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Orphans In The Quran: A Contextual Thematical Analysis



Orphans in the Quran: A Contextual Thematical Analysis

The Qur’an dignifies humankind (insān) by designating them as the vicegerents of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) (khalīfah)1Qur’an 2:30 upon the earth. Although universal sovereignty is ascribed to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone, He appoints humankind to this post for them to promote the maintenance of spiritual and temporal order upon the earth. This is achieved by their prescribing and obeying of divine instruction presented in scripture and prophetic teaching, as well as by exercising temporal power and spiritual authority under divine guidance. A key part of these responsibilities of vicegerency is the crucial task of advocating social justice upon the earth by way of upholding the dignity of fellow children of Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). Thus, themes related to this topic of social justice form a key part of the Qur’anic discourse.

This article aims to analyze the Qur’anic treatment of one particularly significant issue of social justice, namely, the treatment of the vulnerable human demographic of orphans. This topic is of paramount relevance considering the current global reality of children being relinquished due to war, natural disaster, poverty, disease, stigma, and medical needs. According to UNICEF, it is estimated that 153 million children worldwide are orphans2UNICEF define an orphan as any child under the age of 18 who has lost one or both parents to death. with approximately 5,700 children becoming orphaned daily.3UNICEF, UNAIDS, and WHO. Children and AIDS: Fifth Stocktaking Report (2010), 48 Considering the huge and growing number of orphaned children worldwide, it is of utmost importance for us to analyze the Qur’anic presentation on this topic in order to gain an insight into how the scripture aims to direct mankind in this regard.

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I aim to do this by first ascertaining the Qur’anic definition of a yatīm (orphan) and thematically surveying all instances in which the Qur’an discusses this topic. I will then undertake a contextual analysis of these themes in relation to chronological periods of revelation, and thus develop a thesis in light of classical exegeses and secondary studies concerning the overall holistic message and model the Qur’an presents in relation to orphans. We will then conclude by exploring local and global methods of orphan support.

The Yatīm: Definition

The linguistic root definition of yatīm is uniqueness (infirād). Al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī (d. 502/1108)4Renowned religious and Arabic literary scholar. See Rowson, E.K., “al-Rāg̲h̲ib al-Iṣfahānī”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam Second Edition, Ed. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Consulted online on 12 November 2021. presents the example of durrah yatīmah ­– referring to a uniquely precious pearl that has been removed from its source.5Al-Rāghib al-Isfahānī, Al-Mufradāt fī Gharīb al-Qur’an (Dār al-Qalam: Beirut, 1991), 889.

In the Qur’anic context, al-Rāghib defines a yatīm (orphan) as a minor child who loses their father before coming of age.6Ibid. Ibn Manẓūr (d. 711/1311)7He was Muḥammad ibn Mukarram al-Ifrīqī, the celebrated Arabic lexicographer and epitomiser of voluminous works. See al-Suyūṭī, Bughyah al-Wiʿāt fī Ṭabaqāt al-Lughwiyyīn wa al-Nuḥāt (Sidon: Al-Maktabah al-ʿAṣriyyah, 1998), 1:248. agrees with this definition in Lisān al-ʿArab,8Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-ʿArab (Dār Ṣādir: Beirut, 1993), 12:645. further clarifying that the loss of the mother will not render a human child a yatīm, but rather munqatiʿ (broken). This is due to the father being considered the primary sustaining caregiver. Thus, the Qur’anic definition of an orphan differs from the common English usage of the term as defined in the Oxford dictionary: ‘a child whose parents are dead’.

Thematic Survey

The orphan is mentioned a total of 23 times in 22 different verses of the Qur’an: five times in the singular definite form al-yatīm9Qur’an 6:152, 17:34, 89:17, 93:9, 107:2., three times in the singular indefinite form yatīm10Qur’an 76:8, 90:15, 93:6., once in the indefinite dual form yatīmayn11Qur’an 18:82., and 14 times in the definite plural form al-yatāmā12Qur’an 2:83, 2:177, 2:215, 2:220, 4:2, 4:3, 4:6, 4:8, 4:10, 4:36, 4:127 (x2), 8:41, 59:7. .13Muḥammad Fu’ād ʿAbd al-Bāqī, Al-Muʿjam al-Mufahras li Alfāẓ al-Qur’an al-Karīm (Cairo: Dār al-Ḥadīth, 1987), 770. Also see “ي/ت/م   y–t–m”, in: Dictionary of Qurʾanic Usage (Leiden: Brill, 2007), Edited by: Elsaid M. Badawi, Muhammad Abdel Haleem. Consulted online on 09 November 2021. Seven of these verses are found in Meccan chapters and 15 in Medinan chapters – demonstrating the universality of this topic whilst also indicating that it involves legislative injunctions (aḥkām) that are a hallmark of Medinan chapters.14Angelika Neuwirth, ‘Structural, Linguistic and Literary Features’ in: The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an ed. J.D. McAuliffe (Cambridge University Press: 2006), p. 109.

