In a Just World

photo of Dr. Riffat Hassan

Subject: Dr. Riffat Hassan Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
Transcripts: Sidney Meyer

The segments included in this interview* were recorded November 2002, as part of In a Just World a documentary on world religions, family planning, contraception, and abortion.. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with WTTW-Chicago. Dr. Hassan is Professor in Humanities (Religious Studies) at the University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky. She is also the founder of the International Network for Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan.

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

How would you describe the Qur'an and what it means to Muslims?
Like the other major religious traditions of the world, Islam has multiple sources. The highest source or authority in Islam is the Qur'an, which Muslims believe to be God's word revealed through the agency of arch-angel Gabriel to the prophet Mohammed who was an Arab living in the seventh century in Mecca. The Qur'an is believed by Muslims to have no errors. It provides a kind of framework for all of life. So if you want to know what is the normative Islamic position about any particular matter or issue, such as family planning or marriage or divorce, etc. the first place you would look at would be the Qur'an. After the Qur'an, we have another source that is very important as well, which is the Prophetic Tradition, which consists of two parts. One is called the Sunnah which is the practice of the Prophet, what he did, his actions. And the second part is what is called the Haddith which are the oral traditions attributed to him. And that's a voluminous body of literature. Some of it is very problematic, but anyhow it has been very influential in the development of Islam.

Is contraception permitted in Islam and how does one go about determining that?
This is a very controversial question in the sense that you will find a lot of discussion and debate on whether Islam permits contraception or not. In general there are two schools of thought that have an opinion on this matter. The liberal school starts by saying that the Qur'an is silent on the topic of family planning in the sense that there is no particular or specific verse in the Qur'an that deals with family planning. And then they move on to the Haddith, the traditions. There are three major traditions on this subject: one seems to support family planning, one seems to not quite support it, the third one is sort of neutral. So the evidence is not very very strong. So basically the liberal school ends up with quoting Imman Al'ghazzali who was an outstanding Suffi philosopher and thinker who was very supportive of family planning. On the other hand, the conservative school has been very influential in many ways. This school of thought starts by quoting the Qur'an, really actually quoting it out of context because there is no specific statement in the Qur'an about family planning. Then they go on and quote a lot of Haddiths, many of which are not authentic, but nevertheless they can quote them. So at a prima facia level, the, the case of the conservatives against family planning seems to be much stronger than that of the liberals in support of it.

But in examining this literature and doing my own reflection, I came to the conclusion that there was a flaw in the way in which the liberals were presenting their case because they start by saying the Qur'an is silent on the topic of family planning in that there is no verse, but if you look at the principles in the Qur'an, the ethical framework of the Qur'an, you find that there are many principles that are relevant. To give you some example of these principles, there is a principle, which is that the rights of disadvantaged people in society, like the widow, the orphan, the infirm, the old people should be protected in society. Then there is another principle which is that that which is harmful for you is forbidden, you know, not only alcohol but anything which harms your body for example. So if you look at all of these ethical principles and make a sort of framework and within that framework you place the issue of contraception, and say, "is contraception permitted by Islam or not according to the teachings of the Qur'an, not just a specific verse, but the whole message?" Then you come to a different conclusion because the problem of contraception in the Muslim world is the problem of the woman who is poor and illiterate and probably lives in a village. This woman has no access to family planning. She is probably illiterate, has no access to information or knowledge, is not able to exercise her freedom of will freely, has probably already many children, is very disadvantaged and having another child is certainly going to be detrimental to her. So I argued at the Cairo conference in 1994 that in the light of the ethical teachings of the Qur'an, the right to contraception is a fundamental human right for the majority of Muslim women. So that's the position I will take.

What is the general view of Islamic women when it comes to this issue?
The Islamic world in general remains very traditional and also very patriarchal. The average Muslim woman on the other hand has three characteristics: she's poor, she's illiterate, and she lives in a village. And the vast majority of these women do not have access to the primary text of the tradition. They do not read the Qur'an in the original. They do not really know what the moral principles are. So what they know about Islam is what they have heard, what they've been taught about Islam. And with particular reference to matters of marriage and sexuality etc. they are living in societies that are very authoritarian and very rigid in many ways. And so the vast majority of Muslim women grow up believing that any form of birth control is something that is contrary to the pleasure of God, or the will of God, and that it's wrong. And so I think that if one were to go and speak to these women, the majority of women who are in a village or illiterate etc. that what you're likely to hear is that you know it's wrong to do family planning, that this is against Islam. They may not be able to give you very strong reasons for it, but this is what they've heard and they've internalized this. But the interesting things also is that there's a lot of data now to show that where, where these same women, where they have access to family planning, that they use it. Even though that at some level they think it's wrong, but nevertheless at another level, they, they are willing to use it. So I think that one great problem is the problem of access. I mean they haven't really worked their way through the theology of it, and they haven't come to the point where they think that it's okay theologically to use family planning. But at a practical level, you know, having had so many children and not having any health care or child care, if they actually get an opportunity to practice birth control, they will.

