Ethics and Social Issues
Ethics and Social Issues
ETHICS AND SOCIAL ISSUES
It is important to distinguish how the term ethics was used in premodern Islam compared to its usage in the modern period. In the premodern period, ethics was chiefly concerned about the formation and disciplining of the self through the cultivation of practices that were deemed "good conduct." Such conduct was naturalized through education, ritual, and disciplinary practices that were intended to help the devout Muslim internalize the values that underlay an ethical life.
In the modern Muslim context, by contrast, matters such as education, ritual, and disciplinary practices have themselves undergone a significant, if not radical, change from previous eras. The modern period is governed by the logic of systems, bureaucratic processes, and the logic of abstraction. Education in particular, but ritual, and other social practices too, have felt the influences of bureaucratic modernity. Now ethics is conceived of as a set of abstract values, derived from sources that do not always completely resonate with the historical self, given the massive global transformations of cultures and values. Although the earlier understandings of and approaches to ethics are only partly adhered to, Muslim communities are forging new ethical identities in the maelstrom of paradigmatic transitions in knowledge, culture, and history.
Terms and Historical Developments
Ethics in premodern Muslim thought finds its expression around concepts such as character (khuluq) and in the literary genre of civility or etiquette (adab). Historically, Muslim ethics draws from several cultural sources: the pre-Islamic ethical traditions of Arabia and the Arab-Islamic tradition followed by cross-pollination with the practices of neighboring cultures, such as Persianate, Greek, and Indian philosophical and ethical traditions, in addition to mystical (sufi) sources all of which no doubt left their marks on the face of Muslim ethics.
Within the first three centuries of several Islamicate cultures of the Near East, several ethical traditions arose. The two principal genres of early ethical writing were pietist (or mystical) and philosophical. The earliest texts are primarily concerned with the ethics of the self, especially with the disciplining of the body and soul. The literary genre of ˓ilm al-akhlaq, literally meaning "the science of innate dispositions" and the emergence of the discourses of civility, urbanity, or humanitas, called adab are among the most prominent contexts in which ethical debates were set forth. In fact, materials in the form of prophetic reports (hadith) make up the bulk of what we consider to be the "science of innate dispositions."
Normative discourses about morality can be found in both the hadith literature and in the Qur˒an. There is a famous report in which ˓A˒isha describes her husband, the prophet Muhammad, as the embodiment of Islamic values, saying that his character mirrors the Qur˒an. In this pithy statement, the linkage between the Qur˒an and ethical values cannot be ignored. In short, the expression suggests that the prophet Muhammad had internalized the virtues proposed in the Scripture. In fact, the Qur˒an, addressing the prophet Muhammad, says: "Indeed you [Muhammad] have been endowed with a noble character." (68:4) Here the word khuluq (character) assumes extraordinary emphasis.
Innumerable reports attributed to the Prophet place special value and emphasis on the need to cultivate good character, husn al-khulq. The phrase also has an aesthetic quality of beauty (husn) to it. In other words, character is related to an inner magnificence. In fact, numerous hadith stress that the perfection of character is equal to the perfection of faith. In some hadith, good character is described as half of faith. Similarly, good character was viewed as the most effective antidote to the human predisposition to commit sins. In early Islam, as today, moral education is the primary responsibility of parents and teachers, who should not only transmit moral knowledge, but also supervise its application through practice, discipline, and training.
The Pietists and the Philosophers
The early Muslim ethicists differentiated between the etiquette of the self (adab al-nafs) and the etiquette of pedagogy (adab al-dars). ˓Abd al-Nabi al-Ahmadnagri (d. 1769), the Indian encyclopedist, describes the etiquette of the self as being designed to protect the limbs as well as religious symbols from harm: Implicitly this invokes the obligation not to inflict harm intentionally (the ethical principle of nonmaleficence). Ideally, through regular practice, this etiquette should become internalized by the practitioner, becoming a part of his or her very disposition, or personality. The ethics of learning, on the other hand, relate to the production of knowledge, especially to questions of language and epistemology. Here the concern is to figure how knowledge is constituted and the manner in which its authority is implemented. Knowledge is deemed to be highly beneficial and almost intrinsically to contribute to the welfare of the self and others, and invokes the active ethical principle of beneficence. Almost all the early Muslim sources discuss prescriptive norms that relate in some way to aspects of nonmaleficence and the promotion of beneficence, among other principles.
