on population, reproductive health & ethics

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Family planning, Contraception and Abortion in Islam:
Undertaking Khilafah: Moral Agency, Justice and Compassion

Published in Sacred Choices: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions, ed. by D. Maguire. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2003)

by Sa'diyya Shaikh

Page 3


Contraception has a long history in Islam that needs to be situated in relation to the broader Islamic ethos of marriage and sexuality. In Islam if one chooses to marry, this is not automatically linked to procreation. Within the Islamic view of marriage, an individual has the right to sexual pleasure within marriage, which is independent of ones choice to have children. This type of approach to sexuality is compatible with a more tolerant approach to contraception and family planning

Historically the various Islamic legal schools with an overwhelming majority have permitted coitus interruptus, called azl, as a method of contraception. This was a contraceptive technique practiced by pre-Islamic Arabs and continued to be used during time of the Prophet with his knowledge and without his prohibition. The only condition the Prophet attached to acceptability of this practice, which was reiterated by Muslim jurists, was that the husband was to secure the permission of the wife before practicing withdrawal. Since the male sexual partner initiates this technique, there needs to be consensual agreement about its use by both partners for 2 primary reasons. Firstly, the wife is entitled to full sexual pleasure and coitus interruptus may diminish her pleasure. Secondly, she has the right to offspring if she so desires. These requirements speak to the priority given in Islam to mutual sexual fulfillment consultation as well as consultative decision making between a married couple in terms of family planning.

As early as the 9th century female contraceptive techniques like intravaginal suppositories and tampons, were also a part of both medical and judicial discussions in Islam. While medical manuals listed the different female contraceptive options and their relative effectiveness, legal positions differed around whether the consent of the husband was necessary or not with the use of female contraceptive In classical Islamic law which informs contemporary Islamic jurisprudence law, the majority position in eight out of the nine legal schools permit contraception.

Due to this broad based legal permissibility of contraception in Islamic law, Muslim physicians in the medieval period conducted in depth investigations into the medical dimension of birth control, which were unparalleled in European medicine until the 19th century. Ibn Sina in his "Qanun" lists 20 birth control substances and physician Abu Bakr al- Razi in his "Hawi" lists 176 birth control substances. The permissibility of contraceptive practice in Islamic history at the level of both theory and practice, is abundantly evident in both its medical and legal legacies.

While different legal scholars discussed the acceptability or reprehensibility of particular individual motives for using contraceptives, this discussion did not contest the overarching permissibility of contraceptive practice. The scholar Al- Ghazzali (d. 1111) supported the use of contraceptive practice for a number of different reasons including economic factors where a large number of dependents would impose financial and psychological hardship on the family. He reasoned that a large family may cause one to resort to unlawful means to support these excessive responsibilities. Fewer material burdens, he adds, are an aid to religion.

He also supported the decision to use contraception in order to protect the life of the wife, given the possible physical dangers that childbirth posed to the life of the mother. In addition, he considered the need for the wife to preserve her beauty and attractiveness for the enjoyment of the marriage as a reasonable justification for contraception.

While the last mentioned rationale may characterize a patriarchal emphasis on the primacy of the wife's appearance to the enjoyment of the marriage, it nonetheless simultaneously illustrates the high levels of tolerance for contraceptive practices in the Islamic legacy. This is reflected in the fact that there are many other influential jurists and theologians in different historical periods who discussed the permissibility of contraception (azl) for similar and additional reasons.

In the present context there are a number of considerations that speak to the urgent need for family planning in Muslim societies. At the national level, physician and demographer, Professor Abdel Rahim Omran, demonstrates through population statistics that the population in the Muslim world is growing at a rate that is not matched by economic and service development. Due to these realities he states that:

Muslim countries have been forced to acquire debt, import food and rely on
foreign aid to cope with the needs of growing populations. The result is a vicious
cycle of poverty, ill health, illiteracy, overpopulation and unemployment being
compounded with social frustration, extremism and social unrest.

There are significant internal social and economic reasons to focus on family planning in the Muslim world. Thus arguments by religious scholars who see family planning as an external western conspiracy aimed at curtailing the growth and strength of Islam world appear to be uninformed of both the socio-political and demographic realities in many Muslim countries as well as the historical permissibility of the contraception within the Islamic legacy. In fact I would argue that, given the profound socio-economic and political difficulties in various parts of the Muslim world, a lack of family planning and increasing populations would weaken and curtail the strength of Islam.

At the more personal level, the demands of a large family impact the quality of life of all its members including parents and children. Numerous offspring make it less possible for parents to provide for the full range of their children's needs including spiritual, emotional, psychological and financial dimensions, resulting in children experiencing a reduced quality of life. Similarly, multiple demands on parents generally implies the need to work harder to provide for these numerous needs. This in turn often reduces their quality of life including the fact that they have less time and energy for the necessary spiritual and religious introspection also required in Islam.

