Islamic Ethics of Life

In past traditional Muslim societies abortion, as we know it in Europe and the United States, had never been an issue even though women usually married in early age and had multiple pregnancies. In case of a medical problem, which was not detected until it became life threatening, abortion was too late anyway to save the woman. However, abortion as a remedy to escape the social stigma of a rape or sex outside wedlock did exist and was usually carried out in hiding in the first few weeks. In the modern non-Muslim world, abortion is a women's issue closely related to women's rights to personal freedom and socio-economic empowerment. But in the Muslim world, where other women's basic rights to vote, own property, receive higher education, and compete for public positions were trampled on, abortion was considered not only culturally wrong but religiously a sin. But men could impose abortion on their wives and concubines by getting the Shari'a, or the Islamic religious law, interpreted in their favor. The issue of abortion is still in its infancy and not much talked about. Since the late 1950s, however, one can see almost everywhere in the Muslim world changes occurring in the social status of women. A growing debate on abortion in Muslim societies is already underway. The two succinct articles on abortion in The Muslim World are timely contributions to the evolving question of when or whether to abort the fetus, and under what circumstances. 

In her article, "The Islamic Ethics of Abortion in the Traditional Islamic Sources," Therisa Rogers traces ethics of abortion through the traditional sources of Islam. While the Qur'an does condemn in the strongest possible words the pre-Islamic Arabs' practice of infanticide, especially, of baby girls, Muslims have continued the prevention of unwanted pregnancies through 'azal, or coitus interruptus, which was widely used among ancient Arabs. Even though the Qur'an and Hadith do not explicitly discuss abortion, the 'ulama, or Islamic scholars, as well as the laity (non-clergy) have traditionally rejected the kind of abortion which is at the heart of women's choice in the West and the United States.

In the absence of a clear divine ruling for or against willful abortion, Muslim scholars refer to the Qur'an and Hadith which describes the transformation of a fetus from a drop of semen to a lump of flesh. Now at what stage Allah (God) invests the fetus with a soul to become a human being is crucial to the question as when a fetus can or cannot be aborted. Rogers quotes those scholars who think that the terminal period for aborting a fetus is before and not after it is 120 days old. Before the 120 day-period the fetus is in the "biological" stages of a drop of sperm, a clot of blood, and a lump of flesh, and God has not yet invested it with a soul and destiny to become a human being. And, therefore, if a person causes a miscarriage, by injuring a pregnant woman intentionally or unintentionally, the perpetrator has to pay diya, or indemnity, rather than being dealt with hadd, or Islamic criminal law.

There are, however, other scholars, not mentioned in Rogers' article, who believe that willful abortion even before 120 days is a murder punishable with hadd. Why? Because the fetus during the period before 120 days is a person with rights of lineage and inheritance. How? On the death of her husband a woman, whether she is pregnant or not, loses her right to remarry before the 120th day of her husband's death to determine and protect the lineage and inheritance rights of the fetus-child. It is the socio-economic rights of the fetus, and not her choice, that take priority, and put her under 'iddat, or the 120-day obligatory waiting period before remarrying. 

Another important question that Muslim scholars are grappling with is: Does a fetus have the right "not to be born" as a deformed and chronically disadvantaged child without enjoying a happy and dignified life? And does the child, after being brought to a "wrongful birth," have a right to sue the medical staff who imposed such a "worthless," and miserable life on him/her? Some Western ethicists believe that the deformed fetus does have such rights before and after birth. In her article, "The Right not to be Born: Abortion of the Disadvantaged Fetus in Contemporary Fatwas," which is based on her well researched book, Vardit RisplerChaim writes that Muslim ethicists, like their Western and American counterparts, are divided on these issue. One reason is that, unlike secular Western ethicists, Muslim scholars are bound by the Qur'an and Hadith which may or may not have clear-cut rulings on such issues.

Some Muslim scholars consider the absence of a divine ruling a blessing in disguise. It allows them to come up with ijtihad, or reinterpretation of the Qur'an. According to some fatwas, non-binding legal opinions of Muslim theologians, especially, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and, in view of the positive attitude of Islam toward scientific research, a fetus of proven deformity can be aborted before it is 40 days old, and according to others even 120, days old. A fetus of rape cannot be aborted in spite of the criminal act, and regardless of the bad emotional, social and economic consequences which the child and mother would have to suffer from. But a fetus can be aborted at any stage if the mother's life is in danger.

The Muslim World deals with another important issue: How did Muslims in pre-modern times treat their co-religionists in war? It depended on what made them to become warring enemies in the first instance. According to Khaled Abou El-Fadl's article, "The Rule of Killing at War: An Inquiry into Classical Sources," if the bugha, or the rebels, resorted to violence against the ruling Muslim establishment because of their different but plausible interpretation of the divine writ, then they could not be treated as common criminals. And, therefore, in case of their defeat, the ruling group could neither execute them nor confiscate their property or harm their women, children or other dependents because they did enjoy a certain though undetermined political following in the community. So far as the treatment of the defeated non-Muslim enemies was concerned, most Muslim rulers took a positive, realistic as well as a humane view of such cases.

