Muslim orphans caught between Islam and the West

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.
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. (Khalid Mohamed/agence France-presse Via Getty Images)
By Rachel Zoll
Sunday, January 2, 2011

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 breast-fed as a baby by the adoptive mother, creating a familial bond recognized under Islamic law.


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