Are children born out of wedlock condemned in hadith?


Waqar Akbar Cheema


A cogent analysis of hadith reports about children born out of wedlock in Islam with a focus on the meanings of such reports as understood by traditional scholars of Islam over the centuries. The article shows such reports considered suggestive of condemnation of children born as a result of adultery were actually never meant as such. They were either specific to certain individuals contemporary to the Prophet (ﷺ) or had altogether different implications.

1. Introduction

As the hadith explained in a previous article about infant girls buried alive, the hadith reports that appear to condemn children born out of wedlock also cause consternation with those who come across sayings of the Prophet (ﷺ) without any supplementary readings. In this article, we seek to study such hadith reports.

2. Hadith One: “Child of adultery is worst of the three”

The first hadith is that which has been related as:

عن أبي هريرة، قال: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: ولد الزنا شر الثلاثة

Narrated Abu Hurairah: The Prophet (ﷺ) said: The child of adultery is worst of the three.[1]

The implication of these words is that a child born as a result of adultery is worse than the man and woman involved in adultery.

Whereas, the sin of adultery is known one wonders as to the sin of children thus born. Putting any blame on such children also goes against the Qur’anic maxim “No one shall bear the burden of another” [Qur’an 6:164; 17:15; 35:18; 39:7; 53:38].

In reality, however, the hadith is not about every child born of adultery rather it has a specific context. These words were uttered by the Prophet (ﷺ) about a specific individual regarding whom he was informed that he was born out of wedlock. What invited condemnation for him was another action of his at which the Prophet (ﷺ) said he was worse than his biological parents who had committed the heinous act of adultery. This was reported by ‘Aisha as recorded by Al-Tahawi (d. 321/933):

عن عروة قال: بلغ عائشة أن أبا هريرة يقول: قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: ” ولد الزنى شر الثلاثة ” فقالت: يرحم الله أبا هريرة أساء سمعا، فأساء جابة لم يكن الحديث على هذا إنما كان رجل يؤذي رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم، فقال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: ” أما إنه مع ما به ولد زنى ” وقال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: ” هو شر الثلاثة “

‘Urwah narrated: It reached ‘Aisha that Abu Huraira related that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “The child of adultery is worst of the three.” She said, “May Allah have mercy on Abu Huraira, he erred at hearing and erred at relating it; the hadith was not in this meaning. Actually there was a man who hurt the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and it was mentioned to the Prophet (ﷺ) that besides what he had done he was also born out of adultery. Thus the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “He is worst of the three.”[2]

This leaves no room for any speculation otherwise. It is further reported about ‘Aisha:

عن عائشة، كانت إذا قيل لها: هو شر الثلاثة، عابت ذلك، وقالت: ” ما عليه من وزر أبويه، قال الله: {لا تزر} [الأنعام: 164] وازرة وزر أخرى “

When it was mentioned to ‘Aisha that [a child born out of wedlock] was worst of the three she objected to it and said, “The sin of his parents is not on the child for Allah has said, ‘No bearer shall bear the sins of others.’”[3]

 In fact we find that the companion of the Prophet (ﷺ), ‘Abdullah b. ‘Umar and well-known scholars from the subsequent generation al-Sha‘bi and ‘Ikrimah, the freed slave of Ibn ‘Abbas, are reported to have said regarding such a child:

هو خير الثلاثة

He is [in fact] best of the three.[4]

Explaining this al-Baghawi (d. 516/1122) writes:

فوجهه أنه لا إثم له في الذنب الذي باشره الزانيان، فهو خير منهما لبراءته من الذنب

It means there is no burden on him for the sin committed by the adulterers and he is better than them both for his innocence from the sin.[5]

These details conclusively prove that the hadith in question was specific to a person in the time of the Prophet (ﷺ) and does not apply to all children born of illegitimate intimacy.

3. Hadith Two: Children of adultery will not enter Paradise

Another hadith goes as:

عن عبد الله بن عمرو، عن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: «لا يدخل الجنة ولد زنية، ولا منان، ولا عاق، ولا مدمن خمر»

Narrated ‘Abdullah b. ‘Amr: The Prophet (ﷺ) said: [He who is] Waladu zinya, he who casts up the favours on others, he who is disobedient to his parents and he who is addicted to drinking, will not enter Paradise.”[6]

The term waladu zinya literally means “child of adultery” with the immediate meaning of a person born out of wedlock, however, it is also used for one who is overly involved in illegal sex. Al-Tahawi while highlighting this connotation of the word gives examples to illustrate this point:

أريد به من تحقق بالزنى حتى صار غالبا عليه، فاستحق بذلك أن يكون منسوبا إليه، فيقال: هو ابن له كما ينسب المتحققون بالدنيا إليها , فيقال لهم بنو الدنيا؛ لعلمهم لها وتحققهم بها وتركهم ما سواها، وكما قد قيل للمتحقق بالحذر: ابن أحذار وللمتحقق بالكلام: ابن الأقوال، وكما قيل للمسافر: ابن سبيل، وكما قيل للمقطوعين عن أموالهم لبعد المسافة بينهم وبينها: أبناء السبيل كما قال تعالى في أصناف أهل الزكاة: {إنما الصدقات للفقراء} [التوبة: 60] حتى ذكر فيهم ابن السبيل

