Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood.
I was recently asked some very important questions on the subject of abortion. My questioner wished to know whether abortion was allowed at all to a Muslim woman, and if so, did it have to be within the first 40 days of the pregnancy? There was also the mention of a period of 120 days. And if abortion was allowed, could it be for any reason before that number of days? Why should there be any reason why abortion should not be allowed, since the presumption in Islam was presumably that the soul, if such a thing existed, had not yet entered the body of the unborn child?
The questioner agreed that it was not legal in Islam to kill a person outside the grounds stated in the Qur’an, but if the soul had not yet entered the body, then surely in reality no person other than the mother was actually involved – what would be aborted would be only the processing of a human before the process was complete.
The questioner also considered the situation that if a mother and father were married and already had children, and both agreed that they did not want to have more children, and both wished to abort the unwanted pregnancy, then surely they need not feel any guilt for doing it? Surely, if the people concerned did not believe that they were committing any sin in having an abortion, then they would not feel any guilt at any time – in a similar manner to a judge who passed a death sentence. It could be the case that if the abortion did not take place, then the parents would have to bear the burden of rearing that child for the rest of their lives, when they might not be prepared or able to do so. It only left the suffering of the foetus to be taken into consideration, and one could deal with its death in the same way as for any other dead person whose soul has departed.
I will do my best to give sensible thoughts on all the above issues. The subject is emotive, and a very sad one – for no-one is happy to consider the suffering that goes hand in hand with any unwanted pregnancy, or unwanted child, born or unborn.
As for a judge not feeling guilt when sentencing a person to death, I think the questioner is mistaken. Having known several judges, I can assure you executing a criminal is not a light matter for them, and they do continue to be affected in many ways, into later life. Can the judge really be totally convinced of the identity of a murderer from the evidence – or that he/she was in no way of unsound mind, or was definitely guilty beyond any shadow of doubt? One of my judge friends used to say (in the Prophet’s words) that he would far rather be merciful and let a guilty person go free than execute an innocent one.
Many young women (and older ones) are certainly able to convince their minds that abortion is not really a serious matter, and blank it out – those who think it is important also do that, or the pain would be too much to bear. However, psychologists will assure you that the majority of women bitterly regret in later life that they had a child aborted, and never really get over it, suffering feelings of guilt, immense sadness and loss. They may get away temporarily without suffering much guilt or trauma, but they cannot forget that they have killed their own child, and can never stop wondering what that child might have been. If they suppress their emotions and grief, it may have very adverse effects upon them in the way of depression and so on. For a Muslim woman it is worse, for Islam teaches that in the Afterlife, the ‘unborn’ child will ask why it was killed, and that those who killed it must make amends.
Even if she does not feel guilt, we still have to wonder how the mother will feel when she meets that child, as God wills, in the Hereafter. No doubt the child’s soul will console the mother, but it will still be a very hard thing. There is no detail of our lives from which we can escape the consequences. Insha’Allah, let us hope that in God’s compassion wounds may be healed at last.
Firstly, why should any abortion be necessary? The conception of an unwanted child has not happened by magic, but the child has a father and mother. Why should any woman wish to abort her own conceived child? In fact, there are numerous reasons, including innocent girls being seduced without realising until too late what was happening, rape, carelessness, mothers thinking they are past childbearing age and leaving off contraception, contraception being used but used inadequately or failing. Many thousands of examples in each category take place daily. I personally experienced conception whilst I was ‘on the pill’, and I know of umpteen cases of broken condoms, or condoms coming off prematurely!
When considering any question concerning abortion, one has to bear in mind primarily the rights, the sufferings and the fate of three people – the father of the child, the mother of the child, and the child itself. There are also other relatives who may be involved in the matter, especially – usually – the mother’s mother. It is sometimes the case that the maternal grandmother goes through more mental suffering than anyone else involved, but for the moment let us leave that aside.
Many women who discover they have an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy panic, and argue that if they don’t want to have a baby they should be allowed to have control over their own bodies. This turns a blind eye to the rights of the father that implanted the child in them, and the child itself. These women often simply ignore the father and the unborn foetus and go ahead with what they wish to do.
