In a Just World
Subject: Dr. Anis Ahmed
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
Transcripts: Patrick Hammerlund
The segments included in this interview* were recorded December 2001, as part of In a Just World. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with WTTW-Chicago. Ahmed is Senior Professor of Comparative Religion & Director General of Dawah Academy of the International Islamic University, Islamabad, Pakistan.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
How does the Qur'an view family planning?
Islam and the Qur'an happens to be, in my view, the only faith that emphasizes family life as a central unit required for highest level of spirituality. Spirituality in world religions exists something that is beyond family life. And therefore, if I want to increase spirituality, I leave my family and go out for seven years in a forest. If I want spirituality, I leave my home and climb a mountain and stay there. Now all those are condemned by Islam, Islam says, the Qur'an says, those of you who are bachelors, marry them. Prophet says, your life of Iman is incomplete without marriage. Prophet says, "If someone denounces living a married life, he's not from me". All of these statements are very strong and they tell us that family life is desirable, is obligatory for increasing my spirituality.
I know that there a varying viewpoints regarding family planning in different religions, but is birth control acceptable in Islam?
There are two aspects that need to be considered. Firstly, the overall Islamic approach is toward a larger family. Therefore, the prophet, in many traditions says, he would like to see a Muslim family large. He would like to see a Muslim community large. Therefore, it does not want people to have just two children or no children. That's our approach. However, Islam looks on the issue of birth control from three different perspectives. First is civilizational. Islam as a civilizational force wants society and culture to continue, and not to be contained. Second, it is a matter of society. In societal relations, Islam takes the approach that social responsibilities are to be fulfilled, and when you have more children then you are able to play a better role in society. Thirdly, it looks on it from a purely economic viewpoint and assumes that when you have a larger family you have better chances of having these children properly educated, trained, become skillful, and become a great strength for the whole family. Islamic construct of family is extended and not nuclear; therefore, all of them will have their role to play in the welfare of family at large. So it becomes an economic strength.
Now, the other side of the coin, where people think that if they have family planning, they will have better economy tells us that if you have more population, then we have fewer resources. The Qur'an tells us you should not kill your children with the fear of economic resources. Then it says, in same aisle, we feed them and we feed you. A very interesting statement telling us that if you think you can feed yourself and survive, then you are very short sighted. Even for your own survival, you depend on some other resources.
If it is Allah who is providing food for people whether they are parents or children, then why do we have to worry about economic resources? The whole argument of economic shortage of resources is answered in this one single statement, Allah generates, creates the resources for you, He also provides for them. So do not think if you have instead of two, four children then it's a burden. Therefore, in Islamic family, children are welcome and not taken as a threat, not considered intruders, not considered undesirable persons, but they are welcomed and children are loved. They think here is a blessing from Allah and if he has been feeding me and my four children, he will feed the rest of you as well. So the argument from the Qur'an is very much different. Islam looks on this issue from a family perspective. It thinks once a man and woman are wedded together, now they are part of family. And now it's family to decide not just individual.
From this it is also very clear, that Islam does not deny the right of single family to avoid conception. Nevertheless, it does not permit the state to make legislation and tell the people we allow you only one child or two children. The difference is, Islam believes in personal liberty It's my decision, my family's decision and the state has no authority on it. It is human right that belongs to me and to my wife, and no one can be allowed to play with my human right. Now, the other aspect is when we say population planning, or population control, we usually consider if we have less number of people, we'll have better quality of life. If we have less number of people, we can have more jobs available for people, we'll have less problem of unemployment and so on and so forth. Islamic approach as I understand it is simple. Islam believes in not family planning, but resource management.
