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Contraception and abortion in Islam

Islam's views on family planning are important for our planet since one out of every six people on this earth is a Muslim.

by Daniel C. Maguire (Excerpt from Chapter 9 of SACRED CHOICES)  

What can be said from the outset is that there is pluralism in the Muslim world as there is everywhere. There are conservatives, liberals, and those who claim to be centrists. No major religion is a grid into which all the faithful neatly fit. In approaching Islam, it is necessary to see what the teaching authority structure is. Clearly, the Qur'an is the prime authority, considered divine revelation. However, the authority of the Qur'an is not magical. Isma'il R. Al'Faruqi makes the interesting point that Muslims do not claim any miracles for Muhammad to shore up the authority of the Qur'an. "The Qur'anic revelation is a presentation to one's mind, to reason." There is no papal figure or ruling synod in Islam that can impose its views. "In Islam religious truth is a matter of argument and conviction, a cause in which everybody is entitled to contend and everybody is entitled to convince and be convinced." Certain institutions like the Al-Azhar University in Cairo have a lot of teaching prestige and the opinions and pronoucements of certain authoritative persons have a lot of weight, but their weight is not so heavy as to crush personal conscience.

Also, as Riffat Hassan points out, the Qur'an is not "an encyclopaedia which may be consulted to obtain specific information about how God views each problem, issue or situation." It is not a blueprint for moral life covering all the questions from the seventh to the twenty first century and beyond. For this reason, there are other sources of truth in Islam. The Hadith are sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. These do not all agree and the authenticity of many is doubted and debated. The Sunnah are the practical traditions rising out of the life of Muhammad. There is also the huge body of legal literature known as Shari'ah which again is contradictory at times. Some of its regressive and anti-woman prescriptions are preferred by right-wing zealots. However, the Qur'an is the Supreme Court, and its central values, outlined above, hold sway over any later interpretation. The prime value there, as we saw, is justice animated with mercy. Whatever contradicts that is not true to Islam.

There is another principle in Islamic teaching that is central to Muslim ethics. It is called ijithad. This is the heart of any true religious ethic. It means that you analyze the unique data of a current moral problem, and argue from Qur'anic principles, using analogy and logic to come to the best and most reasonable solution. As the jurist and philosopher Azizah Y. al-Hibri says, this gave Islamic ethics great flexibility. "It is an essential part of Qur'anic Who_are_we, because Islam was revealed for all people and for all times." It allows Islamic ethics to respond realistically to new problems where there is no spelled-out answer in the Qur'an. It established Islam's respect for our faculty of reason.

In Islam as in all the religions, fertility is highly prized and children are a gift of God to bring "joy to our eyes." (Surah 25: Al-Furqan:74) Conservatives argue also that family planning is a lack of trust in the sustaining God. They cite texts such as this: "There is no creeping being on earth but that upon God is its sustenance." (Surah 11: Hud:6) The Qur'an also says that if we place our trust in God, that is enough. I quoted my mother's Irish faith above saying that God will not send a child without sending the means to feed it.

This naive and passive trust that no matter what we do or don't do God will make up the difference, does not bear scrutiny and does not face up to the perennial fact of starving children. It is dismissed by Islam's best theologians. Theologian Fazlur Rahman says that using the Qur'anic references to God's power and promise to sustain all creation to argue "for an unlimited population out of proportion to the economic resources is infantile. The Qur'an certainly does not mean to say that God provides every living creature with sustenance whether that creature is capable of procuring sustenance for itself or not." We are not passive sheep waiting to be fed, in the Islamic view. We are God's vicegerents on earth gifted with reason and talent. God has shared responsibility for providence with us and has given us the power to be prudent, to see problems and do something sensible about them.

This squares beautifully with Thomas Aquinas' description of humans as "participants in divine providence." Also, in Catholic theology,relying on God's sustaining power to do what we have been equipped by God to do for ourselves is called the sin of "tempting God."

Contraception has a long history in Islam. Early Islam actually developed contraceptive medicine and instructed Europe on it. Avicenna the Muslim physician in his book "The Law" discusses twenty different substances used for birth control. Such Islamic books of medicine were used for centuries in Europe. When Europe was in its "dark ages" Islamic culture with its stress on education kept the light of learning burning to the benefit of all peoples.

The most common form of birth control when Islam began was called azl, withdrawal, coitus interruptus. There are five major schools of law in Islam and all five permit the practice of azl, four of the five insisting that the consent of the wife is necessary. And here is where ijtihad come in, reasoning analogically from something already permitted. The Arab Republic of Egypt published a booklet called "Islam's Attitude Towards Family Planning." They state in its introduction that broad consultation with the most authoritative sources in Islam went into the research on this book. After noting that azl was permitted they argue that any method that has the same purpose as azl and does not induce permanent sterility is acceptable for Muslims. They then go on to list methods such as the cervical cap, the condom, contraceptive pills, injections to produce temporary sterility, and the "loop device" placed in the uterus to prevent implantation of the fertilized egg.

There are many reasons justifying contraception: reasons of health, economics, the preservation of the woman's appearance (!), and improving the quality of offspring. This last reason is important in Islam because the Islamic approach to contraception has a social conscience. It is concerned with the common good. Producing sickly, weak, or underdeveloped or uneducated children is not good for the umma, for the society. The Egyptian study says that "the strength of a nation is measured not by numbers or quantities, but rather by quality." The study stresses the importance "of being rational and moderate and of living within the possible means and available resources." The hadith literature also says it is better to have few who are virtuous than many who are not. Once again, human life deserves to thrive, not just to eek out a living.

What then about sterilization? In blessing the use of contraceptives, we saw the pre- condition that none of them cause permanent sterility. There is a wisdom in this. It is senseless to permanently sterilize if temporary sterility would meet the needs of the situation. Having stated the Islamic opposition to permanent sterilization, the Egyptian study immediately moves to exceptions and says that if the husband or wife suffer from a contagious or hereditary disease, permanent sterility is needed and moral. The study then invokes the principle of the lesser evil. That means you may have objections to sterilization but at times it will do less harm and is to be preferred. Interestingly, Catholic theologians today are using that same "lesser evil" argument to justify the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. Even the Vatican is showing some flexibility on this and invoking the "lesser evil" principle to allow exceptions.

And then we come to abortion. There are those in Islam who oppose all abortions. A favored text to support this is: "Do not kill your children for fear of poverty for it is We who shall provide sustenance for you as well as for them." (Surah 6: At-Talaqa:2-3) Professor Hassan notes on this text that the reference is to killing already born children--usually girls. The text was condemning this custom. Also, she notes the Arabic word for killing in this text "means not only slaying with a weapon, blow or poison, but also humiliating or degrading or depriving children of proper upbringing and education." So once again, as in other religions, a text is being freighted with meaning that it cannot sustain. The text doesn't explicitly address the abortion and therefore doesn't close the argument on it.

So the "no choice" view is not the prevailing view in Islam. There is broad acceptance in the major Islamic schools of law on the permissibility of abortion in the first four months of pregnancy. Most of the schools that permit abortion insist that there must be a serious reason for it such as a threat to the mother's life or the probability of giving birth to a deformed or defective child. However, as the Egyptian study says: "Jurists of the Shiite Zaidiva believe in the total permissibility of abortion before life is breathed into the fetus, no matter whether there is a justifiable excuse or not." That would be a pure form of what some call "abortion on demand." 

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