Muslims Find Their Place in the American Abortion Debate

(RNS) — For Eman Abdelhadi, having an abortion was the wisest thing to do. She was six weeks pregnant and a college graduate who was not financially ready to have a child. She felt no shame or guilt for going through with it.

“I had no problem with it. I grew up in an environment and a religious tradition that considers my life the most important thing,” said Abdelhadi, a professor at the University of Chicago who grew up in a Muslim household. “It felt very clear to me. There was never such a thing as, ‘You did something unethical.’”

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Abdelhadi, whose mother was a gynecologist in Egypt, grew up believing that abortion was “nonsense to legislate” and that legalizing it was necessary to prevent people from seeking other, potentially dangerous, ways to terminate pregnancies.

Islamic law is flexible, Abdelhadi said, and when it comes to making a decision about abortion, “people will consult with their families, their religious leaders, and then they will ultimately make their own decision.”

“You’ll do what feels right,” she said.

As the United States Supreme Court looks poised to overthrow Roe v. Wade, Muslim Americans are preparing for what the historic reversal could mean for their communities.

HEART Women and Girls, a national reproductive justice organization serving Muslims, has established a fund to provide financial aid for pregnancy, abortion and miscarriage care. The LGBTQ Muslim group Queer Crescent collects abortion stories to find out how Muslims gain access to clinics, the costs and travel required, and the cultural barriers they overcome. And advocates and scholars are working to reclaim their Islamic history at a time when they say discussions of reproductive justice have often excluded or misrepresented Muslim voices.

“There’s been a kind of confused silence as (Muslim) people try to figure out what they believe about this, or what Islam tells them about it,” said Abdelhadi, now a sociologist who studies Muslims in America. “I think what happens in a Christian-dominated space is that sometimes, even among Muslims, we don’t know what we believe.”

The recent adoption of anti-abortion laws in Texas and other red states has led many to draw comparisons to the Taliban’s iron fist over Muslim-majority women in Afghanistan. Such comparisons are inaccurate and perpetuate Islamophobia, experts say, adding that this rationale minimizes the role of Christianity and other American systems that led to the six-week abortion ban in Texas.

The American Muslim Bar Association and HEART Women and Girls released an 11-page statement in April called “The Islamic Principle of Rahma: A Call for Reproductive Justice,” declaring that Muslim Americans as a religious minority are “in a unique position.” to condemn abortion and their attack on everyone’s constitutional right to religious freedom.”

“Muslims are not a monolith and we do not have a systemized and global authority that reflects the papal system in Catholicism. We also don’t have a uniform picture of when life begins,” the statement said.

Muslims have a rich understanding of conception, pregnancy, beliefs about life — and “abortion is part of that,” said Zahra Ayubi, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College and a gender scientist in premodern and modern Islamic ethics.

Although Muslims have performed abortions since pre-modern times, Ayubi said contemporary concepts of when life begins are derived from Islamic legal tradition, regarding the inheritance rights of an unborn child or criminal laws that address the fine an offender can face for harming a pregnant person.

Cited are scriptures from the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad that deal with the developmental stages of a fetus and which “provide descriptions of how creation came about,” Ayubi said.

The debate about when life begins ranges from 40 days, the point when the prophet Muhammad says everyone is “formed in the womb,” to 120 days, when the soul is believed to enter the fetus.

Among Muslim authorities, the most conservative opinion would say that abortion is allowed as early as possible and only for health reasons before 120 days, Ayubi said. Contemporary Muslim lawyers have widely said that abortion is allowed even after 120 days “if there is a risk to life for the mother,” Ayubi added.

But even defining mortal danger “is a vague kind of concept,” Ayubi said. This can include mental health problems that, Ayubi said, “can lead to suicidal thoughts.”

The Islamic tradition, Ayubi said, “is forgiving and on the side of mercy.”

In fact, Ayubi said, restrictive abortion laws in states such as Texas “take away the Muslim right to abortion in their tradition and their religion.”

Abed Awad, a Rutgers adjunct law professor and national expert on Sharia (Islamic law), agrees.

If states ban abortion, Muslim Americans have a right to sue against abortion bans that hinder their religious practice, Awad said, adding that the issue of when life begins is a theological one.

The Texas law, currently one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, is a religious violation of the First Amendment, Awad said, because it subjects this “moral position of the Christian right and the anti-abortion movement” to other communities who share these beliefs. do not endorse.

