Muhammad Umar

The Qurʾānic terms referring to breastfeeding are derived from the root r-ḍ-ʿ, which carries the fundamental meanings of “to suck mother’s milk, to suckle a baby, to seek a foster mother” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Rāghib, Mufradāt; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Zabīdī, Tāj).

Definitions and Usage

Five derived forms of the root r-ḍ-ʿ occur eleven times in five suras, one of which (Q 28) is Makkan:

  1. six times as various forms of the Form-IV verb (arḍaʿa/yurḍiʿu), “to suckle, to breastfeed, to nurse” (Q 2:233; 4:23; 22:2; 28:7; 65:6 x2);
  2. once as the Form-X verb istarḍaʿa, “to seek to suckle, to seek for breastfeeding” (Q 2:233: if you seek to engage a wet nurse for your children);
  3. once as the feminine Form-IV noun murḍiʿa, “one who is breastfeeding a baby”; the woman whose breast is in the mouth of a baby (Azharī, Tahdhīb) (Q 22:2: every nursing woman will forget her nursling);
  4. once as marāḍiʿ, the plural of both murḍiʿa and the noun marḍaʿ, “breast-feeders, foster mothers” in Q 28:12, And We had already forbidden him to be suckled by foster mothers, referring to infant Mūsā whom Allah Most High caused to refuse suckling by any woman other than his own mother (Rāzī, Tafsīr), so that he could be reunited with her as foretold in Q 28:7; and
  5. twice as the feminine noun raḍāʿa, the suckling (Q 2:233; 4:23).

Of the six verses, three (Q 2:233; 4:23; 65:6) refer to legal matters pertaining to breastfeeding, one (Q 22:2) to the horrors and severity of the Day of Resurrection, and two (Q 28:7, 12) to the infancy of the Prophet Mūsā, upon him peace. Weaning (fiṣāl) is mentioned in Q 31:14 (his weaning is in two years) and Q 46:15 (We have enjoined man to be kind to his parents. In pain did his mother bear him and in pain did she give birth to him; and his bearing and weaning is in thirty months). The first section of this entry focuses on certain legal aspects of breastfeeding discussed in juristic and exegetical literature within the context of two verses about divorce which precede Q 2:233; for other aspects of breastfeeding, such as mutual bonding of mother and baby through breastfeeding, spiritual dimensions of breastfeeding, and the like, see Love; Parents; Rights and Claims.

Breastfeeding: Legal Issues

Jurists and exegetes discuss several legal issues derived from Q 2:233, 4:23, and 65:6 and related Prophetic traditions. Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) explains eighteen different issues arising out of Q 2:233 alone (Tafsīr). This entry focuses on the following five; for others, fiqh manuals should be consulted: (i) who is responsible for nursing a child; (ii) its duration; (iii) its payment; (iv) prohibiting harm to the parent of a suckling child; and (v) the conditions of milk-kinship.

Responsibility: Q 2:233 is the locus classicus for juristic and exegetical discussions with regard to the legal responsibilities in reference to breastfeeding: And let mothers nurse their children for two full years, for those who desire to complete the term of suckling. It falls upon the father to provide for them and clothe them according to the well-known honorably. No soul is tasked beyond its capacity. Let no mother be harmed on account of her child, nor father on account of his child. And the like shall fall upon the heir. If both decide, by mutual consent and counsel, to wean the child, there is no blame on them. And if you wish to have your children wet-nursed, there is no blame upon you if you pay honorably that which you give. And fear Allah and know that Allah sees whatsoever you do.

Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Qāsim b. Muḥammad b. al-Mufaḍḍal Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. 502/ca.1108) explains that although it is grammatically structured as a general predicate (khabar), let mothers nurse their children is actually an injunction (amr), for if it were a predicate, what actually happens would not be contrary to it (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:233). In other words, since it is obvious that not all mothers suckle their children for two years, this verse is about certain legal responsibilities within the context of married and divorced women in the preceding two verses. For instance, jurists and exegetes say two full years refers to the maximum duration for which the father is responsible for the material support to the nursing mothers (al-wālidāt) in an honorable manner (biʾl-maʿrūf), meaning in accordance with his means, and the reference to the harm to either parent on account of the child means that the father should not keep the child away from the mother who wants to nurse, nor should the mother refuse nursing (Ṭabarī; Qurṭubī, Tafsīrs). Jurists and exegetes agree that so long as the father is alive, he must pay for the maintenance of the mother—or a wet-nurse, if mother’s milk is not available—, but they differ regarding the identity of the heir who has obligations similar to the father in case of father’s death. Abū al-Faraj Jamāl al-Dīn Ibn al-Jawzī (508-597/ca.1116-1201), Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) and al-Qurṭubī provide a range of juristic opinions about the heir: it may refer to heirs of the deceased, male relatives through the male line, any close relative, or the child, meaning what the child has inherited from the father. In case no support is available from these sources or is insufficient, then the responsibility falls upon the broader community or the state (Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād; Rāzī and Qurṭubī, Tafsīrs).

