Why Muslims don’t adopt?

Late last month, the Associated Press‘ Rachel Zoll had a really interesting and important story about Muslim adoption. Or, rather, a story about how Islam, while encouraging care for orphans, forbids adoption. Almost immediately we heard from readers — some of them adoptive parents, some of them Muslim or having Muslim family members. They said that they enjoyed what the story said but were very surprised about something very important that was missing from the story.

The piece begins with a look at Helene Lauffer, associate executive director of Spence-Chapin, one of the oldest adoption agencies in the country. She’s trying to match orphaned, displaced and neglected children in Muslim countries with American Muslim families who want them:

The problem was a gap between Western and Islamic law. Traditional, closed adoption violates Islamic jurisprudence, which stresses the importance of lineage. Instead, Islam has a guardianship system called kafalah that resembles foster care, yet has no exact counterpart in Western law.

The differences have left young Muslims with little chance of finding a permanent Muslim home in America.

Throughout the piece we keep hearing about restrictions in Islamic law. Zoll says that Islamic scholars say the restriction against adoption was meant to protect children by ending adoption abuses in pre-Islamic societies:

Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said adoption in that period had more in common with slavery. Men would take in boys, then erase any tie between the child and his biological family. The goal was to gather as many fighters as possible as protection for the tribe. Orphans’ property was often stolen in the process.

As a result, Muslims were barred from treating adopted and biological children as identical in naming or inheritance, unless the adoptee was breast-fed as a baby by the adoptive mother, creating a familial bond recognized under Islamic law.

When an orphan reaches puberty, the Islamic prohibition against mixing of the sexes applies inside the home of his or her guardians. Muslim men cannot be alone with women they could potentially marry, and women must cover their hair around these men. Islamic law sets out detailed rules about who believers can and cannot marry, and an orphan taken in from another family would not automatically be considered “unmarriageable” to his siblings or guardians.

Zoll says these — and other — reasons are why Muslim countries usually don’t allow international adoption. The piece looks at how a version of open adoption, in which children keep their lineage with their birth family, can get around the restriction. We also learn about how Muslims who want to adopt are trying to tackle modesty rules. The deal there is that since there is no adoption, orphans raised by a family could be considered marriageable to their siblings. This means that they would have to follow rules about separation of the sexes and modesty coverings even inside the home.

The piece is great for what it includes. I learned a ton. What readers were surprised by, however, was the absence of an important relevant story about Muhammad. The article does mention that Muhammad’s father died at a young age and that he was raised by an uncle and grandfather. But there’s another Muhammad story that is key to rules governing adoption.

Very long story short is that Muhammad married the ex-wife of his adopted son (who he adopted before Islam forbade it). You can get the whole story here — on the Islam Online site (a very helpful resource in general, I should add).

The scholars at the site explain that adoption “in the sense of changing one’s identity and lineage for a false lineage” is prohibited but that adopting in the sense of foster care is allowed and even encouraged:

Islam’s stance on adoption rests on the necessity of keeping the biological parents of the child always in picture. Keeping the original name of the child, and letting him know who are his real parents are some of the conditions stipulated by the Shari`ah when legalizing fostering. The reasons are; in Islam, children have automatic rights to inheritance, they can not marry their Mahrams (unmarriageable persons) and they can marry from their foster family if no suckling took place. The issue of hijab in the house is also given due regard between the non-related sisters and brothers, etc. All these rules have to be taken into consideration in this case.

They quote from the 33rd sura of the Quran where Allah forbids calling non-biological children your children. They cite an article that explains:

In fact, Islam changed other pre-Islamic traditions related to this issue as well. The raised child cannot inherit from the people who raised him/her, and is not forbidden from marrying what used to be called relatives by the bond of adoption.

Before adoption was prohibited, the Arabs had prohibited the man from marrying the divorcee of his adopted son. Islam prohibits a man marrying the divorcee of his son. However, in Islam, a man can marry the divorcee of the man he raised, who is not his son by blood; this is declared explicitly in the Qur’an. People would have felt uncomfortable in practicing this new permission, if Allah had not selected the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to demonstrate its acceptability; it’d be a very heavy duty before people, even for the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).

