Does Islam allow for family planning?
Many people, especially women, ask me if family planning is permissible in Islam. They say the imams and ulama say the Qur’an prohibits family planning and quote a verse which says, “And kill not your children for fear of poverty; We provide for them and for you. Surely the killing of them is a great wrong.” (17:31). In no way this verse refers to family planning because it is talking of “killing” and you kill one who exists. No law in the world will permit killing one who is already born and hence the Qur’an rightly condemns killing of children.
Some people suggest that it refers to the practice of burying the girl child alive and when asked they would say we cannot provide for them and hence Allah says “We provide for them and for you.” But, as Imam Razi suggests it refers to both male and female children being kept ignorant. Thus “killing them” has not been used in the sense of killing the body but the mind which is as bad as killing the body. The word used here is ‘awlad’ i.e. children which includes male as well as female, not just female.
Imam Razi’s suggestion seems to be quite reasonable and in fact large family means children cannot be properly educated by poor parents and hence parents kill them mentally by keeping them ignorant. They cannot even clothe them properly nor provide proper space for living. In such circumstances one cannot have good quality Muslims and mere quantity does not matter much. Better quality is more desirable than mere quantity.
First of all, we should understand that in those days the problem of family planning did not exist nor that of population control. It is very much a modern problem which has arisen in nation states. Most of the nation states in the Third World do not have economic means to support large population and when we say supporting large population it does not mean only feeding them, but it also includes educating them and taking care of them. These are basic duties of modern nation states.
In fact in view of paucity of resources it has become necessary to adopt family planning. When the Qur’an was being revealed there was neither any properly organized state nor education or health services being provided by any state agency. It is important to note that the Qur’an which shows eight ways to spend zakat, does not include education or health which is so essential for the state to provide today. Thus what Imam Razi suggests is not only very correct but also enhances the importance of family planning in modern times as a small family can provide better education and health services.
It would be interesting to note that as for verse 4:3 (which is used by Muslims for justification of polygamy) Imam Shafi’i interprets rather differently. It ends with the words alla ta’ulu which is generally translated as “you may not do injustice” i.e. do not marry more than one so that you may not do injustice. But Imam Shafi’i renders it as “so that you do not have large family”. The Qur’an has already mentioned that “if you fear injustice then marry only one” and so there was no need to repeat it. That is why Imam Shafi’i feels it should be translated as “so that you do not have large family”.
It can be seen that in understanding the Qur’an even very eminent imams and great scholars differed from each other. One should not impose one single meaning of a verse on all Muslims. It could be interpreted differently by different people in their own context and circumstances. Family planning being a modern need, one should not reject it out of hand and quote Qur’anic verses out of context.
In fact family planning does not mean killing children after they are born but to plan birth of children in a way that parents can bear all the expenses for their education, health, living space etc. in a proper manner. The Qur’an also suggests that a child be suckled at least for two years and it is well known that as long as mother suckles she would not conceive. Thus indirectly the Qur’an also suggests spacing between pregnancies.
Even in hadith literature we find that the Prophet (PBUH) permitted prevention of conceiving in certain circumstances. When a person asked Prophet for permission for ’azl (coitus interrupts) as he was going for a long journey along with his wife and he did not want his wife to conceive while travelling the Messenger of Allah allowed him. In those days ’azl was the only known method for planning of birth of a child. Today there are several methods available like use of condoms
Imam Ghazzali, a very eminent theologian and philosopher allows even termination of pregnancy if mother’s life is in danger and shows several methods for termination. He even allows termination of pregnancy on health grounds or if mother’s beauty is in danger provided it is in consultation with her husband. Some scholars referring to the verse 23:14 conclude that one can terminate pregnancy up to three months as the Qur’an, in this verse describes stages of development of sperm planted in mother’s womb and it takes three months for life to begin.
Yet, many ulama oppose termination of pregnancy. Whatever the case, one cannot declare family planning as prohibited in Islam as it in no way amounts to killing a child. Family planning in modern context means preventing pregnancy so that a family can plan when and how many children to have in accordance with its financial resources.