My question pertains to the issue of abortion. I have heard mixed things about it. Apparently the major schools of thought consider abortion illegal under all circumstances. I have also heard that in the Qur’an, abortion is allowed two weeks after conception, because that is when God blows breath into humans. What about particular situations for instance rape. What is the ruling then?
I would like to clarify at the outset that the statement you refer to is not in the Qur’an. The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said that God gives the ‘Ruh‘ to a fetus at a particular time, but this statement of the Prophet (pbuh) is not with reference to abortion.
Islam has not given any specific directions regarding the issue of abortion. It is therefore not a matter which has been clearly stated in the Shari`ah (Islamic law) but rather an issue pertaining to the application of our knowledge of the Shari`ah. Such application may vary in outcome with a variation in the basic premises of our arguments. For example, if we believe that a human being has taken form as soon as a woman conceives a child, we cannot then allow abortion on any grounds other than those which enjoy unquestioned moral and legal acceptance, as in such a case, abortion would be nothing less than taking a sacred human life – a life absolutely clear of any sin or crime. Obviously, no person in his right state of mind can allow taking a life without adequate moral and legal justification. In such a case, I think we will allow such a grave act, only to save the mother’s life. That is, we shall allow abortion only if allowing the child to live endangers the life of the mother. This seems to be the basic reason why most (if not all) of the Muslim Jurists disallow abortion.
On the other hand, if we believe that at the time of conception, it is not a human being but only ‘something‘ with a potential of human life – like the human sperm or ovum, even when taken independent of each other – that would cease to exist if abortion is carried out, we might have an altogether different view regarding this act. We would then try to determine the particular stage of development of the fetus at which it becomes a complete human being and not just ‘something’ which has a potential of human life, and then, in certain cases, allow abortion before this particular stage and be more strict about disallowing abortion if it is to be carried out after this particular stage.
Thus, the basic decision which, in turn, shall provide us the grounds to allow or disallow abortion is whether it is a human being that exists in its mother’s womb, immediately after conception or is it only ‘something‘ which has a potential of becoming a human being at some later stage.
In my opinion, it is not a human being that exists in a mother’s womb immediately after conception, but ‘something‘ which has a potential of becoming a complete human being at some later stage. The Qur’an says:
We created man from an essence of clay: then placed him, a living germ, in a secure enclosure. The germ We made a leech; and the leech a lump of flesh; and this We fashioned into bones, then clothed the bones with flesh; then We develop it into another creation. (Al-Mu’minoon 23: 12 – 14)
It seems from the above verse that initially it is only the vessel or the body that is developed. It is only at a later stage that this vessel or body is given the qualities of a human being. The words: “then We develop it into another creation” seem to imply a significant change in the development of the fetus at this particular stage. It seems that it is at this stage that the body is transformed into a complete human being. The process of the development of the first human being has been elaborated in the following verse:
He who has made everything which He has created most good. He began the creation of man with [nothing more than] clay, and made his progeny from a quintessence of the nature of a fluid despised. Then He fashioned him in due proportion and breathed into him something of His Ruh. And (with this) He gave you (the faculties of) hearing and sight and understanding. (Al-Sajadah 32: 7 – 9)
It once again seems from the above verse that it was at a later stage in the development of a human being that the vessel or the body received its part of the Divine ‘Ruh‘ and subsequently the human faculties of hearing, sight and understanding were developed. In my opinion, in the light of the aforementioned verses, it is not from the beginning but at a particular stage in the development of the fetus that the “body” is transformed into a human being. My opinion is also substantiated by the another verse of the Qur’an where God orders the angels to prostrate in front of Adam. It is only after God breathes of His ‘Ruh‘ into Adam that the angels are ordained to carry out the prostration. The Qur’an says:
Your Lord said to the angels: I am creating man from clay. When I have fashioned him and breathed of my Ruh into him, kneel down and prostrate yourselves before him. (Saad 38: 72)
Thus, it seems that it is only after the fetus receives its ‘Ruh‘ that it becomes a complete human being. Obviously, we cannot ascertain, on scientific and observable basis, the exact time at which the fetus receives its part of the Divine ‘Ruh‘, as it is not a physical phenomenon. However, the Qur’an also tells us that at the time the fetus receives its part of the Divine ‘Ruh‘, its faculties of sight, hearing and understanding are also developed. I suppose that modern medical and embryonic scientists can ascertain the particular time when these faculties are developed in the fetus. If this can be achieved, it would then become possible for us to say that a complete ‘human being’ can be said to exist in its mother’s womb at this particular time and not before it. Thus, if the process of the development of a human being is to be aborted, it should be aborted before this time.
The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said that the various stages in the development of the fetus till the time it receives the Divine ‘Ruh‘ takes one hundred and twenty days1. If this narrative is correctly ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) and the narrators have correctly reported the saying of the Prophet (pbuh), then we can say that it is upto this time, after the initial conception, that only the vessel or the body is developed in the mother’s womb and not a complete ‘human being’. Thus, if there are any moral, ethical, social or medical justifications for aborting the process of the formation of a human being, it should be carried out before this time. After this time, in my opinion, abortion should be allowed on the basis only of extremely pressing medical grounds.
16th March 1998
- as reported in a narrative recorded in Bukhari. [↩]