By Asghar Ali Engineer
Many people, especially women, ask me if family planning is permissible in Islam. They say the imams and Ulema say Qur’an prohibits family planning and quote a verse which says, “And kill not your children for fear of poverty – We provide for them and for you. Surely the killing of them is a great wrong.” (17:31). In no way this verse refers to family planning because it is talking of ‘killing’ and you kill one who exists. No law in the world will permit killing one who is already born and hence Qur’an rightly condemns killing of children.
Some people suggest that it refers to the practice of burying the girl child alive and when asked they would say we cannot provide for them and hence Allah says We provide for them and for you. But, as Imam Razi suggests it refers to both male and female children being kept ignorant. Thus killing them has not been used killing the body but mind which is as bad as killing the body. The word used here is ‘awlad’ i.e. children which include male as well as female and not only female.
Imam Razi’s suggestion seems to be quite reasonable and in fact large family means children cannot be properly educated by poor parents and hence parents kill them mentally by keeping them ignorant. They cannot even cloth them properly nor can provide proper space for living. In such circumstances one cannot have good quality Muslims and mere quantity does not matter much. Better quality is more desirable than mere quantity.
First of all we should understand that in those days the problem of family planning did not exist nor that of population control. It is very much modern problem which has arisen in nation states. Most of the nation states in third world do not have economic means to support large population and when we say supporting large population it does not mean only feeding it but it also includes to educate them and also to provide proper health services. These are basic duties of modern nation states.
In fact in view of paucity of resources it has become necessary to adopt family planning. When Qur’an was being revealed there were neither any properly organized state nor education or health services being provided by any state agency. It is important to note that Qur’an which shows eight ways to spend Zakat, does not include education or health which is so essential for the state to provide today. Thus what Imam Razi suggests is not only very correct and also enhances importance of family planning in the modern times as small family can support better education and health services.
It would be interesting to note that as for verse 4:3 (which is used by Muslims for justification of polygamy) Imam Shafi’I interprets rather differently. It ends with the words alla ta’ulu which is generally translated as ‘you may not do injustice’ i.e. do not marry more than one so that you may not do injustice. But Imam Shafi’I renders it as ‘so that you do not have large family’ Qur’an has already mentioned that ‘if you fear injustice then marry only one’ and so there was no need to repeat it. That is why Imam Shafi’I feels it should be translated as ‘so that you do not have large family’.
It can be seen that in understanding Qur’an even very eminent imams and great scholars differed from each other. One should not impose one single meaning of a verse on all Muslims. It could be interpreted differently by different people in their own context and circumstances. Family planning being a modern need one should not reject it out of hand and quote Qur’anic verses out of context.
In fact family planning does not mean killing children after they are born but to plan birth of children in a way that parents can bear all the expenses for their education, health, living space etc. in a proper manner. Qur’an also suggests that a child be suckled at least for two years and it is well known that as long as mother suckles she would not conceive. Thus indirectly Qur’an also suggests spacing of a child.
Even in hadith literature we find that the Prophet (PBUH) permitted prevention of conceiving in certain circumstances. When a person asked Prophet for permission for ‘azl (coitus interrupts) as he was going for a long journey along with his wife and he did not want his wife to conceive while travelling the Messenger of Allah allowed him. In those days ‘azl was the only known method for planning of birth of a child. Today there are several methods available like use of condoms
Imam Ghazzali, a very eminent theologian and philosopher allows even termination of pregnancy if mother’s life is in danger and shows several methods for termination. He even allows termination of pregnancy on health grounds or if mother’s beauty is in danger provided it is in consultation with her husband.. Some scholars referring to the verse 23:14 conclude that one can terminate pregnancy up to three months as Qur’an, in this verse describes stages of development of sperm planted in mother’s womb and it takes three months for life to begin.
However, many Ulema oppose termination of pregnancy. Whatever the case one cannot declare family planning as prohibited in Islam as it in no way amounts to killing a child already born or even termination of pregnancy but to plan birth of a child by preventing pregnancy for spacing birth of a child according to ones financial resources.
Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.