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Free Will and Determinism from a Scientific and Religious Perspective




By Suheil Laher

The debate over free will, already two millennia old[1], is still ongoing. Academic conferences, books and journal articles continue to address these issues, with different ‘experts’ arguing for often radically different theories.[2] Modern science and data have introduced new elements and angles, but they have not, by any means, disproved the existence of free will. I felt it is appropriate to start out with some preliminary, more general comments about science and faith. Then, I proceed to discuss the neuroscientific data (experiments by Libet, etc) that is often cited against the existence of free will, followed by a presentation of additional evidence in favor of free will. Finally, I briefly discuss determinism (including genetics), and how subscribing to it does not rule out personal responsibility.

1. Science and Faith

C.S. Lewis astutely observed that, “what we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.”[3] Indeed, scientific theories might often be predicated on philosophical or other underpinnings and assumptions. Every scientist, including the atheist and the agnostic, has a worldview and belief system which impinges on the conclusions he/she makes from empirical data. The beliefs of atheists might well be more fantastic and wishful than those of religion.[4] An academic methodological study has even argued that, “scientists are slower to change their views in the face of new data than preachers are.”[5]


In particular, many scientists nowadays subscribe to a materialistic philosophy, believing in nothing beyond matter, and hence adopting reductionist approaches that try to explain everything in material terms. If instead of materialism, one subscribes to an idealistic or dualistic worldview (for which philosophers and religious believers might well have good, even compelling reasons), then the same results might be seen in quite a different light. A recent book makes the case that materialism is waning[6], and it has even been claimed that quantum physics has disproved materialism.

Philosopher and computer scientist Dr. Angus Kenuge has made some important observations concerning the limitations of materialism; among other points, he notes that,[7]

“inflexible adherence to materialism could prevent us from finding the truth,” just as it is not reasonable for a crime detective to say, “”the murderer can’t be in the cellar, because I’m afraid to look there.”

He also observes that materialism is in epistemological conflict with the rationality of science, because “if evolutionary naturalism is true, our minds are equipped with useful guides for survival, but cannot be relied on for truth, especially on theoretical matters. Monotheism, on the other hand, justifies the scientific endeavor, because it holds that God is the creator both of human minds and of the phenomena and laws of science, and also because it upholds teleology. Indeed, the “universality, coherence and elegance” of the universe point to a “supernatural” underlying plan.”

It is true that science has taken man to the moon, and to a (limited) depth of the oceans, but it cannot show us how to live as decent human beings. Science, by definition, cannot comment on things beyond its (empirical) grasp, but this does not rule out the validity of believing in things beyond science. Proof is not restricted to the scientific and empirical. Even in science, much knowledge is inferential. So, too, the existence of God can be proved by rational inference (such as the principle of cause and effect). However, we need to beware that there are also many psychological, intellectual and other obstacles (idols) that a person might allow to stand in the way, for whatever reasons.

The Soul

Despite the great advances of modern knowledge, science has not penetrated the mystery of consciousness, nor even been able to define it, nor to explain where it ‘goes to’ and ‘returns from’ under anesthesia. Science is unable to fathom qualia – the indescribable inner experiences[8] that appear to be integral to consciousness and life – nor to explain why these should be subjective if they are merely ’emergent properties’. Machines, robots and AI software can algorithmically simulate some limited aspect of human reasoning, language or even consciousness, but cannot duplicate them, for humans can handle unlimited problems, recognize non-literal language, and sense ‘degrees of weirdness’. Humans can imagine, they can experience qualia, but machines cannot.[9]

So, there is clearly something here that is beyond science. The existence of human souls can thus be posited as a plausible theory. There are some neuroscientists today who make a case for the existence of a human soul[10]. They cite studies that found 18% of brain-dead people reported conscious experiences from the time of their brain death onwards, including seeing (and later being able to describe) details of the operating theater.[11] For a Muslim, who has reached conviction (on sound grounds) that the Qur’an is communication from God, the fact that the Qur’an affirms the existence of souls[12] is then sufficient reason to believe in this. The possibility that in the future, science might be able to tell us more about consciousness does not preclude belief in the soul. Whether the soul is something material or not has itself been disputed among philosophers. Furthermore, we note that the possibility of science being able to explain consciousness is precisely that: a mere possibility. We cannot be sure whether, instead of that, there might instead be some unexpected and paradigm-breaking discoveries in future science that would throw even current scientific assumptions into disarray, just as quantum physics did to Newtonian physics. We conclude that it is quite rational and tenable to believe that the human being has a soul, and that this soul is the difference between a living person and a corpse. Theologically, a Muslim is not required to make any commitments as to what exactly the nature of the soul is.

2. Interpreting the Neuroscientific Data

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet performed experiments which showed that brain activity (a ‘readiness potential’) could be detected in the human brain a short time[13] before the person reported the conscious intention to move. Some neuroscientists concluded from these studies that free will is only an illusion and sensation of the brain activity that actually comes about unconsciously through physical / chemical processes. Some of the procedural problems[14] with Libet’s experiments were improved upon in subsequent research by Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008), who reached similar conclusions against free will. Other scientists have claimed to produce or affect sensations in people by artificially stimulating their brains, or studied the behavioral consequences of physical damage to specific areas of the brain. Nevertheless, the sum of results in the field of neuroscience is not strong enough to negate a belief in free will. The issue is still hotly contested among neuroscientists, philosophers and theologians alike[15], and below I will present, in brief, some of the major objections against (or holes in) the radical neuroscientific theory that free will is an illusion. In a later section, I return to show that, even if one does believe in an illusory free will, this still does not directly translate to a negation of personal responsibility.

1. Causal Closure of the Physical

Scientists with a materialist outlook will tend to believe in causal closure of the physical: the belief that everything physical has a physical cause, and this assumption is more likely to lead to or support the conclusion that human actions are caused only by physical brain processes. Against that thesis, Menuge notes that “consciousness, intentionality and rational agency are irreducible to the physical, yet … all do have a causal effect on the world.”[16]

2. Necessity and Sufficiency of Causes

The fact that certain sensations or states can be produced by artificial stimulations on the brain does not prove that those same effects cannot also be produced by “other, irreducible mental powers”[17].

3. Readiness Potentials

The existence of a detectable readiness potential in the brain prior to a person’s reported consciousness of intention does not disprove free will, because:

  1. Even if we assume that this state of affairs is true and accurate, the person still has the ability to affirm or deny the ‘unconscious intention,’ as Libet himself showed in later experiments. This is what has been referred to as the veto theory of free will (or alternatively as “Free-won’t”).
  2. The individuals who participated in these experiments are given a description of the procedure beforehand. Thus, they have already formed a distal intention before the experiment begins, i.e. well before the readiness potential. We are therefore forced to consider the possibility this distal intention causes the readiness potential, which in turn causes the proximal intention. This theory might be seen as support for those Muslim scholars who believed that a Muslim does not need to consciously intend each good deed in order to earn reward from Allah, because when he/she chooses to be Muslim, he/she is making a distal intention to do good deeds in general.[18]
  3. Furthermore, we should consider the possibility that the readiness potential indicates not a decision or intention, but rather an urge, desire or wish.[19] This discussion is reminiscent of classical theological debates over capacity (istita‘ah), on which there were two prominent views:

(i) that capacity precedes the action; this is the Mu’tazilite view.

(ii) that capacity is simultaneous with action; this is the Ash’arite view.

(iii) that there are two types of capacity: one preceding the action, the other simultaneous with it; this is the Maturidite view.

Menuge has observed that many voluntary behaviors are automated but require consciousness to negotiate novel aspects/eventualities that may arise during execution of the act.[20]

4. Procedural Questions about the Experiments

  1. We need to allow for a lag time between actual initiation of an intention, and his/her being able to inform about it. It takes time for signals to travel from the brain, and to bring about motor effects in the vocal cords or other muscles. Given the relatively small intervals of time we are dealing with in many of these experiments, this cannot be ruled out as a source of error. When this factor is compounded with the above uncertainties about what exactly the readiness potential corresponds to, the argument against free will is significantly blunted, at the least.
  2. The role of a conscious observer in influencing what he observes is a well-known phenomenon in quantum physics (and more generally: the Observer Phenomenon), and may be worth considering here.
  3. There are potential objections here based on relativity in the perception of time, particularly when small intervals are involved. This, too, introduces doubts about the validity of conclusions based on these data.
  4. Marcel Brass has commented, about the Masushati & Hallett experiments, that, “one has to say that in some subject [sic], the intention started before the readiness potential but in most of the subjects it started after the readiness potential.”[21]

5. Simple vs Complex Decisions

The experiments that have been performed (by Libet, Masushati, etc) all involve simple decisions under highly controlled conditions: whether to flex one’s fingers, push one of two buttons, or whether to add or subtract. The above sections show that even for such simple decisions, there is not a clear-cut case against free will. When we consider, further, that all these experiments involve decisions much simpler than even such insignificant daily decisions as whether to drink tea or coffee[22], we realize still more clearly the limitations and tentativeness of neuroscientific theories. To claim that these limitations will be overcome through further research and advances in computation power betrays a clear element of faith and wishful expectation (things for which materialists are often quick to condemn religious believers).

3. Evidence for Free Will

1. Neuroplasticity

Cognitive therapies have proven effective in the treatment of neurological disorders, showing that the mind does exert top-down causation on the brain. For example, the use of cognitive therapy in treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has been shown to produce “dramatic physical change to the brain.” [23]

2. The Placebo Effect

The placebo effect involves use of a ‘dummy,’ causally neutral (ineffective) therapy on an unsuspecting patient who believes he/she is actually receiving medication. In a study involving Parkinson’s disease patients, “the placebo effect was at least as effective as the drug apomorphine in treating the chronic underproduction of dopamine.”[24]

3. Psychoneuroimmunology

Studies have shown that “mental attitudes affect the immune system via the brain,” and that mental attitudes can reduce stress and heart rate, and increase happiness and comfort.[25]

4. Determinism

Determinism is “the [philosophical] theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes.”[26] Four particular “alleged determinisms” can – for some people – pose challenges to belief in free-will[27]:

1. Physical Determinism

“[T]he idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.”[28]

I have already addressed the inadequacies of materialism and causal closure of the physical. We have seen how exertion of the mind can bring about top-down causation, impacting the physical organs (such as the heart and brain) as well as sensations (such as happiness). To add to this, it is worthwhile to make note of a 2008 study that showed that rejection of belief in free will can – at least in the short term – lead people to behave with less moral responsibility.[29]

2. Psychological Determinism

This is the notion that what appear to be our decisions are in fact driven by psychological factors such as drives, purposes, needs, desires and experiences.[30]

This again is a reductionist belief that assumes that knowledge of a single, limited field is sufficient to explain complex human phenomena and behavior. The inadequacy of this is expressed as follows by a contemporary neurologist:

“The view that we are automatons without volition, unable to willfully direct our activities, might be taken to mean that we are virtual prisoners of our natural endowment, guided unalterably by preordained behavioral patterns according to the doctrine of determinism. Nothing could be further from the truth, for the nervous system is still susceptible to all the stimuli arising in the environment. Behavior is the product of a combination of heredity, early instruction, the environment and experience.”[31]

Of course, it cannot be denied that we might have unconscious motives. This is something the scholars of Islamic spirituality warn against and discuss. They advise training oneself to monitor one’s heart and hidden motivations, and to discipline oneself to not succumb to them. One of the pioneering treatises on moral psychology and ethics was Al-Muhasibi’s Risalat alMustarshidin, intended as an everyday guide to spirituality[32].

We cannot forget that we do also have conscious motives and decisions (which may, in some cases, be a cause for later subconscious decisions). Other inputs, such as belief in justice, expectation of reward from God and fear of cosmic or after-death punishment, can play a crucial role in modifying behavior patterns. Once again, top-down causation can work wonders. We also cannot rule out an innate guiding sense of ethics that impinges on human decisions, and makes them ‘feel good’ when they do what is right. While secular evolutionary biologists might try to reductionistically explain this as set of tools for or vestiges of natural selection, a Muslim thinks in terms of the fiṭrah, the natural state or disposition to good that humans are created with[33].

3. Biological (or Genetic) Determinism

This is  “the idea that each of our behaviors, beliefs, and desires are fixed by our genetic nature.”[34]

While it was once believed (by some people) that the mapping out of human DNA would confirm biological determinism, this has proven not to be the case. The Human Genome Project, begun in 1990 and now close to but not entirely complete[35], has shown that there are not enough genes to support genetic determinism. And, even where particular genes have been identified as being ‘responsible’ for particular diseases, in reality the gene is only one of a number of factors (i.e. at most a pre-disposition, rather than a necessary and sufficient cause) playing into the final outcome.[36] Genetics cannot be used as an excuse for behavior.[37] A recent article observes that,

“Biological determinism doesn’t hold up as a defence in law.”[38]

4. Theological Determinism

This is the belief that, “all events that happen are pre-ordained, or predestined to happen, by a monotheistic God.”[39] Various historical manifestations of this belief have been discussed by Muslim theologians of various persuasions and outlooks, as well as by Arab philosophers (such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes)) and by Christian scholars. In the Muslim world, these debates had started by at least the early second century, and continue to this day, such that a plethora of literature exists on the subject.

Like the other three varieties of determinism above, affirmation of theological determinism does not have to rule out human choice and agency. Nor does affirmation of human choice rule out God’s knowledge of things before they happen. Theologians and philosophers have come up with various explanations of how these two pieces of the puzzle might fit together.