A more formal discipline of the "science of ethics" took shape under the influence of philosophical writers like Miskawayh (d. 1030), Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (d. 1023), and Abu 'l-Hassan al-Amiri (d. 992), among others. These writers expanded the sphere of ethics, developing new meanings within a primarily Persianate environment but in conversation with other regional intellectual traditions. Many of these teachings were intended as moral pedagogy for the young, for bureaucrats, and also for the ruler's entourage and his aides de camp. In time, more specialized forms of political ethics were developed as part of the nasiha or advice-genre, offered in the form of "mirrors for princes." The philosophical writers also contributed to a marked growth in moral pedagogy, in the form of the adab genre.
Even among the early Muslim pietists the cultivation of character and the disciplining of the self is a preeminent concern. Through pious acts and obedience to the norms were said to be derived from revelation (shari˓a) the individual was thought to be able to develop an inner disposition that compares favorably to a notion of conscience. Figures like Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 857), Raghib al-Isfahani (d. ca. 1108), and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) produced extensive and detailed treatises and manuals dealing with topics that address intentionality, the cultivation of virtuous habits, good character, and how to perfect practices that lead to salvation. Each of these texts specified how a novice in the path of piety could attain sanctity for ethical ends by giving attention to practices. Readers were taught how to undertake a moral self-evaluation in order to identify character flaws, and were also taught how to remedy such ills.
Often the remedial path advocated a conscientious approach to rituals and practices prescribed by legal discourses, both those of the shari˓a and those embodied in the legal regulations called fiqh. The fulcrum of Muslim ethics is ideally expressed in the practical applications of the law at the most public level.
Nonetheless, the ethics practiced by both the mystics and philosophers is highly specialized, with its own rarified vocabulary that was aimed at serving a certain elite and educated strata of Muslim societies. No less an authority than the intellectual historian ˓Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) noted the difference in the perspectives on the shari˓a held by jurists (fuqaha) and jurisconsults (ahl-futya) on the one hand, and the mystics and ascetics on the other. While the former advocated the general rules for devotional practices, social transactions, and customs, the latter provided the etiquette of practice, relying on intuitive cognition or aesthetic sensibility (dhawq) informed by ascetic practices (mujahada) and self-examination (muhasaba).
The Influence of al-Ghazali
In the twelfth century, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali combined the methods of both the jurists and the mystics. He grew dissatisfied with the popular understanding of law, fiqh, and with what he believed to be the ultimate perversion of the law: reductionism, hairsplitting, specialization, and arcane debates. Al-Ghazali admonished that legal debates about marriage, divorce, the manumission of slaves, or the execution of sales and contracts do not result in reverential fear and awe of the divine; in fact they result in the opposite. He argued for the need to retrieve the meaning of fiqh from its earliest usage, when it meant "the path of salvation in the afterlife."
In order to restore fiqh to its former meaning, Al-Ghazali believed that a deep knowledge of the tribulations of the soul and what constitutes morally detrimental acts was required, rather than a familiarity with the minutiae of the law. He called for fiqh al-nafs (discernment of the soul), a form of inner enlightenment. He believed that a proper understanding of fiqh should inspire awe of the divine within the heart and soul of the practitioner. Ghazali explicitly stated that fiqh primarily signifies the requisites of faith, and least of all was concerned with the dictates of jurisprudence (fatwa, pl. fatawa).
Later on, the martyred jurist-mystic, Ayn al-Qudat al-Hamadhani (d. 1131) considered the necessity of relying on the dictates of the heart, fatwa al-qalb. For him there was no doubt that the heart was the seat of conscience, basing his position on a report attributed to the Prophet, which says: "Solicit a response (fatwa) from your heart, even though the jurisconsult (mufti) had issued a response (fatwa)." This caution places the ultimate ethical responsibility on the individual, and detracts from the expert knowledge of the legal specialist. In short, for al-Hamadhani, fiqh was the medieval homology for what today is called applied ethics.
