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On Being A Muslim Woman:
Laws and Practices

By Nawal H. Ammar, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Kent State University/Trumbull

Table of Contents

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Section One: Introduction: Finding Answers
Section Two: Sources of Islam

Introduction: Finding Answers

One of the main facets of my identity has been that of being a Muslim woman. I was born into a family living in Cairo, Egypt, connected to rural Islam through my father's family, and to urban Islam through my mother's family who lived in Beirut, Lebanon. It was this experience at home that lead me to recognize that, although there is unity of text and history in the Islamic doctrine, the diversity — including geography, technological acquisition, culture, education, socio-economic status, and political involvement — of Muslims contributes to variations in the their way of life.

I lived comfortably with this diversity. It was not strange that one of my grandmothers wore the rural Egyptian head veil (Tarha), while the other grandmother shed the veil during her twenties as a symbolic gesture against the Ottoman rule. I remember having some Egyptian Copts in my religion class who wanted to make an effort to learn verses of the Qur'an like we did. I was no more than 9 or 10 and now, decades later, I still remember how impressed I was by both my classmate Fouad (an Egyptian Copt) and our teacher who allowed him to stay in class during religion instruction. I was comfortable. I knew that I was a good Muslim. It was not, however, until the Iranian revolution in 1979 that my comfort was called into question and challenged.

I was studying in England at that time, and I remember that my English friends and teachers often challenged my knowledge of Islam. I wrote an honors paper in my last year of college entitled "Islam: a Religion and a Way of Life" that was called into question by the professor because I ended by saying that Islam is a religion of tolerance. For the longest time the image that the West had of my religion pained me. I did not know what to do! Those people who look so stern and violent in Iran (and elsewhere) are my compatriots in religion, but I did not agree with their ways. I finally decided to resolve this dilemma by going back to the holy and historical texts and learn for myself. The following paper is a summary of 6 issues that I have had to deal with in the U.S. during the past 15 years. Four of the issues pertain directly to women and two are important concepts that U.S. media and academe have misrepresented and continue to misrepresent. These issues are: 1) Who are the Muslims in today's world? 2); Is Jihad holy war?; 3) Is Islam a religion for women?; 4) Does Islam prescribe polygamy?; 5) Why aren't you veiled? 6) Why have some Muslims boycotted the U.N. Population Conference in Cairo in 1993?

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Sources of Islam

Before I proceed with my discussion of the six issues that I have had to deal with as a Muslim woman in the U.S. for the past 15 years, it is important to review the sources of Islam on which I base this discussion. The Islamic paradigm as it relates to the sacred and profane practices is based on ontological rather than epistemological principles. In essence Islamic behavior and moral codes are patterned and conditioned by the existence of the revelation that was later compiled in the form of the Book, the Holy Qur'an. The source of knowledge in the Holy Qur'an is a given and not subject to empirical or other testing procedures. The Muslims believe that the Holy Qur'an is the uncreated words of God. These words were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in 610 A.D. and during a period of twenty three years with some chapters revealed entirely at one time, while others extended over many years. The revelations are divided into Meccan and Medina because of the place they were revealed. The Meccan revelations, generally, address more theological/religious injunctions, while the Medina revelations address social, political, economic and environmental practices. Although the Prophet Muhammad organized the Book, the Holy Qur'an was not committed to writing until 30 years after his death.

The Qur'an is divided into 114 structures, each of which is called Surah, section. The Surhas are of varying lengths, each is divided further into smaller verses called Ayah. The fact that the Qur'an represents the words of God forbids Muslims from varying its organization and using the Qur'an except in its Arabic origin. The revelation in Islam separated the "what" from the "how" (al-Faruqi and al-Faruqi 1986:108). The what was God's injunctions, and the how was the domain of humans. The what is ultimate and absolute, while the human is changing and developing.

The Qur'an is the highest religious and most absolute source in Islam. There are, however, three other religious sources that guide the religion. These are the Prophet's Sayings, Hadiths, the Prophet's actions, Sunnah, and the jurists decisions, Shariah.

