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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

Muslim-American opinions on abortion are complex. What does Islam actually say?

Sahar Pirzada chose to have an abortion in 2018 when she learned that her fetus had Trisomy 18, a rare genetic condition that almost always ends in miscarriage or stillbirth.
Lauren Justice for NPR
Sahar Pirzada chose to have an abortion in 2018 when she learned that her fetus had Trisomy 18, a rare genetic condition that almost always ends in miscarriage or stillbirth.

After the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that ended the constitutional right to abortion, Zahra Ayubi started to notice a theme among some critics of the historic shift.

"They'll draw analogies between abortion bans in the United States and Muslim conservatism," Ayubi, a professor of Islamic Ethics at Dartmouth College, said of some of the commentary she saw on TV and on social media. Critiques ranged from attempts at humor to outright Islamophobia.

In some cases, as Ayubi recalled, critics blamed the so-called "Texas Taliban" for new abortion restrictions in that state. She also saw a widely-shared photo of Supreme Court justices edited to show them in beards, turbans, and burqas. The punchline?

"To show that SCOTUS has now become ruled by Sharia," Ayubi said wearily.

New York City-based artist and writer Maryam Monalisa Gharavi shares a similar weariness, given the difficulty she's faced in talking openly about abortion in her community, and in light of one simple fact: Sharia — the body of religious law in Islam — can, in fact, be very permissive of abortion.

"I myself started provoking conversations in my own circles, in my own family," said Gharavi, "Saying, hey, do Muslims even know their own faith?"

What Sharia actually dictates on abortion

Polls show opinions on abortion, like in other faith groups, are deeply divided. According to a survey conducted last March by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 56% of Muslim Americans think abortion should actually be legal in all or most cases.

Those who probe Islam's key texts to understand what the faith itself allows will find nothing that mentions abortion outright. Instead, Islamic rulings lean on verses that mention fetal development.

According to Ayubi, based on those verses and on discussions jurists have had, Islamic scholars determined that ensoulment occurs 120 days into a pregnancy, or just over 17 weeks.

"Prior to that, abortion is permissible under certain circumstances," Ayubi points out.

Seventeen weeks is a longer gestational window for abortion than laws currently allow in several states, and many states with near total abortion bans don't allow exceptions for incest or rape.

Ayubi says in Islam, allowable circumstances for abortion may depend on which madhab, or school of thought, one chooses to follow. Some are more liberal, but Ayubi notes even the strictest madhab will always allow exceptions for a pregnant person's wellbeing.

"[In Islam], the most conservative opinion is that abortion is permissible only in cases of mortal danger to the mother at any point," Ayubi said.

After an abortion in 2018 due to medical concerns, Sahar Pirzada now has two children, including a six-month-old son.
/ Lauren Justice for NPR
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Lauren Justice for NPR
After an abortion in 2018 due to medical concerns, Sahar Pirzada now has two children, including a six-month-old son.
Sahar Pirzada and her son play in their Los Angeles home.
/ Lauren Justice for NPR
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Lauren Justice for NPR
Sahar Pirzada and her son play in their Los Angeles home.

Finding comfort in faith

Despite inaccurate and offensive takes on what Islam allows, the belief in abortion to protect a woman's wellbeing is precisely what has given some Muslim Americans confidence in their own reproductive decisions. Sahar Pirzada of Los Angeles got pregnant in 2018 after four years of trying to conceive with her husband, but they soon received troubling news.

"The doctor basically got back to us and said, 'There are signs that your baby could have trisomy 18,'" Pirzada recalled. "Nothing prepares you for that moment when you get the actual diagnosis."

Trisomy 18, also known as Edwards syndrome, is an incurable and rare genetic condition that almost always ends in miscarriage or stillbirth. Pirzada said she made du'a — calling on God while determining her next steps. After talking to her husband, a therapist, and Islamic scholars, she chose to terminate the pregnancy.

"My mental health is important. My physical health is important. And that should be taken into consideration when making this decision as well," Pirzada reasoned. "That really comes from my understanding of Islam."

Eman Abdelhadi, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, credits her own upbringing in a midwestern Muslim community for a similar understanding of her faith. In 2015, while working towards a Ph.D, she chose to get an abortion.

"I didn't have the resources to have a baby at that moment in my life," said Abdelhadi, adding that while it was a tearful decision, she's happy now. "I wouldn't have led the life that I lead now if I had made the decision to stay pregnant."

State laws vs. religious laws

Abdelhadi now studies people's relationships with Muslim communities, and is unsettled by any leader — Islamic or otherwise — dictating abortion rules for those who don't share the same beliefs.

"[Even for those who] believe that they wouldn't have an abortion after a certain amount of time," she said, "The idea that we would legislate that for everyone is beyond the pale."

Eman Abdelhadi chose to have an abortion in 2015.
/ Taylor Glascock for NPR
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Taylor Glascock for NPR
Eman Abdelhadi chose to have an abortion in 2015.
Eman Abdelhadi studies people's relationships with Muslim communities.
/ Taylor Glascock for NPR
/
Taylor Glascock for NPR
Eman Abdelhadi studies people's relationships with Muslim communities.

Indeed, the history of religious influence on political action surrounding abortion in the U.S. — particularly evangelical and Catholic traditionalism — is well documented. Professor Zahra Ayubi says there's a related history that has also contributed to casting abortion rights and sexuality as taboo in some modern Islamic rhetoric.

"Muslim communities that happen to be conservative are very much influenced by Christian discourses on abortion," explained Ayubi, "Not just within the United States within the last 50, 75 years, but even for the last 300 years because of colonialism."

The current tension between state laws and some Islamic beliefs may be setting the stage for further legal battles over abortion. Asifa Quraishi-Landes, an Islamic and constitutional law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that abortion bans tread on Muslims' First Amendment rights.

"What used to be my choice [on abortion] among the range of Muslim opinions now has shrunk to zero," said Quraishi-Landes. "Without being prosecuted by the state, I now no longer have the choice to follow a Hanafi School," she explained, which is a madhab of Sunni Islamic legal reasoning.

Eman Abdelhadi says she made the right decision to have the abortion in 2015.
/ Taylor Glascock for NPR
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Taylor Glascock for NPR
Eman Abdelhadi says she made the right decision to have the abortion in 2015.

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, the writer from New York, also noticed others pointing out similar contradictions between their religion and state laws.

"I saw footage in the news, notably in Florida and Texas, where Jewish women at protests were openly saying [the Dobbs] decision 'hinders our right to practice as our faith allows us to, and overlooks the allowances of our faith,'" she said. "And that is absolutely true for Muslims in North America also."

Growing concerned that the issue wasn't being discussed enough by the Muslim community, Gharavi says an attempt to ask the Imam at her local mosque to engage in a discussion didn't get very far last year. But seeing other faith-based abortion rights protests encouraged her to push ahead with conversations about reproductive health in Muslim spaces, and to offer support for others.

"I know many in my family who have suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, pregnancy complications," she said. "And what that has stimulated [for me] is compassion, and not condemnation."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.