The Changing Concept of Fiqh
In seeking to identify broad historical trends in Muslim thought on the subject of ethics, Ibn Khaldun provides a valuable starting point. He argued that fiqh, as practiced within its original Arabic linguistic habitat, was an embodied disposition and aptitude (jibilla wa malaka). The idea of malaka can be understood as something akin to a sociobiological disposition or aptitude, rather than a purely biological or psychological one. In this sense it has a strong resemblance to what Marcell Mauss calls a habitus. Ibn Khaldun argued that the concept of malaka was subject to cultural erosion as Islam expanded into other cultural and linguistic traditions. In these new contexts, the need arose to theorize about and develop rules and principles of the Arabic language, law and legal theory, and other disciplines. With this development, concepts such as malaka underwent alteration. This altered state of cultural and ethical subjectivities led to the development of what Ghazali would denounce as the soulless formalism of fiqh, deprived of its ethical and moral purposes.
Despite the efforts of people like al-Ghazali, the bulk of Muslim jurisprudence developed along very formalistic lines, and the ethical stress within law (fiqh) in the end gave way to legalism. By the twelfth century, the line was clearly drawn between those who held that fiqh was part of the development of the self and those who saw it as part of a a formal legal edifice. If formal jurisprudence during this period retained certain ethical concerns, these are most likely traces of previous understandings of ethics, rather than the product of a lively contemporaneous ethics in conversation with the immediate society in which the law is practiced.
To be fair, some jurists, other than the mystics, did attempt to engage fiqh in a dialog with moral and ethical objectives. In order to highlight the ethical strains implicit in the law, some jurists began to emphasize the role of public interest (maslaha) by elaborating its ethical purposes (maqasid), such as in the protection and advancement of religion, life, reason, wealth, and paternity or family. This method, popularized by the work of scholars like al-Ghazali, Najm al-Din al-Tufi (d. 1316), ˓Izz al-Din Ibn ˓Abd al-Salam al-Sulami (d. 1262), Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d.1388), and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350), enjoyed only limited success. It is no coincidence that several of these jurists also adhered to certain mystical traditions.
In fact, in order to reinvigorate the law with an ethical component, many modern-day Muslim jurists have also taken recourse to the doctrines of public interest and the objectives of the law. In fact, much of contemporary jurisprudence and ethics is indebted to this method, but it has met with mixed outcomes. A brief recapitulation of some of these efforts as applied to major issues of the day may shed light on the developments in modern Muslim ethics and the way they relate to the inherited tradition.
The Ethos of Killing
The unlawful killing of a human being is categorically forbidden in Islamic law and ethics, and deemed as a major sin. Both the Qur˒an and hadith sources, as interpreted by the jurists, view life as sacrosanct. The preservation of life is one of the moral objectives of the law and intrinsic to human dignity. Life can only be taken as part of a just recompense for the crime of murder and for defensive purposes such as war and restoring order during chaos. The noted hadith scholar, Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Dhahabi (d. 1348), however, made an interesting point about the legitimate amount of force that is allowed to be used in self-defense. In self-defense against seditious rebels, he argued, the goal is not to kill them, unless of course one's life is endangered. To kill without need is to revert to a state of spiritual infidelity, according to a hadith attributed to the Prophet. Whoever kills without a just cause carries the burden of killing all of humanity; and whoever saves a life, it is as if the whole of humanity had been rescued, according to the Qur˒an (5:32).
Some classical jurists, motivated by an exclusivist and triumphalist ethos, have interpreted these and other Qur˒anic teachings to forbid the compensatory execution of a Muslim for killing a non-Muslim or a slave. More egalitarian countervailing viewpoints have discredited this view. Nonetheless, the abolition of the death penalty is not widely advocated in contemporary Muslim societies. Even though the modern state now implements secular criminal codes, in classical Islamic law the right to seek redress in cases of murder belongs to the family of the deceased. The family of the deceased has the right to choose from several options: they might seek material compensation for their loss, they may call for the execution of the offender, or they may even pardon the offender. In other words, the death penalty is not a mandatory requirement in terms of Islamic law. However, some theologians of the classical period viewed the mere desire to be an abolitionist as a doctrinal offense.
