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.