Naseer Ahmad and Muzaffar Iqbal

The practice of assuming parenthood of another’s child. Adopted children are mentioned three times in the Madani Sūrat al-Aḥzāb (Q 33:4-5, 37). In Q 33:4 and 37, the word used for them is adʿiyāʾ, the anomalous plural of daʿī, from the root d-ʿ-w; eight forms of this root occur in the Qurʾān, 112 times in all. In Q 33:5, adopted children are the referent of the pronoun (-hum) in the phrase “call them”.

Definitions and Usage

The meanings of the root d-ʿ-w (verbal forms daʿā/yadʿū) include: 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). Daʿī is used both for a person who claims as his father, another who is not his 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). Al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143), al-Zabīdī (1145-1205/1732-1791), and al-Ālūsī (1217-1270/1803-1853) comment on the anomalous form of the plural, adʿiyāʾ: like other such words, including taqī/atqiyāʾshaqī/ashqiyāʾ, and ghanī/aghniyāʾ, whose plurals one might expect to follow the form faʿlā, it follows the form afʿilāʾ due to the literal similarity (al-tashbīḥ al-lafẓī) by which one term (adoptee, faʿīl in the passive sense of mafʿūl) is taken as another (adopter, faʿīl in the active sense of fāʿil) (Zabīdī, Tājsub d-ʿ-w; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf and Ālūsī, Rūḥsub Q 33:4).

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 lo, [Muḥammad,] you said unto him whom Allah had favored and you had favored, “Keep your wife to you, and fear Allah!” And you concealed within yourself what Allah was to reveal. And you feared people, although Allah has greater right that you fear Him. So when Zayd had come to the end of his claim on her [by divorcing her], We gave her to you in marriage, so that there should be no blame for the believers regarding the wives of their adopted sons after their claims upon them had ended. And Allah’s decree is ever accomplished. (Q 33:37)

Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) claims consensus among exegetes that the verse nor has He made those whom you call as sons your own sons… (Q 33:4) was revealed concerning Zayd b. Ḥāritha (d. 8/629), whom the Prophet had adopted while still in Makka, and his marriage to Zaynab bint Jaḥsh after she and Zayd had divorced (see Marriage and Divorce). ʿAbdullāh b. ʿUmar (8bh-73/614-693), may Allah be pleased with him and his father, said: “We did not call Zayd b. Ḥāritha (Zayd son of Ḥāritha) anything but Zayd b. Muḥammad (Zayd son of Muḥammad), until it was revealed in the Qurʾān Call them after their [real] fathers: that is more equitable in the sight of Allah” (Bukhārī, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān, udʿūhum li-ābāʾihim huwa aqsaṭ ʿinda Llāh; Muslim, Faḍāʾil, faḍāʾil Zayd b. Ḥāritha wa Usāma b. Zayd). Al-Qurṭubī provides further details regarding Zayd’s adoption:

According to Anas b. Mālik and others, Zayd b. Ḥāritha was captured in Syria by a group of people of the tribe of Tihāma. Ḥakīm b. Ḥizām b. Khuwaylid bought him [as a slave] and gifted him to his aunt, Khadīja, and Khadīja gave him to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, who freed him and adopted him as his son (tabannāhu). Zayd lived with him for a long time. Then [one day] his father and uncle came with ransom money to free him—and this was before the Mission of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. [The Prophet] said to them: “Allow him the freedom to choose. If he choose you, he is yours without ransom.” And Zayd chose slavery with Allah’s Messenger, upon him blessings and peace, instead of freedom with his people. Then Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, said: “People of Quraysh, bear witness that he is my son, my inheritor, and I am his inheritor.” And the Prophet went around the groups of the Quraysh and made them bear witness to this. Thereupon, Zayd’s father and uncle were pleased and returned [to whence they had come].

Tafsīr, sub Q 33:4

In his commentary on the next verse, al-Qurṭubī gives more details about adoption as it was practiced during the Age of Ignorance (see Jāhiliyya):

This [verse] was also revealed concerning Zayd b. Ḥāritha, as already mentioned. 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 ancient laws of adoption (ḥukm al-tabannī) and prohibited the unqualified use of such terms (i.e., calling foster-children by the name of their foster-parents) and directed people, through this injunction, that it is preferable and more fair that adopted individuals 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]. According to al-Naḥḥās, this verse is…[an example of] abrogation of Sunna by the Qurʾān.

Tafsīr, sub Q 33:5

Al-Samʿānī (d. 489/1095) writes that during the Age of Ignorance adopted sons were legally treated as natural sons; the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, had adopted Zayd b. Ḥāritha in the same manner—but Allah Most High annulled this practice (Samʿānī, Tafsīr, sub Q 33:4). The Qurʾān thus articulates a distinction between fostering, from which a different set of kinship relations and obligations ensues, and legal adoption, in which lines of inheritance and lineage incorporate someone else seamlessly (see Inheritance and Patrimony). To treat an adopted son like one’s “real” son meant, in legal terms, that he was given a share in inheritance like that of a natural son; he 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, Tafsīr, sub Q 33:37).

Al-Qurṭubī narrates from Qatāda (d. 117/735), the eminent Successor and exegete, that the Qurʾānic annulment of legal adoption did not stop individuals being commonly known by their adoptive fathers’ or former patrons’ names if they had come to be generally known by those names. For instance, Miqdād b. ʿAmr, who had been adopted by al-Aswad b. ʿAbd Yaghūth in the Age of Ignorance, continued to be known as Miqdād b. al-Aswad, even though after the revelation of these verses he declared, “I am [Miqdād] Ibn ʿAmr.” No one considered even deliberate usage of the previous name sinful; and the same was done with Sālim, the freedman of Abū Ḥudhayfa (d. 12/633), and some other people who had become known by the names of their adoptive fathers. That, however, was definitely not the case with Zayd b. Ḥāritha: deliberate usage of the name Zayd b. Muḥammad, seen not merely as incorrect but as an obstinate misattribution with legal consequences (including for the Prophet’s marriage to Zaynab), was regarded as sinful (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 33:4-5; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, Farāʾiḍ, idhā iddaʿat al-marʾa ibnan).

Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) states that 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 (q.v.)—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, on donkeys ahead of the others; 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, Tafsīr, sub 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).

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 legally considered part of the immediate family). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “Breastfeed him; he will become a maḥram to you” (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub 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).

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).

Finally, it should be noted that the Qurʾānic interdiction against legal adoption works in conjunction with its frequent exhortations to care and provide for orphans (e.g., Q 2:83; 76:8) and encouragement of fostering. In short, the Qurʾān nullified adoption as it was practiced in the Age of Ignorance, and instituted new legal and social practices which ensure that the fostered child retains his or her lineage; members of the adoptive family do not become blood relatives, and they therefore remain marriageable to him or her; and the child inherits from his or her biological parents. Property or wealth so received is held in trust by the adoptive family until the child reaches the age of maturity (cf. Q 4:2 and 6). 


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Aḥmad. Musnad.

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Bukhārī. Saḥīḥ.

Fayyūmī. Miṣbāḥ.

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Ibn Manẓūr. Lisān.

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Muqātil. Tafsīr.

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Zabīdī. Tāj.

Zamakhsharī. Kashshāf.

See also

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