Note: While not encompassing all national laws and differing opinions between madhabs, this article has been checked and verified by a scholar.
If only all difficult questions like these had easy answers.
When I came into Islam, I was struck by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. He is the most written-about man, even though he himself could not write. So much evil was done to him, yet he was the mercy to mankind and beyond. And despite a family of believers that would grow years after him, so much so that his name would be the most popular in the world, his ummah is full of orphans without homes.
If you count young children who are not completely liable before Allah ﷻ—those who have not reached puberty and are considered to be on the fitrah—then that number dramatically increases.
I wasn’t able to understand this at first. The evidence in both the Qur’an and Sunnah on caring for orphans are plentiful. We are encouraged to help them and reprimands are made to those who don’t (Qur’an 107:2, and Qur’an 89:17). The Prophet ﷺ said that, “I and the guardian of an orphan will be like these two,” and he held up his index and middle fingers close to each other. In the same hadith, Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him), also reported from the Prophet ﷺ, “The best house among the Muslims is the house in which orphans are well treated. The worst house among the Muslims is the house in which orphans are ill treated.” (Adab al-Mufrad 137)
Alhamdulillah, we’ve made orphan sponsorship easy. We are spoiled for choice, as many organizations will take zakat money to help orphans, or create a separate pool for general sadaqa towards their cause. However, there are not many available that allow for orphaned or abandoned Muslim children to be homed.
“Currently, there are no Muslim foster agencies in the United States,” said Afshan Zakaria, Outreach Coordinator for ICNA Relief’s Foster Advocacy, Training, and Education (FATE) program. However, there is one in Canada: Sakeenah.
In addition to licensed Muslim foster families, Afshan adds that there is a need for volunteers, advocates, and Court Appointed Special Advocates, known as CASAs. CASAs are a third party that advocate on behalf of the foster child, providing reports on their wellbeing to the state.
The research is also unsettling. Over 3,000 (Coventry University reports over 4,500) Muslim children are in the foster care system every year, however, a vast majority of them are not housed in Muslim families. And despite states like Michigan having one of the highest Muslim populations in the United States, it has a low number of families licensed to foster Muslim children. To give an alarming statistic, the London Central Mosque and Cultural Centre could only find four licensed foster carers for 44 Muslim children.
Which brings us back to the question: Why aren’t Muslims fostering?
While there might be many explanations, there are also many consequences. Our young believers are growing up without learning how to pray and without ever having heard a word of the Prophet ﷺ. Similarly, they are taking part in traditions that are not their own, religiously and culturally. In addition to their own traumas of neglect, abuse, and perhaps even war, they must now navigate life with a family that may not understand them, nor wish to.
While the reasons listed below are not all-encompassing, they provide some answers to the titular question, as well as potential solutions. Keep them in mind this National Foster Care Month and beyond.
With infertility being a leading cause of adoptions, many couples or individuals only adopt if they feel there is no other option to have children biologically. Within the early days of Islam, however, being able to have a child was never a barrier to taking one in.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that several of the pious predecessors had either fostered or been fostered. Our mother Aisha (may Allah ﷻ be pleased with her) raised orphans in her home. Imam al-Ghazali (may Allah ﷻ have mercy on him) along with al-Iraqi, ibn Hajar, and al-Suyuti were all orphaned at a young age. Imam Ahmad, Imam Shafi’i, and Imam Malik (may Allah ﷻ have mercy on them all) all lost their fathers when they were young. However, there was a system put in place which allowed them to become the great scholars they went on to be.
This occurrence was so common that there is even a term for it in Islamic law, across all four madhhabs: kefalah. This is a term that loosely translates to “fostering,” however, it does not have an exact equivalent in the West. While a Muslim family may legally adopt an orphan in a country like the United States in a secular sense, they can still technically partake in kefalah if they keep the orphan’s last name and keep a separate bank account from the rest of the family’s in accordance with kefalah.
A common assumption that CEO of Sakeenah, Zena Chaudhry, notices, is that most Muslims think that you would start at an orphanage. In places like Canada, however, there are no orphanages. Education is the first step, and information for the process is readily available on government websites as well as organizations like Sakeenah.
Laws vary from province to province and country to country, but there are general commonalities. In the state of Texas, for example, one must be financially stable and responsible, agree to a home study, complete background checks, and also attend free training provided by the government.
In addition to these requirements, there are also well-established support groups for foster families as well as adoptive parents. Veteran families and parents are honest in disclosing that the process can be long, but not necessarily complicated. And especially in Islam, we know that sometimes the most difficult things to do are often the most rewarding.
