January 3, 2010 Special Dispatch No. 2725

Egyptian Medical Doctor Criticizes the Phenomenon of Accepting Unscientific Islamic Beliefs, like the Notion that a Woman's Pregnancy Can Last Up to Four Years

January 3, 2010
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 2725

In an article on the liberal website Elaph, Dr. Khaled Montasser, a liberal Egyptian physician, criticizes the phenomenon of endorsing traditional ideas that have been disproven by science, such as the Muslim belief that a woman can be pregnant for up to four years. He points out that this notion is believed even by some Muslim doctors, and is acknowledged in the laws of some Arab countries, including those that are not theocracies. He calls on the Muslims not to accept outdated and unscientific ideas just because they were proposed by important clerics, stressing that contesting the opinions of religious scholars is not tantamount to attacking or disparaging the religion itself.

Following are excerpts from his article:[1]

At a Medical Conference, a Professor Raised the Notion of a Hidden Pregnancy Lasting One to Four Years

"In a medical conference held at one of the faculties of general medicine, a professor asked for permission to speak, and said: 'Why doesn't this conference deal with [the phenomenon of] hidden pregnancy?' When the participants asked what he meant by 'hidden pregnancy,' he replied: 'I mean a pregnancy that lasts one, two, three or four [years].' The conferees, both the students and the professors, were puzzled and asked one another, 'Is there such a thing as a pregnancy that lasts three or four years?' The professor answered confidently, with contempt for his colleagues' ignorance: 'Of course. Imam Malik [founder of the Maliki school of Islam] stayed in his mother's womb for three years.'

"The danger posed by this belief is that, [in this case], the one who held it was a professor of medicine, who is probably schooled in the doctrine of scientific thinking, and relies on medical journals as his source [of knowledge]. Faced with a medical question, such as how long a pregnancy can last, he [is expected to] rely on what he has learned and read in these [scientific] sources, rather than on what he has read in texts of Islamic jurisprudence.

"Unfortunately, however, this doctor was not [just] speaking for himself. He represents a phenomenon, namely the victory of tradition over reason. He represents a school of thought that is willing to sacrifice all medical learning in order to uphold the predominance of jurisprudential Islamic texts and traditional fatwas. Proof of this is [the fact] that it is not only this professor who holds such views. I will have you know that the chief proponent of female circumcision [in Egypt] is a professor of gynecology and obstetrics, who even argued against the minister of health in a court hearing [about this matter]."[2]

The Notion of Hidden Pregnancy Has Crept into the State Laws

"Some Islamic scholars, like those of the Hanafi [school], believe that a pregnancy can last up to two years, while those of the Maliki and Shafi'i schools think it can last up to four years, and some of them [have said] even five years or more. We [can] accept these statements as a kind of folklore, but not as any kind of scientific truth... I refuse to let anyone force me to accept this nonsense under the pretext of implementing the shari'a. Islam is a religion of reason, and [cannot] be associated with these medieval notions. Moreover, my mind refuses to accept something just because the Mufti wrote it in his book or because it appears in the Al-Azhar curriculum. How can I accept this as science when not a single gynecologist or obstetrician has ever witnessed [such an event] since the advent of scientific gynecology and obstetrics?... And from a moral perspective, how can I provide a jurisprudential loophole for a woman who was probably promiscuous after the death of her husband and then presented her baby, conceived in sin, as a baby of her dead husband by relying on the [notion] of a hidden pregnancy or on a fatwa issued by some [cleric] or religious school? This is what happened on December 14, 1927 at a shari'a court in Mecca. The qadi... ruled that the baby was conceived by the woman's dead husband who had died five years previously.

"The important question is whether the notion of a 'hidden pregnancy' is confined to religious legal texts and is acknowledged only in [Muslim] theocracies, or has [also] found its way into the laws of non-theocratic [Muslim] states that have been terrorized [into submission] by the slogans of the pressure group called political Islam. [Is Egypt] a state that respects reason and [rational] thinking or one that sanctifies tradition and accusations of heresy?

"Science is familiar with the notion of a fetus, but does not recognize the notion of a hidden pregnancy or a pregnancy lasting more than ten months, let alone two to four years. The law is expected to be guided by [science] instead of pandering to religious scholars at the expense of science. [The ideas about 'hidden pregnancy'] are religious opinions that [reflect the beliefs] of past eras, and they should be treated as such, not as a sword that hangs over the neck of the legislator.

