Islam and birth control

While popular Islamic thinking dictates birth control as a sin, its history is in fact laden with many layers.

Islam and birth control

Continued from Part 3The Muslim birth rate

Islam condoning birth control

It is routinely assumed in Hindu circles that Islam prohibits family planning. But against the talk of Muslim “demographic aggression”, secularists like to emphasise that, unlike Christianity and Judaism, Islam explicitly allows birth control. And this is entirely correct. As Yoginder Sikand argues, “Islam is one of the few religions that allow for birth control”.[1] 
In the Golden Age of Islam (7th-11th century), various writers freely wrote instructions for birth control, e.g. Al-Jahiz wrote in a book about the animal kingdom: “The difference between human beings and other species is that only human beings practise birth control .”[2] Of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, the Malikite prohibits abortion altogether, the Hanbalite and Shafiite allow it in the first forty days, while the Hanafite school allows abortion in the first four months of pregnancy. All the schools permit the use of contraceptives. The Shiites consider birth control, in pre-modern times mostly coitus interrupt us, the normal practice in case of temporary (Muta) marriages, “so much so that a man who wanted children had to make a special provision in the Muta Marriage Contract so as not to practise ‘withdrawal’.”[3]
For this reason, there is a lot of practical advice on birth control in Islamic literature, far more than in the fabled Hindu and Chinese sex manuals. A number of medieval authorities on Islamic law and medicine have written about birth control in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental way. The greatest Muslim medic, Ibn Zakaria al Razi (Latin Razes) has given a list of 176 contraceptive or abortive techniques or preparations, while Abu Ali ibn Sina (Avic enna) mentioned several dozen.[4] The Hanafi jurist Ibn Abadin allowed women to use birth control and to have an abortion until the 120th day of pregnancy, even without their husbands’ consent.[5]
Even Ibn Taimiya, the 13th-century Hanbali theologian who in most matters is the acknowledged godfather of today’s “fundamentalists”, permitted the use of contraceptive devices. Ibn Taimiya’s argument was based on a paradoxical implication of the doctrine of God’s omnipotence: no matter how you try to prevent conception, if God has decided that a child will be conceived, scheming human beings are powerless to thwart His designs. Now, since God can always overrule the plans of man, the use of contraceptives does not really interfere with God’s designs, ergo it is permitted.[6]
In their innocence, some Islamic apologists use arguments to prove Islam’s progressiveness concerning birth control regardless of their negative implications in other respects. Thus, the principal of an Islamic college writes:

“Islamic jurisprudence has always allowed the above-mentioned family planning method with slave girls as it is one of its fundamental dictates that a slave girl becomes free the moment she gives birth to a child.”[7]

So, to keep her in slavery it was allowed to prevent her from getting pregnant, which says a lot about the centrality of the institution of slavery to Islamic civilisation.
Even more troubling is the context of the main incident in Mohammed’s career which justifies birth control (and is therefore routinely mentioned as proof of Mohammed’s progressiveness). Mohammed’s men had captured women from Mecca in the raid on a Meccan caravan at Badr (see next para), intending to sell them back to their families for a handsome ransom, but asked Mohammed if they could use them for their sexual gratification. Considering that the ransom would go down if the women were not returned in their original condition, the Prophet told his men that they could freely go and rape them as long as they practised coitus interruptus (Arabic azl). So, the Prophet condoned hostage-taking and rape.[8] Nonetheless, these two instances of clumsy apologetics do confirm that Islam approves of birth control.

Islam prohibiting birth control

In spite of this solid tradition of at least tolerance to birth control, there is now a strong countercurrent which objects to birth control and propagates a natalist policy. After attacking “the protagonists of Hindutva” for having “perfected the art of demagogy, deception and venomous communal propaganda” including the “oft-repeated accusations that Islam is strictly opposed to family planning”, Yoginder Sikand admits:

“Their loud proclamations have been further legitimised by some ignorant and obscurantist mullahs, who also assert that Islam and family planning are not compatible with each other.”[9] 

Even the alleged Hindutva propaganda that

“Muslims are furiously multiplying as part of a grand Islamic conspiracy to swamp the country and convert it into a Muslim-majority state”[10] is candidly confirmed by these “ignorant and obscurantist mullahs”.

