The following conversations about the structure and limits of family in the Quran are going to be hard for Americans to process. Here in America, our definitions of family have become increasingly… fluid? Sentimental? We have less reverence for blood ties and blood obligations than has been historically true of perhaps of any other civilization in favor of reverence for “the family you choose.” And yet with our widened definitions of “family” we’ve also retained a pretty traditional sense and sentiment towards incest. In a mainstream culture where sex is treated as more interpersonal-intimacy or sport, and only optionally reproductive, the reaction to incest is still:
Our bounds for incest aren’t particularly defined, really. We think it’s all about the genetics and the hazards this wreaks upon our progeny as revealed to us by modern science, but that’s a reductionist definition of our actual approach. It’s still taboo to marry a step-relative or an in-law, even though that constitutes no genetic hazard. Maybe in a hyper-sexualized world, our revulsion to incest derives from a desire to just have a sphere of people who are not an option sexually, and in our priority of emotionally-tied families that extends to types of relationships, whether the genetic hazard is there or not.
And in the face of that kind of emotion-driven definition of family and incest the Quran draws some hard lines. It is not more purely objective in definition (as regards what the basic point of incest is), but it is concrete in articulation. Combine it with some relevant ayat from previous suwar we have read, and what lines are drawn in the Islamic family?
Adoption and Family
I’d imagine when you first read through this surah, the opening statements of ayah 4 were confusing to you: “Allah has not made for a man two hearts in his interior. And He has not made your wives whom you declare unlawful your mothers…” Hopefully when you moved on to the part about adopted sons not becoming literal sons you understood that the first two declarations were references to cultural idioms. The first one is interpreted at least two ways by traditional commentators: one being that having two hearts was an idiom for describing someone as being intelligent above the average (Asbab an-Nuzul, Maʕariful Quran), another being that this was an idiom equivalent to English’s “two-faced” (Yusuf Ali, Ibn Kathir). None of those traditions agreed on the circumstances motivating the Quran to include this idiom, but also none of their propositions added anything but trivia. The statement about calling a wife one’s mother has to do with a divorce practice called ẓihaar, which means keeping your wife around as a mother figure (all work, no sex). The basic idea is that just because people say something, that doesn’t dictate the factual nature of the thing. Just like calling someone your son doesn’t make them your factual son.
So this is how the Quran kicks off what I would consider a highly contentious topic: the intent and function of adoption. When you look at Muhammad’s life you can see that he was a believer of adoption. He adopted his young cousin, Ali (of Shia Islam fame), and also the slave boy whom Khadija had given him as a wedding gift, Zayd. So while Muhammad practiced adoption, the question here is what does adoption mean? In my culture, adoption means extending your family relationships to include without condition someone not born to your family. America has special history with adoption leading to this meaning. For this surah we must recognize we’re looking at a very different culture with some different concepts of family and family duty than ours. Furthermore, the Quran is stepping into that culture and redefining those concepts to make a new culture. So what does adoption mean? The Quran’s answer, “custodial care, nothing beyond that.”
The believers are forbidden in ayah 5 from giving their names to their adoptive children in the pattern of Arabic patrilineal naming conventions. This means that adoptive children –particularly sons– can no longer be grafted into your family’s bloodline. Arabs don’t have “last names.” Instead, your full name consists of a list of all your male predecessors. Sometimes some notable male gets more weight, which is why we say that Muhammad was a “Hashimite” and a “Qurayshi,” since Hashim and Quraysh were men in his bloodline whose deeds defined the societal role of their progeny. However, all male names were included with your own name. Memorizing as many names as possible was a point of pride, though you’d only declare as many as were convenient to say in a given setting. By banning adoptive families from transferring their identity onto the adoptees, the Quran is ensuring that this naming convention is only recording genetic lineage. For women, the whole matter of not being able to take on your adoptive family’s name is of limited consequence. Because only male names get preserved in the lineages, a woman’s name and ancestry will not factor into the name and ancestry of her progeny. In that sense, this ruling on adoption has less consequence for women, or at least for the children of said women.
