The Holy Qur’an does not refer to abortion as the term is commonly understood. However, it upholds the sanctity of human life. Murder and infanticide have been declared heinous crimes. The jurists restrict abortion based on these general Qur’anic interdictions of unlawfully taking human life. The fact that the Qur’an describes the development of the human embryo led the Muslim jurists to differentiate between an unformed biological entity and the human being. The Holy Qur’an says that the creation of man starts from sperm which is placed in a safe lodging. This drop is later formed into a clot of blood, which assumes the shape of a small tissue. This tissue develops into bones that are covered with flesh and then God makes it another creation i.e. human being (Qur’an, 23:12-14). The words ‘then we produced it as another creature’ indicate that the infant is given a soul some time after conception. Muslim scholars are divided over the beginning of this last stage in a foetus.
A narrative ascribed to the Holy Prophet (sws) sets the duration of the first three stages of the foetus namely drop, clot and tissue, as forty days each. After the completion of this cycle, God dispatches an angel to breathe the Ruh (i.e. soul) into the foetus. For this reason most Muslim jurists hold that pregnancy cannot be terminated once the foetus has been in the womb for 120 days. However the legal schools and individual scholars differ over the permissibility of abortion before this point.
What follows is a summary of major viewpoints on the issue:
Classical jurists are divided on the question whether abortion is allowed in the Islamic Shari‘ah or not. Most of them believe in its permissibility before the spirit is blown into it. The exponents of this viewpoint hold that the creation of a living being is materialized only after this blowing of the spirit. Ibn-i-Wahban is one of the advocates of this viewpoint. He says that a pregnancy can be terminated within this period (120 days) on a reasonable excuse and it will not be considered killing of a living being. The jurists also differ on whether abortion should be allowed within four months of conceiving. Some of them forbid it [within 120 days no matter what]. Faqih Ali Ibn Musa holds that when a sperm enters the womb the foetus is destined for animation and therefore cannot be terminated.
Sayyid Sabiq in his work Fiqhu’l-Sunnah writes:
Abortion is not allowed after four months have passed since conception because at that time it is akin to taking a life, an act that entails penalty in this world and in the Hereafter. As regards the matter of abortion before this period elapses, it is considered allowed if necessary. However, in the absence of a reasonable excuse it is detestable. The author of ‘Subul-ul-Maram’ writes: ‘A woman’s treatment for aborting a pregnancy before the spirit has been blown into it is a matter upon which scholars differed on account of difference of opinion on the matter of ‘Azal (i.e. measures to hinder conception). Those who allow ‘Azal consider abortion as allowable and vice versa.’ The same ruling should be applicable for women deciding on sterilization. Imam Ghazzali opines: ‘Induced abortion is a sin after conception’. He further says: ‘The sin incurred thus can be of degrees. When the sperm enters the ovaries, mixes with the ovum and acquires potential of life, its removal would be a sin. Aborting it after it grows into a germ or a leech would be a graver sin and the graveness of the sin increases very much if one does so after the stage when the spirit is blown into the fetus and it acquires human form and faculties.
The most balanced viewpoint in this regard is that one should not terminate pregnancy after the foetus grows into a human being. Obviously the stage is marked by the time when foetus assumes the human form and receives all human faculties. Medical science however has not yet been able to determine this stage and unless and until it does so we can rely on the related Hadith ascribed to the Holy Prophet (sws) which sets the four month time period. Hence, rape and incest provide a justifiable basis within the period stipulated above; however, if threat is posed to a mother’s life, her life shall be saved at all cost.
Muhammad Amin Editor, Hashiya Ibn ‘Abidin on Al-Raddu’l- Mukhtar ‘ala Durru’l-Mukhtar, 8th ed., vol. 3, (Beirut: Darul Fikr, 1366 AH), p. 176 (Reference taken from CD Edition)
Sayyid Sabiq, Fiqhu’l-Sunnah, special edition, vol. 2, (Cairo: Shirkah Manar al-Dawliyyah, 1997), p. 334