Leave alone Urdu pamphlets, a neatly published English book from the impeccably Islamic Noor Publishing House (Delhi), Muhammad Samiullah’s Muslims in Alien Society, is sufficiently explicit about the demographic designs of contemporary Islam.[11] Samiullah rejects family planning as a Western ploy to diminish the numbers of the Muslim population in order to maintain its hegemony. The core of his argument is that birth control has no sanction from the Quran nor from the example and sayings of the Prophet. Since others have claimed just the opposite, a close reading of the source texts of Islam is needed.
As Samiullah notes, Mohammed sanctioned, even commanded, the practice of coitus interruptus, the then most readily available method of birth control, in the aftermath of the battle of Badr, his first great victory which yielded him a number of woman hostages. For the present discussion, the point which Samiullah wants to make is that this guideline laid down by the Prophet was contradicted by the Prophet himself on later occasions. Samiullah recounts a number of Ahadis (episodes of the Prophet’s life serving as the authoritative basis of Islamic law) where the Prophet opposed this method of birth control.[12]
Thus, after the campaign against the Banu al-Mustaliq, the Muslims wanted to rape the hostages and asked Mohammed whether they should practise azl, but the Prophet replied, with reference to the futility of human scheming before God’s omnipotence: “It does not matter if you don’t do it, for every soul that is to be born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born.” Since this (and similar ones) is a later Hadis than the one containing his pro-azl injunction at Badr, it overrules the earlier one, at least according to the theological principle that in case of contradiction, the earlier pronouncement is overruled by the later one.[13]
Admittedly, the fact that the Prophet encouraged azl on at least one occasion does create some legal room for birth control, and Samiullah concedes that it is explicitly permitted in case the woman is in poor health and could not bear the burden of pregnancy and the effort of delivery. But the main weight of Mohammed’s normative opinion, Samiullah argues, is certainly on the side of natalism and against birth-control. Hence the Prophet’s prohibition, at least on one occasion, of knowingly marrying a sterile woman; his prohibition of non-vaginal intercourse (another primitive form of birth control); and his strict prohibition of sterilization and of voluntary celibacy.

Islamic natalism

Hindu Revivalist authors have dug up some more quotations to support the perception of natalist designs in Islam.  K.S. Lal quotes Mohammed as saying in so many words:

“Marry women who will love their husbands and be very prolific, for I want you to be more numerous than any other people”.[14]

Ram Swarup quotes the Prophet as saying:

“In my Ummah, he is the best who has the largest number of wives .”[15]

Even a secular Muslim candidly calls it “one of the fundamental tenets of Islam — namely, to multiply the tribe.”[16]
Samiullah’s point is that as a general policy, the Prophet opposed any behaviour which was demographically wasteful and unproductive. He was less fussy about the occasional loss of semen in sterile forms of intercourse than Moses’ laws had been, but as a rule, he favoured the same natalist policy. Samiullah opines:

“Had the monster of ‘Birth Control’ as an instrument of state policy raised its head in the days of the Holy Prophet, he would surely have declared Jihad against it in the same manner as he waged Jihad against Shirk (polytheism).”[17]

And he concludes:

“The Qur ‘an  says that ‘Children are an ornament of life’ and Hadith literature views with favour larger families for the greater strength of Ummah, and as such birth control/family planning cannot be in any way compatible with the Shari’ah.”[18]

