Naseer Ahmad and Muzaffar Iqbal

The practice of assuming legal parenthood of another’s child and calling such a child one's own. This pre-Islamic practice was annulled through the revelation of Q 33:4-5. The Qurʾānic interdiction against this practice meant that those who take care of children in need do not become blood relatives in legal terms; they cannot take child's wealth and the child does not inherit from them. It protected lineage, which is the basis of family.

Definitions and Usage

In Q 33:4 and 37, the word used for "those you claim as your children" is adʿiyāʾ, the anomalous plural of daʿī, from the root d-ʿ-w. The root d-ʿ-w (verbal forms daʿā/yadʿū) occurs in eight forms 112 times and carries the following meanings: to call, to summon, to invite; to invoke, to pray, to appeal; to claim, to allege, to pretend, to accuse; to weaken, to collapse (Azharī, Tahdhīb; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisānsub d-ʿ-w). Linguistically, daʿī is used both for a person who claims to be the real father as well as for the one who is not the real father; and also for someone claimed as son by one who is not his real father (Azharī, Tahdhīb; Fayyūmī, Miṣbāḥ; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisānsub d-ʿ-y). In Q 33:5, such children are the referent of the pronoun (-hum) in the phrase “call them”.

Verses and Exegetical Reflections

The three verses concerning this topic are:

Allah has not given a person two hearts within his body; nor has He made your wives whom you declare to be [as unlawful as] your mothers’ backs your real mothers; nor has He made those whom you call your sons your own sons. These are [but] words that you utter with your mouths, whereas Allah proclaims the Truth and directs you to the right path. Call them after their [real] fathers: that is more equitable in the sight of Allah. And if you do not know their [real] fathers, then [regard them as] your brethren in faith (ikhwānukum fī-l-dīn) and your dependants (mawālīkum). You will incur no sin if you err in this respect, but [for] what your hearts intend—for Allah is Ever Most Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Q 33:4-5)

And when you said to him on whom Allah hath conferred favor and you have also conferred favor: “Retain your wife for yourself and reverence Allah”. You were hiding in thyself that which Allah was to disclose; and you did fear the people, though Allah has more right to be feared by youe. Then when Zayd relinquished his claim upon her, We wed her to you, so that there should be no restriction for the believers in respect to the wives of their adopted sons when the latter have relinquished their claims upon them. And the Command of Allah shall be fulfilled. (Q 33:37)

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, had adopted Zayd b. Ḥāritha (d. 8/629) when he was a child in Makka. In his commentary on Q 33:5, al-Qurṭubī provides details about this adoption as it was practiced during the Age of Ignorance (see Jāhiliyya):

The statement of Ibn ʿUmar (d. 74/693), “We did not call Zayd bin Ḥāritha except [by the name of] Zayd bin Muḥammad,” demonstrates that establishing consanguinity and mutual bonds through adoption was a normal practice during the Age of Ignorance and [the early days of] Islam until Allah abrogated it through His command Call them after their [real] fathers: that is more equitable in the sight of Allah. Allah annulled the old rulings about adoption (ḥukm al-tabannī) and prohibited the unqualified use of such terms and directed people, through this injunction, that it is more fair that adopted children be addressed after their biological fathers. It is said that during the Age of Ignorance, when someone admired the valor and wisdom of another, he would include him in his family and would fix his share in inheritance like that of a male son; and thus his pedigree would follow the one [who adopted him].(Tafsīr, sub Q 33:5)

To treat an adopted child like one’s “real” child meant, in legal terms, that the child was given a share in inheritance like that of a natural child; such a child was treated as unmarriageable in the immediate family (maḥram); and it was impermissible for the adoptive son to marry a woman after the adoptive father had been married to her (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrsub Q 33:37; see Inheritance and Patrimony). Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) states that the revelation of this passage does not prohibit affectionately calling another’s son “my son”, a fact amply supported by Prophetic practice. Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688) reports that during the Farewell Pilgrimage—which occurred, Ibn Kathīr observes, after the revelation of Q 33:4-5—the Prophet, upon him peace and blessings, “sent us, the children of ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib, ahead of others on donkeys and, patting our legs, said, ‘O my children, do not throw the stones (i.e., during the Ḥajj rite of stoning the pillars) before sunrise’” (Aḥmad, Musnad ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbbās b. ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib; Abū Dāwūd, Manāsik, al-taʿjīl min jamʿ; Ibn Mājah, Manāsik, man taqaddama min jamʿ ilā Mina li-ramyi l-jimār; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrsub Q 33:4-5). Likewise, Anas b. Mālik (d. 93/712) reported that the Prophet, upon him peace and blessings, affectionately called him “my son” (Muslim, Ādāb, jawāz qawlih li-ghayr ibnih Yā bunayya wa-stiḥbābih lil-mulāṭafa).

What was annulled was the ascription of parenthood to other than the real parents and there are strong warnings in Hadiths against knowingly misattributing lineage; it is described as tantamount to disbelief (Muslim, Īmān, iṭlāq ism al-kufr ʿalā-l-ṭaʿn fī-l-nasab wal-niyāḥat ʿalā-l-mayyit). Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ (d. 44/664) reported that the Prophet, upon him peace and blessings, said: “Paradise is forbidden to anyone who falsely and knowingly claims another as his father” (Bukhārī, Farāʾiḍ, man iddaʿā ilā ghayr abīh; Muslim, Īmān, bayān ḥāl īmān man raghiba ʿan abīh wa huwa yaʿlam). In another longer narration, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661) narrated from the Prophet, upon him peace and blessings: “If anyone claims as his father someone other than his [true] father, or attributes himself to someone other than his [true] patrons (mawālīh), the curse of Allah is on him, and that of the angels and all mankind. Neither repentance nor ransom will be accepted from him on the Day of Resurrection” (Muslim, Ḥajj, faḍl al-Madīna). The significance of this hadith, al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277) explains, is that misattributing lineage is a form of ingratitude with enormous legal consequences: it destroys rights of inheritance, clientship (see Clients), blood money, and the rights of blood relatives (q.v.) and parents (Sharḥ Muslim, Faḍl al-Madīna).

When Q 33:4 was revealed, Sahla bint Suhayl, the wife of Abū Ḥudhayfa, went to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and said: “Messenger of Allah, we used to call Sālim our son, but now Allah has sent down what He has sent down. He used to come to me [when I was alone] and now I feel that Abū Ḥudhayfa finds it unpleasant in his heart” (because Sālim was no longer a member of one's family with whom marriage would be considered haram). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “Breastfeed him; he will become a maḥram to you” (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrsub Q 4:24 and 33:4-5; for the hadith, see Muslim, Riḍāʾ, riḍāʿa al-kabīr). This was a special dispensation for the family of Abū Ḥudhayfa (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, Qawluh bāb al-ikfāʾ) (see Breastfeeding).


Abū Dāwūd. Sunan.

Aḥmad. Musnad.

Ālūsī. Rūḥ.

Azharī. Tahdhīb.

Bukhārī. Saḥīḥ.

Fayyūmī. Miṣbāḥ.

Ibn Ḥajar. Fatḥ al-bārī.

Ibn Kathīr. Tafsīr.

Ibn Mājah. Sunan.

Ibn Manẓūr. Lisān.

Muslim. Saḥīḥ.

Muqātil. Tafsīr.

Nawawī. Sharḥ Muslim.

Qurṭubī. Tafsīr.

Samʿānī. Tafsīr.

Zabīdī. Tāj.

Zamakhsharī. Kashshāf.

See also

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