Nermeen Mouftah, Butler University Assistant Professor of Religion, was in Egypt for her first project. She was studying the ways Islamic reformers have turned to literacy to improve conditions in their countries.
But, while doing that research, she noticed that nearly every nonprofit organization not only had some kind of literacy project, but they also did work with orphans. That got her thinking about Muslim orphans, their care, and their place in Islamic society. She wondered: How does Islam shape the legal, biological, and affective negotiations involved in the care and abandonment of vulnerable children?
This year, thanks to a $12,000 grant from the University of Notre Dame’s Global Religions Research Initiative, Mouftah will do four months of fieldwork to investigate what she calls the Muslim orphan paradox: the precarious condition faced by millions of Muslim orphans that makes them at once major recipients of charity, yet ostracized for their rootlessness.
The world has approximately 140 million orphans today, but military conflicts in countries from Burma to Yemen to Syria have left Muslim children disproportionately affected, Mouftah says. As a result, many Muslim-majority countries face high numbers of child abandonment. The level of care these orphans receive is largely contingent on how people view family, childhood, and community.
Giving to orphans is seen, by in large, as a laudable form of giving in these societies, she says. However, what the care of orphans should look like is highly contested, as a consensus among Islamic legal schools is that adoption is prohibited, Mouftah explains. As a result, there is much debate about whether, and how, to raise a non-biological child in Muslim society.
So, as part of her research, Mouftah will be going to Morocco and Lebanon over the summer, and Pakistan in December. Morocco and Pakistan because they’re Muslim-majority countries that have some of the largest numbers of orphans and strong ties to the inter-country adoption market. Lebanon, on the other hand, takes in a large number of Syrian refugees.
“One of the things I’m interested in is trying to question some kind of universal idea of what the ideal way to care for orphans is,” says Mouftah, who’s finishing her first year at Butler. “I’ll be doing that by looking at multiple forms of care across different countries and institutions who have distinct views on, and methods of, orphan care.”
Mouftah will be listening in on the debate and discussions people are having first hand about the best way to do things when it comes to caring for orphans, she says. She will be observing different practices, watching who people are influenced by when it comes to orphan care, and what they are aspiring toward, as well as what the problems people run into when trying to care for orphans.
One of the major issues she’ll be looking at is the Islamic taboo against fictive kinship—taking in a child and raising that child as if he or she were one’s biological child. Some of her research is looking at how some Muslim families are using the approach of non-fictive kinship, meaning the child knows that he or she is not the biological child of the parents.
That, Mouftah says, is parallel with trends of adoption in the United States, where people have moved toward open adoptions that let the child know who their biological parent is/was.
“Many times in the Koran, it says to help the widows, and the orphans, and the vulnerable,” she says. “So they’re elevated figures to care for. But because of various laws, and the stigmatization of orphans, and especially abandoned children, adoption is widely looked at with skepticism.”
Rather than adoption, one of the ways some Muslim organizations care for orphans is through sponsorships similar to the child sponsorship commercials seen on American television.
“We clearly don’t have this worked out,” she says. “When you look at the historical story, we’re clearly feeling our way through the dark. We don’t know what to do. It’s not until the Victorian age that there is the institution of the orphanage. But institutions are not the best places for children to flourish. I won’t be shy to lay out some practical plans based on the research.”