In order to aid us in comprehensively perceiving the holistic vision that the Qur’an presents in relation to the orphan, I have analyzed all 22 verses and categorized them below according to their general themes:

  1. Rebuking and warning against oppressing orphans by usurping their wealth or rights: 2:220, 4:2, 4:6, 4:10, 4:127 (1st), 6:152, 17:34, 59:7, 89:17, 93:9, 107:2.
  2. Enjoining general good treatment: 2:83, 2:220, 4:3, 4:36, 4:127 (2nd).
  3. Encouraging spending charitably on them: 2:177, 2:215, 4:8, 76:8, 90:15.
  4. Being recipients of a portion of the spoils of war (ghanīmah) and peaceful conquering gains (fay’): 8:41, 59:7.
  5. Part of a historical account: 2:83, 18:82.
  6. Reminding the Prophet Muḥammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) of his orphan roots: 93:6.

We can observe from the above categorization that there is a substantial focus on general good treatment and financial generosity upon orphans, with the largest number of verses dedicated to warning against the severe crime of usurping their general or financial rights and sternly rebuking those that do so.

In order to provide a deeper insight into the gradual development of these themes in relation to the different stages of Prophet Muḥammad’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) prophetic career, we shall now continue by chronologically sequencing the verse themes according to the division of Qur’anic revelation periods.

Contextual Analysis: The Early Meccan Period

The earliest Meccan verses mentioning the orphan are the two verses of al-Ḍuḥā, revealed after an unusually prolonged period in Muḥammad’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) early prophetic career in which divine revelation was not sent upon him, due to which the inimical idol-worshippers taunted him with the accusation that his Lord had forsaken him.15Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Qur’an al-ʿAẓīm (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 1998), 8:410-11. One of the linguistic devices utilized in this chapter in order to reassure the Prophet Muḥammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is the powerful rhetorical question: “Did He not find you an orphan and shelter you?16Qur’an 93:6. Being an istifhām taqrīrī17A powerful category of rhetorical questioning utilised to compel the addressee into admittance (iqrār)., this verse compels the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) to emphatically acknowledge Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) Grace upon him as a young orphan child. Further on, this is complemented with a relevant warning against oppressing orphans: “So do not be harsh with the orphan.18Qur’an 93:9. This warning is repeated in another early chapter, al-Maʿūn: “[Prophet], have you considered the person who denies the Judgement? It is he who pushes aside the orphan.19Qur’an 107:2. Later verses from the same period also cover similar themes: 89:17 rebukes those who do not honor the orphan, whilst 90:14-5 and 76:8-9 encourage the good treatment and selfless feeding of orphans.  This early Meccan narrative served to unite the early struggling Muslims upon mutual assistance and strongly challenged the commonplace violation of orphan’s rights perpetrated openly in the pre-Islamic Arabian era of ignorance (jāhiliyyah). These spirited Qur’anic presentations would leave no doubt in the minds of the addressees that orphans were anything but honorable.20Zainab Alwani, Kafāla: The Qurʾanic-Prophetic Model of Orphan Care in: The Journal of Islamic Faith and Practice 3:1 (Islamic Seminary Foundation, 2020), 13.

