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The Family Structure in Islam

Hammudah 'Abd al 'Ati
3/6/2011
23396 views

 

There have been many definitions and descriptions of the family. For our purpose, we shall adopt the following simplified definition. The family is a human social group whose members are bound together by the bond of blood ties and/or marital relationship. The family bond entails mutual expectations of rights and obligations that are prescribed by religion, enforced by law, and observed by the group of members. Accordingly, the family members share certain mutual commitments. These pertain to identity and provision, inheritance and counsel, affection for the young and security for the aged, and maximization of effort to ensure continuity of the family.

 

As can be clearly seen from the above definition, the foundation of the family in Islam is blood ties and/or marital commitments. Adoption, mutual alliance, clientage, private consent to sexual intimacy, and 'common law' or 'trial' marriages do not institute a family in the Islamic sense. Islam builds the family on solid grounds that are capable of providing reasonable continuity, true security, and mature intimacy. The foundations of the family have to be so firm and natural as to nurture sincere reciprocity and moral gratification. Islam recognizes that there is no more natural relationship than that of blood, and no more wholesome pattern of sexual intimacy than one in which morality and gratification are joined.

 

Islam recognizes the religious virtue, the social necessity, and the moral advantages of marriage. The normal course of behavior for the Muslim individual is to be family-oriented and to seek a family of one's own. Marriage and family are central in the Islamic system. There are many passages in the Qur'an and statements by the Prophet which go as far as to say that when a Muslim marries, he has thereby perfected half his religion; so let him be God-minded and careful of his 'other half'.

 

Muslim scholars have interpreted the Qur'an to mean that marriage is a religious duty, a moral safeguard, and a social commitment. As a religious duty, it must be fulfilled; but like all other duties in Islam, it is enjoined only upon those who are capable of meeting the responsibilities involved.

 

1. The Meaning of Marriage

 

Whatever meaning people assign to marriage, Islam views it as a strong bond, a challenging commitment in the fullest sense of the word. It is a commitment to life itself, to society, and to the dignified, meaningful survival of the human race. It is a commitment that married couples make to one another as well as to God. It is a kind of commitment in which they find mutual fulfillment and self-realization, love and peace, compassion and serenity, comfort and hope. All this is because marriage in Islam is regarded first and foremost as a righteous act, an act of responsible devotion. Sexual control may be a moral triumph, reproduction a social necessity or service, and sound health a gratifying state of mind. Yet, these values and purposes of marriage take on a special meaning and are reinforced if they are intertwined with the idea of God, if they are also conceived as religious commitments, and internalized as Divine blessings. And this seems to be the focal point of marriage in Islam. To paraphrase some Qur'anic verses, mankind are called: to be dutiful to God, Who created them from a single soul, and from it or of it created its mate, and from the two of them scattered abroad many men and women (4:1). It was God Who created mankind out of one living soul, and created of that soul a spouse so that he might find comfort and rest in her (7:107). And it is a sign of God that He has created men, of themselves, mates to seek in their company peace and tranquility, and has set between them mutual love and affection. Surely, in that are signs for those who reflect (30:211). Even at the most trying times of married life, and in the midst of legal disputes and litigation, the Qur'an reminds the parties of God's law; it commands them to be kind to one another, truly charitable toward one another, and above all dutiful to God.

 

It is noteworthy that the Islamic provisions of marriage apply to men and women equally. For example, if celibacy is not recommended for men, it is equally so for women. This is in recognition of the fact that women's needs are equally legitimate and are seriously taken into consideration. In fact, Islam regards marriage to be the normal, natural course for women just as it is for men. It may even be more so for women because it assures them, among other things, of relative economic security. This significant additional advantage for women does not, however, characterize marriage as a purely economic transaction. Indeed, the most peripheral aspect of marriage in Islam is the economic aspect, no matter how persuasive it may be. The Prophet is reported to have said that a woman is ordinarily sought as a wife for her wealth, for her beauty, for the nobility of stock, or for her religious qualities; but blessed and fortunate is he who chooses his mate for piety in preference to everything else. The Qur'an commands marriage to the spouseless and the pious even though they may be poor and slaves (24:32). On the other hand, whatever dowry (marriage gifts) a man gives his prospective wife belongs to her; and whatever she may have acquired prior to or after marriage is hers alone. There is no necessary community of property between husbands and wives. Furthermore, it is the husband who is responsible for the maintenance and economic security of the family. He must even provide the wife with the kind of help and service to which she was used before marriage, and, according to some scholars, she is under no legal obligation to do the routine housework, although she may do so, and usually does, for some reason or other, e.g. cooperation, economy, etc.

