FAMILY PLANNING: ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVES
Compiled and presented by Dr Attahir Mustapha Dan-Ali, MBBS
General hospital, Katsina.
The world health organization definition of family planning states that it is “a way of thinking and living that is adopted voluntarily upon the basis of knowledge, attitude and responsible decisions by individuals and couples in order to promote health and welfare of the family group and thus contribute effectively to the social development of the country”.
Historical development of man’s desire to control his reproduction is as old as humanity. Egyptians as early as 1850 B.C describe various methods of birth control in scrolls. In 1916 Margaret Sanger opened the first family planning clinic in New York, USA. Hormonal birth control pills were first approved by United States Food and drugs administration (FDA) in 1960.
Governments around the world including many Islamic countries support family planning programs to enable individuals and couples to choose the number and timing of their children. The development of modern contraceptives, organized family planning programs and international agreements on family planning has given new impetus to old debates: Are Muslim individuals and couples allowed to use family planning? Can governments be involved in providing family planning and services? Is there any condition for using contraception because of economic reasons? This article attempts to give an overview of Islamic jurist views on various reasons for the use or otherwise of contraception (family planning methods).
History of contraception in Islam
Contraception has a long history in Islam that needs to be situated in relation to the broader Islamic ethos of marriage and sexuality. Historically, the various Islamic legal schools with overwhelming majority have permitted coitus interruptus, called azi, as a method of contraception. This was a contraceptive technique practiced by pre- Islamic Arabs and continued to be used during the time of the prophet .1 The only condition the prophet attached to the acceptability of this practice, which was reiterated by Muslim jurists, was that the husband was to secure the permission of the wife before practicing withdrawal. 2
As early as the 9th century female contraceptive techniques like intra vaginal suppositories and tampons were also part of both medical and judicial discussions in Islam. Muslim Physicians in the medieval period conducted in depth investigations into the medical dimension of birth control which was unparalleled in European medicine until the 19th century. Ibn Sina in his “Qanun” lists 20 birth control substances and physician Abu Bakr al-Razi in his “Hawi” lists 176 birth control substances. The permissibility of contraceptive practice in Islamic history at the level of both theory and practice is abundantly evident in both its medical and legal legacies. While different legal scholars discussed the acceptability or reprehensibility of particular individual motives for using contraceptives, this discussion does not contest the overarching permissibility of contraceptive practice. The scholar Al-Ghazzali supported the use of contraceptive for a number of different reasons including economic factors where a large number of dependents would impose a financial and psychological hardship in the family. 3
Justification for family planning in Islamic Legal study
Islamic scholars studying family planning have justified contraception in many ways. They have generally argued that Islam is a religion of moderation and point to the principle of “liberty” or “permissibility” in Islam that is, everything is lawful unless explicitly designated otherwise in the Quran or prophet’s tradition (Sunnah). The Quran does not prohibit birth control, nor does it forbid a husband or wife to space pregnancies or limit their number. Thus the great majority of Muslim jurists believe that family planning is permissible in Islam. The silence of the Quran on the issues of family planning, these jurists argued, is not a matter of omission by God, as He is “all knowing” and Islam is understood to be timeless. The proponents of family planning also note that coitus interruptus or withdrawal, was practiced at the prophet’s time by his companions. In all its institutions and regulations, Islam addresses itself to reason and keep in harmony with man’s natural character (fitrah). It never fails to demonstrate its great compassion for its people, nor does it ever seek to impose undue burdens and intolerable restrictions to them. Specifically, we refer to the following quotes from the Quran:
“Allah desires for u ease; He desires no hardship for you” .4
“ And has not laid upon you in religion any hardship” 5
“ Allah desires to lighten your burden, for man was created weak” 6
Thus, Islam would be sympathetic to family planning if spacing and limiting their number made the mother more physically fit and the father more financially at ease, particularly since these actions do not violate any prohibitions in the Quran or Sunnah. If excessive fertility leads to proven health risks for the mothers and children, or economic hardship and embarrassment for the father, or inability of the parents to raise their children properly, Muslims would be allowed to regulate their fertility in such a way to reduce these hardships.