Muslims are required to apply both the Hadiths and Sunnah in their personal and social life. The Hadith began to committed to writing 50 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. A large number of Hadiths were fabricated through the years. The struggle for succession provided the largest opportunity for such fabrication. As a result a science of Hadith (I'lm Al-hadith) developed to distinguish between sound and false Hadiths. The science is based on verifying the historical retrieval of the narration, Isnad, and the content of the Hadith, Matin. Six anthologies were made between 815-870 A.D.. Two of these collections by Bukhari and Muslim are actually known as the "two sheiks". They examined 600,000 Hadith and found that 7225 were sound.

The Prophet's actions, Sunnah, are not written, but is rather a prally transmitted from generation to generation.

The Shariah is the form of law that covers the ever changing conditions and situations of human life. The science of Usul of Fiqh (the origins of thought) was developed in the 8th century to distinguish between the changeless and changing, and to develop a methodology out of the relevant principles of the Qur'an, Hadith and Sunnah.

The new laws (Shariah) that develop in the face of a changing society were derived from the spirit of the prescriptive revelation on the basis of Ijma' and Qiyas. Ijma' consists of the agreement of all jurists in any given period on a matter of law. Qiyas consists of subsuming a new matter under an established law because of the equivalence of the causes underlying them. To the two above principles seven others were added to guarantee the dynamism of the law with guarantees for the preeminence of these principles and values.

The Qur'an, the Hadith, Sunnah, and the Shariah determine the parameters of knowledge and information in Islam. Hence, all legal and ethical codes in Islam are based on foundations that are formulated and passed on by God directly or by analogy.

Although in Islam God is the final judge, it is the public opinion of the learned community that provides sanctions in this world. Based on the texts Islam produces a system that stresses compliance with textual rules or their derivations. Various grades of rules are utilized for behavioral compliance. These are: 1) obligatory 2) desirable or recommended, but not obligatory 3) indifferent 4) disapproved 5) forbidden (Fellows 1979: 416).

It is to these sources and their interpretations that I turn. The following discussion thus uses the Qur'an, the Hadith and some Shariah to address the questions at hand.

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Issues and Questions

Who are the Muslims in Today's World?

I have encountered the issue of who are the Muslims in today's world in basically two ways. The first comes as a nomaclature or a confusion in referring to the Muslims. Americans often use "Muslim" and "Arab" as interchangeable terms as though they referred to the same people. Such a confusion is the result of the fact that Islam emerged in the 7th century A.D. in Mecca, in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula. At the time most Muslims were Arabs, but not all Arabs were Muslims. Today, Arabs account for only 20% of the Muslims of the World, and a large number of Arabs are Christians, Jews and atheists. Hence, using the terms Arabs and Muslims as though the two were synonymous potentially offends non-Arab Muslims and non-Muslim Arabs. Actually the only certain, unalterable connection between Islam and the Arabs is that Islam's sacred book, the Qur'an is an Arabic Book : "We have brought forth for men in this Qur'an every kind of parable in order that they may receive admonition. (it is) a Qur'an in Arabic, without any crookedness (therein). In order that they may guard against evil." (39:27-28). (1)

A second issue concerns who the Muslims are racially or ethnically. The Americans in general are fascinated with the issue of race, and the phenotypic diversity of Muslims has lead to numerous questions about the race of Muslims. My answer to such a question is that there are one billion Muslims in the world today who live in more than 83 countries and speak more than 200 languages/dialects. As a result we cannot look at this vast number of people as compromising a single ethnic or a racial group. Muslims are not a homogeneous tribe. Actually the Qur'an emphasizes this by stating:

Oh humankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in God's sight is the greatest of you in piety" (49:13). [my emphasis]

Instead Muslims see themselves as a community because their belief in one God. The Qur'an further explains this notion by saying: "The Believers are but a single Brotherhood" (49:10). This brotherhood has no single origin, actually the Qur'an takes pride in God's creation of human diversity by stating: "And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your languages, and your colors; verily in that are Signs for those who know" (30:22). Muslims thus do not belong to any one race or ethnic group. Muslims are a community of believers that come from all races, colors, languages, and tribes. The cementing factor in the Muslim community is belief in and submission to the one God.

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Is Jihad the Holy War?