It is noteworthy that the majority of contemporary Islamic leaders who are well educated in the Islamic legacy and are aware of social needs, with few exceptions, state the religious permissibility of contraception. The fairly widespread encouragement of family planning and the permission to use contraceptive practices are reflected in a number of different conferences and religious publications participated in by leading Islamic scholars in various parts of the Muslim world. Some of the key arguments in these books and conference publications involves an application of Qur'anic ethical principles to the perceived needs of the age. The following represent some of the recurring elements in many of these conferences and publications:

" Islam is a religion of ease and not of hardship. Moderation is the recommended approach to life (Q2:185; 22:78). Thus large families in the context of a limited access to resources often imposes difficulties on the provider.

" In Islam there is a prioritization on the quality of life rather than a large quantity of lives.

" Planned spacing of pregnancies will allow the mother the time and opportunity to suckle and care for each child. The Qur'an recommends that a mother should suckle her child for two years.

" Undernourished and weak offspring are more a source of anxiety and struggle than the "comfort" or "allurement" of the parents eyes as the Qur'an intends.

" In Muslim countries that are underdeveloped, have limited resources and are over populated, an absence of family planning will result in a weak multitude enduring more hardships instead of a smaller but stronger and healthier population.

" Contemporary contraceptive methods that temporarily avert pregnancy are analogous to Islamically sanctioned practice of coitus interruptus "azl" and are thus permissible.

" Sterilization or any type of contraceptives that would cause permanent infertility was impermissible unless there were exceptional reasons.

" People should not be coerced to stop childbearing

In some Muslim countries, the authorities have emerged with guidelines for contraception. For example, an official Egyptian manual on family planning which was compiled by religious scholars included a discussion on the acceptability of various forms of modern contraceptives including condoms, the cervical cap, the loop device, the contraceptive pill, the contraceptive injection, and IUD.

A forum that has made some particularly noteworthy and progressive declarations was The International Congress in which took place in Aceh, Indonesia in 1990. The Aceh Declarations included an emphasis on responsibility that the present generation owes to the future generations since the lifestyle and decisions of the former impact the quality of life of future generations. As part of a family planning program, they also recognized the importance of the empowerment of Muslim women, their informed participation in decision-making processes, and the need for improving maternal care and childcare facilities.

It is noteworthy that among the religious scholars who oppose contraception, gender relations and women's rights are also key aspects of the argument, albeit in a different way. For example Maulana Maududi of Pakistan condemns the entry of women into the public labor force and gender desegregation in society. He argues that in this type of permissive society:

the last obstacle that may keep a woman from surrendering to a man's advances is
fear of illegitimate conception. Remove this obstacle too and provide women with
weak character assurance that they can safely surrender to their male friends and
you will see that the society will be plagued by the tide of moral licentiousness.

This type of argumentation is underpinned with a gender ideology that sees women roles as restricted to the domestic realm under male control. Moreover women are seen as moral minors whose abstinence from illicit sex is only due to fear of external sanctions and who are easily influenced by the sensual wiles of men. Paradoxically, responsibility for sexual morality of the community is seen to reside with activities of women for it is their entry into public space that will cause sexual anarchy. These notions are expressly masculinist and patriarchal and counter the very basic Islamic notions of the khilafah or full moral agency of every human being, both male and female. Not only is it a violation of the personhood of women but also it considers men as sexual predators who are driven by the needs of their uncontrollable libidos and will at any given opportunity, seek out illicit sexual relationships. Accordingly men too are depicted as lacking in moral agency since their proper conduct is premised on the absence of females in their company. Pervading this argument is the view that sexual morality is dictated to from external constraints.

This type of sexual ethos contradicts the very basis of Islamic morality that every human beings is endowed with the capacity to be an active moral agent and that no soul bears the burden of another. Moreover Qur'anically, human morality and ethics are intended to emerge fundamentally from that all pervasive internal locus of control called taqwa or God-conscious. Accordingly I would reject Maududi's argument against contraception and family planning as being contrary to some of the very basic premises of an Islamic worldview.

Despite the kind of perspective that Maududi represents, it would appear that the right to family planning is certainly part of the contemporary scholarly Islamic discourse. Based on sociological fieldwork in Morocco, researcher Donna Lee Bowen demonstrates that many of the local religious leaders who oppose contraception have relatively limited education in Islamic scholarship and their views are in sharply contrasted with the those who come from the more educated ulama class. Given the Islamic scholarly legacy as well as the demands of the current period, I would argue that opponents of family planning are not only inadequately informed but lacking in judgement and the ability to articulate a dynamic and socially relevant Islamic response to challenges of the time.

In sum it would appear that the contemporary need for family planning in the Muslim world is premised on the view that smaller families firstly, reduce hardships on the family and on national resources and secondly, support the conditions for the flourishing of human life. Both of these are authentic and essential Islamic imperatives found in the fundamentals of the Qur'anic worldview.

I would like to reiterate that while the views of the learned scholars may be illuminating and helpful (or not !), in Islam the individual believer retains the right to make her own decisions on the basis of being a moral agent (khalifah). These decisions need to be informed by the primary sources and the Islamic principles of justice, human well being, mercy and compassion where freedom is always accompanied by moral and spiritual responsibilities.

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