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Published in the 16-31 Oct 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Furore over family planning

Stoking yet another communal controversy

By Yoginder Sikand

he recent statement in favour of family planning issued by the widely respected Shia scholar and Vice-President of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, has, expectedly, stirred up a major controversy in Muslim circles. Numerous Muslim ulama or Islamic scholars and other community leaders have been quick to denounce the statement, roundly condemning Sadiq and claiming that family planning has no sanction whatsoever in Islam. On the other hand, several other Muslims have come out in strong support of Sadiq’s stance, arguing that Islam does indeed allow for certain methods of family planning. This heated debate over the normative Islamic position on family planning is being played out in the Urdu press, and numerous articles and letters have been published on the issue, with no clear conclusion appearing to emerge on what exactly Islam has to say on this vexed subject.

A good indication of the issues involved in the ongoing debate are the numerous articles on the subject that appeared in the pages of the Urdu Rashtriya Sahara, one of the largest selling Urdu dailies published from Delhi, on the 26th of September. The conservative ulama clearly seem to be dominating the debate, and the paper carries numerous pieces penned by them. As some of them appear to see it, family planning is a sinister ‘anti-Islamic’ plot hatched by hidden ‘enemies’ of Islam. Accordingly, Sadiq’s statement is presented as, unwittingly or otherwise, part of this alleged conspiracy. Thus, a certain Maulana Muhammad Inamullah Siddiqui of the Deoband madrasa declares Sadiq’s statement as being ‘wholly against’ the Quran and the Hadith, the normative statements attributed to the Prophet. It is, he says, the result of a ‘conspiracy’ hatched by the BJP to fan anti-Muslim hatred. A senior Deobandi leader and member of the Muslim Personal Law Board, Maulana Muhammad Burhanuddin Sambhali, declares family planning to be ‘against Islam’ (khilaf-i-islam), and accuses Sadiq of providing an excuse to non-Muslims to ‘rejoice’ by creating ‘even more problems’ for the Muslims by setting off a controversy on the question of family planning. In a similar vein, Maulana Jameel Ilyasi, self-styled head of the All-India Association of Masjid Imams (‘All-India Tanzim ‘Aima-i-Masajid) pronounces Sadiq’s statement to be completely ‘against the shariah’. 

Some of the ulama participants in the debate on family planning seek to back up their claims by selective quotations from the Quran and the Hadith, interpreting them in order to prove the ‘Islamicity’ of their stance. This is what Maulana Sayyed Jalaluddin Umri, deputy head of the Jama’at-I-Islami Hind and one of its chief ideologues, seeks to do in his piece revealingly titled ‘Family Planning: The Product of a Wrong Islamic Interpretation’. Umri reveals a complete insensitivity to the reality and immensity of the population explosion crisis, dismissing the arguments of the advocates of family planning as completely misconceived. ‘If the population of any community in the country is increasing, what is the reason for concern?’, he naively asks. Rather than see this as a ‘problem’, he says, it should actually be considered as a blessing, for, he claims, a growing population adds to the country’s ‘manpower’ (afradi quvvat), which would allegedly be ‘useful in the service of the country and the community’, working to strengthen both. Umri thus turns a complete blind eye to the plight of the poor labouring under the burden of large families. He conveniently makes no reference to the millions of unemployed, poverty-stricken and illiterate Muslims (and others) who are by no stretch of imagination engaged in the sort of ‘useful service’ that he claims a mounting population will help promote. 

