THE RELIGIOUS CONSULTATION
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 2

Sexism and Gender Justice

Another pivotal area of concern relates to Islamic perspectives on gender relations, marriage and their implications for family planning. The notion that Gods unity is reflected in the equality and unity of human kind provides a basis for a strong critique of sexism and gender hierarchy. The Qur'an explicitly asserts the fundamental equal worth of male and female believers as well as the fact that gender relations are intended to be cooperative and mutually enriching. This ethos of reciprocity between women and men is further reinforced in the Islamic understanding of marital relationships.

The Qur'an presents marriage and children as a gift from God to be cherished and enjoyed. As such marriage is valued and encouraged in most Muslim cultures. Despite this incentive to have a family, neither marriage nor children are considered obligatory in the life of a Muslim man or woman. In fact the Qur'an also warn the believer that if she or he does not approach marriage and parenting with the right attitude and awareness, these too can have a negative impact in one's life. If one fears such a possibility and does not have wherewithal for marriage, the Qur'an even permits one to remain unmarried.

Al-Ghazzali (d.1111), one of most renowned Islamic intellectuals, discusses some of the potential disadvantages of marriage. Among these he includes the possibility of excessive financial burden of a family or that one may get ensconced within the enjoyment and needs of the family, thereby becoming distracted from the true purpose of life which is the individuals journey to Allah. Thus within Islam, marriage, like many lawful things in Islam, if approached correctly, is an opportunity for growing closer to God, is good. However if it is approached as an end in itself, it can become destructive.

I would argue that one of the ways in which marriage becomes an obstacle instead of an aid to God-consciousness, is when the notion of male superiority or privilege emerges as a defining aspect of the relationship. Systems of patriarchy and sexism which place male human beings above female human beings solely on the basis of their gender is a denial of the essential equality of humanity thereby constituting a negation of the reality of Tauhid. While this position is not uncontested, there is certainly a strong Qur'anic basis for developing a hermeneutic of gender justice in marriage and in society more broadly.

A number of contemporary Muslim scholars have argued that the Qur'anic view of the inviolable sanctity of every human being, both male and female, implies a duty to protect each person's one's physical, emotional, psychological, social and intellectual integrity. This implies that that the whole range of explicit violations of women's personhood, including physical violence against women, honor killings, cliterodectomy constitute a transgression of spiritual sanctity of the individual and therefore of a disregard for the principle of Tauhid.

At the more insidious level, socialization processes and cultural ideals of womanhood in many Muslim communities are premised on male-centered norms. Social ideals that promote women's silence and subordination to men, that deny or limit women's access to education, that restrict their mobility and agency in the world, that define women primarily in terms of their sexuality, or that fix women's roles or value solely as mother and wife constitute structural violence to women's full humanity.

These types of socio-cultural constructs also often reinforce structural economic inequities where resources, skills and education are dominated by men, thereby perpetuating patriarchal power relations. It is no coincidence that the world's poorest are women- patriarchy and classim are structural injustices that intersect and reinforce one another to create the most brutally impoverishing conditions for many women in the world, including some Muslim women. Within this context, the burden of numerous pregnancies and children may be fundamentally debilitating, threatening one's very survival and wellbeing. Moreover in conditions of poverty, undernourished and weak offspring are more a source of anxiety and stress than the "comfort" or "allurement" of the parents eyes as the Qur'an intends.

These varying levels of systematic injustice operating against women violate the essential Tauhidic notion of the equality of human beings. This includes the reality that poor women often do not have access to information and education around issues of family planning including religious rights and medical information. Moreover the fact that many women are deprived of educational, intellectual, social and economic opportunities often trap them into accepting notions that they are obliged to reproduce and serve their husbands. The fact that in many Muslim societies, the important roles of wife and mother are presented to the exclusion of other avenues for women's intellectual and spiritual development constitute a violation of our access to the fullness of moral agency or khilafah. While Islam encourages marriage and family life for both men and women, no Muslim is obligated to marry or reproduce. However every Muslim woman like her male counterpart, is obligated to undertake her khilafah which includes realizing one's full potential for intellectual, economic and social agency in the world.

