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Sex Selection in Islamic Perspective

Sayed Sikandar Shah Haneef
The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the major issues in Islamic bioethics, including medicine, clinical practice, genetics, theology, and Islamic law.

Sex Selection in Islamic Perspective

Sex selection, which refers to any fertility technology or technique that attempts to control the gender of a child, has changed the traditional landscape in human reproduction. The questions associated with this choice have made it a topic for heated debate among ethicists. The most important ethical question that it raises from a religious perspective is that it infringes upon God`s authority over sex formation of the embryo. This entry therefore attempts to examine the Islamic juridico-ethical position on sex selection technology.


During the pre-biomedical era there were various traditional ways of choosing a desired sex for one`s future child. For instance, ancient Indian medical schools identified certain diets and pills to achieve such an end as far back as the fifth century B.C.E. In the second century B.C.E. Aristotle’s view was that the sex of the boy is influenced by uterine temperature and the dominance of certain fluids over others. One traditional way to bring about the birth of a boy was for the couple to copulate while facing a north wind (al-Muslih, 2015; Anees, 1989). Others used astronomy, believing that the position of the stars could determine one’s progeny. In early Muslim tradition, people resorted to supplication to God, referring to saints, or using amulets (Ebrahim, 1989).

Over time other techniques developed, including 1) scheduling sexual intercourse immediately after ovulation (if one intends to have a male child); 2) chemical washing of the uterus to reduce its acid level so as to facilitate the formation of male embryo (al-Muslih); and 3) dietary regime such as eating food with high levels of sodium and potassium and low in calcium and magnesium (bananas, cherries, grapes, oranges, plums, watermelon, broad beans, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, and corn) (Eftekhaari, 2015).

With the advancement of fertility techniques to manage reproduction at a cellular level, a number of scientific methods emerged through which the parties can predetermine the sex of their child with much accuracy. Accordingly, in this section we examine the Islamic view regarding this scientific mode, which comes with a package of fertility treatments accessible worldwide.

Technical Procedure

According to the science of embryology, if the mother’s ovum, which always carries an X chromosome, unites with an X-bearing sperm, a female child would be the result. But if it fuses with a Y-bearing sperm, the embryo will be male (Anees, 1989). There have been various techniques for sex selection tried on both animals and humans. For the purpose of this entry the most recent mechanisms will be outlined.

There are three scientifically proven sex selection methods, namely the Ericsson, electrophoresis, and pre-implantation methods (PGD) methods. According to Ericsson method, the sperm is placed at the top of a glass column containing albumin (a protein). In this process, the X sperm surfaces but Y sperm descends to the bottom and is later collected. Its success rate has been estimated at 75 percent, and it can similarly be applied to having female children (Anees, 1989; Dezhkam, 2014). In electrophoresis technique, on the other hand, the ejaculate is mixed in a solution, gently centrifuged, and then poured into a narrow space between two sheets of glass, one near a negative electrode, the other near a positive one. All sperm gathered near positive electrode would be X-bearing chromosomes while those at the negative electrode would be Y-bearing. Hence, the physician can choose which one to collect for fertilization (Anees, 1989). In the PGD procedure, however, the female eggs (multiple oocytes) are removed from the mother. Then they are fertilized in the laboratory using the father’s sperm in a technique called in vitro fertilization (IVF). As the embryos develop, a blastomeric is removed from each embryo and then assessed for the presence of Y and X chromosomes and separated by sexual chromosome. Embryos of the desired gender are transferred back in the mother’s uterus (Dezhkam, 2014). Among the above methods, PGD apparently is the surest means of determining the gender of one’s progeny, as the unwanted embryos are stored or destroyed.

Legality Debate in Islamic Law

Similar to most contemporary issues, sex selection also has been a matter of controversy among Muslim legists. The majority, including the leading jurist Yusuf al-Qaradawi, support it while a minority of jurists oppose it (al-Muslih, 2015).

