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Family planning & the Quran

By Dr Riffat Hassan

Friday, 16 Oct, 2009 | 12:49 AM PST | 

THE Quran is the highest and most authoritative source of normative Islam. A clear Quranic statement on any subject is regarded by Muslims as decisive and beyond questioning.

However, as Allama Iqbal has pointed out, the Quran is not “a legal code”. It does not address every subject specifically or directly. Rather, it is a book of divine wisdom meant to guide human beings who have been made “in the best of moulds” (Surah 95:4) to realise their potential to the fullest and become God’s vicegerents on Earth.

The Quran thus gives us a value system upon which to base our informed judgment while tackling contemporary issues. Take family planning, for instance. Even though there is no Quranic text on this specific issue, the Quran does establish the ethical framework in which this issue — like other contemporary issues — can be resolved.

Often Muslims who support family planning say that the Quran is silent on this issue, and they take the silence to be a sign of affirmation rather than negation. For instance, Dr Fazlur Rahman has pointed out that “in the verses of the Holy Quran one finds nothing which gainsays the view that we should control our population, for a time, to remedy our present situation”. On the other hand, Muslims like Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, insist that “the Quran is not silent”, on the subject. They point to the Quranic condemnation of the practice of burying female children alive which was prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia (Surah 81: 8-9; Surah 16: 57-59); and also to the Quranic verses in which the “killing” of children is prohibited or censured (Surah 6: 137,140,151; Surah 17:31; Surah 60:12).

Addressing, first, the arguments used to contend that the Quran is opposed to family planning, I would like to state the following. The Quranic references to the killing of children (who — according to the testimony of both “sacred” and historical texts — were female, not male, offspring) are to children already born and not to unborn children. Hence they are not relevant in a discussion of whether the Quran permits or prohibits family planning.

Secondly, Quranic references to the “killing” of children, may not, in all instances, point to actual slaying of offspring, but could be symbolic of ill-treatment of children as has also been pointed out by a number of notable Muslim scholars. Thirdly, though the Quran repeatedly refers to God’s omnipotence, it does not absolve either individuals or communities of responsibility for their survival and wellbeing. Rather, it constantly reminds human beings who have been given the gift of reason (aql) that “for itself lies every soul in pledge” (Surah 52: 21, Surah 74:38).

Addressing, next, the argument used in support of family planning, namely, that the Quran’s silence on the subject implies that — at the very least — it is not opposed to family planning, I would like to respond as follows. The absence of war does not necessarily imply peace nor does the absence of sickness necessarily imply good health. The fact that the Quran does not say anything against the idea of family planning, likewise, does not necessarily imply that it supports family planning. Many present-day Muslims, having heard all their lives that the Quran is a complete code of life expect to find in it specific statements pertaining to all subjects. When they do not find such statements they assume that the Quran has nothing to say on those subjects.

This claim of perceived “silence” of the Quran regarding a number of significant, modern issues like family planning creates a theological and ethical vacuum which different persons and groups fill in different ways. Here, it is important to remember that the Quran is not an encyclopaedia which may be consulted to obtain specific information about every possible subject.

By regarding the Quran as a Book in which they will find readymade laws, regulations, prescriptions or assessments relating to everything in life, many Muslims have lost sight of the main purpose of the Quran which, as stated by Iqbal, is “to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his relation with God and the universe.... The important thing in this connection is the dynamic outlook of the Quran”.

The answer to the question of how the Quran views family planning, and other contemporary issues, should not be sought in specific verses but within the overall ethical framework of normative Islam. The Quran strongly affirms and upholds fundamental human rights. It follows, therefore, that these rights must be acknowledged and protected in all Muslim societies and communities.

Given the unhappy socio-cultural, economic and political conditions of much of the present-day Muslim world where increase in birthrate is amongst the highest, the need for family planning may be regarded as self-evident. The right to use contraceptives, especially by disadvantaged masses whose lives are scarred by grinding poverty and massive illiteracy, should be seen in the light of the Quranic vision of what an Islamic society should be like — and as such as a fundamental human right.

The writer is a professor emerita at the University of Louisville, US, and a scholar of Islam and Iqbal.


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