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 1

In the buildup to the 1994 United Nations International Conference of Population and Development held in Cairo, many Muslim communities and leaders expressed suspicion towards the UN initiatives for family planning and population control. The Saudi Arabian "Council of Ulama", that nation's highest body of religious authorities condemned the Cairo conference as a "ferocious assault on Islamic society" and forbade Muslims from attending. Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq then joined Saudi Arabia in announcing that they would not send delegates to Cairo. Among other things, the conference agenda specifically relating to issues of family planning and birth control was seen as an imposition of western values on the Muslim people and an attempt to revive "colonial and imperial ambition". While this by no means represented the whole spectrum of Muslim voices in the debate, since there were many Muslim participants who were involved and committed to the goals of the conference, the voices of resistance were loud and well documented by the media.

This type of vociferous antipathy to family planning in some Muslim communities presents a fairly sharp contrast to the way in which Muslims have historically addressed the issue. Even a cursory investigation into the Islamic intellectual legacy will demonstrate that eight out of nine classical legal schools permitted the practice of contraception and that the Islamic legal positions on abortion range from allowing various levels of permissibility of abortion under 120 days, to prohibition. In addition, medieval Muslim physicians had documented detailed and extended lists of birth control practices including abortifacients, commenting on their relative effectiveness and prevalence while the Arabic Islamic erotica literature provided detailed descriptions of popular understandings of contraceptive techniques. These facts illustrate the level of incongruity between the Islamic legacy where family planning was widely permitted and even encouraged in certain contexts, and some prevailing Muslim perspectives that rejects family planning as contrary to Islam.

However in order to understand some of the contemporary Muslim resistance to this topic, one needs to contextualize the debate within the present matrix of post-colonial power relations. Over the past several centuries the shift in the balance of power between Islam and western powers has contributed to the prevalence of a polarized "Islam vs. the West" schema. The historical colonial presence in many Muslim countries has shaped some of the forms of political and cultural resistance to western presence. In the current era this is exacerbated by the fact that Euro-American cultural forms, through the processes of globalization, are perceived as encroaching and increasingly threatening to Muslim societies. Within this context family planning, contraceptive usage and access to abortion is regularly framed as either a conspiracy by western powers to limit the growth and power of the Muslim world or as a reflection of the permissive sexual mores of western society. Thus the issues relating to birth control are submerged within a larger minefield of political and cultural polemics.

As a result, many Muslims have assumed a defensive posture in these debates contributing to a particular myopia in significant pockets of the Muslim world. The need to resist what is perceived as a colonizing western discourse has ironically resulted in the reality that Muslims are being defined, albeit oppositionally, by that very discourse. In allowing perceptions of western narratives on family planning to assume a defining place in one's own stance to an issue, even if that stance is antithetical, implies that one's own positioning is determined largely by the perspectives of one's perceived adversary. Contemporary Muslim rejection of family planning endeavors becomes particularly salient in light of an investigation into the Islamic historical legacy, which is characterized by rich diversity and a remarkable openness to issues of family planning. In fact scholar Norman Daniel shows how medieval churchmen found the Islamic permissiveness regarding contraception as another of the sexual "horrors" of Islam!

In this paper I will draw on a number of traditional Islamic resources in delineating a more "self-referential" and what I consider a less defensive Islamic approach to the questions of family planning, contraception and abortion. I will demonstrate the reality of a diverse Islamic legacy with a number of different approaches to the questions related to family planning.

In order to explore an Islamic perspective on family planning, contraception and abortion, it is necessary to have a broader grasp of some of the fundamentals of Islam, which inform such thinking. In this chapter I will begin by discussing some of the essential Islamic teachings about God and humanity, which form the basis for an Islamic approach to addressing ethical concerns and contemporary challenges of population growth, family planning and human wellbeing. I will argue that the central Islamic concept of human moral agency (khilafah) in Islam demand that one addresses these challenges holistically. This includes a response to structural injustices relating to economic and gender hierarchies as well as an informed approach to particulars of family planning.

God and Humanity: Tauhid , Fitrah and Khilafah

The belief in the oneness or unity of God, known to Muslims as the principle of Tauhid, is the center from which the rest of Islam radiates. It is a foundational ontological principle anchored within the deepest spiritual roots of the religion suffusing different areas of Islamic learning that includes theology, mysticism, law and ethics in varying ways. While transience, finitude and dependence define everything else, God is the only independent source of being. As such, God is primary to our understandings of the very meaning of reality and is constitutive of the ultimate integrity of human beings.

