Adoption in Islam : The Story of Prophet Muhammad's Marriage to Zaibnab Bint Jahsh
20 No. 2005
Adoption in Islam
Islam prohibits adopting children. Period. Adoption in the technical sense is not allowed in Muslim Shariah law. This is because Allah does not like this gesture of adopting orphan children. Muhammad Rushed Ridha states, "Allah prohibited adoption in Islam and annulled all the judgements pertaining to adoption. The most important one of which was the prohibition of the wife of the adopted son to the fostering father as though he is the natural father. So Allah commanded his prophet to marry Zainab Bint Jahsh in order to abolish pagan custom (Fatawa al-Imam)." Al-sabuni states, "As to Zainab Bint Jahsh, the Messenger of Allah married for no higher wisdom than to abolish the heresy of adoption (A-sabuni)."
I don't know, how in the world Allah could dislike such noble deeds. I am not sure what percentage of Muslims actually knows this divine law. I do admit that I never knew this and, I was stunned when I first learnt this from a real Mullah. How and why was this noble custom among human being prohibited? We shall learn this history later in this essay.
Pre-Islamic Arab Custom: Adoption of orphan/helpless child was a very popular and moral practice amongst pre-Islamic Arabs. By adopting orphan/helpless child, they used to consider adopted child as their own. And they used to pass onto them the adopter's genealogy and name, his investment of them with all the rights of the legitimate son including that of inheritance and the prohibition of marriage on grounds of consanguinity.
Post-Islamic Custom: The all-wise legislator of Islam willed to undo the above mentioned Arab practice of adopting children. The divine legislator willed to give the adopted son only the right of a client and co-religionist. For that reason a verse was revealed: "God did not make your adopted son as your own sons. To declare them so is your empty claim. God's word is righteous and constitutes true guidance. (Q.33: 4)." It follows from this revelation that the adopter may marry the ex-wife of his adopted son and vice-versa. Thus Muhammad married Zainab in order to provide a good example of what the All-wise legislator was seeking to establish by way of rights and privileges for adoption. In this regard God further said: "After a term of married life with her husband, We permitted you to marry her so that it may hence be legitimate and morally blameless for a believer to marry the wife of his adopted son provided that wife has already been divorced. That is God's commandment which must be fulfilled (Q.33: 37)." Who, among the Arabs, could implement this noble legislation and thereby openly repudiate the ancient traditions? The truth is, however, that Muhammad was the exemplar of obedience to God; his life was the implementation of that which he was entrusted to convey to mankind. His life constitutes the highest ideal, the perfect example, and the concrete instance of his Lord's command (M.H. Haykal, page-296-297).
Those who are Muslims and are obedient to the Qur'an will not have adopted sons.
Muhammad's Marriage to Zainab Bint Jashsh
Muhammad's marriage to Zainab, who was the wife of his adopted son, led to many accusations against Muhammad. The dissimulators said, "Muhammad prohibits the wives of the son while he himself marries the wife of his son Zaid." These incidents are not in harmony with the ethics and conventions that Muhammad introduced to mankind, as Muslims claim. Abdullah Ibn Umar narrated: "We have always called him [namely Zaid] Zaid Ibn Muhammad." Abdullah Ibn Umar said, "We only called him Zaid Ibn Muhammad till the verse "Muhammad is not the father of any of your men' was revealed.""
