What does the Quran (Islam) really say about family planning, contraception, child-spacing and birth control?
God/Allah does not sanction/permit hardship: Polygamy and large family as one of the causes of hardship among Africans
Here, I try to present mainly justification of family planning by most Islamic jurists. I also give the arguments of opponents of family planning in Islam, who are just a minority. A number of Quranic verses emphasize the notion that God does not wish to burden believers (to make His believers suffer), with the implication that the well-being of children overrides concerns for a large family. As a result, contraception has a long history in Islam. Early Muslim doctors recorded the tradition of herbal prescriptions to prevent pregnancy in Islamic books of medicine, which were used for centuries in Europe. Muhammad (SAW), Himself, encouraged the practice of al’azl (withdrawal or coitus interruptus). In Islam, contraception is mainly addressed in the context of marriage and family.
As a social system, culture, and civilization, Islam considers the family as the basic unit of society. The Quran views marriage as sacred and identifies the husband and wife as the principals of family formation. The Quran has a number of references to marriage, including the following:
And one of [God’s] signs is that He has created for you mates from yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them, and has ordained between you Love and Mercy. AL-ROUM (SURA 30:2 1). It is He who created you from single soul and therefrom did make his mate, that he might dwell in tranquillity with her. AL – A’RAF (SURA 7:189). And God has made for you mates from yourselves and made for you out of them, children and grandchildren. AL-NAHL (SURA 16:72). These verses suggest that tranquillity is an important purpose of family life and is achieved through marriage. Also, while procreation is expected in marriage to maintain the human race, sexual relations in marriage need not always be for the purpose of having children. On this point, Islam departs from some other religions where procreation is the exclusive purpose of sexual relations. From the Islamic point of view, when procreation takes place, it should support and endorse tranquillity rather than disrupt it. THEREFORE, CONTRACEPTION HELPS FAMILIES ACHIEVE TRANQUILLITY BY HAVING CHILDREN WHEN THEY WANT THEM AND WHEN THEY ARE PREPARED TO HAVE THEM. Because of the importance of family in Muslim societies, legal scholars from various Islamic schools of jurisprudence and from various locales have given considerable attention to contraception. Islamic scholars studying family planning have justified contraception in several ways. They have generally argued that Islam is a religion of moderation and point to the principles of “liberty” or “permissibility” in Islam, that is, everything is lawful unless explicitly designated otherwise in the Quran or in the 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 Islamic jurists believe that family planning is permissible in Islam. The silence of the Quran on the issue of contraception, these jurists have 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 practised at the Prophet’s time by his Companions. The majority of theologians from almost all schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree that withdrawal is permissible with a wife’s consent.
In Islam, a wife has the right to both sexual pleasure and reproduction. (Some jurists would argue that ejaculation is essential for a woman to have orgasm, and therefore it is necessary to have prior consent from a wife before practising withdrawal). In all its institutions and regulations, Islam addresses itself to reason and keeps 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 upon them. To support this, here are some quotes from the Quran: Allah desires for you ease; He desires no hardship for you. AL-BAGARA (SURA 2:185). And has not laid upon you in religion any hardship. AL-HAJJ (SURA 22:78). Allah desires to lighten your burden, for man was created weak. AL-NISA (SURA 4:28).
Thus, Islam would be sympathetic to family planning if spacing pregnancies 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 prohibition in the Quran or in the Prophet’s tradition (Sunnah). If excessive fertility leads to proven health risks for mothers and children, or economic hardship and embarrassment for the father, or the inability of parents to raise their children properly, Muslims would be allowed to regulate their fertility in such a way as to reduce these hardships. After reviewing various sources of Islamic jurisprudence, some Islamic jurists have developed a list of justifiable reasons under Islam for using contraception.
Here I present only a few of them. Muslims may use contraception to: 1) Avoid the economic hardships of caring for a larger family, which might compel parents to resort to illegal activities or exhausting themselves to earn a living; 2) Allow for the education, proper rearing, and religious training of children, which are more feasible/possible with fewer children; 3) Avoid health risks to a breastfeeding child from the “changed” milk of a pregnant mother; 4) Avoid health risks to the mother that would result from repeated pregnancies, short birth intervals, or young age; 5) Avoid pregnancy in an already sick wife; 6) Avoid transmission of disease from parents to their offspring.
Some Muslims question the economic justification for family planning on the grounds that it contradicts the Islamic beliefs of tawakkul (reliance on God) and rizq (provision by God). However, Islamic jurists have found no such relationship and made the economic reasons legal. Regarding the health justification of family planning, some Islamic jurists say, “Warding off the risks posed to the health of mothers and children by additional pregnancies is the most common reason for accepting contraception in Islamic jurisprudence.” Legal scholars interpret the Quran’s recommendation of two years of breastfeeding and the Prophet’s recommendation against pregnancy during lactation as an endorsement for child spacing.
Rather than avoiding intercourse for two full years, which would be a hardship, couples can use contraception. Legal scholars who interpret Islam as permitting contraception assume that the method would be safe and practiced only for good reasons. For example, Islam does not allow the use of contraception to avoid female offspring.
It should also be noted that while the great majority of the theologians believe contraception is sanctioned in Islam, they mostly limit the practice to temporary methods of family planning. An overwhelming majority of theologians who have approved the use of modern contraceptives have expressed some reservations regarding the permanent methods of female and male sterilization.
Theologians opposing sterilization as a family planning method consider the practice as interfering with God’s will and attempting to change what God has created. Some people disapprove of male sterilization in particular based on its mistaken analogy to castration, which is prohibited by Sunnah.
A small number of Islamic jurists and other Islamic groups oppose family planning and contraceptive use generally on two grounds. First, they believe that withdrawal or any practice that prevents pregnancy is infanticide, which is repeatedly condemned and prohibited in the Quran.
Second, the opponents of family planning, whether jurists or non-jurists, believe that the larger the number of Muslims and the higher their population growth rate, the greater their power. These advocates claim that a large population is ordained by the religion and that failure to achieve it deviates from the right path. They find support for their views not only in the Holy Book but also in the Prophet’s tradition. Hence, they oppose family planning, especially if it becomes COMMUNITY OR GOVERNMENT POLICY. They also claim that family planning programs, having originated in the West, represent a conspiracy to reduce the number of Muslims and diminish their power. It is not uncommon for family planning programs to become politicized in Muslim societies.
In recent history, opposition groups in a number of countries have rejected their governments’ organized family planning program as a political move, invoking Islam in support of their position. History has shown that pragmatism eventually prevails. Within days of the Islamic revolution in 1979, for example, Iran’s new leaders dismantled the country’s family planning program on the grounds that it was a Western plot.
Ten years later, however, as Iran struggled to provide for the basic needs of its growing population, its Islamic government reversed the policy and established one of the most successful family planning programs in the developing world. (It should be noted, however, that during the 10 years after the revolution that there was no organized family planning program in Iran, the government was not restricting access to family planning services, and such services were available in public clinics as part of Iran’s overall health care system). Algeria has also reversed its position on family planning.
At the 1974 United Nations World Population Conference, Algeria was among the countries that opposed family planning programs on the grounds that they were an imperialist conspiracy aimed at limiting the population of the developing world. However, as part of its national development plan, the Algerian government later adopted a population policy that promoted family planning. May God guide us in all our undertakings! Amen
These are the thoughts of:
Sa’eed Halilu Bawa
A devout Muslim and Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad.
Studied Food and Nutrition Sciences, Dietetics at Kaduna Polytechnic, Nigeria; Warsaw University of Life Sciences, Poland.