According to the supporters of these procedures, in the absence of any prohibitive injunctions from the textual sources of the Qurʾān and Sunnah on sex selection, the rule is one of permissibility. Secondly, based on the Qurʾānic account of two prophets, namely Ibrāhīm (Abraham) and Zakarīyā (Zechariah), requesting a specific sex for one`s offspring is permissible. Ibrahim supplicated to God to grant him a son from his barren wife (51:28–29). Similarly Zakarīyā prayed for an intelligent baby boy, which God bestowed upon him (19:5–7). Accordingly, if it is legitimate to ask for divine intervention for having a gender-specific child, resorting to earthly means is also legitimate. Thirdly, the Prophet, when replying to a question by a Jew about human reproduction, underlined that engineering the sex of a baby depends on the process of embryonic formation. This is taken as evidence to support the use of sex selection technologies today. The prophetic tradition reads: “…He then said: I have come to ask you about the child. He [the Prophet] said: The reproductive substance of a man is white and that of woman [i.e., the central portion of the ovum] yellow, and when they have sexual intercourse and the male’s substance [chromosomes and genes] prevails upon the female’s substance [chromosomes and genes], it is the male child that is created by God`s Decree, and when the substance of the female prevails upon the substance contributed by the male, a female child is formed by the Decree of God. The Jew said: What you have said is true; verily you are an Apostle….” (Sahih Muslim, 2007). Finally, if human interference in overcoming sterility is lawful and is not considered a repudiation of God’s Will, similar logic should hold true in the case of technological sex determination (al-Muslih, 2015).

In their rejection of sex selection, opponents have argued that it contradicts some basic principles of belief in the omnipotence of God, the most cardinal among which is the belief that God has decreed that matters of sex determination and its formation rests with Him. The Qurʾān ordains: “To God belongs the dominion of heavens and earth. He creates what He wills. He bestows females upon whom He wills and bestows the males upon whom He wills. Or He couples them in males and females and He leaves barren whom He wills. For He is All-Knowledgeable All-Powerful” (42:49–50). The primacy of this doctrine was re-enunciated in the prophetic tradition, where an angel is sent to determine the gender of a child, asking: “O`my Lord: is it a male for a female” (Sahih Muslim, 2007). Secondly, interference with the natural process of embryonic formation is tantamount to tampering with the natural course of events as intended by God and thus is prohibited (4:119). Thirdly, allowing sex selection entails several harmful consequences including: 1) imbalances in the ratio of men to women in society, hence damaging the equilibrium needed for the species to proliferate; ostensibly, instances of terminating the female fetus when GDS goes wrong would be inevitable; 2) the process of IVF involves dealing with women`s genitalia which except in cases of necessity is not allowed in Islam. Similarly, because the practice requires the collection of sperm, it requires men (the husband) to ejaculate outside the bounds of matrimonial sex, which is not approved in the Islamic view (al-Muslih, 2015).

Furthermore, opponents maintained that sex determination of the embryo is a matter within the province of God`s Will as is evident from the Qurʾān and Sunnah and not due to instrumentality of natural causes or human intervention. God says: “He bestows females upon whom He wills and bestows the males upon whom He wills” (42:49). The Prophet also in delineating the gestational development of the fetus in the womb said: “O my Lord is it a male or a female?” Underlining the principle laid down in this ḥadīth, Ibn Qayyim (1928) maintains that had the natural process been the decisive factor in the sex formation of the fetus, the angel would have explicated that in his assignment to determine its nourishment, luck, and the lifespan and sex. Thus, similar to other aspects of the fetus that are agreed to be within the sole knowledge of God, its sex determination is also something which should not be interfered with. Finally, the ḥadīth on the natural formation of the sex of the embryo is not categorical of the ghalabah (dominance) of one kind of sex chromosomes over another, according to Ibn Tamīyah (n.d), for two reasons: 1) the question in the ḥadīth was not about how the sex forms but about the resemblance of the child to one of the spouses; 2) the proponents’ ḥadīth itself is not authoritative enough as it is only reported by Sahih Muslim, the authenticity of which is subject to criticism by some scholars. Finally, drawing a parallel between fertility treatment for barrenness and sex selection is untenable since their ratio legis are not the same (al-Muslih, 2015), as the latter involves sex engineering while the former is about treating a reproductive defect which may be even pathological.

In response, supporters of sex selection technology advance the view that a human attempt to influence the formation of the sex of the fetus does not override God`s will over its process, but will instead be a manifestation of God’s plan (al-Qaradaghi, 2006). As the Qurʾān says: “But you will not except as God Will” (76:30). Secondly, sex selection does not contravene the ordained natural order as the procedure occurs before even the fetus is formed. Thirdly, the ethical concerns raised by the opponents could be remedied by enacting appropriate preventive legislations, such as banning the practice if a societal gender imbalance takes place (al-Muslih, 2015). Moreover, the sex determination of the fetus, unlike of its luck, life span, etc., which belong to its post-birth profile as a full human being, can be amenable to causation as it occurs while the fetus is still in the evolving stage. Finally, the ḥadīth on the subject is regarded as authentic both in terms of narration and the subject matter as there are two versions of it—one about the resemblance of the child to one of the parents as noted by the opponents, and another on the predomination of one spouse’s sexual fluid over the other (al-Muslih, 2015; al-Bar, 2001).