But not being allowed to give an adoptive child your name has complications: what if you do not know the name of the father? Especially in a patriarchal society, the added benefit of adopting a child was expunging any social stigma concerning their birth. Perhaps the father was a terrible horrible person, thus through name-transference you were protecting the child from the stigma of being descended from said terrible horrible person. Or perhaps you don’t know who the father was, and thus name-transference protects the child from being shamed for their mother’s trauma/promiscuity. What is there to do about that? The Quran does not put forward a naming solution. In lieu of such, ayah 5 reminds believers that even those with no known father are their kin in religion and that they are to serve as custodians. So though no substitute practice is offered, the ayah does constructively negate the validity of the relevant social stigmas.
Since adoption has no transfer of identity, ayah 6‘s structuring of legal order under lineage-relationship means that adoptees do not get the legal benefits of family law, benefits like inheritance. But of course, they can be given tribal privileges at the family’s discretion. An-Nisa 8 also explicitly gives direction to give gifts to orphans from the deceased’s estate. Looking back at Surah an-Nisa, that surah’s regulations on adoption largely involved how a custodian handled their ward’s estate. We could rationalize that the reason adoptees are not defaulted into inheritance law is due to the potential that they already have inheritance waiting for them.
So without adoption including any change in the legal standing of the adoptee as regards family law, it would seem that the Quran is less talking about “adoption” as upheld in our modern western culture, and matches more a system of foster care. You undertake to oversee the welfare of the child, but their legal status remains outside the bounds of family law. To be fair, this is fine. I had some friends who participated in America’s foster care system. They weren’t able to bond with all of their fostered children, but then with others they bonded greatly. With those to whom they bonded, there were some who were available for adoption, and others who weren’t. Whether or not they adopted the child legally did not ultimately affect the emotional connection. The Quran isn’t banning emotional connection, but it’s insisting that the data be kept straight. Especially in a culture where one’s name is a genealogy (rather than the loose symbol of the “family name” in the West), keeping the name straight is fine. And this practice of fostering children is not even that distinct from how adoption appeared/appears in other cultures, and even kinder than some in which the only thing to do with orphans was distribute them as cheap/free labor. I think cutting adoptees from inheritance law is a cold move, but since taking custodianship of someone is an intentional step I should hope that writing them into your estate would also be part of your intention. So it’s fine.
In America, our mainstream convention of adoption is one of “closed adoption,” where the child is completely disconnected from their birth parents to the point of ignorance. It’s actually a surprisingly modern convention, and one that’s already losing its hold thanks to genetic testing, the realized importance of medical history, and coming to terms with how closed adoption has a terrible record of abusive enforcement. Closed adoption was very simple, but quite potentially harmful, and so now our adoption laws are complicated and contentious. However, I think it should be noted that the complicated laws and questions of adoption rights in the West exist because they are looking at adoption primarily as a way of reassigning children who have living family, and are thus trying to balance the rights and protections of the adoptive family with the birth family. In contrast, the Quran only is looking at children with no surviving family (or so I surmised back in Surah an-Nisa, wherein it was assumed that all orphans had some inheritance to be managed). It doesn’t have any extra words for how to foster children who have living family, nor considers the desires or needs of the original family.
The Quran doesn’t explore the reasons for adoption and the permutations of its occurrence. Under what conditions can a child be put up for fostering? Who can foster a child? Perhaps the unsaid convention the Quran depends upon is that any living family should absorb their own foster-able children, and this would then be regulated by the already standing family structure. That is the way Muhammad fostered his own cousin, Ali, when Abu Talib (Muhammad’s uncle, Ali’s father) fell on hard times. Of course, in-family situations do not always work in the child’s favor, so if the Quran was assuming such a system, some words of regulation there would have also been helpful. If this in-family system is enforced (though the Quran has made no comment specifically about in-family fostering and so we can’t confirm this is the case), then the only true orphans would be those without any living family, and thus there is no need to complicate the laws with balancing the rights of both families.
