“When a person puts his hand of compassion on the head of an orphan, for every hair of that orphan he will receive a blessing from Allah (SWT).” (Musnad Ahmad)
A while back, I was introduced to a common notion that many Christians and Westerners hold about Islam – that Islam forbids adoption. It was two summers ago, during my summer classes at my university. My friend, Johnny, who is an Egyptian Protestant Christian, showed me a clip from an Arab talk show (the clip itself presented by MERMI TV, now famous for taking snippets from certain Arab media out of context and providing a false impression of the Arab world to everyone) in which a Muslim scholar was apparently presenting his case as to why adoption is forbidden. Needless to say, I was pretty shocked, and due to my severe lack of Islamic knowledge at the time, I couldn’t really give Johnny a good answer except how the scholar’s stance didn’t feel like the Islam I grew up with. Well, a couple of years later, and a little bit wiser, I am here to tell you the truth about orphans and adoption in Islam.
In essence, what I have learned is that adoption really is forbidden in Islam; yet, sponsoring and fostering orphans is actually one of the most meritorious acts a Muslim may partake in. The question then arises: what exactly is the difference between adoption and sponsoring/fostering orphans? In reality, its all in a name – the name of the orphan, really. Islam forbids legal adoption, the full and nominal absorption of an orphan into another family. A family may adopt, raise, sponsor, etc. as many orphans as they wish, and they may even love the orphans like their own children – all of this is much encouraged in Islam. However, the orphan may not abandon his/her identity and name. The orphan may not accept the name of the adoptive family, but rather has to maintain his/her own family name and identity. Thus, unofficial adoption in general terms is much encouraged in Islam, but the orphan may not change his/her name and become a legal part of the family, no matter how close the two parties become. The reason for such measures are given below, but before we go over them, lets go over the textual evidence that fostering and sponsoring orphans are celebrated deeds in Islam.
There are a lot of reasons why the prohibition of adoption within Islam would seem illogical and contradictory. The two largest points probably come from the biography of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) himself. You see, believe it or not, Muhammad (SAW) was an orphan himself! As a matter of fact, one can make the argument that he was orphaned not once, not twice, but three times! First of all, Muhammad (SAW) never even met his father, Abdullah ibn Abd al-Muttalib, who was actually a local celebrity for various reasons. Abdullah ibn Abd al-Muttalib had tragically passed away while Muhammad (SAW) was still in his mother’s womb (1, pg.20). Next, he had to suffer the loss of his beloved mother herself, Aminah bint Wahb, when he was only 6 years old (1, pg. 24). Afterwards, he was taken in by his paternal grandfather and local legend, Shaiba ibn Hisham, popularly known as Abd al-Muttalib. Unfortunately, even Abd al-Muttalib was destined to orphan young Muhammad (SAW), and when the Prophet was only 8, Adb al-Muttalib passed on (1, pg. 24). He was then finally placed under the aegis of his paternal uncle, Imran ibn Abd al-Muttalib, popularly known as Abu Talib (1, pg. 24). All this is common knowledge, and can be found in any decent and scholarly biography of Muhammad (SAW), so don’t just take my word for it.
The other major point from the biography of Muhammad (SAW) that makes the prohibition of adoption seem contradictory is built on my last point – not only was the Messenger orphan, but later on in life he had taken in and adopted a son himself! Before the advent of his prophethood, Muhammad (SAW) one day asked his first wife, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (RA), to acquire a slave from a her cousin, who himself had recently acquired a few in Syria (1, pg. 41). She chose a young lad named Zayd ibn Harithah (RA), and upon seeing Zayd (RA), Muhammad (SAW) must have instantly fell in love with the boy, because he requested of Khadijah (RA) that they free Zayd (RA) and adopt him, and so they did (1, pg. 41). Consequently, Zayd (RA) was one of the first males to accept Islam, if not the first (2, pg. 86). Something special would happen concerning the adoption of Zayd (RA) later on, something that involved his identity and his marriage life and that of his adoptive father, Muhammad (SAW), something that did strike some of the Companions (RA) as weird at first – and we shall talk about that when we get there.
