Paper short abstract:
In Islamic law, breast-feeding creates 'milk kinship'. Formula milk and changing social patterns have led to a decline in such relations, but the legal institution endures as a useful and unique resource for Islamic scholars thinking through the implications of new reproductive technologies.
Paper long abstract:
Anthropological studies of Middle Eastern kinship follow Islamic historiography in positing a pre-Islamic Arabian kinship system rich in 'elective' kinship. This was brought to an end under Islam, which prohibited adoption and other, allied practices. However, one such possibility for creating kinship, breast-feeding instituting 'milk kinship' (ridâ'), was instituted in Islamic law.
My own research has focused on 'new kinship' in the region, investigating Islamic legal reactions to new reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilisation and the practice of such techniques among Muslim communities in Lebanon. I found many examples of the chosen, mutable and non-biogenetic relations stressed in recent debates on kinship cross-culturally. Donor sperm and eggs are employed, along with, albeit rarely, surrogacy arrangements. Adoption is also common, despite its nominal prohibition for Muslims. However, these practical options are kept secret 'in front of the neighbours', in favour of an ideology of immutable relations given by birth, and in response to the demands of social propriety, especially a code of sexual morality centred on female sexual continence.
Not all these relations are 'fictive'. A whole domain of Islamic legal discourse has arisen around such practices, drawing heavily on the antecedents of Islam's rich legal heritage: 'milk kinship' provides one way of thinking through the ethical dilemmas of the use of donor eggs and surrogacy, for example. Such techniques offer invaluable solutions for stigmatised infertile couples, especially women who might otherwise be divorced or whose husbands might take another wife. Some Shiite authorities have proposed legal means of conferring legitimacy upon children issuing from such practices, rethinking and revitalising 'ritual kinship' within the context of globalised medical technology and ethical frameworks. In this paper, I present examples of these debates and their consequences for contemporary Muslim kinship in Lebanon.
Rethinking ritual kinship