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Family Planning

Donna Lee Bowen
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Family Planning

Concern with population growth rates over the past fifty years, coupled with worries about economic and social development have spurred debate on the use of family planning measures by Muslims. In terms of popular usage, family planning—used to space rather than prevent births—has become increasingly accepted. The average number of children born to women in Muslim countries has decreased by around 60 per cent since 1970. Despite this substantial drop, the Muslim population is expected to grow at around twice the rate of non-Muslims for the next twenty years if current trends continue. By 2030, Muslim populations are predicted to drop to around replacement rates (2.2 total fertility rate, or TFR, meaning the number of children born to a woman in her lifetime) while non-Muslim states’ total fertility rates are projected to be well below that, at .7 on average.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, populations in Muslim countries grew slowly, as high birth rates were offset by high mortality rates. Following World War II and continuing in the early twenty-first century, countries with a majority of Muslim citizens are, generally speaking, characterized by birth rates that have declined substantially, and are coupled with a strong rise in life expectancy. Muslim countries of sub-Saharan Africa are a major exception, as their total fertility rates remain high. A variety of factors have combined to decrease the total fertility rate in many Muslim countries. They include availability of medical services, widespread community health and sanitation programs, greater literacy, the education and higher status of women, migration to urban areas, and employment availability. As a result, population growth has slowed considerably. These figures differ by region. Muslim minority, less-developed countries, have less fewer children (2.6 TFR, 2010–2015) than Muslim-majority countries (2.9 TFR, 2010–2015), and non-Muslim majority, more developed countries still fewer (1.6 TFR, 2010–2015).

Although some Muslim countries have the resources to support a growing population, others with more limited resources fear the impact of population growth on their ability to provide services and generate employment for their citizens. National family planning programs have been implemented successfully in a number of countries. Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, with a few exceptions, have slowed their rate of natural increase considerably; some, particularly in the Middle East, have accomplished this objective without a national program. In many countries, incorporating family planning into national maternal and child health pPrograms helped increase its use. Progress in guaranteeing good health care for women, as well as raising women’s status in general, has correlated strongly with increased contraceptive prevalence. Lower birth rates reflect not only family planning use, but also better women’s health and higher women’s literacy levels.

Since the beginning of Islam, the Muslim community has encouraged large families, to ensure a strong and vibrant Muslim population. However, religious scholars (ʿulamā) assert the religious permissibility of family planning in the fiqh (jurisprudence) literature on marriage and family. The Qurʾān makes no mention of family planning measures, but a few ḥadīth texts mention ʿazl (coitus interruptus, or withdrawal) as a means of birth control. The fiqh discussion centers on the question of the permissibility of ʿazl, and schools differ in their response. ʿAzl used for no reason is judged to be makrūh (reprehensible), but major variables which determine its permissibility include the status of the woman involved (free or slave) and whether she gives her consent to its use. As ʿazl is considered to be detrimental to the woman, depriving her of her right to children, free women, but not slave women, had the right to consent to its use. Jurists noted that sexual intercourse was not only for the purpose of procreation; wives also had the right to sexual pleasure. The minority of ʿulamā who opposed use of ʿazl interpreted its use as infanticide. Almost all major jurisprudence traditions, both Sunnī and Shīʿah, accorded women a say in the use of family planning and considered it a permissible practice.

As the jurists were male and ʿazl was controlled by the male partner, this was the only contraceptive method discussed in the fiqh literature. Medical texts, however, document that women have utilized a variety of other means of contraception. These methods included infusions, suppositories, sexual techniques, and magic.

Contemporary ʿulamā tend to resolve the religious permissibility of family planning along the same lines of reasoning as their medieval colleagues. The twentieth century introduced a variety of contraceptive methods whose usage is primarily controlled by women. Accordingly, the majority of ʿulamā rule that use of contraceptive methods is permissible for Muslims as long as the husband and the wife agree to it. This position follows the logic of the classical texts in that, although use of contraception may be injurious to the wishes of one spouse, if both agree, then the rights of both are guaranteed. The major stipulation is that family planning methods must remain temporary, not permanently alter what God has created, and not destroy a living being. Methods such as sterilization of the husband by vasectomy or the wife by tubal ligation are forbidden as permanent alterations, although they are increasingly sought by women and men who have completed childbearing. If physicians assure that these methods are reversible, some consider the procedures religiously permissible. An exception is to guarantee health; a physician’s verdict on the medical necessity of sterilization (as well as abortion) has priority and renders the procedure permissible. Islamically justified reasons for using family planning may include avoiding the economic hardships associated with a large family, and allowing for the education and good upbringing of one’s children, as well as the mother’s health. A famous reason given by classical jurists is to preserve the beauty and grace of the wife.

Less well-educated religious leaders in small towns and villages often hold that family planning is prohibited by Islam. Their reasoning follows a different line, which is argued on deterministic grounds. They base their premise on a ḥadīth that states: “Marry, have children and multiply that I will be proud of you on Judgment Day.” They prohibit family planning on the basis that it opposes the supremacy of the will of God. Some countries have introduced education programs to train these religious leaders in line with the positions of more educated religious leaders.

