Family Life in Islam

Khurshid Ahmad



What are the functions which Islam wants the institution of the family to perform in the lives of the individual and the society? The family is not just a factory for the procreation of the human species, although the preservation and communication of the race is one of its objectives. It is the basis of the entire socio-cultural structure and a self-sustaining mechanism to ensure social, ideological and cultural stability over entire span of society on the one hand and in the time past, present and future on the other. Let us briefly outline the objectives and functions of family as enunciated in the Quran and the Sunnah.

A. Preservation and Continuation of the Human Race

The survival of the human race and culture, and continuity in the functioning of man's Khilafah depend on the effective operation of the mechanism for procreation and reproduction. Nature has provided for this in that the psychological and physiological differences between the sexes are complementary to each other. All the facts of procreation demand that the process needs a stable structure to come into operation. Man, woman and child all are in need of a permanent and lasting institution in order to fulfil this role. The family is the institution which can take care of the entire process, from the initial phases to its fruition. The Quran says:

"O Mankind, be conscious of your duty to your Lord, Who created you from a single soul, created of like nature, his mate, and from the two created and spread many men and women."30

"Your women are a tillage for you; so come into your tillage as you wish, and take care of what is for you, and be conscious of your duty to God and know that you shall meet Him"31

B. Protection of Morals

Sex-urge is a natural and creative urge. Although common to all living beings, in the case of men and women there are some unique aspects. In other animals, it is primarily for procreation and is regulated through instinct and the processes of nature. The mating urge is not effective 'at all times'; it is bound by its own seasons and cycles. With man, this is not so. The urge is always there and lacks any built-in physiological control mechanism. But control and regulation are essential for a healthy existence, even at a biological level. They become more important at the social and cultural levels. Neither total abstinence nor unceasing promiscuity can lead to a stable and healthy existence. Islam forbids non-Marital sex in all its forms. But it enjoins marriage to enable men and women to fulfil their natural urges, to enjoy this aspect of life in such a way that pleasure and responsibility go hand in hand. Sex through marriage and marriage alone provides the control mechanism for the sex-urge. It also acts as a safety valve for sexual morality. Through it, fulfillment and sublimation are achieved in a balanced way and equilibrium is attained in inter-sex relations. The Quran calls marriage a hisn, a 'castle', i.e. (it is a protection) against a life of debauchery. It says:

"So marry them by permission of their folk, and give them their portion of kindness as women in wedlock, so that they be honest, not debauched, nor of loose conduct."32 At another place the same point is stressed with reference to the man: "(It is lawful for you) to have the virtuous women of the believers arid virtuous women of those who were given the Scriptures before you, when you give them their marriage portions and live with them in wedlock, with honour, not in debauchery, or free love."33

C. Psycho-Emotional Stability, Love and Kindness

Another objective of marriage is to attain psychological, emotional and spiritual companionship. The relationship in the family, between all its members, and most important of all, between the husband and wife, is not merely a utilitarian relationship. It is a spiritual relationship and sustains and generates love, kindness, mercy, compassion, mutual confidence, self-sacrifice, solace and succour. The best in the human nature expresses itself in the flowering of these relationships. It is only in the context of the family that what is spiritually potential in men and women becomes real and sets the pace for the blossoming of goodness and virtue within the family and outside it. In marriage companionship, each partner seeks ever-increasing fulfillment. With children in the family, the values of fellow feeling, of love and compassion, of sacrifice for others, of tolerance and kindness are translated into reality and implanted in character. It is the family that provides the most congenial climate for the development and fulfillment of human personality. That is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) has said that home is the best place in the world. This function of marriage and family is emphasised in the Quran in a number of ways. It says:

"And (one) of His signs is that He created for you, of yourselves, spouses that you may repose in them (and find rest and tranquility in them) 'and He has set between you love and mercy."34

At another place the relationship between the spouses has been described as that between 'the body and the garment'. "They are like a garment to you and you are (like) a garment to them "35

This emphasises their sameness, their oneness, something much more sublime than legal equality. The husband and the wife both are described as each other's raiment, not one as the garment and the other the body. A garment is something nearest to the human body; it is that part of the external world which becomes a part of our being. Such is the closeness of the relationship between the spouses. Dress is something that covers the body and protects it. The spouses are protectors and guardians of each other. The dress beautifies the wearer. One feels oneself incomplete without it. Husband and wife complement each other; one completes and perfects and beautifies the other. This relationship also protects the morals -without this shield one is exposed to the dangers of illicit carnality. All these aspects have been captured in the single but succinct phrase: you are like garment for each other.