The Second and Third Meccan Periods

Verses from these periods focus on dealing fairly with the property of orphans, such as the verse of al-Isrā’: “Do not go near the orphan’s property, except with the best [intentions], until he reaches the age of maturity.21Qur’an 17:34 Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) also says in al-Anʿām: “Stay well away from the property of orphans, except with the best [intentions], until they come of age.22Qur’an 6:152 This concept of the preservation of orphan wealth is supported by the presentation of the incident involving the two orphans (yatīmayn) in the chronicle of Mūsā and al-Khiḍr found in al-Kahf: “The wall belonged to two young orphans in the town and there was buried treasure beneath it belonging to them. Their father had been a righteous man, so your Lord intended them to reach maturity and then dig up their treasure as a mercy from your Lord.23Qur’an 18:82. By having al-Khiḍr repair the wall, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) exhibited His divine intervention in caring for these two orphans, just as he did so for the orphaned Prophet Muḥammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) by granting him relatives that cared for him and protected his honor after the passing of his parents.

The Medinan Period

The Medinan period marked a stark rise in the number of orphans in the Muslim community due to the many expeditions (sarāyā)24An expedition in which the Prophet Muḥammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was not himself present. and battles (maghāzī)25An expedition in which the Prophet Muḥammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) took part himself. that began taking place post-migration such as Badr, Uḥud, Khandaq, Khaybar, Ḥunayn, and Tabūk. With many Muslim men attaining martyrdom on these occasions and leaving behind orphaned children, the Qur’an strongly emphasizes the socio-religious duty of the community to care for and be generous with orphan children. For example, in al-Baqarah: “Rather, the righteous are those who believe in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Books, and the Prophets; who give charity out of their cherished wealth to relatives, orphans…26Qur’an 2:177. A similar message is shared in 2:83. In al-Nisā’, Allah f says: “Worship Allah; join nothing with Him. Be good to your parents, to relatives, to orphans…27Qur’an 4:36.

Other verses give more specific instruction by encouraging believers to donate and gift towards the welfare of orphans: “They ask you [Prophet] what they should give. Say, ‘Whatever you give should be for parents, close relatives, orphans…28Qur’an 2:215 Believers are also encouraged to gift to them at the time of splitting inheritance wealth: “If other relatives, orphans, or needy people are present at the distribution, give them something too, and speak kindly to them.”29Qur’an 4:8.

It is also in the context of the above-mentioned social situation that judicial verses (āyāt al-aḥkām) were revealed, clearly stipulating that orphans will be afforded a dedicated share30Note that some jurists differentiate between a rich and poor orphan in relation to being eligible as part of this distribution. See Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrāzī, Al-Muhadhdhab fī Fiqh al-Imām al-Shāfiʿī (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 1995), 3:301. upon division of the wealth obtained by the Muslim nation as spoils of war (ghanīmah) and peaceful conquering gains (fay’).31See Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Qurṭubī, Al-Jāmiʿ li Aḥkām al-Qur’an (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyyah, 1964), 7:362. In the case of ghanīmah, they will receive a portion from the 1/5th amount specified for social spending in the verse of al-Anfāl: “Know that one-fifth of your battle gains belongs to Allah and the Messenger, to close relatives and orphans, to the needy and travelers.”32Qur’an 8:41. The popular opinion is that this 1/5th amount will be split five ways to the recipients mentioned in the verse (including the orphan) with the exception of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), for He has only been mentioned in the list as a form of glorification (taʿẓīm).33Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb – Tafsīr al-Kabīr (Beirut: Dār Iḥyā’ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1999), 15:483-4. As for the share of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) after his passing, al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820)34Celebrated jurist, legal theorist, and eponym of the Shāfiʿī school of law. See Aḥmad ibn ʿAlī ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Manāqib al-Imām Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī – Tawālī al-Taʾsīs bi-Maʿālī ibn Idrīs, (Cairo: Maktabat al-Malik Fayṣal al-Islāmīyyah, 1990). postulates that it will be spent on the affairs of the Muslims. Abū Ḥanīfah (d. 150/767)35Great Iraqi jurist and eponym of the Ḥanafī school of law. See Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī, Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubalā’ (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risālah, 1985), 6:390. opines that the share of the Prophet g is no longer regarded, along with the share for the family of the Prophet g (dhawī al-qurbā) who are wealthy. According to Mālik ibn Anas (d. 179/795)36Eminent ḥadīth scholar, jurist, and eponym of the Mālikī school of law. See al-Dhahabī, Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubalā’, 8:48-9., the division of this 1/5th amount is delegated to the opinion of the leader of the believers (imām), who can adjust shares and select between the mentioned recipients (including the orphan) as he sees fit. As for wealth of fay’, the orphan will receive a divinely unquantified share from the full amount of wealth gained.37The jurists differed on the exact method of dividing the fay’ wealth. For detail, see Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Qurṭubī, Al-Jāmiʿ li Aḥkām al-Qur’an (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyyah, 1964), 18:12. This legislated stipulation strongly demonstrates the role the state holds in an Islamic framework for contributing towards the welfare of orphans.