This actually refers to one who indulges in adultery in a way that it becomes his overwhelming characteristic, and is thus known as ‘child of adultery.’ This is like people lost in the material things of world are termed as ‘children of this world’ (banu al-dunya) due their knowledge of it at the cost of all else. Likewise, one used to vigilance is referred to as ‘child of vigilance’ (ibn ahdhar). Similarly, one used to excessive talk is termed as ‘son of words’ (ibn al-aqwal). Traveler is thus called ‘son of the way’ (ibn al-sabil). The same way, those who are parted with their belongings due to distance between them are called ‘children of the way’ (abna al-sabil) as Allah mentions in connection with those worthy of zakat, “Alms are for the poor … and a wayfarer (ibn al-sabil).” (Qur’an 9:60)[7]

He then goes on to giving examples of similar usage from the compositions of classical poets like Badr b. Hazaz [al-Fazari] (d. ca 610 CE?) and al-Akhtal  al-Taghlibi (d. 92/708).[8]

It may be pointed out that such usage is found in the Bible as well. In the Book of Isaiah, for instance, one reads, “[are] ye not children of transgression, a seed of falsehood.”[9]

What confirms this interpretation is that in the hadith under consideration the other three acts (casting up favors, disobedience to parents, and drinking) are all mentioned in superlative degrees suggesting persistent indulgence.[10] Accordingly, a meaning with a similar connotation of walad al-zina best fits the hadith. Therefore, taking it to mean one used to adultery rather than one born as a result of it confirms the flow and literary pattern of the hadith.

In view of the arguments above the correct translation of the hadith in question ought to be:

He who is used to adultery, he who casts up the favours on others, he who is disobedient to his parents and he who is addicted to drinking, will not enter Paradise.

4. Social status of children born out of wedlock in Islam

What confirms that the hadith reports were not understood to blame a child born out of wedlock is the fact that the scholars and jurists have agreed on rulings that highlight that there was no disparagement for such individuals.

A number of scholars including Ibrahim al-Nakha’i, al-Sha‘bi, ‘Ata b. Abi Rabah, al-Hasan al-Basri, al-Harith al-‘Ukli,[11] ‘Amr b. Dinar, and al-Zuhri,[12] have been reported to have pronounced that it was perfectly fine for a person born out of wedlock to lead Muslims in prayers. This was not just theory, in fact, reports from the earliest authorities confirm the same to have been in practice as well.[13]

Likewise, there was no hesitation in praying over such people after their death. Malik b. Anas (d. 179/795) writes:

لم أر أحدا من أهل العلم يكره أن يصلي على ولد الزنا وأمه

I have not seen any scholar disapproving of praying over a child born of adultery or its mother.[14]

Similarly, the testimony of such a person is accepted by the agreement of scholars.[15]

5. Unreliable hadith reports about children born of adultery

It is pertinent to note that there are certain dubious reports attributed to the Prophet (ﷺ) in condemnation of such children all of which are terribly weak in terms of narrative authority besides contradicting principles laid down in the Qur’an. Some such reports, when critically examined, actually show signs of deliberate fabrication as well. [16]

6. Conclusion

There is no authentic hadith that condemns children born of unlawful relations. The two authentic hadith that give such a semblance have different meanings; one was about a specific person in the times of the Prophet (ﷺ) and the other actually condemns those habitual of adultery. Not only is this agreed among Muslims in the wake of the facts of such reports detailed above, but Muslim scholars also agree that such people must not be meted out with special treatment in terms of appointment as prayers in leaders, acceptance of their testimonies, or in being prayed over after death.


References & Notes:

[1] Al-Sijistani, Abu Dawud, al-Sunan, (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 2007) Hadith 3963

[2] Al-Tahawi, Abu Ja‘far, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, (Beirut: Resalah Publishers, 1994) Hadith 910; Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut mentioned that scholars of hadith differed about one of the narrators of this hadith i.e. Salama b. al-Fadl. He further notes that while Ibn al-Madini, Abu Zur‘ah, and al-Nasai’i considered him weak, Ibn Ma‘in, Ibn Sa‘d, and Abu Dawud graded him as trustworthy. Ahmad [b. Hanbal] too was reported to have mentioned only good of him. Ibn ‘Adi mentioned that even his unique reports are not too odd and they are actually worthy of consideration. See also, Ahmad Shakir (editor), al-Musnad li-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1995) Vol.1, 545-546.

There appears to be a typo in the hadith as the context suggests the phrase “that besides what he had done he was also born out of adultery” was said to the Prophet (ﷺ) and not by him. Therefore, “fa qala rasul Allah” should have been “fa qila li rasul Allah.” This is also confirmed in a narration of the report with Abu Usama al-Harith which, however, comes through with a very weak chain of narrators. See, al-Haithmi, Nur al-Din, Bughyah al-Bahith ‘an Zawa’id Musnad al-Harith, (Madina: Markaz Khidmat al-Sunnah, 1992) Hadith 514. See also, al-Hakim, Abu ‘Abdullah, al-Mustadrak, (Beirut: DKI, 1990) Vol.2, 234. In the translation here this observation has been taken into account.