Western media often associate Islam with violence and war. Coverage of the recent political events (e.g., the Intifadah in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, the allied war with Iraq, and the World Trade Center bombing in New York) have all cemented this association. The extent of negative stereotyping of Muslims reached absurd levels in Howard Bloom's 1988 article in Omni magazine (reputed to publish "scientific" papers) where he writes: "Islamic cultures, treat their children harshly, they despise open displays of affection... the result is violent adults" (page 30). Such media messages pollute the minds of innocents who in turn maintain and perpetuate these prejudices. One student of mine once said: "I have never seen a peaceful Muslim, they all want to fight and kill". I asked him: "How many Muslims do you know?" He paused and answered: "only one, you". I then asked: "does this mean you think I am violent?" He said: "No, but I see them on television".

An accurate understanding of Islam's view of war and violence is relevant not only for my American student and those who plan international policy, but also for those who plan our domestic political and cultural policy. Scholars estimate that there are approximately 5 million Muslims living in the U.S. today. Also, they project that by the year 2000 the Muslims will be the second largest religious community living in the U.S.. "We can no longer ignore Islam as a religion", said a Presbyterian minister to a group of children, "you and your children will have Muslim neighbors, Muslim classmates, Muslim co-workers and who knows you may end marrying Muslim spouses". These demographic facts make any discussion of Islam of central importance for the American society's fabric and function.

One of the most common questions I get asked is, "What is Islam's approach to war? Is it really true that holy war, 'Jihad' is one of the major tenants of Islam?"

The Meanings of Jihad

American media often associate the Arabic word "Jihad" with "holy war". Nations with Muslim populations that are also at war are then typically seen as being engaged in a "holy war"; hence, the association of "Islam" with violence and war becomes easy. In fact, the word Jihad carries the more general meaning of "struggle" or "exerting effort". Jihad as "holy war" expresses only one of many forms of struggle. The term Jihad in Islam divides into two parts: major Jihad and minor Jihad. The major Jihad is a struggle toward living a pious life. This includes observing God's commandments, avoiding sin, modesty, honesty, caring for aging parents, and opposing injustice. The second mode of Jihad, the minor Jihad, is the holy war. The Prophet Muhammad used to say upon his return from battle: "We return from the minor Jihad to the major Jihad".

Unlike Buddhism's non-violent struggle, Gandhi's concept of non-harm or Christ's dictum "to turn the other cheek", Islam considers war as a viable form of struggle against injustice or oppression. This form of struggle, however, derives from the early history of the Islamic community, and only operates under certain conditions and protocol.

Non-Violence Before War

Muslims generally are enjoined to struggle in holy war to confront injustice and oppression. One Qur'anic verse says: "and fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God, altogether and every where" (8: 39). Fighting oppression is one important reason for a holy war, since "tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter" (2: 191). Nonetheless, war as a form of struggle in Islam, is seen as a last resort. Persuasion and patience should first be employed as a form of struggle. According to the Qur'an, first "invite (all) to the way of thy lord with wisdom, and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious" (16: 127). If gracious words and arguments do not improve the oppression and distress, another form of non-violent reaction is recommended, namely, emigration. According to the Qur'an: "He who forsakes his home in the name of God, finds in the earth many refuge, wide and spacious" (4:100). This emphasis on the importance of emigration as a form of struggle is further clarified and emphasized in relation to Judgment Day in the Qur'an: "Behold, those whom the angels gather in death while they are still sinning against themselves, [the angels] will ask 'what was wrong with you?' They will answer: 'we were too weak and oppressed on earth'. [The angels] will say 'was, then God's earth not wide enough for you to forsake the domain of evil!'" (4: 47).

Once the non-violent modes of struggle fail to eliminate tumult and oppression, the Qur'an calls the "Prophet, [to] rouse the faithful to arms" (8: 65), "Muster against them [the enemies] all the men and cavalry at your disposal" (8: 60), and "turn them (the enemies) out from where they turned you out" (2: 191). At this stage of war, all Muslims are ordered to join the war in all their capacities. According to the Qur'an: "fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it" (3: 200).

Islam disallows conversion into the faith by force. The Qur'anic verse says: "Let there be no compulsion in religion" (2:256). So the idea of conversion by the sword is far away from the real truth. Jihad is an Islamic concept that is more complex than "holy war".

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Is Islam a Religion for Women?

