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Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, Valentine M. Moghadam
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The basic social unit of Islamic society, as in many other societies, 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 centuries, the family has been the principal focus of people’ s emotional, economic, and political identity. Social changes in the nineteenth and particularly the twentieth centuries have placed great strains on the unit, and especially on the patriarchal, extended family unit. Yet the family, together with the Islamic faith, retains a central place in the lives of people in every social class, in both rural and urban contexts, and in every Muslim-majority country.

“Family” means different things in different societies and contexts. In the Western world of the twenty-first century, “family” now includes the traditional “nuclear” family, the blended or step-family resulting from remarriage, the single-parent family, the same-sex family unit. The Arabic word for family, ahl or ʿahila, is a more comprehensive term and may include grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, both paternal and maternal. In its broadest sense, the family might be perceived as an even larger unit, equal to the ummah, or the community of believers in Islam. Nevertheless, the family unit in many parts of the Islamic world has experienced nuclearization, the result of modernization, urbanization, and women's educational attainment.

Pre-Islamic Family.

As early as 3000 B.C.E. in ancient Sumer, in the contemporary nation-state of Iraq, there is evidence 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. Christians and Jews are known in Islam as “people of the book” or dhimmīs—those related to Islam through holy scripture and of whom a Muslim must be tolerant.

This early form of the family was patrilineal, a kind of social organization found in perhaps 80 to 90 percent of all human societies. In a patrilineal society, the name of the child and the inheritance are passed through the male line; children therefore are known by the names of their fathers. Although not all patrilineal families are equally patriarchal, the primacy attached to the male line reflects male dominance, both legal and informal, in the family and society. The use of the term “patriarch” to refer to the prophets of Judaism and Christianity is an indication of this tendency.

Family in the Qurʿān.

The advent of Islam in the seventh century C.E. brought changes to the structure of the Arabian family. Although the basic outline of patrilineality was retained, some modifications came about with respect to women, girls, and orphans.

The Qurʿān prohibited infanticide, a practice that seems to have reached scandalous proportions in pre-Islamic Arabia, particularly in the case of infant girls. In Islam, orphans were to be treated with kindness. The Qurʿān 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 Ramaḍān, for example, if they are pregnant or nursing. (Such latitude is clearly meant 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 Qurʿān 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). However, only men can divorce without cause. They also have the right to have up to four wives at any one time, and sons inherit twice as much as daughters.

Traditional Function of the Family.

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 birth families for all of their lives, even after marriage. A divorced woman returned to her birth family, which was responsible for her support until remarriage. A divorced man returned to his birth 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. 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 because 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. The care of handicapped and elderly members often put an undue stress upon the younger members of the family. And not all women welcomed a co-wife or a divorce. Yet the institution of the Islamic family unit persisted because it met the real needs of people, especially in the absence of other institutions for social support.

Western Influence.

In the West, socioeconomic and political changes in the West led to a transformation of the family from extended to nuclear, from patriarchal to egalitarian, and from the male breadwinner/female homemaker model to a dual-income-earning model. Such a shift may be observed in the Muslim world, though not to the same extent.

The family unit in the Islamic world 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. 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 found in 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 jallābah with hood and face veil, found in Morocco today, dates only from about 1912, when the French conquered Morocco. Before that time, women as well as men in Morocco wore the ḥāʿik, a length of cloth wrapped about the body in various ways. The Qurʿānic school increased in importance as a source of religious instruction (though largely for boys) even as colonial governments were attempting to limit its influence and elites were attending the secular schools of Christian missionaries.

As organized anticolonial resistance became more serious and militant, the family became the focus of such resistance. Such resistance was often framed in terms of the protection of Islam and the family, in the face of a common enemy—Western political and economic power, with its perceived secularist and anti-Islamic aims. At the same time, emergent notions of nationhood were accompanied by constructions of masculinity, femininity, and the family whereby women married and dutifully raised the next generation. A consequence was that women came to be “locked into” a patriarchal family unit, and a large proportion denied access to schooling or even a presence in public spaces, which were deemed male domains.

