Who Does Islam Count as an Orphan?
The definition of ‘orphan,’ in Arabic, yatîm, is a child who has lost its father. Typically, in the industrialized West, the word ‘orphan’ has meant a child who has lost both parents.
Recently, UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, has changed its definition of an orphan to a child that has lost any parent, father, or mother. A child who has lost both parents is considered a double orphan. A child that has parents but is somehow without them is called a social orphan.
A staggering 153 million orphans now inhabit our planet, the 9th largest population of any people on earth, if we counted them as a nation. Double orphans make up to 23 million of them. These estimates, humanitarian experts say, almost certainly fall short of real global orphan totals.
In Islam, the Quran mentions the yatîm at least 25 times, overwhelmingly with admonitions to keep them foremost in our minds, along with parents, as our responsibility, and to treat them accordingly with care and kindness. And to parents, you shall be good—as well as to close relatives, and orphans, and the indigent… (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:83). Note that Allah places the orphan on a continuum between our parents and close relatives, and then the indigent. At one end of this spectrum, the Quran associates the orphan with our nearest kin, on the other with the vulnerable in need.
It is not surprising that Allah singles out charitable giving to the orphan. Even if you require the provision and passionately wants to keep it, one of the ten conspicuous signs of righteousness that manifest the sincerity “dwells in” the heart of the true believer. As such, orphans form a test for the caliber of our individual belief and a measure for the community. The orphan, categorically, deserves our wealth because he or she exists among the most powerless of all creation in the world.
What Does the Quran Say of Orphans?
In one of the most crucial ayat or sign-verses of the Quran, Allah says: Righteousness in the sight of God … dwells in one who – despite his love for it – gives of his wealth in charity to close relatives and orphans and to the indigent and the wayfarer, and beggars and for the emancipation of slaves (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:177).
Again, note the placement of the orphan along the divine sequence of merited charity that runs from our closest family members to society’s most helpless. Islam exhorts its claimed adherents to put that profession into action, if, indeed, they are believers, by including the orphan, not merely in our consciousness, but our economic support for our, if not obligatory, then compellingly urged, near and dear.
They ask you, O Prophet, what ways they should spend charitably. Say to them: Whatever good offering you spend is to be for your parents, and nearest relatives, and orphans, and the indigent, and the needy wayfarers. And whatever good you do, God is, indeed, all-knowing of it. (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:215)
Yet the best treatment of an orphan comes by placing that orphaned girl or boy among family, with proper bounds of biological parentage and the rights and limits that flow from this preserved.
And they ask you, O Prophet, about looking after orphans. Say: Setting their affairs aright is best for you and them. Thus if you interrelate with them, then they are to be treated as your brothers in faith. And God knows best the sower of corruption from the sower of righteousness. And had God so willed, He could have overburdened you with restrictions. Indeed, God is overpowering, all-wise. (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:220).
How Should You Best Support an Orphan?
Zakat Foundation of America follows precisely this line of divine injunction in its Orphan Sponsorship Program. It seeks to keep orphans in their families, with a surviving parent preferably (often a mother) or an extended family member, like a grandparent.
“More than 70 years of research shows significantly poorer outcomes for children who grow up in orphanages than for children who grow up in families, and the impact of institutionalization on a child is lifelong and often intergenerational,” write Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton University and Leigh Mathews, author, and editor of Modern Slavery and Orphanage Tourism.
Children in orphanages suffer the “effects of trauma, institutionalization, and attachment disorders and require specialized care in a family-based setting,” they say.
“The money that donors currently give to support children in orphanages should be redirected to organizations that “reintegrate children into families and communities, as well as those working to prevent family separation in the first place by assisting people in extreme poverty.”
The Quran places particular emphasis, moreover, on ensuring that whatever wealth belongs to orphans is maintained and remitted in full wholesomeness to them when they come of age and attain mature judgment.
Therefore, test the judgment of the orphans in your care until they reach the age of marriage. And when you recognize mature understanding in them, then hand over their wealth to them. Nor shall you consume it in wasteful spending, or haste, for fear they will grow up and claim it. Moreover, if the one who is the orphan’s guardian is rich, then let him abstain from it entirely. But if one is poor, then let him consume it only by what is right. And when you hand over their wealth to them, then bring witnesses before them to attest to it. Yet sufficient is God as a just reckoner. (Surat Al-Nisa’, 4:6).
The Prophet, on him be peace, made a stunning statement about orphans:
‘I and the one who sponsors an orphan shall be in Paradise like these two’—and he raised his index finger and the one next to it, holding them together, barely separate.
The commentators on prophetic reports, hadith, say this statement promises the person who sponsors an orphan that he or she shall be admitted to the Garden of Delight in the close company of the Prophet, on him be peace, which means, of course, in the very highest station of the Garden.
This prophetic statement, authentically recorded in Bukhari’s collection (no. 5304), riveted the attention of the great hadith scholars. Pay heed: They took it as a “duty for the one who hears this prophetic statement to act on it, for it shall place him with the Prophet, on him be the peace and blessings of Allah, in Paradise.” So says Ibn Battal, as noted in the premier hadith commentary of Ibn Hajar, Fath Al-Bari (10:436).
How Should You Best Support an Orphan?
Allah and His Messenger, on him be peace, do not restrict their description of the orphan, meaning the category is expansive, including the child absent his or her father. Yet scholarly commentary on the Texts of these injunctions indicates that orphan sponsorship does not entail the mere giving of money to or for them. It means providing for the orphan boy and orphan girl alike guidance in faith and their personal affairs, a home, clothing, and proper nutrition; education and training; moral admonition, spiritual know-how, and religious facility; as well as security in their persons, wellbeing, property, and future, until they attain discerning maturity.
These are the kinds of things one ought to look for in their orphan sponsorship, and which the Zakat Foundation underscores for the orphans and their families to whom it delivers your care.
Spending on the orphan said our Prophet, on him be peace, is “fresh and sweet. Blessed is the wealth of the Muslim, from which one gives to the poor, the orphan, the wayfarer (Bukhari and Muslim, 1465 and 1052, respectively).
We may understand from this that the kind of charity that sees to an orphan’s religion, and his or her civil and moral upbringing, is closer to the highest sponsorship of incorporating an orphan in your home and life at parity with your children.
Some scholars surmise that this kind of sponsorship may bring one into the company of the Prophet in Paradise, on him be peace, because the prophets are sent to people who do not know religion or the righteous way in worldly affairs. So a prophet becomes his people’s sponsor, guide, and teacher, even as does the orphan sponsor, by analogy, as the Quran describes its best implementation.
Can You Step Up to the Orphan Sponsor’s Station?
This point about drawing near to this highest kind of sponsorship by spending on the orphan though not bringing him or her into your home is not just speculation. It is said with a core prophetic principle in mind.
The Prophet, on him, be peace, made clear that we may not always be able, because of circumstance, to be where we want to be or to bring about the immediate condition of a deed’s best expression. On one of his campaigns, he said: There are people whom we left behind in Madinah. Yet we traversed neither mountain pass nor valley but that they were with us. (Bukhari no. 2839)
How many an orphan is beyond the reach of our home or our capacity to bring him or her into our family, but within the reach of our money sponsorship for all the desirable things mentioned here. In such a case, our intention, with the blessing and reach of Allah, may well cover the intervening distance.
The Zakat Foundation of America sponsors orphans on every continent. It can turn your wealth, with Allah’s mercy and permission, into care, clothing, nutrition, security, religious guidance, education, ethical training, and moral admonition for them.
Please give to these waiting children in desperate need now.