The aforementioned two points should have at least given critics some food for thought as to the meaning of the prohibition of adoption in Islam, and what exactly it entails to. However, we have so far only looked at the pre-Islamic history of Muhammad (SAW), and have recognized that Muhammad (SAW) was an orphan who was first fostered by his grandfather, and later by his uncle. Later in life, Muhammad (SAW) himself freed and adopted a slave. Lets now look at the teachings of Islam itself, and see how the Qur’an and the Sunnah talks about adoption.
Lets start with the Qur’an. One of my personal favorites is where God Almighty reminds Muhammad (SAW) that it was He who took care of him when he was orphaned, and it was He that provided for him during his childhood through the care of his grandfather and uncle, and provided guidance and wealth when he needed it:
“Did He not find thee an orphan and give thee shelter (and care)? And He found thee wandering, and He gave thee guidance. And He found thee in need, and made thee independent. Therefore, treat not the orphan with harshness…” (Qur’an Ch.93 vv.6-9)
God Almighty Himself provided for His last Messenger through foster care, and then commands all Muslims to treat orphans well, as He does again here:
“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good- to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet), and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious…” (Qur’an Ch.4 v.36)
It’s being made clear that orphans almost have certain rights over those more fortunate…In another place, it is even said that one of the attributes of the Righteous is that they care for orphans and others in need:
“…And they feed, for the love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive,- (Saying),”We feed you for the sake of Allah alone: no reward do we desire from you…” (Qur’an Ch.76 vv.8-9
Apparently, caring for orphans is actually supposed to be a trademark of the Muslims (whether Muslims live up to that trademark or not is an entirely different story). We are also told that apathy towards orphans and those in need is an attribute of the disbelievers:
“Seest thou the one who denies the Judgment (to come)? Then such is the (man) who pushes aside the orphan (with harshness), And encourages not the feeding of the indigent.” (Qur’an Ch.107 vv.1-3)
The most adamant right dictated to orphans in the Qur’an is that their inheritance should NOT be messed with – you (the guardian) should hold it in trust until the orphans come of age, avoid coming near it unless it is to increase it, return it promptly and fully:
“And come not nigh to the orphan’s property, except to improve it, until he attain the age of full strength; give measure and weight with (full) justice;- no burden do We place on any soul, but that which it can bear;- whenever ye speak, speak justly, even if a near relative is concerned; and fulfill the covenant of Allah: thus doth He command you, that ye may remember.” (Qur’an Ch.6 v.152)
We shouldn’t cheat the orphans by mixing our wealth with theirs, our property and goods with theirs, and then giving them the faulty, defective, or unworthy things:
“To orphans restore their property (When they reach their age), nor substitute (your) worthless things for (their) good ones; and devour not their substance (by mixing it up) with your own. For this is indeed a great sin.” (Qur’an Ch.4 v.2)
The guardians should not abuse their responsibility by devouring the orphan’s wealth while the child is still young – the rich shouldn’t even touch a penny, and the poor may take only that which is needed to put food on the table:
“Make trial of orphans until they reach the age of marriage; if then ye find sound judgment in them, release their property to them; but consume it not wastefully, nor in haste against their growing up. If the guardian is well-off, Let him claim no remuneration, but if he is poor, let him have for himself what is just and reasonable. When ye release their property to them, take witnesses in their presence: But all-sufficient is Allah in taking account.” (Qur’an Ch.4 v.6)
The amount of emphasis Allah (SWT) put on the inheritance means that it is something that we should emphasis on, and rightly so, since its basically God Almighty’s intended provision for the orphan, nor for anyone else. To deprive anyone of their God-given rights, to blatantly steal from someone’s destined provision – that is a major sin, as has already been stated above. Also, the emphasis on orphans’ rights by God Almighty tells us that this has been and will continue to be an area of major abuse and injustice. He reminds us so many times because He knows that we will continue to forget and turn a blind eye. Of course, Allah (SWT) never prophesies something without that something coming true, nor does He try to hammer a teaching into us without knowing that we need that teaching. We just have to look back a year and a half at the atrocities of the Iraqi special children’s orphanage in Baghdad for a recent reminder of our failures (3). The fact that it occurred in a country run by Muslims is even more painful for us, and it is our shame that we allow tragedies like that to occur, and still call ourselves Muslim.
