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March 29, 2008

Encouraging Adoption Pakistan and the Muslim World

By Saleem H. Ali

As the presidential race heats up in the United States, there is a little-known fact about one of the presidential contenders that Pakistanis should consider with greater care. Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for President has seven children, which is a common family size in rural Pakistan. However, Mr. McCain’s youngest child Bridget stands out as phenotypically quite different from the rest of his progeny as she was adopted from an orphanage in Bangladesh and brought to the United States in 1991. Bridget had a heart defect and her parents had abandoned her at one of the orphanages led by the late Sister of Charity and Nobel laureate, Mother Theresa’s network. The McCains adopted the child and paid for all her medical treatment and she is now a pivotal part of their family.

During the primary in South Carolina, this noble deed sadly became a point of contention among some of the voters who continued to have a residual racial prejudice. In a recent interview, McCain described the situation as follows: “A lot of phone calls were made by people who said we should be very ashamed about her, about the color of her skin. Thousands and thousands of calls from people to voters saying ‘You know the McCains have a black baby.” I believe that there is a special place in hell for people like those.” Even when there is no prejudice, the coverage of adoption in the press is often ambivalent and uncomfortable. Regrettably, the adoptions of poor children by celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna have also been trivialized with cynical commentary by the tabloid media.

Sadly many Pakistani families who wish to adopt a child still contend with prejudice as well when they strive to adopt poor children from the slums of the country. Many try to find a Pathan child who would be “fair and lovely” rather than a child of Dravidian lineage, and hence darker skin, who may be just as deserving. Others try to hide the fact that the child is adopted in various ways at social events and the frequent whisper is heard at weddings about the mysterious origins of the adoptee. Many families are afraid to adopt because there is a feeling that the child may have birth defects or some other inadequacy. In such cases the goal is to strive for a perfect offspring rather than to meet a societal need. There is unfortunately an unsettling stigma associated with adoption that must be erased by all of us.

For a country that has such a staggering birth rate, adoption must be considered a more viable option for elite urban families as birth control education catches up with the rural population. The matter is clearly complicated by a misperception of religious doctrines on the matter. There is a continuing perception that an adopted child is secondary in Islamic law. While there are injunctions in shariah that give preference to blood offspring over adopted children, this does not mean that Islam discourages adoption. The differentiation here needs to be made between legal tenets of adoption in shairah, and the spirit of guardianship and parenthood or kifalah that Islam encourages. If you take the term adoption mean the caring of a child in need within a family setting, there are numerous instances of adoption in Islamic history including the Prophet Muhammad’s own life when he as “adopted” by his Uncle upon the demise of his parents. However, many scholars have confounded this matter with the legal aspects of inheritance of adopted children, in which case the Quran makes a clear distinction between genetic progeny or heirs and adopted children. Even in this case, the Quran allows up to one-third of inheritance to be gifted by discretion to anyone, including adopted children. The matter has been confounded by Orientalist commentary regarding the Prohpet’s adopted son Zaid bin Haritha (an emancipated slave whom the Prophet brought up as his son and who was later married to the Prophet’s cousin Zainab bint-e-Jahsh). The accusation is often made that the Prophet wanted to marry Zainab and hence to allow for such a union, the adoptive status of Zaid was questioned in the Quran (Surah 33, verses 37-38) so as to allow for the marriage to occur after Zainab’s voluntary divorce from Zaid.

However, this line of reasoning is not supported by the full historical record on the matter since the Prophet was married monogamously to Khadija for 23 years and after her death when he did take on multiple wives, his first choice was an elderly widow named Sauda binte-e-Z’ama rather than an attractive cousin whom he had known since birth. Call me an apologist, but the reasons for the Prophet’s marriages were far more varied and complex than the average Islamic textbook in the West may reveal. Indeed, Zainab was the Prophet’s sixth wife and the hadith record shows that the marriage was largely arranged to allow for a respectable exit strategy for Zaid and Zainab who were quite unhappy in their marriage. The Prophet continued to maintain a very strong bond with Zaid throughout his life. Indeed, he was deeply protective of Zaid’s family and the Prophet chose Zaid’s son Osama as the leader of the legion to Rome as one of his last acts of governance before his death.

Thus the history of Islam provides us with adequate encouragement for adoption as a worthy deed and one which families should consider more actively across the Muslim world but particularly in Pakistan. While Senator McCain might not be the most appealing U.S. presidential candidate for many Pakistanis on other accounts, his nobility as an adoptive parent must be admired and emulated.

Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: saleem@alum.mit.edu

Posted by Saleem Ali at March 29, 2008 10:06 AM