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Asghar Ali Engineer

Asghar Ali Engineer (10 March 1939 – 14 May 2013) was an Indian reformist-writer and social activist. Internationally known for his work on liberation theology in Islam, he led the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement. The focus of his work was on communalism and communal and ethnic violence in India and South Asia. He was a votary of peace and non-violence and lectured all over world on communal harmony. Engineer also served as head of the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, both of which he founded in 1980 and 1993 respectively. He also made contributions to The God Contention, a website comparing and contrasting various worldviews. Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer’s autobiography A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace, Harmony and Social Change was released in New Delhi on 20 July 2011 by Shri Hamid Ansari, the then Vice-President of India.


Asghar Ali Engineer: Qur’an Women & Modern Society: Islam & Family Planning

Imam Shafi’i, one of the great Imams who founded the Shafi’i School of Islamic jurisprudence, thinks that one should not produce more children, if he cannot support them properly. … The Imam’s argument is that producing more children would make it difficult to provide them with what is halal (legitimate and permissible) and also would make it difficult for parents to observe hudud Allah [limits prescribed by God, See Zamakhshari, Al-Kashshaf, vol 1, (Beirut, 1977), pp 497-98] Thus, Imam Shafi’i was a man of vision and he could well anticipate the problems of producing more children. He makes a very important point, namely, that the Qur’an lays stress on the legitimate ways of earning one’s living (Halalan Tayyiba). One should not resort to ways of earning not permitted by Allah, and Imam Shafi’ feels that if one produces more children, he will ultimately, in order to feed them, resort to haram (prohibited) ways of earning. Thus, producing more children would ultimately amount to earning the wrath of God.

However, it is heartening to note that Imam Shafi’i was not alone in thinking this way which favours limiting one’s family. There were other eminent Islamic thinkers who thought alike. Imam Raghib, a great lexicographer of the Qur’an, thought on the same lines. Referring to killing of children in verse 17:31, he maintains that killing in this verse does not necessarily mean putting one’s children to death; killing here in fact means not giving them proper education. Ignorance, according to him, is intellectual death which is worse than physical death. Since the word ‘aulad (children) includes both male and female, this explanation of the word killing (qatl) is more plausible. Thus, one should not keep one’s children ignorant and kill them in an intellectual and spiritual sense. It can also result in malnutrition and retardation. Since having a large family also can result in all this, it is wise to plan one’s family and limit it. Though Imam Raghib does not put it that way yet one can easily draw that implication from what he says about the intellectual death of one’s children. It would thus be seen that both eminent Islamic thinkers, Imam Shafi’i as well as Imam Raghib, favour a small family, so as to provide it with proper means of material as well as spiritual development.

The hadith literature too, supports birth control both in direct and indirect ways. One hadith says: Those few (qalil) who are virtuous are superior to those many (kathir) who are undesirable. The implication of this hadith is obvious. It favours a small number of people who have better opportunities of moral and ethical development. Allama MH Alvi has also quoted this hadith in support of family planning. There is also a famous hadith which makes acquisition of knowledge compulsory for all Muslims, males as well as females. The word faridat (obligatory) is very important in this hadith. This is further reinforced by yet another hadith which says acquire knowledge even if it is available in China (China was considered farthest from Arabia in those days).

Both these traditions make it clear that it is obligatory for Muslims to give education to themselves and to their children even if they have to travel to far off places. But if means are limited and the family is large, Muslims cannot fulfil this important obligation. Thus, their Muslimness will remain incomplete. It is thus inevitable for them to keep the size of their families small, if they want to give the best possible education to their children. It is a pity that these important traditions are not being focused upon by theologians. Of course, some theologians maintain that by ‘ilm (knowledge) in this tradition, is meant knowledge of Islam and not wordly knowledge. Firstly there is no available evidence to corroborate this point of view. The word ‘ilm in Arabic has very wide connotations and embraces all varieties of knowledge, religious as well as wordly, physical as well as moral and spiritual. The Prophet is asking Muslims to go even to China for acquiring knowledge and China obviously was not the centre of Islamic knowledge. Thus, from this context also, it is clear that the Prophet meant worldly knowledge as well. But even if it is confined to religious knowledge, it would not be possible for parents to give higher Islamic knowledge to their children, if they are too many. ‘Ilm, it must be noted, implies moral and spiritual development also and it is not possible to impart higher knowledge and ensure spiritual and moral development if there are too many children.

