Do not sever the bonds of the womb.
– Qur’an 4:1
Do not kill your children from fear of poverty.
– Qur’an 17:31
On the Day when the one buried alive will be asked for what sin was she killed.
– Qur’an 81:8–9
Marry and be fruitful, for I will be proud of the multitudes of my community of believers on the Day of Judgment.
– Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ
To die by other hands more merciless than mine.
No; I who gave them life will give them death.
Oh, now no cowardice, no thought how young they are,
How dear they are, how when they first were born;
Not that; I will forget they are my sons
One moment, one short moment—then forever sorrow.
– Euripides’ Medea
In English, the term we define ourselves with, human being, emphasizes “being” over doing. It is not our actions that mark us as humans but our mere being. When, then, do we come to be? When does that being we identify as human first become human? The answer is consequential for many reasons, not the least of which is that our nation’s foundational document states that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” that include the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The question of when human life begins stubbornly remains a central point of contention in the debate, now raging for half a century, regarding the ethics of abortion. The Supreme Court made its decision, but for many, it is far from a settled matter.
Beyond our borders, meanwhile, induced abortion rates are increasing in developing nations, despite declining slightly in developed nations; an estimated one-quarter of all pregnancies worldwide end in abortion.1 The debate over abortion still rages across parts of Europe and remains contentious in North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, as well as Central and South America. While the Catholic Church continues to prioritize abortion as an egregious social ill, for many, abortion has become an acceptable option for dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Increasingly, some Muslims are adding their voices to the conversation—some even supporting legalization in areas where abortion remains illegal.
Given this global trend, it becomes all the more urgent to re-examine the normative view of infanticide and abortion in the Islamic legal tradition, which relies on the Qur’an, prophetic tradition, and scholastic authority for its proofs.
Abortion derives from the Latin word aboriri,2 meaning “to perish, disappear, miscarry.”3 The verb to abort is both intransitive (meaning to “miscarry” or “suffer an abortion”) and transitive (“to effect the abortion of a fetus”).4 In standard English, we also use the word to connote the failure of something, as “an aborted mission”—something that ends fruitlessly. As a noun, abortion means “the expulsion of a fetus (naturally or esp. by medical induction) from the womb before it is able to survive independently, esp. in the first 28 weeks of a human pregnancy.”5
Historically, civilizations and religious traditions often grouped abortion with infanticide—defined as “the killing of an infant soon after birth” by the Oxford Modern English Dictionary. Indeed, even some modern philosophers link abortion and infanticide by arguing for what they euphemistically term “after-birth abortions.”6 Reviewing the sordid history of infanticide since the Axial Age7 and how the different faith traditions inspired a change in attitudes about both practices helps set the stage for understanding the Islamic ethical vision toward abortion, which depends ultimately, as we’ll see, on the central question of when human life begins. The Mālikī legal school—or the Way of Medina,8 as it was known—offers modern Muslims a definitive response rooted in the soundest Islamic methodology to a seemingly intractable problem vexing our world today.