Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: B. Islamic Perspectives

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Population issues in Islam are the product of the interplay of faith and experience, Muslim belief and local social realities. Like Islam itself, in which unity of faith has been expressed by a diversity of practice, so the application of Islam to population issues has been conditioned by local circumstances and customs as well as personal piety. Understanding the issue of population control in Islam requires an appreciation both of the history of Islamic thought and practice and of its implementation in Muslim countries today.

The impact of Islam on population policies reflects the continuous interaction of religious teaching, local cultural traditions, and national politics. The diverse results of that interaction lead to great variation in the population policies of Muslim countries. Thus the government's approach to fertility control in Indonesia and Egypt differs greatly from that in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The first two have long had active fertility-control programs supported by senior Islamic officials. Saudi Arabia has no active family-planning program. Iran, for religious and political reasons, discontinued its family-planning program after the country's revolution in 1979 (Ross). However, in 1992, responding to severe economic and social conditions, including a rapid population growth, Iran reinstated its program with the approval of the religious leaders (ulama).

Muslim attitudes toward population control are influenced by beliefs and values concerning the nature and purpose of society, the family, marriage, procreation, and child rearing; they also reflect responses to several centuries of Western influence and dominance. The locus of Muslim norms and ethical standards is the Shari'a, Islamic law, which constitutes the blueprint for the ideal Islamic society. Shari'a consists of those rules and institutions that God has revealed in the Qur'an. In the early centuries of Islam, pious scholars in various Muslim capitals attempted to delineate God's law for the community. They produced a body of law that combined God's word with human interpretation and application of that word. The difference between the divine component of the law and human interpretations or applications of it has provided the rationale for legal change.

Islamic law is based upon four sources: the Qur'an, which Muslims believe is the literal and perfect word of God; the Sunnah, or example of the Prophet Muhammad; analogical reasoning; and the consensus of the community. Islamic law constitutes a comprehensive ideal that provides guidelines for personal and social life, a Muslim's duties to God (worship), and duties to society (social transactions). Jurists also recognized a number of subsidiary sources. Among the most relevant utilized for social and legal reform is public welfare. Sunni and Shi'ite Islam, the two major groups or traditions within the Islamic community, have a number of law schools, or schools of legal thought. Their laws, while in general agreement, nevertheless include a diversity of orientations, rules, and methods.

Muslim family law, covering marriage, divorce, and inheritance, has long been considered the heart of the Shari'a, an especially sacrosanct component of Islamic law. Historically, the family has been regarded as the basis of Muslim society. As the nucleus of the Islamic community, it is where the next generation receives its religious, social, and cultural training. In modern times, Muslim families, like those in much of the world, have undergone significant change. This is especially clear in the shift from extended to nuclear families as well as in greater educational and employment opportunities for women. These changes have been the subject of continued debate and legal reform.

Reforms in family or gender issues, from family law to population policies, have been widespread and the subject of controversy. During the latter part of the twentieth century, after Muslim nations had gained their independence from European colonial powers, many continued to look to the West for their models or paradigms of development. Political, economic, legal, and social changes were Western-inspired or -oriented, as were modern Muslim elites. As a result, social change, like political and legal reform, has often been judged both in terms of its relationship to the Islamic tradition and its law and within the context of reactions to Western influence, if not hegemony, in the Muslim world.

Marriage and the Family

Marriage in Islam is a sacred contract, though not a sacrament, between two individuals and also between their families (Esposito). Sexuality in Islam is centered on marriage and the family. The married state is the norm—indeed, the ideal—for all Muslims, prescribed by Islamic law and embodied in the life of Muhammad, the exemplar of Muslim life. Celibacy, while permitted if necessary, is not regarded as an ideal. Though procreation and the formation of the family are among the primary purposes of marriage, Muslim jurists from early in Islamic history permitted contraception to limit the size of a family.

Islamic teachings on methods of fertility control depend on the method used. While open to the use of coitus interruptus and methods of contraception such as the pill, many Muslim scholars oppose any form of abortion; others accept it only to save the life of the mother during the first 120 days of pregnancy. Though some Islamic jurists accept sterilization to avoid having more children, most oppose this method unless it is a medical treatment.