Apart from an indirect support for a small family from Prophet’s traditions, there are many traditions which lend direct support. Thus Imam Ghazzali, a Muslim theologian, philosopher and sufi of great eminence, mentions a tradition from the Prophet which says: “Smallness of a family (qillat al’ayal) is a facility (yusur) and its largeness (Kathrat) results in faqr (indigence, poverty). This hadith needs no comment. The holy Prophet is clearly exhorting Muslims to have a small family as it would ensure more easiness and facility in life and avoid a large family as it would lead to indigence and poverty. The Prophet is also reported to have said that the best of people (Khayar al-nas) is one who has less burden of children on his back (Khafif al-zahr min al-ayal). On being asked what he meant by khafif al-zahr (light backed), he clarified one who has a small number of children. This tradition also hardly needs any comment and is directly in support of a small planned family.

Besides these, there are other traditions which support what is called ‘azl which can be translated as birth control. ‘Azl in Arabic literally means removal or dismissal or also separation and is also translated as coitus interruptus. But it need not mean only coitus interruptus. It includes all forms of birth control. We find ‘azl being mentioned in a large number of hadiths (traditions). Harat Jabir, a noted companion of the Prophet says: (i) We used to have recourse to birth control ‘azl during the days of the Prophet, while the Qur’an was being revealed. (ii) We used to have recourse to it in the Prophet’s age. He came to know of it but he did not prevent us from doing so. If it were something to be prevented, the Qur’an would have prohibited it. (The Qur’an prohibited expressly many evil practices prevalent in the Arabia during the lifetime of the Prophet). The above tradition of ‘azl has been reported in two authentic collections of hadith Sahihain Bukhari and Muslim.

There are many other traditions which favourably mention ‘azl which indicates that it was generally practiced during the holy Prophet’s time for maintaining small families. However, it must be mentioned that there are also some traditions narrated by Prophet’s companions like Ibn Mas’ud, ‘Abd Allah bin’ Abbas which prohibit birth control.. However, these traditions have been rejected by equally eminent Islamic savants like ‘Allama Ibn Qayyim al-Jauzi who maintain that the traditions narrated by Ibm Mas’ud and ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Abbas prohibiting birth control are few and far in between and there is overwhelming number of tradtions favouring birth control. In fact, another companion of the Prophet, Abu Sa’id Khurdi has narrated a tradition as follows: A Jew told me that ‘azl amounts to burying alive on a smaller scale wad khafif. I then came to the holy Prophet, peace be upon him, and told him what the Jew said. The Prophet then said twice: The Jew lied, the Jew lied.

If true, this hadith clearly establishes that the Prophet never banned or disapproved birth control (‘azl). In fact, in traditions, support for ‘azl is very strong and Ibn Mas’ud’s view that ‘azl (birth control) is wad ‘khafif (burying alive on a smaller degree) hardly finds any support in the entire hadith literature. Tahavi, an eminent jurist, also supports Sa’id al-Khurdi’s tradition in which the Prophet is reported to have said that the Jew who said birth control amounts to burying alive on a smaller scale was lying. Thus one can safely assume that ‘azl (coitus interruptus or any other form of birth control) is permitted in Islam.

No eminent Islamic thinker, theologian or jurist has raised any objection to plan one’s family or practice birth control. All the four founders of the Islamic school of jurisprudence, Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Ibn Hanbal and Imam Shafi’i have either directly or indirectly approved of it. We have already discussed what Imam Shafi’i has to say about it. Another widely accepted Imam is Imam Abu Hanifa, who is largely followed by the Muslims in India. Imam Ab Hanifa is said to have written to one of his most eminent disciples, Qadi Abu Yusuf, “No doubt, excess of children creates great worries.” This caution is contained in the series of directives, the Imam sent to Abu Yusuf. He also wrote to him that he whould not marry till he was capable of supporting his wife. The great Hanifa work on Islamic law, Hidaya also says, “In the opinion of Abu Hanifa, birth control is permissible.” The two disciples of Ab Hanifa, Qadi Abu Yusuf and Imam Shaybani, also held that birth control was permissible. But both thought that the wife’s permission was necessary and according to them, Imam Ab Hanifa also thought so. In fact, this is much more desirable. The mother must be consulted about the desirability of having a child or not.

Imam Ghazzali, in his magnum opus Ihya al-Ulum gives four grounds for ‘azl namely (1) preservation of wife’s beauty and charm; (2) protection of her life and health; (3) apprehension of a great deal of hardship (kathrat al-hara) on account of more children; and (4) financial hardship and shortage of income. It would thus be seen that Imam Ghazzali permits ‘azl even to preserve a woman’s beauty and charm – a very liberal ground indeed. Other grounds are what usually make birth control necessary for a family.

So far we have discussed the Sunni tradition. The Shia tradition too raises no objection or even specifically permits birth control. the great founder of the Shia fiqh (jurisprudence) Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq has said that “Small family is a bliss”. Not only this, Hazrat Ali whom the Prophet descrbed as the “gate to the city of knowledge” held that not only birth control is permissible, but one can resort to abortion before life begins in the womb of the mother………..