 

2. The Performance of Marriage

 

Because Islam considers marriage a very serious commitment, it has prescribed certain measures to make the marital bond as permanent as humanly possible. The parties must strive to meet the conditions of proper age, general compatibility, reasonable dowry, good will, free consent, unselfish guardianship, honorable intentions, and judicious discretion. When the parties enter into a marital contract, the intention must be clear to make the bond permanent, free from any casual or temporary designations. For this reason, trial marriages, term marriages, and all marriages that appear to be experimental, casual, or temporary, are forbidden in Islam. In one of his statements, the Prophet condemned the men and women who relish frequent change of partners, that is, the 'tasters', saying: 'Allah does not like the tasters [i.e. men and women who enjoy changing partners after short-lived marriages].'

 

However, to insist on the permanent character of marriage does not mean that the marital contract is absolutely indissoluble. Muslims are designated by the Qur'an as a middle nation and Islam is truly a religion of the 'golden mean', a well-balanced and well-integrated system. This is particularly clear in the case of marriage which Islam regards as neither a sacrament nor a simple civil contract. Rather, marriage in Islam is something unique with very special features of both sacramental and contractual nature. It is equally true that the alternative to the extreme of casual or temporary marriage is not the other extreme of absolute indissolubility of the marital contract. The Islamic course is one of equitable and realistic moderation. The marriage contract should be taken as a serious, permanent bond. But it does not work well for any valid reason, it may be terminated in kindness and honor, with equity and peace.

 

3. The Husband-Wife Relationship

 

With piety as the basis of spouse selection, and with the earnest satisfaction of the conditions of marriage, the parties should be well on the way to a happy and fulfilling married life. However, Islam goes much further than this in setting the course of behavior for husbands and wives. Many are the statements of the Qur'an and the Sunnah that prescribe kindness and equity, compassion and love, sympathy and consideration, patience and good will. In a part of a hadith the Prophet goes as far as to declare that the best Muslim is the one who is best to his family. In another hadith he states that the greatest, most blessed joy in life is a good, righteous wife.

 

The consummation of marriage creates new roles for the parties concerned. Each role is a set of equitable, proportionate rights and obligations. The role of the husband revolves around the moral principle that it is his solemn duty to God to treat his wife with kindness, honor, and patience; to keep her honorably or free her from the marital bond honorably; and to cause her no harm or grief (Qur'an, 2:229-32; 4:19). The role of the wife is summarized in the verse that women have rights even as they have duties, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree over them (2:228). This degree is usually interpreted by Muslim scholars in conjunction with another passage which states, among other things, that men are trustees, guardians, and protectors of women because God has made some of them excel others and because men expend of their means (Qur'an, 4:34). It may be likened to what sociologist call 'instrumental leadership' or external authority in the household due to the division of labor and role differentiation. It does not, however, mean any categorical discrimination or superiority of one sex to the other.

 

a. The wife's rights: the husband's obligations. Translated into rules of behavior, these ethical principles allocate to the wife certain rights and corresponding obligations. Because the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet have commanded kindness to women, it is the husband's duty to consort with his wife in an equitable and kind manner. One specific consequence of this Divine command is his responsibility for the full maintenance of the wife, a duty which he must discharge cheerfully, without reproach, injury, or condescension.

 

Components of maintenance: Maintenance entails the wife's incontestable right to lodging, clothing, sustenance, and general care and wellbeing. The wife's residence must be adequate so as to provide her with reasonable level of privacy, comfort, and independence. Foremost is the welfare of the wife and the stability of the marriage. What is true of the residence is true of clothing, food, and general care. The wife has the right to be clothed, fed, and cared for by the husband, in accordance with his means and her style of life. These rights are to be exercised without either extravagance or miserliness.

 

Nonmaterial rights: The wife's material rights are not her only assurances and securities. She has other rights of moral nature; and they are equally binding and specific. A husband is commanded by the law of God to treat his wife with equity, to respect her feelings, and to show her kindness and consideration. She is not to be shown any aversion by the husband or subjected to suspense and uncertainty. A corollary of this rule is that no man is allowed to keep his wife with the intention of inflicting harm on her or hindering her freedom. If he has not love or sympathy for her, she has the right to demand freedom from the marital bond, and no one may stand in her way to a new life.

 

b. The wife's obligations: the husband's rights. The main obligation of the wife as a partner in a marital relationship is to contribute to the success and happiness of the marriage as much as possible. She must be attentive to the comfort and wellbeing of her mate. She may neither offend him nor hurt his feelings. Perhaps nothing can illustrate the point better than the Qur'anic statement which describes the righteous people as those who pray, “Our Lord! Grant unto us wives and offspring who will be the joy and the comfort of our eyes, and guide us to be models of righteousness (Qur'an, 25:74).”