In contrast to the Christian and Jewish traditions, from earliest times the Islamic tradition showed acceptance of family planning and contraception. From the tenth to the twentieth centuries, the vast majority of legal scholars and all the major schools of law accepted coitus interruptus between a husband and wife. Early acceptance of birth control was built on a combination of sacred texts, biological knowledge, and reason (Musallam, 1978). The Qur'an contains no clear or explicit text regarding birth control. However, the traditions (hadith) of the Prophet do. Though some hadith forbid birth control, the majority permit it. Muslim jurists were able to construct an argument based on hadith and the biological knowledge of the times to declare birth control by means of coitus interruptus as licit. They argued that such means do not limit or counter God's power because they are not foolproof. Thus, if God wanted a woman to become pregnant, his will could and would prevail despite the practice of coitus interruptus.

The prominent religious scholar al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) is representative of the majority of Sunni Muslim jurists who accepted the use of contraception through coitus interruptus. For Ghazali, coitus interruptus was not only licit but also permissible, regardless of the need to practice it, because there was no explicit text in the Qur'an or Sunnah against it, nor was there clear judicial precedent based on an explicit text:

We have ruled out its [coitus interruptus] … prohibition because, to establish prohibition, one has to have a text [from the Qur'an or Sunnah] or resort to analogous reasoning based on a precedence for which a text is available. In this case … there is neither a text nor a precedent for analogical reasoning. (Omran, p. 80)

The vast majority of Sunni and Shi'ite jurists believed that birth control through the use of coitus interruptus was permissible. However, because it deprived a woman of her right to children and to sexual satisfaction, her consent was required.

Despite the historical record of jurists regarding the permissibility of contraception, some scholars, such as Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), and local religious leaders viewed contraception as prohibited by Islam because they regarded increase in the number of Muslims as a Prophetic (Muhammad's) command. Though the Qur'an has no text that forbids contraception, critics of contraception interpret it to construct and legitimate their case. Among the major arguments offered are that it (1) constitutes infanticide, which is expressly forbidden by the Qur'an; (2) is contrary to belief in God's power and in divine providence, articulated in the Qur'an's teaching that God is the all-powerful creator and ruler or overseer of the world, and that he determines and controls the destiny of all (81: 29 and 11: 6); (3) ignores the Qur'anic mandate to trust or rely on God; and (4) ignores the necessary connection between marriage and procreation, the primary purpose of marriage.

In modern times, many Muslims, reacting to the impact of Western colonialism and imperialism, have argued that by diminishing the number of Muslims, contraception undermines the power of the Muslim community. More specifically, they charge that birth-control campaigns and programs are part of a Western conspiracy to limit development in the Muslim world and thus subdue Islam.

Modern Islamic Thought

The adoption of Western-inspired legal systems in many Muslim countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries limited the scope of Islamic law and the prestige and authority of religious scholars. However, because of the centrality of the family in Muslim society, in most countries family-law and family-planning issues continued to be strongly influenced by Islamic law and ethics. Consciousness of and concern over the implications of a population explosion in areas with limited and shrinking resources, the battle against poverty and illiteracy, urbanization, education and changing expectations, and the development of modern methods of contraception have made the issues of fertility control more prominent and contentious in Muslim societies. Governmentsponsored family-planning programs and policies have become common in Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Egypt, Iran, and Bangladesh. Government intervention and implementation of such programs have met with mixed success. In many Muslim countries, when governments introduced fertility-control programs, they often looked to Islamic religious leaders to legitimate their programs and to mobilize popular support. Even when they did not support fertility control, Islamic scholars, viewing it as subject to Islamic law and as a critical area of social intervention, felt it was necessary for them to give moral guidance to Muslim believers.

Legal scholars have generally provided an Islamic rationale for various modern methods to control population growth. Modern Sunni and Shi'ite jurists, such as Lebanon's Sheikh Muhammad M. Shamsuddin, employing the legal principle of reasoning by analogy, have argued that since birth control in the form of coitus interruptus has been accepted for so long in Islam, then by analogy other, more modern forms of birth control that achieve the same effect are acceptable (Omran). Both individual jurists and assemblies of religious scholars have issued fatwas (formal legal opinions) that have endorsed contraception and in turn not only have informed the consciences of individual Muslims but also have been employed by governments from Egypt to Indonesia to support their birth-control policies and programs.

