There is a prevailing perception that family planning is a red flag in Islam. That Muslims are firmly against the adoption of family planning measures is a popular misconception. There is a general impression that family planning is deviant from the teachings of the Quran and the Hadith. And that Muslims are fast multiplying and one day they will outgrow the majority community. Justice Sachar’s report on the Muslim community in India demolishes such popular bigotry. In his report he stated that there is substantial demand from the community for fertility regulation and for modern contraceptives and over 20million couples have already used contraceptive.
My own experience while working among the Muslims of Assam for the last 4 years corroborates Justice Sachar’s findings that Muslims are not averse to partaking in family planning schemes.
There is no controversy among the population experts that poverty, illiteracy, insecurity and inaccessibility to birth control programmes are the root causes for the rampant population growth in the downtrodden sections of the community irrespective of cast and religion of our country. Unfortunately we tend to gloss over this fact and pin the blame on the Muslim clergy for the swelling demography in areas populated by such Muslims. We also need to bear in mind that among the Muslims at the bottom-end of the social pyramid; illiteracy, underage marriage, polygamy, poverty and population outburst are not only pervasive but are also inter-related; which only compounds the problem of burgeoning birth rates.
If overall development of the marginalized Muslims remain elusive, then all efforts directed towards curbing population growth will go in vain. Among such Muslims, religious dogmas and social taboos are deeply entrenched. Contrary to my expectations, the enthusiasm, co-operation and appreciation that our family planning camps received in those pockets of high population densities, was simply phenomenal. Shedding religious inhibitions, people from conservative backgrounds flocked to our camps in droves. During my field trips, most of the clerics that I have exchanged views with, were not averse to the concept of family planning and have certainly not tagged our work as blasphemous. But it is equally true that distorted religious beliefs and traditions are largely prevalent among the non-indigenous Muslims of reverine areas. The thinking and talking heads of this particular group are mistaken in prejudging that family planning is nothing but sterilization. Most of them are even averse to discussing issues of birth control in the light of Islamic teachings. They need to concur with the fact that Islam calls for a knowledge-based society.
Among the Muslims of Assam’s riverine areas, there is an unusually high demographic growth. This is hanging like a Damocles’ sword in their path to upward mobility. In such a backdrop, the chances for their socio-economic progress are rather slim. Nonetheless, it has dawned on many within the community that only a family with fewer children can be helpful in ushering into a life of prosperity and security. For this reason, many have come forward to attend our family planning camps and have responded with fervor to our call for family limitation. During the course of our ongoing campaign, countless couples have expressed that they are not in favor of raising large families as many mouths to feed implies untold hardships and miseries. Those who bear several children, were often borne unintentionally. It needs to be stressed that it is not because of the lack of participation by Muslims in family planning programmes that such large families have cropped up in the riverine areas, but due to the dearth of such facilities. According to the Sachar committee report, there is a considerable demand from the Muslim community for fertility regulation and modern contraception but there are supply side constraints.
Teeming multitudes of underfed, half-clad and uneducated souls cannot be the essence of a true Islamic society. Even an otherwise religious person with several children will find it difficult in abiding by the righteous ways of life as per the strictly laid down instructions of the Holy Quran. Allah the Exalted, does not call on his followers to overburden themselves by raising large families simply for material gains, as this could be harmful to their children. The Holy Quran forbids believers from raising large untenable families. Incidentally, at the dawn of Islam, the Prophet himself had not opposed the methods of birth control practiced in those days, known as ‘Azol’.
Several nations in the Islamic world have achieved remarkable success in birth control. As against India’s fertility rate of 2.6, Iran’s rate is 1.88 while that of Indonesia is 2.2 (CIA Fact Book, 2009). The main reason behind this is the broad-based development of these countries. The respective governments have implemented family planning schemes in a scientific manner and it is noteworthy that the clergy has come out in open support of such policies. There are shining examples of religious heads campaigning for the robust execution of such programmes. It bears recalling that Ayatollah Khomeini had once issued a religious edict that if a couple has 2 children and is struggling against odds in raising them, then they are bound by the Shariat to adopt family planning methods. The Vilayat-e-Fiqh (Council of Islamic Jurisprudence) of Iran was in sync with the Ayatollah and the Ulema was in the vanguard of the noble mission of spreading the message of population control. Iran was the first nation to launch a programme of permanent sterilization of both genders. Iran is also the only country in the world where it is incumbent upon all seeking to enter into wedlock, to undergo counseling in family planning to be entitled for marriage registration. Such a showcase achievement of birth control has set a precedent in the Muslim world which is increasingly becoming worthy of emulation by the rest. Infant and maternal mortality rates have drastically dropped in Iran while the social status of women has grown manifold.
In India, states like Kerala which has witnessed credible all-round development, the fertility rate among the Muslim brethren is lower than that of their Hindu counterparts. Similar trends are noticeable in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. This shows that with growth and development, society is better placed in curbing population growth. It is heartening to recall the overwhelming participation of Muslims in our family planning camps and in keeping with the spirit of public participation; it is incumbent upon us to bridge the gap in meeting the growing demand for family planning. In a random study of 2456 participants in male sterilization procedure in 2009-10 in Assam, 1390 (55.37%) were Hindus, while 1066 (43.40% ) were Muslims. And it bears reiteration that of Assam’s population, Muslims constitute 30.92%( as per census report 2001). Another study of 2383 people who underwent permanent sterilization procedure in Barpeta district of Assam in the year 2011-12 of which 996 were Hindus (41.2%), while 1387 ( 58.8%) people of the group were Muslims. Being a Muslim family planning activist, I do sincerely belief that conquering of myth, misbelieve and misconception prevalent in the Muslim society against family planning is not an insurmountable task. Therefore, we need to carry out our activities on a larger scale so as to cover the widest possible area and in this regard, we implore the Government of India to redouble its efforts in widening the scope of family planning initiative amongst the Muslim masses.
Prof. Dr Ilias Ali MS is Professor of Surgery, Head of Department of Emergency Medicine and Trauma Centre, Gauhati Medical College, Guwahati, The State Master Trainer Cum State Nodal Officer, NSV, Govt. of Assam. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org