The Quran does encourage and commend fostering, and again it’s not censuring the depth of the relationship. Still, the principles of not wishing someone into your bloodline and defaulting them into access to the benefits thereof stand regardless. I’m sure from it’s own perspective, it’s just settling on the side of objective reality. Though perhaps you mightn’t like that the Quran has pruned adoption down to fostering, it has laid down a practicable principle. Setting up clear practicable principles is what the Quran is supposed to be doing.
So in one sense there’s not a whole lot of consequence to the Quran’s limitation of “adoption” to “fostering.” There are some legal consequences in terms of naming and inheritance, but these things don’t play out in normal in-house interactions. You are still legally bound to your ward through your custodial role, even if the terminology is different than family terminology. You aren’t banned from leaving him an inheritance, just that such is not the default law. You aren’t even banned from calling a ward your son, just from rewriting his genealogy. For some people these little cues matter a lot, so I won’t say that “fostering” and “adoption” are equal, but I will say that the impact of the Quran’s regulations does not kill the potential intimacy of fostered relationships.
There is one major way in which the Quran’s abolishment of re-assigning family relationships has ordinary-life consequences. Back in Surah an-Nur, we read about the clothing regulations leveled upon women, and how those regulations were not necessary in the presence of certain exempted categories of people. Those in-text categories were: husbands, fathers, fathers-in-law, sons, step-sons, their brother’s or sister’s sons, their women, their slaves, eunuchs, and pre-sexual children.
If you cannot consider a fostered child to be your own family, then the women in that house have to dress according to public dress code even within the privacy of their own home as long as their ward/guardian of the opposite gender is present. To be fair, this could also happen to any woman living in a mixed-generation home, as no males-in-law of any direction besides father-in-law are under exemption. Thus, this complication is not so much an indictment of the Quran’s substitution of fostering for adoption insomuch as it’s a return to questioning why women must bear greater accountability for their mode of dressing. Why they are not allowed to use their own discretion to determine how they dress before whom? How do the late-antique standards of dress mandated by the Quran relate to modern standards of dress? By cordoning off the relationships that can be considered “safe” so narrowly, there are many situations –now including adoption– which re-categorize a woman’s private space as one still requiring public dress formality.
So another big consequence of the redefinition of adoption is that it removes adoptees from the incest limits leveled in Surah an-Nisa, ayah 23. To refresh your memory, that surah only defined incest from the starting assumption that you are a man. As such, here is a chart of all explicitly banned relationships:
Now, we assume that those incest limits should be fully gender-swapped for female audiences to look like this:
If these family relationships cannot be applied in practice to adoptees, then the incest limits associated with those relationships also do not apply to adoptees.
Absent from those incest limits are cousins. In today’s surah, ayah 50 makes explicit that all first cousins are permissible, but it does so in a clause where it’s talking only to Muhammad. Then again, grandparents and grandchildren aren’t cordoned off in those incest limits either. It only makes sense that they would be… If you are allowed to extrapolate that far, then perhaps you can extrapolate that cousins aren’t in fact permissible for the normal believer. After all, repeated cousin marriages can start building up genetic hazards. Then it would make some sense that cousin marriages are being permitted directly to Muhammad in ayah 50. The Quran’s rules and limitations on the topic are clear in what they articulate, but they also leave much unarticulated. Traditional scholars have then come to some odd conclusions to supplement the gaps.