Zayd Ibn Harithah (may Allah be pleased with him) was adopted by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) before Islam prohibited adoption. He used to be called Zayd ibn Muhammad (son of Muhammad) until adoption was prohibited, when he was again called after his real father.

Zayd married Zaynab bint Jahsh, the cousin of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Later on, he had problems in his relationship with her. Allah Almighty inspired to the heart of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that she would get divorced and he would marry her, something that was hard for him to face other people with. Whenever Zayd complained to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that his marriage was going from bad to worse, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) always told him to stay with his wife, which is a postponement of what the Prophet learned was going to happen. …

Zayd eventually divorced Zaynab, and neither one of them knew what Allah Almighty had inspired His Prophet to do. After the waiting period (`Iddah) of Zaynab was over, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was told to marry her. He sent Zayd himself to ask Zaynab to marry him. Zaynab said that she would not take such a step without a revelation from Allah Almighty. When she went to the Mosque the verses that commanded the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to marry her were revealed, and she married the Prophet.

There’s more, including some contentious claims about how dangerous non-Muslim adoption is. But clearly the story about Muhammad marrying Zaynab bint Jahsh is key to a Muslim understanding of adoption. While readers felt that they had learned a great deal from the AP piece about other reasons for Muslim prohibitions on adoption, they thought it unfortunate that the Prophet Muhammad’s life — so central to why Islam came to forbid adoption — was left out.

Print Friendly

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Micheal Hickerson

    Very interesting. In addition to the legal/religious differences on adoption, I think there are different cultural/religious understandings of “family” at play, too. A close relative of mine worked at a Western-run “orphanage” for boys in Afghanistan. But every weekend, the “orphanage” was filled with visiting family members, including parents in a few cases. Virtually all of the “orphans” had strong familial ties in the community, but those families either couldn’t take them in (for economic or, I see now, religious reasons) or had decided that the orphanage (which was also a school) gave the boys better opportunities for education, training, etc. It was really more like a boarding school than the traditional Western idea of an orphanage. A foreign adoption for one of these boys might have given him a nuclear family, but at the expense of his extended family.

  • Hector

    Re: Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said adoption in that period had more in common with slavery. Men would take in boys, then erase any tie between the child and his biological family. The goal was to gather as many fighters as possible as protection for the tribe. Orphans’ property was often stolen in the process.

    Of course, this didn’t stop the Turks from doing the same thing on a monumental scale with their infamous Janissaries. With the added infamy that they tore these children away from their Christian faith and made them embrace Islam. Then again, I doubt this Ingrid Mattson person has ever heard of the Janissaries- she seems to be one of those politically correct types for whom no Muslim society ever did anything wrong.

    Re: The reasons are; in Islam, children have automatic rights to inheritance, they can not marry their Mahrams (unmarriageable persons

    Islam, btw, permits first cousins to marry, which has led to a great deal of genetic problems, as well as limiting the freedom of women. It’s hardly as though the Quran has a particularly valid or strict definition of ‘unmarriageable persons’. Of course, the Quranic tolerance of cousin-on-cousin incest is probably another thing you won’t hear much about from the Ingrid Mattsons of the world.

    Adoption is a good thing, and perhaps part of the reason it became so common in Christian societies is that we have the example of our Lord, who was accepted through adoption as part of Joseph’s family in spite of having no biological kinship with Joseph.

  • Jerry

    Wow, Mollie, I had no idea about adoption in Islam before this piece of yours. I totally agree with your analysis and comments.

    Given how many stories I’ve heard or read about where an adopted child goes in search of his or her biological parents and all the controversy about that search, the Islamic custom where the last name of the child is kept is interesting and something I need to think about. I do agree that “open adoption” is the closest equivalent but there are also significant differences as you pointed out.

    There is indeed a difference in the legal structure, but it’s clear from what I’ve just read that there is no difference in the love that should flow between adoptive/foster parents and children:

    The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said that a person who cares for an orphaned child will be in Paradise with him, and motioned to show that they would be as close as two fingers of a single hand. An orphan himself, Muhammad paid special attention to the care of children. He himself adopted a former slave and raised him with the same care as if he were his own son.