Thus, it will be seen that almost all Islamic traditions permit ‘azl with or without the permission of the wife. Sexual intercourse within marital bound is permitted in Islam even if its intention is not to procreate. It is not morally objectionable as in some other religious traditions. Of course in no case, intention should be to transcend Allah’s bounds through excessive indulgence.

It was for this reason that the Islamic world took up the family planning campaign without moral compunctions. In Egypt, government propaganda emphasise usrah saghirah (small family) and in Pakistan too one sees the slogan chhota khandan khushhal khandan (small family, happy family). Many prominent contemporary ‘ulama have also issued fatwas in favour of birth control. Maulana Saeed Ahmad Akbarabadi, a noted Indian theologian, maintains that the purpose of marriage in Islam is not only to satisfy sexual impulse, but also multiplication of and contribution to the maintenance and growth of human population. Therefore, the resort to birth control cannot be permitted arbitrarily. But Islam can hardly be expected to shut its eyes to hard facts of life. Though birth control is not permissible without genuine reason, yet where there is a genuine reason calling for such a step, it may be regarded not merely permissible but even compulsory (See Tahir Mehmood, ed, Law in Modern India, 1972, pp 114-122).

Thus, from whatever angle it is seen, birth control or family planning is not objectionable in Islam provided the purpose is moral and for the benefit of human society as a whole. In certain conditions, collective interest certainly precedes individual interest. Imam Taymiyyah, a great medieval Islamic thinker and jurist, has also propounded this doctrine. Thus, when unrestrained growth of human population causes severe problems in society, it would certainly be permissible to take suitable steps to bring the human population under control. Today, in India as well as in several other countries, population control has acquired great urgency. If stern steps are not taken, the society as a whole will suffer not only materially, but also morally and spiritually. As Maulana Saeed Ahmad Akbarabadi maintains, in such conditions, family planning is not only morally permissible, but should be made compulsory.
– Ashgar Ali Engineer; The Qur’an, Women and Modern Society: Islam and Family Planning- Google Books.


Al Islam: Islam and Birth Control / Family Planning:

Rule 1: In general, it is permissible to use birth control to prevent pregnancy, and it is (also) permitted to use the (various) forms of birth control.

Rule 2: If becoming pregnant would lead to a danger or hazard to the woman’s life, then the woman is permitted – for as long as there is a probability of her life being in danger – to employ the methods of birth control and it does not make any difference if the danger (to her life) is immediate or if it would come about later on.

Rule 3: The religiously approved methods which one may make use of to prevent pregnancy include:

a) Birth control by using devices such as an I.U.D. (Intrauterine Device), condoms or the injection of a drug (to prevent pregnancy) and other things such as these.

b) Natural methods of birth control: This would include Coitus Interruptus or ejaculating outside of the wife. However if this method of birth control leads to other forms of physical or mental illness for the woman and man, then it would not be permissible.

c) Conditional Birth Control: What is mean by this is that at the time of reciting the marriage contract, the woman makes a condition that for a certain period of time or for as long as they are married, she would use birth control and her husband also accepts this condition.

Rule 4: It is permissible to have one’s tubes tied (Tubal Ligation – Tubectomy) to prevent pregnancy as long as this procedure is temporary (reversible) and would not lead to a woman being permanently unable to conceive nor would this act cause any sort of life-threatening conditions. In addition, once the tubes have been re-opened, she would once again have the ability to conceive. In other than this scenario, it would not be permissible to perform theTubectomy.

Rule 5: The ruling on having one’s tubes tied (Tubectomy or Vasectomy) is the same for both men and women (as has been mentioned above).

Rule 6: In using any of the methods of birth control that are available, it is essential for the woman to have the consent of her husband and the wife is not permitted to go forth and use any of the methods without first taking the approval of her husband.

It is permitted to employ birth control methods, keeping in mind the following three conditions:

1) The procedure does not damage the (sexual) organ nor would it lead to permanent sterilization.

2) The husband approves of the use of birth control.
3) The procedures that would be employed for birth control and placing the device related to it (inside the person) would not involve the performance of a forbidden (haram) act.

Controlling the number of children and regulating ones’ family can be examined from two different aspects:

1) The steps which are employed before conception (birth control).

2) The steps which are employed after conception (abortion).

According to the fatwa of the late Imam Khumayni (may Allah be pleased with him), the first method (of birth control) is permissible as long as no forbidden acts are performed in order to achieve it.

As for the second method (abortion), it is forbidden (haram) except if necessity expedites that it be done however this act must be performed before the soul is infused into the fetus – meaning before the fetus has reached to the age of four months – in which case it is permissible.


The Noble Prophet (blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny) has said: “The best of you is the person who acts in the best way with his family and I am the best of you in relation to my family.”

Wasa`il ash-Shi`a, Volume 14, Page 122, Hadith 8
– Al Islam: Birth Control.