Supporters of sex selection predicated their approval on several legal parameters: First, it must not be made into a national policy but it should remain as an option open only to those couples who either ask for it after having several children of the same gender or, due to a fatal heritable genetic (sex-linked) disorder, would pass along a disease to their children based on gender, such as breast cancer (al-Bar, 2001). Second, it should be strictly regulated so as to fend off the phenomenon of gender imbalance in society (al-Muslih, 2015). Lastly, the sex selection must be conjugal and should not involve a donor’s semen.

From the above analysis, counter arguments by the opponents have proven vehemently strong for the supporters to sufficiently refute. Nevertheless, the permissibility view, in spite of its flaws, seems to represent the majority opinion as represented by some official agencies, such as the Islamic Fiqh Council of the Muslim World League, in November 2007, which held:

"It is permissible to select the sex of one’s offspring via natural means, such as nutritional programme, chemical washing and the scheduling of the sex-time. However, if the intended purpose is to acquire a male child out of dislike for a female child or if the intent is to know the gender of the embryo in order to abort it, then this is impermissible. If, on the other hand, the intent is to predetermine the gender of the embryo from the start in a situation where there is a history of heritable illness in the family, especially those illnesses that pass along with the sex chromosomes, then this is possible. It is best to avoid resorting to this method except in the most extenuating of circumstances (al-Bar and Pasha 2015)."

Ethical Implications

Judging from the legality debate about the legitimacy of sex selection technologies, it is clear that the majority of Muslim scholars attempt by way of both exegetical and juridical extrapolations to see sex selection technologies to be consonant with Islam—but with some caveats to avoid its abuse. Given the strong push for fertility treatment and changing mores in society and within families, however, a question arises: Would the juristic parameters keep the demand for gendering of human reproduction at an acceptable minimum level? The answer to this, according to the critics, seems not to be no. For instance, terming the whole project as “survival of the sexiest,” Anees observes that while female infanticide has been relegated to the past, the modern pre-selection technologies today helps people eliminate the unwanted fetus, typically a female fetus, by using prenatal sex detection technologies (Anees, 1989). Then he retorts by maintaining that, “…this is the reality about the use of this technology, although on its surface, its legitimacy is said to be justified by both medical and social reasons, in that certain abnormal traits such as hemophilia, Thalassemia, and muscular dystrophy are thwarted; and family balancing.” (Anees, 1989).

Even if one regards Anees’ fear as an exaggeration, the fact remains that even conditional use of popular sex selection technologies, as upheld by the majority, is rife with some ethical pitfalls. Firstly, allowing it as a means of “family balancing” potentially creates an avenue for both abortion and sex imbalance in society. For instance, clinical studies in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt and Lebanon, show that majority of people who turn to fertility treatment prefer boys, mainly for the continuation of patrilineal lines (Clarke, 2009; Sachedina, 2009). That is why Williamson criticizes the Muslim permissible attitude by maintaining that the term “sex selection,” which she calls “a dirty phrase in the Western Countries,” has been made psychologically acceptable to Muslims especially in the Middle East under the name of “family balancing” (Williamson, 2013). Because of this, and because that the motivation for sex selection can be manifold, serious scholars continue to insist that the harmful effects of gender selection technologies would be too huge to tolerate in the Islamic view of human reproduction and its emphasis on equal respect for both male and female offspring.

Moreover, the use of one the surest means of sex selection technique, namely PGD, is also fraught with several reproductive health hazards. It involves several complex risky procedures including hormonal stimulation, which brings about ovulation but can lead to long-term health complications, such as hyper-stimulation syndrome. PGD also involves IVF, which produces multiple embryos and has been linked (in some studies) to low birth weight and other complications such as preeclampsia, pregnancy induced hypertension (PIH), placental abruption, placenta Previa, and preterm delivery (Eftekhaari, 2015). Finally, since PGD cannot guarantee against a genetic or congenial disorder in the child, opponents argue that the premium for its medical argument becomes debatable (Eftekhaari, 2015; Haneef, 2015). As the debate shows, embracing these procedures involves the Islamic ideal of weighing the good against the bad, and trying to avoid harm.


The central idea emerging from the above analysis is that, as a matter of principle, the position of Islam on sex selection should be one of cautious avoidance so as to avoid its proliferation in Muslim societies. The reason for this position is the belief that God ultimately decides the gender of the fetus. However, emergency medical cases, such as prevention of fatal heritable diseases, can be an exception to the rule, based on the principle of “necessity overrides prohibition.”


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