5. Closing Remarks

One of the things I realize more deeply, in light of all the above discussions, is how deep and multi-faceted the issue of free will really is, and how it is inadequate and even dangerous to assume a single field holds all the answers. Each field of science has its own perspective on things, and operates on certain assumptions and within limited parameters. For example, Michael Gazzaniga, a prominent contemporary psychologist remarks,

“Neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans – to people – not to brains…. Just as optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has, but cannot tell us when a person is legally blind or has too little vision to drive a school bus.”[40]

He also writes, “Responsibility has not been denied; it is simply absent from the neuroscientific description of human behavior. Its absence is a direct result of treating the brain as an automatic machine.”

Marcel Brass, “one of the leading researchers in the brain science of free will and intentional action,” candidly remarked,

“I do not really think that neuroscience will solve the old philosophical problem whether free will exists or not. And I’m not even sure whether any science will solve this problem.”[41]

Brass also points out (and he is not alone in this) that even those who theoretically deny that free will exists, must, by necessity, behave as if it does exist, and that otherwise serious pathological problems result. Whether we attribute this to the fiṭrah, or to necessary instinctive knowledge of free will, or try to philosophically couch it in some way[42], at the end of the day the fact remains that free will is something inherent to the human condition. Despite the changes in scientific knowledge and theories, there is still a powerful resonance in the words of thinkers from the past who have reflected deeply on the matter. French philosopher Rene Descartes (d. 1650 CE) ventured that, “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained”[43]

A century or so later, German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (d. 1804 CE) posited that free will is “the one sole original inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity.”

Genuine religious faith, firmly grounded in reality, reason and true scripture (allowing us to tap into transcendent reality), continues to offer a firm intellectual, moral and practical anchor to which to meaningfully bind oneself amidst the welter of competing contemporary theories and postmodernist skepticism.

And Allah knows best about what is unclear to us!

“And to Allah prostrates whoever is within the heavens and the earth, willingly or by compulsion, and their shadows [as well] in the mornings and the afternoons.”[44]

[1] Timothy O’Connor, Free Will in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed 09/03/11, 22:53.



[2] The following are recent examples I found:

  • Walter Sinnott-Armstrong & Lynn Nadel (Editors), Conscious Will and Responsibility: A Tribute to Benjamin Libet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). (288 pages).
  • Friedrich Toepel (ed.), 23rd World Congress on Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (Kraków, Poland), Free will in criminal law and procedure : proceedings of the 23rd and 24th IVR World Congress, Krakow 2007 and Beijing 2009, (Stuttgart : Franz Steiner Verlag, c2010). (122 pages).
  • Kerri Smith, Taking Aim at Free Will in Nature, vol 277 (1 September 2011), pp. 23-25.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, (New York, Harper Collins, 2001), p. 2.

[4] Consider, for instance, Ray Kurzweil’s belief that in the near future, humans will be able to load their brain into a computer,  live a purely virtual life without any need for a body, and thereby achieve immortality.

[5] Kevin Dunbar, How scientists build models in vivo science as a window on the scientific mind in Model-based reasoning in scientific discovery (ed. Lorenzo Magnani, Nancy J. Nersessian, and Paul Thagard), (New York : Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, c1999), pp. 89-98, as cited by M. Gazzaniga, The Ethical Brain (New York : Dana Press, c2005), p. 147.

[6] Robert C. Koons and George Bealer (ed.), The Waning of Materialism, (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2010).

[7] Angus Menuge, powerpoint and summary of a debate he had with P.Z. Myers, and respectively, last accessed 9/1/11, 12:06am.

Ninian Smart also remarks on the affinity between monotheism and science, in his Dimensions of the Sacred, (Berkeley: University of California, 1996),107.

[8] e.g. what is it like to be a bat? To see red? To think? To think about thinking? These examples come from Eliezer J. Sternberg, Are You a Machine? : the Brain, the Mind, and What It Means To Be Human, (Amherst, N.Y. : Humanity Books, 2007).

[9] My summary of selected points from Menuge’s Powerpoint, and Sternberg’s book.

[10] Beauregard and O’Leary: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, 2007.

[11] Cited from Beauregard and O’Leary by Menuge in his Powerpoint.

[12] albeit, while emphasizing that human knowledge of the soul is limited. See: Qur’an, 17:85.

[13] The exact lag-time found has varied in different experiments, between a few hundred nanoseconds to a few seconds.

[14] Despite their refinements, other uncertainties and sources of error still remain, as I return to below.

[15] Timothy O’Connor, op. cit., writes, “Interpretation of the results is highly controversial,” and that “Mele (2009) and O’Connor (2009b) argue that the data adduced by Libet, Wegner, and others wholly fail to support their revisionary conclusions.”

[16] Angus Menuge, Does Neuroscience Undermine Retributive Justice?, in Free Will in Criminal Law and Procedure, p. 75.

[17] Ibid., p. 80.

[18] Ibn Rajab, Jami` al-`Ulum wa’l-Hikam.

[19] Menuge, Does Neuroscience…., p. 83.

[20] Ibid., p. 85.

[21] Luke Muehlhauser, CPBD 085: Marcel Brass – The Neuroscience of Free Will, on, dated 01/16/2011, accessed 8/28/11, 14:53.

[22] Kerri Smith, op. cit.

[23] Menuge, Does Neuroscience…., p.86-92.

[24] Ibid., p. 92.

[25] Ibid., p. 92-3.

[26] Determinism in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online,, accessed 09/03/11, 23:15.

[27] O’Connor, op. cit., informs us that, “For each variety of determinism, there are philosophers who (i) deny its reality, either because of the existence of free will or on independent grounds; (ii) accept its reality but argue for its compatibility with free will; or (iii) accept its reality and deny its compatibility with free will.”

[28] Carl Hoefer, Causal Determinism in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed 09/03/11, 23:07.

[30], accessed 09/03/11, 23:30.

Jesse Kalim, Determinism, accessed 09/03/11, 00:20.

Chris Herb, Psychological Determinism,, accessed 09/03/11, 00:23.

[31] C. M. Fisher, If there were no free will in Medical Hypotheses, Volume 56, Issue 3, March 2001, Pages 364-366.

The extent to which I agree with Dr Fisher’s list of factors should be clear from what I write below, as well as the rest of my write-up.

[32] The treatise has been translated into English and published. For  details, including a more descriptive overview of its contents, see:

[33] “So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people.”  [Qur’an, 30:30]

The following article (which I have not yet read) looks interesting:

Yasien Mohamed, Fitrah and Its Bearing on the Principles of Psychology,, accessed 9/5/11, 10:24.

[34] Determinism in Wikipedia.

[35] For example, “the central regions of each chromosome, known as centromeres, are difficult to sequence using current technology.” accessed 09/03/11, 23:48.

[36] Mae-Wan Ho, The Human Genome Map, the Death of Genetic Determinism and Beyond,, accessed 08/31/11, 11:32pm.

[37] Robin McKie, Men and women behaving badly? Don’t blame DNA in Guardian Observer,, accessed 08/31/11, 11:37pm.

[38] Kerri Smith, op. cit..

[40] Gazzaniga, p. 101.

[41] Muehlhauser, op. cit.

[42] As, for example, some Muslim theologians did by saying “the human being is compelled, in a free-willing form.”

[43] Passions of the Soul, I, art. 41, as cited by O’Connor.


[44] Qur’an, 13:15.


  1. Pingback: 150. Destiny (Qadaa and Qadr) « Islamic Creed. Aqeedah

  2. Avatar

    Irfan Rahim

    November 24, 2011 at 12:53 AM

    Assalamu Alaikum,
    I also had questioned whether we have limited free will or we do not. I was a humanities major at Columbia College and then later transferred to MIT and become an electrical engineer/computer science. I discovered the answer to whether we have free will by an alternate question whether are we just machines (composed of 100% matter) or are we something more. I knew machines very well due to be background in physics of matter, electrical engineering, and computer science. I had also studied most of the Western thinkers like Decartes and Kant and so had a good knowledge of human ideas. I liked from Descrates that idea that human knowledge has to be systematic: we know some things first before we can know other things which depend on us know the first thing. To demonstrate this: for me to know that Columbia University is in New York but not know whether I exist does not make sense, consequently Descrates started with I think therefore I am. After deep thought I discovered that the author of the internal order in myself is “I” and the author of the external order is Allah Subhana Tala. And this discovery led me to understand the difference between man and machine, namely:
    Machines are made of electrons, protons, and other basic fundamental physical particles which follow the natural order (physical laws) where as man is composed of these physical particles plus some thing more which gives man free will. This free will is exercised by the “I” in a person and as an example to understand this notice people use the expression “I made the choice” and many other similar expressions. A machine can be programmed to say “I made the choice” but we know that no one within the machine is responsible for that choice. This entity “I” is a single indivisible entity which has limited free will and this “I” is different from the assumptions and understanding we have about the basic particles of matter. Note that though matter follows the natural order but at the energy level of Planks constant matter seems to exhibits random behavior (leading to the Uncertainty Principle) which can be misunderstood with matter having free will but being random is different from having free will because an entity with free will will create its own unique order where as randomness leads to nothing except randomness. Consequently the “I” is a single indivisible entity with limited free will and as a consequence people create their own unique order in their life (remember George Bush and the “new world order” he spoke about) The “I” in a person has at its disposal a mind, knowledge, feeling, body, and many other abilities. The “I” is the one responsible for a person actions and is the entity that continues over time even though all parts of the body (atoms & molecules) change.

    Appreciate if you could review and comment on the above.

    • Avatar


      November 27, 2011 at 9:05 PM

      Mashallah did you graduate, I am also studying computer engineering & science.

      • Avatar

        Irfan Rahim

        November 29, 2011 at 1:05 AM

        Assalamu Alaikum Br.Umayah,
        I would like to add some clarification to what I wrote above: author of the internal order in myself is “I” and the author of the external order is Allah Subhana Tala -> here please understand that I mean by the word ‘author’ as the entity setting the intention, purpose, and will because of which there results order and design as opposed to disorder or void.
        One more very important clarification here is that no one is like Allah Tala – e.g. our purposes are driven by need where as Allah Tala has no needs, i.e. Allah Tala’s will is not driven by need. We live in time and space and are limited by it where as Allah Tala created time-space and has no limitation. In summary as Allah Tala said in Quran (approx. translation):
        6:103 No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all visions: He is above all comprehension, yet He is acquainted with all things.

        For your question about my graduation: Alhumdulillah I did graduate with MS/BS in 1984 – at present I am 52 years old but what I discovered when I was in college (I discovered “I” was created by Allah Tala) has over the years grown more deeper and clearer – I pray Allah Tala accepts me in his Jannah.

    • Avatar


      November 28, 2011 at 3:00 PM

      wa`alaykum as-salam, Irfan.
      What you have written makes sense. Sociologist Peter Berger has argued that human beings are unique creatures in that their lives are not genetically determined and fixed from birth; thus they must construct an ordered relationship to the world.

  3. Avatar


    November 24, 2011 at 1:38 AM

    Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

    Ok forgive me for whatever annoyance is apparent in my speech.

    Is Yasir Qadhi around? Where is the hadith about NOT engaging in debate about Qadr? We have the Quran and we have the Sunnah. Allah has provided us with enough.

    It is enough.

    Muslim (2653) narrated that ‘Abd-Allaah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas said: I heard the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) say: “Allaah wrote down the decrees of creation fifty thousand years before He created the heavens and the earth.” He said: “And His Throne was upon the water.”

    • Avatar


      November 28, 2011 at 3:56 PM

      wa`alaykum as-salam wa-rahmatullah wa-barakatuh, Mustafa

      May Allah reward you for your nasihah. Alhamdulillah, I believe in Qadar, as expounded in the Quran and Sunnah, including the belief that human beings have free will and are accountable for their actions. My article is not intended to dispute or to question either this, or any other clear-cut teaching of Islam. To the contrary, is to defend the existence of free will. And I make no claims about my article being necessary for proper faith. To the contrary, I would advise those who have not been exposed to the current scientific debates on the subject to *not* read my article, as it might raise unnecessary questions in their minds.

      Nevertheless, I believe there were several justifiable motivations underlying my article. Scholars of the past have written about qadar, often at great length, and did not restrict themselves to citing ayat and ahadith. Ibn al-Qayyim has a famous, hefty volume on the topic, entitled Shifa al-`Alil, and one of the chapters is a transcript of ‘a debate between a Sunni and a Qadari.’ Similarly, books of `aqidah, such as `Allamah Saffarini’s Lawami al-Anwar discuss the issue. Of course, you are entitled to consider the possibility that these scholars were all wrong in doing so. So, let’s take another angle on it.

      Very importantly, the original reason I wrote this was in response to a young Muslim scientist who was genuinely confused about the issue after studying psychology and neuroscience. Would it really be the wisest thing to simply sit and quote Qur’an and hadith to him? Or, is it an obligation upon those with sufficient knowledge to respond to the confusions, doubts and arguments raised against our faith (of course, in the light of Qur’an, Sunnah and common sense)? I hold to the latter view, for which there is ample attestation in our rich scholarly heritage. The types of discussions and clarifications needed vary in different times and places. The earliest scholars did not have to discuss proofs for the existence of God in their `aqidah writings. Nor did they have to point out the difference between involuntary actions (like shivering) and consciously chosen actions. These discussions were later developments, in response to the needs of the time.

      I therefore feel there is a need and benefit for articles such as this to be available for the benefit of those Muslims who are confused, lest a Muslim leave Islam – or lest a non-Muslim not care to look into the religion – thinking that modern science has disproved free-will and religious faith, or that there are no responses to those modern claims.

