It is extremely unfortunate that vice-chairman of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board Maulana Kalbe Sadiq should attract so much criticism for his statement that Islam is not against family planning. The not-so-well-informed maulvi saheb from a poor Muslim mohalla may be forgiven were he to counter the good maulana with verses from the Qur'an such as: "Kill not your children for fear of want, We provide sustenance for them and for you, the killing of them is a great sin" ( al-Isra, Sura 17:31 ). But the high priests of Indian Islam who have been as quick with their condemnation ought to have known better.
The Quranic verses, they will be the first to tell us, are not an abstract treatise but verses revealed to Prophet Muhammad over a span of two decades as Allah's directions to the believers on particular issues in specific contexts. They surely must know that verses such as the above were Allah's admonition to Muslims to desist from infanticide, particularly of the girl child, which was then rampant in Arabia: "And when one of them receives tidings of the birth of a female child (for him), his face darkens in sadness and disappointment... (He argues with himself) shall he keep it in contempt, or bury it alive? ( al-Nahl, Sura 16:58, 59 ). Clearly, it is such practice that the Qur'an strictly forbids, calling it "a great sin".
It is true that through the centuries some Muslims have equated family planning with infanticide and thus concluded it was forbidden in Islam. But as Prof Abdel Rahim Omran, former chief population advisor to the world-renowned Al-Azhar (Islamic) University, Cairo, points out, Islam not only permits, but actively encourages, non-reversible forms of birth control practices.
"The most gruelling trial is to have plenty of children with no adequate means", says one of the well-authenticated Traditions of Prophet Muhammad. "A multitude of children is one of the two poverties (or causes of penury) while a small number is one of the two cases of ease", is another.
Another Tradition reported by Jabir bin Abdullah says: "We used to practise al-azl (coitus interreptus) during the time of the Prophet. The Prophet came to know about it but did not forbid us (doing it)". And here's a clincher from the highly respected Abu Huraira: "The Prophet was asked about al azl. They (the Companions) said, 'The Jews claim it is minor infanticide'. He categorically denied such a contention by the Jews".
From the Qur'an and the Traditions of the Prophet, Prof Omran proceeds to show that between the seventh and the nineteenth century, the majority opinion among all the major schools of Islamic jurisprudence — Hanafi, Maliki, Shafei, Hanbali (all Sunni), Zaidi, Imami (Twelvers), Ismaili (all Shia) — was that al azl was permissible in Islam. For the large majority of Islamic jurists (jumhour al-ulama), health, economics, emotional well-being and cultural responsibilities were all valid grounds for preventing pregnancy. The minor Zahiri and the Ibaddi (Kharijite) were the only opposing schools.
On modern methods of contraception, Islamic scholars have consistently argued that current-day methods of birth control, such as contraceptive pills, IUDs etc, are as acceptable "so long as the purpose is to prevent pregnancy". In fact, many are of the opinion that modern methods are preferable "because they allow normal and complete marital relations".
Admittedly, sterilisation that results in permanent loss of fertility is considered impermissible in Islam, except for health reasons, in which case the same is mandatory. And on the question of abortion, there is a difference of opinion: While for one school, abortion is not permitted 40 days after conception, for the other the time limit stretches to until 120 days after conception.
On the Indian subcontinent there have been important voices for planned families. Shah Abdel Aziz says in his famous 19th century Tafsir of the Qur'an: "The use of medicines before or after coitus for preventing contraception is as lawful as al azl. Imam Shafei interpreted the Quranic verse (Sura 4:3-4) as a counsel to monogamy as the best way to avoid too many children". And the 500 religious scholars who codified Islamic law during the time of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb were agreed that contraception was permissible with the consent of one's partner. In recent decades, international conferences on Islam and family planning (Rabat, Morocco, 1971; Banjul, Gambia, 1979; Dakar, Senegal, 1982; Aceh, Indonesia, 1990; Mogadishu, Somalia, 1990) attended by Islamic scholars from the Middle East, Asia, the Far East and Africa arrived at the conclusion that not only did Islam permit certain forms of family planning, but also encouraged Muslims to practise it.
For years now, family planning has been officially promoted in many proclaimed Islamic states, including Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Shia-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Indonesia are held up as population control success stories. The consensus emanating from over 14 centuries of theological and lived Islam is overwhelming. Should Indian Muslims locate themselves at the confluence of religion, reason, commonsense and mainstream national sentiment, as Maulana Sadiq proposes, or should they choose to, among other things, denounce family planning as "a plot against Islam" as the late Maulana Maududi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, did? Not a very difficult choice, it would seem.
Javed Anand is co-editor, Communalism Combat and spokesperson, Muslims For Secular Democracy
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