Al-Ghazzali ( the great leader of the Shafi’i school of juism) accepts contraception if the motives for the act is any of these: (1) a desire to preserve a woman’s beauty or her health, or save her life; (2) desire to prevent financial hardship and embarrassment; (3) avoidance of other domestic problems caused by a large family. He does not accept the avoidance of female birth as a motive for contraception. 3
On the other hand, opponents of family planning often base their rejection of contraception on their reading of the following verse:
“Do not kill your children, on plea of want, we provide sustenance for you and for them” 7
Its important to look at the context of revelation of this verse. These verse was in response to the pre-Islamic Arab custom of burying female children alive. It was therefore a condemnation of infanticide and of deep misogyny of that culture. 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 vis a vis God’s will. The verses they use to support this are the following:
“there is no creature on earth, but its sustenance depends on God” 8
“ 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 everyone that places their trust in God, he alone is sufficient” 9
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 reside with God, for God is without doubt, the Sustainer, the all-Powerful. I do however disagree with the conclusion that his absolves human beings from any responsibility for agency in the world. On the contrary I believe this type of reasoning is contrary to the fundamental Islamic notion of human vicegerent (Khilafah). It was established that Khilafah implies that humanity is entrusted with moral agency which demands a God-conscious, active and responsible attitude to one self, to fellow human beings and to the world. It includes using the faculties of reason, judgement and God-conciousness 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. The Quranic narrative of joseph’s’ planning and preservation of food in anticipation of famine is another example of an act of agency that does not demonstrate lack of trust in God’s sustenance. Similarly there are prophetic traditions that address the combination of human agency with trust in God as is reflected in prophet’s advice to a man to tie up his camel and then trust God; or the caliph Umar’s statement that reliance in God means to plant the seeds in the earth, then trust in God for a good crop.
The opponents of family planning, whether Jurists or not believe that the larger the number of Muslims and the higher their population rate, the greater their power. These advocates claim that large population is ordained by the religion and that failure to achieve I deviates from the right path. They find support for their views not only in the holy book but also in prophet’s tradition. Hence, oppose family planning. They also claim that family planning originate from the west, which represent conspiracy to reduce the number of Muslims and reduce their power. However, these Quranic verses and traditions must be understood in the context of the child’s right to proper upbringing, which is a cardinal pillar of Islamic family guide ( Tarbiyyah). The children must be well educated, well feed and more importantly well-mannered and God conscious. I and any right thinking Muslim, will disagree that on the day of judgment the Prophet will be happy and proud with a population that are ill-trained, ill-mannered and hooligans.
When is it justifiable to use contraception?
Most of the Islamic jurists agree that Muslims may use contraception to:
1. Avoid health risks to a breastfeeding child the “changed” milk of a pregnant mother
2. Avoid health risks to the mother that would result from repeated pregnancies, short birth intervals or young age.
3. Avoid pregnancy in an already sick wife
4. Avoid transmission of diseases from mother to offspring
5. Preserve a woman’s beauty and physical fitness, thereby continuing the of her husband, ensuring a happier married life, and keeping the husband faithful
6. Avoid economic hardships of caring for a larger family, which might compel parents to resort to illegal activities
7. Allow for education, proper rearing and religious training of children, which are more feasible with fewer children
8. Avoid the danger of children being converted from Islam in enemy territory
9. Enable separate sleeping arrangements for boys and girls after puberty, which are more feasible with fewer children
Islamic principles guiding choice of family planning methods
Choice of the method must be based on the purposes of the law ( maqasid al shari’at). It should not encourage immorality or in any way be conducive to spread evil (fasaad), in violation of the purpose of religion ( hifdh al ddiin). It should not be harmful to the life and health of any of the parents under the purpose of preserving life, it should not destroy the life of a zygote of fetus, it should not cause stress that can lead to severe psychological disturbance in violation of the purpose of preserving intellect ( hifdh al’aql), it should not be permanent and irreversible because it would violate the principle of preservation of progeny ( hifdh al nasi).
Family planning, understood by Islam, is not opposed to marriage or to the begetting of children, nor does its concept imply disbelief in the docrine of fate and divine dispensation, for Allah Almighty has bestowed reason upon man to enable him distinguish between useful, and to help him follow the path that would assure him happiness in this world as well as in the world to come.
1. Sahih Bukhari Kitaab al Nikaaah Baab, 96
2. Sahih Ahmaad 1:31
3. Al-Ghazzali, Ihya’ Ulum al-Din, Al Matba al-Alzhariyyaa al-Misriyaaa
4. Holy Qur’an 2:185
5. Holy Qur’an 22:78
6. Holy Qur’an 4:28
7. Holy Qur’an 6:151
8. Holy Qur’an 11:6
9. Holy Qur’an 65: 2-3
10. Omar Hassan Kasule, contraception: The Islamic perspective