The general principles found in the Qur’an are furthered by Prophet Muhammad (SAW) himself:
“Abu Shuraih Khuwailid bin Amr Al-Khuza’i (RA) reported: The Prophet (SAW) said, ‘O Allah, I declare inviolable the rights of two weak ones: the orphans and women.'” (Sunan an-Nasa’i)
This is rather significant – the Messenger (SAW) has declared the rights of women and orphans to be inviolable. That on its own is significant, since it says that the rights of the orphans, and women, too, are divinely decreed. Whoever breaches those rights will have to pay to God Almighty.
“Narrated Sahl bin Sa’d: The Prophet said, “I and the person who looks after an orphan and provides for him, will be in Paradise like this,” putting his index and middle fingers together.” (Sahih Bukhari Vol.8 Bk.73 No.34)
“The best Muslim house is that in which is an orphan, who is benefited; and the worst Muslim house is that in which an orphan is ill-treated.” (Sunan Ibn Majah)
These two ahadith finally make it as clear as day. Islam highly advocates the fostering and sponsoring of orphans. Those who take in and look after orphans are seen as one of the best people, truly people of the Righteous.
With that, it has been verified that fostering and sponsoring orphans is greatly recommended in Islam, whereas changing one’s identity is strictly forbidden. We see that Allah (SWT) took care of Muhammad (SAW) by placing him under foster caretakers. Also, not only did Muhammad (SAW) adopt and raise Zayd ibn Harithah (RA), but even fostered his child cousin, Ali ibn Abu Talib (RA) as well; Abu Talib has too many children, and it was putting a strain on his finances, so both Muhammad (SAW) and another paternal uncle of his, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (RA), volunteered to foster one of Abu Talib’s children (1, pg. 40). So, its obvious that fostering and sponsoring orphans in your own home is an extremely meritorious act. The only restriction is that it is forbidden for an adoptee to take on the name of the adoptive family and become part of the family itself:
“Allah has not assigned unto any man two hearts within his body, nor has He made your wives who you declare (to be your mothers) your mothers, nor has He made those who you claim (to be your children) your children. This is but a saying of your mouths. But Allah says the truth and He shows the way. Proclaim their real parentage. That will be more equitable in the sight of Allah. And if you know not their fathers, then (they are) your brethren in the faith, and your friends. And there is no sin for you in the mistakes that you make unintentionally, but what your hearts purpose (that will be a sin for you). Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an Ch.33 vv.4-5)
Why? A number of reasons. First of all, your name usually gives you your identity, and links you to your family. Orphan or not, God Almighty put you in a specific niche meant for no one else – your own place in your own family, even if they are all deceased, in jail, etc. You have the obligation to live your life as your biological parents’ child. Also, it makes inheritance records much easier for the adoptee. It goes the other way, too – the adoptee cannot join the adoptive family and inherit from them – God Almighty has already assigned those provisions the biological members of the families. Even the adoptee were to get some form of inheritance from the adoptive parents, it wouldn’t be as a son/daughter. This isn’t meant to be insultive or cold towards the orphan. An apple isn’t an orange, a cat isn’t a dog, and an adoptee isn’t the biological child of the adoptive parents. Inheritance is indeed a form of provision from Allah (SWT), and any provision from Allah (SWT) is a sacred provision. Inheritance has been deemed sacred, as one can easily see in the Qur’an verses already given before, so it is a big matter in Islam. The prohibition of legal adoption in Islam is partially because to protect the rights of inheritance. