A WOMAN who provides education and other social services to those living in the slums of Karachi mentioned an Afghan woman who gave birth to her 13th baby. The father is a rag picker and his older sons help him in this trade. People often say that the poor prefer to have large families because of the frequent deaths of children due to sickness.
The desire to have large families is not limited to the poor. Well-to-do and educated people are just as likely to believe that they should have as many children and as frequently as possible, because they are ‘God-given’ blessings. An average family in Pakistan, for example, would have six to seven children. Similarly, although laws have been passed against child marriages, families eagerly await girls to reach their teens so that they can be ‘married off’, producing their first baby within the year.
Young women are more fertile and have a higher child-bearing period, so these girls become pregnant year after year, losing their health and youth early in life and have to deal with problems of parenthood while they are still immature.
According to one projection, the world population growth is expected to be around 32 per cent over the next several decades as compared to 70pc for Muslims. This difference is said to be partially due to conversion, and partially due to higher fertility rates. Other than Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Tunisia, many Muslim countries have fertility rates above the global average of 2.4.
Family planning does not go against Islamic values.
Contrary to what the general Muslim public has been led to believe, planning a family is not against Islamic law or even values. The Quran enjoins people to develop harmony, love and tranquillity in marriage. The verse “And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts. …” (30:21) describes the main purpose of marriage. Thus, having children is important, but this is not the only reason to marry. Childbirth must strengthen the bond between spouses, not weaken it.
Many verses in the Quran say that God has placed no burden on humans: “God does wish to lighten your difficulties” (4:28). No one would argue with the fact that frequent births are a heavy burden on women, and having many children imposes financial and emotional problems on both parents. They are unable to provide equal education to daughters and sons and, in their effort to get their daughters married, merely perpetuate the cycle of discrimination against girls and patriarchy. The verse about breastfeeding a baby for two years is said to encourage space of at least two years between children.
Some people disagree with family planning, saying that they must accept what God has willed for them. This, however, does not have anything to do with planning for a better future for their children. Having a longish period between successive children would ensure that not only are the mother and children healthy and have access to education and health, but that they also have the time and opportunity to attend to and enjoy each other. Regulating the number of children and pacing them out using various medical and other strategies ensures chances for a better future.
The Quranic verse “kill not your children for fear of want: We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you. Verily the killing of them is a great sin” (17:31) is also often used as an argument against family planning. It must be noted that this verse was revealed to admonish some of the Arab men who buried children, mostly girls, because the former did not wish to have the ‘burden’ of rearing them and then bearing the expenses of their marriages.
Furthermore, the verse mentions killing, whereas family planning measures do not include abortion after 120 days, which is the period of time after which the human embryo develops into a full foetus. There is a vast difference between preventive measures and those taken after a term of pregnancy has been reached.
Unfortunately, as with many other issues facing Muslims, family planning, too, has become highly politicised. It is only when governments realise that, given their burgeoning populations and dearth of resources along with their inability to provide for everyone, an equitable future requires them to tighten their resolve against regressive elements.
Muslim countries need to learn from Iran that has one of the most successful family planning programmes in the Muslim world. It also provides counselling to couples who intend to marry, thus preparing them for the responsibilities they will face. This is supported by an adult literacy rate of 85pc. Pre-marriage counselling, family planning and education must go together.
The writer is an individual contributor with an interest in religion.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2021