Sunday, April 14, 2013

The role of Al-Azhar University in shaping reproductive policies

by Salman Hameed

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting short piece that points to the International Islamic Centre for Population Studies and Research at Al-Azhar University (tip from Laura Sizer). In some ways, it is a good sign that Al-Azhar has taken a progressive stance on issues like population control, stem cells and in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Compared to this, the Catholic Church seems to be set in the medieval times. But on the other hand, I also feel that it is a problem that all of these issues have to be filtered through religious scholars. Indeed, the same university went against the donorship of sperm and eggs for reproduction. Nevertheless, we can applaud the positive steps while being on guard against any regressive actions:

Gamal Serour, founder of the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research, is well practiced at this balancing act. 
Dr. Serour, who is also a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, views his position within al-Azhar as ideal for "overcoming religious obstacles to the improvement of women's health." 
When he founded the center, in 1974, many Egyptians believed that contraception was forbidden by Islam, and that family planning was a Western conspiracy to weaken Muslim nations, he says. 
"Everybody used to look at this center as the center of kuffar, nonbelievers," Dr. Serour says. It was "the center which is implementing the policies of the West, the center which is working to limit the population growth of the Muslim world." 
But "when we gradually produced the information and told people what problems we have, ... you will not believe me, but our religious leaders were much more progressive than we reproductive-health physicians." 
Scholars of religion at al-Azhar embraced the principles of family planning and approved most forms of contraception (permanent ones, like vasectomies, are allowed only in cases of medical necessity). They declared stem-cell research and in-vitro fertilization to be in accordance with Islam. On the other hand, they forbade surrogacy and donations of sperm and eggs. 
"People in Egypt and the Muslim world, ... religion plays an important role in their life," says Dr. Serour. "You have to be knowledgeable about this. You cannot escape from it, because people ask you: Is it haram [forbidden] or halal [permitted]?" 
Rather than viewing the religious framework at al-Azhar as a constraint, Dr. Serour argues that it has bolstered the effectiveness and reach of his work. The population-studies center is among the university's most active research institutes. It operates a clinic for the surrounding neighborhood; carries out training for doctors and outreach to imams; holds clinical trials supported by pharmaceutical companies; and sponsors regional conferences.

And it seems that Dr. Serour is also aware of the potential challenges:
For the time being, Dr. Serour isn't worried that Islamist fundamentalists who might be hostile to his work—many regularly inveigh against the teaching of reproductive health—will gain control of the campus. 
"If they got ahold of al-Azhar University, and the al-Azhar institutes, and the office of the grand imam of al-Azhar, there might be a change in policy," he says. "Not because al-Azhar is doing something against Islam," but because they are misinformed about reproductive health and about religious teachings. The only way to change their views, he says, is to educate them. 
Read the full article here.


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