To the socially chaotic environment of pre-Islamic Arabia, the Qur’anic revelations brought a civilized solution to many issues. One of these is the important case of adoption. Orphans constitute an inevitable element of society, and their status can result from their parents’ natural death, families giving away babies to avoid facing the consequences of adultery, and the population of refugees. Despite or perhaps because of their uncertain and may be unfortunate backgrounds, orphans need and deserve care just as any other children do. The Islamic approach intends to help orphans not just be materially provided for, but also feel situated in life and society, and develop a sense of belonging even without the presence of blood kinship.
In terms of material care, if no extended family volunteers to raise an orphan, then the responsibility falls on the state and society. They are considered our “brothers” in the system, so one must not look down on them, but treat them fairly. If a family takes in an orphan, they should even give the child their family’s last name. This will emphasize their belonging within the family structure and society at large. The psychological benefit brought by this simple offering can reach deep in the orphan’s mind, easing the anxieties and fears that could, in other circumstances, cause the child significant emotional distress, with untold consequences.
The issue of adoption has been widely discussed in traditional, conventional Islamic discourse, with scholars often reaching the conclusion that adoption is an acceptable process, but it is forbidden to give the adoptee the adopting family’s last name. So, how is this not the case? To say more at this point without drawing on a primary source would be getting too far ahead; turning to the text of the Qur’an will help bring these matters to light. First, we should look at Chapter 33 (al-Ahzab), which redefines the parent-child relationship:
مَّا جَعَلَ ٱللَّهُ لِرَجُلٍ۬ مِّن قَلۡبَيۡنِ فِى جَوۡفِهِۦۚ وَمَا جَعَلَ أَزۡوَٲجَكُمُ ٱلَّـٰٓـِٔى تُظَـٰهِرُونَ مِنۡہُنَّ أُمَّهَـٰتِكُمۡۚ وَمَا جَعَلَ أَدۡعِيَآءَكُمۡ أَبۡنَآءَكُمۡۚ ذَٲلِكُمۡ قَوۡلُكُم بِأَفۡوَٲهِكُمۡۖ وَٱللَّهُ يَقُولُ ٱلۡحَقَّ وَهُوَ يَهۡدِى ٱلسَّبِيلَ (٤)
4. God did not make for any man two hearts inside him. Nor did He make your wives of whom you compare their backs your mothers, your actual mothers. Nor did He make what you call sons, your sons. These are the saying of yours with your mouths. God says the truth, and He guides to the way.
In this verse, the Qur’an teaches us that we cannot have two hearts, but rather, that we can only have one heart (that can give one type of attention at a time to any given person). So, for example, a man should consider a woman to be either his spouse, or his mother, but she cannot be shifted from category to category, as people used to do in the pre-Islamic days as a form of divorce. Additionally, putting people in a single social category in relation to another person is helpful because it clarifies boundaries regarding what is permitted between people. For example, an adopted son should consider his adoptive mother as his mother. As the woman who raised him, she should not be considered “available” to him for marriage. Allowing these categories to remain fluid would cause more chaos and upset in society, a result in direct opposition to the teachings laid out in the Qur’an, which strive to establish order and balance.
The Qur’an continues on to redefine the father-son relationship, instructing us that a man claiming that a boy is his biological son, does not make the boy his son in practice:
ٱدۡعُوهُمۡ لِأَبَآٮِٕهِمۡ هُوَ أَقۡسَطُ عِندَ ٱللَّهِۚ فَإِن لَّمۡ تَعۡلَمُوٓاْ ءَابَآءَهُمۡ فَإِخۡوَٲنُڪُمۡ فِى ٱلدِّينِ وَمَوَٲلِيكُمۡۚ وَلَيۡسَ عَلَيۡڪُمۡ جُنَاحٌ۬ فِيمَآ أَخۡطَأۡتُم بِهِۦ وَلَـٰكِن مَّا تَعَمَّدَتۡ قُلُوبُكُمۡۚ وَڪَانَ ٱللَّهُ غَفُورً۬ا رَّحِيمًا (٥)
5. Call them by their fathers; that is more just in the sight of God. But if you do not know their fathers, then your brothers in faith and your friends. There is no blame on you if you err therein, barring what your hearts premeditate. God is Forgiving and Merciful.
The verse explains that a child’s true father is the man who takes care of him or her by using the Arabic word أب, in contrast to والد, which refers to the biological father. We see this usage also in Chapter 22 (al-Hajj), verse 78, where it says, “مِّلَّةَ أَبِيكُمۡ إِبۡرَٲهِيم” (“the way of your father Abraham”). The use of the word أب in this context refers to Ibrahim’s provision of guidance on the path of submission to God.
The term for the biological father is وَالِدٌ as shown in the following verse:
يَـٰٓأَيُّہَا ٱلنَّاسُ ٱتَّقُواْ رَبَّكُمۡ وَٱخۡشَوۡاْ يَوۡمً۬ا لَّا يَجۡزِى وَالِدٌ عَن وَلَدِهِۦ وَلَا مَوۡلُودٌ هُوَ جَازٍ عَن وَالِدِهِۦ شَيۡـًٔاۚ (٣٣)
33. O people! Be conscious of your Lord, and dread a Day when no [biological] parent can avail his [biological] child, nor can a child avail his [biological] parent, in anything.
Similarly, the word والدة refers to the biological mother only, whereas the word أم could refer to both the biological or non-biological mother, as in Chapter 33, verse 6:
ٱلنَّبِىُّ أَوۡلَىٰ بِٱلۡمُؤۡمِنِينَ مِنۡ أَنفُسِہِمۡۖ وَأَزۡوَٲجُهُ ۥۤ أُمَّهَـٰتُہُمۡۗ (٦)
6. The Prophet is more caring of the believers than they are of themselves, and his wives are mothers to them.
In this verse, the wives of the Prophet are obviously not the believers’ mothers biologically, yet they are referred to as أم because they are their spiritual mothers. The mother figure here represents the source of education and formation of character.
Returning to Chapter 33, verse 5, then, if a child can be considered to have a father figure who provides for him/her, such a child should be called by (given the last name of) this man. If a child’s parents are unknown, then society must be responsible for taking care of the child, because he/she is among our brethren in our social system.
In this way, we see that the Qur’an recommends caring for orphans, adopting them, and integrating them fully into the family structure.