Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Fatwas and ARTs: IVF and Gamete Donation in Sunni V. Shi'a Islam

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Fatwas and ARTs: IVF and Gamete Donation in Sunni V. Shi'a Islam

Article excerpt


Since the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby, assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) have spread around the globe, reaching countries far from the technology-producing nations of Euro-America. Perhaps nowhere is this globalization process more evident than in the Muslim world, where hundreds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) centers now cater to the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. In the Middle East, the private IVF industry is flourishing, with clinics found in most major cities. In Egypt, for example, nearly sixty IVF clinics cater to a population of approximately seventy million people, while in tiny Lebanon (population four million), more than fifteen IVF centers are found, one of the highest per capita concentrations in the world. In other words, IVF and even newer ARTs are a burgeoning part of everyday life in the Muslim Middle East at the start of the new millennium. Literally thousands of infertile couples from Morocco to Iran are resorting to ARTs in order to bear cherished offspring.

However, in the Muslim world, including the Middle East, ARTs are practiced according to religious norms, which are clearly set out in nonlegally-binding, but nonetheless authoritative religious proclamations called fatwas. In this article, I intend to describe the impact of important ART fatwas on the practice of IVF and related technologies. Furthermore, I intend to show how ideological rifts between dominant Sunni versus minority Shi'ite forms of Islam are leading to quite divergent practices of third-party gamete donation in the Muslim world. I will do this through careful examination and comparison of two major fatwa texts, one offered by the leading cleric of Al-Azhar University in the heart of the Sunni Muslim world (Cairo, Egypt) and one offered by the supreme jurisprudent of the Shi'a branch of Islam in Iran. As will be seen, these two fatwas diverge in both style and substance, with implications for the practice of ARTs that are potentially profound. These differences, furthermore, have major implications for marriage, gender relations, and gender equity in the Muslim world, as will be shown in the final section of this article.1


Any religious scholar may offer a fatwa for the guidance of his followers, and many do.7 However, most Muslim countries mandate certain "official" sources of fatwas for the country. In Egypt, for example, the government has mandated that there be only three official sources for fatwas: those issued by the country's highest-ranking religious figure, the Grand Mufti of Egypt; those issued by the Grand Shaikh of Al-Azhar University; and those issued by the Fatwa Committee of Al-Azhar University.8 Because Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world, is considered by most Muslims to be the center for Islamic education in the Sunni Muslim world, the fatwas issued from Al-Azhar have great weight throughout the Arab countries, as well as the non-Arab Sunni Muslim world (e.g., South and Southeast Asia).9

Given the rapid development of reproductive technologies that were never mentioned in the Islamic scriptures, it is not surprising that many fatwas have been issued, both officially and unofficially, in recent years to cover a wide range of reproductive technologies, including those that involve birth control, abortion, sterilization, female circumcision, and surrogacy.10 Not surprisingly, ARTs have been one such area of fatwa activity, with the initial ART fatwa emerging from the Sunni Muslim world, as described in the following section.


It is useful to begin with Sunni Islam, which is the dominant form of Islam found throughout the Muslim world.11 Nearly ninety percent of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are Sunni Muslims, with the strictest form of Sunni Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia.12 In Egypt, for example, more than ninety percent of citizens are fairly conservative Sunni Muslims. …

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