Duration: Jurists do not specify any obligatory minimum duration of breastfeeding because the phrase mothers shall nurse their children for two whole years is followed by the clause if they wish to complete the term of nursing. Furthermore, the verse also states that if both decide by mutual consent and counsel to wean the child, there is no blame on them; hence there is no obligatory minimum duration of nursing (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:233). Three related issues are discussed by jurists and exegetes: (a) duration of breastfeeding in case the parents disagree; (b) breastfeeding beyond two years; and (c) the duration that establishes milk-kinship (ḥurmat al-raḍāʿa) (see section below: Milk-kinship).

In the case of a dispute between parents as to how long the child should be nursed (e.g. the father wishes to wean the child earlier), the period will be set as two years (Rāzī, Tafsīr). If the mother is being compensated for suckling the child, the father has to pay her for the full two years (al-Bayhaqī, Aḥkām 2:104). If both parents agree to wean the child before two years and the child’s health is not at stake, they may do so (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar). Al-Rāzī says that counsel here means “by consulting experts”, keeping in view the interests of the child (Tafsīr) (see Consultation).

Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. ca.502/1108) considers the duration of two years’ nursing a limit that can be met but not exceeded (Tafsīr). Ibn ʿAbbās and ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar (d. 73/693), Allah be well-pleased with them, said “there is no nursing beyond two years.” When ʿAlqama (d. ca.61 or 62/681 or 682) saw a woman nursing beyond two years, he told her to stop (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2: 232). According to the Ḥanbalī school, however, the duration of nursing can be extended for six months or a little more beyond two years (Buhūtī, Kashshāf, faṣl wa-tajibu nafaqat ẓiʾr).

Payment: Exegetes and jurists discuss two possibilities with regard to compensation for nursing, dependent on whether the nursing woman is the mother of the child or a wet nurse. They agree that the mother has the first right to suckle the infant, but whether she may take money for it depends on her marital status. According to the Ḥanafī and Mālikī schools, she cannot be compensated for nursing so long as she is married (Sarakhsī, Mabsūṭ, Ijārat al-ẓiʾr, 15:128; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf 4:559; Saḥnūn, Mudawwana, mā jāʾa fīl-ḥukmayn, 2:305;). According to the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools, the mother may take compensation for suckling whether married or divorced, because they consider breastfeeding not to be an obligation on her (Nawawī, Majmūʿ, Ijāra, 15:29; Buhūtī, Kashshāf, faṣl wa-tajibu nafaqat al-ẓiʾr, 5:487). Q 65:6 specifies that if women are divorced while pregnant, then the fathers must provide for them maintenance until they have delivered their burden. And if they suckle your offspring whom they bore you, then give them due recompense, and graciously settle the question of compensation between yourselves by mutual understanding. But if you experience difficulty, then let another woman suckle [the child]. ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl b. ʿUmar Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) highlights the message of the verse by saying that the father and mother should not haggle over the payment but should be generous: after all, they are the parents of the child. If the mother demands as much as but not more than a wet-nurse, she has the first right of nursing (Tafsīr, sub Q 65:6). The father should pay according to his material standing: Let the man of plenty expend out of his plenty. As for him whose provision is stinted to him, let him expend of what Allah has given him. Allah charges no soul save with what He has given it; Allah will surely grant ease after hardship  (Q 65:7). Propriety demands that the compensation should at least cover her food and clothing (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:233). If the nursing woman is not the mother of the child—whether the mother cannot or refuses to nurse––or if she demands more compensation than would a reasonable wet-nurse, then the amount of payment should be settled beforehand (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:233);

Prohibition of harm: Q 2:233 includes the phrase neither shall a mother be made to suffer because of her child, nor, because of his child, he who has begotten [the child]; exegetes specify various forms of harm parents (especially if divorced) might inflict on one another through their mutual connection to the child (cf. Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar). For instance, the mother might demand exorbitant maintenance and compensation for nursing; she might prevent the father from seeing the child by moving to another city; she may refuse to suckle the child even though the father cannot afford to hire a wet-nurse or none is available (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). The father might refuse to give the right of nursing to the mother, even when she only asks for compensation similar to other wet-nurses; he might take the child away from a mother who cannot nurse, instead of securing a wet-nurse to come to the mother (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām al-Qurʾān);

Milk-kinship: Milk-kinship is mentioned in Q 4:23, which establishes the boundaries of possible marital relationships: Forbidden to you are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your fathers’ sisters, and your mothers’ sisters, your brothers’ daughters, your milk-mothers, your milk-sisters, the mothers of your wives, and the stepdaughters—who are your foster-children, born of your wives with whom you have consummated marriage; but if you have not consummated marriage, there will be no blame upon you. It is also forbidden for you to take the wives of the sons who have sprung from your loins, or to take two sisters together in marriage, except for what happened in the past. Surely Allah is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate.