 

This is the basis on which all the wife's obligations rest and from which they flow. To fulfill this basic obligation, the wife must be faithful, trustworthy, and honest. More specifically, she must not deceive her husband by deliberately avoiding conception lest it deprive him of legitimate progeny. Not must she allow any other person to have access to that which is exclusively the husband's right, i.e. sexual intimacy. A corollary of this is that she must not receive or entertain strange males in her home without his knowledge and consent. Nor may she accept their gifts without his approval. This is probably meant to avoid jealousy, suspicion, gossip, etc., and also to maintain the integrity of all parties concerned. The husband's possessions are his trust. If she has access to any portion thereof, of if she is entrusted with any fund, she must discharge her duty wisely and thriftily. She may not lend or dispose of any of his belongings without his permission.

 

With respect to intimacy, the wife is to make herself desirable; to be attractive, responsive, and cooperative. A wife may not deny herself to her husband, for the Qur'an speaks of them as a comfort to each other. Due consideration is, of course, given to health and decency. Moreover, the wife is not permitted to do anything that may render her companionship less desirable or less gratifying. If she does any such thing or neglects herself, the husband has the right to interfere with her freedom to rectify the situation. To ensure maximum self-fulfillment for both partners, he is not permitted to do anything on his part that may impede here gratification.

 

4. The Parent-Child Relationship

 

a. The child's rights: the parent's duties. Islam's general approach to children may be summarized in a few principles. First, it is a Divine injunction that no child may become the cause of harm to the parents (Qur'an, 2:233). Secondly, by implication the parents should reciprocate and cause the child no harm either. The Qur'an recognizes very clearly that parents are not always immune from over-protectedness or negligence. On the basis of this recognition, it has, thirdly, established certain guidelines and pointed our certain facts with respect to children. It points out that children are joys of life as well as sources of pride, seeds of vanity and false security, fountains of distress and temptation. But it hastens to stress the greater joys of the spirit and caution parents against overconfidence, false pride, or misdeeds that might result from having children. The religious moral principal of this position is that every individual, parent or child, relates to God directly and is independently responsible for his/her deeds. No child can absolved the parent on the Day of Judgment. Nor can a parent intercede on behalf of his/her child. Finally, Islam is strongly sensitive to the crucial dependence of the child on the parents. Their decisive role in forming the child's personality is clearly recognized in Islam. In a very suggestive statement, the Prophet declared that every child is born into the true malleable nature of fitrah (i.e. the pure natural state of Islam), the child's parents later make the child into a Jew, Christian, or pagan.

 

According to these guidelines, and more specifically, one of the most inalienable rights of the child in Islam is the right to life and equal life chances. Preservation of the child's life is the third commandment in Islam (6:151; cf. 17:23 ff.).

 

Another equally inalienable right is the right of legitimacy, which holds that every child shall have a father, and one father only. A third set of rights comes under socialization, upbringing, and general care. To take good care of children is one of the most commendable deeds in Islam. The Prophet was fond of children and he expressed his conviction that his Muslim community would be noted among other communities for its kindness to children. It is charity of a higher order to attend to their spiritual welfare, educational needs, and general wellbeing. Interest in and responsibility for the child's welfare are questions of first priority. According to the Sunnah of the Prophet, it is highly recommended that, by the seventh day, the child should be given a good, pleasant name, and its head shaved, along with all the other hygienic measures required for healthy growth. This should be made a festive occasion marked with joy and charity including the slaughtering of a lamb.

 

Responsibility for and compassion toward the child is a matter of religious importance as well as social concern. Whether the parents are alive or deceased, present or absent, known or unknown, the child is to be provided with optimum care. Whenever there are executors or relatives close enough to be held responsible for the child's welfare, they shall be directed to discharge this duty. But if there is no next of kin, care for the child becomes a collective responsibility of the whole Muslim community, designated officials and ordinary people alike.

 

b. The child's duties: the parent's rights. The parent-child relationship is complementary. Parent and child in Islam are bound together by mutual obligations and reciprocal commitments. But the age differential is sometimes so wide as to cause parents to grow physically weak and mentally feeble. This is often accompanied by impatience, degeneration of energy, heightened sensitivity, and perhaps misjudgment. It may also result in abuses of parental authority or inter-generational estrangement and uneasiness, something similar to what is now called the 'generation gap'. It was probably in view of this considerations that Islam has taken cognizance of certain facts and made basic provisions to govern the individual's relationship to his parents.

 

The fact that parents are advanced in age and are generally believed to be more experienced does not by itself invalidate their views or certify their standards. Equally, the young are not, simply by virtue of their youth, the sole fountain of energy, idealism, or wisdom. In various contexts, the Qur'an cites instances where the parents were proven wrong in their encounter with their children and also where children misjudged the positions of their parents (see Qur'an, 6:74; 11:42-46; 19:42-48).