A systematic review of the Qur'an identifies twenty Surahs or sections that address women directly(2). The syntax of these Qur'anic Surahs is inclusive in its gender base. Generally these Surahs use either the feminine or masculine plural such as, "You men and women believers", or "al-insan" (the Human). The problem, however, comes in the numerous translations that most Americans read. Often these translated texts impose the masculine "men" for lack of a good substitute or due to the translator's own biases. Regardless, in Islam (and according to Muslims) the Qur'an is a dictated book ( the words of God), and the translations (into other languages) are not the Qur'an. The Qur'anic Surahs addressing women generally regulate marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody, sexual reproduction, adultery, witnessing, veiling, and the status of women in relation to men.An example of how the Qur'an specifically addresses women comes in the following Ayah:

Lo! Men who surrender to Allah and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere, and women who persevere, and men who are humble, and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms,and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard their modesty, and men who remember Allah, and women who remember Allah; Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and vast reward (33:35) .

Also in the Hadith, the text that contains the Prophet's sayings, women are very much present. They transmitted the Prophet's sayings, and their testimony was accepted. Among women who transmitted the Hadith were the Prophet's wives Aisha and Mymonah, Asma (Aisha's half sister), Khansa' (a renowned Poetess), Umm Kurz and Zynab, the wives of renowned Muslims. The Hadiths told by these women included the Prophet's reactions to the first revelation, hygienic practices, praying, marriage, wills, inheritance, debts, mortgages, gift giving, buying and selling, and divorce.

A review of women's roles in early Islam offers evidence of women's importance in the society. Women not only prayed in the mosques, but they also led prayers. Ahmed (1986:689) notes that during the Prophet's lifetime Um Warraka led prayers. After the Prophet's death, Aisha and Umm Salma, his wives, also led prayers. Aisha, the Prophet's wife, eulogized the third caliph, Uthman after his assassination and called for his revenge in the mosque (Ahmed 1986:690). During early Islam women also participated in activities such as wars. Asma, the daughter of Abu Bakr (the Prophet's first Caliph and close friend) played an important role in helping the Prophet and her father escape from Mecca to Medina when the persecution of the Meccan tribes escalated in 622 C.E.. The Prophet's wife Aisha also fought the battle of the "camel" during the rule of caliph Ali. Two of the Prophet's wives are reported by Hadith (Bukhari 4:86) to have had their garments tucked up during the Uhud battle and their ankles showing while carrying water to those on the battle field (Ahmed 1986: 681).

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The Qur'an describes in the following verse its instructions on polygamy:

Marry women of your choice, two, or three , or four. But if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with them, then one. (94:3).

Such a verse is often misquoted. Only the first part of it is repeated without the second part where "fear to be just" is an important directive. The Qur'an describes further the "fearto be just" by saying:

Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women. Even if it is your ardent desire. (4:129)

The famous Egyptian Imam, Sheikh Sharawi notes that Islam did not permit polygamy, but guided it under the direction of justice. He continues to say " if one cannot be just then do not marry more than one" (n.d. 29).

Some Muslim countries have also made polygamy illegal. Tunisia is the most impressive example. In 1956 Tunisia revised it Personal Status code of law according to "enlightened Sharia" and prohibited polygamy.

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Why Aren't You Veiled?

There is considerable controversy surrounding Islam's view of veiling of women. A number of religious men and Muslim states have interpreted veiling as a must in Islam. In fact the Qur'an and the Hadith have singled out the Prophet's wives in this domain. One finds mention of veiling in three Qur'anic Surah's, al- Maryam (19), al-Ahzab (33), and al-Nur (24). One of the Surah's says: "When you ask for something from the Prophet's wives ask behind a curtain (al-hijab) that is purer for your hearts and for their hearts" (33:53). What is meant by hijab here is questionable. According to Shalaq (1982) and Ashmawi (1994) it means a curtain, a partition and not a black dress. It is argued that this verse was revealed for the benefit of the Prophet's wives in order to separate them from the other believers (Shalaq 1982; Ashmawi 1994), especially that the wives of the Prophet had many people visit the house. Another verse in this Surah says: O Prophet, tell thy wives and daughters and the believing women, that they draw their veils close to them; so it is likelier they will be known, and not hurt" (33:59). According to Ashmawi (1994) this verse was revealed to the Prophet because women during the time of the Prophet used to wear a headdress that would hang from the back. So the verse came directing that the head dress should hang from the front. Ashmawi argues, that such a request could be a way in which the Qur'an aimed to distinguish Muslim women from other women. A third verse in the Qur'an says: And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their (pockets) " (24:31). In this verse Ashmawi argues that the revelation was requesting that believing women should let their headdress hang over the top of their dress to hide their bosoms, a modest way of dress.