Umri insists that family planning has no ‘Islamic’ sanction, claiming that those who argue otherwise ‘wrongly’ interpret the shariah in order to ‘change the intention of the Quran’. Poverty does not result from a mounting population, he claims, for God, in His wisdom, allocates to all of His creatures his or her own share of sustenance (rozi). To fear that population growth would lead to poverty is thus, he argues, erroneous, and is, he seems to suggest, tantamount to doubting God’s beneficence. In this regard he quotes a Quranic verse that exhorts people not to kill their children for fear of poverty, assuring them that God shall provide for them. Aware that pro-family planning Muslims take this verse as condemning the killing of children already born and not as denouncing family planning as such, Umri interprets the verse to argue that the Quran not only denounces the killing of living children but also the ‘intention’ behind the act. This would, presumably, also include methods of family control other than killing children after birth. Umri claims that the Quran bitterly opposes the desire to limit the size of the family simply because of the fear of poverty. This he roundly condemns, likening it to the fear of the pre-Islamic pagan Arabs who ‘doubted God’s sustenance (razaqi)’. Controlling the size of one’s family for purely economic reasons, he thus appears to argue, weakens one’s faith in God’s mercy and bounty. Umri goes so far as to claim that if one resorts to family control methods for fear of poverty resulting from a large family, ‘it would, on a small scale, be akin to the actions of the pagan Arabs, who killed their children’.

‘Umri is aware of the fact that other Muslim scholars have indeed allowed for certain family planning techniques, particularly the practice of ‘azl or coitus interruptus, that is methods that ensure that the seminal fluid of the man does not enter the woman’s uterus. ‘Umri’s condemns this in no uncertain terms, and claims that the Prophet considered ‘azl to be ‘pointless’ (la hasil). Umri here quotes a hadith related by Abu Said Khudri, a companion of the Prophet, according to which the Prophet is said to have declared that it was ‘preferable’ to desist from ‘azl as ‘it could not stop God from creating the creatures He had decided to send to this world till the Day of Judgment’ in any case. Umri quotes another hadith report, according to which the Prophet announced that when a couple has intercourse it is not necessary that a child be conceived, for this is a matter that God alone decides. This suggests, Umri tells his critics, that one is completely mistaken if one believes that by practicing ‘azl one can stop a child from being born, for the birth of a child is something that is in God’s hands alone. Hence, he insists, ‘azl is ‘unnecessary’ (ghayr zaruri) and ‘unnatural’ (ghayr fitri).

That Umri’s position on ‘azl is questionable from within the broader Islamic tradition itself is clearly apparent in an article that appears in the same page of the Urdu Rashtriya Sahara, penned by a scholar from the Barelvi Muslim sect, Maulana Mumtaz Alam Misbahi. Misbahi evokes a different hadith attributed to the Prophet, related by Jabir bin Abdullah, who reported that he used to practice ‘azl ‘when the Quran was being revealed’, and that when the Prophet heard of this he did not prohibit it. Hence, Misbahi argues, in complete contrast to ‘Umri, that ‘azl is indeed ‘permissible’, provided the husband has the consent of his wife and only for proper reasons, such as for, instance, if their economic conditions are such that they are not in a position to properly rear another child or if pregnancy poses a grave medical danger to the woman. Misbahi also adds, echoing what appears to be a general consensus among the ulama, that certain other methods of family planning, such as vasectomy and abortion are, as a rule, not permissible in the shariah.

The lack of any consensus of what precisely constitutes the definitive Islamic position on family planning is further exemplified in the arguments put forward by certain modern educated, non-ulama Muslim participants in the debate in the pages of the Urdu Rashtriya Sahara. One of these is Iqbal Ansari, a Muslim social activist, who insists that contraception is not ‘anti-Islamic’, and that neither the Quran nor the Hadith clearly prohibit ‘azl. Interestingly, some of these pro-family planning voices are those of Muslim women. Thus, Naheed Taban, who works for the Urdu unit of the National Council for Educational Training and Research, argues in support of family planning. She writes that ‘Nowhere in Islam is family planning forbidden’ and ‘Islam does not say that people should keep producing children’. If some people are opposed to vasectomy, she says, there are other methods that are permissible. She appeals to Muslims to move ‘in accordance with the times’, and, critiquing the ulama who oppose family planning on supposedly ‘Islamic’ grounds, makes so bold as to declare that, ‘The ulama are not at all bothered about [the plight of] women, but are concerned only about themselves’. Similarly, another Muslim woman, Safia Mahdi of the Jamia Millia Islamia, appears to concede the gravity of the population problem, and argues, without going into the intricacies of Islamic law, that the solution lies in women’s empowerment and education.