I feel strongly that a father does have some rights over the fate of his seed, and it is a good thing if he feels responsible. All too many boys act thoughtlessly, and assume that if they make girls they do not wish to marry pregnant, they will ‘get away with it’ and not be held to account. All too often, to their dismay, the girl does bear the child and the unwilling father soon finds out that his little boy or girl will most likely grow up somewhere close at hand, and may well look just like him, a constant reminder of his callousness. I have known men in their thirties and forties suffer heartbreak over bastard children they fathered while in their teens and intended to forget.
Being a father involves a great deal of responsibility, including financial responsibility, and that is usually the bit that fathers-who-do-not-wish-to-be-fathers do not want. In today’s world so many people have become ‘hard’, and try to avoid taking responsibilities. They hope to brush things under the carpet. This may work temporarily, or even for the entire length of their earthly lives; but if it is true that we are souls, then the souls of our children will have to be encountered at some stage or other, and fathers will be called to account for their lack of care when impregnating women.
Now, to consider the rights of the mother. She is the one whose body does all the bearing and suffering, both during pregnancy, during childbirth, hormonally for months afterwards, and as a mother for the rest of her life. She should think most seriously before allowing herself to become pregnant. That ‘accidents’ happen is an appalling evidence of how we humans have trivialised the whole attitude towards life. Sometimes a mother feels that she has very good grounds for aborting her child – perhaps she was raped, made pregnant unwillingly, forced, was too young to bear and cope, was not in a position to rear a child, or her life or her mental state would indeed be in danger if she did so. Usually, these are just excuses because the birth of that particular child would not be convenient – but often, there are genuinely very traumatic circumstances. Doctors consider each individual case carefully, and sometimes allow abortion – although it is not something doctors enjoy at all, especially after the 10th week.
The UK law on this issue also has to be considered. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 allows abortion on the following conditions:
· that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of the family; (there is debate to bring this back to 20 weeks)
· that the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman;
· that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman greater than if the pregnancy were terminated;
· that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.
It does not include abortion simply because the child is female – an unpleasant aspect increasing in certain parts of the world (including Islamic ones) where sons are desired above daughters, or where only one child is permitted to a family. In some regions such femicide is seriously affecting the balance of the population.
Even with such provisos, doctors warn that abortion involves killing a living creature, by various methods. None are pleasant. They usually hate aborting unborn children,
We are so shielded from what actually takes place. Some girls think they just have to close their eyes and it will all be magically taken away – wrong! Depending on the age of the foetus, they will still have to have the baby, by some means or other, and if the child is born living it will then be killed or allowed to die. This is always traumatic, especially for medical staff delivering perfectly healthy and valid babies. In the vast majority of cases, abortions do not take place until at least the 12th week, by which time the child is sucking its thumb, can feel pain, and it can be known through ultra-sound photography whether the child will be male or female.
Methods of abortion vary. The living child has to be killed somehow. Frequently it is done by what is called the ‘vacuum’ method. It sounds easy enough, but a sharp medical blade like a razor is introduced on a long instrument through the vagina while the woman is unconscious. The unborn child is cut up, the pieces sucked out by a ‘vacuum’, and the taken-out pieces checked afterwards like a jigsaw. (My own daughter went through this once, and in her case, part of the child was left inside her and she had to be rushed back to hospital for a second operation!)
Feelings about abortion are highly sensitive, because inevitably the mother really is to blame for the death of her child, and the guilt is very real. People are frequently uncomfortable about talking to them about their loss, and this does not help them resolve their grief. Sometimes, if they show grief, family and friends are actually critical, and tell them they are making a fuss about nothing. They feel it is best for the whole unhappy and embarrassing business to be put out of mind as soon as possible.
The mothers may feel ashamed and in a state of panic. The first reaction of many who end a pregnancy they have not wished for is often initially one of relief. Some women who have never given birth do not have fully-developed awareness of the reality of their child, and push aside any feelings of guilt others might try to engender in them. Obviously, many women in these circumstances convince themselves that the foetuses are not real ‘beings’, but just ‘part of their own bodies’.
Sometimes the mother involved is only a young girl, and her parents are very angry with her. Sometimes a grandmother gets angry because she had put up with a great deal more hardship herself in seeking to do the right thing than her daughter seems willing to do. Sometimes the anger is not only because her daughter got pregnant in the first place, but also because she then killed the baby, which, after all, would have been her grandchild. Grandparents should not be overlooked when counselling the bereaved. I have known several cases where the girls involved appeared to all intents and purposes to have forgotten their abortions, but their mothers (like me) remained in grief and shock and continued to pray for the soul of those would-have-been grandchildren for years, if not until their own deaths – perhaps without ever telling their daughters for fear it would be too painful to drag up the memories.
