S.Y. Quraishi: ‘Islam is not against family planning’

Print edition : April 09, 2021

S.Y. Quraishi: “It is believed that Muslims are responsible for population explosion. That is the first myth.” Photo: The Hindu ARCHIVES


Interview with S.Y. Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner, on his newest book.

S.Y. Quraishi’s latest book, The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India (HarperCollins, 2021), has become a subject of passionate debates on the myth of polygamy and the stance of organised religion on the subject of family planning.

The former Chief Election Commissioner is clear about the purpose of his book. He says: “I wanted to dispel the notion that Islam forbids family planning. It is a widely prevalent myth in the larger society, and even the Muslim seems to have bought into the argument…. On the question of population explosion, Hindus and Muslims are at the same end of the spectrum, not opposite.”

Quraishi, who has authored An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election and edited The Great March of Democracy: Seven Decades of India’s Elections, rubbishes the idea that as a former bureaucrat associated with the Election Commission of India his expertise would be limited to matters concerning elections and government formation. In fact, he worked on the subject of The Population Myth for over 25 years, doing extensive research and cross-checking facts and figures painstakingly.

Excerpts from the interview he gave Frontline:

“The Population Myth” is not the kind of book one would expect from a former Chief Election Commissioner. What led to it?

I was a Chief Election Commissioner for two years and Election Commissioner for four years in my 40-year career as a civil servant. Therefore, my work cannot be narrowed down to a single posting. I have been a bureaucrat, an administrator, worked with the Health Ministry, I have been involved with family planning matters at the policy and implementation level, in the field as a District Magistrate, etc. All this helped. Work on this book started almost accidentally when I was Joint Secretary, Ministry of Youth Affairs, in 1995 when the UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] country director asked me to write an approach paper on “Family Planning Among the Muslims”. The background was, “the Muslims have the least family planning, and how to promote family planning among the Muslims”. I said: “I am not an Islamic scholar, so I do not know what Islam says about family planning.” He persisted and offered me a lucrative one-month assignment. I decided to do it pro bono. But he insisted that I take some money. So I settled for one rupee. I took the Government of India’s permission, and we started working. Instead of one month, it took me five months to write that paper. It was an eye-opener for me. Since then there was a demand that I expand it into a book.

So you essentially expanded the 1995 paper into a book?

Yes, but strangely enough after 25 years the basic thesis and conclusion did not change at all. Those figures have been validated and elaborated by data of later years. It was, however, not easy. Every time I started writing the book, new data would come in. I could not go ahead with the old data, so I had to use the latest data. I was concerned that the new data should not force me to change my hypothesis. Fortunately, every subsequent data only confirmed or reinforced the earlier findings.

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What exactly is the population myth. What is the reality?

There are many myths. One, it is believed that Muslims are responsible for population explosion. That is the first myth. Two, there is an allegation that Muslims produce too many children, which disturbs the demographic balance, the proportion between Hindus and Muslims. Some even say it is an organised conspiracy so that Muslims overtake Hindus. Three, they produce children for claiming political power. The fourth myth is that Muslims use polygamy for increasing their population. Slogans like “Hum Paanch, hamare pachchees”, “Hum char, hamare chalees” are part of the same myth.

We have had Chief Ministers making insinuations along those lines with similar slogans. And we have a series of love jehad laws stemming from a similar myth. How does one look at this?

Yes, this is a widely prevalent myth. And very disappointing to hear such slogans. Finally, there is another myth which even Muslims share, that Islam forbids family planning. I have tried to dispel this myth through the book. Islam and family planning are not mutually exclusive.

What is the reality? Does Islam forbid family planning?

One, the feeling that Muslims are responsible for population explosion is totally wrong because the difference between the birth rate of the Muslim and Hindu population was never more than one child per couple. It has now come down to less than half a child, 0.48. It is not that Hindus had two children while Muslims had 10. It is an impression created by the right-wing forces.

That is quite a revelation.

Yes, but there is more. Secondly, there is a claim that the demographic balance has been upset. There I agree. There is a skewing of the demographic balance. The percentage of Hindus came down from 84 to 79.8 per cent in 60 years, since the Census in 1951 to the last Census in 2011. The decline of 4.2 per cent got distributed among various minorities. There was some increase in the Christian and Sikh populations, but mostly it is attributed to Muslims.

However, when it comes to acceptance of family planning measures, a positive change is noticeable among Muslims, faster than Hindus. Which is why the gap between Hindus and Muslims, which was one child, has now come down to 0.48.

So, is there a more popular acceptance of family planning measures among Muslims today than, say, in 1991?

Absolutely. Over the last 20-30 years, acceptance of family planning among Muslims has increased much faster than before. Also this has increased faster than in the majority community. The data are from Government of India figures.

When it comes to family planning, is it still a woman’s responsibility? Is there a marked preference for the use of men’s contraceptive or women’s contraceptive?

Well, basically, both are used across all communities. But the onus is more often on the woman. For instance, even though female sterilisation is more complicated than male sterilisation, in 99 per cent of the cases, women go for sterilisation. Only 1 per cent of the men go in for vasectomy. Out of sheer timidity, men put women forward for sterilisation. But women also accept it willingly to get rid of repeated pregnancies. The decision of family planning is taken more often by the husband than the wife. The mother-in-law also plays a crucial role in it.