Some Muslim scholars, as well as economists and development experts, have challenged Islam's pronatalist policy by questioning whether the traditional way of defining the strength of Islam as proportional to the number of its adherents still applies. Maḥmūd Shaltūt, rector of al-Azhar University during the early part of the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, in a classic statement argued for both the permissibility of family planning and the role of the state in implementing family planning programs. Although in early Islam, strength was equated with a large population, Shaltūt maintained that in the twentieth century, large populations may weaken rather than strengthen communities. Factors such as poverty, malnutrition, and lessened public morality that are concomitant with large populations in developing areas all make the Muslim community vulnerable to enemies. Shaltūt stated that if family planning would contribute to alleviation of these social ills, it was permissible in Islam; he implied that the state was responsible for the facilitation of such programs.

Contemporary ʿulamā and political leaders who oppose family planning generally cite reasons having as much to do with politics as religion. The terms used for contraception often indicate political stances. “Birth control” (taḥdīd al-naṣl) carries the negative sense of limiting or eliminating progeny; “family planning” (al-takhṭīṭ al-ʿā'ilī or tanz̳īm al-usrah) has a more positive connotation of spacing births in the best interests of all family members. While most ʿulamā hold that any family has the option privately to employ family planning measures, most also uphold the general principle of supporting strong families, and oppose government programs which set limiting birth as a national policy rather than a tool to strengthen families.

While many political Islamists espouse a moderate view on family planning, some inveigh against national programs and birth control. Abul Aʿla Maududi (d. 1979), the philosopher and political leader, stated that a movement designed to limit or stop reproduction is repugnant to Islam. Religiously based political parties in Pakistan and Bangladesh state that family planning is both unnecessary and counter to Islamic belief. Rather, Muslims should rely on God for sustenance and further Muslim inventiveness and dedication in the conquest of the desert and better use of resources. In surveys on unmet need for contraception, a small minority still cites religious reasons for not using family planning. Iran’s national family planning program was downsized when the Islamic Republic came to power. During the war with Iraq, Iranian patriotic needs called for manpower to strengthen its national defense and downsized the family planning program to produce more soldiers. The resulting high population growth strained economic resources. A national program, implemented in 1986, has become one of the most effective in the region.

In vitro fertilization and sperm or egg donation are prohibited in conservative Muslim circles as a form of adultery, as they unify the products of two individuals who are not married. Traditionally, Sunnī and Shīʿah schools both took a hard line against use of reproductive technologies. However, when Ayatollah Ali Hussein Khamanei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa in 1999 which permitted reproductive technologies––specifically, donor sperm and eggs to be used under certain conditions––Shīʿah scholars became more open to reconfiguring the reasoning behind productive technology. While Sunnī scholars generally follow established precedents laid out in jurisprudence, Shīʿah scholars are more open to independently based religious reasoning, or ijtihad, which allows them room in determining contemporary issues.

The rising age of marriage, high youth unemployment, and high-priced housing are factors which combine to delay marriage, and thus sexual relations within marriage. Concern that use of family planning contributes to greater immorality in the form of premarital sexual activity, adultery, and abortion is widespread. Negative positions on family planning may seek to limit unmarried women’s sexual activity. A double standard on sexuality ensures that women’s sexual activity outside of marriage is denounced, but not that of men. Groups that criticize family planning often also advocate restricting the extension of greater rights to women in personal status, education, or employment.



  • Ali, Kamran Asdar. Planning the Family in Egypt: New Bodies, New Selves.American University in Cairo Press, 2003. A case study of state-sponsored family planning and its impact on women in Egypt. Find it in your Library
  • Bowen, Donna Lee. “Muslim Juridical Opinions Concerning the Status of Women as Demonstrated by the Case of Azl.”Journal of Near Eastern Studies40.4 (1981): 323–328. Presentation of Muslim legal schools ’ positions on contraceptive use. Find it in your Library
  • Bowen, Donna Lee. “Islamic Law and Family Planning,” in Stephen P. Heyneman, ed.Islam and Social Policy.Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004. Survey of Muslim theologian and popular opinions on family planning in medieval and contemporary times. Find it in your Library
  • Hines, Norman E.Medical History of Contraception (1936). Boston, 1970. Chapter 6, “The Islamic World and Europe during the Middle Ages.” Details contraceptive methods used in that period. Find it in your Library
  • Musallam, Basim F.Sex and Society in Islam: Birth Control before the Nineteenth Century.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Excellent study of family planning in theory and practice, and the demography of Muslim nations during the medieval and early modern period. Find it in your Library
  • Nazer, Isam R., ed.Islam and Family Planning.2 vols.Beirut, 1974. Collection of articles by Muslim theologians (ʿulamāʿ) on all aspects of marriage, family, and family planning. First published in Arabic. Find it in your Library
  • Omran, Abdel Rahim. Family Planning in the Legacy of Islam. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Comprehensive collection and discussion of Qurʿānic, hadīth, and jurisprudence references relating to marriage, the family, and family planning. Find it in your Library
  • Roudi-Fahimi, Farzaneh, and Mary Mederios Kent, “Challenges and Opportunities—The Population of the Middle East and North Africa.” Population Bulletin62:2 (June 2007). Comprehensive survey of population and demographic issuess and their implications for policy. Also available at prb.org/pdf07/62.2MENA.pdf. Find it in your Library
  • Shaltūt, Maḥmūd. “Tanẓīm al-Nasl.” In al-Islām: ʿAqīdah wa Sharīʿah. Cairo, 1966. Controversial reading of Islamic social theory by the politically astute rector of al-Azhar. Find it in your Library
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