Abortion: III. Religious Traditions: D. Islamic Perspectives

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Since ancient times every human society has dealt with the issue of abortion. The way each treats the issue has depended on the way each views fundamental questions of individual and societal life, such as the meaning and sanctity of human life, sexuality and gender relations, the role of marriage and family, the meaning of human freedom, and the related issues of rights and responsibilities of the individual.

The Roles of Medicine and Law in the Islamic Debate on Abortion

Islam's response to abortion during the fourteen centuries of its existence has been documented mostly in the jurisprudential works of its doctors of law and the medical writings of its physicians. Islamic perspectives on abortion have been shaped directly by both its theology and its revealed law (Shari'a). Because of the centrality of the latter as a practical guide in the religious and spiritual life of Muslims, however, they depend heavily on the deliberations and ethico-legal decrees (fatwās) of experts whenever practical problems arise in society. The main practical role of theology is to provide the necessary spiritual and intellectual framework within which ethico-legal debates are pursued.

Since the Divine Law of Islam refuses to make a separation between law and ethics, the traditional Muslim jurist (faqih) is at once an ethicist and a legal expert. The physician's duty in matters concerning abortion is to provide medical advice and recommendations befitting each individual case, as Islamic law generally permits abortion on medical and health grounds up to a certain stage of pregnancy. Close collaboration between medicine and law in Islam has generated a well-developed branch of Islamic jurisprudence that deals with many biomedical issues, including contraception and abortion.

In all cases of abortion, the physician is an important witness. The idea of the testimony of a trustworthy physician is well known in Islam, since Islamic law puts great emphasis on the idea of a trustworthy witness, whom it always defines in terms of believing in God and having a good moral character. The close rapport between medicine and law in Islam is further strengthened by the fact that this religion has produced a sizeable number of jurists who either practiced medicine or at least possessed a sound general knowledge of the subject. Ibn Rushd (known by the Latin name Averröes, d. 1198), Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288), the discoverer of the minor circulation of the blood, Ibn Hazm (d.1064), Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī (d. 1209), and in more recent times, Hasan al-Attar al-Khalwatī (d. 1835), a rector of the prestigious al-Azhar University in Cairo, were some of the most famous jurists–medical practitioners. Al-Shāfihī (d.820), the founder of one of the four Sunni schools of law, is credited in traditional sources with knowledge of medicine.

Conversely, there have been many Muslim physicians who were well versed with the philosophy of the Shariha and the ethical teachings of the Qur'an and hadiths (i.e., recorded sayings, behavior, and actions attributed to the Prophet, and in the case of the Shi'ite branch of Islam, also to the Imams, their foremost spiritual leaders), but who were never recognized as jurists in the technical sense of the term. The most famous of these was Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037). These physicians were generally knowledgeable in embryology. As scholars of natural philosophy, of which psychology is a part, many of these physicians also developed a comprehensive theory of the soul that includes a treatment of the problem of identifying the stage of pregnancy when the ensoulment of the body takes place in the womb. The connection between embryology and psychology is therefore of great practical interest to Islamic law.

At ensoulment a fetus attains the legal status of a human being, with all the rights accorded by the Shariha. Although Muslim jurists rely substantially on the Qur'an and prophetic medicine for their knowledge of embryology, they also demonstrate a positive attitude toward the scientific embryology of the philosopher–physicians, since they do not see any basic contradiction between the two sources.

The Theological Context

The abortion debate in Islam takes place in a particular religious environment created by the divinely revealed teachings of the religion. These teachings are accepted by Muslims as sacred and immutable and have remained unquestioned in the debate over the centuries. The most important of these teachings concerns the meaning and purpose of human life.

Islam teaches that human life is sacred because its origin is none other than God, who is the Sacred and the ultimate source of all that is sacred. Human beings are God's noblest creatures by virtue of the fact that he has breathed his spirit into every human body, male and female, at a certain stage of its embryological development. This breathing of the divine spirit into the human fetus is called its ensoulment; it confers on the human species the status of theomorphic beings. Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity the teaching that God has created humans in his own image.

