is also proof of the existence of the afterlife. By attributing death to Himself (with the words “He will cause you to die” [Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.29]), Allah makes it clear that if human life had no purpose, He would not have created it; having created it, He would not have made it subject to death, unless there had been an afterlife.
If death were the end of all life, the creation of man would turn out to be mere sport. The fact that God does all this shows that He has created man not to return to dust after a life of 60 or 70 years but for a better, fuller, and everlasting life, which he must live after death. (Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol. 1, pp. 265–266)
This would mean that no matter how far science advances, death, and the subsequent consequence, i.e., judgement, will come to us all. The following verse of the Holy Quran, in my opinion, accurately relates to recent scientific advances in longevity:
قُلْ إِنَّ الْمَوْتَ الَّذِي تَفِرُّونَ مِنْهُ فَإِنَّهُ مُلَاقِيكُمْ ثُمَّ تُرَدُّونَ إِلَى عَالِمِ الْغَيْبِ وَالشَّهَادَةِ فَيُنَبِّئُكُمْ بِمَا كُنْتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ
“Say, ‘The Death from which you flee will surely meet you. Then will you be returned unto Him Who knows the unseen and the seen, and He will inform you of what you had been doing.’” (Surah al-Jumuah, Ch.62: V.9)
Similarly, we read:
أَيْنَمَا تَكُونُوا يُدْرِكْكُمُ الْمَوْتُ وَلَوْ كُنْتُمْ فِي بُرُوجٍ مُشَيَّدَةٍ
“Wheresoever you may be, death will overtake you, even if you be in strongly built towers.” (Surah an-Nisa, Ch.4: V.79)
It therefore speaks to the laws of nature that entropy works on us all. Eternity – either of the universe or humanity – is a myth that even scientists no longer believe. Allah the Almighty also states that no one in the world dies except by Allah’s will and permission. Every life has a specified span, and when that span ends, so does life. (Surah Aal-e-Imran, Ch.3: V.146)
This does not mean that we should not seek to live healthy lives, and seek to live as long as possible. Allah commands us in the Holy Quran to eat good, healthy things that have been provided for our use. We are told to pray for our health, and affirm that Allah the Almighty is the ultimate healer. (Surah Ash-Shu‘ara’, Ch.26: V.81)
In fact, researchers looked at decades of data and found that five habits may increase life expectancy by 14 years in women and 12 years in men: good diet, regular exercise, healthy weight, not smoking, and not drinking. (news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/5-healthy-habits-may-increase-life-expectancy-by-decade-or-more/) However, the researchers advise against drinking “too much,” whatever that may entail, rather than going as far as the Holy Quran does and advising against drinking at all.
Islam encourages us to maintain a healthy, balanced diet; exercise regularly to maintain good health; avoid drinking at all costs and stay away from smoking. And yet, at one instance in the Holy Quran, Allah the Almighty also states that He grants longevity to whomsoever He pleases. (Surah Ya Sin, Ch.36:V.69)
Therefore, Islam teaches us that no matter how long we try to live, we will inevitably meet death, and that would lead to our judgement. It is a matter of fact that most people dread a day when their deeds will be laid bare. Hence, the Holy Quran states:
وَلَتَجِدَنَّهُمْ أَحْرَصَ النَّاسِ عَلَى حَيَاةٍ وَمِنَ الَّذِينَ أَشْرَكُوا يَوَدُّ أَحَدُهُمْ لَوْ يُعَمَّرُ أَلْفَ سَنَةٍ وَمَا هُوَ بِمُزَحْزِحِهِ مِنَ الْعَذَابِ أَنْ يُعَمَّرَ وَاللَّهُ بَصِيرٌ بِمَا يَعْمَلُونَ
“And thou shalt surely find them of all people, the most covetous of life, even [more] than those who set up equals [with God]. Every one of them wishes that he may be granted a life of a thousand years, but his being granted [such] life shall not keep him away from the punishment; and Allah sees all that they do.” (Surah Al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.97)
Islam teaches us that the life of this world is merely a pastime, that this sojourn will inevitably end, and man’s true purpose would be achieved only if he followed Allah’s commandments in this world. It is only then that he would live an eternal life of bliss in the hereafter.
Allah the Almighty explicitly states that this “worldly life is nothing but a sport and a pastime”, and that “the abode of the Hereafter is better for those who are righteous”. (Surah Al-An‘am, Ch.6: V.33)
To that effect, speaking of life and death, Allah the Almighty states:
كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَائِقَةُ الْمَوْتِ وَإِنَّمَا تُوَفَّوْنَ أُجُورَكُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ فَمَنْ زُحْزِحَ عَنِ النَّارِ وَأُدْخِلَ الْجَنَّةَ فَقَدْ فَازَ وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا مَتَاعُ الْغُرُورِ
“Every soul shall taste of death. And you shall be paid in full your rewards only on the Day of Resurrection. So whosoever is removed away from the Fire and is made to enter Heaven has indeed attained his goal. And the life of this world is nothing but an illusory enjoyment.” (Surah Al-e-‘Imran, Ch.3:V.186)
Research also shows that another important, controllable influence on healthy longevity is our beliefs about ageing (www.nextavenue.org/becca-levy-breaking-stereotypes-about-aging/). In one study, which has been replicated around the world, people in their 30s and 40s who had positive expectations for old age – equating it with wisdom, for example, instead of decrepitude – were more likely to be in good health decades later. (Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., & Kasl, S. (2002). Longitudinal benefit of positive self-perceptions of ageing on functioning health. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 57, 409–417.)
In another study, older people who have positive views of ageing are much more likely to recover fully from a disabling injury (Hardy, S. E., & Gill, T. M. (2004). Recovery from disability among community-dwelling older persons. JAMA, 291, 1596–1602; Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Murphy, T. E., & Gill, T. M. (2012). Association between positive age stereotypes and recovery from disability in older persons. JAMA, 308, 1972–1973.)
Yet another study found that positive views of old age were associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. (Levy, B. R., & Myers, L. M. (2004). Preventive health behaviors influenced by self-perceptions of aging. Preventive Medicine, 39, 625– 629.)
The bottom line is that people with the brightest beliefs about ageing live an average of seven and a half years longer than those with the gloomiest. (For further reading on this fascinating topic, see Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live by Becca Levy)
It makes sense, then, that Islam commands us to think positively and avoid paranoia and ill-thinking in all matters of life. (Surah Al-Hujarat, Ch.49:V.13)