Some women get their guilt much delayed. They may successfully suppress and forget any immediate feelings, but in almost every case, the guilt and unresolved grief will surface later on – perhaps when the woman has more knowledge – and she will have to face the reality of what she has done. She may then be unable to forgive herself, or she may feel God will never forgive her.
Censure and abuse of those who have had abortions is unbecoming. What is not approved is the notion of abortion on demand, for casual social reasons. However, we are not in a position to know all the circumstances involved, as Allah is. Medical practitioners in most societies will terminate pregnancies for various reasons, and usually interpret the ‘threat to life or sanity’ of the mother quite widely. We should remember that very important hadith that people who act wrongly while the balance of mind is disturbed are not held responsible by Allah. Women who have abortions do not do it casually, but many suffer great anguish and distress and pain. They are to be pitied.
Anyone who has seen tiny premature babies struggling for life in the same hospital where other babies of similar age and size are being terminated, will tell you it is not a casual matter at all. At 24 weeks a premature baby has a fair chance of survival. At 20-23 weeks survival is possible, but will often depend on the skill, facilities or even regulations of the hospital and its staff. Can you imagine the grief of the parents of a much-wanted 23-week baby in a hospital that has a cut-off policy at 24 weeks, and simply leaves infants younger than that to die? It sounds incredible, but it happens.
Allah’s law intended that no child would be born outside of marriage, and this is the ideal to be aimed at. In some societies, the harsh solution to the problem of unwed pregnancy is to put the mother to death. Some Muslim societies have even resorted to this, in order to ‘save the honour of the family’ – although to do so is the very opposite of Islam. It is to commit murder and certainly not what the Prophet would have approved of. The Prophet was very familiar with the problem of illegitimate children, and not only was there sensible guidance for recognising their paternity and organising their upbringing, but he ruled that the children themselves were never to be stigmatised for what was not their fault.
To be realistic, where we are Muslims living in a non-Muslim society, the best solution is to encourage a pregnant girl to have her baby and not abort it, and then see to it that both innocent child and foolish mother are properly cared for. If the father of the unwanted child is a Muslim man, I always advise the pregnant women to make sure that his family and the local Imam know about it, in the hopes that they may be able to help in some way, and at least for the grandparents have a chance to exert influence on their son, or at least to establish a relationship with their grandchild.
Sadly, some Muslims (like people in general) are racist and intolerant, and would be shattered if, for example, a Pakistani boy wished to marry a pregnant white girlfriend. It is usually a knee-jerk reaction because love for grandchildren is very powerful, and the thought of the fate of that child might well overcome cultural shame and censure.
Muslims should help solve the problem of unwanted pregnancies by encouraging menfolk to be honourable, responsible, kind and considerate in their sexual activity, and to make sure that their women-folk are adequately protected each time they have intercourse when a pregnancy is not desired.
So, what about the rights of the unborn child? At the stage of an infant before birth, whether or not that child has consciousness and wishes to live is completely unknown to us; the existence of human souls prior to birth is a matter beyond our understanding and knowledge. It may be (as the poet Wordsworth thought, incidentally) that human souls have fully ‘adult’ minds in the realm of life before birth, but on entering the physical realm forget everything, and have to learn all the things pertaining to human knowledge anew as they progress through earthly life. We do not know; we may or may not agree with Buddhists that souls choose their parents (and grandparents), or are sent to earth for particular purposes to learn particular lessons. As Muslims, we believe that if God wishes a particular child to be born, it will be born, and that each soul lives on earth only once.
This is the place to make it very clear that abortion is not the same thing as contraception. Any form of contraception that endeavours to prevent a pregnancy from occurring is generally permissible in Islam, arguing from the hadiths where the Prophet permitted coitus interruptus or the withdrawal method, in which a man comes to climax but withdraws before ejaculation and does not implant his seed in the woman; but any form of contraception that aborts a foetus once conceived is not. Thus such methods as the pill, or the condom sheath are acceptable to most Muslims (with the consent and knowledge of both spouses), whereas the coil or morning-after pill is not, for it aborts rather than prevents pregnancy.