In articulating a relevant Islamic response to contemporary challenges including the realities of population growth, it is imperative to focus on addressing the problems of economic and gender injustice. In our context, it is inadequate if not irresponsible, for any religious or ethical framework to address questions of human well being, family planning and birth control without looking at the related systems of socio-economic injustice that directly restrict human agency and freedom and exacerbate human misery in the world. An Islamic ethical vision needs to address the issues of social justice as an organic component of family planning and population control. This nonetheless has to be coupled with a responsible and informed approach to the specifics of family planning.

Family Planning

In addressing the question of family planning from an Islamic perspective, it is necessary to consult the various sources of guidance within the religious tradition. These include the Qur'anic revelation, the prophetic traditions, as well as an one's inner moral capacities of discernment. In addition it is valuable to inform oneself of the relevant aspects of the Islamic legal legacy as well as all the contemporary advances in knowledge on the subject.

The Qur'an and prophetic traditions which are both considered primary sources of authority in Islam, do not have unambiguous and explicit teachings relating to family planning. Within Islamic legal philosophy, issues that require independent intellectual exertion and moral circumspection in light of a changing context and varying individual circumstances are called ijtihadi issues. Ijtihad is based on the assumption that in dealing with issues that are not explicitly addressed in the primary sources, jurists, informed by the spirit of the Qur'an, use their moral capacities for creative reasoning and judgement to arrive at relevant legal solutions. Thus this opens up the possibilities for a more dynamic Islamic approaches to understanding the issues of family planning in the current context.

Proponents and opponents of family planning, both derive their positions from their understandings of what constitutes "the good" and interpret broader Qur'anic injunctions to inform and support their respective positions. The possibility to sustain contrary readings of the Divine text speaks to the reality that exegesis is a hermeneutical enterprise informed by the varied human capacities for understanding and moral reasoning. All readings are not equally convincing or legitimate and in reviewing the arguments provided for both, it is my contention that family planning is in fact a legitimate and important Islamic priority.

Opponents of family planning often base their rejection of both contraception and abortion on their reading of the following verse:

Kill not your children, on a plea of want, we provide sustenance for you and for them (Q 6:151).

It is important to look at the context of revelation of this verse. This verse was a response to the pre-Islamic Arab custom of burying female children alive. It was therefore a condemnation of infanticide and of the deep misogyny of that culture. Proponents of family planning have argued that these Qur'anic verses to counter all family planning initiatives are therefore a misreading of the text.
Furthermore, opponents of family planning base their resistance to it on the basis that it constitutes a lack of trust in God and in God's sustenance and that it is an assertion of ones own will vis a vis Gods will. The verses that they use to support this position are the following:

There is no creature on earth, but its sustenance depends on God. He knows its
habitation and its preservation (Q 11:6).

And whosoever is conscious of God, He will find a way out (of difficulty) for him, and He will provide for him in a manner beyond all expectations, and for every one that places their trust in God, He alone is sufficient (Q65:2-3).

Indeed trust in God and in God's sustenance is an integral dimension of Islam. These verses speak to the reality that in Islam ultimately the outcome of all things resides with God, for God is without doubt, the Sustainer, the all-Powerful. I do however disagree with the conclusion that this absolves human being from any responsibility for agency in the world. On the contrary I would argue that this type of reasoning is contrary to the very fundamental Islamic notion of human khilafah. We have established that khilafah implies that humanity is entrusted with moral agency which demands a God-conscious, active and responsible attitude to oneself, to fellow human beings and to the world. It includes using the faculties of reason, judgement and God-consciousness that are part of our fitrah, to plan one's life, to seek out sustenance, and to strive actively for the wellbeing of self and society in relation to the challenges of our age. In the current context of living in world characterized by increasing populations with limited access to resources, being a khalifah includes responding constructively to these difficulties instead of further exacerbating the over burdened resources of the world. While we trust that ultimately all lies within the power of Allah, human agency is intrinsic to the Qur'anic worldview and the prophetic teachings.

The Qur'anic narrative of Joseph's' planning and preservation of food in anticipation of the famine is an act of agency that does not demonstrate a lack of trust in Gods sustenance. Similarly there are prophetic traditions that address the combination of human agency with trust in God as is reflected in the Prophet's advice to a man to tie up his camel and then trust in God; or the caliph Umar's statement that reliance on God means to plant the seeds in the earth, then trust in God for a good crop. Family planning including contraceptive usage may be seen as extension of the human capacity to plan, to respond to and to actively make choices in terms of contextual needs and emerging realities.


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