      So then, how do we understand hadiths such as the following one narrated by Tirmidhi?
      Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) came to us as we had been arguing with each other about the Divine Decree (al-Qadr). He was so annoyed that his face became as red as if there had been squeezed on his cheeks the flesh of pomegranates. He said: Is this what you have been commanded to do, is this with which I have been sent to you? Those who had gone before you were destroyed as they disputed about it. I adjure you, I adjure you not to fall into argumentation in regard to it.
      Commentators on this hadith (I checked Mulla `Ali Qari and Sh Mubarakpuri) have mentioned examples of the prohibited disputation, and these tend to revolve around questioning why things are the way they are. Muhammad Ibrahim al-Hamad, in his commentary on Shaykhul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah’s poem on Qadar, has a good discussion of the permissibility of discussing qadar, concluding that it cannot be completely prohibited, nor allowed without any restriction. He mentions 7-8 substantiations of its being permissible, or even necessary. He then presents 6 aspects of the type of disputation and discussion that are prohibited about qadar, including:
      – trying to get answers to things that are beyond the capability of the human mind
      – speaking without knowledge, or in isolation from the Qur’an and Sunnah
      – questioning the basics, or not accepting them with submission
      The synopsis is that refuting falsehood does not fall under the prohibition.

      And Allah knows best.

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    November 25, 2011 at 12:10 PM

    Brother Suheil,

    This is a very important issue and I commend you for your attempt to address this. However, I wanted to call to your attention some weak points in your argument. Specifically, none of the items you cite as “Evidence for Free Will” actually qualifies as such. With respect to neuroplasticity, you write that “the mind does exert top-down causation on the brain.” The “mind” is not a scientific term; it would be more accurate to say that different parts of the brain interact with each other, sometimes in a causal manner. Many of these effects show nothing more than that the environment leads to observable changes in the brain (this is the case with all of your supporting examples in this section.)

    These changes may be mediated by “mental states” but this does not have any bearing on free will unless you assume a priori that all mental states are freely willed. If on the other hand, you assume that mental states are byproducts of gene*environment interaction – as there is ample evidence to prove – then it becomes clear that this argument is untenable.

    Also, you overlook the integrated nature of the argument for scientific determinism. The physical, psychological, and biological are artificial distinctions for the same materialistic entities. The physical (protons, electrons, and neutrons) forms the chemical (atoms and molecules) which forms the biological (neurons and other cells) which eventually forms the “psychological.” The mind may be an emergent phenomenon but it must have physical bases – scientifically speaking.

    Much of this discussion can be found within the cognitive sciences as a debate over the relative importance of “automatic” and “controlled” processes. Much of daily human life is driven by the former. B.F. Skinner argued, controversially yet passionately, for why there was no need to posit the existence of a “controlling agent” at all (read Beyond Freedom and Dignity, for example). He argued that the only thing we might be able to change is our environment.

    A more sophisticated way of framing this debate would be not “do we have free will?” but “how much free will do we have? and how much of our behavior is determined by factors outside our conscious control?” I would love to see you discuss the constraints, if any, that the Islamic worldview places on the answers to this question. Is mainstream Islamic thought compatible with the perspective that we have very little conscious control over our behavior, most of which is determined by our genes and the environment to which we have been exposed (what Skinner calls “environmental history”)? I suspect there are different answers to this question and that “yes” is not an unreasonable position.


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    Charles Stromeyer Jr.

    November 26, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    The most accurate and thus the most valid scientific theory ever is quantum theory (QT), and the second most accurate scientific theory is Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (GTR). Using these two theories, the famous Princeton mathematicians Conway and Kochen proved the “Strong Free Will Theorem” which shows that “free will” is more fundamental than physical determinism or randomness:

    Thus, now that “free will” has been established via mathematical proof, I agree with Mustafa that we don’t need to debate the nature of qadr.

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    W. R. Klemm

    November 28, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    This is a thoughtful and useful post. I believe in free will and have a peer-reviewed published paper that points out the flaws in Libet-type experiments (see

    However, I do not accept the statement made in the original post (Against that thesis, Menuge notes that “consciousness, intentionality and rational agency are irreducible to the physical, yet … all do have a causal effect on the world.”). I have another peer-review paper that provides a materialistic basis for consciousness (see Klemm, W. R. 2011. Neural representations of the sense of self. Archives Cognitive Psychology. Advances in Cognitive Psychology. 7: 16-30. DOI 10.2478/v10053-008-0084-2 ) and a book that gives a big-picture review of how the brain works (see and An e-book copy can be obtained free via participating libraries or a paperback version is available for $24.95).

    • Avatar

      Charles Stromeyer Jr.

      November 28, 2011 at 5:42 PM

      This peer-reviewed paper entitled “Synaptic Pruning by Microglia is Necessary for Normal Brain Development” published in the journal “Science” shows that microglia (in addition to neurons) play a non-trivial role in brain wiring and plasticity:

      Thus, in a physiological sense, the establishment of “consciousness” in an organism may involve more than merely neuronal networks.

    • Avatar

      Charles Stromeyer Jr

      December 2, 2012 at 9:29 AM

      In addition to the aforementioned microglia, astrocytes [1] and oligodendrocytes [2] have now each been shown to affect synapses in a nontrivial way. This implies that there might be more basis within the brain for consciousness than merely neurons. (Also, it is interesting that each of these 3 types of glial cells help to regulate glutamate/GABA balances).



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    February 21, 2012 at 7:09 PM

     And here is the final catch.  If you believe in free will, you must also take into consideration that no religion is the “right” religion.  That it is the will of man to systematically create a belief and the will of man to abide by one. Therefore, not Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other religion of the world truly is the official word of the Great Creator.  Rather, as it was stated above.  The human individual learns through experiences, this is an absolute fact that cannot be argued against. Hence, then if it is the works of the individual, whether they be good respectively, vs bad respectively, that determine the cause and effect that one will experience, a form of karma MUST exist. Therefore, the acceptance of free will INSTANTLY negates that any religious system have all the answers to the belief in the Creator, but does have a spiritual premise.  Thus, exist the ability to choose which is free will and no religion can interfere with it. Moving forward, it would be more correct to say holy men were sent in the name of the Creator i.e. God, Allah or Brahm to influence human behavior, but not to force an institutionalized belief, and only social conditioning and self ego would argue against that ideal, and not necessarily idea.

    • Avatar


      October 3, 2012 at 1:07 AM

      @Kdracco1. I hope you are well.
      I read your comment, but I don’t see your conclusion as being necessary or inevitable. The fact that human beings learn through experiences, and build their understanding over time, does not at all rule out that one of the factors contributing to that learning is direct divine revelation which itself contains teachings that are in tune with nature and universe.
      All the best,

  8. Pingback: The Scientific Debate over Free Will « Rational Thinkers Cafe

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    Charles Stromeyer Jr

    April 9, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    Some additional clarification and points to consider:

    Quantum theory (QT) is the most accurate and thus valid scientific theory so far, for example, QT is often accurate out to 14 decimal places! However, QT is NOT accurate out to an infinite number of decimal places because the foundations of QT are contingent upon other thoughts or assumptions from philosophy, mathematics and theoretical physics. For example:

    (1) No one has ever correctly explained the physical origins of quantum uncertainty nor the correct origins of quantum wave-particle duality.

    (2) Both the theory of and many different experiments of QT have shown with extremely high accuracy that the underlying wave function of QT is fundamentally “non-local”. More recently, various theory and some experiments of QT also imply that this underlying wave function is also fundamentally “non-sequential” in its physical behavior.

    The first paper to make this implication is this free paper entitled “Non-sequential behavior of the wave function”:

    This paper argues that if there are 3 different electrons lined up in a row, and then a photon should come along then the chance or probability of this photon interacting with one of these 3 pre-selected electrons should be 56% (instead of the expected probability of one-third or 33 and 1/3 %).

    • Avatar

      Charles Stromeyer Jr

      April 11, 2013 at 1:40 PM

      As further possible clarification of a point that I just made earlier, these 2 and free quantum physics papers (each published in top peer-reviewed scientific journals) each separately show that quantum wave-particle duality cannot be related to local or causal “realistic” interpretations of physics:

  10. Avatar

    Diane Stetson

    April 9, 2013 at 2:24 PM

    The matter can easily be understood thusly: from our limited human perspective, we use free will. Yet, all matters have been “pre-destined by Allah (qadr). The problem lies in some attempts to figure out how this works. Just stay in your own limited sphere, as you are clearly not able, nor will you ever enter into Allah’s. Make your choices, and remember that Allah has already told you in Quran that HE has chosen for you that which is best(al kiyarah). Accept the results of “your choices” patiently and with certitude that all is best for a believer.

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    April 5, 2016 at 7:37 PM

    From reading this article it appears that Quran teaches freewill. That appears to be inconsistent. I would like to know which verses in Quran confirm freewill. Both Bible and Vedas deny freewill and they confirm destiny. Destiny and freewill are contradictory concepts.

    Science should not be confused with engineering. Science did not take us to moon, engineering did. There is heaven and hell difference between science and engineering. So science should not come into any discussions on truth. Moreover science denies soul theory.

    Freewill cannot be discussed without understanding of the full power of soul theory, yoga, yogic meditation, and yogic power. Every object in the universe is created by its own individual soul, they are conscious, and they can and do interact with all other objects. That is, all objects in the entire universe are continuously and simultaneously interactive with all other objects, for all past, present, and future times. This simultaneity law creates the global destiny. Our individual destiny can be derived from this global destiny. Take a look at

    Universe is not only completely deterministic, it is even periodic. A German philosopher Nietzsche said you will live this exact same life periodically, infinitely many times. His theory is known as eternal recurrence and is also described in both Bible and Vedas.
    A high level yogi can precisely predict what you will do or say within next 10 minutes. There are at least 800,000 palm leaf booklets in India, that describe in precise details, the destiny of that many people living now in our world. These books were written more than 10,000 years back.

    It is very easy to realize that we cannot have freewill. Have you ever done anything without any reasons? No, never. But since reasons come before you act, we see that our present action is determined by our past reasons, which is the definition of destiny.

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#Current Affairs

The Duplicity of American Muslim Influencers And The ‘So-called Muslim Ban’

Dr Joseph Kaminski



As we approach the beginning of another painful year of the full enforcement of Presidential Proclamation 9645 (a.k.a. ‘the Muslim ban’) that effectively bars citizens of several Muslim majority countries from entering into the United States, the silence remains deafening. As I expected, most of the world has conveniently forgotten about this policy, which thus far has separated over 3,000 American families from their spouses and other immediate relatives. In June 2019, the Brennan Center of Justice notes that: The ban has also kept at least 1,545 children from their American parents and 3,460 parents from their American sons and daughters. While silence and apathy from the general public on this matter is to be expected— after all, it is not their families who are impacted— what is particularly troubling is the response that is beginning to emerge from some corners of the American Muslim social landscape.

While most Muslims and Muslim groups have been vocal in their condemnation of Presidential Proclamation 9645, other prominent voices have not. Shadi Hamid sought to rationalize the executive order on technical grounds arguing that it was a legally plausible interpretation. Perhaps this is true, but some of the other points made by Hamid are quite questionable. For example, he curiously contends that:

The decision does not turn American Muslims like myself into “second-class citizens,” and to insist that it does will make it impossible for us to claim that we have actually become second-class citizens, if such a thing ever happens.

I don’t know— being forced to choose exile in order to remain with one’s family certainly does sound like being turned into a ‘second-class citizen’ to me. Perhaps the executive order does not turn Muslims like himself, as he notes, into second-class citizens, but it definitely does others, unless it is possible in Hamid’s mind to remain a first-class citizen barred from living with his own spouse and children for completely arbitrary reasons, like me. To be fair to Hamid, in the same article he does comment that the executive order is a morally questionable decision, noting that he is “still deeply uncomfortable with the Supreme Court’s ruling” and that “It contributes to the legitimization and mainstreaming of anti-Muslim bigotry.”

On the other hand, more recently others have shown open disdain for those who are angered about the ‘so-called Muslim ban.’ On June 6th, 2019, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, a Senior Faculty Member at Zaytuna College, Islamic scholar and the founder of the Lamppost Education Initiative, rationalized the ban on spurious security grounds. He commented that,

The so-called Muslim ban, of course, has us on edge about his potential. But, to be fair, a real Muslim ban would mean that no Muslim from any country should be allowed in the US. There are about 50 Muslim majority countries. Trump singled out only 7 of them, most of which are war torn and problem countries. So, it is unfair to claim that he was only motivated by a hatred for Islam and Muslims.

First, despite how redundant and unnecessary this point is to make again, one ought to be reminded that between 1975 and 2015, zero foreigners from the seven nations initially placed on the banned list (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) killed any Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and zero Libyans or Syrians have ever even been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil during that same time period. I do not think these numbers have changed over the last 4 years either. If policy decisions are supposed to be made on sound empirical evidence and data, then there is even less justification for the ban.

Second, Bin Hamid Ali comments that ‘the so-called Muslim ban, of course, has us on edge about his [Trump’s] potential.’ Whoa… hold on; on edge about his potential? For the millions of people banned from entering the United States and the thousands of Muslim families connected to these millions of people, this ‘potential’ has been more than realized. To reduce the ‘so-called Muslim ban’ to just targeting ‘war torn and problem countries’ is to reduce our family members—our husbands, wives, and children—to (inaccurate) statistics and gross stereotypes. Are spouses from Syria or Yemen seeking to reunite with their legally recognized spouses or children any less deserving to be with their immediate family members because they hail from ‘problem countries’? How can one be concerned with stereotypes while saying something like this? Is this not the exact thing that Abdullah bin Hamid Ali seeks to avoid? Surely the Professor would not invoke such stereotypes to justify the racial profiling of black American citizens. What makes black non-Americans, Arabs, and Iranians any different when it comes to draconian immigration profiling? From a purely Islamic perspective, the answer is absolutely nothing.