 Islam strictly prohibited the unnecessary destruction of enemies' personal property, natural resources during the war, or the execution of prisoners after the war. The enemy was allowed, if they could, to ransom their enslaved women and children. Abou El-Fadl's article on Muslims' treatment of enemy invites a comparative study of contemporary European rulers' ethics during and after the war.

Islamic laws dealing with the cause and conduct of war not only conform but also contribute to international concerns regarding civilians, prisoners of war, torture, rape and weapons of mass destruction. Writing in "Saving and Taking Life in War: Three Modern Muslim Views," Sohail Hashmi believes that modem Muslim scholars, such as Abu al-Ala Mawdudi (Pakistan), Wahba al-Zuhayli (Syria), and Muhammad Hamidullah (India), have been further bringing Islamic laws in conformity with international conventions by constantly re-interpreting the Quran and Hadith. Resorting to killing in punishing murder, willful discord, apostasy, adultery, and anti-religious hostilities has never been exclusive to an Islamic state in modern or medieval history. 

The acquisition of nuclear weapons of mass destruction for deterrence and defense is considered a necessary evil, though deliberate perpetration of nuclear and biological cruelty during and after war is clearly against Islamic ethics of war and peace. Killing in war is not a goal but a means to save life even if it may entail paying the enemy in kind. The positive, progressive nature of Islam that calls for periodic ijtihad keeps the Muslim community in tune with the present and future exigencies as long as the fundamentals stay in place. 

Daniel Brown thinks, however, otherwise. He says in his article, "Islamic Ethics in Comparative Perspective," that the divinely defined nature of acts as good and evil deprives Muslims of independent, human initiative. Islamic voluntarism, Brown observes, is often accompanied by a pessimistic view of the ability of human reason to make ethical judgments. Brown's usage of 'voluntarism' is a bit contrary to the Qur'anic emphasis on human reason that distinguishes the human from the animal. Pluralism, positivism, and rationalism have been the hallmarks of dissent among Muslim scholars.

Abdul Karim Khan is an assistant professor of history, Leeward Community College, University of Hawaii

Jonathan E. Brockopp, Ed. "Islamic Ethics of Killing and Saving Life," Special Issue of The Muslim World. Hartford, CT: The Duncan Black Macdonald Center, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 2 April 1999, 209 pages. Paperback

  Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality, Life & Society
  Topics: Abortion, Adab (Islamic Ethics), Women  Values: Manners, Morality
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Older Comments:
Daniel Brown noticed the purposeful nature of divine commands assumed by Muslim scholars, yet still called it voluntarism! He claimed that "Islamic voluntarism is not arbitrary." He also noticed that "Qiyās reflects the assumptions that God's commands are purposeful." Moreover, he noticed that "the voluntarist position seems to have only weak support in the Qur'ān." Obviously, these remarks contradict his previously quoted assertion that "Islam might be considered the defining case of ethical voluntarism." If the above three quotations by Brown are true, and they are true, then his view about Islam being the defining case of ethical voluntarism would be completely out of place.
A contemporary professor of the Hebrew Bible has noticed the dangerous consequences of this theory that exclusively links morality to religion. John Collins noticed that when religious texts are interpreted as commands which can override morality, some most violent actions become sacred and thereby legitimised: 1."Palestine is legitimately given to Israel by its God, by a command to slaughter the Canaanites"
2. Biblical narratives have been a factor in the Zionist movement in Israel, shaping the imagination even of secular, socialist Zionists and providing powerful precedence for right-wing militant.
3. Biblical analogy also provided the underpinnings for support of Israel among conservative Christians."
What is called contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, or better contemporary militant Islamic movements appealed to an interpretation of divine commands in justifying their grievances, just as Christian fundamentalism and 'secular Zionism' appealed to their interpretation of divine commands in shaping their antagonistic policies.
Collins realised that "when it became clear that the terrorists of September 11, 2001, saw or imagined their grievances in religious terms, any reader of the Bible should have had a flash of recognition.

Simple man why do you waste your time with an element described well in the qur'an as 'sumum bukmun umyun fahum la ya'qilun' Romesh is this type of being, see how he quoted your statement the content of which even a 10 year old would understand, with the magic word "handful" there in the quote but Romesh had the tenacity to go ahead down the line in his comment change the meaning.

Even if you print truth in red bold as in the picture title of this article, Romesh would twist the meaning to suit his confused and bankrupt understanding of life in general. Its pathetic the disservice u are doing to the world of hindus, Romesh, a society widely known for their intellect and wisdom.

We are muslims and will continue to practice Islam in toto till the end, and we shall continue to do our duty to call people to this beautiful religion, the only accepted way of life by God. He that heeds the call is to his own good and for him who rejects the truth it is for his lost. All will die. And the day of judgement would certailnly come then every soul shall reap what it sawed..

hello Brandon,

I am not going to debate your allegations that "Islamic terrorists target their majority infidel contrymen all over the world - India, Thailand, Russia, China, Phillipines, Britain, France, Spain, Singapore, Australia, Denmark, US, etc." especially when it's a known fact that the mainstream media which mostly made the reports like Fox, CNN, BBC ... are proven to be promoting their dirty propaganda to demonise Muslims and fanning the flames of islamophobia.