Islam teaches that a human is not just a mind–body or soul–body entity that has come into existence through an entirely physical, historical, or evolutionary process. He or she is also a spirit whose reality transcends the physical space–time complex and even the realm of the mind. This spiritual substance present in each human individual, to which Muslim philosophers and scientists refer as the most excellent part of the rational soul and which has cognitive powers to the extent of being able to know itself, God, and the spiritual realm in general, is what distinguishes humans from the rest of earthly creatures.

The Qur'an refers more than once to the ensoulment of the human body, almost always in the context both of describing God's creation of Adam, the first ancestor of the human race, and of affirming the superiority of humans over the rest of creation, including the angels (for example, at 15:28–30). There is also a more specific reference to the ensoulment of the human fetus that is made as part of its description of the process of pregnancy and birth. The Qur'anic passage quoted perhaps most often in the abortion debate is, "We [i.e., God and his cosmic agents] have created man out of an extraction of clay [the origin of semen]; then we turn it into semen and settle it in a firm receptacle. We then turn semen into a clot [literally, something which clings] which we then fashion into a lump of chewed flesh. Then we fashion the chewed flesh into bones and we clothe the bones with intact flesh. Then we develop out of it another creature. So blessed be God, the best of creators" (23:12–14).

Both ancient and modern commentators on the Qur'an generally agree that the last stage in the formation of the human fetus as indicated by the phrase "develop out of it another creature" mentioned in this Qur'anic passage refers to the ensoulment of the fetus, resulting in its transformation from animal into human life. As to exactly when the ensoulment of the fetus takes place, the Qur'an does not provide any information. The prophetic hadiths contain a detailed periodization of each of the different stages of fetal growth mentioned in the Qur'an. In theology as in law, matters on which the Qur'an is either silent or held to be less explicit than the hadith, the latter takes a decisive role. Thus it is the testimony of the hadith concerning the ensoulment of the fetus that has proved decisive in the formulation of Islamic theological doctrine concerning abortion.

According to one hadith, organ differentiation in the fetus does not begin to take place until six weeks after the time of fertilization. According to another, an angel who is a divine agent of ensoulment of the fetus is sent to breathe a distinctively human soul into it after 120 days of conception have passed. In his commentary on the Qur'anic verse on human reproduction cited above, basing his views on hadiths as well as on the findings of physicians, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyutī(d. 1505), an encyclopedist and author of a popular work on prophetic medicine, declared, "All wise men are agreed that no soul is breathed in until after the fourth month" (Elgood, 1962, p. 240).

If God has given a theomorphic nature to human persons and has created them in the best of molds (Qur'an, 95:4), having unique faculties not enjoyed by creatures of other species, it is not without a noble purpose. According to the Qur'an, human beings have been created to know God and to be God's servants and representatives on Earth in accordance with his own wishes as revealed to all branches of the human family through his prophets and messengers. One of the six fundamental articles of the Islamic creed is belief in a future life—not in this world of sensual experience and mental images, but in another world whose space–time complex is entirely different from the one we presently experience.

In the Qur'anic view, human life does not end with death. In reality, death is only a passage between two parts of a continuous life, namely the present and the posthumous. How we fare in that future life depends on how we conduct ourselves in this present life. By leading a spiritually, ethically, and morally healthy life in this world, we will attain salvation and prosperity in the after-death life. The previously cited verse on human conception and birth is immediately preceded by a reference to life in paradise and immediately followed by a statement on the certainty of death and resurrection. Muslims understand from this and other verses that there is a grand divine scheme for humans that they have no right to disturb. On the contrary, they are to participate fully in this cosmic scheme as helpers of God in both their capacities as his servants and representatives.