More recently, Sherman Jackson, a leading Islamic intellectual figure at the University of Southern California, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity, also waded into this discussion. In his essay, he reframed the Muslim ban as a question of identity politics rather than basic human right, pitting Muslim immigrants against what he calls ‘blackamericans’ drawing some incredibly questionable, nativist, and bigoted conclusions. Jackson in a recent blog responding to critiques by Ali al-Arian about his own questionable affiliations with authoritarian Arab regimes comments:

Al-Arian mentions that,

“the Muslim American community seemed united at least in its opposition to the Trump administration.”  He and those who make up this alleged consensus are apparently offended by Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.  But a Blackamerican sister in Chicago once asked me rhetorically why she should support having Muslims come to this country who are only going to treat her like crap.

These are baffling comments to make about ‘Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.’ Jackson creates a strawman by bringing up an anecdotal story that offers a gross generalization that clearly has prejudiced undertones of certain Muslim immigrants. Most interesting, however is how self-defeating Jackson’s invocation of identity politics is considering the fact that a large number of the ‘blackamerican’ Muslims that he is concerned about themselves have relatives from Somalia and other countries impacted by the travel ban. As of 2017, there were just over 52,000 Americans with Somali ancestry in the state of Minnesota alone. Are Somali-Americans only worth our sympathy so long as they do not have Somali spouses? What Jackson and Bin Hamid Ali do not seem to understand is that these Muslim immigrants they speak disparagingly of, by in large, are coming on family unification related visas.

Other people with large online followings have praised the comments offered by Abdullah bin Hamid Ali and Sherman Jackson. The controversial administrator of the popular The Muslim Skeptic website, Daniel Haqiqatjou, in defense of Jackson’s comments, stated:

This is the first time I have seen a prominent figure downplay the issue. And I think Jackson’s assessment is exactly right: The average American Muslim doesn’t really care about this. There is no evidence to indicate that this policy has had a significant impact on the community as a whole. Travel to the US from those four countries affected by the ban was already extremely difficult in the Obama era.

What Haqiqatjou seems to not realize is that while travel from these countries was difficult, it was not as ‘extremely difficult’ as he erroneously claims it was. The US issued 7,727 visas to Iranian passport holders in 2016 prior to the ban. After the ban in 2018, that number dropped to 1,449. My own wife was issued a B1/B2 Tourist visa to meet my family in 2016 after approximately 40 days of administrative processing which is standard for US visa seekers who hold Iranian passports. On the other hand, she was rejected for the same B1/B2 Tourist visa in 2018 after a grueling 60+ day wait due to Presidential Proclamation 9645. At the behest of the Counselor Officer where we currently live, she was told to just finish the immigration process since this would put her in a better position to receive one of these nearly impossible to get waivers. She had her interview on November 19, 2018, and we are still awaiting the results of whatever these epic, non-transparent ‘extreme vetting’ procedures yield. Somehow despite my wife being perfectly fine to enter in 2016, three years later, we are entering the 10th month of waiting for one of these elusive waivers with no end time in sight, nor any guarantee that things will work out. Tell me how this is pretty much the same as things have always been?

What these commentators seem to not realize is that the United States immigration system is incredibly rigid. One cannot hop on a plane and say they want to immigrate with an empty wallet to start of Kebab shop in Queens. It seems as if many of these people that take umbrage at the prospects of legal immigration believe that the immigration rules of 2019 are the same as they were in 1819. In the end, it is important to once again reiterate that the Muslim immigrants Jackson, Bin Hamid Ali and others are disparaging are those who most likely are the family members of American Muslim citizens; by belittling the spouses and children of American Muslims, these people are belittling American Muslims themselves.

Neo-nationalism, tribalism, and identity politics of this sort are wholly antithetical to the Islamic enterprise. We have now reached the point where people who are considered authority figures within the American Islamic community are promoting nativism and identity politics at the expense of American Muslim families. Instead of trying to rationalize the ‘so-called Muslim Ban’ via appeals to nativist and nationalist rhetoric, influential Muslim leaders and internet influencers need to demonstrate empathy and compassion for the thousands of US Muslim families being torn apart by this indefinite Muslim ban that we all know will never end so long as Donald Trump remains president. In reality, they should be willing to fight tooth-and-nail for American Muslim families. These are the same people who regularly critique the decline of the family unit and the rise of single-parent households. Do they not see the hypocrisy in their positions of not defending those Muslim families that seek to stay together?

If these people are not willing to advocate on behalf of those of us suffering— some of us living in self-imposed exile in third party countries to remain with our spouses and children— the least they can do is to not downplay our suffering or even worse, turn it into a political football (Social Justice Warrior politics vs. traditional ‘real’ Islam). It seems clear that if liberal Muslim activists were not as outspoken on this matter, these more conservative voices would take a different perspective. With the exception of Shadi Hamid, the other aforementioned names have made efforts to constrain themselves firmly to the ‘traditional’ Muslim camp. There is no reason that this issue, which obviously transcends petty partisan Muslim politics, ought to symbolize one’s allegiance to any particular social movement or camp within contemporary Islamic civil society.

If these people want a ‘traditional’ justification for why Muslim families should not be separated, they ought to be reminded that one of al-Ghazali’s 5 essential principles of the Shari’a was related to the protection of lineage/family and honor (ḥifẓ al-nasl). Our spouses are not cannon fodder for such childish partisan politics. We will continue to protect our families and their honor regardless of how hostile the environment may become for us and regardless of who we have to name and shame in the process.

When I got married over a year prior to Donald Trump being elected President, I vowed that only Allah would separate me from my spouse. I intend on keeping that vow regardless of what consequences that decision may have.

Photo courtesy: Adam Cairns / The Columbus Dispatch

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Obituary of (Mawlana) Yusuf Sulayman Motala (1366/1946 – 1441/2019)

Monday, September 9, turned out to be a day of profound anguish and sorrow for many around the world. In the early morning hours, news of the death of Mawlana* Yusuf Sulayman Motala, fondly known as “Hazrat” (his eminence) to those who were acquainted with him, spread. He had passed away on Sunday at 8:20 pm EST in Toronto, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier.

Dr. Mufti Abdur Rahman ibn Yusuf Mangera



Dar Al Uloom Bury, Yusuf Sulayman Motala

A master of hadith and Qur’an. A sufi, spiritual guide and teacher to thousands. A pioneer in the establishment of a religious education system. His death reverberated through hearts and across oceans. We are all mourning the loss of a luminary who guided us through increasingly difficult times.

Monday, September 9, turned out to be a day of profound anguish and sorrow for many around the world. In the early morning hours, news of the death of Mawlana* Yusuf Sulayman Motala, fondly known as “Hazrat” (his eminence) to those who were acquainted with him, spread. He had passed away on Sunday at 8:20 pm EST in Toronto, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier. (May the Almighty envelope him in His mercy)

His journey in this world had begun more than 70 years ago in the small village of Nani Naroli in Gujarat, India, where he was born on November 25, 1946 (1 Muharram 1366) into a family known for their piety.

His early studies were largely completed at Jami’a Husayniyya, one of the early seminaries of Gujarat, after which he travelled to Mazahir Ulum, the second oldest seminary of the Indian Sub-Continent, in Saharanpur, India, to complete his ‘alimiyya studies. What drew him to this seminary was the presence of one of the most influential and well-known contemporary spiritual guides, Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi (d. 1402/1982), better known as “Hazrat Shaykh.” He had seen Mawlana Zakariyya only briefly at a train stop, but it was enough for him to understand the magnitude of his presence.

Mawlana Yusuf remained in Saharanpur for two years. Despite being younger than many of the other students of Shaykh Zakariya, the shaykh took a great liking to him. Shaykh Zakariya showered him with great attention and even deferred his retirement from teaching Sahih al-Bukhari so that Mawlana Yusuf could study it under his instruction. While in Saharanpur, Mawlana Yusuf also studied under a number of other great scholars, such as Mawlana Muhammad ‘Aqil (author of Al-Durr al-Mandud, an Urdu commentary of Sunan Abi Dawud and current head lecturer of Hadith at the same seminary), Shaykh Yunus Jownpuri (d. 1438/2017) the previous head lecturer of Hadith there), Mawlana As‘adullah Rampuri (d. 1399/1979) and Mufti Muzaffar Husayn (d. 1424/2003).

Upon completion of his studies, Mawlana Yusuf’s marriage was arranged to marry a young woman from the Limbada family that had migrated to the United Kingdom from Gujarat. In 1968, he relocated to the UK and accepted the position of imam at Masjid Zakariya, in Bolton. Although he longed to be in the company of his shaykh, he had explicit instructions to remain in the UK and focus his efforts on establishing a seminary for memorization of Qur’an and teaching of the ‘alimiyya program. The vision being set in motion was to train a generation of Muslims scholars that would educate and guide the growing Muslim community.

Establishing the first Muslim seminary, in the absence of any precedent, was a daunting task. The lack of support from the Muslim community, the lack of integration into the wider British community, and the lack of funds made it seem an impossible endeavour. And yet, Mawlana Yusuf never wavered in his commitment and diligently worked to make the dream of his teacher a reality. In 1973 he purchased the derelict Aitken Sanatorium in the village of Holcombe, near Bury, Lancashire. What had once been a hospice for people suffering from tuberculosis, would become one of the first fully-fledged higher-education Islamic institutes outside of the Indian-Subcontinent teaching the adapted-Nizami syllabus.

The years of struggle by Maulana Yusuf to fulfil this vision paid off handsomely. Today, after four decades, Darul Uloom Al Arabiyya Al Islamiyya, along with its several sister institutes, also founded by Mawlana Yusuf, such as the Jamiatul Imam Muhammad Zakariya seminary in Bradford for girls, have produced well over 2,000 British born (and other international students) male and female ‘alimiyya graduates – many of whom are working as scholars and serving communities across the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Portugal, the US, Canada, Barbados, Trinidad, Panama, Saudi Arabia, India and New Zealand. Besides these graduates, a countless number of individuals have memorized the Qur’an at these institutes. Moreover, many of the graduates of the Darul Uloom and its sister institutes have set up their own institutes, such as Jamiatul Ilm Wal Huda in Blackburn, Islamic Dawah Academy in Leicester, Jami’ah al-Kawthar in Lancaster, UK, and Darul Uloom Palmela in Portugal, to just mention a few of the larger ones. Within his lifetime, Mawlana Yusuf saw first-hand the fruit of his labours – witnessing his grand students (graduates from his students’ institutes) providing religious instruction and services to communities around the world in their local languages. What started as a relationship of love between a student and teacher, manifested into the transmission of knowledge across continents. In some countries, such as the UK and Portugal, one would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim who had not directly or indirectly benefited from him.

Mawlana Yusuf was a man with deep insights into the needs of Western contemporary society, one that was very different from the one he had grown up and trained in. With a view to contributing to mainstream society, Mawlana Yusuf encouraged his graduates to enter into further education both in post-graduate Islamic courses and western academia, and to diversify their fields of learning through courses at mainstream UK universities. As a result, many ‘alimiyya graduates of his institutes are trained in law, mainstream medicine, natural medicine and homeopathy, mental health, child protection, finance, IT, education, chaplaincy, psychology, philosophy, pharmacy, physics, journalism, engineering, architecture, calligraphy, typography, graphic design, optometry, social services, public health, even British Sign Language. His students also include several who have completed PhDs and lecture at universities. His vision was to train British-born (or other) Muslim scholars who would be well versed in contemporary thought and discipline along with their advanced Islamic learning, equipping them to better contribute to society.

Despite his commitment to the establishment of a public good, the shaykh was an immensely private person and avoided seeking accolade or attention. For many decades he refused invitations to attend conferences or talks around the country, choosing to focus on his students and his family, teaching the academic syllabus and infusing the hearts of many aspirants with the love of Allah through regular gatherings of remembrance (dhikr) and spiritual retreats (i’tikaf) in the way of his shaykh’s Chishti Sufi order.

During my entire stay with him at Darul Uloom (1985–1997), I can say with honesty that I did not come across a single student who spoke ill of him. He commanded such awe and respect that people would find it difficult to speak with him casually. And yet, for those who had the opportunity to converse with him, knew that he was the most compassionate, humble, and loving individual.

He was full of affection for his students and colleagues and had immense concern for the Muslim Ummah, especially in the West. He possessed unparalleled forbearance and self-composure. When he taught or gave a talk, he spoke in a subdued and measured tone, as though he was weighing every word, knowing the import it carried. He would sit, barely moving and without shifting his posture. Even after a surgical procedure for piles, he sat gracefully teaching us Sahih al-Bukhari. Despite the obvious pain, he never made an unpleasant expression or winced from the pain.

Anyone who has listened to his talks or read his books can bear testimony to two things: his immense love for the Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and his love for Shaykh Mawlana Muhammad Zakariya Kandhlawi (may Allah have mercy on him). It is probably hard to find a talk in which he did not speak of the two. His shaykh was no doubt his link to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) in both his hadith and spiritual transmissions.

Over the last decade, he had retired from most of his teaching commitments (except Sahih al-Bukhari) and had reduced meeting with people other than his weekly dhikr gatherings. His time was spent with his family and young children and writing books. His written legacy comprises over 20 titles, mostly in Urdu but also a partial tafsir of the Qur’an in classical Arabic.

