Milk Kinship


Milk kinship, formed during nursing by a non-biological mother, was a form of fostering allegiance with fellow community members. In the early modern period, milk kinship was widely practiced in many Arab countries for both religious and strategic purposes. Like the Christian practice of godparenting, milk kinship established a second family that could take responsibility for a child whose biological parents came to harm. ‘Milk kinship in Islam thus appears to be a culturally distinctive, but by no means unique, institutional form of adoptive kinship.’ A child in one of these societies would be breastfed by a woman of a lower class, enabling the child’s biological mother to maintain her modesty.

The childhood of the prophet Muhammad illustrates the practice of traditional Arab milk kinship. In his early childhood, he was sent away to foster-parents amongst the Bedouin. By nursing him, Halimah bint Abdullah became his ‘milk-mother.’ The rest of her family was drawn into the relationship as well: her husband al-Harith became Muhammad’s ‘milk-father,’ and Muhammad was raised alongside their biological children as a ‘milk-brother.’ This case suggests that it was typical for a child’s wet nurse to be responsible for raising him.

Sunni Islam prohibits marriage between milk-brothers and milk-sisters, or milk-children and milk-parents. This stricture was sometimes deployed for strategic purposes such as blocking undesirable marriages. Shi’ite Islam goes farther in this restriction by also prohibiting marriage to the consanguineous kin of a milk-parent. In early modern Shi’ite societies, though, the wet nurse was always from a subordinate group, so that marriage to her kin would not have been likely. ‘Colactation links two families of unequal status and creates a durable and intimate bond; it removes from ‘clients’ their outsider status but excludes them as marriage partners…it brings about a social relationship that is an alternative to kinship bonds based on blood.’

People of different races and religions could be brought together strategically through the bonding of the milk mother and their milk children. Milk kinship was as relevant for peasants as ‘fostering’ or as ‘hosting’ other children, in that it secured the good will from their masters and their wives. Noble offspring were often sent to milk kin fosterers that would foster them to maturity so that the children would be raised by their successive status subordinates. The purpose of this was for political importance to build milk kin as bodyguards. This was a major practice in the Hindu Kush society.

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