Adoption in Islam

Adoption is forbidden in Islam, and has therefore translated into a specific article in Egyptian law forbidding the practice. Not all countries take this stand; Tunisia, for example, permits the practice. Nonetheless, the Qur’an also exhorts believers to be kind to orphans: “God instructs you to treat orphans fairly: He is well aware of whatever good you do” (4: 127), and promises hellfire for those who fail to live up to the mark. Practically speaking, this translates into donations in kind, and financial support, for orphanages like the one I visited


The Islamic stance an adoption has an interesting history, one which is related to the  longstanding critique of Islam as a “sexed-up” religion.  It’s the story of Zaynab bint Jahsh, one of the Prophet’s wives. Zaynab, a distant relative of the Prophet, was initially married to Zayd ibn Harithah, his adopted son; however, the two divorced and she remarried the Prophet Mohammed. According to some Muslim scholars, Muhammad was alleged to have taken a fancy to Zaynab, and Zayd on learning of this, offered to divorce her to make way for his adoptive father.  Mohammed refused, but later received a revelation commanding him marry Zaynab, stressing the distinction between blood relatives (in which case such a marriage would be tantamount to incest)  and adopted family members, who did not pose such a risk. This meant that Zaynab, as former wife of his adopted son, was eligible.


In pre-Islamic Arabia, adopted children had the same status and privileges as blood offspring. It’s not surprising that newly-minted Muslims were shocked by Muhammad’s actions, since old ideas diehard and to them, the marriage with Zaynab would have been off the cards as incest. But the Qur’anic revelation made a break with that past, and further verses laid a new line on adoption: “…nor does he make your adopted sons into real sons….Name your adopted sons after their real fathers: this is more equitable in God’s eyes—if you do not know who their fathers are [they are your] ‘brothers-in-religion’ and protégés…..In God’s Scripture, blood-relatives have a stronger claim than other believers and emigrants, though you may still bestow gifts on your protégés.” (33:4-6).


Generations of Christian commentators had a field day with this one, arguing that Mohammed made up the rules as he went along, to satisfy his needs and attract a following. Eight centuries later and the story of Zaynab and Zayd is still doing the rounds. In his 2006 book, The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion, American commentator Robert Spencer argues that assertions about Islam as a religion of peace and Muhammad as man of justice, compassion and charity are politically-correct delusions.  While his indictment stresses what he sees as the inherent violence and intolerance of Islam, sexual indiscretion also gets a look-in, as the story of Zaynab is again invoked to illustrate what Spencer argues is “the fact that Muhammad readily set aside his principles” when they conflicted with his desires—exactly what Christian critics were arguing a millennia ago.