Some argue that both contraception and abortion are forbidden to Muslims, for the simple reason that they are attempts to over-rule the will of Allah. The question then arises of whether any human being could have the power to over-ride the will of Allah? How could a mere human deliberately destroy a soul that was intended to live? Would this not mean that the human did have power to over-rule God? Or conversely, that the outcome, whatever it happens to be, must be God’s will after all? It is a catch 22 situation. Or is it that one could destroy the little forming body, but never the soul?
This is the perennial philosophical problem of the relationship of freewill to determinism, a real puzzle for those of us with finite minds. I do not wish to be sidetracked into that thorny problem in this article – suffice it to say here that Allah certainly has the knowledge and power over the choice of the moment we die, but has at the same time allowed humans the freewill to kill – either to kill another person or to kill themselves. It obviously includes the power to kill a foetus. Killing is not the same thing as dying, do you see what I mean? I guess if Allah knows everything, He must know the times of both – but we are incorrect in attempting to apply human logic and timing to a problem that can only be understood and solved in a realm of knowledge higher than ours.
Abu Sa’id al-Kudri recorded a relevant hadith concerning coitus interruptus (ie. to have sexual intimacy with women without getting them pregnant). He said, ‘We went with Allah’s Apostle in the Ghazwa of Bani Al-Mustaliq, and we took some of the Arab women captive, and the long separation from our wives was pressing us hard and we wanted to practice coitus interruptus. We asked Allah’s Apostle (whether it was permissible). He said, ‘Better for you not to do this. No soul destined to exist, up to the Day of Resurrection, but it will definitely come into existence.” (Bukhari 3.718; see also 3.432). The inference is that nothing a human could do can over-ride the will of Allah. If He wishes a particular soul to be born and live on earth, it will be so.
Yet contraception is allowed in Islam on the grounds that a pregnancy or delivery might endanger the life or health of the mother, or the fear of the burden of children might seriously cause hardship for the family. One could deduce the principles of compassion by making use of such verses as:
‘Do not be cast into ruin by your own hands (ie actions)’ (Surah 2:195).
‘Do not kill yourselves (ie overburden yourselves): indeed, Allah is always merciful to you.’ (Surah 4:29).
‘Allah desires ease for you and does not desire hardship for you.’ (Surah 2:185).
‘It is not Allah’s desire to place a burden upon you.’ (Surah 5:7).
Supposing a child has been conceived? There is no verse in the Qur’an which gives any guidance whatsoever on the matter of abortion, or at what times such a thing might be allowed.
However, there are two verses which suggest strongly that parents were asked not to kill their children, which might be extended to include abortion.
‘Do not kill not your children for fear of want: We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you: truly the killing of them is a great sin.’ (Surah 17:31).
‘…when the girl child that was buried alive is asked for what sin she was slain, and when the pages are laid open…’ (Surah 81:8).
This latter verse really applies to the preIslamic nomadic practice of placing surplus female babies face down into the sand at birth, usually before they had even breathed. Sparse vegetation could only support certain numbers of people, and this was a simple method of birth-control, technically not abortion but infanticide. Another form was to expose a newborn, leaving it out in the open to die of natural causes or for animals to eat.
These Qur’anic verses are backed up by the famous Pledges taken by the Muslims who declared their allegiance to the Prophet – the solemn treaties that they would try to reform their lives in accordance with the Prophet’s teachings. They would worship none but Allah, would not kill children, would not steal, commit adultery, slander their neighbours, or disobey any command he gave them. Again, the meaning could perhaps be extended to include abortions.
Everything in Islam is not just either right or wrong, but can fall into five categories – halal/wajib, makruh, mubah, mandub and haram. This means – compulsory, approved but not compulsory, left to the conscience, disapproved but not forbidden, and forbidden. Abortion falls into all of the last three categories.
There are several general shades of opinion:
· that abortion should not be done at all
· that it can be done before the soul enters the body of the child – but there is debate as to what point the soul does so enter it
· that it may be done at any time if the mother’s real and existing life is endangered, as in this case it takes precedence over the unborn child’s potential life
· that abortion should not be done after the time the unborn child has developed the ability to feel pain.
