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FAMILY. The basic social unit of Islamic society is the family. If Islam can be described as the soul of Islamic society, then the family might be seen metaphorically as its body. For thousands of years, the family has been the principal focus of people’s emotional, economic, and political identity. Changes in the nineteenth and particularly the twentieth centuries have placed great strains on the unit, yet the family, together with the Islamic faith, retains a central place in the lives of peoples in every social class, in both rural and urban contexts, and in every country classified as Islamic.

“Family” means different things in different societies and in different contexts. In the Western world of the twentieth century, “family” is often understood as the “nuclear family,” one or two parents and their children. The Arabic word for family, ahl or ahila, is a more comprehensive term and may include grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins on both sides of the marital connection. In its broadest sense, the family might be perceived as an even larger unit, equal to the ummah, or the group of believers in Islam, the Islamic community, or “family” itself.

As early as 3000 BCE in ancient Sumer, the site of the contemporary nation-state of Iraq, evidence is found of a social unit similar to the contemporary Islamic family. This early manifestation, recorded in tablets and on monumental steles, was also a precursor to the family structure of Judaism and Christianity, the other two great monotheistic religions of the Middle East. Proponents of Judaism and Christianity are known in Islam as “people of the book” or dhimmis, those related to Islam through holy scripture and to whom one, as a Muslim, must be tolerant.

This early form of the family was patrilineal, a form of social organization found in perhaps 8o to 9o percent of all human societies. In a patrilineal society, the name of the child and the inheritance pass through the male line; children therefore are known by the names of their fathers. Although all patrilineal families are not equally patriarchal, the linguistic emphasis placed on the male fine to an important degree reflects male dominance, both legal and informal, in social relations. The use of the term “patriarch” to refer to the prophets of Judaism and Christianity is an indication of this tendency.

The advent of Islam in the seventh century CE brought changes to the structure of the Arabian family. Although the basic outline of patrilineality was retained, some modifications are evident, particularly in the place of women. The Prophet Muhammad is often cited as having paid special attention to the plight of the less fortunate in society-women, orphans, slaves -and the revelations recorded in the Qur’an support this.

First and foremost, the Qur’an prohibited infanticide, a practice that seems to have reached scandalous proportions in pre-Islamic Arabia, particularly in the case of infant girls. The Qur’an also recognized women as having legal status as persons with rights and responsibilities. Women have the same religious duties as men, though they may be excused from fasting during Ramadan, for example, if they are pregnant or nursing. (Such latitude is clearly given to protect not only the health of the individual woman, but that of the child, either unborn or newly born, and by extension, the health of the family unit itself.) The Qur’an also gives women the right to accept or reject a marriage partner and the right to divorce in certain cases (the desertion, impotence, or insanity of the husband are most often cited).

In the past, and to a great extent today, the family provided economic and emotional support to its members. An individual, as Halim Barakat points out, “inherited” his or her religious, class, and cultural identity, which was reinforced by the customs and mores of the group. In exchange for the allegiance of its members, the family group served as an employment bureau, insurance agency, child and family counseling service, old people’s home, bank, teacher, home for the handicapped (including the mentally ill), and hostel in time of economic need. Men and women both remained members of their natal families for all of their lives, even after marriage. A divorced woman returned to her natal family, which was responsible for her support until remarriage. A divorced man returned to his natal family, and his parents cared for his children. In exchange for these services, the individual members were expected to place the group’s survival above their personal desires, especially at the time of marriage, and to uphold the reputation of the family by behaving properly and “maintaining the family honor.”

This, of course, was the ideal. In everyday life, ideals are not always realized in practice. Some members have always rebelled and refused to marry the person chosen for them by their family. Some groups did not take in divorced members, sometimes out of poverty, sometimes out of spite. Vengeful fathers did not always pass on to their sons, at the time of maturity, authority over land or shops. Maintaining the family honor sometimes resulted in tragedy. And the care of handicapped and elderly members often put an undue stress upon the younger members of the family.

Yet the institution persisted because it met real needs for people, people for whom no other institution existed. The shift that took place in the West, the assumption of economic and social responsibilities first by the religious hierarchy and then by the secular state, has not occurred in the same manner in Islamic society. Thus for most of its history the family has been an institution that did not merely reproduce itself physically, but reproduced the religious and social values of its members.

The Islamic family unit came under new pressures with the beginning of Western colonial rule in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From Egypt to India, Morocco to Indonesia, European immigrants, soldiers, and administrators assumed political control. Local language, culture, economic and social structures were devalued and efforts were made to replace them with Western models. The family unit was not immune to these efforts, but attempted to reject Western incursion. The family unit became first a religious, cultural, and social refuge from colonial domination, and eventually the site of political resistance. This action was strengthened by Western colonial policy, which in most areas left local control intact only in religious affairs and, by inference, Islamic family law, including inheritance. This was crucial for the continuation and support of the family, which in response to the presence of strangers, turned in upon itself. Men, often ridiculed and rejected in the new colonial governmental and economic structures, found their families a sanctuary, a representation of Islamic religious values wherein they were honored. Protection of Muslim women from strangers became more important as well. For example, the all-enveloping jallabah with hood and face veil, found in Morocco today, only dates from about 1912, when the French conquered Morocco. Before that time, women as well as men in Morocco wore the ha’ik, a length of cloth wrapped about the body in various ways. The Qur’anic school increased in importance as a source of religious instruction even as colonial governments were attempting to limit its influence and elites were attending the secular schools of Christian missionaries.