Is the issue of abortion raised or debated in the Muslim world?
The issue of abortion is not really the subject of a public debate in the Muslim world as it is in the west or in the United States. This is however not to say that it's not an issue, but in general this is something that is not discussed. There's no discourse as such on abortion. There are certain cases where in general society would seem to accept abortion, say for instance if the health of the mother is threatened, or if there is a serious danger of deformity in the unborn child, or something like that. If there is exceptional medical circumstance then I think that there could be some legitimacy granted to a woman seeking an abortion. But in terms of the schools of law, you know sort of in terms of classical law, the major schools of Islamic law with exception of the Malaki school which is one of the four, which is the most stringent in terms of abortion, all the other schools the juries appear to allow for abortion within the first one hundred, first one hundred and twenty days of the pregnancy because they believe that it's at one twenty that the ensoulment of the fetus occurs. And so there's more flexibility in terms of time frame as far as abortion is concerned. But even in that case you know there are some juries that would require some sound reason for it. But anyhow there is provision for abortion according to classical schools of Islamic law, in the majority of cases.

How does one understand God then from both the liberal and conservative perspectives?
Well there are many ways of understanding God. One way is to think of God as the creator of all peoples who is merciful, who is compassionate, and who wants human beings to grow, to develop all their potential. In a sense one message that you get from a reading of the Qur'an is that all of creation, or all of the universe was created so that human beings could develop their potentiality. So there is a lot of emphasis in the Qur'an on this aspect of God as the one who creates, as the one who wants you to know, to grow, you know, expand to the fullest extent you can, and so on. This is one concept of God, one understanding of God. Another understanding of God is that God is something like a super-policeman, has a lot of rules and regulations, and the moment you step out of line you know you're going to get hit on the head, etc. This is the concept of an authoritarian god, a punitive god, a punishing god, etc. I think that these two concepts of God are clashing in all the monotheistic religions. So we have these two conflicting notions of God. God as one whom is compassionate and just and who wants human beings to develop their potential to the fullest. And then there's this other God who is more concerned that people follow the rules and tow the line and do not deviate in any way from whatever is prescribed. Now in the context of family planning again if we're going back to the conservatives who seem to come up with texts that appear to mandate family planning, their position is, "this is what God wants, God does not permit contraception, does not allow for any form of birth control, and therefore, doing it is wrong. But again applying the method that I have talked about of understanding the Qur'an in terms of ethical principles and thinking of God as a god of justice, of compassion, of mercy, and of reason, you know, one would say that with regards to family planning it cannot be the will of God that a woman be forced, be put in a position where she has child after child after child without adequate health care or child care. And that she, you know, her body is just turned into a machine. And it seems to me that this is contrary to any, any understanding of Islam, or of the God of the Qur'an that I, that I have.

Why do you believe it is important to distinguish between justice and equality?
I think that in terms of the modern feminist movement, we tend to use the world equality, that men and women are equal. And by equality we understand in terms of mechanical equality, that they are equal in terms of how they dress, how they act, etc. Justice is a more profound concept than equality because justice in a sense includes what we might call equality and equity but it's more than that, in a sense that it is not simply dividing the task fifty-fifty between two people. Nor is it saying that one sex should behave exactly like the other sex. It is allowing for differences. It's allowing for autonomy. But what it is saying is that justice should be done to both sexes. Meaning those women should have the same right to develop their potential that men have. There may be a woman who is perfectly happy staying at home, taking care of her family, and never stepping outside. There may be another one who doesn't think that that is what she wants to do with her life. She may want to have a family but also want to have a professional life. And justice consists of giving to each person his or her "just dessert." You know not pushing sex roles down everybody's throat in the sense that women are only meant to be homemakers or housewives and men are supposed to be in public space and they are supposed to be breadwinners, because this is kind of segregated sex roles that cannot be maintained in the modern world. So I think that more and more people, and human rights activists, and women's rights activists, are talking about gender justice, rather than simply equality.