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Amid abortion bans, Muslim Americans turn back to their faith's ruling on abortion

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Since the Supreme Court's decision to end the constitutional right to abortion last year, some Muslims in America have turned to their faith to gain a better understanding on a key question - what exactly does Islam say about abortion? NPR's Linah Mohammad reports.

LINAH MOHAMMAD, BYLINE: Eman Abdelhadi had a lot going on in 2015. Professionally, she was studying sociology in grad school. Personally, she was at the beginning of a serious relationship. She was switching birth control methods when she got pregnant.

EMAN ABDELHADI: I didn't have the resources to have a baby at that moment in my life. I needed to finish my Ph.D. I was too soon into this relationship. I didn't have the money on a grad student salary. And I simply didn't want to have a baby.

MOHAMMAD: It was a tearful decision, but Abdelhadi says her partner wasn't ready either.

ABDULHADI: Within a week of finding out that I was pregnant, I decided to get an abortion.

MOHAMMAD: Abdelhadi is now an assistant professor in the University of Chicago's Division of Social Sciences. She studies people's relationships with Muslim communities.

ABDULHADI: I am very happy with my life, and I know that I wouldn't have led the life that I lead now if I had made the decision to stay pregnant.

MOHAMMAD: And she says she's secure in her choice to get an abortion because of her upbringing in a devout Muslim community in the Midwest.

ABDULHADI: I learned a lot about the Muslim tradition in the sense that, you know, first of all, the mother's life is the most important thing.

MOHAMMAD: 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. You might find that number surprising if you look at some non-Muslim perceptions of abortion in Islam. A simple Twitter search unveils hundreds of comments spinning the Supreme Court's moves to overturn Roe v. Wade as the Christian version of Shariah law. Here's former "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH")

TREVOR NOAH: After all these years of the right screaming about the threats of Shariah law, it turns out they were just jealous. Now, to be clear...

MOHAMMAD: Critiques range from attempts at humor to downright Islamophobic takes. One meme that made the rounds on social media was a photoshopped image of Supreme Court justices in beards, turbans and burqas. Experts on Shariah law say those assumptions come from a place of ignorance because Islam can actually be very permissive of abortion.

ZAHRA AYUBI: Some of the most conservative - so-called most conservative countries in the world - like, if you say, like Iran or Saudi Arabia - are more permissive of abortion than many American states are.

MOHAMMAD: That's Zahra Ayubi, a professor of Islamic ethics at Dartmouth College. She says key Islamic texts don't mention abortion outright, so rulings in the faith lean on verses that mention fetal development.

AYUBI: Based on the verses of the Quran and the Hadith and the prior discussions that jurists have had, we can say that 120 days is really the point at which ensolement occurs, the point at which we can consider the fetus a legal person. And so prior to that, abortion is permissible under certain circumstances.

MOHAMMAD: Ayubi also says the faith's ruling on abortion depends on which Madhhab or school of thought you choose to follow. Some are more liberal, but no matter what, there's always an exception for the pregnant person's well-being in Islam.

AYUBI: The most conservative opinion is that abortion is permissible only in cases of mortal danger to the mother at any point.

MOHAMMAD: Ayubi also notes that some of the conservatism over abortion is tied to outside influences.

AYUBI: Muslims have historically had abortions since the beginning of Islam. That being said, Muslims have also had heavy influence from Christian discourses and have been historically colonized by various European forces for a long time. And many laws were set up to criminalize what were very legal actions that women took with respect to pregnancy and abortion and so on.

MOHAMMAD: And it's still difficult to talk openly about abortion in Muslim spaces.

SHENAAZ JANMOHAMED: Hi, everybody. We're going to be recording today.

MOHAMMAD: And that's why HEART, a sexual health group that serves Muslims, has been co-hosting virtual workshops like this one...

JANMOHAMED: At times, the content that we will be covering will be upsetting...

MOHAMMAD: ...To offer practical guidance and space for collective prayer.

ALIZA KAZMI: Ameen. That was so beautiful. Thank you so much...

MOHAMMAD: Sahar Pirzada is a manager at HEART and says prayer has been key in her own reproductive decisions. As she held her 3-month-old son on another Zoom call, she told me about her first pregnancy in 2018.

SAHAR PIRZADA: We had gone to several ultrasound, had heard the heartbeat, had seen the fetus moving.

MOHAMMAD: Pirzada and her husband had been overjoyed. But later tests showed the fetus had Trisomy 18, a rare genetic condition that almost always ends in miscarriage or stillbirth.

PIRZADA: Nothing prepares you for that moment when you get the actual diagnosis. I did pray. I did make dua'a (ph). I did, you know, turn to God as I was making this decision. And I felt more at peace and ease than kind of I thought I would have.

MOHAMMAD: She talked it over with her husband, her therapist and multiple Islamic scholars and decided to terminate the pregnancy.

PIRZADA: I think it's just ultimately knowing that I - as a person who is carrying the fetus, I am important, too, right? And my well-being is important. And that really comes from my understanding of Islam as well.

MOHAMMAD: An understanding that Pirzada says she's grateful to share through her work. Linah Mohammad, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.