Family Planning in Islam
One of the important social development policies that leaders advocate within their respective states is that of population growth, or family planning. There has been some more recent news stories about political leaders in Muslim majority countries talking about family planning. Therefore, in this article, we want to discuss the question of family planning in Islam, arguments people have made with regards to whether family planning is permissible in Islam, or prohibited in the faith. We will then discuss two cases of family planning in Islam and Muslim societies: we will analyze the recent discussion about family planning by the AKP party and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
How has Family Planning Been Viewed in Islam?
One of the problems with answering this sort of question has to do with what we mean when we say “in Islam.” It is important to note that Islam is not only a religious system with various complexities, but the faith itself has many interpretations from billions of Muslims throughout the centuries. People have taken various aspects of the religion and made a variety of arguments. The issue is no different when discussing family planning in Islam.
Religious scholars, adherents of the faith, and many others have discussed and debated the question of population and family planning issues in the religion. The question has not been without disagreement, both among religious scholars, as well as political leaders who have attempted to reference Islam when either implementing a family planning program, or when criticizing the idea of family planning in a Muslim society.
Advocates of family planning, or at least the possibility and permissibility of family planning in Islam offer a number of arguments to support their position. To begin, proponents of family planning within an Islamic context argue that neither the Quran, nor the Prophet Muhammad made any specific reference condemning birth control. In addition, it is important to note that many have argued that one is not expected to have children in Islam. The most important part of a marriage in Islam is tranquility, and thus, if children help with this, then that is acceptable. However, “sexual relations in marriage need not always be for the purpose of having children. On this point, Islam departs from some other religions where procreation is the exclusive purpose of sexual relations. From the Islamic point of view, when pro-creation takes place, it should support and endorse tranquility rather than disrupt it” (Roudi-Fahimi, 2004).
The topic of contraception in Islam is one that the various schools of Islam have addressed. And there is significant agreement by many jurists on the this issues. As it has been noted in the literature, “The Quran does not prohibit birth control, nor does it forbid a husband or wife to space pregnancies or limit their number. Thus, the great majority of Islamic jurists believe that family planning is permissible in Islam” (Roudi-Fahimi, 2004).
Criticism of Family Planning in Islam
So, given the wide range of support for family planning in Islam, what are the arguments that critics have made of such polices?
For some, there is a belief that carrying out family planning is the same as infanticide. This is a small minority position however. In the context of international relations, a frequently cited reason for the condemnation of family planning in Islam has to do with notions of power. There is a belief that family planning is a western notion used by outside states to limit Muslim-majority state populations, and then, influence in the international system. Some of these individuals believe that a greater population will also lead to better economic opportunities within the state, more innovation, etc… (Roudi-Fahimi, 2004).
So, family planning in Islam and in Muslim-majority states is often not too distant from politics. As scholars have argued, “It is not uncommon for family planning pro- grams to become politicized in Muslim societies. In recent history, opposition groups in a number of countries have rejected their governments’ organized family planning program as a political move, invoking Islam in support of their position” (Roudi-Fahimi, 2004). Or, there have also been cased where the government has used religious arguments to support family planning programs when it it in-line with their own economic or social objectives.
Family Planning in Iran
One of the most interesting cases of family planning in a Muslim country has been the approach Iranian leaders took towards family planning in 1979, and then years later in the 1980s onwards. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution brought in a new Islamic theocracy led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Following the new government, the religious clerics were quite critical of western countries such as the United States, and used the topic of family development for their own interests. Namely, they framed the issue as a Western construct, something foreign to Islam. So, the religious leaders continued to advocate having children.
In the years that followed, this led to a fast rise in the Iranian population. Namely, “By 1986, the population had reached nearly 50 million, an increase of approximately 14 million in one decade” (Roudi-Fahimi, 2004). This sort of population increase costs the state money. They need to pay more for health care costs, and also for other social services that include but are not limited to funding education.
Given the high costs of the Iran-Iraq war throughout the 1980s, the government, recognizing the economic effects of a large and rising population, reversed course and started using Islamic arguments to advocate for family planning programs. One aspect of their program was to have religious clerics framing the argument within Islam. For example, “The country’s National Birth Control Policy issued in 1989 had the endorsement of the country’s highest Islamic authorities, and religious leaders joined with health and policy experts in a campaign to persuade the public of the need for family planning through newspaper reports, television spots and Friday prayer speeches” (Roudi-Fahimi, 2004).
Over time, their program had the results they were hoping for. The population not only dropped, but female literacy rates rose, and child mortality rates fell. This program is one of the most-frequently cited family planning programs in an Islamic society (Roudi-Fahimi, 2004).
Family Planning in Turkey
On May 30th, 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan caused a great deal of controversy with his comments about family planning in Islam. Speaking about Turkey’s population growth rate (which has been roughly at 1.3 percent recently), he criticized the idea of family planning policies, saying that instead of reducing population growth, that there should be an increase in the overall population. He was quoted as saying, “I will say it clearly… We need to increase the number of our descendants” (Williams, 2016).
Erdogan also used Islam to make the argument that family planning was a problem in the faith, saying that “People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that!” He went on to say that “As God and as the great prophet said, we will go this way. And in this respect the first duty belongs to mothers”” (Williams, 2016). So, for him, family planning in Islam goes against the nature of the faith, and the role of mothers. He has even said “”one (child) means loneliness, two means rivalry, three means balance and four means abundance”” (Williams, 2016). Then, he was also quoted as saying that a women who does not have a child is “deficient” and also “incomplete”, and that “[r]ejecting motherhood means giving up on humanity” (Al Jazeera, 2016). He has also made comments regarding women, childbirth, and working outside of the home, saying that “A woman who refuses maternity and gives up housekeeping faces the threats of losing her freedom. She is lacking and is a half [a person] no matter how successful she is in the business world” (Bruton, 2016).
In In fact, to the anger of many women’s groups, Erdogan has made statements that suggest he equates women with a motherly role, saying things such as “a woman is above all else a mother” (Williams, 2016). Plus, in 2014, he also spoke out against birth control, calling it “treason.”
Erdogan seems to be trying to use religious justification for continuing higher population figures. For him, Islam does not accept the idea of family planning, and that people should continue to have children. However, these positions and comments are not without criticism. In fact, his comments received direct response from women’s and human rights organizations. For example, the Platform to Stop Violence Against Women responded on their Twitter account with the following statement: “”You (Erdogan) cannot usurp our right to contraception, nor our other rights with your declarations that come out of the Middle Ages[,]” and also “We will protect our rights” (Williams, 2016).
Islam and Family Planning References
Al Jazeera (2016). Turkey’s Erdogan says childless women are ‘incomplete.’ Al Jazeera. June 6th, 2016. Available Online: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/06/turkey-erdogan-childless-women-incomplete-160606042442710.html
Boonstra, H. (2001). Islam, Women, and Family Planning: A Primer: Guttmacher Report on Public Policy. December 2001. Available Online: https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/pubs/tgr/04/6/gr040604.pdf
Bruton, F.B. (2016). Turkey’s President Erdogan calls women who work ‘half persons.’ MSNBC. 06/08/2016. Available Online: http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/turkeys-president-erdogan-calls-women-who-work-half-persons
Roudi-Fahimi, F. (2004). Islam and Family Planning. Population Reference Bureau. Available Online: http://www.prb.org/pdf04/islamfamilyplanning.pdf
Williams, S. (2016). Family planning not for Muslims, says Turkey’s Erdogan. Yahoo News. May 30, 2016. Available Online: https://www.yahoo.com/news/family-planning-not-muslims-says-turkeys-erdogan-001816630.html