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Where adoption is illegal

In Islamic lands, adoption is forbidden by Allah’s decree and Muhammad’s example


Where adoption is illegal
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Because Islam forbids adoption, a judge in Egypt recently ordered that a 4-year-old boy be taken from his Coptic Christian adoptive family, placing him in an orphanage and changing his Christian name (Shenouda) into a Muslim one (Youssef).

The tragedy stirred a huge debate among Egyptians as to why Islam forbids adoption and the reasons that this Christian family was forced to give away the boy they loved, raised, cherished, and nourished for four years.

Here is some background to the story:

A Coptic Christian couple couldn’t have their own biological children in their 29 years of marriage. In 2018, they found an abandoned baby inside a Coptic church in Cairo. The baby was just a few days old, and was likely abandoned because he was conceived out of wedlock—with the birthing mother unable to bear the societal shame and deciding to leave the baby at church to receive the needed care. When the couple found the baby abandoned inside the church, they “were elated to have the little boy to care for and bring up as their own; they applied for a birth certificate for him and gave him their name: Shenouda Farouq Fawzy Boulos.”

Things went smoothly for four years—as the baby found a home and the parents rejoiced in the gift sent their way from heaven—until one of their relatives intervened, fearing that the family’s inheritance would go to the new child and deprive others from it. This family member informed the authorities that Shenouda wasn’t a biological child of the parents and filed a lawsuit to deprive the family of the child and place him in one of the orphanages. Egyptian authorities took custody of Shenouda and placed him in an orphanage, declaring him Muslim and giving him a new Islamic name, Youssef, in accordance with a Sharia rule that children with no known parents are “assigned the Islamic faith by default.”

The heartbreaking tragedy left the adoptive parents devastated and Coptic Egyptians baffled: What is the basis for such inhumane treatment? And why does Islam prohibit adopting children?

The answers are in Islamic texts and Muhammad’s conduct.

According to Islamic law, adoption is forbidden, although sponsoring a child without adoption is permissible. But why does Islam forbid adoption?

Copts’ rights are determined by what Islam dictates.

In the early life of Muhammad, adoption was allowed, evidenced by the fact that Muhammad himself had an adopted son named Zayd, who married a beautiful woman named Zaynab. However, a sketchy situation occurred: In a meeting with Zaynab at her house, Muhammad began to have feelings for her and Allah knew his heart. Since Muhammad couldn’t marry his adopted son’s wife, Allah had to revoke the adoption, instruct Zayd to divorce her, and forbid adopting children henceforth.

This opened the way for Muhammad to marry Zaynab, and we are told that she “used to boast to the other wives of the Prophet and say: ‘Allah married me to him from above the Heavens.’” When Muhammad married Zaynab, the other wives were skeptical and uncomfortable. One of them complained to him, “It seems to me that your Lord hastens to satisfy your desire.”

Muhammad’s precedent drives Islamic laws regarding the abolishment of adoption in Islam. Muslim jurists—who form laws—cannot allow what Allah forbade. For 14 centuries, ordinary Muslims couldn’t practice adoption—arguably one of the most honorable and humane actions anyone can make. Moreover, in Muslim-majority countries—such as Egypt—non-Muslims cannot adopt children either, as the laws are shaped and derived by Islamic principles.

But this tragedy created a political problem for the regime in Egypt. With next year’s presidential election, the president cannot afford losing the loyal backing of Copts who make up between 10–20 percent of the population.

Consequently, last week “pressure” was placed on the Muslim religious institution—supervised by the government—to issue a religious fatwa (decree) to clear the situation and comfort the Copts. Thus, the prestigious Sunni university, Azhar, issued a religious ruling that since the baby was found in a church, he must be considered a Christian.

This ruling allows Shenouda to return to the Christian couple. They won’t be considered his adoptive parents, but merely his “caring” supporters, since the constitution of Egypt insists that the Islamic Sharia is “the principal source of legislation.”

Is this good news? Not too fast. This makes Egypt a religiously ruled country beyond most western imagination. Copts’ rights are determined by what Islam dictates. The government can take away what you have, or restore it to you when it pleases—all is by Islamic law.

What will happen to Shenouda, then?

For now, he returned to the Coptic couple; however, don’t call them his adoptive parents, but just his “caring” sponsors.

This tragedy is a testimony on societal calamities that can be traced directly to religious commands driven by Islamic precedents.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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