The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said that a person who cares for an orphaned child will be close beside him in Paradise and gestured to show that this closeness would resemble two adjacent fingers on 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 he would show a born son.
While Muslims place great importance on caring for orphaned children, there are rules and practices that differ greatly from how orphans are regarded in other cultures. The rules come directly from the Quran, which gives specific rules about the legal relationship between a child and his/her adoptive family.
When Muslims adopt a child, the identity of the child’s biological family is never hidden and their ties to the child are never severed. The Quran specifically reminds adoptive parents that they are not the child’s biological parents:
…Nor has He made your adopted sons your (biological) sons. Such is (only) your (manner of) speech by your mouths. But Allah tells (you) the Truth, and He shows the (right) Way. Call them by (the names of) their fathers; that is juster in the sight of Allah. But if you know not their father’s (names, call them) your brothers in faith, or your trustees. But there is no blame on you if you make a mistake therein. (What counts is) the intention of your hearts. And Allah is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. (Qur’an 33:4-5)
The Nature of Adoption in Islam
The guardian/child relationship has specific rules under Islamic law, which renders the relationship a bit different than adoption in other cultures, where adoptive children become virtually identical to birth children in the eyes of the law. The Islamic term for what is commonly called adoption is kafala, which comes from a word that means “to feed.” In essence, it describes more of a foster-parent relationship. Some of the rules in Islam surrounding this relationship:
- An adopted child retains his or her own biological family name (surname) and does not change his or her name to match that of the adoptive family.
- An adopted child inherits from his or her original biological parents, not automatically from the adoptive parents.
- When the child is grown, members of the adoptive family are not considered blood relatives and are therefore not muhrim to him or her. “Muhrim” refers to a specific legal relationship that regulates marriage and other aspects of life. Essentially, members of the adoptive family would be permissible as possible marriage partners, and rules of modesty exist between the grown child and adoptive family members of the opposite sex.
- If the child is provided with property/wealth from the biological family, adoptive parents are commanded not intermingle that property/wealth with their own. They serve merely as trustees for property given to the child by his biological family
Ties to the Biological Family
These Islamic rules emphasize to the adoptive family that they are not taking the place of the biological family but are rather serving as trustees and caretakers of someone else’s child. Their role is very clearly defined but nevertheless very valued and important.
It is also important to note that in Islam, the extended family network is vast and very strong. It is rare for a child to be completely orphaned without a single biological family member to care for him or her. Islam places a great emphasis on the ties of kinship—a completely abandoned child is very rare in Islamic culture.
Islamic law places an emphasis on locating a relative to care for the child, and only when this proves impossible does it allow someone outside of the family—and especially outside the community or country—to adopt and remove the child from his or her familial, cultural, and religious roots. This is especially important during times of war, famine, or economic crisis—times when families may be temporarily uprooted or divided.
Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter? And He found you wandering, and He gave you guidance. And He found you in need, and made you independent. Therefore, treat not the orphan with harshness, nor drive away a petitioner (unheard). But the bounty of the Lord – rehearse and proclaim! (Quran 93:6-11)