Sanctity of life: Islamic teachings on abortion


Islam rarely permits abortion after 120 days. This foetus is about 112 days old ©

Muslims regard abortion as wrong and haram (forbidden), but many accept that it may be permitted in certain cases.

All schools of Muslim law accept that abortion is permitted if continuing the pregnancy would put the mother’s life in real danger. This is the only reason accepted for abortion after 120 days of the pregnancy.

Different schools of Muslim law hold different views on whether any other reasons for abortion are permitted, and at what stage of pregnancy if so.

Some schools of Muslim law permit abortion in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy, while others only permit it in the first 7 weeks.
However, even those scholars who would permit early abortion in certain cases still regard abortion as wrong, but do not regard it as a punishable wrong. The more advanced the pregnancy, the greater the wrong.

The Qur’an does not explicitly refer to abortion but offers guidance on related matters. Scholars accept that this guidance can properly be applied to abortion.

Sanctity of life
The Islamic view is based on the very high priority the faith gives to the sanctity of life. The Qur’an states:
Whosoever has spared the life of a soul, it is as though he has spared the life of all people. Whosoever has killed a soul, it is as though he has murdered all of mankind. Qur’an 5:32

Most Muslim scholars would say that a foetus in the womb is recognised and protected by Islam as a human life.

Protection of the mother’s life
Islam allows abortion to save the life of the mother because it sees this as the ‘lesser of two evils’ and there is a general principle in Sharia (Muslim law) of choosing the lesser of two evils.

Abortion is regarded as a lesser evil in this case because:

the mother is the ‘originator’ of the foetus
the mother’s life is well-established
the mother has with duties and responsibilities
the mother is part of a family
allowing the mother to die would also kill the foetus in most cases
Providing for the child
The Qur’an makes it clear that a foetus must not be aborted because the family fear that they will not be able to provide for it – they should trust Allah to look after things:
Kill not your offspring for fear of poverty; it is We who provide for them and for you. Surely, killing them is a great sin.
Qur’an 17:32

The same (and similar) texts also ban abortion on social or financial grounds relating to the mother or the rest of the family – e.g. that the pregnancy wasn’t planned and a baby will interfere with the mother’s life, education or career.

For the baby’s sake
Abortion for the sake of the baby
If it is confirmed in the early period of pregnancy that a foetus suffers from a defect that can’t be treated and that will cause great suffering to the child, a number of scholars would say that it is permissible to abort, provided that the pregnancy is less than 120 days old.

Foetuses with a particular genetic blood disorder can be aborted ©
A slightly more liberal opinion is that abortion within the first 120 days would be permitted if a child would be born with such physical and mental deformity as would deprive the child of a normal life. The opinion of at least two competent medical specialists is required.
Other scholars disagree and hold that abortion is not permitted in such cases.

There is almost unanimous opinion that after 120 days an abortion is not permissible unless the defect in the embryo puts the mother’s life in danger.

In recent times in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameni has issued a fatwa permitting abortion for foetuses under 10 weeks shown to have the genetic blood disorder thalassemia.

And also in Iran, Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei issued a fatwa which permits abortion in the first three months for various reasons. Saanei accepted that abortion was generally forbidden in Islam, but went on to say:

But Islam is also a religion of compassion, and if there are serious problems, God sometimes doesn’t require his creatures to practice his law. So under some conditions–such as parents’ poverty or overpopulation–then abortion is allowed,
Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei quoted in Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2000

Widely quoted is a resolution of the Islamic jurisprudence council of Mekkah Al Mukaramah (the Islamic World League) passing a Fatwa in its 12th session held in February 1990. This allowed abortion if the foetus was:

grossly malformed with untreatable severe condition proved by medical investigations and decided upon by a committee formed by competent trustworthy physicians, and provided that abortion is requested by the parents and the foetus is less than 120 days computed from moment of conception.

Attributed, Mekkah Al Mukaramah, February 1990

NB: We have not been able to obtain an English language copy of this fatwa to corroborate the quote.
Rape, incest and adultery

Some scholars state that abortion where the mother is the victim of a rape or of incest is permissible in the first 120 days of the pregnancy.

Others say abortion for such reasons is never permitted.

Explaining the difficulty of such a case, one scholar says:
I believe that the value of life is the same whether this embryo is the result of fornication with relatives or non-relatives or valid marriage. In Sharia life has the same value in all cases.
Sheikh M. A. Al-Salami, Third Symposium on Medical Jurisprudence

It is reported that Bosnian women raped by the Serbian army were issued a fatwa allowing them to abort, but were urged to complete the abortion before the 120 day mark. A similar fatwa was issued in Algeria.

This demonstrates that Islamic law has the flexibility to be compassionate in appropriate circumstances.

In Egypt (where abortion is illegal) in June 2004, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, approved a draft law allowing women to abort a pregnancy that is the result of rape. The law would also make it legal for women to undergo an abortion more than four months after conception.

His decision caused controversy among other Muslim scholars: The mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, said Tantawi’s decision was wrong and violated the Qur’an’s injunction that “forbids killing innocent souls.” He said, “It is haram [forbidden] to abort the fetus after life is breathed into it, in other words after 120 days.” However, he added that a woman could terminate a pregnancy if she was in immediate danger.

Islam does not permit abortion where an unwanted pregnancy is the result of unforced adultery.

The soul
Abortion and the soul

Abortion is not permissible after the foetus has a soul

Islam forbids the termination of a pregnancy after soul or ‘Ruh’ is given to the foetus.

There’s disagreement within Islam as to when this happens. The three main opinions are:
at 120 days
at 40 days
when there is voluntary movement of the foetus
This usually happens during the 12th week of gestation but many women don’t notice the movement until much later – sometimes as late as 20 weeks.

A relevant hadith suggests that the moment of ensoulment is 120 days:

Narrated Abdullah: Allah’s Apostle, the true and truly inspired said, “(as regards your creation), every one of you is collected in the womb of his mother for the first forty days, and then he becomes a clot for another forty days, and then a piece of flesh for another forty days. Then Allah sends an angel to write four words: He writes his deeds, time of his death, means of his livelihood, and whether he will be wretched or blessed (in religion). Then the soul is breathed into his body…”
Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 549

However, it’s important to note that many scholars believe that life begins at conception, and that all scholars believe that an embryo deserves respect and protection at all stages of the pregnancy.


1 reply

  1. Bringing this article now, because of the current debate in the USA mainly about this topic.

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