On the basis of the clear legal precedent of the acceptance of contraception in the form of coitus interruptus, modern jurists have argued for the permissibility of modern chemical and mechanical forms of birth control, such as the diaphragm, the contraceptive pill, and IUDs. Egypt's Sheikh M. S. Madkour, for example, citing the opinions of early jurists, wrote:

We may say that the first mechanical method known as coitus interruptus, al-azl in Arabic, used by our ancestors to prevent pregnancy, corresponds to the device used these days by women and known as the diaphragm or ring to block the uterine aperture, or to another device used by men, the condom. Both are designed to prevent the semen from reaching the ovum and fertilizing it. The second method … for temporary contraception [is] … the contraceptive pill. Under this heading may also be included the injectables much advertised and supposed to be effective for several months … [and] every other beneficial drug which may be discovered by the medical profession for this purpose. The third … is the [IUD], … which … prevents the fertilized egg from attaching itself to the uterine wall, and the uterus expels it instead. (Omran, p. 81)

Sheikh Tantawi, the mufti of Egypt, senior official consultant on Islamic law, in his 1988 fatwa recognized several reasons for practicing contraception. Couples may wish to postpone or space the birth of children for financial reasons; others may wish to do so in order to provide a separate room for a son and daughter; even those who are well off but already have three children may wish to avoid another birth because they live in an overpopulated country (Omran).

Jurists have found many licit reasons for couples to practice contraception: to avoid pregnancy due to health risks to the wife or children resulting from repeated pregnancies, transmission of hereditary or infectious diseases, or genetic risks of inbreeding; economic hardship; to better provide for children's education; and even to preserve a wife's beauty (Omran).

Muslim jurists have addressed infertility within the context of family planning. They have tended to show the same openness and flexibility in their treatment of infertility. Thus, chemical and surgical treatment, as well as artificial insemination between a husband and wife, are permitted. Insemination of a wife with her husband's sperm or in vitro fertilization is allowed. However, procedures that involve someone other than a spouse, such as inseminating a woman with sperm from a man who is not her husband, are forbidden. Children who result from such procedures are regarded as illegitimate.

Sterilization and Abortion

As is the case with contraception, there is no clear text of the Qur'an or Sunnah that forbids sterilization. Although some diversity of opinion exists, the majority of jurists have maintained that sterilization for purposes of contraception, as opposed to its use for medical treatment, is forbidden. Whatever the debate among scholars, local Islamic leaders have tended to oppose sterilization. In recent years, a number of Sunni and Shi'ite jurists have called for a reconsideration of the legality of sterilization (Omran).

Abortion is a far more complex and contentious matter. There is a consensus among religious authorities that abortion after 120 days, when the fetus becomes "ensouled" and thus is a person, is absolutely prohibited except to save the mother's life. While many if not most jurists allow abortion as a means of contraception within 120 days of conception, this scholarly and theoretical position stands in sharp contrast with actual practice—abortion is condemned by most religious leaders and omitted from public-sector programs.

Religion, Government, and Population Issues

During the post–World War II period, governments in the Muslim world, faced with rapid population growth, cited religious, demographic, and nationalist reasons for instituting family-planning programs. Some utilized the prestige and authority of the religious establishment to legitimate family-planning policies. In Egypt, the government has often looked to the leadership and scholars of Cairo's al-Azhar University, a historic and authoritative international center of Islamic learning, for support. Fatwas obtained from experts (muftis) in Islamic law have played a prominent role in legitimating population policies throughout the Muslim world. However, differences often exist between official religious decrees and the more conservative responses of local religious leaders and popular beliefs. Since there is no organized church or hierarchy in Islam, and no clear text from revelation or consensus of scholars exists, local religious leaders and their followers are free to hold a variety of opinions.

Islam has legitimated and reinforced traditional pronatalist beliefs and practices in areas where social conditions have made large families desirable. Agricultural and pastoral societies have regarded large families as providing a source of labor, insurance against the loss of help due to high mortality or marriage, and social security in old age. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of educational and employment opportunities, and high mortality often foster and promote a belief in the necessity of a large family. Thus, many Muslims have been raised in a social context in which a primary emphasis on procreation in marriage and large families has been the traditional ideal and norm, a custom reinforced by the preaching and teaching of local religious leaders.