    I also wonder if at least the part about keeping a child’s last name will become less of an issue in this era where marriage does not imply change in last name. I know people who have followed the traditional pattern, where the woman has kept her last name, where both parties agreed on both changing their last names to something new and where the last names have been combined into a new last name. It makes keeping track of who’s married to whom more interesting :-)

  • Hector

    Hey Mollie,

    I added a couple more comments, highly critical of Islam, which you seem to have removed.

    I didn’t know that the Get Religion blog was into embracing political correctness and stifling any criticisms of Islam. Good to know.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    We do monitor comments that stray from a journalism focus. You are welcome to debate these things — just not on this site. Policies are linked above and also here.

    But we encourage you to keep commenting — it’s just that this community is focused on journalism rather than doctrinal issues.

  • Hector


    Fair enough, but it’s hilarious that

    1) a so-called professor of Islamic studies should gush about the Islamic position on adoption, and how it guards against babies being kidnapped, incest, and slavery,
    2) she ignores the notorious history of the Janissaries, which COMPLETELY OBVIATES her point,
    3) she completely ignores the fact that literal, genuine chattel slavery went on longer in the Muslim heartlands than anywhere else in the world, and continues in parts of the Muslim world today,
    4) the Quranic apologist claims that Islam’s adoption laws guard against incest are COMPLETELY OBVIATED by the fact that Islam explicitly sanctions cousin-on-cousin incest,
    and finally
    5) no journalist, not a solitary one, calls her on a single one of those facts.

    If you want a religion ghost, I’d say that’s a ghost the size of Hamlet’s daddy.

  • http://www.netreach.net/~steed culchiewoman

    Hector states:

    “Adoption is a good thing, and perhaps part of the reason it became so common in Christian societies is that we have the example of our Lord, who was accepted through adoption as part of Joseph’s family in spite of having no biological kinship with Joseph.”

    I wonder what perspective you’re looking at it from that you’d say adoption is a ‘good’ thing, Hector? The adoptive parent perspective? Unfortunately, western (Judeo-Christian) adoptions have become more and more about finding children (at any price) for individuaks who desire them or cannot have them on their own; not what it should be — finding homes for children who desperately need them. Western adoption, regardless whether considered ‘open’ or ‘closed,’ destroys the child’s identity of origin, cultural bonds and right of access to their original birth certificate (in the U.S., only six states allow varying degrees of access). This is particularly true of intercountry adoption, and that practice is now fraught with even worse horrors such as outright child-stealing (Haiti, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Cambodia and other countries), bad practice, outrageous agency ‘fees’, unregistered and unqualified agencies, and total disregard for the laws of both exporting and importing countries. Christian adoption agencies/societies (particularly Catholic and LDS) have a horrendous history of coercion of mothers, profiteering and falsification of information.

    Frankly, a little ‘cousin incest’ pales in comparison with all that is wrong with western adoption practice. In fact, a Mormon adopted adult I know actually did discover her natural mother and father were first cousins. So how did adoption help that situation?

    I find the Mulsim belief in this regard to be quite refreshing. Great and thought-provoking piece.

  • Hector

    Re: Frankly, a little ‘cousin incest’ pales in comparison with all that is wrong with western adoption practice.

    I’d recommend you spend a bit of time in South Asia or the Middle East, Culchie Woman. (I’m South Asian, though not Muslim, of course). The rate of birth defects due to the practise of cousin-on-cousin sex, to say nothing of the way that this practise is oppressive towards women and bad for society in general, might cause you to rethink your opinions.

    Re: Great and thought-provoking piece.

    The only thought it provoked in my mind is how the mainstream media is in love with Kumbaya multiculturalism, and is utterly unwilling or unable to find anything to criticise about any practise in the Muslim world, no matter how barbaric.

  • David Layman

    The final long quote of the piece sanitizes the real reason for the prohibition of adoption.

