Why is there no adoption in Islam? Zaynab – the occasion if not the cause

At he beginning of the “Stand to Reason” podcast “Islam and Prolife” (13 August 2013), Greg Koukl points out that there is no adoption in Islam. He was informed that this was based on Islamic theology but did not know why there was no adoption in Islam. The reason is Zaynab. Here is James White’s riveting and disturbing account of “The Story of Zaynab” in his “What every Christian needs to know about the Qur’an.” Let us see why he concludes:

Whether or not for political purposes (so that there would be none to take Muhammad’s place, as Zayd would have), the culture-enriching humanity-raising, love-engendering institution of adoption was mortally wounded in Islamic society. And upon what authority? That of the Qur’an.” Is not this episode, asks White, “a clear example of the problem with the orthodox view of the Qur’an’s nature?

I scanned the story from James White’s Kindle edition on my ipad. Any scanning typos are mine.

The Story of Zaynab bint Jash

There is no other account in the Qur’an that, to me as a Christian reader of the Qur’an, the hadith, and the tafsir literature, is more indicative of the fundamental problem with Muhammad’s claimed prophethood than that of his relationshig with Zaynab bint Jash. When one takes into consideration not only the situation itself but also its results in the lives of countless millions down through the centuries, the importance of following the biblical pattern for the recognition of prophethood is readily seen.

Zaynab bint Jash was by all accounts a strikingly beautiful Woman. She also was a married woman, to a young man named Zayd bin Muhammad, the Prophet’s own adopted son, a freed former slave. He was an early convert to the Islamic faith, and the two men were close. Up to that time, the Arab tribes, like the Jews, Romans, and so many others, had practiced – and honored – the concept of adoption. For  to  marry the divorced wife of his adopted son was a fundamental violation of morality and custom, tantamount to incest. The relationships that arose through adoption were held to be truly valid.

With this background in mind, consider these texts from Surah Al-Ahzub: Allah has not made for any man two hearts within him, nor has he made your wives whom you declare to be like your mothers your mothers, nor has he made those whom you claim to be your sons your sons. This is but what you say with your mouths. And Allah says the truth and He guides to the path. Attribute them to their fathers. That is more equitable in the sight of Allah. And if you know not their fathers, then they are your brothers in religion and your clients.

And there is no sin for you in the mistakes that you make unintentionally but what your hearts purpose [that will be a sin for you]. Allah is forgiving, compassionate. And when you said to him on whom Allah has conferred favor and you have conferred favor “Keep your wife to yourself and fear Allah.” And you hide within yourself that which Allah was to bring to light, and you fear the people Whereas Allah had a better right that you should fear Him. So when Zayd had accomplished of her what he would, we gave her to you in marriage so that [henceforth] there may be no sin for believers in respect of wives of their adopted sons, when the latter have accomplished of them what they would. The commandment of Allah must be fulfilled. There is no reproach for the Prophet in what Allah has made his due. That was Allah’s Way with those who passed away of old, and the Wish of Allah is certain to be fulfilled. (33:37-38). Now, according to Islamic orthodoxy, these words were inscribed on the heavenly tablet in eternity past. They are as eternal as Allah is. And yet here are two sections that both deal with the same awkward situation that arose in history regarding Muhammad,  Zayd, and Zaynab.

The first verses cited give Allah’s command relating to adoption. No longer would Zayd be known as Zayd bin Muhammad: now he would be known as Zayd bin Haritha. Adoption as a stabilizing and gracious societal element would be forever damaged due to this change. Why do this? As the second verses show, there was a major problem among the people – one highlighted by Allah having commanded Muhammad to marry the divorced wife of his adopted son. To let the Muslim sources explain, we start with Al-Tabari’s massive history, which places the story’s backdrop in its all-too-human setting:

The Messenger of God came to the house of Zayd b. Harithah. (Zayd was always called Zayd b. Muhammad). Perhaps the Messenger of God missed him at that moment, so as to ask, “Where is Zayd‘?” He came to his residence to look for him but did not find him. Zaynab bint Jash, Zayd’s wife, rose to meet him. Because she was dressed only in a shift, the Messenger of God turned away from her. She said: “He is not here, Messenger of God. Come in, you who are as dear to me as my father and mother!” The Messenger of God refused to enter. Zaynab had dressed in haste when she was told “the Messenger of God is at the door.” She jumped up in haste and excited the admiration of the Messenger of God, so that he tuned away murmuring something that could scarcely be understood. However, he did say overtly: “Glory be to God the Almighty! Glory be to God, who causes the hearts to turn!”

When Zayd came home, his wife told him that the Messenger of God had come to his house. Zayd said, “Why didn’t you ask him to come in‘?” She replied, “I asked him, but he refused.” “Did you hear him say anything‘?” he asked. She replied, “As he turned away, I heard him say: ‘Glory be to God the Almighty! Glory be to God, who causes hearts to turn! ”’ So Zayd left, and having come to the Messenger of God, he said: “Messenger of God, I have heard that you came to my house. Why didn’t you go in, you who are as dear to me as my father and mother? Messenger of God, perhaps Zaynab has excited your admiration, and so I will separate myself from her.” Zayd could find no possible way to [approach] her after that day. He would come to the Messenger of God and tell him so, but the Messenger of God Would say to him, “Keep your Wife.”

Zayd separated from her and left her, and she became free. While the Messenger of God was talking with `A’ishah, a fainting overcame him. When he was released from it he smiled and said, “Who will go to Zaynab to tell her the good news, saying that God has married her to me.” Then the Messenger of God recited: “And when you said unto him on whom God has conferred favor and you have conferred favor, ‘Keep your wife to yourself” and the entire passage. According to ’A’ishah, who said: “I became very uneasy because of what we heard about her beauty and another thing, the greatest and loftiest of matters – what God had done for her by giving her in marriage. I said she would boast of it over us.”

Martin Lings narrates the same story in this Way:

It happened one day that he went to speak to his Zayd about something and went to his house. Zayd was out, and Zaynab, not expecting any visitors at that time, was lightly clad. But when she was told that the Prophet had come, she was so eager to greet him that she leapt to her feet and ran to the door, to invite him to stay until Zayd returned. “He is not here, O Messenger of God,” she said, “but comes out in, my father and my mother be thy ransom.” As she stood in the doorway, a radiant figure of joyous welcome, the prophet was amazed at her beauty. Deeply moved, he turned aside, and murmured something which she could not grasp. All she heard clearly were his words of wonderment as he walked away: “Glory be to God the Infinite! Glory be to Him who disposeth men’s hearts!” When Zayd returned she told him of the Prophet’s visit and of the glorification she had heard him utter. Zayd immediately Went to him and said: “I have been told thou camest unto my house.

Why didst not enter, thou who art more to me than my father and my mother? Was it that Zaynab hath found favor with thee? If it be so, I will leave her.” “Keep thy wife and fear God,” said the Prophet with some insistence. He had said on another occasion: “Of all things licit the most hateful unto God is divorce.” And when Zayd came again the next day with the same proposal, again the Prophet insisted that he should keep his wife. But the marriage between Zayd and Zaynab had not been a happy one, and Zayd found it no longer tolerable, so by mutual agreement with Zaynab he divorced her. This did not, however, make Zaynab eligible as a wife for the Prophet, for although the Koran had only specified that men were forbidden to marry the wives of sons sprung from their loins, it was a strong social principle not to make a distinction between sons by birth and sons by adoption. Nor was the Prophet himself eligible, for he had already four wives, the most that the Islamic law allows.

Some months passed and then one day when the Prophet was talking with one of his wives the power of Revelation overwhelmed him; and when he came to himself his first words were: “Who will go unto Zaynab and tell her the good tidings that God hath given her to me in marriage, even from Heaven.” Salma was near and she went in haste to Zaynab’s house. When she heard the wonderful tidings, Zaynab magnified God and threw herself down in prostration toward Mecca. Then she took off her anklets and bracelets of silver, and gave them to Salma.