Local beliefs, attitudes, and values have reinforced high fertility rates. Values such as early marriage for women and emphasis on fertility and large families, in particular the importance of having a male child, pressure a young wife to gain the status of motherhood to "prove herself." Women also want to avoid the stigma of infertility and with it the possibility of divorce or of the husband taking a second wife. The importance of motherhood is reflected in the common practice in many Arab countries, once a woman has given birth to a male child, to call her by the name of that firstborn male child, that is, "mother of.…"

Government-sponsored programs have varied considerably in their impact and effectiveness. Moderate-to-high contraceptive prevalence rates were indicated in 1994 for Turkey (63%), Tunisia (50%), Indonesia (50%), Algeria (36%), and Egypt (47%). Muslim countries with low rates reported in 1990 include Somalia (0%), Saudi Arabia (1%), Afghanistan (2%), and Yemen (2%) (Ross et al.). Bangladesh's poor performance has been attributed to a "population control battlefield" between contending religious and social forces (Hartmann); Indonesia, on the other hand, has been identified as a family-planning success story. Since the 1970s, Indonesia has used a carrot-and-stick approach of incentives and state pressure. This policy, combined with socioeconomic changes such as reduced infant mortality, increased educational levels, and rural-to-urban migration, has led to a significant decline in fertility (Hartmann). Initially, many local religious leaders opposed family-planning programs on moral grounds and because they believed that growth in population was necessary in order to spread Islam. Efforts by the government, early in the program, to consult with religious leaders, and the government's decision to exclude sterilization and abortion from the program, helped counter the opposition.

The role and influence of religious leaders has varied and can often prove significant. The influence of Islam on people's acceptance or rejection of government-sponsored fertility-control programs depends not only on moral teachings of a religious tradition but also on how those teachings are interpreted to local people by religious leaders. If, as in Indonesia, many of those leaders support the program and use occasions such as marriage ceremonies to suggest the value of family planning, acceptance will typically be greater than if those leaders tell believers that using contraceptives to limit birth violates Islamic teaching. Postrevolution Shi'ite Iran provides a unique example of religious leaders, the ulama, functioning as both the executors and the formulators or legislators of new fatwas on family planning.

The Egyptian government has addressed the population question since the beginning of the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952. Because of religious sensibilities, the government moved slowly, employing only the pill. Religious officials, from the government-appointed mufti of Egypt to the rector of the state-supported al-Azhar University, issued a series of fatwas endorsing the use of contraceptives. However, many think the religious establishment has been coopted by the government. Thus, while Nasser and his successors could marshal the support of the religious establishment, local religious leaders continued to condemn contraception as immoral as well as contrary to Islam, and reinforced traditional emphasis on procreation and acceptance of the will of God, as did other opinion makers, such as midwives.

Like many other countries, Egypt has utilized a centralized, top-down approach, bypassing or ignoring local and regional realities. In 1953, Nasser was concerned that Egypt's population would leap to 44 million (Warwick, 1982). However, little was done about fertility control until the mid-1960s.

In Lebanon, religious sectarianism and communalism have both determined and limited the success of government policy. Lebanon was created as a confessional state whose delicate balance was based upon a system of proportional representation: Maronite Christians were dominant, followed by Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and Druze. However, tensions between Christians and Muslims were exacerbated by the socioeconomic dominance and advancement of the Maronites, who had a lower fertility rate than the Muslims. By the mid-1970s, social realities proved explosive, and civil war broke out. The Shi'ite community, the poorest and most disenfranchised, had grown, and constituted one-third of Lebanon's population.

Given the precarious balance of power and social tensions, the Lebanese government for more than two decades shied away from any official promotion of family planning. However, while contraceptives remained illegal, the government indirectly supported private family-planning projects (Warwick, 1982).


Islam has a well-established body of teaching on fertility control that is closely linked to its views on marriage and the family. The interpretation of these teachings varies from country to country. The openness of individual Muslims to fertility control depends on many variables, including interpretations by local religious leaders of how it should be regarded by Muslims. Countries differ greatly in the extent to which Islamic religious leaders cooperate with governmentsponsored fertility-control programs.

Much of the Muslim world faces rapid population growth in a situation of limited resources. Containment or reversal of this trend remains hampered by widespread poverty, illiteracy, and debates about the morality of birth control. In this struggle, the criticisms of local religious leaders combine with voices of many militant Muslims who attack government-sponsored family-planning programs and Western aid as a conspiracy to limit the size of the Muslim community in order to contain and dominate it more effectively.

john l. esposito

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Adoption; Coercion; Embryo and Fetus: Religious Perspectives; Eugenics and Religious Law; Feminism; Fertility Control; Freedom and Free Will; Genetic Testing and Screening; Harm; Infanticide; Informed Consent; Islam, Bioethics in; Justice; Life; Natural Law; Race and Racism; Rights, Human; Sexism;Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Population Ethics subentries


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