Human reproduction, birth, and death are part of this grand divine scheme. Indeed, the Qur'anic view is that there is even a preconception phase of human existence. The Qur'an refers to a covenant between God and all the human souls in the spiritual world before the creation of this world. God addressed the souls collectively, asking them "Am I not your Lord?" Without hesitation they all bore witness to his Lordship, thus implying that God-consciousness is in the very nature of the human soul.

The general implication of the Islamic teachings on the meaning and purpose of life for reproduction and abortion is clear. Although reproduction is not explicitly commanded in the Qur'an, it does appear to be encouraged. A few hadiths are explicit in their encouragement of procreation. The most popular is the hadith that says that, on the Day of Resurrection, the Prophet would be proud of the numbers of his community compared with other communities and that he admonishes his followers to reproduce and increase in number.

One can say with certainty that the general religious climate that prevailed in Muslim societies throughout the ages even until modern times is one in which procreation is encouraged and abortion very much discouraged. Cyril Elgood observes that "in Islamic countries moral approval of the practice of abortion was not readily given" (Elgood, 1970) although procurement of abortion, of which there were many cases, was not necessarily considered a criminal act. When he further says that "it is almost universally recognized by civilized nations that abortion is to be practiced only on the rarest of occasions" (Elgood, 1970, p. 240), the majority of Muslims would make the spontaneous response that this is precisely the Islamic view of abortion.

If Islam encourages the propagation of the human species, then it also insists that every human life be given due protection. (Abortion, however, is not considered the ending of a human life unless ensoulment of the fetus has occurred.) One of the fundamental goals of Islamic law is the protection of human life. Islam takes a serious view of the taking of human lives (except in cases that have been legitimized by the Divine Law itself) and of all acts injurious to life. One of the five basic human rights enshrined in the Shariha is the protection by the state of every human life. The Qur'an asserts that "whosoever kills a [single] human for other than murder or other than the corruption of the earth[i.e., war], it is as though he has killed all humankind and whosoever has saved one human, it is as though he has saved all humankind" (5:35). The phrase "other than murder" in this verse refers to justifiable homicide, like self-defense and capital punishment as prescribed under the Islamic law of equality (qisas).

The Islamic view of marriage and sexuality also casts a long shadow on the abortion debate. Human reproduction should take place within the framework of the sacred institution of marriage. Islam describes marriage as "half of religion" and strongly condemns sexual relations outside of marriage. The main purpose of the institution of marriage is the preservation of the human species, although Islam also recognizes the spiritual, psychological, and socioeconomic functions of marriage. That there is indeed much more to marriage than just procreation or sexual fulfillment has been amply clarified by many classical Muslim thinkers.

One of the best treatises on the wisdom of marriage in all its dimensions was composed by the prominent jurist, theologian, and Sufi, al-Ghazzālī (d. 1111). This highly influential religious scholar and critic of Aristotelian philosophy defends the permissibility of married couples' practicing contraception on the ground of their need to secure a happy marriage. He goes so far as to hold that a man who fears that his wife's bearing children might affect her health or good looks, and that he might therefore begin to dislike her, should refrain from having children (Rahman). Al-Ghazzālī's view clearly suggests that procreation is not the sole purpose of marriage.

Islamic discussion of abortion is always related to the question of the rights and responsibilities of both the husband and the wife. One of the major issues in contemporary debate on abortion in the West concerns the rights of women to procure abortion. Islam answers the question not only by appealing to its theological doctrines on the meaning and scope of human rights and responsibilities, but also to its religious theory of conception based on revealed data and hadith teachings. The Qur'an stresses the idea that everything in the heavens and on earth belongs to God. Metaphysically speaking, humans do not own anything, not even their own bodies. It is God who has apportioned rights and responsibilities to males and females, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Men and women in Islam obtain their mutual rights through the arbitration of the Divine Law.