After the news of his heart attack on Sunday, August 25, and the subsequent effects to his brain, his well-wishers around the world completed hundreds of recitals of the Qur’an, several readings of the entire Sahih al-Bukhari, thousands of litanies and wirds of the formula of faith (kalima tayyiba), and gave charity in his name. However, Allah Most High willed otherwise and intended for him to depart this lowly abode to begin his journey to the next. He passed away two weeks later and reports state that approximately 4,000 people attended his funeral. Had his funeral been in the UK, the number of attendees would have multiplied several folds. But he had always shied away from large crowds and gatherings and maybe this was Allah Most High’s gift to him after his death. He was 75 (in Hijra years, and 72 in Gregorian) at the time of his death and leaves behind eight children and several grandchildren.

Mawlana Yusuf educated, inspired and nourished the minds and hearts of countless across the UK and beyond. May Allah Almighty bless him with the loftiest of abodes in the Gardens of Firdaws in the company of Allah’s beloved Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) and grant all his family, students, and cherishers around the world beautiful patience.

Dr Mufti Abdur-Rahman Mangera
Whitethread Institute, London
(A fortunate graduate of Darul Uloom Bury, 1996–97)

*a learned Muslim scholar especially in India often used as a form of address
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Reflections on Muslim Approaches to the Abortion Debate: The Problem of Narrow Conceptualization

American Muslims must go beyond simplistic and emotionally-charged approaches to the abortion question.

Shaykh Salman Younas




“Islam is the golden mean between all ethical extremes’ is what certain Muslims would assert… This moral assumption isn’t far from the truth.”

Shaykh Abdullah Hamid Ali in A Word on Muslim Attitudes Toward Abortion

“The golden mean is kind of a summit, and it is a struggle to get there. The ego does not want balance because you have to think and make sacrifices.”

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad in Paradigms of Leadership (6)

A few months ago, Governor Kay Ivey signed into law House Bill 134, or the Human Life Protection Act, which prohibited all abortion in the state of Alabama except in cases where it was deemed necessary to prevent a serious health risk to the mother. The bill additionally criminalized abortion or any attempt to carry it out in situations deemed non-necessary. A motion to exempt rape and incest victims from this law was defeated in the Alabama state senate, which give the state the (dubious) distinction of possessing one of the most restrictive abortion laws in America. This move by Alabama to place extreme restrictions on abortion followed a spate of similar legislative moves by other states, such as Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

This escalation in anti-abortion legislation occasioned intense debate within the Muslim community.[1] Muslims who self-identify as progressives chanted the familiar mantra of “my body, my choice” to affirm a notion of personal rights and bodily autonomy in defending a woman’s right to choose. The ideological underpinnings of this view are extremely problematic from a theological perspective, and the practical policies arising from it that sanction even late-term abortions contravene the near-consensus position of classical jurists and is rightly seen as an assault on inviolable human life. For this reason, this essay will not pay any particular attention to this view.

Several people pushed back against this permissive attitude by arguing that abortion is essentially prohibited in Islam in all but the direst of situations, such as when the life of the mother is at genuine risk. This opinion has a sound precedent in the legal tradition and is the mainstream view of some of the legal schools, but it has often been presented in a manner that fails to acknowledge the normative pluralism that exists on the matter in the shariah and rather perniciously presents these alternative opinions as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’. Similarly, those who favour the more lenient view found in other legal schools are often seen characterizing the stricter opinion as ‘right-wing’ or reflective of the Christianization of Islamic law. Despite having legal precedent on their side, both groups engaged the abortion question in a manner that was rather superficial and fundamentally problematic.


Did Jurists Only Permit Abortion in ‘Dire’ Circumstances?

I will begin this essay by offering a corrective to the mistaken notion that classical jurists only permitted abortions in cases of necessity, an assertion that has become very common in current Muslim discourse on abortion in America. One need not look much further than the Ḥanafī school to realize that this claim is incorrect. Though there are opinions within the school that only permit abortion before 120 days with the existence of a valid excuse, the view of several early leading authorities was that abortion was unconditionally permissible (mubāḥ) before this period and/or prior to the physical form and features of a fetus becoming clearly discernible.[2] In his encyclopaedic work al-Muḥīṭ al-Burhānī, Burhān al-Dīn ibn Māza (d. 616/1219) presents two main opinions on abortion in the school:

(i) It is permitted “as long as some physical human features are not clearly discernible because if these features are not discernible, the fetus is not a child (walad)” as per Fatāwā Ahl al-Samarqand. Some scholars asserted that this occurs at 120 days,[3] while others stated that this assertion, though incorrect, indicated that by discernibility jurists intended ensoulment.[4]

(ii) It is disliked because once conception occurs, the natural prognostication is life and so the fetus is granted this ruling at the moment of conception itself. This was the view of ʿAlī ibn Mūsā al-Qummī (d. 305/917-18).[5]

The first opinion of unconditional permissibility was not a solitary one in the school. It was forwarded by many of the foremost Ḥanafī authorities, such as Ḥussām al-Dīn ibn Māza (d. 536/1141),[6] Raḍī al-Dīn al-Sarakhsī (d. 575/1175),[7] Jamāl al-Dīn al-Ghaznawī (d. 593/1196),[8] Zayn al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 666/1267),[9] ʿAbd Allāh ibn Maḥmūd al-Mawṣilī (d. 683/1284),[10] Fakhr al-Dīn al-Zaylaʿī (d. 743/1343),[11] Qiwām al-Dīn al-Kākī (749/1348),[12] Jalāl al-Dīn al-Khawārizmī (d. 767/1365),[13] Kamāl ibn al-Humām (d. 861/1457),[14] Muḥyī al-Dīn Jawīzāda (d. 954/1547),[15] Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Ḥaṣkafī (d. 1088/1677),[16] and several others.[17] The reasoning underlying this view was that prior to a specific period (whether defined by days or by fetal development), a fetus is not a ‘child’ or ‘person’.[18] Therefore, no ruling is attached to it at this stage.[19]

Another opinion in the school, and one that has gained wide acceptance amongst contemporary Ḥanafī jurists, argued that abortion prior to 120 days was disliked and sinful unless carried out with a valid excuse. This view was most famously expressed by Fakhr al-Dīn Qāḍīkhān (d. 592/1196) in his Fatāwā and subsequently supported by the likes of Ibn Wahbān (d. 768/1367),[20] Ibn Nujaym (d. 970/1563),[21] and Ibn ʿĀbidīn (d. 1252/1836).[22] These sources, however, do not define or fully flesh out what constitutes an excuse, sufficing mainly with a single example as illustrative of a case where abortion would be permitted, namely when a woman ceases to produce milk on account of pregnancy and her husband is unable to provide an alternative source of sustenance for their child and fears his or her perishing. Cases of rape, incest, adultery, and other possible excuses are not discussed by most of these authors, and it is not clear whether they would have deemed these valid excuses or not.[23]

The Ḥanafī school, therefore, had three main opinions on the issue: unconditionally permissible prior to a specific time period; unconditionally disliked; and conditionally permissible prior to a specific time period. Of the three, the first view seems to have been the dominant one in the school and held by multiple authorities in virtually every century. The view of conditional permissibility was also a strong one and notably adopted by several later jurists. It is also the view that has gained currency among modern Ḥanafī scholars who are generally not seen forwarding the view of unconditional permissibility.

Some Contemporary Views on Abortion

A wide range of opinions is also found in the discourse of contemporary jurists. Shaykh Muṣṭafā Zarqā (d. 1999) presented a gradated scheme where abortion prior to 40 days was permitted without a “severe excuse”, which included “undertaking necessary travel where pregnancy and giving birth would prove a hindrance, such as for education or for work that requires a couple to move.”[24] He also considered financial strain arising from a child as a valid excuse during this limited time period. According to him, the threshold for a valid excuse would become higher as the pregnancy proceeded beyond 40 days.

Muftī Maḥmūd Ḥasan Gangohī (d. 1996), one of the foremost scholars of the Deobandī school, permitted abortions when conception occurred out of wedlock (zinā).[25]

Muftī Salmān Manṣurpūrī states emphatically that the basis is that abortion is impermissible unless there is a valid excuse before 120 days, such as the life of the mother being at risk, serious consequences to her general health, an actual inability to bear pregnancy, clear harm or danger to one’s current children, and adultery, but not fear of economic difficulty nor the decision not to have children.[26]

In Fatāwā Dār al-ʿUlūm Zakariyya, Muftī Raḍā’ al-Ḥaqq states that a fetus diagnosed by medical professionals with an incurable and serious disorder that will prove to be an extreme burden on the child and its family is permitted to abort prior to 120 days as per the Islamic Fiqh Academy in Mecca.[27] Elsewhere, he divides pregnancy into three stages. The first stage is when the general form and facial features of the fetus take shape but prior to the formation of its limbs. At this stage, it is permitted to carry out on abortion with a valid and established excuse, such as the fetus suffering from a “dangerous hereditary disease”, “physical abnormality/deformity”, the life of the mother being at risk, or reasonably-established fear of the mother’s “physical and mental health” being impacted. The second stage is when the limbs of the fetus are clearly formed and discernible, and the third stage is after 120 days. In both these stages, the respected Muftī rules that abortion is not permitted except in cases of necessity, such as saving the life of the mother.[28] The permission to abort the fetus is also extended to cases of rape.[29]

Mawlānā Zubayr Aḥmad Qāsmī (d. 2019), a founding member of the Islamic Fiqh Academy, India, argued that the permission to carry out an abortion before ensoulment (even after discernibility) is not simply restricted to cases of necessity (ḍarūra) but includes cases of need (ḥāja), which broadly includes “any situation that entails bodily or psychological harm for the parents or the child and is a cause for continual distress.”[30] Examples of valid excuses include “danger to the general health, mental health, or life of the mother”, pregnancy resulting from rape or fornication (so long as it is not someone who has engaged in the latter habitually), the strong possibility that the child will be born with serious physical abnormalities or defects as determined by a medical professional, and the genuine inability of the parents to raise and maintain/sustain more than one child without it negatively impacting their current children.[31]

Mawlānā Khālid Sayf Allāh Raḥmānī states, “Essentially, abortion is impermissible in Islam, and there is no time period in which it is acceptable to abort a fetus. However, this impermissibly has degrees. In the first scenario (i.e. post-ensoulment) it is a grievous sin and categorically prohibited; in the second scenario (i.e. pre-ensoulment but post-discernment of limbs) it is lesser than this; in the third scenario (i.e. before features/limbs become discernible) it is relatively less severe than the previous two.” He then goes on to rule that abortion is not permitted for the following reasons: not desiring more children; conception out of wedlock; or being physically or mentally unable to care for a child, since others may be able to do so. Excuses that permit abortion before ensoulment include a doctor concluding with reasonable-surety that the child will suffer from a dangerous hereditary disease, physical abnormalities, and deformities, and the life of the mother is at serious risk.[32]

There are stricter views than some of those mentioned above, especially from non-Ḥanafī scholars. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, taking the Mālikī school as his basis,[33] has argued that abortion before 40 days is prohibited “with rare exception.”[34] This view of impermissibility is also held by Shaykh Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī although he allows for a dispensation to be given to victims of rape.[35]

Shaykh ʿAbd Allāh ibn Bayya also deems abortion at all stages of pregnancy to be sinful to varying degrees except in situations where the life of the mother is at risk.[36]

Shaykh Wahba al-Zuhaylī (d. 2015) ruled that abortion was impermissible from the moment of conception “except in cases of necessity” such as being afflicted with cancer or an incurable disease.[37]

Framing the Problem: Basic Levels of Engaging the Law

The discussion so far makes one point quite evident: there are an array of opinions on the issue of abortion ranging from the extremely restrictive to the more permissive. Though ‘difference of opinion’ (ikhtilāf) has generally been viewed as one of the outstanding and unique features of Islamic legal discourse, it is precisely the range of views that exist in the tradition on abortion that partly plays a role in the problematic approaches to the issue seen amongst certain Muslims. It is not so much the differences themselves that are the issue, but the manner in which particular opinions are selected by individuals who subsequently propagate them to the community as binding doctrine.

To better understand this, one can broadly identify four basic levels of engagement with religious law applicable to Muslim leaders and scholars in the West in the context of the abortion issue,[38] which often overlap with one another: (a) personal, (b) academic, (c) fatwā, public preaching, and irshād, and (d) political.

(a) The Personal

The ‘personal’ level concerns an individual’s own practice where he or she can follow the legal school (or trusted scholar) of their choosing or decide on the rulings that govern their lives when possessing the ability to do so. This level does not directly concern anyone but the individual himself.

(b) The Academic

The ‘academic’ level in the current context refers primarily to a process of study, reflection and deduction, and research to arrive at a personal conclusion regarding some aspect of the law that is undertaken in conversation with a guild of peers and not the general population. Such academic activity is often theoretical, abstract, and conceptual, and even when it addresses more practical concerns, it constitutes a general articulation of an opinion, not an individualized responsa, that others engage with as members of a scholarly class. This scholarly class includes the ʿulamā’ and others whose input is relevant to a particular issue.

(c) Fatwā, Irshād, and Public Preaching

The realm of fatwā is exclusively for a qualified scholar. Here, the scholar enters most directly into the practical implementation of a legal ruling. Fatwā does involve an academic process, and it is often conveyed by a jurist as a universal ruling in accordance with his academic conclusions. However, the practice of fatwā is commonly understood as an answer directed by a qualified jurisconsult (muftī) to an individual (mustaftī) who requires guidance on a particular religious matter. The jurisconsult providing said individual with an answer is now tasked with translating the abstract, theoretical, and academic into a practical solution, which requires taking into account the circumstances of the questioner.[39]

The delicateness of this matter has led some scholars to compare the relationship of a jurisconsult with the questioner to that of a doctor and his patient.[40] Indeed, the answer that a scholar provides a questioner may not be fully in accordance with the theoretical and abstract conclusions the former has reached in an academic setting, it may disregard an opinion that the jurisconsult otherwise deems a valid legal interpretation because its application is not appropriate in the specific case at hand, it may be strict or lenient, in accordance with the legal school of the scholar or a dispensation from another, and it may be inapplicable to anyone but the questioner. Further, a fatwā is non-binding (unlike a judicial court ruling) and does not negate other valid opinions or peoples’ choice to follow them. This is important to note in contexts where a fatwā is issued to communicate a universal rule.

