Last night I was involved in a Facebook discussion/debate with someone, who I’ll call K, who was elucidating the rules of adoption as they stand in Islam. He was somewhat berating people for spreading misinformation that Islam does not encourage adoption. Instead, he said that taking care of orphans is a central tenet in Islam – but there are certain rules and practices in the Islamic position that stand in direct contrast to how it is done and thought about in the West. And Western cultural thought and practice on adoption has influenced Muslims to the point that they do not look upon adoption as positively and enthusiastically as they should.
Islam is clear on adoption. Orphans are given a very special status in Islamic society, as people to be cared for, cherished, protected, and adopted. However, you are not allowed to hide the fact of a child’s adoption from her, nor are you allowed to hide her parentage, or pass yourselves off as the child’s biological parents. Adopted children cannot inherit their parents’ property under Islamic inheritance laws, although the parents can gift up to 30% of their property or assets to an adopted child before their death. Nor can adoptive parents absorb the orphan’s own wealth into their own: they can only serve as trustees for the child’s own wealth (stealing the property of orphans is considered a huge sin in Islam). Finally, adopted children must look upon the opposite sex members of their family as na-mahrem and observe proper moral behavior around them – many believe this means an adopted girl must veil herself around her adoptive father and brothers, for example – and they can marry anyone in their adoptive family.
There is a complicated Islamic history related to the ruling that an adopted child can marry into his or her adoptive family which I won’t get into right now, but go here to read up on it from the Quran (it involves an adopted son of the Prophet peace be upon him divorcing his wife whom the Prophet then m married, and the verse revealed in the Quran which made this a halal act).
K, the person who was discussing this issue last night said that under Islamic mores, a case like Woody Allen marrying his adoptive daughter Soon-Yi Previn would be no problem whatsoever. It cannot be classified as incest as it has been in the West. K’s idea was that the West has built up “false stigma” around adoption, stating that adopted children are brought up to falsely believe they are biological members of the family and as such, cannot marry members of their adoptive family later in life.
While I understand and obey the unequivocal laws of Islam in this as in many other issues, I hesitate to utterly condemn the practice of adoption as it is done in the West. I do believe that a child should not be brought up to believe he or she is the biological child of adoptive parents – and with interracial adoptions and adoptions from other countries, this is getting harder and harder to do – but I can understand why it was done in the past. Many children in centuries gone by were born out of wedlock, and either given up or abandoned by single mothers who could not raise their own children – either by law, or because of society’s harsh judgment of such mothers and their children. They were bundled off to adoptive homes in the hopes that they would get a better start in life. The identities of their mothers and fathers were hidden so that privacy and confidentiality could be protected. And adoptive parents wanted to be sure that the child never felt discriminated against or treated any differently from biological children – a very different outlook than Islam’s, which necessitates that while adopted children should be treated fairly, they are treated differently than biological ones.
This was a decision of compassion, and while it can lead to terrible mistakes like biological children ending up marrying each other or having relationships with each other without knowing that they share DNA, it’s hard to condemn it outright when the intention may have been to protect the child from stigma (not “false stigma” as K calls it but real stigma). We know, though, that this can cause a kind of psychological trauma to a child when he or she “finds out the truth”, but most adopted children speak of a sense of knowing that they had different origins than the ones presented to them as truth. Let’s say that adoption in itself is a psychological minefield that has to be navigated with great care and sensitivity, even when all the rules have been followed to the letter.
I also think it’s a mistake to draw a false dichotomy between the “West” and the “Islamic” world. In Pakistan, hundreds of children are abandoned every week in Edhi cradles and at orphanages: these children are often the result of extra-marital relationships. There are single mothers in Pakistan even though we don’t admit it and don’t talk about it, and even though a child without a father has no legal status in Pakistan. These children are adopted, and while they know that they are adopted, they have no way of knowing their parentage. What do we do in this case, beyond making it clear that they are adopted?
Also, in many Muslim countries there are children born to single mothers as a result of rape. Hundreds if not thousands of such children were born in Bosnia and the same thing is happening in Syria today. I can totally understand keeping the identity and origins of such children private and confidential in order to avoid the stigma of being a child of rape. Again, beyond making it known that the child is adopted, what is the more compassionate thing to do – advertise that the child was born to a single mother, and the father is unknown, or keep this to oneself?
When I mentioned these realities in the debate, I was told that we should be advanced enough in Islamic society to remove all stigmas related to rape and out of wedlock births. But the West is only just getting over these hangovers – Islamic countries are aeons behind in this respect. Women who give birth to children out of wedlock have even found themselves sentenced to death, as in the case of Amina Lawal in Nigeria (her sentence was declared invalid and she was later freed, but you can bet the stigma of having an illegitimate child will follow her and that child forever).
It is very easy to be unequivocal and dogmatic about anything, including Islam. But Islam is a religion of compassion and humanity, and we as its adherents are obligated to find creative ways to apply our religious obligations with those very qualities. I’m not confused about what Islam tells us to do. What I am confused about is how to implement that while still protecting orphans, which is also what Islam charges us to do. And shielding an adopted child, who is already the most vulnerable being on earth, from further censure, stigma, and discrimination, surely has to fall under that charge as well.