In his three-part video series, Dr. Omar Suleiman elaborates that there are only two things forbidden when it comes to fostering an orphan: erasing their lineage and taking from their wealth.
“Let your adopted children keep their family names. That is more just in the sight of Allah. But if you do not know their fathers, then they are ˹simply˺ your fellow believers and close associates. There is no blame on you for what you do by mistake, but ˹only˺ for what you do intentionally. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Qur’an 33:5]
“And do not approach the property of an orphan, except to improve it, until he reaches maturity. And fulfill [every] commitment. Indeed, the commitment will be] questioned.” [Qur’an 17:34]
“Indeed those who devour the property of orphans unjustly are only consuming fire. And they will be burned in a blazing fire.” [Qur’an 4:10]
These verses touch on punishment and accountability, and those concepts are certainly intimidating for any person of faith. I find a similarity between this hesitance and how some might view our dietary preferences (not restrictions!). A Muslim who eats halal meat only can still enjoy delicious vegetarian and vegan options. For those who simply don’t eat pork, they can also enjoy chicken, beef, veal, lamb, goat, fish, and more. One stop sign should not be a roadblock in doing a good deed.
Sometimes, we even make up prohibitions of our own. In many American states, for example, you don’t have to be married to foster a child. A lady can be single, divorced, or married. This is the same within Islamic law as well. So much so, that she can even foster an older male child as long as she can prevent khalwah, or if she is a much older woman. If she prefers, she can only foster female children. Foster care agencies will ask for your preferences.
Many married couples hesitate to foster because of a stipulation in Islamic law: mahramiyyah. Mahramiyyah has many definitions, but the summary of it is: whether you have to wear a hijab around someone.
Jokes aside, the term is used to establish whether or not someone is eligible for marriage. For example, a brother and sister could not get married. A male and female cousin, however, could get married. A common complication cited by a couple is that a foster mother would always need to wear hijab around her foster son, and could never touch him. A foster father would never be able to touch his foster daughter, and she would always have to wear hijab around him.
But this isn’t necessarily the case. When adopting a child that is younger than two years old, the foster mother would only need to feed that foster child some of her breastmilk, or the breastmilk of her sister or daughter. Some madhabs say that it only has to be one feeding, while others stipulate a few more.
For sisters who wish to feed a foster child themselves, induced lactation is available and permissible even to married sisters who aren’t pregnant, or single sisters who aren’t married. The process can be done via injection, pills, or other methods. Healthcare providers can assist well in advance of the adoption.
Also, one need not feed the child until they reach two years of age. Some madhabs say that it only has to be one feeding, while others stipulate a few more.
After a point where mahramiyyah is established, that child is considered to be part of the family. The Prophet ﷺ was even considered a brother to his uncle, Hamza (may Allah ﷻ be pleased with him) due to riḍāʿa, the term used to establish milk-siblings.
In terms of fostering older children, there are other concessions made to make the process easier, especially when the consequence is a Muslim child being forced into a non-Muslim home. Scholars stipulate that as long as measures are taken to avoid khalwah (isolation between the two non-mahrams), then an arrangement like this could be feasible.
I hesitate to use the term “expensive,” as I do not believe it is appropriate to measure a human life by how much money is required to sustain them.
Whether international or domestic, choosing to adopt a child will charge many fees. It truly takes a village: the cost of transportation back and forth, lawyers, social workers, law enforcement, the adoption or foster agency, doctors, mental health care providers, dentists, and education are all a part of this new life.
There are even some laws like one in the UK, where an adopted child must have a separate room. In a place like London, this is nearly impossible.
Coupled with the fact that many individuals are already struggling with their own care in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, budgeting enough time and money for this endeavor can be overwhelming.
I find it amazing that Allah ﷻ says:
“How many are the creatures that cannot secure their provisions! ˹It is˺ Allah ˹Who˺ provides for them and you ˹as well˺. He is indeed the All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” [Qur’an 29:60]
Grammatically, Allah ﷻ mentions that He provides for them, and then us. It is understandable that we would worry how we could take up such an amanah like this one—but I encourage us to ask ourselves, if Allah ﷻ was providing for the orphan before our care, wouldn’t he provide for them as well as ourselves, afterwards?
“She said, ‘If you adopt, then you aren’t my son.’”
This was the ultimatum that a potential spouse conveyed from his mother, after I had shared that I wanted to partake in kefalah. Her major concern at the time was what people would say and think; that something was wrong with her son, or with her would-be daughter-in-law.
The opinions of others will always come, regardless of your child being born from you or from someone else.
