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What Does Sharia Really Say About Abortion in Islam

Abortion is not a simple option of being pro-life or pro-choice, Islam recognizes the nuance.

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The following article on abortion is based on a research paper titled ‘The Rights of the Fetus in Islam’, at the Department of Sharia at Qatar University. My team and I presented it to multiple members of the faculty. It was approved by the Dean of the Islamic Studies College, an experienced and reputed Islamic authority.

In one swoop, liberal comedian Deven Green posing as her satirical character, Mrs. Betty Brown, “America’s best Christian”, demonized both Sharia law as well as how Islamic law treats abortion. Even in a debate about a law that has no Muslim protagonist in the middle of it, Islam is vilified because apparently, no problem in the world can occur without Islam being dragged into it.

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It is important to clarify what Sharia is before discussing abortion. Sharia law is the set of rules and guidelines that Allah establishes as a way of life for Muslims. It is derived from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which is interpreted and compiled by scholars based on their understandings (fiqh). Sharia takes into account what is in the best interest for individuals and society as a whole, and creates a system of life for Muslims, covering every aspect, such as worship, beliefs, ethics, transactions, etc.

Muslim life is governed by Sharia – a very personal imperative. For a Muslim living in secular lands, that is what Sharia is limited to – prayers, fasting, charity and private transactions such as not dealing with interest, marriage and divorce issues, etc. Criminal statutes are one small part of the larger Sharia but are subject to interpretation, and strictly in the realm of a Muslim country that governs by it.

With respect to abortion, the first question asked is:

“Do women have rights over their bodies or does the government have rights over women’s bodies?”

The answer to this question comes from a different perspective for Muslims. Part of Islamic faith is the belief that our bodies are an amanah from God. The Arabic word amanah literally means fulfilling or upholding trusts. When you add “al” as a prefix, or al-amanah, trust becomes “The Trust”, which has a broader Islamic meaning. It is the moral responsibility of fulfilling one’s obligations due to Allah and fulfilling one’s obligations due to other humans.

The body is one such amanah. Part of that amanah includes the rights that our bodies have over us, such as taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally – these are part of a Muslim’s duty that is incumbent upon each individual.

While the Georgia and Alabama laws in the United States that make abortion illegal after the 6-week mark of pregnancy are being mockingly referred to as “Sharia Law” abortion, the fact is that the real Sharia allows much more leniency in the matter than these laws do.

First of all, it is important to be unambiguous about one general ruling: It is unanimously agreed by the scholars of Islam that abortion without a valid excuse after the soul has entered the fetus is prohibited entirely. The question then becomes, when exactly does the soul enter the fetus? Is it when there is a heartbeat? Is it related to simple timing? Most scholars rely on the timing factor because connecting a soul to a heartbeat itself is a question of opinion.

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The timing then is also a matter of ikhtilaf, or scholarly difference of opinion:

One Hundred and Twenty Days:

The majority of the traditional scholars, including the four madhahib, are united upon the view that the soul certainly is within the fetus after 120 days of pregnancy, or after the first trimester.

This view is shaped by  the following hadith narrated by Abdullah bin Masood raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him):

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: إن أحدكم يجمع خلقه في بطن أمه أربعين يوما ثم يكون في ذلك علقة مثل ذلك ثم يكون في ذلك مضغة مثل ذلك ثم يرسل الملك فينفخ فيه الروح..

“For every one of you, the components of his creation are gathered together in the mother’s womb for a period of forty days. Then he will remain for two more periods of the same length, after which the angel is sent and insufflates the spirit into him.”

Forty Days:

The exception to the above is that some scholars believe that the soul enters the fetus earlier, that is after the formation phase, which is around the 40 days mark of pregnancy.

This view is based on another hadith narrated by Abdullah bin Masood raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him):

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: إذا مر بالنطفة إثنتان وأربعون ليلة بعث الله إليها ملكاً، فصوره، وخلق سمعها وبصرها وجلدها ولحمها وعظمها…

“If a drop of semen spent in the womb forty-two nights, Allah sends an angel to it who depicts it and creates its ears, eyes, skin, flesh and bones.”

Between the two views, the more widespread and popular opinion is the former, which is that the soul enters the fetus at the 120 days (or 4 months) mark, as the second hadith implies the end of the formation period of the fetus rather than the soul entering it.

Even if one accepts that the soul enters the fetus at a certain timing mark, it does not mean that the soul-less fetus can be aborted at any time or for any reason. Here again, like most matters of Islamic jurisprudence, there is ikhtilaf of scholarly difference of opinion.

No Excuse Required:

One of the branches of the Hanafi madhhab is the most lenient, allowing abortion during the first trimester, even without an excuse.
Other branches of the Hanafi madhhab are more strict on this matter. For a more detailed explanation of the Hanafi madhhab, refer to Sh. Salman Younas’ article: Reflections on Muslim Approaches to the Abortion Debate: The Problem of Narrow Conceptualization.