Furthermore, considering that many of these orphaned children in the Medinan period would have been taken under the wing of other believers, we find a number of verses that provide clear instruction on dealing with orphan affairs such as entrusted property and wealth. For example, in al-Baqarah: “They ask you about [the property of] orphans: say, ‘It is good to set things right for them.’”38Qur’an 2:220. In al-Nisā’: “Give orphans their wealth [when they reach sound judgement – rushd]39This rushd (found textually in 4:6) has been defined in various ways. Al-S̲h̲āfiʿī holds that religious uprightness should be taken into account. The Ḥanafīs hold that an immature orphan who possesses clear rational judgement may, with the guardian’s approval, engage in commercial transactions using their own wealth. Other legal schools do not authorize this until puberty is reached. See al-Rāzī, Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb – Tafsīr al-Kabīr, 9:497., and do not exchange your worthless possessions for their valuables, nor cheat them by mixing their wealth with your own. For this would indeed be a great sin.”40Qur’an 4:2. A similar message is found in 4:6.

We also find two Medinan verses that connect the rightful treatment of orphans with the marriage of appropriate women. The first verse (4:3) was revealed to eliminate an unjust custom that was prevalent in Arabia, in which non-immediate relatives (ghayr maḥārim) who had become custodians of orphan girls would personally marry them without giving them due rights of dower, maintenance, and equality. This was due to a perceived favor they had upon the orphan girl that excused them affording such girls their rights, albeit wrongly. Thus, the Qur’an states: “If you fear that you will not deal fairly with orphan girls, you may marry whichever [other] women seem good to you, two, three, or four.41Qur’an 4:3. Some exegetes also offer an alternative explanation of 4:127 (the second verse that has a similar import as 4:3), stating that such custodians would avoid marrying orphan girls off so that the orphan girls’ entrusted wealth would remain in their possession and not be shared with anyone else.42Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, Jāmī al-Bayān fī Ta’wīl al-Qur’ān (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risālah, 2000), 9:254. Both these actions are regarded as evil and a breach of trust, thus the Qur’an provides the blanket directive: “Allah instructs you to treat orphans fairly: He is well aware of whatever good you do.”43Qur’an 4:127.

Finally, the Medinan Qur’an gives multiple stern warnings regarding acts of injustice towards the orphan – particularly usurping their wealth. The harshest of these is likely the frightening verse of al-Nisā’: “Those who consume the property of orphans unjustly are actually swallowing fire into their own bellies: they will burn in the blazing Flame.”44Qur’an 4:10

The Holistic Qur’anic Message: The Kafālah Model

We can see from the contextual thematic analysis presented that the Qur’an provides comprehensive guidance in relation to the treatment of orphans. The Qur’an acknowledges that orphanhood is a common occurrence that cannot be eradicated, and thus instead moves to recognize the social issues affecting orphans and provides various clear rulings and exhortations that will ensure that orphans are cared for and not exploited. We can broadly term this complete model concept of orphan treatment presented in the Qur’an as the kafālah model. It is important to acknowledge that the conventional term kafālah as found in the works of jurisprudence usually refers to systematic fostering. Whilst fostering is certainly one method of caring for an orphan, I posit that even general community care and concern for the orphan can be part of the broader kafālah model that the Qur’an promotes for a model society. This supposition is based on the broader usage of the term in the Qur’an, where different forms of the verb kaffala/kafala have been used in the meanings of entrustment, guardianship, liability, nursing, raising up, and taking charge.45See Qur’an 3:37-44, 28:11-12, 20:39-40. Taking into consideration these various usages, the concept of kafālah can be defined holistically as communal social care and joint responsibility.46Jamila Bargach, Orphans of Islam (Lanha: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002), 29. Additionally, the kafālah model operates on both a local and global level – below we shall explore different ways we can support orphans locally and globally.

