Revitalizing Family Life: A Muslim Perspective

Imam at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the Notre Dame University (Indiana, United States)

There can be no doubt that the family is the most important moral institution in Islam. From the Islamic perspective, maintaining strong and healthy family bonds not only draws one closer to God, the Most High, but is the pathway for success and salvation in this world and the hereafter.

Consequently the majority of the legal verses of the Glorious Qur’an pertains to the family and a vast shari`ah literature is directed at preserving the institution of the family and ensuring good interpersonal relationships within the family. For example, God, the Sublime, proclaims in Chapter 17, verse 23:

Your Lord and Sustainer has decreed that you worship none but Him
and do Good unto Your Parents (Q 17:23)
 
Here respect for parents, the pillar of family life, is mentioned in the same breath as worship of God. This significance should not elude us. This Qur’anic perspective on the importance of the family is supported and underscored by numerous prophetic traditions. Among them is the following. On the authority of `Aisha the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said:
 
“The best of you are those who are the best to their families, and I am the best of you to my family.”
(Ibn Hibban, Ibn Majah and Al-Hakim)
There can thus be no doubt that the family is the basic and natural unit of society constituting the most salient social reality of Muslim society.
 
The Muslim Family – Between Ideals and Realities
One of the most serious dilemma’s facing Muslim appreciations of the role of the family is that of romanticising family life.  As a result our expectations of what constitutes a healthy and functional family are far too unrealistic. We must guard against this tendency. Often our expectations of what God expects of us are too high and so we have not empowered ourselves with the necessary dispositions and skills that will enable us to deal with the day to day challenges of family life. As a consequence every challenge, whether big or small, instead of it being viewed as a test and trail from God becomes a calamity.

Trials, temptations or life-challenges, technically known in Arabic as fitan (singular fitna), are not an aberration of the human condition. According to the Islamic worldview they are the reason d’être of the earthly sojourn of the human being. Trials are an essential part of process of education and moulding of the good character of the human being. Tests and trials bring out the best in human beings and unleash within us latent potentials that we ourselves were unaware of. Moreover, when subjected to trials and tests the believer will turn to God for solace and support.

Moreover realists also need to understand that there is a critical need for fundamental reforms in traditional family structures, especially on the question of male dominance called patriarchy. Patriarchy, domestic violence, and severe anxiety and depression are born and cultivated in many dysfunctional families. We only need to look at the press and our own neighbourhoods for stories of wife-battering, child abuse and other such evils. Clearly then there is a need for fundamental reforms, especially on the question of patriarchy. Yet the family in the best sense and in its ideal expression is a tremendous source of hope and an invaluable resource for our times. What can be done to heal and revitalise our modern family lives?

Revitalizing Family Life
Firstly, we need to work hard at promoting a family that operates on the basis of mutual consultation (shura) as opposed to autocratic rule by the male head of the family. In this respect the Qur’an has clear guidance. In surah al-Baqarah, chapter 2, verse 233, God, the Sublime, orders that decisions made with respect to the nurturing of the children, should be done on the grounds of mutual consent (shura) between both spouses.
 
If the couple desire’s to wean and rear the child by mutual consent and consultation there is no harm on them.
 
In order for us to recreate a family based on shura, the more vulnerable members of the family, such as women and children, need to be empowered to play their role as equal members of the family. We must not underestimate the dominant role mothers play within our existing families. This position is however often not fully acknowledged.
 
Secondly, we need to understand that the education and nurturing of our future generations is primarily the responsibility of the family and not that of the state. We also need to clearly distinguish between the broader concept of education and mere schooling. More often than not, schooling does not prepare future generations with the necessary creative spirits and life-skills to cope with life. Parents also need to understand that they cannot protect their children from life, but rather they should equip them to cope with the harsh realities of life. Far too often parents have absconded from this responsibility and do not have a clear idea of how to engender the holistic education of their children. All educational resources in the civil society should be used as secondary support structures. School homework and projects are ideal arenas where parents can play their role in encouraging creativity, research skills and problem solving techniques within their children. Computer technology could be a useful aid and tool in the home-based learning programme. However, even here parents will have to take full responsibility for supervising and guiding their children with regard to the responsible use of the Internet.
 
Thirdly, in the harsh and competitive economic climate in which we find ourselves, the family can play a useful function by neutralising the negative characteristic of egoistic self-interest and promote social solidarity instead. Not so long ago, family based economic projects were the order of the day within the Muslim community. We should encourage such entrepreneurial initiatives where it is possible. Many unemployed persons are currently being supported by family structures.
 
Fourthly, the family could also serve as a place of refuge from the harsh psychological and emotional trauma we have to endure as a result of the violent environments within which we live. There can be no better place for securing comfort than from a loving and caring family. It is within the family context that we nurture hope and optimism and zest for life. For the family, however, to play this supportive role it would need to be a mature family which would be able to deal positively with internal conflict arising from rivalry among siblings, the generation gap or differences in interest and religious or intellectual commitments. It requires respectful dialogue and communication within the family, not fist-fights, insults and animosity. In this regard the institutions of civil society such as family counselling and parental guidance centres, should play a useful complementary role in assisting families to manage internal conflict.
 
People of faith have a responsibility to reflect on the problems of our broader society and to create intimate and socially responsible families. I conclude with a Qur’anic supplication, Surah Al-Furqan, Chapter 25, verse 74, which we have been advocating should be read frequently:
 
Our Lord and Sustainer, grant us spouses and children who will be a joy and comfort to our eyes, and cause us to be paragons of piety