Contraception and Abortion in Islam
In Islam, as in virtually all religions, fertility is highly prized and children are a gift of God to bring "joy to our eyes." (Surah 25: Al-Furqan:74) Conservatives also argue that family planning is a lack of trust in the sustaining God. They cite texts such as this: "There is no creeping being on earth but that upon God is its sustenance." (Surah 11: Hud:6) The Quran also says that if we place our trust in God that that is enough. My mother's Irish faith comes to mind: "God will not send a child without sending the means to feed it."
This naive and passive trust that no matter what we do or don't do God will make up the difference does not bear scrutiny and does not face up to the perennial fact of starving children. It is dismissed by Islam's best theologians. Theologian Fazlur Rahman says that using the Quranic references to God's power and promise to sustain all creation to argue "for an unlimited population out of proportion to the economic resources is infantile. The Quran certainly does not mean to say that God provides every living creature with sustenance whether that creature is capable of procuring sustenance for itself or not." We are not passive sheep waiting to be fed, in the Islamic view. We are God's vicegerents on earth, gifted with reason and talent. God has shared responsibility for providence with us and has given us the power to be prudent, to see problems and do something sensible about them.
This squares beautifully with Thomas Aquinas' description of humans as "participants in divine providence." Also, in Catholic theology, relying on God's sustaining power to do what we have been equipped by God to do for ourselves is called the sin of "tempting God."
Contraception has a long history in Islam. Early Islam actually developed contraceptive medicine and instructed Europe on it. Avicenna the Muslim physician in his book "The Law" discusses twenty different substances used for birth control. Such Islamic books of medicine were used for centuries in Europe. When Europe was in its "dark ages," Islamic culture with its stress on education kept the light of learning burning to the benefit of all peoples.
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The most common form of birth control when Islam began was called azl, withdrawal - coitus interruptus. There are five major schools of law in Islam, and all five permit the practice of azl, four of the five insisting that the consent of the wife is necessary. And here is where ijtihad comes in, reasoning analogically from something already permitted. The Arab Republic of Egypt published a booklet called "Islam's Attitude towards Family Planning." They state in its introduction that broad consultation with the most authoritative sources in Islam went into the research on this book. After noting that azl was permitted, they argued that any method that has the same purpose as azl and does not induce permanent sterility is acceptable for Muslims. They then go on to list methods such as the cervical cap, the condom, contraceptive pills, injections to produce temporary sterility, and the "loop device" placed in the uterus to prevent implantation of the fertilized egg.
There are many reasons justifying contraception: reasons of health, economics, the preservation of the woman's appearance (!), and improving the quality of offspring. This last reason is important in Islam because the Islamic approach to contraception has a social conscience. It is concerned with the common good. Producing sickly, weak, or underdeveloped or uneducated children is not good for the umma, for the society. The Egyptian study says that "the strength of a nation is measured not by numbers or quantities, but rather by quality." The study stresses the importance "of being rational and moderate and of living within the possible means and available resources." The hadith literature also says it is better to have few who are virtuous than many who are not. Once again, human life deserves to thrive, not just to eke out a living.