Although only two milk-relations (mothers and sisters) are mentioned in the verse, they act paradigmatically so that the marriage restrictions regarding one’s kin (ṣilat al-arḥām) (see Kindred) apply similarly to milk-kin—although some relations are exempted from this general rule (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, wa-yaḥrumu min al-raḍāʿ mā yaḥrumu min al-nasab; Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ, faṣl fī-l-muḥarramāt bil-raḍāʿa, 4:4; Mawāq, Tāj, Raḍāʿ, fī arkān al-raḍāʿ wa-man yaḥrumu bih wal-raḍāʿ al-qāṭiʿ lil-nikāḥ, 5:537). This verse, as well as Prophetic Hadith on the subject provide basis for establishing milk-relations. An oft-cited hadith in juristic works is the suggestion of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/660), Allah be pleased with him, to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, to marry the daughter of Ḥamza b. ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib Allah be well-pleased with him. The Prophet responded, “Do you not know that Ḥamza is my milk-brother, and that Allah Most High has forbidden, due to milk-relationship, whatever He forbade due to blood relationship?” (al-Shāfiʿī, al-Umm, mā yaḥrum min al-nisāʾ bil-qarāba, 5:24; the hadith is cited in both Bukhārī and Muslim: “She is not permissible to me. Breastfeeding prohibits whatever lineage prohibits; she is the daughter of my milk-brother” (Bukhārī, Shahādāt, al-shahāda ʿalā al-ansāb, wal-raḍāʿ al-mustafīḍ wal-mawt al-qadīm; Muslim, Raḍāʿ, taḥrīm al-raḍāʿa min māʾ al-faḥl).

There is a difference of opinion about the maximum age at which nursing establishes milk-kinship, thereby making children from different parents nursed by the same woman unmarriageable to each other. The majority opinion sets this at two years on the basis of Q 2:233 and Q 31:14 (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 31:14). According to Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150/767), however, the age within which milk-kinship can be established is thirty months; he basis his opinion on Q 46:15 (We have enjoined man to be kind to his parents. In pain did his mother bear him and in pain did she give birth to him, and his bearing and weaning are [a duration of] thirty months), as well as on the opinion of certain Companions (Sarakhsī, Mabsūṭ and Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām, sub Q 2:233). Imam Mālik b. Anas (93-179/711-795) defines this age as two years in his Muwaṭṭaʾ (Raḍāʿa, raḍāʿat al-ṣaghīr) but he is cited in al-Mudawwana (2:298) as setting it at two years and two months, on condition that the child has not become accustomed to eating food within this time (Ibn ʿArafa, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:233). Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), Allah be well-pleased with him, considered it to be twenty-one months (cf. Tafsīrs of Rāzī and Qurṭubī, sub Q 2:233). All legal schools agree that milk-kinship is not established after infancy, despite an exceptional ruling to this effect by ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her. The majority opinion is based on the hadith of the Prophet, who said, “Only that breastfeeding entails milk-kinship which fills the belly and which is before weaning” (Tirmidhī, Sunan, Abwāb al-raḍāʿ, mā jāʾa  anna al-raḍāʿa lā tuḥarrimu illā fīl-ṣighar dūna al-ḥawlayn, rated ṣaḥīḥ; see Tafsīrs of Rāzī and Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 2:233 and 4:23).

The legal schools differ regarding how many times a child must suckle to establish milk-kinship:

  • Even one suckling is sufficient, for Q 4:23 is a general framework and does not provide a minimum limit (reported from Ibn ʿUmar, and held by the schools of Mālik and Abū Ḥanīfa; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr);
  • Three sucklings is the minimum, for a hadith states explicitly “one or two sucklings do not make [marriage] forbidden” (Muslim, Nikāḥ, fī-l-maṣṣa wal-maṣsatayn) (reported by several Companions including ʿAlī, ʿĀʾisha, and Umm al-Faḍl, among others and held by Abū Thawr, Ibn al-Mundhir, and Dāwūd al-Ẓāhirī. It is one of the opinions quoted from Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, although he prefers the opinion of five sucklings: Ibn Qudāma, al-Sharḥ al-kabīr, Raḍāʿ 9:199-200; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:233);
  • Five sucklings is the minimum (held by Aḥmad Ibn Hanbal and al-Shāfiʿī). This opinion is based on two proof-texts. The first is a hadith of ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her, who said, “Amongst what was revealed in the Qurʾān was ‘ten known sucklings make [marriage] forbidden’; but it was later abrogated by [the verse mentioning] ‘five known sucklings’; and when the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, died, it was [still] among what was recited from the Qurʾān” (Muslim, Raḍāʿ, taḥrīm bi-khams raḍaʿāt). But al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277) clarifies that the recitation of “five known sucklings” was also abrogated, although news of it did not spread before the Prophet’s death, and some people still considered it to be an inherent recited part of the Qurʾān (Qurʾānan matluwwan) (Sharḥ Muslim, Raḍāʿ, al-taḥrīm bi-khams raḍaʿāt); but the majority of scholars hold that any suckling, whether fewer than five times or more than five, establishes milk kinship (Baghawī, Sharḥ al-Sunna, 9:82). The second proof lies in Sahla bint Suhayl, the wife of Abū Hudhayfa b. ʿUtba b. Rabīʿa (d. 12/634), being ordered by the Prophet to breastfeed their adopted son Sālim five times in order to establish milk kinship after the revelation of Q 33:4-5—verses which reconfigured the adoption practices of the Age of Ignorance (see Jāhiliyya) (Mālik, Muwaṭṭaʾ, Raḍāʿ, mā jāʾa fīl raḍāʿa baʿd al-kibar; al-Shāfiʿī, Musnad, wa-min kitāb ikhtilāf Mālik wal-Shāfiʿī  raḍiya Allāhu ʿanhumā) (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 4:23). Although ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her, considered this to be a general provision establishing milk-kinship (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:233), other wives of the Prophet, as well as many Companions, considered this a special dispensation for Sahla alone (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām, and Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 2:233; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, qawluh bāb man qāla lā raḍāʿ baʿda ḥawlayn). 

Other References

Based on Q 31:14 (And We have enjoined upon man goodness toward his parents; his mother bore him by bearing strain upon strain, and his weaning is in two years. Be grateful to Me and to your parents; and to Me shall be your ultimate return) and Prophetic teachings, the mother’s claim upon her children is considered to be higher than that of the father (see Rights and Claims). When asked, “Who among people is most deserving of excellent treatment (iḥsān) on my part?” the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, thrice replied: “Your mother.” Upon being asked a fourth time, he replied: “Your father” (Bukhārī, Adab, man aḥaqq al-nās bi-ḥusn al-ṣuḥba; Muslim, al-Birr wal-ṣila wal-adāb, birr al-wālidayn wa-annahumā aḥaqqu bih). In his commentary on the hadith, Ibn Baṭṭāl (d. 449/1057) said, “In this hadith is the proof that the mother deserves three times more love and compassion than the father. (…), because she bears the pains of pregnancy, then of delivery, then she breastfeeds, which differentiates her from the father; and then she shares with the father the burden of raising the child (Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, sub hadith).

Breastfeeding is mentioned twice (Q 28:7, 28:12) in the chronicle of the life of Mūsā, upon him peace, as it became the means for his return to his mother. He was born in a year in which every male baby born to the Children of Isrāʾīl was being killed by the order of Pharaoh (see Firʿawn), but his mother was instructed by Allah Most High to nurse him, but if you fear for him, then cast him into the river, and fear not, nor grieve. Surely We shall bring him back to you and make him one of the messengers (Q 28:7). He was picked up the House of Pharaoh (Q 28:8), but “Allah Most High caused the infant Mūsā to refuse suckling by any woman other than his mother” (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 28:12). His sister then asked the people of the household of Pharaoh, “Shall I direct you to the people of a house who will take care of him for you and treat him well?” And this is how he was returned to his mother (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). “That was the Divine plan by which Allah reunited Mūsā, upon him peace, with his mother (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr).

Sūrat al-Ḥajj opens with a reminder and a warning: O humankind, be conscious of your Lord. Verily the violent convulsion (zalzala) of the Hour will be tremendous. On the Day when you witness it, every suckling woman shall utterly neglect the infant she suckles, and every pregnant woman shall cast down her burden, and you will see people as though they are drunk, although they will not be drunk—but vehement will be the chastisement of Allah (Q 22:1-2). The mother’s neglect of the suckling infant demonstrates the intense horror of that Day—a Day “when the pregnant women will drop their fetuses and children will become gray-haired” (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr).


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See also

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