Only Under Extreme Risks:

The Malikis are the most strict in this matter; they do not allow abortion even if it is done in the first month of pregnancy unless there is an extreme risk to the mother’s health.

Other Views:

As for the Shafi’i and Hanbali schools of thought, there are multiple opinions within the schools themselves, some allowing abortion, some only allowing it in the presence of a valid excuse.

Valid excuses differ from scholar to scholar, but with a strong and clear reason, permissibility becomes more lenient. Such cases include forced pregnancy (caused by rape), reasons of health and other pressing reasons.

For example, consider a rape victim who becomes pregnant. There is hardly a more compelling reason (other than the health of the mother) where abortion should be permitted. A child born as a result in such circumstances will certainly be a reminder of pain and discomfort to the mother. Every time the woman sees this child, she will be reminded of the trauma of rape that she underwent, a trauma that is generally unmatched for a woman. Leaving aside the mother, the child himself or herself will lead a life of suffering and potentially neglect. He or she may be blamed for being born– certainly unjust but possible with his or her mother’s mindset. The woman may transfer her pain to the child, psychologically or physically because he or she is a reminder of her trauma. One of the principles of Sharia is to ward off the greater of two evils. One can certainly argue that in such a case where both mother and child are at risk of trauma and more injustice, then abortion may indeed be the lesser of the two.

The only case even more pressing than rape would be when a woman’s physical health is at risk due to the pregnancy. Where the risk is clear and sufficiently severe (that is can lead to some permanent serious health damage or even death) if the fetus remained in her uterus, then it is unanimously agreed that abortion is allowed no matter what the stage of pregnancy. This is because of the Islamic principle that necessities allow prohibitions. In this case, the necessity to save the life of the mother allows abortion, which may be otherwise prohibited.

This is the mercy of Sharia, as opposed to the popular culture image about it.

Furthermore, the principle of preventing the greater of two harms applies in this case, as the mother’s life is definite and secure, while the fetus’ is not.

Absolutely Unacceptable Reason for Abortion:

Another area of unanimous agreement is that abortion cannot be undertaken due to fear of poverty. The reason for this is that this mindset collides with having faith and trust in Allah. Allah reminds us in the Quran:

((وَلَا تَقْتُلُوا أَوْلَادَكُمْ خَشْيَةَ إِمْلَاقٍ ۖ نَّحْنُ نَرْزُقُهُمْ وَإِيَّاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ قَتْلَهُمْ كَانَ خِطْئًا كَبِيرًا))

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty, We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin.” (Al-Israa, 31)

Ignorance is not an excuse, but it is an acceptable excuse when it comes to mocking Islam in today’s world. Islam is a balanced religion and aims to draw ease for its adherents. Most rulings concerning fiqh are not completely cut out black and white. Rather, Islamic rulings are reasonable and consider all possible factors and circumstances, and in many cases vary from person to person.

Abortion is not a simple option of being pro-life or pro-choice. These terms have become political tools rather than sensitive choices for women who ultimately suffer the consequences either way.

Life means a lot more than just having a heartbeat. Islam completely recognizes this. Thus, Islamic rulings pertaing to abortion are detailed and varied.

As a proud Muslim, I want my fellow Muslims to be confident of their religion particularly over sensitive issues such as abortion and women’s rights to choose for themselves keeping the Creator of Life in focus at all times.

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Reem Shaikh is a 21-year-old American Muslim, born and raised in Houston. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the department of Sharee’ah at Qatar University in Doha. Reem is starting her Masters in Theology at Harvard University this fall. After completing the memorization of Qur’an at the age of 7, Reem earned her ijazah in the Hafs recitation and is now working on other recitations.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Spirituality

    May 21, 2019 at 4:40 PM

    Jazaki Allahu Khayran for this enlightening article, providing the range of views in Islam regarding this contentious topic.

    Only issue: I would not translate the word ‘nutfa’ as ‘semen’ in this case. Nutfa actually ‘a drop of fluid’ and can refer to male reproductive fluid, female reproductive fluid, or a mix of both.

    Semen refers specifically to the male reproductive fluid. The hadith refers to ‘nutfa’ passing 42 days in the womb. Sperm, the reproductive element in the semen, have a lifespan of 5 days – unless the sperm joins an egg (from the woman) to create an fertilized egg. So, this hadith cannot be referring to semen.

    As an aside: people may assume that sperm ‘come first’ and they wait for the egg, therefore, the embryo is simply ‘modified sperm.’ but that is not always the case. During ovulation, the egg may ‘arrive first’ and wait for sperm.

    Furthermore, the contribution of an egg to a human is much greater than that of the sperm: Sperm just provide DNA, but the egg provides an equal amount of DNA, but also cytoplasm, organelles, structural elements such as microtubules, etc.

