In a bid to win the support of religious groups in the country, Pakistan earlier this month convened a conference of key religious leaders and scholars from Islamic communities in 22 countries. The conference discussed the thorny issue of reducing high population growth within the framework of Islamic principles.
Around 90 delegates from almost every school of Islamic thought participated in the three-day "International Ulama Conference on Population and Development" held in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad from 4-6 May.
"Under three main broad perspectives of population growth and development, mother and child health, and gender equity, the idea is to have experts' views on Islamic teachings and the key issue of family planning," Gohar Ali, director of communications for the conference, told IRIN in Islamabad.
Pakistan, has an estimated population of 151 million and an annual growth rate of 1.9 percent. This means the population grows by 2.9 million every twelve months. Most are condemned to a life of poverty with over 65 percent of the population living on or below US $2 per day.
Some progress has been made in population control in Pakistan. A series of initiatives in the eighties and nineties has reduced the growth rate from over 3 percent in 1981 to the current level.
Even so, since the creation of the state of Pakistan in 1947, the population has increased nine fold and is expected to double by 2035 at the current rate, said Ali.
In Pakistan, the contraceptive usage rate is considered low at about 34 percent, while the average fertility rate stands at 4.1 percent, according to Dr Mehboob Sultan of Islamabad-based National Institute of Population Studies (NIPS). Experts are divided on what role religion plays in low contraceptive use and low take-up of family planning services in Pakistan.
"A combination of factors like non-availability of services, baseless traditional beliefs and misconception play a big role. But, still a fairly large number of the population believes the use of artificial contraceptives for family planning is against nature and also against Islam," Dr Ansar Ali Khan, an adviser on reproductive health to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Pakistan, told IRIN in Islamabad.
In the some attending the conference, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, could provide some useful lessons.
"The involvement of Muslim leaders can't be neglected because they are very important for the distribution of knowledge to the people, especially at the grassroots level," said Dr Tarmizi Taher, rector of the Islamic University of Indonesia.
Formal approaches adopted by Jakarta to introduce family planning in the early seventies had almost completely failed.
"The reason for the failure was because religious leaders were not involved in the programme," Indonesian scholar, Muhammad Nursamad Kamba told the conference. Recognising this failure, the Indonesian government in early 90s brought together Islamic scholars from the renowned Islamic Al-Azhar University, in Cairo.
"The most important result of the conferences was that family planning could be carried in the Muslim world, as long as the method is not against Islamic teachings," said Taher.
Dr Nabeela Ali from a US-based health research institute, John Snow Inc, agreed that getting local religious figures on board was critical to the success of family planning initiatives.
"Positive supportive role of Ulama [Islamic clergy]in promoting the health of mothers, newborns and children, especially in communities with low literacy levels, is as crucial as the role of media and health practitioners," said Dr Ali.
Nabila Hamza from Tunisia, in her paper 'Gender, Family Planning and Islam' shared experience from her country.
"From the beginning of the 1960s, Tunisia adopted a national population policy, taking into account mother's health as well as the social and economic development of the country," she told participants of the Islamabad conference. "Thanks to a series of progressive laws on birth control promulgated after independence, it has been possible for women to space out and limit the number of pregnancies," said Hamza.
But some participants were unsure whether consulting ancient Islamic teachings on the issue was useful.
"Population growth has not been a problem in the early and medieval Islamic period and hence no clear-cut answer can be found from historic sources," said Dr Qibla Ayaz, head of the Islamic studies department at Pakistan's Peshawar University. He addressed the conference on 'alternative Islamic strategies' for regulating population.
"The issue needs to be seriously discussed and debated by social scientists, intellectuals and ulama before a collective Islamic strategy to the question of population regulating is evolved," said Ayaz.
UNFPA said the meeting had been incredibly useful.
"Such conferences are a right step in a right direction to have the religious from across different cultures to discuss the issue and share experiences and then ultimately educating masses - 'religion does not forbid the use of contraceptives'," said UNFPA adviser, Dr Ansar Ali Khan.