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Despite the condemnation of sterilisation in Islam, 20 per cent of Muslim women have gone in for sterilisation. Of course, temporary methods are more popular among Muslims.

There is a feeling even among Muslims that Islam forbids family planning. Some couples seem to have more children almost as a sense of duty. What is the reality?

Correct. There is a complete chapter devoted to the issue in the book. I have come to the conclusion that Islam is not against family planning. The proof is that nowhere in the Quran, family planning has been prohibited. There is an ayah in the Quran which says, ‘whatever we prohibited for you, we have prohibited in detail’. Family planning is not among the things prohibited. Family planning is not haram. It is fine.

During the Prophet’s time, people used to follow the practice of “coitus interruptus”, and the Prophet did not ban that.

Coitus interruptus in Arabic is al-azal. Once, a man who had a number of children approached the Prophet for advice. He did not want more children though he had his sexual needs. He wanted to resort to al-azal, but a Jewish man had advised him against it, calling it a minor infanticide. So, the man was confused. The Prophet told him, ‘The Jew lied’, and the man went ahead with al-azal.

Let me quote one verse from the Quran which asks youngsters to marry when they have the wherewithal. During the time of the Prophet, a poor man came to the Prophet. He said, ‘There is a verse in the Quran which asks us to marry when we have the resources. I do not have the resources, but I have my sexual desires. What do I do?’ The Prophet repeated the verse, and advised him to resort to fasting until he had the resources because fasting suppresses sexual desire. To me, the reference to having the wherewithal for marriage clearly means that one should not marry at the first flush of youth. You have to decide whether you can support a family.

Islam and child marriage

So, indirectly it refers to child marriage?

Indirectly, Islam is against child marriage because a 11- or 12-year-old child cannot be expected to have the resources to run a family. Then there are Hadiths that talk of a woman’s health, her beauty, etc. A woman once went to the Prophet and told him about her fears of losing her beauty because of mothering too many children, and thus becoming unattractive. Then even abortion within 120 days of conception was allowed.

Islam talks of children’s education and the spacing between children. That is why there is the concept of breastfeeding a newborn for two years. During breastfeeding, the chances of conception reduce greatly.

You talk of polygamy in the book. Can you elaborate? There is a case going on in the Supreme Court against allowing Muslim men to follow polygamy.

There is a myth that Muslim men use the permission for polygamy and have three-four wives. The reality is, polygamy is practised by all communities in our country, and it is the least prevalent among Muslims. Still there is a widely prevalent myth that Muslims are polygamous. If polygamy is banned, I will not mind. It is already banned in 22 Muslim countries. The Quran permits polygamy with certain preconditions. It does not ask men to necessarily practice it but permits it in the context of orphans. A person who looks after orphans is advised against usurping the property of the orphans and instead marry them.

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The Quran allows a man to marry one or two or three women, but the condition is that the man should do justice to them. Then men are warned that it is difficult to do justice to four wives, so it is best to marry only one. Polygamy is not an injunction but a permission, a conditional permission.

In India, polygamy is a statistical impossibility. There are not sufficient number of women for polygamy. According to Government of India figures, there are 924 women for a thousand men. So, 76 men won’t get a woman to marry. Statistically, Indian men have only .95 wives. When another woman does not exist, how does one marry?

People talk of 4-5 per cent men being polygamous. But you will be surprised to know, polygamy does not increase the birth rate. Studies show that if the only wife of a husband produces five children, the second wife produces only 1.7 children, and it goes on declining. But imagine, if the second woman had married a man not already married, she too would have given birth to five children instead of 1.7. It is a myth to say polygamy is responsible for population explosion

You say that Muslims are at the bottom of family planning practices. Is it because of poverty or religion?

There are several contributing factors towards family planning. One is literacy, particularly of girls. Secondly, income, then comes service delivery. As literacy increases, the number of children goes down, for all communities. Same for income. As income or service delivery of, say a doctor or a nurse improves, the number of children goes down. Muslims perform poorly in all three factors. They are poor, service delivery is bad in the areas they reside in.

Of late, instead of doing more business with Muslims, helping them with education, etc., politicians have been issuing calls for economic boycott of Muslims. It will make them poorer. That in turn will lead to more children.

How come in the minds of people across religions, Muslims are viewed as the most fertile and the most polygamous?

That is because of the propaganda of the Hindu right wing. It is a tool to scare the masses. It has not been challenged for the past 70 years. In my book, I have not talked in terms of the Hindu-Muslim binary, but in my conclusion I have stated that both Hindus and Muslims are at the same end of the spectrum. It is often said that Muslims produce the maximum number of children. What is not said is that after Muslims, Hindus produce the most number of children. The Prime Minister said from the Red Fort [on August 15, 2019] that those who produce fewer children are patriotic. By this reckoning, since Muslims have the highest birth rate, they become the least patriotic. By the same yardstick, Hindus follow them in being unpatriotic. We have to rise above such easy binaries. Population explosion is a reality confronting India. It is not about Muslims versus Hindus. They are at the same end of the spectrum, not opposite. We have to confront the problem together.