Muslim jurists agree unanimously that once a foetus is completely formed and has been given a soul, abortion without valid cause is always haram except when the mother’s life is genuinely endangered, on the general principle that when two evils are being faced, one must go with the lesser of the two evils. If the mother could die without an abortion, then the welfare of the actually existing being (the mother) would take precedence over that of the potential being (the unborn child). The calf would be sacrificed to save the cow. Otherwise, abortion counts as the crime of murder, because it constitutes an offence against a complete, live human being. The payment of full blood-money (or qisas – see Surah 2:178) becomes incumbent if the baby was aborted alive and then died, and a lesser amount is payable if it was aborted dead.
Abu Hurayrah recorded that two women of the Hudhayl tribe fought with each other, and one flung a stone at the other, killing both her and what was in her womb. The case was brought before the Prophet, and he gave judgement that the compensation to be paid by the woman who killed them, or her close relatives, was to provide a good quality servant of either sex for the unborn child, (and full compensation for the dead woman), the compensation to be paid to the dead woman’s children and husband. Hamal b. al-Nabigha of Hudhayl objected: ‘ Messenger of Allah, why should I have to pay compensation for something that neither drank, nor ate, nor spoke, nor made any noise? It is a nonentity (ie only a foetus).’ The Prophet rebuked him (Muslim 4168).
In other words, the Prophet took the point of view that the aborted child was not ‘just a foetus’ and therefore of no consequence. Hamal had to pay compensation, just as he would have done if the child had been born, or aborted fully developed.
Another case revealed the Prophet’s down-to-earth and practical compassion. He ruled that the price of a male or female slave should be given as qisas in an abortion case concerning a woman from the tribe of Bani Lihyan (as blood money for the foetus) but the lady on whom the penalty had been imposed died. The Prophet then ordered that the dead woman’s offspring and her husband (who were innocent) should not have their property interfered with, but that the blood-money should still be paid, by members of her tribe. (Bukhari 8.732. See also 9.420 which also indicates the price to be that of a slave in good condition).
Incidentally, one interesting narrative links ‘burying alive’ with the birth-control method of coitus interruptus. The Jews of Saudi Arabia at the time of the Prophet apparently referred to it by the euphemism of ‘burying alive’. The Prophet said: ‘The Jews are wrong. (ie. in thinking such a conceived child could be ‘snuffed out’ or ‘buried’). If Allah wished to create a child, you cannot prevent it.’ (Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Nisai and Tirmidhi).
On a later occasion, Umar was involved in a conversation on the same subject, and remarked that coitus interruptus was a form of burying alive. Ali said: ‘This is not so before the completion of seven stages – being a product of the earth, then a drop of semen, then a clot, then a little lump of tissue, then bones, then bones clothed with flesh, which then become like another creation.’ Umar agreed that Ali, who was paraphrasing Surah 23:12-14, was correct.
The Prophet certainly required the soul of an aborted baby to be granted the same respect as that of any other person. Mughirah ibn Shu’bah recorded: ‘Prayer should be offered over an abortion and forgiveness and mercy supplicated for its parents.’ (Abu Dawud 1400).
So, the big debate is – when does the soul enter the unborn child? The determining of the nature of the human soul is hardly cut and dried. It is one of the matters of al-Ghayb, that is to say, it is known to Allah, but it lies completely beyond the capacity of human understanding. Therefore there is room for speculation and scholarly debate, and several points of view.
· That the human soul enters the unborn child’s body at the 40th day
· That the human soul enters the unborn child’s body at the 120th day
· That life is the gift of God from the first instant of conception, so from that first moment the child in the womb has the same rights as any other human.
· That life is the gift of God from before the time of conception, and that every single sperm is a potential being complete with its own soul.
The 40 day period is the equivalent of 6 weeks, and the 120 day period is the equivalent of 17 weeks, or after 4 months. It is certainly the case that a foetus has developed enough to be regarded as fully human by the sixth week, when its sensory and motor nerves are functioning, and it reacts to painful stimuli.
Two relevant hadith indicate six weeks as a highly important moment in the physical development of a foetus: ‘When forty-two nights have passed over that which is conceived, Allah sends an angel to it, who shapes it, makes it ears, eyes, skin, flesh and bones; then the angel says: ‘O Lord, is it male or female?’ and your Lord decides what He wishes, and the angels record it.’ (Muslim 6396). Forty-two nights is six weeks. In modern support of this, ultra-sound scanners can certainly detect by the sixth week whether the foetus is male or female.
