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Some Observations on Infanticide in Medieval Muslim Society
By Avner Giladi
International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 2, (1990)
Introduction: Infanticide is known to have been a common means of birth control from early, apparently even prehistoric, times. In societies that lacked any precise knowledge of the fertilization process and consequently methods for its prevention, infanticide was used more frequently than other known methods of population limitation, such as abstention from intercourse and abortion. Infanticide was expected to serve several functions: “general reduction in population numbers (including twin removal), removal of defectives, elimination of social ‘illegitimates’ (i.e., offspring whose existence violated social group boundaries), response to loss of the nursing mother, control of dependency ratio, manipulation of sex ratio, and finally, use as a backstop to other methods when those fail.”
The readiness to practice infanticide does not necessarily contradict the assumption that women instinctively desire to rear and protect their young. “The facts do support the view, however, that the maternal instinct, if indeed there be such an instinct for human beings, is not nearly strong enough to counteract unaided the tendency to destroy unwanted infants.”
In ancient Greece and Rome, for instance, infanticide was legitimate until the 4th century A.D. The efforts made from that time onward, through state as well as church legislation and exhortation, to dissuade parents from killing their children demonstrate the changes within the political and religious establishment. On the other hand, “the recurrence of legislation indicates how deeply ingrained were the practices of infanticide and child sale and how futile it was merely to decree the abolition of these customs” not only in late Roman and early medieval times but also in the late Middle Ages. “Even where the growing impact of Judeo-Christian ethics could in theory have improved the survival chance of infants, the injunction against killing was almost invariably interpreted as ‘thou shalt not kill thine own kind’; and one’s own kind was variously and rather narrowly defined. Furthermore, the rich and powerful (mostly) men imposed the moral imperative against killing upon the poor (frequently) women, who often had no way of living up to that imperative.”