Veiling is also mentioned in the Qur'an in relation to the immaculate conception of Jesus. The Surah says: "She (Miriam) placed a hijab.. a veil (unlike others) then we sent her our angel and he appeared before her as a man in all respects"(al-Maryam 19:17). Beyond these prescriptions the Qur'an mentions that women should not exaggerate and display their beauty to men other than those linked to them by blood, marriage, or as servants, and that they should guard their private parts and throw a scarf (or veil) over their bosoms. In the Hadith the reference to a woman covering her head and face with a veil actually meant that the woman was the Prophet's wife (Shalaq 1982, Ahmed 1986:682).

The veil as the black dress we see worn today in the streets of Tehran or in the villages of Morocco and Iraq was not prescribed in the Qur'an. The veil, however, as a mode of dress was not a new custom introduced by Islam to the area (Ahmed 1986:683). Certainly the Byzantian women wore the veil to assert their social status, and the Persian women who converted to Mazdism (better known as Zoroastrians) wore the veil during their fire rituals to protect the sacred fire from their impurities.

Islam, however, introduced "seclusion" as a new practice to Arabia (Ahmed 1986:683). The Qur'an states, "O wives of the Prophet ye are not like any of the other women ... and stay quietly in your homes and make not dazzling display like that of the former time of ignorance" (33:32-34). The context of this seclusion, should be understood because it was directed immediately to the Prophet's wives, and it was meant to protect the Prophet from any insults such as sexual abuse of his wives (Ahmed 1986). It is important to underscore this notion that seclusion as mentioned by the Qur'an was addressing the Prophet's wives only, especially that they were singled out by the Qur'an as "different" from other women (33:32), and that the revelation caused a tense situation in which the Prophet threatened mass divorce (Ahmed 1986: 684). This difference between the Prophet's wives and other Muslim women is not, however, absolute. It relates only to the potential for insulting the Prophet indirectly through his relatives. Thus the Prophet's wives were forbidden to remarry after the Prophet's death, and did not inherit from him. Beyond these restrictions, the Prophet's wives were similar to all Muslim and other believing women.

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What is Islam's View on Population Control?

Fertility control(Tahdid al Nasl) is forbidden by the Qur'an. Human reproduction is viewed as being a sign of God's power and will. As a result humans should not interfere in the natural cycle of fertility. One of the verses of the Qur'an states: "And we cause who we will to rest in the Wombs" (22:5).

According to the Qur'an, God controls various aspects of human fertility. The gender of the offspring is one of such aspects. The Qur'an states: "He creates what He wills. He bestows male or female. Or He bestows both males and females" (42:49-50). God also controls the pregnancy in its various stages according to the Qur'an: "He makes you in the wombs of your mothers in stages, one after another" (39:6).

God's might and power does not only forbid the control of fertility, but encourages reproduction of children. The Qur'an says:" Money and Children are the decoration of life" (18:46). The same theme about fertility can be found in the Prophet's sayings: " An ugly woman who is fertile is a better wife than a beauty who is barren".

To control your fertility because of financial or material constraints is forbidden behavior in Islam. The Qur'an clearly states "the mothers shall suckle their offspring for two whole years... and it is the father's responsibility to feed and dress the children on equitable terms, no soul shall have a burden laid on it greater than it can bear" (2:233 my emphasis). The Qur'an also says: "Kill not your children for fear of want . . . We will provide sustenance for them as well as for you . . . Verily the Killing of them is a great sin" (17:31).

The encouragement of fertility in Islamic texts is often explained as arising from the demographic need to increase the number and domain of the newly emerging religion (Ahmed 1986; Ammar 1993). The Qur'an for example emphasizes this geographic concept of population expansion by saying: " O human kind we created you from a single (soul) of male and female, and made you into Nations and Tribes that ye may know each other" (49:13). One of the Prophet's Hadiths shows that the underlying reason behind the encouragement of reproduction in Islam is to increase the population of the community of believers in Islam. He said: "consummate marriages, reproduce for I will take pride (in your numbers) on the Day of Judgement".