“Not only is this against Sharia law, but it is in many ways against living in a religious, culturally pluralistic society,” Awad said. For example, a pregnant Muslim woman in Texas would not be able to practice her religion in Texas if she joined the position of her medieval scholars who believed she had the right to terminate her pregnancy within 120 days, Awad said.

In a webinar with Awad and other Islamic scholars, Ihsan Bagby — a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky — said Muslims don’t have to publicly support the abortion argument. Bagby characterized Awad’s position as a “liberal view of abortion.”

“The Islamic vision is in the middle and we have to stick to that. We don’t have to applaud the ‘women have a right to their bodies’ as if it were an absolute right, and we don’t have to be on the side of the ‘pro-life’ people because their intentions are ultimately to have abortions over the illegal across the board in all situations,” Bagby said.

Awad refuted Bagby during the webinar, arguing that the position to be taken is not so much about views on abortion as it is about defending a woman’s freedom over her own or her religious beliefs.

“What we’re fighting for is not supporting the liberal vision of aborting a pregnancy within a set time. We fight for women to have the right to decide which moral position they will take,” Awad argued during the webinar.

“I wouldn’t describe anything under Islamic law as liberal or conservative,” he said.

Nadiah Mohajir, who co-founded HEART Women and Girls a decade ago to provide sexual and reproductive health programs to Muslims, said she is proactively thinking about people who “need political education about why and how this ruling will affect Muslims.”

“The way Muslims in America talk about abortion, gender, sexuality, same-sex relationships, it’s all influenced by colonization and Christian supremacy,” Mohajir said.

While scholars say abortion existed in Islamic societies in pre-colonial times, Mohajir said most people wouldn’t know certain histories and nuances unless they took a course that specialized in them.

“Abortion was a matter between pregnant people and their caregivers and the state did not interfere, religious authority did not intervene,” Mohajir said. “It’s important for us to reclaim that history.”

Queer Crescent, in partnership with HEART Women and Girls, created the Muslim Repro Justice Storytelling project to “fight the taboo and shame surrounding thinking about abortion,” said Shenaaz Janmohamed, Executive Director of Queer Crescent.

They collect written statements, audio clips and short videos from Muslims about their abortions. They want to show that reproductive justice is “genderally” and not just a woman’s issue, and that when seeking abortion care, “Muslims are part of what is being questioned, as is their ability to make decisions for their bodies,” he said. Janmohamed.

In addition to launching its first reproductive justice fund, HEART Women and Girls is publishing its first book, called “Sex Talk: A Muslim’s Guide to Healthy Sex and Relationships,” which discusses how faith and cultural identities come together in making decisions about reproductive health. It will emphasize that you have “self-determination and freedom of choice over your body,” Mohajir said.

But for Mohajir, the scope of Islamic decision-making goes beyond just citing Islamic law. Mohajir points to Ayubi, the Islamic scholar who teaches at Dartmouth, who she says is working to expand “that conversation with ethics and lived experience.”

“Considering that is just as important,” Mohajir said.

Ayubi, along with other professors, is collecting 500 interviews of religiously identified people who have had an abortion. Described as the “largest dataset” of its kind, it seeks to challenge “the narrative that religion is against abortion” and understand how religious people think about “their abortions and their reproductive lives theologically.”

The Dartmouth professor is also working on an Islam and medical ethics project to document how Muslim women, as well as non-binary and trans-Muslims, make decisions related to abortion, gender-affirming therapies, pregnancy loss and in vitro fertilization.

In her appeal to participants, Ayubi acknowledges that many have experienced anti-Muslim sentiments and racism from health care providers, as well as their own family’s ideas about what drugs and procedures “we should have.”

“Many of us have made medical decisions that have made us think about whether something is allowed in Islam,” Ayubi said.

The project is about “authority” and “autonomy” and it will “help other Muslims in similar situations,” she said.

For Mohajir, Islamic law has never been static. It has evolved with modern reproductive health technology such as IVF. Now, she said, there was a need for Islamic law to pass judgment on whether something like IVF is allowed or not.

“This is the evidence to show that Islamic law evolves over time,” Mohajir said.

“Muslims are not a monolith. Not only are they the most racially and ethnically diverse religious minority in North America, they are also diverse, even in terms of religious practice and life experience,” she said.

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