Zayd is one of the few people to be mentioned by name in the Qur’an, and it is in this very context, of Allah rebuking Muhammad for hiding what Allah had revealed, and that in reference to Muhammad marrying Zayd’s divorced wife. To overcome immediate charges of impropriety even of incest a revelation comes down to solve the great and vexing problem of the marriage of divorced wives of adopted sons. Except, of course, it is more than hard to believe this was a great and vexing problem. We would expect the great and vexing problem to be divorce, let alone even the consideration of marrying your former daughter-in-law. But Allah commands his Prophet to break the customs of his day and marry his first cousin. 

Again, in the process, incalculable damage has been done to millions of children and families. In distancing himself from his adopted son, Whether or not for political purposes (so that there would be none to take Muhammad’s place, as Zayd would have), the culture-enriching humanity-raising, love-engendering institution of adoption was mortally wounded in Islamic society. And upon what authority? That of the Qur’an. Is this not a clear example of the problem with the orthodox view of the Qur’an’s nature? Muhammad suddenly goes into some kind of faint and, when he recovers, announces that adoption is undone and Zaynab is his wife. This was inscribed in eternity past upon a tablet in Arabic? lt seems even Aisha, his favorite (but who clearly experienced much jealousy toward his other wives) recognized an issue, for she is recorded to have said. I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your Wishes and desires.” Certainly this must give one pause in weighing the claims of the Qur’an to status as a divine revelation.

Modern lslamic Orthodoxy identifies Muhammad as the ideal man, the model to which all should seek to conform their behavior and lifestyle. Yet here, plainly the Qur’an displays acute embarrassment and must provide an apologetic, a defense of his actions. Many motives are possible, from the seemingly blatant marriage breakup, and the resultant diminishment of the evil of divorce, to the political tensions that were formative of the early generations of Islam and that led to the formation of its two major branches, Sunni and Shia. Whatever the motivation, the attempt to justify Muhammad’s actions and their wide-ranging results is obvious and forceful.

14 thoughts on “Why is there no adoption in Islam? Zaynab – the occasion if not the cause

      • I was in a rush, I guess I shouldn’t have been so hasty. Sorry.

        Koukl points out that “there is no adoption in Islam.” This is far from true. Indeed the western concept of adoption is different, but that should not be the only definition we allow. Indeed, the Qur’an says:

        ” They ask thee, (O Muhammad), what they shall spend. Say: that which ye spend for good (must go) to parents and near kindred and orphans and the needy and the wayfarer. And whatsoever good ye do, lo! God is Aware of it.” (2.215)

        Aisha, one of the wives, classifies. Notice the reference to future adopted children is alike to the reference of the Pre-Islamic ones:

        “In the Pre-lslamic period of ignorance the custom was that, if one adopted a son, the people would call him by the name of the adopted-father whom he would inherit as well, till Allah revealed: “Call them (adopted sons) By (the names of) their fathers.””

        Now, why change in name? There are a number of reasons. For one, consider the fact that many children who belong to single mothers are named after their father, despite that they may never have met them (because of divorce). To name them of a new father would be deception, and contrary to the truth (especially in the naming system of the time, where people’s last names were usually son of ____). Similarly, the emphasis on finding the true father’s identity is a deterrent of the possibility of incest (in the Islamic sense), especially in small communities or aristocratic families.

        To the story of Zaynab, there are a number of things to consider:

        – The Prophet himself was the one who arranged Zayd’s marriage to Zaynab, and he also attempted on a number of occasions to keep the marriage intact.

        – Zaynab had all along wanted to marry the Prophet, and her family did as well, rather than to a freed slave (Zayd). Nevertheless, the Prophet insisted upon that marriage.