It is obligatory that reproduction and fertility in Islam take place within the marriage institution. In Islam marriage is not a religious sacrament, rather it is a legal contract that binds the married pair to their offspring(s). This connection of offsprings to their parents within the context of marriage is best exemplified in the common practice of "no adoption in Islam". One can nurture a child that is not his/her biological offspring, but the child can never become legally adopted. The legal obligation of bonding of the child to his/her parents in the context of marriage is also exemplified by the Prophet's saying: " Who ever holds illicit intercourse and the child is born illegitimate, the child does not inherit nor is the child inherited".

The strict condition of reproduction within the institution of legal marriage in Islam is the result of the need to establish in Arabia during the 7th Century a patrilineal tracing (a father connection) of offsprings. Such a descent line enabled the emerging mercantile society to pass on its newly accumulated wealth from one generation to another (Ammar 1993: 19).

Fertility Control (Tahdid Al Nasl) Versus
Fertility Organization (Tanzim Al Nasl)

Muslim religious thinkers in the past quarter of a century have made a distinction between fertility control (Tahdid Al Nasl) and fertility regulation (Tanzim Al Nasl). Tahdid Al Nasl refers to controlling fertility over the entire period of a woman's reproductive years. This comprehensive, generalized fertility control,Tahdid Al Nasl, is forbidden. On the other hand to regulate fertility (Tanzim Al Nasl) to strengthen a woman's health, or to suckle one child, or to care for elderly parents or relatives is desirable and recommended. A famous Egyptian religious leader, Imam Shaltout notes that "individualistic fertility control is not against nature or God, nor counter to national priorities, and is permitted and encouraged by the Shariah (the law)" (1991:297). The religious rules that encourage fertility regulation in Islam are based on the general spirit of the Qur'an and the Prophet's Hadith about Yasir wa la tua'sir: "facilitate and do not complicate". He also said: "What is good for my people is law".

Fertility Organization:
Encouraged Methods Condoms, Diaphragms and Oral Contraception

The use of condoms and diaphragms for organizing fertility in the Islamic texts is clearly encouraged. The Prophet when asked about the use of barriers (Al'Azil), said three times consecutively: "and you shall use them"(3). The encouragement and approval of the use of the barrier is based primarily on the principle of non-interference with God's power of creation. As a result to prevent fertility, humans shall do so prior to the conception of life.

Beyond the use of the barrier (Al'azil), Islamic thought varies in its interpretations concerning the use of other fertility control methods. Some religious thinkers (e.g. Sha'rawi) note that the use of the birth control pill and any other pharmacological substance is forbidden. Other thinkers (e.g. Shaltout, and Al Ghazali) note that oral contraception can be an encouraged method of fertility organization, since the contraceptive does not intervene directly with the conception of life.

It is important to note that irrespective of which of the interpretations one "believes", it is essential to examine the use of oral contraception from the Islamic view of "facilitating not complicating" women's reproductive health. Oral contraception in most Muslim countries is a major cause of health complications for women over the age of 30. In my own research in a village in the south of Egypt, I found that women's age was never considered when prescribing oral contraception (4). Instead doctors prescribe vitamin pills to assure women that they are taking care of the oral contraception's side effects. The contraceptive pills prescribed for the women of all ages were high in their estrogen content (5). Many women during my stay in the village complained to me about irregular bleeding, pains in the rear of their legs, weight gain, and severe headaches. The issue one needs to underscore is if in the Islamic perspective the basis for encouraging fertility organization is to care for the mother's health and well-being then we need to ensure that Muslim women have access to oral contraception brands similar to those available in Western markets.


In Islam abortions are encouraged only if the pregnancy threatens the well-being of the mother. It is forbidden to sacrifice the mother's life for the fetus. Here again the practice of abortion is prescribed with limitations. The soul in the Islamic tradition develops after the fetus moves in the womb. The distinction between movement and life in Islam is very clear. The fetus moves, during the second trimester (precisely after 120 days of pregnancy). Abortion, as a result, is permitted during the first 120 days, i.e. before the soul develops.