Historical views: There are many conflicting stories about this scandalous happening and all these stories are based on Sahih Hadiths and Muslim biographies and books. It is worthwhile to quote here what Ibn Sa`d and al-Tabari said concerning this story:
Muhammad Ibn Yahya Ibn Hayyan narrated, "The Messenger of God came to Zaid Ibn Haritha's house seeking him. Perhaps the Messenger of God missed him at that time, that is why he said, 'Where is Zaid?' He went to his house seeking him and, when he did not find him, Zainab Bint Jahsh stood up to [meet] him in a housedress, but the Messenger of God turned away from her. She said, 'He is not here, Messenger of God, so please come in; my father and mother are your ransom.' The Messenger of God refused to come in. Zainab had hurried to dress herself when she heard that the Messenger of God was at her door, so she leapt in a hurry, and the Messenger of God liked her when she did that. The heart of the Prophet was filled with admiration for her He went away muttering something that was hardly understandable but for this sentence: 'Praise be to God who disposes the hearts.' When Zaid came back home, she told him that the Messenger of God came. Zaid asked, 'You asked him to come in, didn't you?' She replied, 'I bade him to, but he refused.' He said, 'Have you heard [him say] anything?' She answered, 'When he had turned away, I heard him say something that I could hardly understand. I heard him say, "Praise be to God who disposes the hearts." ' Zaid went out to the Messenger of God and said, 'O Messenger of God, I learned that you came to my house. Did you come in? O Messenger of God, my father and mother are your ransom. Perhaps you liked Zainab. I can leave her.' The Messenger of God said, 'Hold on to your wife.' Zaid said, 'O Messenger of God, I will leave her.' The Messenger of God said, 'Keep your wife.' So when Zaid left her, she finished her legal period after she had isolated herself from Zaid. While the Messenger of God was sitting and talking with `A'Lisha, he was taken in a trance, and when it lifted, he smiled and said, 'Who will go to Zainab to tell her that God wedded her to me from heaven?' The Messenger of God recited; 'Thus you told someone whom God had favoured and whom you yourself have favoured: "Hold on to your wife." ' `A'Lisha said, 'I heard much about her beauty and, moreover, about how God wedded her from heaven, and I said, "For sure she will boast over this with us." ' Salama, the slave of the Messenger of God, hurried to tell her about that. She gave her some silver jewellery that she was wearing."
More help from Allah:
So, this charge that the dissimulators, among others, leveled against Muhammad (pbuh) necessitated the revelation of more Qur'anic verses:
(Sura al-Ahzab Q.33: 40): "Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but [he is] God's Messenger and the Seal of the Prophets. God is Aware of everything!"
(Sura al-Ahzab Q.33: 37): "We married her off to you so that there would be no objection for believers in respect to their adopted sons' wives once they have accomplished their purpose with them. God's command must be done!"
In the verse (33:37) there is stated a particular purpose for this revelation and action of Muhammad. It is not for himself, but it is for the future of the Muslim community. It is so that in future there may not be a problem if anybody (father-in-law) wants to marry the divorced wife of an adopted son. "We permitted you to marry her so that it may hence be legitimate and morally blameless for a believer to marry the wife of his adopted son." Without adoption, there cannot be any adopted son either. Therefore, the explicitly stated reason for the revelation of this verse does not exist. Muhammad himself dissolved the original adoption of Zaid when the above revelation came. Also, it is a mystery why in the world, any father-in law will need to marry his adopted son's wife.
Critical (Orientalist) version:
Muhammad fell in love with Zainab, daughter of Jahsh, while she was the wife of Zayd bin Harithah, his own adopted son. Once, when he passed by the house of Zayd in the latter's absence, he was met by Zainab wearing clothes which exposed her beauty. Muhammad's heart was inflamed. It is reported that when his eyes fell upon her, he exclaimed, "Praise be to God who changes the hearts of men" and he repeated this expression at the time of his departure from her home. Zainab heard him say this and noticed desire in his eye. Zainab proudly reported this happening to her husband. Zayd immediately went to see the Prophet and offered to divorce his wife. Muhammad answered, "Hold to your wife and fear God." Thereafter, Zainab was no longer a docile wife and Zayd had to divorce her. Prophet Muhammad married Zainab Bint Jahsh who was his daughter-in-law. That was definitely taboo in pre-Islamic Arabia, and the Prophet of Islam lifted this taboo in order to satisfy his own lust and fulfill his own desire. They also relate that when Muhammad saw her she was half-naked, that her fine black hair was covering half of her body, and that every curve of her body was full of desire and passion. Others relate that when Muhammad opened the door of the house of Zayd the breeze played with the curtains of the room of Zainab, thus permitting Muhammad to catch a glimpse of her stretched out on her mattress in a nightgown.