Samiullah argues, not unconvincingly, that the Sharia position is supported by modern science. He cites findings that both the birth-control pill and vasectomy, once (or still) propagated as entirely harmless, are in fact harmful to the concerned person’s health.[19] He also shows that the popularisation of the pill and other modern forms of contraception has contributed immensely to freer sexual mores in the West, or what he calls immorality. With all this, Samiullah has put together a battery of Islamic plus secular arguments which are bound to sound convincing to the Muslim masses.[20]
Another Indian Muslim author telling Muslim women to “shun birth control” is Muhammad Imran, whose book is published by the Markazi Maktaba Islami (“Islamic Educational Centre”), Delhi, the leading provider of Islamic school books.[21] He emphasises that “birth control should be resorted to only in cases of extreme necessity, such as the wife’s ill-health owing to constant births. Imam Abu Hanifa holds it makruh (abominable).”[22] He too invokes the authority of Western scientists to dismiss it as unhealthy, and points to its “undermining” effects on morality in Western society.[23]

The Rabita’s natalism

The Indian Muslim authors quoted are not alone. Thousands of preachers instill the same natalist resolve into their flock, even in countries like Egypt and Bangladesh where this position is actually subversive of the Government’s official anti-natalist policies:

“Even in over populated Egypt the theologians reject family planning, at best they merely tolerate the generally ineffective steps which the Government takes.” [24]

The natalist and anti-contraceptive line is even defended by the world’s most powerful Islamic organization, the Rabita al-Alam al-Islamiyya (World Islamic League). At the UN Conference on Population in Cairo 1994, a number of Muslim countries joined hands with the Vatican in opposing contraceptives and abortion. On the occasion of this UN conference, the Rabita called a meeting chaired by the Saudi king, where a resolution was passed “against the legalization of abortion (…) against a policy of conceding sexual rights to adolescents and unmarried persons (…) against raising the marriageable age (…) We want to make it clear: the Islamic Sharia is against abortion. (…) We strongly oppose the proposed resolution which pleads for complete equality between man and woman.” The resolution also alleges that birth control policies are but a Western ploy to mask exploitative designs, and concludes:

“If the world’s riches are honestly divided, there will be enough for all, and there will be no reason to limit the number of children.”[25]

The Cairo Conference was a bone of contention in the Muslim world. Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia boycotted the Conference. The Egyptian Grand-Mufti Mohammed Sayed Tantawi defended the Conference against a condemnation of its agenda by Al-Azhar university.[26] Egyptian opposition newspapers attacked the Conference, alleging that its anti-natalist agenda would lead to all kinds of immorality and the undermining of parental authority.[27] Thirty prominent Muslims approached the courts in a failed attempt to have the Conference banned.[28] Islamic spokesmen denounced the UNO plans as a conspiracy  against “the Islamic bomb, viz. the exponential increase of the number of Muslims worldwide”.[29]
The Sudanese Government denounced the Conference as “a ploy to depopulate the Arab countries [and] to minimise the population increase in the Muslim world”, and applauded the statement by a professor of Al-Azhar that the Conference intended to “destroy the Muslim nation”.[30] While some Muslims favour a realistic population policy, it is undeniable that others approach the matter in terms of demographic warfare.

Why Muslim natalism?

The contrast in the Muslim world between the medieval tolerance of birth control and the modern opposition to it can be explained.  First of all, even these medieval writings on contraceptive methods have never preached population control as a general policy. Samiullah is probably right to the extent that he distinguishes between people’s private lives, where Mohammed did not prohibit birth control, and public policy, where Mohammed took a natalist position. In practice, birth control as condoned by Mohammed and the medieval Muslim authors was never on such a scale that it endangered the steady increase of the Muslim percentage, if only because there was a constant trickle of converts from the non-Muslim communities. Most importantly, there was a situation of unchallenged Muslim domination, not one of Muslim decline and subservience to other powers, as in the 20th century, nor one of permanent confrontation with a non-Muslim majority as in contemporary India.
Demography is a bigger concern today because Islam is fighting for its survival, if not for world supremacy. Muhammad Samiullah is explicit about the good reason for natalism:

“There is no denying the fact that the political prestige and military strength of a country depends upon the size of its population. (…) In the Islamic context greater population has a double significance because one cannot wage an effective Jihad without an expanding population.”[31]

We may probably generalize that the demographic ebullience of Muslim communities is for the largest part the innocent and automatic result of, firstly, the age-old desire to see the tribe increase, which Mohammed merely confirmed but did not invent; and secondly, of the status of woman in Islam, which is strongly conducive to her exclusive motherhood. However, in the present geopolitical circumstances, certain powerful Islamic organisations have added to these natural factors a deliberate strategy of strengthening the position of Islam by multiplying its numbers. Though they do not have a monopoly on Islamic orthodoxy, they do influence Muslim collective behaviour to a substantial extent, especially in (what is to Islam) a frontline state like India.

So, who was right?

The Hindu revivalists are essentially right about the ongoing substantial increase in the Muslim percentage of the Indian population. A realistic extrapolation into the future of present demographic (including migratory) trends does predict a Muslim majority in the Subcontinent well before the end of the 21st century, and a Muslim majority in the Indian Union sometime later, but in some regions much earlier. The demographic differential is not of such a magnitude that Muslims will soon outnumber Hindus in the whole of India; but it is large enough to create Muslim‑ majority areas in strategic corners of the country, “two, three, many Kashmirs!”
Hindu revivalists who argue that Muslim have a higher birth rate, that their percentage is growing fast, and that this is the result of an intentional policy on the part of at least a section of the Muslim leadership, are right. It is not just that they “have a point” or that they ” deserve a hearing”, no: they are nothing less than right. Only the exact quantity of the trend is a matter for dispute.
And why stop our conclusion with finding the Hindu position right? The data just surveyed also teach us something about the secularists who have ridiculed and thoroughly blackened the said Hindu position: they are wrong. We have not used any esoteric figures inaccessible to the common man; all these data were at the disposal of the secularists. Yet, some of them insist that the Muslim percentage will remain constant, or that the Muslim increase is proportionate to relative Muslim poverty. The fact deserves to be noted: a whole class of leading intellectuals brutally denies easily verifiable facts, i.e. the accelerating increase of the Muslim and the decrease of the Hindu percentage, and the intentionality behind this Muslim demographic offensive.
This excerpt is taken from The Demographic Siege by  Koenraad Elst and reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher, Aditya Prakashan.
[1] Yoginder Sikand: “Bogey of family planning and Islam”, Observer of Business and Politics, 27-2-1993, with reference to B.F. Musallam: Sex and Society in Islam (Cambridge 1933).
[2] Quoted in Lucas Catherine: Islam voor Ongelovigen (EPO, Antwerp 1997), p.215.
[3] Yoginder Sikand: “Bogey of family planning and Islam”, Observer of Business and Politics, 27-2-1993.
[4] Quoted in Lucas Catherine: Islam voor Ongelovigen, p.216.
[5] Quoted to this effect by Yoginder Sikand: “Bogey of family planning and Islam”, Observer of Business and Politics, 27-2-1993.
[6] Quoted to this effect by L. Catherine: Islam voor On gelovi gen, p.216.
[7] Wasi Ahmad Siddiqi: “Family Planning and Prophet”, letter in Indian Express, 30-4-1990.
[8] Though Ram Swarup discusses this and similar epis odes (Understanding Islam through Hadis, p.61-62, ref. to Sahih al-Muslim 3371), he does not draw attention to this revealing aspect pertaining to Islamic ethics.