D. Socialisation and Value-Orientation

The function of childbearing remains incomplete without its more crucial part of child rearing and upbringing - their education, orientation, character-building and gradual initiation into religion and culture. It is because of this aspect that family care becomes a full-time job. No other institution or even a number of institutions can take care of this function.36 ".... and be conscious of your duty to Allah in whose name you appeal to each other (for your rights) and to (the ties of) the womb?"37

To be conscious of duty to the ties of the womb is an all-embracing demand includes obligations towards the wife, the children and other relations. And take care of what is for you" in Surah aI-Baqarah also refers to the same function.38 One is enjoined to take care of one's self and the members of the family. "O you who believe", says the Quran, "strive to protect yourselves and your wives and children from Fire."39 This objective is set forth in the form of prayer in a number of places:

"Our Lord! Grant us the comfort of our eyes from our wives and our offspring and give us all (the grace) to be in the forefront of the righteous."40

"My Lord! Make me a performer of the prayer and make my offspring prayer performing. Our Lord, accept my petition, Our Lord, forgive me and my parents."41

The family's role as a basic organ of Socialisation is referred to by the Prophet in a number of ahadith where he has said that every child is born in the nature of Islam and it is his parents who transform him into a Christian, Jew or Magian.42

The Prophet has said: "Of all that a father can give to his children, the best is their good education and training."43

"And whosoever has cared for his three daughters or three sisters and given them a good education and training, treating them with kindness till God makes them stand on their own feet, by God's grace he has earned for himself a place in the paradise."44 Although one's first responsibility is to one's children and younger brothers and sisters, this institution of family care covers a number of relations, near and distant, according to the circumstances. Care of one's parents and of the weaker or poorer members of the family has been enjoined again and again by the Quran and the Sunnah.

E. Social and Economic Security

The institution of the family is an important part of the Islamic system of socio-economic security. The rights do not relate merely to moral, cultural and ideological aspects; they include the economic and social rights of the family members. The Prophet has said: "When God endows you with prosperity, spend first on yourself and your family." Maintenance of the family is a legal duty of the husband, even if the wife is rich. Spending on the "relations of the womb" has been specifically enjoined. Poor relatives have a prior claim upon one's zakat and other social contributions. The law of inheritance also reveals the nature of economic obligations within the family structure. This responsibility extends to a number of relations. One's parents and grandparents and paternal and maternal relations have a claim upon one's wealth and resources. Someone once said to the Prophet "I have property and my father is in need of it," The Prophet (peace be upon him) replied, "You and your property belong to your father. Your children are among the finest things you acquire. Eat of what your children acquire."44

There are ahadith emphasising the rights of aunts, uncles arid other relatives. Orphans in the family are to be absorbed and treated like one's own children. Older members are to be looked after and treated with honour, kindness and respect, and in the same way these responsibilities extend to one's grandchildren and great grandchildren. Even the needy relatives of any of the spouses have claims upon the well-to-do members. One of the functions of marriage and the family is to extend the ties with relatives and to weld them all into a system of socio-economic cohesion and mutual support. This is not merely a system of economic security, although economic interdependence and support are its important elements. Islam established a system of psychosocial security.