The Question of Abortion
Abortion remains a vexing issue in Muslim societies. Most classical Muslim jurists consider a fetus in the first 120 days after conception to be nonviable. However, there is no denial that as the fetus incrementally develops, so too does the complexity of fetal life. This point of view is informed by the theological doctrine that the spirit (ruh) enters the fetus around 120 days (four months) after conception. Those who take a strict position argue that, once the sperm enters the womb, it is destined to produce life, and thus abortion is proscribed. Given the 120-day rule, however, many jurists find it less morally onerous to sanction a justifiable abortion within this period.
The classic precedent for permitting abortion within the first 120 days is the case where a nursing mother falls pregnant. The new pregnancy would stop her from lactating, and the husband may be unable to afford to pay a wet-nurse to breastfeed the infant. When facing two competing harms, it is proposed that one choose the lesser nonmaleficence. In a similar vein, there is almost universal unanimity that if a pregnant woman faces a life-threatening risk, it is permissible to terminate the pregnancy, irrespective of the stage. Preserving the life of the mother takes precedence over the rights of the unborn child.
Muslim ethicists disagree as to what reasons justify termination and, more importantly, how such a determination is to be made. For most jurists, a medical diagnosis that detects a fetus to be severely deformed or defective, carrying a life-threatening hereditary or untreatable disease, or afflicted with a serious handicap is not sufficient grounds for termination. Only the official Egyptian fatwa-body sanctions terminations prior to 120 days in the above-mentioned instances. However, if pregnancy has advanced beyond this period, then termination of such fetuses is not permitted even there. A fetal abnormality that would result in blindness or deafness, for example, is not to be terminated, because the handicap is viewed as tolerable. The Deoband seminary in India only sanctions termination if there is an actual threat to the life of the mother, not on the grounds of a presumed or calculated risk; and fetal defect is not a valid reason to terminate at any stage of pregnancy. Many Muslim jurists are increasingly retreating from the 120-day rule as advances in medical technology provide more visible and definitive evidence of early fetal life.
Abortion for the purpose of family planning or to terminate pregnancies caused by rape or conceived outside wedlock is a controversial topic. Some contemporary jurists permit abortion for family planning purposes within the 120-day period. Ayatullah Fadl Allah of Lebanon is one of the few authorities who permits termination within 120 days, on the grounds that the pregnancy and its consequences will cause an intolerable social hardship for the mother and her family. On the other hand, the mere deformity of a fetus does not constitute grounds for termination, even within the 120-day period. Other scholars counter by arguing that the birth of offspring is predestined and cannot be limited on the grounds of material considerations.
Mufti Nizam al-Din Azami of the Deoband seminary does not consider pregnancy outside wedlock or one caused by rape to be a valid reason for termination. For him, the sanctity of the new life takes precedence over the autonomy of the pregnant woman and the negative social consequences arising from her added responsibilities. A minority of Egyptian jurists at al-Azhar University also shares this view. However, the highly respected Indian jurist, ˓Abd al-Hayy al-Laknawi (d. 1886), argued that it is permissible to terminate a pregnancy conceived outside wedlock, even if there are visible signs of fetal formation, in other words even if the pregnancy has advanced beyond 120 days. He gives greater consideration to the mother's autonomy and the need to liberate a single woman from social stigma and the accompanying reduced life-chances she would encounter if she carried such a pregnancy to term in very unfavorable cultural conditions. A minority of jurists in contemporary India draw on the rationale of al-Laknawi to permit termination for pregnancies caused by rape and sex outside of wedlock.
Other Reproductive Issues
Ayatollah Fadl Allah has issued several rulings related to modern reproductive technologies, as has the Islamic Fiqh Committee of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Artificial insemination from a husband is deemed permissible, while that from any other donor is impermissible. Islamic law insists on legitimate paternity being an essential requirement for reproduction, thus outlawing donor insemination, since the donor and donee are not married. Ayatollah Fadl Allah expresses some concern that a woman seeking artificial insemination, even legitimately, might be guilty of indecent exposure of her body to a male physician during the course of the medical procedure. Such an indecent exposure is legally prohibited, unless an emergency necessitates it. However, it is acceptable for a female physician to look at the body of another female. Mufti Nizam al-Din of India outrightly prohibits artificial insemination, declaring these procedures are contrary to religion and natural law and increase the prospect of dehumanization.