Thirdly, Islam, right from the beginning, has looked on the issue from a global viewpoint. It does not understand birth control or right to conceive as something that belongs just to a woman or just to a husband. But, it looks on the global perspective of the issue, it's not an individual right, but how do we individualize humanity. Suppose there are 1,000,000 families and all of them decide, 'we don't want to conceive'. Do they have this right? Don't they have a responsibility to transfer their culture, civilization, skills, and experiences to coming generations? Do they have a right to stop the march of history, with their own existence? Can they be that selfish, individualistic in deciding these matters? It's a global issue it's not a matter of individual, who is just trying to look into it and deciding well as a female, I don't feel comfortable, I denounce to conceive. That's not a matter of personal liberty, because in Islam, when family unit exists, then family must consider its own welfare, welfare of global community, of civilization, of economy of the world, of all aspects. It is not limited to one's own choice.
Lastly, in countries where we think family planning is solution, it has led to more serious problems. For example, if you look into the demographic structure of Germany, of China, of America you will find, because of this family planning philosophy, these countries have lost a large number of workforces, and they have been able to create a disparity between the age groups of society. Now all these are historical facts that tell us that state control is terrorism and against human rights of individuals who have God-given liberty to have a better family, a larger family. In my view, the whole concept of quality of life is to be reviewed.
It is often seen that the more education women have, the more they take family planning into their hands. Do you see this trend in Islam, or is there an attempt to educate while keeping birth rates high?
The state has obligation to educate and provide basic needs of people. Now if a state is fulfilling its obligations and you have in society children who are educated, with good health, what's wrong in that? Islam encourages human resource development. When a state plays its role, I don't think there will be any problem for even a family which has more children to have proper education and proper health care. In present situation, I believe, if we spend on education than on so-called birth control, we would have better world. Today you find billions of dollars used for pill and for condom culture, which means you can have sex, but just have safe sex. The concept of safe sex is unethical, because Islam tells us there is no safe sex but sex within the family, not outside the family; ethical sex. And ethical sex means that one should enjoy his life in family with his wife, and if you have that approach then you cut down, 100% on the killer disease AIDS. At the same time, you cut down in society on all those pregnancies which are there in every single secular culture. You cut down on all those problems that emerge in society as a result of free mixing of sexes. Crises, murder, mugging, children who are not taken care, who are left there without any kind of human understanding. All these aspects are linked together; therefore, use of condoms may be permissible within a family structure between husband and wife, who for some reason, don't want to have conception. But to use it as an instrument at global level, for allowing people a liberty to enjoy sex and just use it to have their physical health is something unethical. It is against human civilization.
What are the consequences for a Muslim who chooses birth control, are there spiritual consequences to that?
No, if you want to use birth control for individual reasons. But no one can allow this right to the state. It's a matter of family decision, not a matter of the state to impose on people or indoctrinate them or create and environment in which they think automatically of just one child or two children as ideal. Now all this was created by the advertisement media; a mindless construct. That is not allowed, it is imposition, and Islam is against imposition. But individually, husband and wife can decide for sometime to have a gap or to avoid conception for a while, but they cannot permanently have that approach. It contradicts the purpose of Islamic law, Islamic Law wants continuity of life and not severing source of life.
In the Western world, especially in the US, the abortion debate is quite a controversy. Can you talk about the Islamic position on abortion?
Islam addresses abortion on two counts. Firstly, the legal right of life of child, and on that Hadith tells us and Qur'an supports it in principle. If a pregnant lady is hit or is caused to lose pregnancy, then this a legal offense. And for that a ransom money must be paid which is determined by the state in terms of the society where they are living.
So they place a monetary value on it, but is it considered a murder?
Oh yes, it is considered a homicide. And for that the word used is dea which is the ransom money. You see it's interesting, the Qur'an says if homicide is committed, then you should consider having a ransom, or you go for forgiveness, or you go for life for life. It did not begin by saying life for life, then you may think of money, or think of forgiveness but the sequence is different in the Qur'an. Similarly if a child in fetus form is there, then life is there. And since life is valuable, it is treated like a human being, no different at all. That's the legal aspect. In the Qur'an it says we directed the Israelites not to kill one single human being because killing one single human being was killing the whole of humanity. And giving life to one person was giving life to whole of humanity. Now that is addressed in the context of the Israelites, but it is equally valued legally for every single Muslim. Therefore, Islamically, life cannot be violated.