comment: A noble choice —Saleem H Ali
The history of Islam provides us with adequate encouragement for adoption as a worthy deed and families should consider it more seriously across the Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan
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 presidential nominee 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. 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 voters who continued to display 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 colour 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 adoption of poor children by celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna have also been trivialised 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 of darker skin, who may be just as deserving. Others try to hide a child’s adopted status in various ways at social events and frequent whispers are 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 Sharia that give preference to blood offspring over adopted children, this does not mean that Islam discourages adoption. A differentiation here needs to be made between legal tenets of adoption in Sharia and the spirit of guardianship and parenthood or kifalah that Islam encourages.
If you take the term adoption to 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’ (pbuh) own life when he was “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.
The history of Islam provides us with adequate encouragement for adoption as a worthy deed and families should consider it more seriously across the Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan. While Senator McCain might not be the most appealing US presidential candidate for many Pakistanis on other counts, 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: email@example.com