In many cases, the answer that is provided to a person is not presented as a fatwā but merely a form of religious advice or irshād. Though there is presumably a difference between these two concepts, they are sometimes indistinguishable in a Western context. Irshād has a seemingly less formal quality to it, and it can be offered by a non-scholar though the prerequisite of sound knowledge still remains. Like fatwā, the proffering of religious advice and guidance can assume a more public form and have an academic flavour to it. The articles written by non-scholars on the blogosphere, lectures and speeches delivered by speakers, and religious counsel extended to others falls within this general category of irshād. For those in leadership roles, the public nature of their work means that high standards are required even here when it comes to addressing and conveying religious issues of a complex or delicate nature.

(d) The Political

If the issuance of a fatwā and providing religious advice is a delicate matter, the process of forming, advocating for, and/or enacting laws on the political level is far greater in this regard. Such laws are made in the context of human societies and affect large swaths of people who objectively vary in their circumstances – individual, social, religious/ideological, and economic. Unlike a fatwā or irshād, once a law has been settled upon by the state, it becomes binding upon an entire population and any reasonable alternative ceases to hold validity in practice at least until the law is reviewed and amended. Exemptions are only tolerated when affirmed by the law itself. Further, law interacts with and influences society in complex ways. This is true for all forms of law, not just ones that are state-enacted.

A core question in legal philosophy is what the law ought to be or what makes a law good. The ‘good’ is a moral concept and might be described as one that is essentially contested in so far as people differ over its conception and the criteria for its application. Some emphasize the consequences of a rule (consequentialism), while others favour a deontological moral ethic or one that is virtue-centred. Each of these families of theories subsume within them further particular theories that differ with one another. There are also considerations of fairness, equity, distributive justice, enforceability, practicality, and/or efficiency that those evaluating the law might assign significant value to. These notions of morality and the good influence policy-making and legal systems.

How do Muslims approach this issue? Islam is viewed by Muslims as a comprehensive moral and philosophical system where the moral value of an act is determined by the divine will. It is the commands and prohibitions of God that render an action good or evil, and under this divine command theory, revelation is the primary source for moral knowledge.[41] However, this legal notion of moral value is not as straightforward as it sounds since a significant number of legal rulings are probabilistic in nature and differed upon. Consequently, the moral value attached to these rulings lack a decisive character, which engenders a plurality of moral outlooks. This pluralism is an indelible feature of the tradition itself creating a paradox whereby Muslims can affirm that good and evil are known through revelation, while recognizing that differences concerning moral judgments are part of the moral vision of revelation itself.

This raises important questions regarding the political approach a minority Muslim population in the West might take regarding the abortion issue. Should Muslims seek to accommodate a pluralism justified by tradition and avoid commandeering the state to coercively impose laws that negate the right of people to follow an acceptable and mainstream Islamic legal opinion?

Should Muslims simply support restrictions on abortion practices that contravene the consensus position of Islam? Or should Muslims seek to promote an opinion, or some combination of opinions, among those found in the legal schools on the basis of a reasonably defined criteria that assesses the issue holistically from the perspective of the theological, legal, ethical, and the public good?

Indeed, there are many classical opinions whose validity scholars did not accept, others that were prima facie valid but not put into practice, and classical jurists themselves erected systems to keep a check on legal chaos resulting from people being allowed to arbitrarily follow any opinion with a basis in precedent. Yet, Muslim societies always tolerated differences of opinion, and for most of its history, people living in these societies had recourse to various scholars from multiple legal schools. Unlike the centralizing and homogenizing tendencies of the modern nation-state, Islamic law was centrifugal and operated on a grass-roots level to produce self-governing societies. In many periods, this diversity was even found in judicial settings where courts were established for each of the legal schools. This was extended to non-Muslim populations living under Islamic governments as well who were accorded a high degree of autonomy. While this might strike some as a thing of the past, a nostalgic yearning for a bygone era, there are many lessons the community can draw from the attitudes and approaches of past societies.

In a political context, the notion of the ‘public good’ (maṣlaha) is particularly relevant given the scope and consequences of legislative actions, but it is a notoriously complicated one to pin down and, like the ‘good’, might be described as essentially contested. Even the basic question “who will this law or opinion impact, and in what manner” takes one into a complex maze of considerations and perspectives that demand careful attention and thought. It is hard to imagine any informed answer to this question without the input of a variety of experts. While Muslims are not quite in a position to craft legislation, influential religious activists and scholars who advocate for specific legislation and/or discourse on it to the wider community should keep the above points in made for any advocacy that proceeds in the name of religion is one that must be approached with care and seriousness.


Identifying the Problem: Beyond Personal Preferences, Emotions, and Selective Madhhab Picking

With this framework in mind, it is now possible to identify a major problem in current American Muslim discourse on abortion, which is that it does not meaningfully engage any of the levels described above save the personal. The distinction between these various engagement contexts is hardly recognized. Most public discourse on abortion promotes one traditional opinion over another based not on a rigorous standard that is grounded in revelation, theology, legal theory, ethics, the public good, and a keen awareness of human nature, the individual, political, social, and ideological currents and factors, historical trends, and the challenges of the contemporary world, but seemingly on personal opinions based on little more than a reaction to a perceived ideological threat, individual proclivities, or pure taqlīd. The mainstream opinions of the legal school simply act as tools of legitimation for one’s personal view.

The Problem of Imposition

On a personal level, this is not a problem per se, and people have their reasons to select certain views as opposed to others and even vociferously promote them in some limited capacity to friends, colleagues, or family over a session of tea or a short-lived social media feud with random individuals. However, for those in positions of leadership and influence, this cannot be the basis for a fatwā, general communal irshād, or public advocacy impacting millions of people. The imposition of the personal onto these areas in this manner is both ill-advised and potentially harmful. Even the conclusions reached by a scholar on the basis of sound academic research may be put aside in these contexts, i.e. fatwā and political activism/legislation, when the scholar feels that competing considerations and interests demand so. Thus, a scholar may believe in a reading of revelation that is extremely restrictive on abortion but recognizing the probabilistic nature of his interpretation and the variety of individual circumstances, the ethical norms of ease and warding off hardship, profound societal and economic changes, complex and strained community and family structures, the advice of other experts, and the general public good chooses not to advocate for this view as a matter of policy to be implemented as law or provided to a specific individual as a legal edict.

The Sunna Imperative for Leniency, The Lack of Depth of the Lenient

It is often forgotten that a peculiar response by some classical jurists to the degenerated state of society was not in toughening up legal prescriptions but relaxing them: “Our time is not one of avoiding the doubtful (shubuhāt), meaning if a person only avoids the impermissible, it is sufficient.”[42] This was an ethical consideration influencing the judgment of the jurist who saw it not as compromising religion nor a dereliction of his duty but part of the guidance of the sunna itself where facilitating the affairs of people was deemed important.[43] As Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad states commenting on the instruction of al-Birgivī (d. 981/1573) not to give the laity the more difficult opinion on an issue validly differed upon:

This, of course, is a Prophetic counsel. The ego doesn’t always like giving people easy options because we assume it is because of our laziness or some kind of liberal Islam. For al-Birgivī it is taqwā to give the ordinary Muslims the easier interpretations… but nowadays, we tend to assume that the narrower you are, the less compromises you make, the more the West will be angry and, therefore, the better the Muslim you must be.[44]

The Prophetic counsel that Shaykh Abdal Hakim refers to is known to many: “Make things easy and do not make them difficult.” This attitude of facilitating matters for people, granting them leniency, and not repulsing them with harshness and difficulty is a part of Islam. As Imām al-Shāṭibī stated, the removal of hardship (rafʿ al-ḥaraj) is a decisively established foundational principle in the shariah.[45] From this foundational principle arises some of the most important legal and ethical principles in the Islamic tradition, such as hardship necessitates ease, there is no harm nor reciprocating harm, harm is lifted, the lesser of two evils, taking into account the consequences of an act, custom as a source of law, and more. In fact, some jurists opined that when the evidence for an issue was contradictory or conflicting, the more lenient opinion was to be given preference due to the generality of revelatory texts affirming ease in the shariah.[46]

But there is a problem. Many of those who promote and relay the lenient Ḥanafī opinion of unconditional permissibility approach it in a manner that lacks substance. On the academic plane, even basic questions regarding this position are not addressed or understood, much less entertained. Take, for example, the difference between the statement of Ḥanafī jurists that abortion is impermissible after the physical features of the fetus become discernible and the statement of others in the school that this impermissibility comes into effect after a 120-day period. Are these the same? Who in the madhhab held these positions? Is there a clear preference for one or the other? How was discernibility understood? What features needed to be discernible? Did discernibility refer to what is normally observable by humans or to what is discernible by modern embryogenesis? How have contemporary jurists addressed this issue? Then there is the matter that one is hard-pressed to find a single contemporary Ḥanafī jurist who favours the view of unconditional permissibility. What does this reveal about this opinion and the possibility of critically evaluating past opinions that fall within the scope of differences of opinion?[47]

These questions largely fall within the parameters of an intra-school discussion and do not even begin to address the broader social and political considerations mentioned earlier.

Here, the sheer fact that there were over six-hundred thousand abortions reported in America in 2015, the latest year for which statistics exist from the CDC, should be alarming to people and cannot be callously dismissed.

Though the overwhelming majority of these occurred well within a 120-day period (≤13 weeks’ gestation, which is measured from the first day of the woman’s last menstruation and not from the day of conception), most of those who obtained these abortions were unmarried women who did so in non-dire circumstances.[48] The culture of sexual freedom out of which the abortion movement emerged and its ideological grounding in notions of bodily autonomy and personal choice cannot be ignored in this discussion.[49] Nor can the devaluing of family and motherhood,[50] the practice of female foeticide, the increasingly materialistic outlook of society, and its mechanistic view of human beings.

Additionally, some Muslims seem largely oblivious to the fact that abortion politics link to many other issues that have little do with abortion itself, such as assisted suicide or end-of-life care. In a famous district court case on assisted suicide, Compassion in Dying vs. Washington, it was Planned Parenthood vs. Casey that was cited as an important precedent to rule that a ban on physician-aided suicide was unconstitutional.[51] Clearly, it is not sufficient to make simplistic appeals to leniency to justify promulgating an opinion that leads to such wider consequences. Abortion, in other words, cannot be treated as a ‘stand-alone’ issue with little or no relation to a broader philosophical outlook that downplays a sanctity of life ethic.[52]

Thou Shalt Make No Exceptions, But Should We?

Many of the issues highlighted in the previous paragraph raise serious theological and ethical concerns for Muslims and should push them to reflect on the type of society they wish to create and sustain in America. Is the abortion movement today in line with the moral vision envisioned for society by God and His Prophet (blessings upon him)? Clearly not. But while the seriousness of this crisis cannot be understated, a core question, at least in the context of this debate, is often missed: if it is misplaced and dangerous to forward the most lenient opinion in this context, in what way does the strictest possible position on abortion where exemptions are not even extended to victims of rape and incest ameliorate the current situation? Or to put it differently, how do these social and ideological problems make the strictest possible opinion on abortion the most appropriate one to adopt for the individual and society?

The answer to this question is not usually satisfactorily provided. Generally, such a view returns to a genuine moral belief one holds regarding a fetus being an inviolable living person. This moral belief may be grounded in a preferred reading of revelation, simple adherence to a specific legal school, a reaction to a perceived ideological battle framed in the language of pro-life vs. pro-choice, personal inclinations, or, as is usually the case, some combination of these factors. But the no-exception view is at least initially a personal view one holds, which is then forwarded as a broad religious and political solution. One may wonder why this is an issue. After all, why shouldn’t a person forward what he or she personally believes to be the Islamic ruling on an issue?

Certainly, this is expected especially when it concerns human life, but as stated earlier, it is problematic when that personal view, which it should be noted in this case lacks a decisive legal/moral character from a religious perspective, moves into the realm of fatwā and public advocacy without taking into account the many considerations required to make an informed decision in these areas. This is in addition to the fact that those who hold this view feel perfectly within their rights to tell others to set aside their personal moral views permitting abortions precisely in view to a broader context.

Here, it is worth sharing the response given by Shaykh Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī when he was asked about abortions for Bosnian Muslim women who were raped during war. After mentioning that his basic view is that abortions are impermissible “from the moment of conception” and “this is what we give preference to”, he states:

However, in cases of need, there is no harm in taking one of the two alternative views (i.e. permissibility before 40 or 120 days), and whenever the excuse is more severe, the dispensation will be more established and manifest, and whenever it is before the first 40 days, it is closer to dispensation.

We know that there are jurists who are very strict on this matter and do not permit abortion even a day after conception… but what is most preferable is a middle path between those who are expansive in granting permission and those who are excessively strict in prohibition.[53]

This is, of course, how knowledge and fiqh operate. They do not merely float around in the world of the abstract but address a complex world of real people, which in the context of fatwā, irshād, and politics often requires setting aside individual feelings and personal adherences to particular legal opinions: “Know that this ikhtilāf [between scholars] may be a reason to provide facilitation and ease, which is one of the higher aims of the shariah affirmed by the unequivocal text of the Qur’an and sunna.”[54]

Too often, many of those who vociferously promote the strictest view on abortion address the issue on the level of the abstract and then transfer it to the practical realm with little further thought. Take, for example, the argument that Muslims should oppose the legalization of abortion because a majority of abortions are due to economic anxiety or a feeling of unreadiness, which in turn return to the increasingly materialistic outlook of society and crumbling family structures.