    • Reem Shaikh

      May 23, 2019 at 9:07 PM

      The translation of hadtih was taken from an official source. The word ‘nutfa’ has multiple translations as there is no exact word for it in English, but the meaning of it is understood from the context of the hadith.

      • Sithara

        May 25, 2019 at 3:27 PM

        Jazaki Allahu Khayran for your response.

        Unfortunately, ‘official Islamic sources’ do not always really understand the modern sciences. Its one of the crises we are facing today: experts in the Islamic sources are not necessarily experts in these secular fields, and experts in the secular fields are not necessarily experts in the Islamic sciences.

        This dilemma is well address by scholars (Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi for one).

        I do agree that the shade meaning of the term ‘nutfa’ is understood in the context of the hadith – but sadly, the English translation actually confounds and confuses.

        We should aim to be as accurate as we possibly can when we translate texts. This is the best way to try to preserve the nuance and beauty of the Quran and hadith – and their miraculous nature.

        The choice of translation used can even influence claims of Islamic Law. For instance, certain translators of Sura Nur, verse 31 translate ‘khumur’ (pl of Khimar) as ‘veil’ (noting in parenthesis that this includes the face) but it actually means ‘head-cover.’

        It is in that spirit that I bring up this issue. Anyway, I wish you a blessed last 10 nights of Ramadan, and wish you the very best in your endeavors.

      • Spirituality

        May 25, 2019 at 3:28 PM

        I recommend anyone interested in this issue to take courses in human embryology. Its absolutely astonishing how we are created, alhamdhulillah! And how accurately the Quran and Sunnah describe this process – wow.

        Its definitely an iman booster for me – and, it may influence you ideas on abortion (it did for me).

  2. Ismail Royer

    May 21, 2019 at 7:23 PM

    This is a disappointing piece. It is heavily skewed towards the view permitting abortion without an excuse before 120 days with only a nominal mention of the view that it is haram after conception, and very cursory discussion of the opinions that set strict conditions on abortion before ensoulment. There is no discussion of the view that abortion is not permitted in the case of rape on the basis that children should not suffer for the sins of their father.

    The beginning and the end of this piece demonstrate that the goal was coping with someone who “mocked” Islam. We are not properly conveying Islam if we skew our views in response to mockery, rather we fall short in our duty to convey the truth and call to what is right and forbid evil and harm. May Allah guide us to understand our religion and give us the confidence to convey it as it is.

    • Maheen Siddiqi

      May 22, 2019 at 1:32 PM

      Ismail Royer:

      Regarding your comment about the sins of the father-

      What about the rape victim suffering for the sins of her attacker? Many women die in labor. Should we not protect the sanctity of the life which already exists?

    • Zeemar

      May 23, 2019 at 5:49 AM

      What you talking about bro? She is presenting the generally accepted overall opinions on the issue not minority opinions. It seems you want it skewed to your chosen minority position of complete prohibition.

  3. Abdul

    May 21, 2019 at 7:31 PM

    Well written and informed. Thank you for educating me on this matter. Jazaki Allahu Khayr

  4. Sujjad

    May 22, 2019 at 11:21 AM

    MuslimMatters is now publishing high school book reports judging by the quality of this.

  5. Umm Zayd

    May 22, 2019 at 12:41 PM

    Your comment is unfair and unkind, Sujjad. The author has written a well-balanced article that can serve as a springboard for more research and discussion. It succinctly explains Sharia law’s nuanced approach to laws and dispels the belief that it is unbending and misogynistic.

    Do you really expect a magazine article to read like a PhD dissertation? Few people have the patience to read beyond one page these days. Magazine articles must be concise. Those who require more in-depth information on this topic can consult scholars, but at least this article addresses the basics.

    Unless you are finding the courage to address these issues on a public format, and unless you are researching, writing,and editing articles yourself, you have no room to criticize.

  6. Tony

    May 23, 2019 at 12:34 AM

    The Hanafi school has major early scholars opining impermissibility before 120 days as well. There is no opinion on abortion from Imam Abu Hanifa and his two fellows.

    Ali bin Musa al-Qummi (d. 305) and Qadhikhan (d. 592) have declared abortion before 120 days impermissible.

  7. Michael

    May 25, 2019 at 3:31 PM

    The problem with this article is that it doesn’t mention that the vast majority of abortions are performed for convenience (i.e. not involving a serious threat to the mother’s health, rape or incest).

  8. Mahwish Hamdani

    May 26, 2019 at 10:05 AM

    JAk for information

  9. Nasir

    May 28, 2019 at 11:07 AM

    I am interested to know which scholars have permitted abortion due to rape? Also, which Hanafi scholars (currently living) have stated that abortion is permissible in the first trimester without any valid excuse? JazakAllahu Khayran

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