 

More significant, perhaps, is the fact that customs, folkways, traditions, or the parents' value system and standards do not in themselves constitute truth and rightness. In several passages, the Qur'an strongly reproaches those who may stray away from the truth just because it is new to them, or contrary to the familiar, or incompatible with the parent's values. Furthermore, it emphasizes the fact that if loyalty or obedience to the parents is likely to alienate the individual from God, he must, as it were, side with God. It is true, the parents merit consideration, love, compassion, and mercy. But if they step out of their proper domain to intrude upon the rights of God, a demarcation line must be drawn and maintained.

 

The Qur'an sums up the whole question in the master concept of ihsam which denotes what is right, good, and beautiful. The practical implications of the concept of ihsan for the parents entail active empathy and patience, gratitude and compassion, respect for them and prayers for their souls, honoring their legitimate commitments and providing them with sincere counsel.

 

One basis dimension of ihsan is deference. Parents have the right to expect obedience from their children if only in partial return for what they parents have done for them. But if parents demand the wrong or ask for the improper, disobedience becomes not only justifiable, but also imperative. Obey or disobey, the children's attitude toward parents may not be categorical submissiveness or irresponsible defiance.

 

The last, integral part of ihsan to be mentioned here is that children are responsible for the support and maintenance of parents. It is an absolute religious duty to provide for the parents in case of need and help them to make the lives as comfortable as possible.

 

Other Aspects of Family Life

 

Closely connected with family life is the treatment of 'servants', other family members, relations, and neighbors. To those who keep permanent maids, Prophet Muhammad has given advice and good tidings. 'Masters' are enjoined to treat their servants like brothers, and not like slaves, because who ever treats his servant well, said the Prophet, God will make his death easy and pleasant, a moment which is ordinarily painful and difficult. Servants are entitled to justice, kindness, mercy, food, clothing, accommodation and other personal expenses. The Prophet went as far as to say that they should be fed with, and dressed in, the same stuff as used by their masters, and this is to be provided by the masters themselves as a part of their obligations to the servants. They are not to be persecuted or disdained or overcharged with work. This stipulation is designed to show how Islam dignifies humanity and honors labor without inviting class conflict or the despotic authority of the proletariat. Being a servant or laborer does not deprive any person of his/her rights or affect his/her dignity as a human being. Nor does it make him/her addicted to the opium of the utopian proletariat. All citizens of a real Muslim society stand on equal footing, because Islam does not recognize the cast system or second class citizenship. The only superiority recognized by Islam is that of piety and good deeds in the service of God (Qur'an, 9:105; 49:13).

 

Man is ordained by God to extend the utmost help and kindness to other family members and relations, to show them true feelings of love and care. It might be interesting to note that the word 'kinship' in Arabic is derived from a root word which means mercy (rahim and rahmah). Kindness to one's kinsfolk is a short cut to Paradise, which is otherwise forbidden for those who neglect their duties in this respect. The extension of kind treatment to relatives is described by the Prophet as a Divine blessing of one's life and provisions. It is a sacred duty to be good to kin even though they may not respond in a similar way. The duty is enjoined by God and should be observed for the sake of God, regardless of the kin's response (Qur'an, 2:177; 4:36; 16:90; 17:23-26).

 

The status of neighbors is very high in the viewpoint of Islam. Neighbors of all kinds enjoy a great number of privileges conferred on them by Islam. In this elaboration on the Qur'anic teaching relevant to this point, Prophet Muhammad is reported as saying that nobody can be a true believer unless his neighbors feel secure and safe from him. Also, nobody can be a true believer, if his neighbors pass the night hungry while he has a full stomach. He who is best to his neighbors, stated the Prophet, will enjoy the neighborhood of God on the Day of Resurrection. Presents and gifts, as well as joys and sorrows, should be exchanged between neighbors. In another statement, the Prophet said: “Do you know what the rights of the neighbor are? Help him if he asks your help; give him relief if he seeks relief from you; lend to him if he needs a loan; show him concern if he is distressed; nurse him when he is ill; attend his funeral if he dies; congratulate him if he meet any good; sympathize with him if any calamity befalls him; do not block his air by raising your building high without his permission; do not harass him; give him a share when you buy fruits, and if you do not give him, bring your purchases into your house quietly and do not let your children take them out to excite the anger of his children.”

 

Moreover, the Prophet is reported as having said that the rights of the neighbors were so much emphasized by the Angel Gabriel that the thought they would perhaps be entitled to a share in one's inheritance. (See also the Qur'anic verses listed in the previous paragraph.)






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