With regard to sperm banks, Ayatollah Fadl Allah discourages the use of a husband's stored sperm after his death, since the marital tie ends with death. However, he states that any child posthumously conceived legitimately belongs to the wife and is to be attributed to the deceased husband, cautiously avoiding the implication that the child may be illegitimate. However, such a child would not be able to inherit from the father's estate, since the fetus was produced after his death. In Egypt the permissibility of such a practice has also been a subject of serious contention.
Ayatollah Fadl Allah permits a female to store her eggs in order to be fertilized later. Fertilized embryos can be used for experimental purposes, he argues, reasoning that such organisms cannot be equated to be a living person, which only occurs at ensoulment around 120 days after conception. He also permits the sale of unfertilized female gametes for experimental purposes, provided that the financial compensation involved covers only the use rights of the gametes; there can not be a monetary value placed on these or any other body parts, per se. He also permits surrogacy, under limited circumstances. Surrogacy is only permissible if the surrogate mother at least temporarily becomes a wife to the man whose sperm fertilized the egg she is carrying to term. Technically, however, the child is attributed to the female whose egg was fertilized, and not to the female who delivers the child. The Ayatollah finds several objections to an argument that allows a mother to act as a surrogate if her daughter is incapable of carrying a pregnancy to term.
Adoption and Fosterage
A limited form of adoption is permissible in Muslim ethics. This form prevents the adopted child from taking on the fictional identity and paternity of his or her adoptive parents. Forging a fictional identity between persons not related biologically is prohibited according to Muslim ethics. As long as the adopted child knows that he or she has biological parents other than the ones in whose household he or she is being reared, then there can be no ethical reservation to deny such children from enjoying all the care and security of family life within the adoptive family. For Muslim ethicists the concern is that creating identity based on nonbiological grounds increases the risk of biologically related offspring unknowingly marrying each other and violating the incest taboo.
In Islamic law, fosterage is when an infant is nursed by someone other than his or her mother (a wet-nurse). This practice creates the same ethical boundaries between child and nurse that exist between children, their biological parents, and their siblings, particularly as they apply to the incest taboo. If an adopted infant is nursed by an adoptive mother, these same bonds and boundaries are also created. The effect is to prevent biological and adopted siblings from unwittingly marrying each other, since they either share the same person as wet-nurse or biological mother. The permissibility of fosterage has also led to the permissibility of milk-banks, where infants get milk from anonymous donor wet-nurses. Mufti Nizam al-Din also supports the idea of milk-banks, and does not raise concerns about how they may affect the relations among siblings who share a wet-nurse.
Birth control is deemed permissible, provided that the means of contraception are temporary and not irreversible. The most popular premodern means of contraception was by way of coitus interruptus and other forms of prophylactics. Al-Ghazali held that it was permissible for a wife to practice coitus interruptus if she wished to protect her body aesthetically and avoid the changes to her body that accompany pregnancy and child birth. Birth control can also be pursued in order to avoid the burden of material difficulties of providing for a large family. There is almost unanimity that vasectomy and hysterectomy, unless recommended for sound medical reasons, are not permissible, because they result in irreversible change to the body.
Birth control as part of a national family planning programs whereby governments place an upper limit on the permissible size of a family, has often been controversial and bitter in the Muslim world. Some suspect that the Western-controlled transnational institutions wish to use family planning to limit Muslim populations. Another concern is that that birth control measures such as the pill and condoms may increase promiscuity. The controversy remains unresolved. In Egypt, for instance, former al-Azhar shaykh opposed the use of the pill, while another senior official, the state mufti, encouraged its use. With the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus, the opposition to birth control measures has lessened.
Organ Transplantation and Cloning
Indian and Pakistani authorities have been opposed to organ transplantation from its very inception. Several fatwas, including one issued by Mufti Nizam al-Din, allow organ transplantation only under conditions of emergency. Blood transfusion, too, is only permissible under extreme conditions of necessity. For many traditionalist Muslim ethicists from the Indo-Pak subcontinent, transplantation surgery is an affront to human dignity and to the sanctity of life. However, in recent years there have been attempts to reverse the almost four-decade-old consensus on organ transplantation on the Indian subcontinent. Some scholars in this region have been cautious and have agreed to permit cornea transplantations only.