"It seems inconceivable that the laws of Egypt, Syria, or the Gulf states should include clauses about hidden pregnancy that reflect beliefs from the fourth century – [but the fact is that they do]. For example, [Egyptian] Law No. 15 from 1929 states that 'a woman's appeal to acknowledge her dead husband [as the father of] her child will not be considered if [the baby] was born over a year after [the husband's] death.' Law No. 131 from 1948 includes a clause stipulating that 'the law will take into account the rights of [a child] born as the result of a hidden pregnancy,' and Law No. 67 from 1980 [states that] 'a hidden pregnancy is legitimate [grounds] for granting rights.' Article 29 of the Personal Status Code [says]: 'The guardian of a child born [as a result of] a hidden pregnancy must inform the Attorney General's [office] when the pregnancy ends.' Article 128 in the Syrian legal code and the property guardianship law in Bahrain say the same thing."

A Woman Is Not an Elephant – She Can't Be Pregnant for More than 10 Months

"The proponents of tradition and enemies of rationality always argue that the religious scholars are [simply] cognizant of [unusual] cases that are possible, though rare. But there is a big difference between rare and impossible. It is impossible that a woman, who belongs to the human race, should suddenly turn into an Asian elephant and be pregnant for over two years. Even [a pregnancy lasting] one whole year... is impossible... The womb is not a storeroom... When a fetus stays in his mother's womb over 42 weeks, he is in danger of dying in utero, and if he stays there more than 43 weeks he will surely die... A 50-week fetus will certainly start to rot in his mother's womb... The duration of pregnancy is not a random affair; it is not a matter of possibilities, of changes in human nature or of changes that occur with time. Someone who says today that Imam Malik stayed in his mother's womb for three years is making light of a serious matter – and the blame lies not with those who said this in the past, but with those who endorse this opinion today.

"Debating and criticizing the opinions of religious scholars does not mean criticizing or disparaging religion. We mustn't be too sensitive to discuss a scientific issue that was misunderstood by the religious scholars of the past. There is no need to wave swords when discussing such issues. The fault lies not with those who [dare to] contest the [opinions of the religious scholars], but with those who think that these opinions are synonymous with the religion itself. The despicable questions that the clerics ask, [such as] 'Are you saying that the religious scholars were liars?' or 'Who are you to [argue] with figures of their caliber?' – are an impediment to any progress in science and in thinking.

"We are not accusing the religious scholars of lying, but are [merely] treating their opinions as part of [the beliefs] that prevailed in their time. We do not regard [these opinions] as sacrosanct just because those who held them were authoritative figures. Scientific truths are judged by other criteria that have nothing to do with the piety or devoutness of those who propose them. Moreover, one who contests a clerical opinion having to do with science is not attacking or disparaging the religious scholars, even if he is less pious than they. But he is probably equipped with modern research tools that are more effective than those that were available to those scholars. This does not in any way detract from their importance [as religious scholars] or from the [value] of their religious opinions...

"The issue of hidden pregnancy opens a gateway to debating all the scientific and medical notions that appear in the jurisprudential texts. It is inconceivable that today, in the 21st century, we should repeat the opinions of ancient religious scholars – [such as the notion] that the menstrual blood feeds the fetus during pregnancy and turns into breast milk [after birth] – and discard everything science has taught us about gynecology... It is inconceivable that we should use terms like 'the man's [white] fluid' and 'the woman's [yellow] fluid' in discussing genetics, sexology, or infertility, while discarding [terms like] semen, ova, and the enormous wealth of knowledge gained since the discovery of DNA. The same goes for all the religious notions about medicine that are treated as religious commandments instead of as outdated medical [ideas], such as the notion of bloodletting which is defended so much that you would think it’s the sixth Koranic Pillar [of Islam]."


[1], July 8, 2009.

[2] This presumably refers to Dr. Munir Fawzi, a British-trained gynecologist and professor at the 'Ain Shams University in Cairo, who has defended the practice of female circumcision on both religious and medical grounds. In 1997, Fawzi filed a successful lawsuit to overturn a decree by the Egyptian health minister banning the practice. (The Washington Post, USA, November 24, 2006; June 25, 1997). It was only in 2007 that Egypt imposed a complete ban on female circumcision.

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