After independence from colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s, few women were available for paid work in the growing modern economic sector. Muslim family laws reflected and reinforced women's family attachment and their subordination to male guardianship. During the oil-boom era in the Middle East and North Africa, state expansion and public education created a population of educated women willing to enter the workforce. The family unit also changed as male migration to locations of the oil economies increased. Although in most cases male kin tended to oversee the moral and financial well-being of the women and children, in some cases men migrating to the Gulf or to Europe effectively abandoned their families or started new ones. In the post–oil boom era, unemployment, inflation, and poverty broke down extended family units, and forced increasing numbers of women to take up jobs outside their homes. Conflict in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan, as well as the effects of revolution and repression in Iran, also led to family disruption through violent deaths and forced migration. The movement in almost all Muslim-majority countries from rural to urban predominance has further challenged the customary ties of family life. It has become increasingly difficult for the traditional patriarchal family model—father as provider, mother as childbearer and rearer of children in the home—to be maintained. The dual-adult-worker pattern has not yet established itself as the norm, but there are signs that this change may be occurring in varying degrees across the Muslim world. What is more, the traditionally very high fertility rates of Muslim-majority countries have been declining. In Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, and Tunisia, the number of children per woman has fallen from six to two in just a few decades. Among the urban middle-class in particular, family size is smaller, and the age at first marriage has risen to the mid- to late-twenties.

Recent Changes and Challenges.

The current debate throughout the Islamic world on sharīʿah-based family law is a crucial one, for it not only involves the suggestion that family responsibilities be passed from the family unit to the state, but it also has implications for the definition of basic individual rights of women, men, and children. The status of women is not an isolated issue but lies at the core of the whole debate, for the woman has always been seen as the center of the family unit.

Discussions of Muslim family law reflect these concerns, as Qurʿānic family law defines relations between men and women through legislation on marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and polygyny. Islamic family law currently operates in most Islamic countries, with the exception of Turkey and Tunisia. In the 1980s a number of countries moved to stiffen the application of sharīʿah family law, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Algeria, and Nigeria. In the 1990s this occurred in Afghanistan and Malaysia. In both periods it reflected the growing political and cultural influence of Islamist movements, which 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. 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.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the family became the platform for the enunciation of the Islamic state's goals and ideals, and the subject of government legislation by the Shī‘ī ‘ulamā’ in many areas of life other than family law—education, leisure activities, literature, politics. Since the mid-1980s, women’ s groups have emerged in the Muslim world to call for changes in the status of women in the family and society and for reform of family laws that place women in a subordinate position vis-à-vis husbands or male kin. They call for greater rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance; an end to male guardianship and control over women's mobility; the right of mothers to pass on their nationality to their children (if the children are born of foreign fathers); the criminalization of “honor killings”; and greater economic and political participation. The 2003–2004 reform of the very patriarchal Mudawana, Morocco's family law, is an example of a successful campaign that was framed in terms of national development imperatives, children 's well-being, women's rights, and an alternative vision of the family. Other groups and campaigns for equality and rights are Iran's One Million Signatures Campaign, Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam, and Nigeria’s BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights.

Modern Role of the Family.

Increasing nuclearization, the changing status of women, the high cost of marriage (especially in Egypt), and the high rate of divorce (especially in Iran) has resulted in public debates, some protests, and many disappointed individuals. To some observers, such developments suggest the disintegration of the Muslim family and of Islamic culture. To others, the Muslim family is adjusting or reorganizing in response to contemporary needs. Yet others feel that the problems require appropriate public policies. Modern states have taken over some functions of the family, through programs and policies of social provisioning. Public schooling, health care, child care, government employment, family allowances, pensions, bank loans, and unemployment insurance are among the social services and social policies available to citizens. Nonetheless, especially in parts of the Muslim world devoid of a welfare or development state, the family is an essential focus of solidarity and support for its members, and affective ties remain strong.

In places where the family unit itself has been dispersed because of 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,” 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. Women in the workforce continue to rely on family ties for support. Through its adaptations and evolution, the family unit in the Muslim world has proven 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.



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