DNA could illuminate Islam’s lineage
Last Updated: June 18. 2009 10:57PM UAE /
June 18. 2009 6:57PM GMT
For almost 1,600 years,
the title Sharif, Sayyed, or Habib has been
bestowed on Muslims who have been able to
trace their roots back to the Prophet Mohammed
through intricate family trees, oral histories
and genealogical records. But now an American
DNA lab says it may have identified the DNA
signature of descendants of the Prophet Mohammed,
and perhaps the prospect of a direct, more
accurate means of confirming or identifying
such a connection.
Family Tree DNA, a genealogy and genetics-testing
company in Houston, Texas, says it made the
discovery after several clients, reputed by
oral family histories and some supporting
documentation to be descended from the Prophet
Mohammed, asked to have their paternal DNA
“With these various samples, we were
able to identify an overlapping signature
in their DNA, a common thread for all of them,
which is their genetic lineage from the Prophet,
if their oral tradition is accurate,”
said Bennett Greenspan, chief executive of
Family Tree DNA, which is said to have amassed
one of the largest DNA databases in the world.
The company declined to identify any of the
men on the grounds of client privacy, but
Mr Greenspan said “several samples came
from men in different parts of the Arab world”.
Genetic testing can trace the maternal or
paternal line by mapping the DNA in the sex
chromosome passed on by parents. The father
passes on the Y chromosome to his son and
the mother her X chromosome, so only male
descendants can trace both their patriarchal
and matriarchal lineage. Female descendants,
possessing two X chromosomes, can test only
their matriarchal lineage, also known as mitochondrial
DNA, or mtDNA.
In recent years there have been many projects
attempting to identify the DNA signatures
of famous people, tribes and populations that
inhabit specific regions – sometimes
with surprising results.
In 2003 a group of international geneticists
found that eight per cent of men in what used
to be the Mongolian Empire were descended
from Genghis Khan. According to a ground-breaking
paper in The American Journal of Human Genetics
in 2003, this meant there were no fewer than
16 million descendants of the 12th-century
ruler living today.
The DNA signature of Marie Antoinette is
also said to have been determined, meaning
anyone suspecting a genetic link to the former
queen of France can confirm their royal roots
by testing their mtDNA.
Such analysis can create controversy. When
the DNA signature of Thomas Jefferson, the
third president of the United States, was
isolated, it appeared to give credence to
the theory that Jefferson, revered as one
of the America’s founding fathers, had
fathered a child with his slave, Sally Hemmings.
But it could not be confirmed beyond a doubt
because although Eston Hemmings, the child
of the slave, shared the same Y chromosomal
DNA as Jefferson, he could have been the offspring
of any of Jefferson’s male relatives
living in Virginia at the time.
The Prophet Mohammed had no surviving sons
but his daughter Fatima married her paternal
second cousin, Ali, producing two grandsons:
Hassan and Hussein. Both have a traceable
line of male descendants.
Because Ali and the Prophet Mohammed share
the same grandfather, their paternal DNA is
Descendants can confirm their lineage when
they reflect similar patterns. Most Islamic
scholars agree there is nothing objectionable
about testing individual DNA – and countries
such as the UAE encourage DNA use in criminal
forensics – but there are complex rulings
when it comes to using DNA in court for establishing
According to the Kuwait-based Islamic Organisation
for Medical Sciences, a forum where scholars
meet regularly to discuss scientific and medical
ethics in Islam, the use of DNA is permissible
in certain cases.
“A mechanism called qiyafah, similar
to an expert witness, existed at the time
of the Prophet,” said Sheikh Musa Furber,
a scholar in Islamic law at the Abu Dhabi-based
“The Prophet would send the people
to an expert who can look at overall physical
resemblance to deduce who might be the father.
Today, instead of qiyafah, we should consider
But Islamic courts do not accept DNA evidence
in establishing the paternity of a child born
in wedlock, as the law typically considers
the mother’s husband to be the father,
assuming she was not pregnant when married.
There is another issue that arises in the
Islamic tradition when using DNA to establish
lineage: “Lineage, or nasab, in Islamic
law assumes lawful intercourse,” Sheikh
Musa said. “But since a DNA test cannot
prove lawful intercourse, it cannot stand
as proof of lineage from a legal perspective.”
There are a few privately funded lineage
projects in the region, such as the Arab DNA
Project and the Arab J1e Y-DNA Project. The
former is an online public forum with chat
rooms and shared information for Arab men
and women interested in their genetic lineage.
The J1e project, accessible through the website
of Family Tree DNA (at www.familytreedna.com)
is more specialised. It is a forum for men
whose Y chromosome belongs to the J1e haplogroup,
a genetic grouping of Semitic tribes.
J1e is the genetic signature of the Hashemites,
a clan to which the Prophet Mohammed belonged.
The current King of Jordan, Abdullah II, is
a Hashemite descendant, and one of the better-known
living descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.
Just how many will test their own DNA to
find a link remains to be seen, officials
say. “When it comes to the Prophet,
I’d rather live in doubt than receive
certainty that I’m not related to him,”
said Sheikh Furber.