There is no single Islamic interpretation on the ethics of abortion, but belief in God’s mercy and compassion is a crucial part of any consideration.
As a scholar of Islamic ethics, I am often asked, “What does Islam say about abortion?” — a question that has become even more relevant since the United States Supreme Court overturned 50 years of constitutional protection for the right to have an abortion in the United States. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision of June 24, 2022.
This question really deserves to be reframed, because it involves a singular vision. Islam is not monolithic, and there is no single Islamic attitude towards abortion. The answer to the question depends on the types of Islamic sources, scriptural, legal or ethical, which are applied to this contemporary problem by people of different levels of authority, expertise or religious observance.
Muslims have long had a rich relationship with science, and more specifically with the practice of Medication. This has given rise to multiple interpretations of good and evil as they relate to the body, including ideas and practices surrounding pregnancy.
Islamic frameworks for thinking about abortion
The typical framing of whether abortion should be legal depends on American Christian debates about the beginning of life. Muslims who have abortions don’t always ask “when does life begin?” to know the Islamic positions on the question. On the contrary, as my research in the Abortion and religion According to the project and forthcoming book “Women as Humans”, Muslims who have abortions generally wonder under what circumstances abortion would be permitted in the Islamic tradition.
Moreover, the Quranic verses and hadiths – recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – are not about abortion per se, nor about when life begins or whether abortion is akin to the taking away of life. Instead, they are descriptions for people to reflect on God’s miracle of what happens in the womb, or rahm in Arabic, which is part of God’s mercy and compassion.
It is often a deeply theological discussion of human actions in the context of God’s will, omnipotence, and omniscience in matters of life and death. The dialogue often yields answers that are specific to the person’s cosmic and religious beliefs about the nature and mercy of God and their circumstances in the abortion decision-making process.
Many contemporary Muslim jurists and bioethicists point to specific verses in the Quran as well as hadiths with descriptions of the stages of human gestation that are mapped onto the timeline of pregnancy in the contemporary abortion debate. Quranic verses often quoted are 23:12-14“And indeed We created mankind from an essence of clay. Then We placed him like a drop of sperm in a nursing home; then We created the drop of sperm into an adherent substance, then We created the adherent substance into an embryonic mass, then We created from the embryonic mass bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, then We produced as another creation. So blessed is God, the best of creators.
Then there is the hadiths in which the Prophet Muhammad describes what happens in the womb: “The human being is united in the mother’s womb for forty days in the form of a drop of liquid, then becomes a thick clot of blood for a similar period, then a piece of flesh for a similar period. … Then the soul is breathed into it. …”
These scriptural traditions divide the timeline of pregnancy into stages. Muslim jurists regard the 120-day mark of the soul (40 days x 3 stages), when God is believed to breathe life into the fetus, as when the fetus becomes a legal entity with financial rights. The fetus is believed to have inheritance rights; he may leave an inheritance to his siblings or other relatives if he dies, or provide his parents with blood money in the event of violent action against the mother.
Although reference to scriptural tradition may be sufficient for many Muslims, some may turn to Muslim legal tradition as a priority. Premodern jurists’ inquiries into the stage of pregnancy were primarily aimed at settling issues such as inheritance laws that might come into effect in the event of fetal death. They didn’t ask when life would begin to settle abortion issues. And even as they broached the question of the legal personality of a fetus, they decided on a case-by-case basis rather than general statements.
Contemporary case law
Most Muslim jurists and bioethicists today maintain that abortion before 120 days of pregnancy is permitted on certain grounds and after this term in case of mortal danger to the mother. In matters of abortion, the Islamic legal principle of preservation of life is universally interpreted to mean the life of the mother. Other grounds for abortion vary by school of thought, but include health problems for the mother or fetus and sometimes include unwanted pregnancy, depending on the circumstances of the pregnancy occurring.
Since maternal health can be a nebulous category, acceptance of mental health reasons for abortion may depend on whether people take mental health itself seriously. Concerns may include a mother’s mental capacity to care for herself or a child, or potential suicidal thoughts that put the mother’s life at risk.
Financial affordability is generally frowned upon as a reason for abortion because God is seen as the providerbut still accepted in some schools of thought, as the tradition generally promotes mercy above all else.
Regardless of the positions of contemporary jurists on the subject, however, Muslims who perform abortion often do so based on their broad Islamic understanding of God’s compassion rather than in consultation with religious authorities who might act as gatekeepers.
Post-Dobbs American Muslims
Some of the nuance of Islamic discourse on abortion is the result of a long relationship between medicine and Islamic thought. For American Muslims, this history is overshadowed by the fact that the United States Supreme Court upholds the strong dominance and influence of a Christian opinion as the only American opinion on abortion.
There is often an overarching assumption, which is also shared by many Muslims, that Muslim rules on gender and women’s rights are stricter than mainstream American Christian rules. There have been several problematic comparisons of the Dobbs decision and Sharia. Some have called it “Christian Sharia” to characterize the nationwide abortion ruling and bans as religious, but in doing so they are inspired by anti-Muslim sentiment and stereotypes of Islam as being gender-only oppressive.
However, when American Muslims themselves reflect evangelical Christian views on abortion, it may be a form of signaling virtue or ignorance of Muslims’ rich historical relationship with medicine.
Even in supposedly religiously conservative Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, abortion laws are much more liberal than in US states that prohibit abortion. Legally, not only does the life of the mother always take priority, but because the idea that the soul occurs at 120 days is taken seriously, abortion before that point can and often does take place in various circumstances such as rape, serial births, mental health issues, delayed pregnancy, etc.
Many American Muslims speak out in favor of abortion rights. Organizations such as the American Muslim Bar Association, heart to grow and Muslim defenders have issued statements on abortion in Islam and information published on The right of American Muslims to abortion. The overriding commonality between these differing Islamic views on abortion is the Islamic concept of God’s mercy and compassion.