One loophole that broader Islamic law makes use of is the clause that wetnurses and those who have shared your wetnurses are also forbidden as incestuous. So if you adopt a child, and are fortunate enough to be in a situation of having breastmilk, you can nurse the child and bring them into the fold of desexualized relationships. This idea is not explicit in the Quran, so the application is not spelled out. I’d assume that the nursed child would still have to bear their father’s name, if we are to believe that the point of that regulation is to preserve accurate genealogies. Would they still be out of the default inheritance pool? They are not womb-kin, which is what ayah 6 specifies. And also, milk-based family are not included in the categories of those who are allowed to see women in private-mode dress, so does that regulation still stand? Or does nursing the child merely desexualize them to their wet-nurses and fellow nurse-lings, and it’s not actually a loophole the Quran intended to make?
Blending Fostering and Incest Principles
In truth, we in the West don’t have very defined rules concerning the combinations of adoption and incest. It’s a very rare specific situation, not something that we are forced to think about, and so most people haven’t taken the time to explore its ideas. Is marrying your adoptive brother incestuous? It doesn’t constitute a genetic hazard, but neither does marrying your mother-in-law when you get down to the science of it. Or any of your in-laws. Or your step-relations. These boundaries aren’t really about the scientific hazards of genetics, how could they be? They are about sanctifying some relationships from the tense and tiring preoccupation of sexuality. Some loves and relationships we just want to stay “pure.”
As such, I think what I read in my surrounding Western culture is that we don’t support crossing adoption with romance/sex. Adoption here is about expanding and including people into your family, and that involves applying that sort of sanctity from sexualization. Yet still –since there are no consequences– if it does happen then we don’t pick up our pitchforks either. I can’t think of any examples now, but I’m sure that I’ve seen dramas before where a forbidden incestuous romantic attraction was redeemed by an eleventh-hour revelation that one of the persons was actually adopted. So not crossing romance and adoption is our principle, not caring much when it happens is perhaps our practice… or maybe that’s only true when it happens in the abstract world of fiction. Again, this isn’t remotely a chronic issue that we are regularly forced to think about.
Of course, it’s easy to forgive that meddling of romance with adoption when it’s between individuals of an equal level. Your adopted son marrying your daughter? Meh. After all, a son by adoption is still a son-in-law by marriage, so the family structure is minimally rearranged. But what about a father marrying his adoptive daughter? Or a nephew by adoption marrying his aunt? This touches upon another vague taboo, that of intergenerational marriage. This taboo is largely linked to stigmatization of age, and the actual ethics of intergenerational romance are more settled by the relative power held by each person in the relationship (much in the same way as any romance). As such, it does need to be heeded that there is power play and potential exploitation to guard against. Within a family dynamic particularly, younger generations are conditioned from infancy to cede authority to older generations. Older men are also traditionally in positions of authority to arrange the marriages of their children/wards. I can’t help but connect this surah’s removal of the adopted from incestual censure to the need in Surah an-Nisa (traditionally dated as a later surah) to reprimand men for marrying their wards and exploiting them.
Why All This?
I feel a little self-conscious that I spent all of today unpacking the implications and rules of only a few ayat in this surah. Yet there are lots of complicated implications and facets to what the Quran has ruled on adoption. You kind of want more than what the Quran gives to figure out the justice and application of this principle. I for one would be dismayed that any adopted son who I raised from infancy –but didn’t have breastmilk to nurse, if we infer that loophole– becomes a barrier to me walking around my house in PJs or sweatpants. And yes, I become embarrassed that any such adopted son would be considered sexually available to me. There is a component to families that isn’t about blood relationships, and I worry that the Quran over-sexualizes all relationships between males and females in its eagerness to guard against sexual misconduct.
I also had to explore this because it is something that very few people are forced to think about. Adoption is a minority practice, so not many of us have had to think about its ethics, let alone the ethics of romantic relationships relating to adopted relationships. It is so specific and rare a thing. But of course, the Quran had to think about it, because Muhammad married the ex-wife of his adoptive son. So I’m sorry for spending so much time on so few ayat today, but it’s all to set up the great many other topics covered in this surah.