Muhammad Husain Haikal, for one, in the course of "refuting" the claims of V. Vacca in the Encyclopaedia of Islam regarding Zainab, speaks about a "glorious deed" of Muhammad, which the orientalists and missionaries have turned into a romance. He says, "As to Zainab Bint Jahsh, who has been wrapped up by orientalists and missionaries in an imaginary picture of romance and infatuation, true history judges that [Muhammad's act with] her was one of the glorious deeds of Muhammad. Being the perfect example of faith, he applied to her the Hadith that says, 'Man's faith is not made perfect till he loves for his brother what he loves for himself'.
Apologists conclude that it is one of the truly great facets of Muhammad's personality. It proves beyond question that Muhammad was the perfect exemplar of his own legislation, especially of such laws as were intended to replace the tradition and customs of pre-Islamic Arabia. He was the exemplar of the new system that God revealed through him as a mercy and guidance to mankind.
On the other hand, Arab custom and tradition demanded that the adopted son inherit from his adopted father, like the latter's legitimate children. And since this custom too was the object of Muhammad's attack, his choice of Zayd as the spear point of the first reform, would actually make of him -- if he were prepared to give up the inheritance to which Arabian custom gave him title -- the spearhead of another Islamic legislation prohibiting inheritance to any but the blood heirs and relatives of the deceased. This indeed furnished the revelation: "No believer, whether man or woman, has the freedom to choose otherwise than as God and His Prophet have resolved in any given case. To do so is to disobey God and His Prophet, to err and fall into manifest misguidance (Q.33: 37)"
There is a considerable moral problem with such a self-serving revelation. It is quite clear that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was attracted to Zainab before Zaid divorced her and it might well have been the true reason for the divorce itself. And Qur'anic verses do make clear that there was something going on before Zaid divorced Zainab. The entire melodrama: Zaid's divorce of Zainab, Muhammad's marriage with Zainab and subsequent revelations of several Qur'anic Ayats from Allah to purify this scandalous happening is something to ponder very seriously. There is more in this strange story. That this action is immoral and this revelation/justification of it self-serving and not fitting for a true word of God is an important aspect, but not a contradiction within the Quran - even though contradicting the true character of God, who is moral purity. Prohibiting adoption is no way a moral action. Prohibitions of alcohol drinking, smoking, gambling, sorceries, killing, etc., could be a moral action. But why was there prohibition of adoption?
To summarize, the logical difficulty is that Allah (?) causes a scandal and then sends Gabriel to officially justify the scandalous action of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with Qur'anic revelations is morally incorrect and too much of a coincidence.
Some after thoughts: Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) cannot get away from the culpability of this salacious behavior of his with Zainab. If he had this forthrightness in his mind, he would have vigorously fight with his conscience and not allow this marriage to go through. But the reality was quite the opposite. He had surrendered to his passion and thus had marred his "unblemished" character. If all the Muslims in the present-day world follow Muhammad's inglorious example, seduce theirs daughter-in-law, and then cause a divorce and then to add insult to the injury marry her, what would happen then? Just think the consequences. In more enlightened society if a man does what Mohammad (pbuh) did with Zainab he would be looked up as a lascivious character. Not all the Qur'anic Ayats of this world will be able to change that. To have faith is one thing, but to have a blind faith is another matter, altogether!
Addendum: Adoption - Islamic Style
1. Holy Qur'an , translated by A,.
Yousuf Ali, Amana corp., 1983
2. The life of Muhammad By: M. H. Haykal, 8th ed. 1982
3. Annals of al-Tabari 2:563, 453
4. ibid 4:43
5. Fatawa al- Imam, 5:1910
6. Tabaqat, 8:103
7.Nisa' al-Nabi, 13th ed.
Syed Kamran Mirza is the author of Roots of Terrorism in Islam. He has also contributed in Beyond Jihad — Critical Voices from Inside Islam and Leaving Islam — Apostates Speaks Out. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.