Closely intertwined with interdependence is the fourth basic characteristic of the Qur’anic society which serves to improve male-female relations. This is the institution of the extended family. In addition to the members of the nucleus that constitutes the family- mother, father and their children-the Islamic family or ‘a’ilah also includes grandparents, uncles, aunts and their offspring.
Normally Muslim families are “residentially extended;” that is, their members live communally with three or more generations of relatives in a single building or compound. Even where this residential version of the extended family is not possible or adhered to, family connections reaching far beyond the nuclear unit are evident in strong psychological, social, economic and even political ties.
The extended family solidarity is prescribed and strengthened by the Holy Qur’an, where we find repeated references to the rights of kin (17:23-26; 4:7-9; 8:41; 24:22; etc.) and the importance of treating them with kindness (2 :83; 16: 90; etc.). Inheritance portions, for not only the nuclear family members but those of the extended family as well, are specifically prescribed (2:180-182; 4:33,176).
Dire punishment is threatened for those who ignore these measures for intra-family support (4:7-12). The extended family of Islamic culture is thus not merely a product of social conditions, it is an institution anchored in the word of God Himself and buttressed by Qur’anic advice and rules.
The extended family is an institution which can provide tremendous benefits for both women and men when it exists in conjunction with the other basic characteristics of a Qur’anic society.
1) It guards against the selfishness or eccentricity of any one party, since the individual faces not a single spouse but a whole family of peers, elders and children if he or she goes “off course.”
2) It allows for careers for women without detriment to themselves, spouse, children or elders, since there are always other adults in the home to assist the working wife or mother. Career women in an Islamic extended family suffer neither the physical and emotional burden of overwork nor the feeling of guilt for neglecting maternal, marital or familial responsibilities.
In fact, without this sort of family institution, it is impossible to imagine any feasible solution for the problems now facing Western society. As more and more women enter the work force, the nuclear family is unable to sustain the needs of its members. The difficulties in the single parent family are of course magnified a hundred-fold.
The strain that such family systems put on the working woman are devastating to the individual as well as to the marriage and family bonds. The dissolutions of families which result and psychological and social ramifications of the high divorce rate in America and other Western nations are the growing concern of doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists and sociologists as well as, of course, of the unfortunate victims of these phenomena.
3) The extended family insures the adequate socialization of children. A mother’s or father’s advice in a nuclear or single parent family may be difficult to be followed by an unruly or obstinate child, but the combined pressure of the members of a strong extended family is an effective counter to non-conformance or disobedience.
4) The extended family provides for psychological and social diversity in companionship for adults as well as children. Since there is less dependence on the one-to-one relationship, there are less emotional demands on each member of the family. A disagreement or clash between adults, children or between persons of different generations does not reach the damaging proportions it may in the nuclear family.
There are always alternative family members on hand to ease the pain and provide therapeutic counselling and companionship. Even the marriage bond is not put to the enormous strains that it suffers in the nuclear family.
5) The extended family or a’ilah guards against the development of the generation gap. This social problem arises when each age group becomes so isolated from other generations that it finds difficulty in achieving successful and meaningful interaction with people of a different age level. In the ‘a’ilah, three or more generations live together and constantly interact with one another. This situation provides beneficial learning and socialization experiences for children and the necessary sense of security and usefulness for the older generation.
6) The ‘a’ilah eliminates the problems of loneliness which plague the isolated and anonymous dwellers in the urban centres of many contemporary societies. The unmarried woman, or the divorced or widowed woman in an Islamic extended family will never suffer the problems that face such women in contemporary American society, for example.
In a Qur’anic society, there is no need for the commercial computer dating establishments, the singles’ clubs and bars, or the isolation of senior citizens in retirement villages or old people’s homes.
The social and psychological needs of the individual, whether male or female, are cared for in the extended family.
As marriage-bonds grow more and more fragile in Western society, women tend to be the chief victims of the change. They are less able to re-establish marriage or other bonds than men, and they are more psychologically damaged by these losses.
7) The extended family provides a more feasible and humane sharing of the care of the elderly. In the nuclear family unit, the care of the elderly parent or parents of one spouse may fall entirely on one individual, usually the mother of the family. She must provide for the extra physical care as well as for the emotional well-being of the elderly.
This is a tremendous burden on a woman who probably has children’s and husband’s needs to attend to as well. If she is a working mother, the burden can be unmanageable; and the elderly are put in an old peoples’ home to await death. With the shared responsibilities and duties that the extended family provides, the burden is significantly lightened.
Adapted from: “Women in a Qur’anic Society” by: “Lois Lamya ‘ al-F’aruqi”