Hudhayfah ibn Usayd recorded: ‘When the drop of (semen) remains in the womb for forty or fifty (days) or forty nights, the angel comes and says: My Lord, will he be good or evil? And both these things would be written. Then the angel says: My Lord, would he be male or female? And both these things are written. And his deeds and actions, his death, his livelihood; these are also recorded. Then his document of destiny is rolled and there is no addition to and subtraction from it. (Muslim 6392).
However, we must bear in mind that although many Muslims link this particular hadith with the entry into the child’s forming body of a soul, neither hadith specifically mentions the soul at all.
Another hadith puts forward a different suggestion, that the soul enters the body of the foetus at around the 120th day, in other words, after the fourth month, or in the seventeenth week. (Four lunar months of 28 days = 112 days; seventeen weeks = 119 days).
The relevant hadith is actually somewhat ambiguous, although recorded by an extremely reliable source, Abdullah ibn Masud. ‘The creation of every one of you starts with the process of collecting the material for your body within forty days and forty nights in the womb of your mother. Then you become a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then like a piece of flesh for a similar period. Then an angel is sent to you ordered to write four things: your livelihood, the date of your death, your deeds, and whether you will be a wretched or a blessed one (in the Hereafter) and then the soul is breathed into you.’ (Bukhari 9.546. See also 4.430, 549; 8.593 and Muslim 6393 for other recordings of the same hadith). Thus, three periods of 40 days are suggested, totalling 120 days. But you can see how the four things the angel writes link this hadith with the 40-day one.
It should be noted that the suggested times are actually vague – the first stage was said to have happened within forty days, or by the fortieth day, so this in itself is not precise. Secondly, the other two periods are said to be ‘similar’, which may not imply exact. Thirdly, it is well known that the phrase ‘forty days’ does not literally have to mean exactly forty days, but is a traditional term used in the Prophet’s part of the world to mean ‘a long time’.
Also, in spite of this hadith, the Prophet (pbuh) made it clear that the nature of the soul and its prehistory was a matter of al-Ghayb, a matter upon which he had received no revelation and which was beyond human knowledge, and therefore he could only give his best opinion as a knowledgeable and pious man.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud recorded that some Jews specifically asked the Prophet about the nature of the soul. He did not reply at first, and Abdullah realised he was receiving a revelation. It was of Surah 17:58: ‘They ask you about the soul. Tell them (that) the soul is by the command of my Lord, and you are given but little knowledge of it.’ (Muslim 6712).
Others refute the 120 day notion by the assertion that there is confusion in the chain of narrators of this hadith, and the stronger 40-day hadith contradicts it.
However, the belief in the significance of the seventeenth week is followed through into Muslim funeral proceedings. A miscarried foetus less than four months old, is not required to be ritually washed, or have funeral prayers offered for it. (This does not mean that one is forbidden to pray over such a foetus, however). It should be wrapped in a piece of cloth and buried. The majority of jurists are in agreement on this point. This indicates the belief that the unborn foetus is not yet an independent living being.
On the other hand, if a miscarried foetus is four months old or older, and the existence of life in it was established, then there is a consensus that it should be ritually washed and a funeral prayer offered for it. Malik, Al-Awza’i, Hasan, and the Hanafi school rule that if its life was not established by movements or other evidence, then funeral prayer is not required for it. This indicates that now the unborn foetus does count as an independent living being. They base their opinion on a hadith transmitted by Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, and Al-Baihaqi on the authority of Jabir that the Prophet said: ‘If in a miscarried foetus life is established by its movements, a funeral prayer should be offered for it, and it is entitled to its share of inheritance.’ (Fiqh us-Sunnah 4.46b).
In fact, on the simple basis of being a woman who has had two children, I used to argue very strongly that the soul did most likely came into the body round about the 120th day, because of my own experience and that of most women, of the moment of feeling the ‘quickening’. After conception a woman is not really aware of the growing foetus in her own body, any more than she is aware of her own kidneys or liver etc (unless they have gone wrong and are sending out pain-warning signals etc). Around the 120th day, however, many women experience a sudden moment when they become very aware that they are carrying something within them which is completely independent of themselves.
When my first baby quickened I was walking up the street carrying a bag of shopping. I dropped my shopping bag and all my apples rolled out into the road. With the second baby it was not such an obvious feeling, but I certainly became aware of the movement of my own child round about that time, give or take a few days – most women will report the same sort of thing, depending on how sensitive they are.