The confusion over the legitimacy of family planning in Islam that has now assumed the form of a major controversy reflects the obvious fact that the ulama themselves are not unanimous in agreeing as to precisely what the shariah, which they regularly invoke, actually means in terms of concrete laws on a range of issues. Many of them appear to take the shariah, or what Muslims regard as the divinely revealed path, as synonymous with fiqh or jurisprudence, which is, to an extent, the product of human reflection on the Quran and the Hadith over the centuries. They also offer conflicting interpretations of Quranic verses and invoke different Hadith reports that appear to provide differing prescriptions in order to legitimize their own stances, which, as the markedly divergent positions of Umri and Misbahi on the issue of ‘azl show, provide competing understandings of the legitimacy or otherwise of family planning in Islam. To add to the confusion, some ulama appear to regard ‘family planning’ (khandani mansubabandi) as synonymous with vasectomy (nasbandi), ignoring various other methods of birth control that other Muslims argue are indeed permissible in Islam. Furthermore, they also turn a blind eye to the views of numerous other ulama, possibly more learned than themselves, who have argued, using the same scriptural resources, for the legitimacy of certain methods of family planning. As Iqbal Ansari writes in his article in the Urdu Rashtriya Sahara, and as Bassim Musallam persuasively argues in his widely acclaimed book, Sex and Society in Islam: Birth Control Before the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1989), the eleventh century Abu Hamid Imam Ghazali, the doyen of the Sunni ‘ulama and regarded as one of the greatest Islamic scholars ever, accepted the permissibility of ‘azl. Following in his footsteps, leading ulama in countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Iran have, in recent times, played a key role in their country’s efforts to regulate their burgeoning populations through their involvement in state-sponsored family planning efforts. 

This said, it must also be stressed that the problem of a mounting population is a national one, and not one limited to Muslims alone, contrary to what Hindutva ideologues, ever on the prowl for any stick to beat the Muslims with, seek to argue. Numerous Hindu religious and political leaders, one suspects, are probably opposed to family planning among Hindus themselves while vociferously demanding that Muslims limit their families. By damning the Muslims as allegedly plotting to turn India into a Muslim majority country by rapidly multiplying Hindutva ideologues completely ignore the fact that the rate of growth of the Muslim population has, in fact, decelerated faster than that of the Hindus. They also conveniently choose to brush aside the rather obvious point that population growth is inversely related to economic and educational levels. Given the fact that Muslims, by and large, are a marginalized minority characterised by a worryingly high level of illiteracy, it is hardly surprising that they have registered a higher rate of growth. In this they are hardly unique, for the same holds true in the case of other similarly placed groups, such as the Dalits and Tribals. In other words, Islam as such has little to do with a higher Muslim rate of growth, and does not appear to be a significant factor in determining reproduction patterns. Muslims who wish to limit the number of their children, generally for economic reasons, would do so in any case, seeking legitimacy for this from the views of those Islamic scholars who argue that certain methods of birth control are legitimate in Islam. The centrality of economic and educational levels, rather than religion as such, in determining Muslims’ attitudes to birth control is readily apparent when one compares Kerala, India’s only almost completely literate state and where Muslims form a fourth of the population, with Bihar, where economic and educational levels remain dismal. The Muslims of Kerala exhibit a far lower rate of growth than the Biharis, both Hindus and Muslims. This suggests that as economic and educational levels among Muslims improve their reproductive rates would automatically decline. The same holds true for other communities as well.

These basic facts of demography are, however, completely ignored by Hindutva ideologues and the numerous Muslim ulama who have joined issue with them. The entire debate now risks being turned into yet another communal controversy, with Hindutva leaders provoking alarming, and grossly misleading, fears of a Muslim takeover of the country, and with many Muslim ulama, biting the Hindutva bait, denouncing what they regard as yet another ‘conspiracy’ against Islam.

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