Local Orphan Support

When we think of orphans, our minds tend to wander immediately to those innocent children orphaned in third-world or war-torn countries across the world. Whilst it is certainly highly rewarding to support these global orphans, we sometimes overlook the fact that we have many orphans locally in dire need of our emotional and financial support. Due to the passing of one or either parent, these orphans are often left without positive Muslim role models to facilitate their spiritual nurturing (tarbiyah) in these challenging times. Therefore, it is the duty of the local community to set-up support networks that fulfill the role of a nurturer (murabbī) for these orphans, and thus aid their development into proud and confident believers.

Additionally, on the financial side of things, we are all aware of the ever-rising cost of living in the Western world. Many a time we find cases of sisters with young children whose husbands have passed away, and due to the loss of the primary household earner they no longer have the means to sustain themselves and do not have access to sufficient family or external support (such as in the case of families who came to the West as refugees). This forces these sisters into working long hours in grueling jobs and taking upon themselves all sorts of difficulties in order to upkeep just a basic standard of living for herself and her children. To address this pressing issue, communities should consider setting up a waqf (endowment) system of sorts, where dedicated funds can be gathered that can be utilized in dire cases such as these.

Another important aspect of local orphan support is fostering children in the system. Every day, Muslim children are put in the care on non-Muslims, which can inevitably lead to them losing their faith identity or feeling uncomfortable practicing their religion. On a daily basis, they will be allowed and encouraged to do things contrary to their religion. According to an article published by the BBC in 2020, an 18-year-old Muslim brought up in a non-Muslim foster home in the UK said: “I felt like I didn’t belong and I had to be ‘white’.” This is clearly a pressing issue. Whilst we should support non-Muslim carers to better understand Islam, ideally, we should have enough Muslim foster carers to fulfil the need of Muslim children in the system. In the context of Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain in partnership with various organisations published a report in 2019 that stated that “There is an urgent need for more Muslim foster carers.”47 This is something we should raise acute awareness of from the pulpits and in public forums, encouraging each other with the beautiful prophetic report: “The best house among the Muslims is one where an orphan is well treated, and the worst house among the Muslim is one where an orphan is badly treated.”48Sunan Ibn Mājah, 3679.

Global Orphan Support

In addition to emphasizing local orphan support, we should still not forget the innocent orphaned children who are part of the global Ummah. We should continue to support them via orphan sponsorship packages offered by reliable international charity organizations, and by donating towards the building of orphanages. This is also a part of kafālah, and will aid us in achieving the proximity of our beloved Messenger ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) on Judgement Day, as he ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) himself said: “I and the person who looks after an orphan and provides for him will be in Paradise like this,” – putting his index and middle fingers together.49Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 6005.


In conclusion, after having analyzed the themes and verses of the Qur’an in light of the contexts of revelation, we have come to the conclusion that the Qur’an seeks to promote a robust model for local and global communities to be fully inclusive and supportive of orphaned children. We have termed this the kafālah model – a utopian model of societal care ultimately based on the premise of an overarching consciousness of God: “They [the virtuous] – out of their love for Him [God]50According to an alternative interpretation, ‘ʿalā ḥubbihī’ can be rendered as ‘despite their love for it [their wealth]’. give food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, saying, We feed you for the sake of God alone: We seek neither recompense nor thanks from you.’”51 Qur’an 76:8-9.

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Shaykh Muhammad Ziyad graduated from a traditional Islamic seminary (Darul Uloom Leicester) with licenses in Qur'an memorisation, the Seven Qur’anic Readings, ʿĀlimiyyah (Islamic scholarship), and other related fields. He further undertook the MA Degree in Islamic Studies at SOAS University of London where he focused on the study of the Qur'an. Having a keen interest in education, he supplemented his Islamic studies by completing a Diploma in Education and Training and achieving Qualified Teacher Status. He is currently based in London where he teaches Qur'an and Islamic Studies at a secondary school, as well as lecturing on Hadith at a seminary for females. He is also an Islamic literature editor, volunteer imam, and appears on various Muslim TV channels.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. قصة اصحاب الكهف

    July 14, 2022 at 7:57 AM

    Mashallah, very good article. No words for praise. Your words are written in golden water because they are so good. May God bless you and balance what you offer with your good deeds. I really appreciate your site and will always your followers.

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