Mus­lim or­phans caught be­tween Is­lam and the West

Ad­vo­cates call for a fresh look at re­li­gion’s law against adop­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - FROM PAGE ONE - BY RACHEL ZOLL

“At the end of the day, it’s about try­ing to find fam­i­lies for kids.”

— Helene Lauf­fer, as­so­ci­ate ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Spence-Chapin

Helene Lauf­fer knew that Mus­lim chil­dren — or­phaned, dis­placed, ne­glected — needed homes in the United States. She knew that Amer­i­can Mus­lim fam­i­lies wanted to take them in.

But Lauf­fer, as­so­ci­ate ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Spence-Chapin, one of the old­est adop­tion agen­cies in the coun­try, couldn’t bring them to­gether.

The prob­lem was a gap be­tween Western and Is­lamic law. Tra­di­tional, closed adop­tion vi­o­lates Is­lamic ju­rispru­dence, which stresses the im­por­tance of lin­eage. In­stead, Is­lam has a guardian­ship sys­tem called kafalah that re­sem­bles fos­ter care, and has no ex­act coun­ter­part in Western law.

The dif­fer­ences have left young Mus­lims with lit­tle chance of find­ing a per­ma­nent Mus­lim home in Amer­ica. So Lauf­fer sought out a group of fe­male Mus­lim schol­ars and ac­tivists, hop­ing they could at least start a dis­cus­sion among U.S. Mus­lims about how adop­tion and Is­lamic law could be­come com­pat­i­ble.

“At the end of the day, it’s about try­ing to find fam­i­lies for kids,” Lauf­fer said.

She isn’t alone in rais­ing the is­sue. As Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties be­come more es­tab­lished in the United States, pres­sure is build­ing for a re­ex­am­i­na­tion of Is­lamic law on adop­tion.

Refugee chil­dren from Afghanistan, Iraq and else­where are be­ing re­set­tled here. Mus­lim cou­ples who can’t con­ceive want to adopt but don’t want to vi­o­late their faith’s teach­ings. State child wel­fare agen­cies that per­ma­nently re­move Mus­lim chil­dren from trou­bled homes usu­ally can’t find Mus­lim fam­i­lies to adopt them be­cause of the re­stric­tions in Is­lamic law.

“I get all kinds of fam­i­lies who come to me for fer­til­ity is­sues. They want to adopt, and they want to adopt Mus­lim chil­dren, and I’m think­ing this is a crime that they can’t,” said Na­jah Bazzy, a nurse and founder of Za­man In­ter­na­tional, a hu­man­i­tar­ian ser­vice group in Dear­born, Mich. “No one is go­ing to con­vince me that Is­lam makes no al­lo­ca­tion for this. Ei­ther some­body is not in­ter­pret­ing it right, or it needs to be rein­ter­preted.”

Meant to end abuses

The pro­hi­bi­tion against adop­tion would ap­pear con­trary to the Ko­ran’s heavy em­pha­sis on help­ing or­phans. The prophet Muham­mad’s fa­ther died be­fore his son was born, so the boy’s grand­fa­ther and un­cle served as his guardians, set­ting an ex­am­ple for all Mus­lims to fol­low.

But Is­lamic schol­ars say the re­stric­tions were ac­tu­ally meant to pro­tect chil­dren by end­ing abuses in pre-Is­lamic Ara­bic tribal so­ci­ety.

In­grid Matt­son, a pro­fes­sor of Is­lamic stud­ies at Hart­ford Sem­i­nary in Con­necti­cut, said adop­tion in that pe­riod had more in com­mon with slav­ery. Men would take in a boy, then erase any ties be­tween the child and his bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily. The goal was to gather fight­ers as pro­tec­tion for the tribe. Or­phans’ prop­erty was of­ten stolen in the process.

As a re­sult, Mus­lims were barred from treat­ing adopted and bi­o­log­i­cal chil­dren as iden­ti­cal in nam­ing or in­her­i­tance, un­less the adoptee was breast­fed as a baby by the adop­tive mother, cre­at­ing a fa­mil­ial bond rec­og­nized un­der Is­lamic law.

Re­gard­ing mar­riage

When an or­phan reaches pu­berty, the Is­lamic pro­hi­bi­tion against mix­ing of the sexes ap­plies in­side the home of his or her guardians. Is­lamic law sets out de­tailed rules about who be­liev­ers can and can­not marry, and an or­phan taken in from an­other fam­ily would not au­to­mat­i­cally be con­sid­ered “un­mar­riage­able” to his sib­lings or guardians. Mus­lim men can­not be alone with women they could po­ten­tially marry, and women must cover their hair around such men.

For these rea­sons and oth­ers, Mus­lim coun­tries only rarely al­low in­ter­na­tional adop­tion.

“ There hasn’t been a con­certed push to open doors for Mus­lim or­phans be­cause the ex­pec­ta­tion would be that those ef­forts would fall flat,” said Chuck John­son, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional Coun­cil for Adop­tion, a pol­icy group in Alexan­dria.

Ad­vo­cates for a new in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lamic law are more hope­ful, at least about the prospect for a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the is­sue in the United States. Matt­son ar­gues that the flex­i­bil­ity in Is­lamic law for ac­com­mo­dat­ing lo­cal cul­tures and cus­toms can lead to a so­lu­tion.

Hope for open adop­tion

Open adop­tion, which keeps con­tact be­tween the adoptee and his bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily, is seen as one po­ten­tial an­swer. In New South Wales, Aus­tralia, child wel­fare of­fi­cials cre­ated an out­reach pro­gram to Mus­lims em­pha­siz­ing that Aus­tralian adop­tions are open and adopted chil­dren can re­tain their birth names.

The pro­gram is the only well­known adop­tion cam­paign tar­get­ing a Mus­lim mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tion in a Western coun­try.

The fe­male Mus­lim schol­ars Lauf­fer con­sulted in New York, who meet an­nu­ally as a shura (ad­vi­sory) coun­cil, tack­led the com­plex­i­ties of mod­esty rules in­side the home. They de­bated whether Mus­lim adoptees in the West could be con­sid­ered Is­lam­i­cally “un­mar­riage­able” to their sib­lings or guardians, since Western gov­ern­ments clas­sify adoptees the same as blood relatives.

The shura coun­cil will soon re­lease a state­ment on the is­sue through its or­ga­niz­ing body, the Women’s Is­lamic Ini­tia­tive in Spir­i­tu­al­ity and Equal­ity.

It’s un­clear how suc­cess­ful their ef­forts can be. There is no cen­tral author­ity in Is­lam to hand down a rul­ing on adop­tion. Mus­lims con­sult in­di­vid­ual schol­ars, or, in the United States, seek an opin­ion from an imam at their lo­cal mosque.

Cather­ine Eng­land, a Mus­lim who teaches in the Seat­tle area, adopted four chil­dren af­ter she and her hus­band learned they could have no chil­dren of their own. One of her chil­dren is an or­phan from Afghanistan. Two oth­ers are bi­o­log­i­cal sib­lings.

“I felt that my un­der­stand­ing — and this is en­tirely my un­der­stand­ing — is that what is for­bid­den in Is­lam is closed adop­tion,” said Eng­land, who con­verted to Is­lam more than three decades ago. She con­sulted a Mus­lim scholar who she said af­firmed her view.

Lauf­fer hopes to hear more sto­ries like Eng­land’s soon.


A group of Iraqi or­phans who lost their par­ents in sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence in Iraq. As refugee chil­dren from Afghanistan, Iraq and else­where re­set­tle in the United States, pres­sure is build­ing for a re­ex­am­i­na­tion of Is­lamic law on adop­tion.

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