Islam, the State, and Population Policy

Published in Dawn Books and Authors on May 7, 2006

IN this anthology, a set of experts in the fields of population, sociology and other social sciences have superbly initiated the exploration and discovery of the often ignored topic of Muslim fertility. Why do most Muslim populations have a higher birthrate than other communities in similar geographic bounds? Why is Turkey’s birthrate higher than neighbouring Greece? And how much say do Muslim women have on how and when their uteruses are filled with life? These inquiries leave one fascinated and the book provides insight in understanding numerous other study areas such as gender roles, politics and quality of life among Muslims. It’s certainly not easy to maintain generalisations due to the diversity within Muslim societies as well as the differences in the conclusions affecting Muslim populations.

The book focuses mostly on two third of the world’s Muslims which live in Muslim majority countries. The key factors affecting birthrate range from a country’s population policy and laws, attitudes and norms on early marriage, on women in the workforce and towards female anatomy, to the attitude of how family planning administrators view their work. Islam has a key influence in all these factors, and the effectiveness of population control policies lies primarily on whether the country follows a modernist Islam that relies on the independent analysis of ijtehad or a staunch approach of taqlid’s unquestioned following of traditions. The two choices are predominantly dependent on theist leanings of the mosque preachers and imams at a village level and a more organised political cleric class at the urban level. Many of the countries under study remain well below the poverty line and, hence, relinquish more control on religion to instruct population trends.

Interestingly, Pakistan was the first Muslim majority country to formulate a population policy that acknowledged the need to lower fertility in the ‘60s followed by other counties like Egypt, Turkey and Iran. However, Pakistan remains on the bottom of the list of educational indicators, which has a direct link with the highest infant mortality figures, as well as lowest contraceptive prevalence rate as compared to other Muslim majority countries.

As was the case of birth control methods, the role of women in determining their fertility is also a factor of politics and power established by the clerical class rather than what Islam actually specifies

The Deobandi opposition to Pakistan’s population policy was the key factor in the failure of the state to bring the health indicators to an acceptable level, although earlier Deobandi scholars allowed contraception based on fatwas. Later, after Pakistan’s creation turned down the teachings of muftis like Mohammad Shafi, Aziz-ur-Rahman and Maulana Rashid and permeated the pre-partition Muslim-minority complex that advocated “equating number with power”. An even more effective counter to Pakistan’s human development index was Maulana Maudodi’s book, The Birth Control, (1969) which argued that birth control was a plot against Islam and was a strategy to promote sexual promiscuity and STDs. With hardly any juristic basis for his opposition, the text was mostly a lashing out in fear of the breakdown of a patriarchal system that would enable more women to be part of the workforce.

A more practical, return-to-the-sources approach, however, indicates that Islam largely supports family planning. The two key cases that argue for contraception stem from verse 2:286 of the Quran which pronounces that no one should be loaded with a burden which he does not have a capacity to carry, and finally that if an act is not prohibited in the Quran or Sunnah, then by implication it is permissible under the guise of necessity and capacity.

Further evidence comes from the emphasis on marriage being an institution where the couple is instructed to “dwell in tranquility” and where consent is necessary, which indicates a mature age of marriage not only physically but also socially. This results in a more secular increase in age at marriage in many Muslim countries leading to lower birthrate.

Breast-feeding is a further indication of a policy that favours spacing between children, since the period is extended to at least two years. The Hanafi school of thought even endorses abortions at this stage, provided the pregnancy is ended to preserve the vitality of the suckling child. Most schools of thought, apart from the Jafris, have no qualms with abortion as long as they fall within the stage of the fetus before ensoulment takes place, and many scholars agree that 120 days is the right stage when this occurs.

Fertility trends indicate that large populations don’t necessarily mean a Maulana Maudodi value system is being followed. Indonesia, the largest concentration of Muslims in the world have one fifth of the women engaging in premarital sex, and a sizable number of women happen to be pregnant at the time of their marriage. This is not shocking because society tolerates consensual sex between mature adults who may not be financially able to carry out a marriage ceremony, but since they have, they are united in all other ways.

A classic example of the high level of tolerance for a social marriage is in the concept of mut’a, which is a religiously and legally binding contract that is exactly like a marriage except that it is of a limited duration, needs fewer formalities and has limited responsibilities than in a nikah. The general practice of mut’a in Iran highlights that there can be gaps between religion, cultural norms and personal practices.

As was the case of birth control methods, the role of women in determining their fertility is also a factor of politics and power established by the clerical class rather than what Islam actually specifies. Many Muslim countries assert that women do not have a right to deny pregnancy or to demand it because pregnancy is God’s will and, hence, a man has the final say. As blasphemous and undemocratic as that sounds, the reason behind this attitude was largely the education gap between men and women.

It is quite clear that Islam is a major factor in determining fertility trends in the Muslim world, especially as it is practised today in many of the developing Muslim countries where women’s empowerment, education and mobility are low as well as the rates of infant and maternal mortality high. It is perhaps time to ascertain conclusions of the various Islamic conferences covering population that call for a greater role of women in controlling their fertility, as well as a clerical class which supports government policy.

Islam, the State, and Population Policy
Edited by Gavin W. Jones and Mehtab S. Karim
Oxford University Press, Plot # 38, Sector 15,
Korangi Industrial Area, Karachi.
Tel: 111-693-673.
ISBN 0-19-547004-4

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