Fertile Crescent?

A Convergence of Civilizations
The Transformation of Muslim Societies around the World
Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd
Translated by George Holoch
Columbia University Press, $35, 152 pp.

During the years I taught at the University of Ghana, the United Nations sponsored a Regional Institute for Population Studies there, infelicitously known by the acronym RIPS. Occasionally I picked up literature produced by the institute on ethical issues surrounding population control; in the process I learned some demographic jargon, such as the division of cultures into natalist (or pronatalist) and antinatalist, those that encourage childbearing and those that do not. One particularly inane pamphlet characterized Babylon in 1700 BCE as pronatalist because the Code of Hammurabi criminalized abortion. As a student of Islam, I remember being dismayed to see that a Muslim nurse in Sudan published an article under the aegis of RIPS claiming that Islam permits abortion. The pagan Meccans, with whom Muhammad contended before 622 CE, buried some of their infant girls alive to keep the population down. God reminded them in the Qur’an that the Day of Judgment would provide a forum in which “the female infant buried alive is asked for what sin she was executed” (Qur’an 81: 8–9). Evidently the Muslim nurse from Sudan was unfamiliar with that text.

Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, demographers at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies, know more about Islam and abortion: “Sunni and Shiite Muslims hold different positions on dogma,” they write, “but they agree in condemning abortion.” But the authors also note—and this is a general theme in this brief but...

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About the Author

Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.