This materialistic outlook and erosion of the family must be remedied. However, no justification is ever furnished as to why a no-exception abortion stance is the best method to address this social problem, and there is almost no focus on the individual. It never crosses the mind of the proponents of this view that it is the very fact that society is materialistic to its core and the family lay in ruins that causes economic anxiety and feelings of unreadiness to be felt much more palpably and intensely by young, unmarried, pregnant women.

Web MD

By largely confining their analysis and presentation of the issue to ‘materialism’, ‘decay of family’, ‘feminism’, etc., proponents of the restrictive view (inadvertently) divert attention away from the lived realities of people. This leads to neglecting the more concrete conditions and circumstances people are subject to, such as poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, poor health, psychological issues, sexual abuse, incarceration, social inequality and stratification, and the varying abilities of people to cope with life pressures and struggles. This focus away from the individual produces an unsympathetic, even antagonistic attitude, where the solution favoured is uncompromising and rigid. The ethical is erroneously conflated with strictness even though it might entail leniency in recognition of individual and social conditions.

To take one example where these broader considerations come into play, take the issue of pregnancy resulting from rape. Though statistics regarding rape are inconsistent because the crime is so underreported, it is safe to say that hundreds of thousands of women are victims of rape every year with tens of thousands of these rapes resulting in pregnancy (approximately five percent).[55] A significantly high number of rape victims are under eighteen with many actually being under the age of twelve.[56] Victims of rape spend many weeks simply recovering from physical injuries and managing mental health symptoms, which can remain with them for years. Beyond the physical and psychological symptoms common after rape, if a rape victim decides to carry her child to term, she is forced to go through a lengthy and exhausting process to prosecute her rapist in a criminal court and contest custody in a family or dependency court.

The political and legislative context makes matters even more difficult. Not every state has legislation in place allowing for parental rights to be terminated for a rapist. Most states that do have such legislation in place require a criminal conviction of rape beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard of evidence possible, with several also requiring a civil court conviction by clear and convincing evidence that conception resulted from rape.

Some states require the rape to be of the first-degree, which is varyingly defined.[57] Generally, the chances of obtaining a conviction of first-degree rape are slim. Not only do rape crimes go unreported in a majority of cases,[58] there are numerous hurdles in the criminal justice system that disadvantage rape victims at every stage of the process, such as ‘rape myths’ that influence police, investigative officers, jurors, and judges.[59]

In most cases, a rapist will plead guilty to lesser crimes in order to avoid prolonged jail time, which would potentially allow him to gain parental rights in states requiring first or second-degree rape convictions for such rights to be terminated.[60] In view of this, one can state that the suggestion by some Muslims that abortion should not be permitted even in such contexts because a woman can simply put her child up for adoption is seriously misinformed and potentially harmful.[61] Is the correct solution in this context to support the most restrictive view on abortion?

Conclusion: Refining our Conceptualization & The Bigger Picture

American Muslims must go beyond simplistic and emotionally-charged approaches to the abortion question. This issue, like many others, cannot be properly addressed through a narrowly defined law, politics, or clash of ideologies narrative, especially at the level of individual fatwā, communal irshād, or political activism, advocacy, and legislation.

Nor can the wider community be shown direction on this issue, or have a course charted for them, merely on the basis of narrowly-informed personal opinions and proclivities neatly presented in the classical opinions of our choosing. Our approach must address the issue through real fiqh, namely deep understanding, where the question of abortion is tackled with an academic rigor that is cognizant of lived realities and is grounded in the ethics and guidance of revelation.

Today in America, a crisis we face is of an activism not based in, or guided by, real scholarship, and a scholarship that is wanting, uninspiring, and disconnected from those it seeks to guide. The first step scholars must take on this issue is to gain a proper and thorough conceptualization of the issue. No sound and effective conclusion can arise without such a conceptualization. This is true for any issue we find ourselves dealing with.

On the level of addressing the broader community, this is not an issue to be decided by an individual but a collectivity of minds coming together to exchange ideas and opinions. The laity should understand that American Muslims will not reach an agreement on this matter, and nor should we demand that they do. People will continue to forward different opinions and solutions. The progression of time will likely result in a plurality of acceptable views emerging within our context. This should not be met with confusion.

Muslims once lived in an age of ambiguity where opinions were confidently held but differences embraced. Today, we live in an age of anxiety, people with confused identities, threatened by modernity and various ideologies, so much so that “the only form of Islam [we] can regard as legitimate is a totalitarian, monolithic one” as Shaykh Abdal Hakim once remarked. Let us avoid this, allow for different perspectives, but demand higher standards from those who seek to guide us and speak on our behalf especially when the matter veers into a space that impacts people and communities in a very real way.

Finally, and most importantly, Muslims must break out of the mindset that social problems can simply be legislated away or solved through polemical battles waged on the internet against pernicious ideologies. The political and social are intimately intertwined, but it is all too common to see many Muslims neglecting the latter while imagining that the activities they are engaged in to address the political are actually meaningful and impactful. In fact, it is often detached from the real world, a mouthing of clichés and idle moralizing on social media platforms that elicits rage and fails to yield actual solutions on the ground. If television altered the meaning of being informed as Neil Postmann asserted, social media has undoubtedly taken things a step further by altering the meaning of ‘taking action’.

The erosion of family, the decay of morality, the rise of materialistic outlooks, the loss of higher purpose and meaning, and the devaluing of life must be addressed more directly through education, the creation of a real community, the nurturing and training of leaders who embody knowledge and wisdom, and the erection of structures that support peoples’ faith and anchor them in times of crisis. It should not be forgotten that these non-legal institutions play an important role in shaping behaviours and promoting social mores.

Muslims should learn from the many conservative Christian activists who, contrary to popular stereotypes, demonstrate an acute awareness of the struggles and anguish that many women contemplating abortion experience. As the prominent pro-life activist Frederica Mathewes-Green states:

This issue gets presented as if it’s a tug of war between the woman and the baby. We see them as mortal enemies, locked in a fight to the death. But that’s a strange idea, isn’t it? It must be the first time in history when mothers and their own children have been assumed to be at war. We’re supposed to picture the child attacking her, trying to destroy her hopes and plans, and picture the woman grateful for the abortion, since it rescued her from the clutches of her child.

If you were in charge of a nature preserve and you noticed that the pregnant female mammals were trying to miscarry their pregnancies, eating poisonous plants or injuring themselves, what would you do? Would you think of it as a battle between the pregnant female and her unborn and find ways to help those pregnant animals miscarry? No, of course not. You would immediately think, “Something must be really wrong in this environment.” Something is creating intolerable stress, so much so that animals would rather destroy their own offspring than bring them into the world. You would strive to identify and correct whatever factors were causing this stress in the animals.[62]

It is this realization, which arises from a perspective that looks beyond abortion as simply an ideological battle between ‘the feminist’ or ‘the liberal’, that generates a sense of empathy within many conservative Christian activists who are then motivated to assist women in concrete ways.

Take the example of Embrace Grace, a Texas-based non-profit organization, which describes its purpose as “providing emotional, practical and spiritual support for single, young women and their families who find themselves in an unintended pregnancy” and to “empower churches across the nation to be a safe and non-judging place for the girls to run to when they find out they are pregnant, instead of the last place they are welcomed because of shame and guilt.” Christians have set up hundreds of pregnancy care centers across the United States, which, despite issues of concern, provide resources and services to pregnant women. Various churches have set up support groups for single mothers and mothers-to-be, while the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) has set out to confront systemic injustices in society that lead women to seek out abortions, such as poverty.[63]

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad said reaching the golden mean requires that we think and make sacrifices. It is time for leaders, thinkers, and scholars in our community to begin thinking more deeply and contemplatively about the issue of abortion in its various contexts, and it is time for our community to sacrifice their time, wealth, and energies in providing concrete solutions and remedies that demonstrate a true concern for both the unborn and the women who carry them.

God alone is our sufficiency.

[1] References to Muslims in this article should be primarily understood as referring to people in positions of leadership and influence. In this article, I discuss some of the technical aspects surrounding the legal debate over abortion, but my intent is to simply provide a brief overview of this aspect of the debate in order for a general audience to appreciate some of the complexities of the topic.

[2] Though the term fetus technically refers to the unborn after 8 weeks of gestation, many use it to refer to the unborn throughout the period of pregnancy. I will be using the latter convention for the sake of simplicity.

[3] al-Ḥasan ibn Manṣūr al-Farghānī, Fatāwā Qāḍīkhān, on the margins of Fatāwā Hindiyya (Bulāq: al-Maṭbaʿa al-Amīriyya, 1310 A.H.), 3:410.

[4] Ibn Māza himself framed the ruling in terms of ensoulment. He stated that jurists differed on the permissibility of abortion pre-ensoulment with some permitting it. He then cited the text of Fatāwā Ahl al-Samarqand, which only speaks of discernibility. Qāḍīkhān mentioned how the discernibility of physical features and limbs was “determined” by some as occurring at 120 days. Kamāl ibn al-Humām and others correctly pointed out that observation proves otherwise but proceed to state that the connection made between discernibility and ensoulment shows that scholars intended the latter when expressing the former. Ibn ʿĀbidīn, however, questioned this. I agree for several reasons: firstly, many jurists make no reference to 120 days or ensoulment when presenting this ruling; secondly, discernibility and ensoulment are clearly different stages during the pregnancy, a fact that was known to classical scholars who sometimes applied different terms to these two stages, such as taṣwīr/ṣūra and takhlīq/khalq; and, thirdly, most Ḥanafī rulings premised on determining personhood rely on the discernibility criterion. Given this, there are two possible views in the Ḥanafī school regarding the period before which abortion is permissible: before some of the physical features of the fetus become discernible or prior to ensoulment at 120 days. Additionally, there was discussion in the Ḥanafī school on the features that were to be given consideration when assessing whether a fetus was a ‘person’. These discussions are highly significant in modern debates for if the criterion for personhood is discerning a particular physical form on the basis of observation, this potentially broadens the scope for modern Ḥanafī understandings of the concept of personhood and how/when it is established. I hope to address these issues in a separate paper. See Maḥmūd ibn Aḥmad ibn Māza, al-Muḥīṭ al-Burhānī fī al-fiqh al-Nuʿmānī, ed. Nuʿaym Ashraf Nūr Aḥmad (Karachi: Idārat al-Qur’ān wa’l-ʿUlūm al-Islāmiyya, 2004), 8:83-84; al-Farghānī, Fatāwā Qāḍīkhān, 3:410; Muḥammad Amīn ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-Muḥtār (Būlāq: al-Maṭbaʿa al-Kubrā al-Amīriyya, 1323 A.H.), 1:201.

[5] Ibn Māza, al-Muḥīṭ al-Burhānī, 8:83-84. It is worth noting that al-Qummī did not say fetus is a life at conception but that it has begun a process that concludes with life.

[6] Ḥussām al-Dīn ʿUmar ibn Māza, al-Fatāwā al-Kubrā (Istanbul: Rāghib Bāshā #619), ff. 96b.

[7] Raḍī al-Dīn al-Sarakhsī, al-Wajīz (Istanbul: Koprulu #684), ff. 116a.

[8] Jamāl al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad, al-Ḥāwī al-Qudsī, ed. Ṣāliḥ al-ʿAlī (Lebanon: Dār al-Nawādir, 2011), 2:326.

[9] Zayn al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr al-Rāzī, Tuḥfat al-Mulūk, ed. Ṣalāḥ Abū al-Ḥajj (Amman: Dār al-Fārūq, 2006), 290.

[10] ʿAbd Allāh ibn Maḥmūd al-Mawṣilī, al-Ikthiyār, ed. Shuʿayb Arna’ūṭ (Damascus: Dār al-Risāla 2009), 4:153.

[11] ʿUthmān ibn ʿAlī al-Zaylaʿī, Tabyīn al-Ḥaqā’iq Sharḥ Kanz al-Daqā’iq (Multan: Maktaba Imdādiyya, n.d.), 2:166.

[12] Amīr Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Kākī, Miʿrāj al-Dirāya (Istanbul: Koprulu #619), ff. 395b.

[13] Jalāl al-Dīn ibn Shams al-Dīn al-Khawārizmī, al-Kifāya Sharḥ al-Hidāya, on the margins of Fatḥ al-Qadīr (Cairo: Maṭbaʻat al-Maymaniyya, 1901; reprint Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, n.d.), 3:373.

[14] Kamāl ibn al-Humām, Fatḥ al-Qadīr (Cairo: Maṭbaʻat al-Maymaniyya, 1901; reprint Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, n.d.), 3:372-73.

[15] Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn Ilyās Jawīzāda, al-Īthār li-Ḥall al-Mukhtār, ed. Ilyās Qablān (Istanbul: Maktabat al-Irshād, 2016), 4:98.

[16] Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Ḥaṣkafī, al-Durr al-Mukhtār (Lebanon: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2002) 197.

[17] I am usually disinclined to list names of jurists in this manner when relating who held a specific legal opinion. One reason for this is that it creates the mistaken illusion that every one of these jurists came to this conclusion on the basis of their individual ijtihād when it may in fact simply be an exercise in taqlīd. Thus, one finds that most of these authors merely relate verbatim those who preceded them without any additional comments. However, it still indicates that these jurists accepted the ruling in question as the position of the school without qualms.