[9] Yoginder Sikand: “Bogey of family planning and Islam”, Observer of Business and Politics, 27-2-1993.
[10] Yoginder Sikand: “Bogey of family planning and Islam”, Observer of Business and Politics, 27-2-1993.
[11] Muhammed Samiullah: Muslims in Alien Society (Delhi 1992), esp. ch.8: “Islam and Birth Control”, p.86-97.
[12] Samiullah: Muslim in Alien Society, p.87.
[13] This exegetical principle (called nashk) is dispu ted by some progres sive theologians. Thus, concer ning the relations with non-Muslims, the older verses are more restrained while later verses are very combattive; but Mah mud Shaltut, Rector of Al-Azhar in 1958-63 (Koran and Fighting, reprod u ced in R. Peters: Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, Markus Wiener, Princeton 1997, esp. p.80-82) rejects the view that the more peaceful verses stand abrogated by the later, more warlike ones. His argument is that all of them are divinely revealed and therefore valid; it is up to the inter preter to rhyme seemingly contradictory verses together, rather than arrogantly declaring some of God’s verses invalidated.
[14] Quoted from T.P. Hughes: Dictionary of Islam, p.314, who refers to book 13 of Mishkatu’l Masa bih (“nic hes for lamps [of the tradition]”, a compilation of Sunni traditions by the 12th-century Imam Husain al-Baghawi, expanded in the 14th century by Shaykh Waliuddin).
[15] Katib al-W qid (= Ibn Sa’d): Tabaqt Ibn Sa’d, vol.2, p.146 of the Urdu translation from Nafees Academy, Karachi; quoted by Ram Swarup: Understanding Islam through Hadis (Voice of India 1989), p.57n.
[16] Saeed Naqvi: Reflections of an Indian Muslim (Har-Anand, Delhi 1993), p.32.
[17] M. Samiullah: Muslims in Alien Society, p.90.
[18] M. Samiullah: Muslims in Alien Society, p.97.
[19] See e.g. Dr. Ellen Grant: The Bitter Pill (Elm Tree Books, London 1985), which presents the (grim) medical case against the birth-control pill.
[20] That this natalist position has struck roots among ordinary Muslims may be illustrated with the case of Moham med Tofazzal Mollah: he was sacked as Imam at the village mosque of Bahipara (northern Bangladesh) because his wife had been sterilized after having given birth to six children. The village population rallied behind the two Maulanas who had issued the fatwa condemning the poor Imam. See: “Imam faces fatwa as wife refuses to con ceive”, Indian Express, 18-11-1993.
[21] M. Imran: Ideal Woman, Delhi 1994 (1981), p.66.
[22] M. Imran: Ideal Woman in Islam, p.66.
[23] M. Imran: Ideal Woman, p.68.
[24] “Iranische Theologen f r Geburtenkontrolle” (Ge rman: “Iran ian theol ogians in favour of birth control”), Frankfu rter Allgeme ine Zeitung, 19-1-1990. The main thrust of the article is that in Iran’s Islamic Republic, the theologians are more loyal to the regime and its policies (i.c. the switch from a natalist to a moderately anti-natalist policy), while in Egypt, they take a doctrinaire Islamic line against the “secular” Government policies.
[25] Mecca, 3-9-1994, quoted in L. Catherine: Islam voor On gelovigen, p.217.
[26] “Ka ro-konferentie verdeelt moslims” (Dutch: “Cairo Con ference divides Muslims”), De Morgen (Brussels), 24-8-1994.
[27] “Egyptische islamisten verwerpen konferentie” (Dutch: “Egyptian Is lamists reject conference”), De Standaard, 17-8-1994.
[28] “Rechter weigert konferentie te verbieden” (Dutch: “Judge refuses to prohibit conference”), De Morgen, 31-8-1994.
[29] “‘Vrouwen zijn sleutel voor de ontwikkeling'” (Dutch: “‘Women are key to development'”), De Morgen, 17-8-1994.
[30] “‘Westerse delegaties zullen ernstige risico’s lopen’: Khartoem waarsc huwt VN-bevolkingskonferen tie in Ka ro” (Dutch: “‘Western delegations will run serious risks’: Khartum warns UN Conference in Cairo”), De Morgen, 27-8-1994.
[31] M. Samiullah: Muslims in Alien Society, p.95-96.

About Author: Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

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