The members of the family remain integrated within it; the aged do not go to old people's homes. Orphans are not thrown into orphanages. The poor and unemployed are not made to survive on public assistance. Instead, all of these problems are, in the first instance, solved within the framework of the family in a way that is more humane and is in keeping with the honour and needs of everyone. It is not economic deprivation alone that is catered for; emotional needs are also taken care of.45

The social role of the family becomes very clear in the context of the Quranic injunction about polygamy. Limited polygamy is permitted in Islam, as Islam is a practical religion and is meant for the guidance of human beings made of flesh and bones. There may be situations whereon forced monogamy may lead to moral or social incongruities with disastrous consequences. Sexual urge is not uniform in all human beings, nor is their capacity to control themselves. For a number of reasons, a man may be exposed to a situation where the choice before him could be between a second marriage or drift towards sin. In such situations, polygamy is permitted.46

Similarly there may be more pronounced familial or social situations. To take only one social instance, there are periods, particularly after wars, when the number of women in a society exceeds that of men. In such a situation, either some women must remain perpetual spinsters and/or live in sin or they may be absorbed in the family system through polygamy. Islam prefers their absorption in the family. This points to the social function of marriage as a corrective of certain social imbalances.

Similarly, there may be orphans in the family or society and the family alone can provide them with the love, care and dignity they need. The verse in the Quran which gives permission for polygamy was revealed after the war of Uhad wherein about ten per cent of the Muslim army was killed, creating a problem of widows and orphans in the society. Although the permission is general, the historical context provides important clues to the function of the institution. The Quran says:

"And if you fear that you will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four and if you fear that you cannot do justice (to more than one) then (keep to) one (only) or that which your right hand possesses. Thus it is more likely that you will not do injustice."47

Marriage has also been encouraged to extend protection for the weak within the family. The Prophet commented on the behaviour of a bright young man who married an older widow because he had younger sisters, as their mother had died, and he wanted to marry a woman who could take care of them and bring them up properly,

The family, in the Islamic scheme of life, provides for economic security as it provides for moral, social and emotional security and also leads to integration and cohesion among the relations. Thus, it establishes a very wide and much more humane system of socio-economic security.

F. Widening the Family Horizons and Producing Social Cohesion in Society.

Marriage is also a means to widen the area of one's relations and develop affinities between different groups of the various societies - between families, tribes and nationalities. The Prophet (peace be upon him) has said:

"Matrimonial alliances (between two families or tribes) increase friendship more than anything else."48 Marriage acts as bridge between different families, tribes and communities and has been instrumental in the absorption of diverse people into a wider affinity. In practice, marriage has played this role in the early Islamic period as well as throughout Islamic history and in all parts of the world.

G. Motivation for Effort and Sacrifice

It has also been indirectly suggested that marriage increases one's sense of responsibility and induces one to make greater efforts towards making a living and improving one's economic lot. This aspect is referred to by the Quran when it enjoins people to marry, it says:

"Marry those among you who are single and (marry) your slaves, male and female, that are righteous; if they are poor, God will enrich them out of His bounty; God is All-Embracing, All-Knowing."49

These are some of the major functions, which are performed by the family in Islamic society. It provides for the reproduction and procreation of the human race. It acts as the protector of the morals of the individual and society. It creates a congenial context for the spiritual and emotional fulfillment of the spouses, as also of all other members of the family and promotes love, compassion and tranquility in society. It initiates the new generations into the culture, tradition and further evolution of their civilisation. It is the sheet anchor of a system of socio-economic security. It sharpens the motivation of man and strengthens incentives for effort and social progress. It is the cradle of civilisation and a bridge that enables the new generations to move into the society. It is the link that joins the past with the present with the future in such a way that social transition and change take place through a healthy and stable process. Thus it is, on the one hand, the means adopted for regulating relations between the sexes and providing the mechanism by which the relation of a child to the community is determined and on the other, it is the basic unit of society integrating its members within and enabling them to play their ideological and cultural role in the world (both now and in the future). This is the all-embracing significance of the institution of the family.50 If this institution is weakened or destroyed, the future of the entire culture and civilisation will be threatened.

The key role in the proper development of the family is played by the woman. In an Islamic society, she is freed from the rigours of running about in search of a living and attending to the demands of employment and work. Instead she more or less exclusively devotes herself to the family, not merely to her own children, but to all the dependant relations in the family. She is responsible for running it in the best possible manner. She looks after its physical, emotional, educational, administrative and other needs. It is a world itself and involves a network of activities, intellectual, physical and organisational. She runs and rules this world with responsibility and authority.51