After 1919, peoples of the Islamic Middle East realized that the independence promised by the Allies was not to be. Organized anti colonial resistance became more serious and militant, as was also the case in India, Indonesia, and other parts of the Islamic world subject to Western European control. The family became the focus of such resistance. Such activity was justified in rhetoric that spoke of maintaining Islamic religion and culture, especially in the family, in the face of a common enemy-Western political and economic power, with its perceived secularist or at least anti-Islamic aims.

Since independence from colonial rule (in the 1950s and 1960s), the family unit has been subject to a variety of economic and political pressures. High rates of unemployment have prompted millions of men and some women to search for work in Europe and the Gulf States. Inflation has also meant that large numbers of women, for the first time, have taken jobs outside their homes. Conflict in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iran, as well as Israel/Palestine, has led to family disruption through violent deaths and forced migration. The movement in almost all Islamic countries from rural to urban predominance has further challenged the customary ties of family life. Only in the oil-rich states of the Gulf is it possible for the religious model of the Islamic family to be maintained: father as provider, mother as child bearer and rearer in the home.

Thus the current debate throughout the Islamic world on the place and function of the family is a crucial debate, for it involves not only the suggestion that family responsibilities shall be passed from the family unit to the state, but the definition of basic individual rights: those of women, men, and children. The status of women is not an isolated issue but at the core of the whole debate, for the woman has always been seen as the center of the family unit, the hub around which all its economic, personal, and political activities revolved.

Discussions of shari`ah family law reflect these concerns, as Qur’anic family law defines relations between men and women through legislation of marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and polygyny (the Qur’an surah that allows a man to take up to four wives if he can treat them equally). Islamic family law currently operates in most Islamic countries, with the exception of Turkey and Tunisia. But current movements are apparent in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to stiffen the application of shad `ah family law, and other movements in Algeria and Egypt seek to amend or replace Islamic family law with more secular personal status laws. Both movements underscore the societal awareness of the importance of the family as the base of society, a force for moral and social order, and the mechanism to insure the stability of the next generation. The debate concerns not only the family, but family planning, religious and secular education, and political participation, as well as law, and arguments on both sides use the good of the family as a justification for greater or lesser legal changes. Current popular and widespread Islamic movements also see the family as the rock on which indigenous religious socialization and culture stand. They argue for greater family cohesion in what is perceived as a rapidly changing, unpredictable, and hostile world, where families are being perforce stretched, fragmented, and broken. Khurshid Ahmad, director-general of the Islamic Foundation at the University of Pakistan, says, “We are living in a period of cultural crisis . . . the very foundations of contemporary society are being threatened from within and without. The family, as a basic and most sensitive institution of culture, is being undermined by powerful and destructive forces.”

In modern Iran, since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the family has become the platform for the enunciation of the state’s goals and ideals, and the subject of government legislation by the Shi`i `ulama’ in many areas of life other than family law-education, leisure activities, literature, politics. The view in Libya, as set down in the 1970s by Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi in his three Green Books, is that “The social bond which binds together each human group, from the family through the tribe to the nation, is the basis for the movement of history.” At some level, the family is defined as society, and this formulation, although not stated, leads logically to the family as ummah, the community of believers in Islam.

To many observers, the Islamic family seems not to be disintegrating, but rather regrouping and reorganizing in response to contemporary needs. In places where the family unit itself has been dispersed due to war, natural disaster, or economic need, the values and the functions of the family are resurfacing in different forms. Workers abroad group together on the basis of old family ties; young men entering the workforce find jobs in the same factories or businesses as their sisters, cousins, or uncles. For men of elite political groups, family ties continue to be important as political party bases shift. Newcomers to the city make connections through family members. Men on their own in a new place may turn to Islamic religious “brotherhoods,” or groups where, as they themselves say, they “feel like one of the family.” Women whose husbands are working abroad often form kin like ties with neighbors.

Through its adaptations and evolution, the Muslim family unit has proven itself to be an interdependent and flexible social institution. For many, it remains the best way to provide for individual needs as well as group survival.

The British historian Lawrence Stone found the English family of past centuries to be a searching, acting, moving institution. The Muslim family, from its sixth century foundations to its modern expression, might be viewed in the same way, as a structure flexible enough to deal with new pressures and strong enough in its religious and social manifestations to respond to and become part of changing conditions.

[See also Family Law; Marriage and Divorce; Polygyny.]


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Esposito, John. Women in Muslim Family Law. Syracuse, 1982. Fanon, Frantz. Studies in a Dying Colonialism. New York, 1965. Fernea, Elizabeth, ed. Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change. Austin, 1985.

Femea, Elizabeth Warnock, and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds. Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Austin, 1977. Includes selections from the Qur’an on the subject of women and the family, pages 7-26.

Gordon, David. Women of Algeria: An Essay on Change. Cambridge, Mass., 1968.

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Minault, Gail, ed. The Extended Family: Women and Political Participation in India and Pakistan. Columbia, Mo., 1981.

Mueller, Eric. “Revitalizing Old Ideas: Developments in Middle Eastern Family Law.” In Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change, edited by Elizabeth Fernea, pp. 224-228. Austin, 1985.

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Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England (1500-1800). London, 1977.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/family/

  • writerPosted On: November 7, 2012
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