One day you feel nothing, the next you do, like an itch you cannot scratch. You might even be tempted to poke or prod it, but need to remember that this is your unborn child, and it needs protecting and carrying with care. Some women are also very sick at the time with a great deal of vomiting, others who have had morning sickness for a long time already, suddenly get better from it. The feeling is almost as if you have a little mouse inside you, which wriggles and fidgets, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. It is a very odd and funny feeling, and a fascinating subject.
So, basically, I originally felt strong agreement with the old traditions that the 120th day (4 months) was more or less when the soul came into the unborn child.
However, I have had second thoughts, and now my hunch is that the soul comes at the first moment of conception – based on the information now available to expectant mothers through ultra-sound equipment, which can photograph the life, activity, and changes in the foetus from the very earliest moments, as soon as it becomes visible. It is extremely obvious from these photographs that the foetus is living and developing, feeling and moving and experiencing things, including sound (I think) and pain long before the mother is aware of it. What really brought it home to me, and in a traumatic manner, was when I was sent a video from the South African Muslim medical community, which was not subject to the same censorship laws as we have here in the UK.
Obviously, it would be impossibly dangerous for an expectant mother to be X-rayed throughout an abortion, but it is perfectly possible to have ultrasound pictures of it, and these now exist in abundance. I saw for myself what happened, the blades being inserted to cut up the foetus, and how the unfortunate little being reacted, but could not escape. It also showed the ghastly performance of what happened afterwards, in all its gory detail – buckets of baby pieces. On the strength of that, I could no longer believe that the foetus prior to 120 days was not already a separate living being, its development was already moving on rapidly in a continuum. And so I could no longer maintain my earlier belief that the foetus was an inert thing like a kidney before that time. I then went back to the study of hadiths, and satisfied myself that the time when a soul was given to an unborn child, and indeed, the entire nature of the soul of a living being, was not something that was given to human knowledge.
The aborted child is not a nothing, a nonentity. Indeed, through the compassion of Allah it may play a significant part in the fate of its own parents! Tirmidhi’s hadith collection records a highly interesting statement recorded by Ali about the soul of an aborted baby pleading to save its parents from Hell: ‘The Prophet said, ‘When the parents of an aborted child are entering hell, the abortion will plead with his Lord, and will receive the reply, ‘O you abortion who are disputing with your Lord, bring your parents into Paradise.’ He will then draw them with his umbilical cord till he bring them into Paradise.’ (Tirmidhi 555).
This does not fit easily with the teaching that on Judgement Day each of us will stand alone, and no-one will have the power to plead for us. However, it does fit the amazing compassion of Allah that will forgive people, even if the forgiveness is not caused by the earnest intercession of others.
Mu’adh ibn Jabal recorded that the Prophet said: ‘No Muslim couple will lose three (of their children) by death without Allah bringing them into Paradise by His great mercy.’ He was asked if that also applied if they lost two, and he said it did. He was asked if it applied even if they lost only one, and he said it did. Then he said, ‘By Him in Whose hand my soul is, (even) the abortion draws his mother to Paradise by his umbilical cord when she seeks her reward for him from Allah.’ (Tirmidhi 552).
What a wonderful realisation. Each tiny aborted individual is not a nothing, something just wiped out or ceasing to exist. In the compassion of Allah an aborted baby is not forgotten. Hasana the daughter of Mu’awiyah recorded from her paternal uncle: ‘I asked the Prophet: ‘Who are in Paradise? He replied: ‘Prophets are in Paradise, martyrs are in Paradise, infants are in Paradise and children buried alive are in Paradise’. (Abu Dawud 1041).
We are so ignorant of the amazing dimensions of al-Ghayb. It is possibly going too far – who knows – but if we took the interpretation of the phrase ‘burying alive’ as suggested by that contemporary Jewish use in the Arabian province, then this might even include every single potential child in a man’s cast-off sperm – which the scientists tell us could be up to 35 billion individual entities every time a man ejaculates! Sounds crazy, until you come across the insights of the mystics as to the myriads of angels that occupy each tiniest speck of space. ‘If the skies, the earth, the moon, the sun, the stars and the galaxies were all crushed into dust, their particles would not be one tenth of the angels on one step of the ladder of paradise.’ (‘Angels unveiled – a Sufi perspective’, Shaykh M. Hisham Kabbani, Kazi Publications, p.86).
God bless you, wasalaam, Ruqaiyyah.