In general, Muslim jurists pay great attention to women's rights in the practice of contraception and the procurement of abortion. In the words of Basim F. Musallam, "One can speak of a classical Islamic opinion on contraception generally and consistently adopted in Islamic jurisprudence, regardless of school. This classical opinion was the sanction of coitus interruptus with a free woman provided she gave her permission" (Musallam). A "free woman" is a nonslave and married. Islamic jurisprudence treats coitus interruptus under three categories, namely (1) with a wife who is a free woman; (2) with a wife who is a slave of another party; and (3) with a man's own slave or concubine. All schools of Islamic law consider coitus interruptus permissible. The majority of them insist on the woman's consent only if she belongs to the first category, since Islamic law recognizes her basic rights to children and sexual fulfillment. No permission is needed from a slave woman. In the case of abortion, the Hanafis granted the pregnant woman the right to abort even without her husband's permission provided she has a valid reason in the eyes of the Shariha. (The Hanafis are followers of the Islamic school of law founded by the prominent jurist Abu Hanifah and are mainly found in Turkey and the Indian subcontinent.) The Qur'anic teaching that children are not created of the man's semen alone, but of both parents together, has a bearing also on Muslim discussion of the mutual rights of husband and wife in the permissibility of abortion.

Islamic Law and Abortion

The Islamic view of fetal development based on the Qur'an and hadith is central to the Muslim arguments on abortion. All Muslim jurists believe that the fetus becomes a human being after the fourth month of pregnancy. Consequently, abortion is prohibited after that stage (Musallam). However, the jurists differ in their views concerning the permissibility of abortion during the first four months of pregnancy, that is, the period prior to the ensoulment of the fetus.

Jurists of the Hanafi school of law allowed abortion to be performed at any time during the four-month period. A special document compiled by five hundred Hanafi ulamā (religious scholars) decrees that "the woman has the right to adopt some method of obtaining abortion if quickening of the fetus has not occurred, which happens after 120 days of conception" (Abedin, p. 121).

Most Maliki jurists, by contrast, prohibit abortion absolutely. Their main argument is that although the fetus does not become a human until after its ensoulment, one should not tamper with the natural process of conception once the semen has settled in the womb, since the semen is destined for ensoulment. A minority of Maliki jurists, however, allow abortion of a fetus up to forty days old. Other schools of Islamic jurisprudence, among both Sunnis and Shi'ites, agree with the Hanafis in their tolerance of abortion, although again they differ on the specifics.

It is important to emphasize the fact that there is a specific theological and ethico-legal context in which abortion has been permitted in Islam. Muslim jurists classify all human acts into five categories, namely (1) the obligatory (wājib), (2) the recommended (mandūb), (3) the allowable or the indifferent (mubāh), (4) the blameworthy or the discouraged (makrūh), and (5) the forbidden (harām). Abortion, at the most liberal level, has been placed by jurists in the third category, that of the allowable. Jurists have deliberated on the special conditions under which abortion is permitted, apart from the biological factor of ensoulment. They have also discussed cases of criminal abortion and types of penalties to be imposed on convicted wrongdoers.

Muslim jurists permit abortion mostly on medical and health grounds. One of the valid reasons often mentioned is the presence of a nursing infant. It is feared that a new pregnancy would put an upper limit on lactation. The jurists believe that if the mother could not be replaced by a wet nurse, the infant would suffer, if not die.

Contemporary Muslim society is faced with the reality that the practice of abortion is on the rise. In a number of Muslim countries, many unwanted pregnancies result from illicit sexual relations as well as from rapes. There are also related issues of birth control or family planning as a national policy, easy access to modern contraceptives, and the challenge to traditional Islamic doctrines on abortion and contraception arising from advances in genetics and biomedical technology. A well-defined Islamic response to these contemporary challenges has not yet emerged, but interest in these subjects is gaining momentum. As contemporary Muslim intellectuals and religious scholars debate these problems, traditional sources on contraception and abortion will be of immense value.

osman bakar(1995)

SEE ALSO: Authority in Religious Traditions; Islam, Bioethics in; Medical Ethics, History of: Near and Middle East; Population Ethics: Religious Traditions, Islamic Perspectives; and other Abortion subentries


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