In the Middle East the ethical committees of several institutions permit both organ transplantation and organ donation. The OIC's Islamic Fiqh Academy recognizes irreversible brain-stem damage as legal death, and permits doctors to harvest organs from victims of such injury for purposes of transplantation. Scholars supporting transplantation believe that this form of medical care advances human dignity, and argue that such measures are taken precisely to promote the sanctity of life.
There is perhaps greater uniformity among the diverse ethics committees in their approach to the subject of reproductive and therapeutic cloning; all express great caution and apprehension. Fears stem from the idea that biogenetic technology can radically transform human identity, undermining if not perverting current moral and ethical practices. For this reason the Islamic Fiqh Academy prohibits all cloning practices that allow a third party to be associated in genetic reproduction between two married persons, whether it is by means of another womb, the provision of third-party gametes, or through the manipulation of animal or human cells. For now all forms of human cloning are banned, but the future may bring exceptions on a case-by-case basis, as knowledge and experience in genetics advance. Although the Academy permits research in animal and plant cloning, it encourages governments to adopt legislative measures to close all the avenues for direct and indirect experimentation in human cloning until substantive knowledge makes it safe. Similarly the Academy has declared a moratorium on genetic engineering and the human genome project until greater clarity is achieved and its ethics committee is in a better position to offer meaningful and practical guidelines.
Indian Muslim scholars rule out both active and passive forms of euthanasia. Active forms of euthanasia are a major moral sin and an unthinkable act within Muslim ethics. Mufti Nizam al-Din argues that for terminally ill individuals, suffering has a redemptive quality that should be borne with patience by both the patient and his or her caregivers. Seeking to hasten the death of the terminally ill is tantamount to the abdication of a caregiver's responsibility, and would be deemed both a criminal offense and a major sin. Passive euthanasia on the part of a caregiver would amount to gross negligence, and such deplorable ethical conduct is deserving of disciplinary consequences. For this school of thought there remains an irreconcilable gap between ethical and medical standards of assessing life and death. The Indian ethicists do not accept any standard of death to be conclusive, save for the cardiopulmonary standard (cessation of all heart and lung activity). For medical practitioners, other measurements of ascertaining death, such as brain-stem death, are acceptable.
Some of the scholars of the Islamic Fiqh Academy concur with this cautious view, and oppose such acts of passive euthanasia as taking a patient off life-support or withholding treatment. However, the official resolution of the Islamic Fiqh Academy permits withholding treatment and the removal of life-support machines from patients whose doctors affirm that they have suffered irreversible brain-stem damage.
Ethics and Sexuality
Homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Muslim ethics, on the grounds that it is an unnatural act. Some jurists suggest severe penalties for homosexuality, ranging from death to flogging, whereas others disagree. The latter group holds that no punishment can serve as an effective purgative for this act, and therefore that its immorality precludes an earthly penalty. Some jurists are so morally offended by homosexuality that even to raise the question of its permissibility is enough to lead to calls for excommunication and anathematizing. However, Muslim ethicists have yet to reach consensus as to whether homosexuality is a socially constructed practice or part of a biological, genetic predisposition. Such an inquiry may prompt a deeper ethical investigation into whether or not persons can be held accountable for responding to their natural proclivities, even if those proclivities may be deemed unnatural by heterosexual standards.
Ethical Trends for the Future
Over the centuries, Muslim ethics have undergone tremendous change, even though little attention has been paid. In the modern period, new scientific discoveries and technologies have severely challenged the ethical heritage of early Islam. Yet, Muslim ethics remain deeply embedded in the premodern legacy, and little of modern scientific thinking has seeped into ethical discourses in any meaningful way. The cultural, political, and economic encounter with the West continues to elicit great caution from Muslims, especially those within the traditional religious sector, who view the premodern Muslim ethical legacy as a bulwark against external ethical and moral encroachment. Clearly there is very little consensus between various and diverse Muslim religious groups that adhere to diametrically opposed views on ethics. However, the above survey of current ethical issues demonstrates that there are pragmatic approaches to Muslim ethics that seek accommodation with the ethics of modernity. At the same time, there are approaches to ethics that seek to preserve distinctive Muslim subjectivities and identities, finding their best models for such preservation in the historical legacy of ethics in Islam.
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