Islam like other Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Christianity) addresses the practice of fertility control. The texts are very clear about encouraging the organization of fertility if it helps strengthen women's health. The major problem, however, among most Muslim women is not the Islamic prescriptions about fertility control, but rather the level of development in their countries. In fact, the social and material conditions of most Islamic countries inhibit access and use of appropriate health and medical services for women. In a recent UNICEF publication, Khattab (1992) notes that women's reproductive health needs to be addressed holistically, inter-linking physical, with social, psychological, economic and political well being. Muslim women, in addition to learning about their religion they need: 1. health professionals that understand and respect their life conditions; 2. sex education; and 3. a re-examining of the external cultural and material systems that inhibit women's access to health services (Khattab 1992:5).

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It is difficult to discuss Muslim women's lives as if they were a monolithic entity living under the same social, economic and political conditions. It is, however, possible to examine the religious tenets of Islam as something all Muslim women share together.

Islam sees Jihad as a total way of life and not just as holy war. In fact Islam considers Jihad meaning exerting effort towards piety, hard work and achievement as the major part of a Muslim's life. Muslim women within this meaning of "Jihad" ought to participate and fulfill their religious duty.

Islam sees Muslim women as part and parcel of the religious message. They are included in the revelations. They have privileges and responsibilities. The Qur'an dictates that the penalties imposed on women are no less than those imposed on men (5:41, 24:2).

Muslim women are not as oppressed as some interpretations show them to be. Actually an accurate look at the Qur'anic directives and legal rights shows that polygamy is regulated in such a way that it could be very difficult to justify marrying more than one woman most of the time. While the veiling of Muslim women is not so clearly enforced as one is commonly lead to believe from the images in Iran.

With regard to fertility control, Islam forbids it as a life time practice to stop women's reproduction during their child bearing years. The texts clearly encourage fertility within the marriage institution as a decorative, and appealing practice in life. Islamic scholars, however, make a distinction between fertility control (Tahdid Al Nasl) as a life time halting of reproduction and fertility organization (Tanzim Al-Nasl) as temporary planning of fertility. Tanzim Al Nasl is encouraged if the mother's health and well-being is at risk. The use of one fertility control method is clearly encouraged in Islam, the 'Azil (condom/diaphragm). Some, but not all, Islamic scholars view the use of the oral pill as an encouraged method. Other methods of fertility control that intervene with the natural cycle of reproduction or that are permanent are forbidden. Abortion is encouraged in the Islamic texts if the mother's health or well-being at risk. It is, however, permitted only during the first 120 days.

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Rose El Youssef No. 3444 13-6-1994 PP.22-25.

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1986 The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Fellows, W. 1979 Religions East and West. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Khattab, H. 1992 "The Silent Endurance: Social Conditions of Women's reproductive health in rural

Egypt". Edited by Gillian Potter. Cairo: Nour Arab Publishing House.


Shaltout, M. 1991 Alfatawi (Interpretations). Cairo: Dar al-Sharq.

Sahrawi, M. M. n.d. al-Mara' Wa al-Rajul Wa Khosum al-Islam. (The Woman and The Man and The

Enemies of Islam. Dar El-Nadwah. Alexandria: Egypt.


(1) Qura'nic verses are followed by two sets of numbers for example (39:27). These refer to the Chapter (Surah) and the verse (Ayah). Back to Text

(2) These include: Baqarah (Surah 2), Al Imran (Surah 3), Al-Nisa (Surah 4), Al Maidah (Surah 5),
Al Anam (Surah 6), Al Isra (Surah 17), Al Maryam (Surah 19), Al Hajj (Surah 22), Al Muminun (Surah 23), Al Nur (Surah 24), Al Rum (Surah 30), Al Ahzab (Surah 33), Al Saffat (Surah 37), Gafir (Surah 40), Al
Hujurat (Surah 49), Al Najm (Surah 53), Al Mummtahinah (Surah 60), Al Talaq (Surah 65), Al Mudathir (Surah 74), Al'Alaq (Surah 96).
Back to Text

(3) In Islam repeating something for three times means one is convinced of what he/she is saying. In the case of the Prophet's Hadith it means that there is no room for reinterpretation. Back to Text

(4) I concluded dissertation research between 1986-1987 in a village in the south of Egypt. The dissertation was entitled: "An Egyptian Village Growing UP: Silwa the governate of Aswan", University of Florida, August 1988. Back to Text

(5) Such pills flooded the market, and were sold at a subsidized price of less than .089 American cents. The brand names of such pills included Anovlar, Nordet, and Primovlar. Back to Text

Table of Contents


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