According to the Qur'an, human beings are uniquely imbued with the spirit of God and in their created nature have been granted privileged knowledge and understanding of reality. Human weakness on the other hand, is presented primarily as the tendency to be heedless and forgetful of these realities. God's revelations through the various prophets in history are an additional mercy intended to remind one about what is already ingrained at the deepest level of one's humanity. Mediating between faith and heedlessness, is the human capacity for volition and freedom of choice. This uniquely endowed human constitution with an inborn capacity for discernment is called the fitrah

Within Islam therefore, while humanity is primed for goodness, our moral agency is bound to the freedom of choice and the active assumption of responsibilities that ensue from such agency. This understanding of human purpose and potential is reflected in a pervasive Qur'anic concept called khilafah that can be translated as trusteeship, moral agency or vicegerency where the subject of this activity, the human being, is referred to as the khalifah i.e. the trustee, the moral agent or he vicegerent. This core Qur'anic concept provides the spiritual basis for understanding ethical action in Islam. Within this framework, each individual as well as every community is responsible for the realization of a just and moral social order in harmony with God's will. In Islam, enacting one's moral agency is intrinsic to a right relationship with God

Social and Ethical Implications

One of the crucial secondary principles that flow from the Tauhidic view that God is one and that all human beings are God's khalifah, is the notion of the "metaphysical sameness of all humans as creatures of God". Each person, irrespective of gender, race and nationality possesses the birthright to be God's khalifah in this world. According to the Qur'an, the only real criteria for distinction among human beings is that of taqwa which can be translated as God-consciousness and righteousness.

Moreover the Qur'an repeatedly describes the true believer as one who enacts the moral imperative for justice in the world. Within the Qur'anic worldview the belief in the unity of God explicitly relates to the striving for the unity of humanity for which justice is a prerequisite. Thus the theological concepts of tauhid and khilafah explicitly intersect - bearing witness to God's absolute oneness in Islam is intrinsically related to an enactment of that awareness into the world for the purposes of justice and human well being.

As foundational Islamic constructs, they have an overarching relevance to the Islamic approach to family planning since the concept of khilafah is replete with the importance of human moral agency, the distillation of one's inner conscience, freedom of choice and the striving for an ethically alive social order. I would argue that in working towards an ethical order particularly in addressing the challenges of population growth it is imperative to look at the question holistically situating it within the relevant social, economic and political forces of day. To this end I will focus on firstly, poverty and economic justice; and secondly, sexism and gender justice as concerns that are structurally implicated in the concern for family planning .

Poverty and Economic Justice

In addressing the state of human wellbeing globally, the issues of poverty, resources and wealth distribution are paramount. The introduction to this volume has already clearly pointed out that contemporary concerns with population growth and sustainable resources are intimately connected with the inequitable distribution of wealth. Frequently the multiple levels of socio-political inequity in the world are connected to questions of how wealth and resources are controlled.

An Islamic response to these economic realities begins with the Qur'anic view that wealth is part of beneficence and bounty of God and in reality belongs to God - it is entrusted to human beings to be used wisely and with a responsibility to the well-being of all. The poor, the orphaned and the needy have a right to a portion of one's wealth and Muslims are obligated to pay a welfare tax called zakat. The root meaning of the term zakat is "to purify" or "to grow" which is particularly relevant since wealth is also a means through which God tests humanity. Wealth sharing purifies the individual from greed and material attachment while simultaneously increasing the giver's good deeds and spiritual wealth.

The circulation of wealth among all segments of a society is seen as a duty placed on the individual khalifah and the larger Muslim community. Not only does the Qur'an encourage one to share wealth, it also categorically condemns greed and selfish hoarding. There is an explicit link between those with those who decline to pay the poor their due with the idolaters. Given that the belief in God's oneness (Tauhid) is so central in Islam, this association between idolatry and miserliness is among the harshest criticisms of the concentration of wealth among the few at the expense of the rest. It speaks to the incongruity between genuine belief in God and a disregard for the needs of others, and to the inextricability between an individual's well being and the well being of others. In terms of this ideal it is unacceptable to have a society characterized by the co-existence of extreme wealth and poverty and Muslims are urged to work towards generating systems of socio-economic justice that foster the common good.

These ethics of wealth-sharing and socio-economic concern for the economically marginalized have a pressing urgency in a world characterized by huge economic disparities between nation states. The reality that economic marginalization occurs most brutally at the nexus of race, nationality and gender hierarchies is illustrated by the fact that women, primarily in the poorer nations, constitute 70 percent of the worlds 1.3 billion poorest, own less than 1 percent of the world's property but work two thirds of the worlds working hours. Even within the heart of capitalist wealth like the US, one finds significant pockets of poverty and neglect in the inner city are generally divided along racial lines.

These realities reflect a paradigm that is contrary to Tauhidic teaching where human lives are not equally valued but rather are prioritizes on the basis of race, nationality, gender, and class stratification. The lives of those who do not belong to privileged groups or nations are removed from the radar of social concern and moral responsibility. Here the Qur'anic critique points us to the reality that economic injustice, a lack of appreciation of lives outside the centers of power and privilege, and the maldistribution of wealth reflect a failure of human beings to carry out their trusteeship (khilafah) from God. In addressing human well being in the world, transforming systems of economic injustice and exploitation and establishing a more equitable distribution of wealth are as crucial spiritual and ethical concerns as are issues of family planning and population control.

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