        -After much deliberation and two years of trying to keep the marriage together, the marriage was finally absolved. Had the Prophet wanted to “speed up the process”, there were many ways of doing so. Instead he tried for as long as possibly to hold together a faulty marriage.

        A final word on the story given by Dr. White. The story of Muhammad meeting Zaynab while she was not fully covered is not accepted by Muslims for a number of reasons. The criterion of the science of hadith narration that is used for all hadith (several tens of thousands) did not make the cut for this narration. It does not have two separate transmissions that were completely separate from each other, and common sense dictates similarly. The Prophet new Zaynab all his life, it is difficult to beleive that she never recognized her beauty. I am no scholar on the field of Hadith criticism, so I don’t feel comfortable explaining it too much. The link I gave above explains it better, as do millions of websites on the internet.

        I hope that clears things up. Let me know if you have any other concerns. I apologize that I didn’t respond quickly, my time is limited. Cheers.


        • Thank you Lux for your indepth reply. The “uncovered” account appears in Al Tabari. Do all Muslims regard Al Tabari as, at best, unreliable?

          The History af AI-Tabari:The Victory aflslam, Vol. VIII, trans. Michael Fishbein (Albany, NY: State U11iversity of New York Press, 1997), 2-3.

          Al-Tabari’s commentary on Surah 33:37:

          “Narrated by Yunis, narrated by Ibn Wahab, narrated by Ibn Zaid who said, “The prophet – pbuh– had married Zaid son of Haritha to his cousin Zainab daughter of Jash. One day the prophet –pbuh– went seeking Zaid in his house, whose door had a curtain made of hair. The wind blew the curtain and the prophet saw Zainab in her room unclothed and he admired her in his heart. When Zainab realized that the prophet desired her, she began to hate Zaid.”

          “Narrated by Yunis, narrated by Ibn Wahab, narrated by Ibn Zaid” – Aren’t these three distinct accounts!

          Here is Surah 33:37

          Sahih International
          And [remember, O Muhammad], when you said to the one on whom Allah bestowed favor and you bestowed favor, “Keep your wife and fear Allah ,” while you concealed within yourself that which Allah is to disclose. And you feared the people, while Allah has more right that you fear Him. So when Zayd had no longer any need for her, We married her to you in order that there not be upon the believers any discomfort concerning the wives of their adopted sons when they no longer have need of them. And ever is the command of Allah accomplished.

          Another question: Do you believe that the Q’uran was written on gold tablets – if not from eternity them at least before the Islamic era (before the Hebrew and/or Christian scriptures)?

          • The great hadith collectors of our tradition collected independently from the later developed criticism science. Thus, many of the recordings of al Tabari, al Muslim, or even al Bukhari are regarded as the inauthentic. Taking a look at al Tabari’s work any way, this hadith has very little transmission data as compared to most of his findings. We have to remember that many of these collectors were dealing with tens of thousands of hadith (most of them duplicates with different authors ), we cannot assume they were right all the time. In the hadith science, there are two measures of authenticity: the reliability of the transmission and the reliability of the meaning. This hadith fails in both. The quranic quote does not mention Muhammad’s experience with zaynab, which is what has been determined inauthentic. The rest, the divorce and all, is history.

            As for the gold tablets, I think you are referencing Mormonism! Although the mainstream ash’ari view is that the quran is eternal, I think. But I am not knowledgeable in that. And God knows better.

            Sorry for any typing issues, I am on my phone.


              • I don’t understand the question; could you please explain? Sorry. There is no entire compilation that is considered entirely authentic, but the methodology of determine the authenticity is almost unanimous. These are not my individual views, but the views of the overwhelming number of Sunni Muslim scholars. I hope that helps.


                • From what I read from Muslim sources, the Bukhari and the Islam Hadith collections are
                  partial collectionS of authentic material, NOT a partially authentic collection of material.

                  The rest is a quote.