Take one example: schooling. The barrage of questions could be: “Why are you putting them in public school?” “Why not Islamic school?” “Why that Islamic school?” “Have you considered homeschooling?” “If you don’t homeschool, you’re a lazy mother.” “If you do, you’re separating them from a lot of opportunities.” “What about university?” “You should encourage them to go into medicine!” “No, not medicine! Engineering!” “When are they going to get their Masters?” “A Doctorate? Are they going to teach? That’s so expensive.”
At the end of the day, people can provide suggestions, commentaries, and criticisms, but just like someone knocking at a door, it’s you who can choose to let them in.
This statement comes from an understanding of another hadith in the Sunan of ibn Majah: “Marry, for I will boast of your great numbers.” “Great numbers” refers to the children that would be the outcome of a marriage.
However, this language is dangerous. What many people intend to say is: “it’s sunnah to have children biologically.” Is the sunnah better? Yes, without a doubt. It’s also a sunnah, though, to adopt children.
“Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but is the Messenger of Allah and the seal of the prophets. And Allah has ˹perfect˺ knowledge of all things.” [Qur’an 33:40]
Did you know that the Prophet ﷺ was known as Zayd ibn Haritha’s (may Allah ﷻ be pleased with him) father? So much so, Zayd was called “Zayd ibn Muhammad.” While we know from tafsir that the verse mentioned above is in reference to Zayd, and the prohibition of calling him “Zayd ibn Muhammad,” this impermissibility came years later, in the Madinan phase of the seerah.
It also tells us the relationship that the Prophet ﷺ had with children and caring for them. There is another narration in Bukhari’s Al-Kabir, where a boy lost his father in the battle of Uhud.
Reported by Bashir ibn Aqrabah, who said, “When my father, Aqrabah, was killed on the day of Uhud, I came to the Prophet ﷺ, and I was crying.”
So he said, “Oh beloved one! What makes you cry? Would it please you that I be your father, and ʿĀʾisha your mother?”
I said, “Of course, O Messenger of Allah ﷻ, by my father and mother!”
Then he patted my head, and years later, that part of my hair never grayed with age.
And I had an injury, so he cured it. And he said to me, “What is your name?”
So I responded, “Bahir.” He replied, “Rather, your name is now Bashir.”
Having never known his father, the Prophet ﷺ empathized with Bashir and made an effort to include him within his own family.
Even his cousin, Ali (may Allah ﷻ be pleased with him), was raised within the household of the Prophet ﷺ. His uncle, Abu Talib, had a large family, and Prophet ﷺ took Ali (may Allah ﷻ be pleased with him) in order to assist. Imagine his beautiful and blessed house before revelation: Zayd, Ali, Khadijah, and his biological daughters, Umm Kulthum, and Ruqayyah (may Allah ﷻ be pleased with them all.)
Many foster parents like Ranya Shbeib, co-founder of the Muslim Foster Care Association, says, “I felt that these children are no different than my own children, and I had an obligation to them.”
As the famous meme goes, why not both? Many of us think that having children will rule out the necessity of fostering. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Children are always looking for new playmates. In fact, some families plan to have their own children biologically so that when they do foster, they can be more aware of parenting another’s child. Parents also share that when another child enters the family, they don’t love the first child less, nor do they love the new child more. Their heart simply expands to contain the love for both.
Moreover, our parents want many things from us—for us to be doctors, to marry certain people, or to be a certain way. In some cases, for us not to practice Islam at all, or in a specific manner.
Ultimately, our parents deserve our respect and consideration in our life decisions. But having children is a very serious ordeal. You will be the one spending most of your time and tarbiyah with your children.
While mentioning this beautiful practice of the Prophet ﷺ, I feel that we should also bring up one of his sayings, recorded in Musnad Ahmad:
Abu Hurayra, may Allah ﷻ be pleased with him, reported: A man came to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, and he complained about the hardness of his heart. The Prophet ﷺ said, “If you want to soften your heart, feed the poor and pat the head of the orphan.”
Should your heart be open to this endeavor, we’ve included resources below for education, donation, advocacy, and perhaps, adoption.
If you don’t have the means to foster an orphan at this time, don’t worry, you can take on another piece of advice from the Prophet ﷺ: that whoever facilitates a good deed for someone else, will have the reward similar to it. [Riyadh al-Salihin]
May Allah ﷻ soften our hearts and open them to this endeavor.
Hannah Alkadi is a Lawful Good Social Media Master, starving writer, cat mom, and total nerd. She is 29 years old and lives in Dallas, TX. Her current project is the revival of her blog, “Social Media Free Sabil Allah,” helping nonprofit and for-profit owners navigate the wild, wild web.