    According to the text noted there (Surah 33), the prophet (we only have the word of later Muslim tradition that this prophet was identical to “Muhammad”) wanted to marry his adopted son’s wife. Marrying one’s son’s divorced wife would have been a form of incest. So to gain access to the woman, the prophet had to change the incest rules concerning adopted sons (and their wives). The prophet compared the rules to the saying “‘Be as my mother’s back,’” which was apparently used as a form of dismissal for a divorced wife (v. 4). The logic of the prophet appeared to be: calling a divorced wife “my mother’s back” does not make her one’s mother; so likewise (the prophet reasoned), calling an adopted son one’s son does not really make him one’s son.

    The prophet is making an implicit attack on the conventions of social norms, and reinstates in its place the priority of blood relations: “Those who are / bound by blood are nearer to one another / in the Book of God than the believers and the / emigrants” (v. 6).

    In effect: adoption (with exceptions) is prohibited is Islam because the prophet desired another man’s wife. The change in adoption law took place to gratify his lust. The text makes clear that the rest of the prophet’s “harem” was in an uproar about it. If they want to go, then go; but if they stay they will get “a mighty wage (v. 28).” In any case, their special position as the prophet’s wives required them to stay in their houses (v. 33).

    In my judgment, we have here another case of a presumed prophet using his supposed revelations to justify the gratifications of his own sensual desires.

    Another, more historical-critical interpretation of these events is that Zayd Ibn Harithah (the adopted son) actually represents a line of authority within Islam (just as “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” are eponyms for related but distinct tribal groups). In this interpretation, one of the later dynasties (Umayyad?) disenfranchised the blood-line of the prophet (even through an adopted son) to authorize their own seizure of power. A sophisticated version of this thesis can be found in Muhammad is Not the Father of Any of Your Men.

  • Russ

    That’s interesting – what they were trying to forbid in pre-Islamic cultures sounds a lot like what Muslims did to Christians in recruiting Janissaries in the Ottoman Empire.

  • Julia Duin

    I emailed Rachel when the article came out, asking why the Zaynab story was left out. I got no response; perhaps she didn’t see my email.
    When I was in Iraq in 2004, I looked into adopting one of the many orphans there. That’s where I learned about Zaynab, who, according to some of the hadiths, was happily married to Muhammad’s son until the prophet saw her semi-undressed. In order to get her, he had to undo the whole institution of adoption, as one was not allowed to marry one’s daughter-in-law. But if the son could somehow be unadopted…read all about it at this link: http://www.faithfreedom.org/Articles/SKM/zeinab.htm

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Maybe or maybe not.

    In many cultures, the extended family is supposed to take care of children, so adoption is seen as ‘stealing” the kids from their genetic family.

    And in many cultures, adopting a stranger is not the same as having a child. I love my husband, but unlike my American family, as an Asian he doesn’t consider my adopted sons as my “real” children.

  • John M

    I’m not sure what article the folks bringing up the Janissaries thought they were reading, but it didn’t read to me like a comprehensive historical narrative looking at the history of Islamic practices of adoption and related practices, but rather a look at the state of Islamic jurisprudence today and a rough look at where it came from in the early days of Islam. In that context, ignoring or missing Muhammad’s rather checkered history with adoption is a huge swing and a miss. Neglecting to report on the Janissaries? Not so much. I mean really, where would you have put it in the article? Is there evidence that jurisprudence developed during the Ottoman empire is driving legal opinions today as Muslim parents look toward adoption? What other parts of Islamic history would have to be covered in order to make sure all of the relevant context was there? How about the Ilkhanate’s transition to Islam?

    I’m hardly an apologist for Islam (nor am I an expert on Islamic jurisprudence), and I think a broad sweep of Islamic history around adoption and related practices (if the repulsive Janissary approach can even be called “related” to adoption) would be tremendously valuable resource, but this article wasn’t it.

    I agree that the media often takes a very kum-ba-ya multicultural approach to Islam and Muslims, but others seem to want to portray Islam and Muslims in the worst possible light at every opportunity. Neither strikes me as a good approach for holding the very real discussion that we need to be having in this country about where Islam fits inside America’s pluralism. (See also: Juan Williams furor.) Aside from the colossal miss on the Zaynab story, this story had a lot of potential for balance IMHO.


  • Russ

    This is also a good example of the powerful influence of Christianity on western culture. Westerners still tend to assume their values are universal virtues held by all good people around the world, even when those values come directly from Christian influence.