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
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