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be love and affection between the adoptee and the adoptive family. It just means that you acknowledge that that child isn’t physically yours, even if he/she is emotionally or intellectually yours. As such, the adoptee wouldn’t be a Mahram (unmarriageable person, like a father, sister, etc.), meaning that once the adoptee reaches puberty, the rules of hijab must be applied. If the child is a male, the adoptive females must wear the hijab around the adoptee; if the adoptee is a female, she must wear a hijab around the adoptive males. The adoptees therefore have the ability to marry anyone from the adoptive family – it isn’t recommended or glorified in Islam, just acceptable for those rare cases when love just magically blooms (4, 5). Lastly, another reason for the prohibition of legal adoption is so that with the names in check, you can know our family tree, and know who is Mahram and who isn’t. Unbelievably, there are a lot of couples that have fallen in love, even gotten married, only to realize later that they were biological siblings separated at birth through adoption. The most famous case happened only a year ago in the UK, where a couple had to get their marriage annulled because they found out that they were actually twins, separated at birth (6). As you can read in this BBC article, it is even causing the UK government to rethink its adoption policies. The article says it better than I can:
“‘…If you start trying to conceal someone’s identity, sooner or later the truth will out,’ he (the crossbench peer) said. ‘And if you don’t know you are biologically related to someone, you may become attracted to them and tragedies like this may occur…'”
…”Pam Hodgkins, chief executive officer of the charity Adults Affected by Adoption (NORCAP) said there had been previous cases of separated siblings being attracted to each other. ‘We have a resistance, a very strong incest taboo where we are aware that someone is a biological relative,’ she said. “But when we are unaware of that relationship, we are naturally drawn to people who are quite similar to ourselves…'”
Islam’s answer is to keep your birth name and identity. You don’t have to change you identity to share love and affection with an adoptive family; you don’t have to change someone’s name and identity in order to adopt them and love and care for them. The true merit of adoption is beyond name tags. The science behind this growing phenomenon of love between siblings separated at birth is explored further in this article. It talks about possible explanations, genetic dangers being posed, and gives a lot of examples of similar instances in the UK and the United States.
Now that we have all this established, lets turn our focus towards Zayd ibn Harithah (RA), a.k.a Zayd ibn Harithah as we near the end of the post. His story is interesting, because the prohibition of legal adoption came through the example of his own affairs.
Muhammad (SAW) wanted to show the Muslims that ethnicity and social class should not be barriers between Muslims. In order to do this, he wanted his adopted son, Zayd (RA), a freed slave, to marry a beautiful upper class girl named Zaynab bint Jahsh (RA). At first, Muhammad’s (SAW) proposal was rejected by Zaynab (RA) and her brothers, because they thought that the gulf between the two individuals was too vast. However, God Almighty had other plans:
” It is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path.” (Qur’an Ch.33 v.36)
After hearing this, both parties became willing for the marriage to go through. It was fine at first, but later they began to have some marital issues (7). Allah (SWT) then revealed to Muhammad’s (SAW) heart that they would get divorced, and that the prophet himself would marry Zaynab (RA) afterwards (7). Of course, this caused difficulty within Muhammad’s (SAW) mind, and whenever Zayd (RA) came to Muhammad (SAW) asking for marital advice, he was always advised to stay with his wife – but Muhammad (SAW) knew that the revelations and prophecies of Allah (SWT) always come true (7). The only reason Muhammad (SAW) tried to postpone it was because it was an inspiration, not a command – Muhammad (SAW) obeyed all commands that Allah (SWT) gave (7). In the end, Zayd (RA) and Zaynab (RA) got divorced, and after the prescribed waiting time (iddah), Muhammad (SAW) was finally commanded by Allah (SWT) to marry Zaynab (RA), so he sent Zayd (RA) with his proposal (7). Zaynab (RA) was hesitant to go through without a command from Allah (SWT), so He revealed the following:
“Behold! Thou didst say to one who had received the grace of Allah and thy favour: “Retain thou (in wedlock) thy wife, and fear Allah.” But thou didst hide in thy heart that which Allah was about to make manifest: thou didst fear the people, but it is more fitting that thou shouldst fear Allah. Then when Zayd had dissolved (his marriage) with her, with the necessary (formality), We joined her in marriage to thee: in order that (in future) there may be no difficulty to the Believers in (the matter of) marriage with the wives of their adopted sons, when the latter have dissolved with the necessary (formality) (their marriage) with them. And Allah’s command must be fulfilled. There can be no difficulty to the Prophet in what Allah has indicated to him as a duty. It was the practice (approved) of Allah amongst those of old that have passed away. And the command of Allah is a decree determined. (It is the practice of those) who preach the Messages of Allah, and fear Him, and fear none but Allah. And enough is Allah to call (men) to account. Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but (he is) the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of the Prophets: and Allah has full knowledge of all things.” (Qur’an Ch.33 vv.37-40)
Thus, the Messenger (SAW) and Zaynab (RA) married. It was happy marriage, at that. There wasn’t as much contrevorsy over the affair as you would think.
More importantly, the significance of the marriage was that it the adoptee was not genetically part of the adoptive family, and was not a Mahram. Therefore, his/her spouse was also not a Mahram. In this case, people would have thought that it was weird to marry your adopted son’s ex-wife. However, Allah (SWT) taught us that adoption does not really make someone change his/her identity. As a result, Zayd (RA), who used to be called Zaid ibn Muhammad, went back to being Zayd ibn Harithah. He never lost his bond with Muhammad (SAW), but now he went back to being who he was.
Since of the non-Mahram status of Zayd (RA), the marriage between Muhammad (SAW) and Zaynab (RA) was permissable, and God Almighty willed it to happen to show the Muslims that it really was okay. Once again, this wasn’t a recommendation, nor a command, but simply to show that something was allowable. If you aren’t satisfied, you should first ask yourself why you still have problems? Is it because it is morally wrong, or because you just think it’s weird? Either way, I will eventually write a separate article on the matter – I think that article itself has gone on long enough. In the meanwhile, please read this refutation of the allegations about the marriage between Muhammad (SAW) and Zaynab (RA).
– Farhan R.
(1) – Harun, ‘Abdus-Salam M. Sirat Ibn Hisham. Cairo, Egypt: Al-Falah Foundation for Translation, Publication & Distribution, 2000.
(2) – Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad in Mecca. Oxford UP, 1953.
(3) – Lagorio, Christine. “Iraqi Orphanage Nightmare.” CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. 18 June 2007. CBS Interactive, Inc. 7 Jan. 2009 <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/06/18/eveningnews/main2946007.shtml>.
(4) – “I have feelings for my adopted brother. I don’t want to prey on him and mess with his development! – relationship advice.” DearCupid.ORG. 26 Aug. 2008. 07 Jan. 2009 <http://www.dearcupid.org/question/i-have-feelings-for-my-adopted-brother-.html>.
(5) – “Can two adopted siblings get married? – Yahoo! Answers.” Yahoo! Answers. Yahoo! Inc. 07 Jan. 2009 <http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20071206084728AAAkQp6>.
(6) – “Parted-at-birth twins ‘married'” BBC NEWS – News Front Page. 11 Jan. 2008. BBC. 07 Jan. 2009 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7182817.stm>.
(7) – IOL Shari`ah Researchers. “Islam’s Stance on Adoption.” IslamOnline.net – Living Shari’ah – Ask the Scholar. 5 Dec. 2001. IslamOnline.net. 07 Jan. 2009 <http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?pagename=Islamonline-English-Ask_Scholar/FatwaE/FatwaE&cid=1119503544668>.