[18] When does a fetus qualify as a ‘person’ or a ‘human’? What are the necessary and sufficient features for personhood? Does personhood correspond to the beginning of life? If not, when does life begin? How is this connected to ensoulment? When does ensoulment occur? When does a fetus have moral standing? What is the nature of this moral standing over the course of a pregnancy? These are central questions in classical and modern debates on abortion. Sometimes, one finds that ‘person’, ‘human’, ‘life’, and related terms, are not properly defined, which is a problem given that conclusions regarding abortion are often premised on their proper conceptualization. Further, when attempts at proper definition are undertaken, people naturally come to different conclusions. For example, some modern pro-life philosophers argue that ‘persons’ are individuals of a rational nature and a fetus has no capacity for sentience, at least not until mid-gestation. Conception, therefore, cannot mark the beginning of a person. Yet even here, some scholars note that the fetus is a potential person. Therefore, it has some moral value and standing, but others counter with a “person-affecting restriction” that argues that merely potential people possess no moral claims. Some people work under material assumptions regarding the nature of the mind and opine that a moral person must be a ‘self’ and a necessary condition for something to be a self is some form of electrical brain activity. The bioethicist, Baruch Brody (d. 2018), also relied on this criterion of brain waves in his conception of personhood. Jane English presents a range of features or ‘factors’ that she views as being found in typical conceptions of a person: biological, psychological, rationality, social, and legal. There are religious conservative thinkers who define being human on the basis of genetics. John T. Noonan stated, “The positive argument for conception as the decisive moment of humanization is that at conception the new being receives the genetic code. It is this genetic information which determines his characteristics, which is the biological carrier of the possibility of human wisdom, which makes him a self-evolving being. A being with a human genetic code is man.” Many religious conservatives also maintain that there is no moment during pregnancy that can be identified as conferring moral significance on the unborn, i.e. it possesses moral standing before birth and after. Thus, brain waves, sentience, quickening, viability, physical human form, etc., are given no consideration as points at which moral standing is affirmed for the fetus and prior to which it is denied. For important early works on this topic see John T. Noonan, The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970); Jane English, “Abortion and the Concept of a Person,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 5, no. 2 (1975): 233-43; Baruch Brody, Abortion and the Sanctity of Life (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1975); Stephen Buckle, “Arguing From Potential,” Bioethics 2, no. 3 (1988): 226–253; Mary Anne Warren, Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Michael Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983); Richard Warner, “Abortion: The Ontological and Moral Status of the Unborn,” Social Theory and Practice 3 (1974). The literature on this is vast.

Classical jurists of Islam were guided fundamentally by revelation in their answers to these questions, but they still had substantial disagreements. Some identified a fetus as a person from the moment of conception, others as potentially so, yet others as a person only when its physical features became discernible, while some seemingly assigned no status to it at any fetal stage prior to ensoulment. When it came to ensoulment, the majority said this occurred at 120 days, while others said 40 days. Some equated ensoulment with personhood, while others distinguished between them. There were other conceptual frames utilized in discussions concerning the fetus as well, such as dhimma and ḥuqūq, being ‘animate’ or ‘inanimate’, a constituent part (juz’) of the mother or a separate self (nafs), and so forth. This occasioned a degree of ambiguity regarding the moral standing of the fetus at various stages of pregnancy. For example, Imām al-Ghazālī prohibited abortion at all stages of pregnancy but stated that the sin of doing so is less severe in earlier stages than later ones. Some jurists deemed it permissible to undergo an abortion due to a minor excuse in the first 40 days, requiring a more serious excuse from that point up until 120 days, and impermissible in all but the direst of situations following ensoulment. The fetus, therefore, seems to have a diminished moral standing at the beginning of the pregnancy and full moral standing post-ensoulment even in the eyes of jurists who affirmed personhood from conception. This is also reflected in rulings concerning financial compensation (ghurra) and expiation (kaffāra) owed by someone who causes a woman to miscarry. Meanwhile, many Ḥanafīs seemed to have assigned no moral status to the fetus before it had a discernible human form. The moral standing of the fetus was also influenced by the manner of conception with some jurists suggesting that a fetus conceived out of wedlock was not similar to a fetus that was conceived through a religiously sanctioned relationship. Besides revelation, observation played an important role in these determinations, as did the specific legal traditions jurists operated within. Today, science and embryology have guided the conclusions of many scholars, which has raised questions regarding the epistemological and interpretive value of the former. There is arguably a need to go beyond limited legal conceptions of personhood and life and engage in deeper theological and philosophical discussions on this matter.

[19] This ruling was consistent with several others in the school regarding whether a miscarried fetus is named, shrouded, and washed, whether a miscarriage concludes the waiting-period of a pregnant woman, and even whether a fetus is resurrected in the next-life. These rulings, among others, returned to whether the miscarried or stillborn fetus was actually considered a child/person, which in turn related to the formation and discernibility of its physical features. I believe this strengthens the view that discernibility of physical features was the main criterion for personhood in the Ḥanafī school. For some of these rulings see Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī, al-Aṣl, ed. Mehmet Boynūkālin (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 2012), 1:296, 4:415, 481, 5:144. This interconnectedness of legal doctrine, or its organic unity, is expressed in a famous aphorism, “The law is a seamless web.” These discussions are also present in the other three legal schools.

[20] Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Wahhāb ibn Wahbān, ʿIqd al-Qalā’id wa-Qayd al-Sharā’id, ed. ʿAbd al-Jalīl al-ʿAṭā (Damascus: Maktabat al-Fajr, 2000), 195.

[21] Zayn al-Dīn ibn Nujaym, al-Baḥr al-Rā’iq (Cairo: al-Maṭbaʿa al-ʿIlmiyya, 1893; reprint by H.M. Saeed, n.d.), 3:215.

[22] Muḥammad Amīn ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-Muḥtār (Būlāq: al-Maṭbaʿa al-Kubrā al-Amīriyya, 1323 A.H.), 2:388-89.

[23] The Hidāya mentions that a child conceived out of wedlock is still muḥtaram and so cannot be aborted. Imām ʿAbd al-Ḥayy al-Lakhnawī mentions that this only applies to a fetus that has reached the stage of post-discernibility. He then goes onto state that the fatwā position in his time is that it would be permissible pre-discernibility and post-discernibility. See Burhān al-Dīn al-Marghinānī, al-Hidāya Sharḥ Bidāyat al-Mubtadī maʿa Sharḥ al-ʿAllāma ʿAbd al-Ḥayy al-Lakhnawī, ed. Naʿīm Ashraf Nūr Aḥmad (Karachi: Idārat al-Qur’ān wa’l-ʿUlūm al-Islāmiyya, 1417 A.H.), 3:25.

[24] Muṣṭafā Zarqā, Fatāwā (Damascus: Dār al-Qalam, 2010), 285.

[25] Maḥmūd Ḥasan Gangohī, Fatāwā Maḥmūdiyya (Karachi: Idārat al-Fārūq, 2009), 18:321.

[26] Sayyid Muḥammad Salmān Manṣurpūrī, Kitāb al-Nawāzil (Muradabad: al-Markaz al-ʿIlmī lil-Nashr wa’l-Taḥqīq, 2016), 16:248-81.

[27] Muftī Raḍā’ al-Ḥaqq, Fatāwā Dār al-ʿUlūm Zakariyya (Karachi: Zam Zam Publishers, 2015), 6:756.

[28] Ibid., 6:755.

[29] Ibid., 6:763.

[30] Zubayr Aḥmad Qāsmī, “Khāndānī Manṣūbabandī,” in Jadīd Fiqhī Mabāḥith (Karachi: Idārat al-Qur’ān, 2009), 1:332.

[31] Ibid., 1:331-32.

[32] Khālid Sayf Allāh Raḥmānī, Kitāb al-Fatāwā (Karachi: Zam Zam Publishers, 2008), 6:218-226

[33] The relied-upon position in the Mālikī school prohibits abortions almost entirely even if done prior to ensoulment, which Mālikī jurists opine as occurring at 40 days.


[35] Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī, Fatāwa al-Muʿaṣara (Cairo: Dār al-Qalam, 2005), 2:541-50.

[36] ʿAbd Allāh ibn Bayya, Ṣināʿ at al-Fatwā wa-Fiqh al-Aqaliyyāt (UAE: Masār lil-Tibāʿa wa’l-Nashr, 2018), 577-78.

[37] Wahba al-Zuhaylī, al-Fiqh al-Islāmī wa-Adillatuhu (Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1985), 3:557.

[38] The delineation and explanation I have presented here should not be seen as a comprehensive exposition of the concepts being discussed. Rather, it should be seen as a basic explanatory framework to understand the problem I wish to highlight in the next section. I have intentionally left out many details surrounding fatwā, siyāsa, taqlīd, etc., for the sake of the average reader.

[39] Muḥammad Kamāl al-Dīn al-Rāshidī, al-Miṣbāḥ fī Rasm al-Muftī wa-Manāhij al-Iftā’ (Deoband: Ittiḥād Book Depot, n.d.), 61-62 in the Takmila; Ibn Bayya, Ṣināʿ at al-Fatwā, 28-29, 230.

[40] al-Rāshidī, al-Miṣbāḥ, 28.

[41] ʿ Abd al-Malik ibn Yūsuf al-Juwaynī, Kitāb al-Irshād ilā Qawāṭiʿ al-Adilla fī Uṣūl al-Iʿtiqād, ed. Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Raḥīm (Cairo: Maktabat al-Thaqāfa al-Dīniyya, 2009), 210-11. This is admittedly a simplification of a very complex debate on the role of reason, its meaning and limitations, its relationship to revelation, deontological vs teleological theories of Islamic normative ethics, and more. These were issues of fundamental debate between the great theological schools, namely the Ashʿarīs, Māturīdis, and the Muʿtazila.

[42] Ibrāhīm ibn Ḥusayn Bīrīzāda, ʿUmdat Dhawī al-Baṣā’ir li-Ḥall Muhimmāt al-Ashbāh wa’l-Naẓā’ir, ed. Ilyās Qablān & Ṣafwat Kawsa (Istanbul: Maktabat al-Rushd, 2016), 2:415.

[43] This is also seen in the tradition of rukhas, or dispensations, and ḥiyal, or legal stratagems/loopholes.

[44] From his Paradigms of Leadership (6) lecture series.

[45] Ibrāhīm ibn Mūsā al-Shāṭibī, al-Muwāfaqāt, ed. Mashhūr Ḥasan (Cairo: Dār Ibn ʿ Affān, 1997), 1:520.

[46] For reference to this see Ibn Bayya, Ṣināʿ at al-Fatwā, 273-75.

[47] One might state that these people are simply engaging in a form of taqlid. This is fair, but there is still a level of diligence and rigor expected from anyone who wishes to publicly opine on a matter of such nature.


[49] Take the following statements made by Judith Thomson in her well-known defence of abortion, which continues to be loudly echoed by the pro-choice movement: “My own view is that if a human being has any just, prior claim to anything at all, he has a just, prior claim to his own body” and “No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body.” The violinist analogy she forwards, among others, expresses this point quite clearly. See Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 1 (1971): 48, 54.

[50] The sociologist Kristen Luker noted over three decades ago that pro-life and pro-choice activists were mainly divided due to their differing views on the meaning of sexuality, motherhood, and the role of women. See Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Berkeley (California: University of California Press, 1984), especially Ch 7.

[51] Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 850 F. Supp. 1454 (WD Wash. 1994). This was unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court in 1997.

[52] The phrase ‘sanctity-of-life’ has featured prominently in theological, political, and biomedical ethical discussions related to abortion and end-of-life questions. Some members of congress, for example, have tried repeatedly to introduce a ‘Sanctity-of-Life Act’ to protect the unborn. However, the origins, meaning, and application of the phrase remain unclear and heavily debated. For a basic overview see the edited volume Sanctity of Life and Human Dignity (Boston: Springer Dordrecht, 1996).

[53] al-Qaraḍāwī, Fatāwa al-Muʿaṣara, 2:609-13.

[54] Ibn Bayya, Ṣināʿ at al-Fatwā, 273.

[55] The Federal House Bill 1257 that passed in 2015 as the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act cites between 25,000 and 32,000 pregnancies from rape annually but this is almost certainly an underestimate.

[56] For details on these and other related statistics see

[57] For detailed information regarding state statutes and provisions on the termination of pregnancy in contexts of children born as a result of sexual assault see

[58] For statistics on this see the Department of Justice Criminal Victimization analysis (revised, 2018) at There are several reasons why women choose not to report such crimes, which include fear of retaliation, shame and guilt, and a belief that police will not be able to help them.

[59] For a brief discussion on existing research around rape myths see Olivia Smith & Tina Skinner, “How Rape Myths Are Used and Challenged in Rape and Sexual Assault Trials,” Social & Legal Studies 26, no. 4 (2017): 442-45.

[60] Rachael Kessler, “Due Process and Legislation Designed to Restrict the Rights of Rapist Fathers,” Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy, no. 10, vol 1 (2015): 199-229.

[61] There is a sensitive discussion surrounding the definition of rape in Islamic law specifically as it relates to intimate married partners. I have ignored this issue because it would distract from the main purpose of this article.


[63] There have been initiatives in the Muslim community directed at addressing these pressing issues, such as the work of Dr. Aasim Padela of the University of Chicago and his Initiative on Islam and Medicine, Dr. Rafaqat Rashid and the work of al-Balagh Academy, Dr. Mansur Ali of Cardiff University and his research on bioethics, and several others. This is not to mention the many individuals who have tried to create practical spaces to assist people who may find themselves in difficult life circumstances. While there is much more to do, the efforts of these people should not go unnoticed.

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