                  Islam Hadith collection

                  […]. Imam Muslim said: “I have not included in my present book any thing but with proof [regarding authenticity] , and I have not left out anything but with proof”. He also said: I did not include everything that I judge authentic/Sahih, I only included what received a unanimous agreement, i.e., what fulfilled all the criteria of authenticity agreed upon [by the scholars].

                  And Muslim has presented [his collection] to the scholars of his time, like Imam Abu Zar`ah, and retained what was void of defect, and left out what had some defect.[13]

                  From the above quotation, it is clear that Imam Muslim’s collection is also a partial collection of authentic material and not a partially authentic collection of material. He followed a certain set of criteria that demanded a proof for the inclusion of each and every hadith in his collection.

                  Imam al-Bukhari’s collection of ahadith was maintained to be authentic on account of his authority, and it has been maintained as authentic ever since.

                  We should wonder whether the neophyte is as quick to demonstrate the same puerile enthusiasm over the question of his own religious texts. Regardless, we will quote the famous trial of Imam al-Bukhari to show how maqlub[14] (changed, reversed) ahadith can be identified with ease by a scholar of hadith:

                  The famous trial of al-Bukhari by the scholars of Baghdad provides a good example of a Maqlub isnad. The traditionists, in order to test their visitor, al-Bukhari, appointed ten men, each with ten ahadith. Now, each hadith (text) of these ten people was prefixed with the isnad of another. Imam al-Bukhari listened to each of the ten men as they narrated their ahadith and denied the correctness of every hadith. When they had finished narrating these ahadith, he addressed each person in turn and recounted to him each of his ahadith with its correct isnad. This trial earned him great honour among the scholars of Baghdad.


                  With regard to the “gold” tablets, Surah 85:21-22 mentions that the Q’uran has been preserved on tablets. By PREserved, I infer pre creation of the world, right? Are these physical tablets? If so, clay? Hmmm, gold is not farfetched?

  1. Maria, I don’t know about Freudian, but perhaps it was cognitive dissonance 😉 But I don’t see why it would be either?

    I will respond soon. I am commenting just so this post doesn’t go off my notifications list. I pledged to respond, and I will…one day 😛 Cheers.


  2. Bography,

    Here are a few links concerning the issue. The website looks sketchy, but the authors are more than legitimate:


    As for the article you posted, thanks for the link. I looked through it, and you may have missed Dr. Esposito’s quote near the end:

    “Moreover, ***even where differences of opinion exist*** regarding the authenticity of the chain of narrators, they need not detract from the authenticity of a tradition’s content and common acceptance of the importance of tradition literature as a record of the early history and development of Islamic belief and practice.”

    *** are mine

    Bukhari, Muslim, and others believed that there collections were absolutely authentic, but given human error, they do on the occasion conflict. When we have two opinions from two legitimate scholars that are incompatible, interpretation takes place. Although these individual hadith scholars believed their collections to be fully authentic, they cannot be if there are a small handful of contradictions between them!

    Along with Esposito, I recommend Prof. Jonathan Brown and Prof. Khalid Blankenship for further reading among Western scholars on hadith studies.

    I do not know why you are assuming the preserved tablets are gold. Is that an archetype? I’d love to know about it if it is.

    The “inscribed tablets” are mentioned only once directly in the scripture (where you quoted it). It is in reference to Islamic predestination (Qadar), where we beleive God has written down everything that will happen well before creation on a certain tablet “of red rubies” (as narrated by Ibn ‘Abbas). This is not to say we have no free will, but that God is beyond time and space and can see what will happen. Here are two links on the subject:



    I hope that helps. And God knows best.


    • Hi again Lux. Thanks for all the references. How do you understand Muhammed’s role in the Zaynab affair.

      About the “gold” tablets. Yes, Mormonism explicitely mentions gold tablets. I said in a previous reply to you, “With regard to the “gold” tablets, Surah 85:21-22 mentions that the Q’uran has been preserved on tablets. By PREserved, I infer pre creation of the world, right? Are these physical tablets? If so, clay? Hmmm, gold is not farfetched?”

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