The subject matter is that People tend to portray extremism as result of religious phenomenon, whereas it is merely a social (political, economic, and sometimes ethnic) phenomenon. This fact is not limited only to Islam and Muslims. Other religions were also subject to some extreme perceptions and practices like the ethnic cleansimg of muslims by Slobodan Milo?evic, the outright state-sponsored terrorism of Israel on Palestine, the invasion and destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan under a false pretext, for example. However, the media and international political affairs have positioned only Islam in the front seat for receiving criticism. They speak of "terrorists" who hate freedom so much that they plot to kill Americans, as they are the freest people in the world. They present Islam as "terrorist Islam" in order to push the leaders of "the civilized world's" imperialist agenda. The conclusion that the media draw is that their religion teaches them to hate and kill free people. And the real causes of the conflicts are blurred out.

To Simple Man.

"Adolf Hitler, the IRA, the Ku Klux Klan, Timothy McVeigh," But these people didn't/don't target the Muslims, did they? Their aganda is not anti-kafir i.e. non-religious.

The same cannot be said of Muslims specifically. It's a known fact that Islamic terrorists target their majority infidel contrymen all over the world - India, Thailand, Russia, China, Phillipines, Britain, France, Spain, Singapore, Australia, Denmark, US, etc. Whereas, the minority non-Muslims who are marginalised and discriminated (dhimmis) in majority Islamic countries countine to migrate from these countries. Check it out. Their numbers are getting smaller and smaller by the day. When the infidels & Christians are out then they begin to fight amongst themselves - Sunni vs Shites - as in Pakistan, Iraq, etc.

The free world isn't blind.

Since when did the muslims blame all Christians and the religion of Christianity for the crimes committed by terrorists who were Christian or from a Christian background like Adolf Hitler, the IRA, the Ku Klux Klan, Timothy McVeigh, and Slobodan Milo?evi???? We have seen throughout history many examples of terrorism perpetrated by these Christians and the evil actions of those mentioned speak for themselves but we never connect it with christianity. It is sad to think that whenever a crime is committed by a Muslim, the religion of Islam is put on trial. If we were to follow that analogy considering that the fathers of communism were all Jewish or of a Jewish background, would it be proper and fair to blame all Jews and the religion of Judaism for the evils of communism?

Note to Simple man:

You wrote "why should the writer as a muslim dwells on the practices done by only a handful of muslims".

Ah, but you always talk practises of Jews and christian, but only concepts of muslims. Is that fair?

So, compare your ethics/concepts with their ethics/concepts; and your practises with their practises. Don't compare apples with oranges.

Romesh Chander wrote: "So please discuss practices rather than concepts and how much they differ from their concepts."

Which practices are you talking about? And why should the writer as a muslim dwells on the practices done by only a handful of muslims, which do not even amount to 1/3 of the total muslim population of 1.84 billion? These are already the job of judaeo-christian islamophobes who incessantly spread their hate poison and criminalize all muslims. For the author to do so is detrimental and outside of his objective.

What you are doing is called "generalization" and it is both unfair and foolish...and IT'S NOT THE WAY OF INTELLECTUALS! Why don't you instead urge those islamophobes or the warmongers to stop their hate speech and racism, which are mostly fabricated lies and propaganda, instead of you admiring them and jumping on their bandwagon... that would be more fruitful for the peace of this world! Furthermore there is no misinformation in the author's writings, he merely speak the truth to counteract the lies. So what make you hate truth so much??? Be careful with harboring hate, it hinders a man from thinking rationally.

In all of the muslim population, a majority of them are still practicing as per the concept. Alhamdulillah. Even the concept of shariah and khalifah are still in the heart and spirit of most muslims and they are eagerly desirous for its implementation. Eventhough the haters of Islam work overtime to stop it with their islam bashing and the so-called war-on-terror.

Bible says "Thou shall not kill". Does anybody have any idea how many killings christians have done over 2000 years?.

So, why should one rely on the dictates of Koran?. Rather, we should look at the record of muslim conquests, continuous war in Asia, Africa, Middle East, and even parts of europe. Does anybody have any idea of the killings due to islamic conquests? Oh, Yes, muslims cannot forget the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols or the christian actions during Crusades. But everybody will deny Armenian Genocide.

To-day, no muslim wants to talk about Darfur and Algeria. Why not? (Probably because Jews are not involved in those conflicts). A few Palestinians get killed by Jews, it is called Genocide. A few thousand in Darfur and Algeria get killed, nobody gives any news at all. For the last 3-4 years, I have not come across any news about Algeria.

Should it be Islamic ethics or muslim ethics?

Islamic ethics is a concept; one may or may not adhere to a conceptl; the other people people will not pay any attention to it.

Muslims 'ethics' is a practice. And practices cannot be ignored as they are the ones which matter to the others.

So please discuss practices rather than concepts and how much they differ from their concepts. We live in the real world, not in a make-believe one.