Some reports on the authority of ‘Aisha and Ibn ‘Abbas have that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “Child of adultery is worst of the three if he does what his parents did.” (هو شر الثلاثة إذا عمل بعمل أبويه) For the report on the authority of ‘Aisha see, Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Musnad, Edited by Shu‘aib al-Arna’ut et al. (Beirut: Al-Resalah Publishers, 2001) Hadith 24784; classified as very weak. For the report from Ibn ‘Abbas, see al-Tabarani, Abu al-Qasim, al-Mu‘jam al-Awst, (Cairo: Dar al-Haramain, n.d.) Hadith 7294; al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, (Cairo: Maktaba Ibn Taimiya, 1994) Hadith 10674; al-Baihaqi, Abu Bakr, al-Sunan al-Kubra, Edited by Dr. al-Turki (Cairo: Markaz Hijr, 2011) Hadith 20018; al-Baihaqi graded it as weak and also pointed out weakness in the report through ‘Aisha.

For an account of a discussion on this hadith in Madrassa al-Nizamiya of Baghdad in Jumada-I 576/Sep-Oct. 1180 see al-Rafi‘i, Abu Al-Qasim, al-Tadwin fi Akhbar Qazwin, (Beirut: DKI, 1987) Vol.2, 146

[3] Al-San‘ani, ‘Abdul Razzaq, al-Musannaf, (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1983) Hadith 13860-13861; a similar has been attributed to the Prophet (ﷺ) on the authority of ‘Aisha. See al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Awst, Hadith 4165; al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, Hadith 7053; al-Albani graded it as hasan in Silsala al-Ahadith al-Sahiha, (Riyadh: Maktaba al-Ma‘arif, 1995) Hadith 2187 and termed it as munkar (strange) in Silsala al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifa wa Mawdu‘a, (Riyadh: Maktaba al-Ma‘arif, 1992) Hadith 6115. The latter looks more valid for this narration comes through a narrator Ja‘far b. Muhammad al-Mada’ini who has not been duly vouched in terms of reliability.

[4] Ibn ‘Umar: Al-San‘ani, ‘Abdul Razzaq, al-Musannaf, Hadith 6625, 13862 / Al-Sha‘bi: Ibn Abi Shaiba, al-Musannaf, (Beirut: Dar Qurtuba, 2006) Hadith 12684 / ‘Ikrimah: Al-San‘ani, ‘Abdul Razzaq, al-Musannaf, Hadith 13863

[5] Al-Baghawi, Abu Muhammad, Sharh al-Sunnah,(Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1983) Vol.9, 250

[6] Al-Darimi, Abu Muhammad, al-Musnad/al-Sunan, (Riyadh: Dar al-Mughni, 2000) Hadith 2138-2139; classified as jayyid by Hussain Salim Asad; al-Albani collected supporting narrations and graded it as hasan; see al-Albani, Silsalah al-Ahadith al-Sahiha, Vol.2 Hadith 673

[7] Al-Tahawi, Abu Ja‘far, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, Vol.2, 372

[8] Al-Tahawi, Abu Ja‘far, Sharh Mushkil al-Athar, Vol.2, 372-373

[9] The Bible, Isaiah 57:4 (KJV)

[10] See al-Athyubi Wallawi, Muhammad ibn ‘Ali, Dhakhirat al-ʻUqba fi Sharḥ al-Mujtaba, (Makkah: Dar Ale Barum, 2003) Vol.40, 294; also Vol.23, 70

[11] Ibn Abi Shaiba, al-Musannaf, Hadith 6143-6144, 6149-6150

[12] Al-San‘ani, ‘Abdul Razzaq, al-Musannaf, Hadith 3837, 3840

[13] Ibn Abi Shaiba, al-Musannaf, Hadith 6142, 6145

[14] Malik b. Anas, al-Muwatta, (Abu Dhabi: Moassasah Zayd bin Nahyan, 2005) Narration 788

[15] al-Mawsuat al-Fiqhiya al-Kuwaitiya, (Kuwait: Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, 2006) Vol.45, 223-224; the sole exception is that Maliki view that testimony of such a person is not acceptable when he accuses someone of adultery.

[16] Al-Halabi, ‘Ali Hasan ‘Ali, et al., Mawsu‘at al-Ahadith wa al-Athar al-Da‘ifa wa al- Mawdu‘a, (Riyadh: Maktaba al-Ma‘arif, 1999) Hadith 19802, 19808, 19809, 27375, 29555; al-Albani, Silsala al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifa wa Mawdu‘a, Vol.10, 117-120; al-Albani, Nasir al-Din, Da‘if Jami‘ al-Saghir, (Beirut: Maktab al-Islami, n.d.) Hadith 6319

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