MANY YEARS BEFORE I got married, unpleasant rumors of wives’ ordeals with in-laws never ceased to be discussed in family circles. I had learnt that the major concern of every spinster was over her future relationship with her in-laws. Despite investigating into the family background of the prospective groom, the minds of many young girls are ridden with negativity, ultimately creating a mess of what would have otherwise been a blissful relationship. Settling into marriage, I was welcomed with series of advice coming from supposed older “happily married women” who were quick to tell me to maintain a distance from my in-laws if I truly wanted to be happy. This plunged me into asking a lot of questions relating to human relationships in Islam; most of them centering around the family unit as the bedrock of an ideal Islamic society. It wasn’t long before I realized the fragility of these issues and how a mismanagement of them could lead to a lot of misconceptions and ordeals in the Muslim community.
Dissecting the Nuts and the Bolts of the Joint Family
The joint family system implies that all members of a clan which includes the father, mother, sons, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephew, aunts, uncles and so on live together. The household is run collectively and the income of an individual is not regarded as his personal earning; it is rather regarded as the family income, belonging to the entire family. As a matter of fact, it is necessary to state here that the joint family system, particularly peculiar to Africans and Asians, is a by-product of culture, it has no basis in Islam. Although Islam commands us to establish family ties and not break the ties of kinship; to a large extent, it also strongly recommends privacy and secrecy in family affairs, especially between a husband and his wife:
…. They are a garment for you and you are a garment for them…. [Surat Al Baqarah, 2:187]
As far as family life is concerned, Islam has an unrivaled solution to every family problem with such great dexterity that we humans are left with no other choice but to accept that there are no better ways to solve these problems. The joint family system has its plausible aspects. An objective assessment of this system will reveal that in a joint family, there resonate very good examples of benevolence, mutual trust and co-operation, a very good support system, excellent household management, humanism and strong family ties. The “intimacy” found in this set up is very likely to create happiness, love and peace of mind. The presence of the elderly members of the family serves as a sheath, providing all members with moral support and protecting them from basic everyday worries. It is also worthy to state that should any member of the family for any reason become unable to earn his/her livelihood, they would be adequately taken care of by the other members, thereby, sparing them from having to face any societal disgrace and depression. In short, it would be correct to state that the members of a joint family are to a large extent insured from the distressing anxieties of the future.
Notwithstanding all the advantages of the joint family system, there exists the other side of the coin. First, the importance of privacy and secrecy between married couples is greatly undermined. In most cases, every member of the family is expected to let down their guard and intermingle with one another without any restrictions. The rulings regarding relations with non-mahrams are greatly downplayed. The hijab is hardly observed and even if it is, it won’t be long before it becomes just a basic part of a woman’s dressing, giving prominence to her outfit. The men in the house do not lower their gaze and in most cases, do not seek permission before entering upon one another. The married couples cannot disagree or have thoroughgoing fights for fear that the other family members will find out what’s going on. It is also hard for the married couples to be intimate with each other especially if the family house is a small one with each room opening into a space that is accessible to everyone. Women in the house are also expected to serve and entertain guests who are not even relatives. This is indeed a sharp contrast from the Islamic injunction.
‘Uqba ibn ‘Amir narrated that the Messenger of Allah said: “Beware of entering upon women.” A man from among the Ansar said, “O! Messenger of Allah, what about the brother-in-law?” The Prophet replied, “The brother-in-law is death.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
The mutual respect expected to be present amongst family members is also misplaced as it might not be long before cases of slandering, backbiting and even physical confrontations begin to spring up, thus creating tension and disrespect within the family. The ease of mind that a joint family provides may also be abused by some unprincipled members of the family who may find it convenient to live on the fruits of the hard work of other members of the family and thus, make no effort in earning their own living. When the family experiences a combination of these flipsides, the consequential bitterness cannot be overestimated. Hatred, anger and suspicion would most likely replace the mutual trust, love and peace of mind. The soothing atmosphere of the household becomes heated and family members are left with only one choice; separation.
Separation: A Solution?
Most couples, especially wives who have had to endure the agonies of the joint family system develop a great urge to find repose in a separate nuclear family system away from the proximity of an extended family. This leads the married couple to seeking avenues to move out of town or even to another country to live separately as husband and wife. From relocating to small apartments in remote suburban towns to settling in spacious garden apartments in lively metropolitan cities, living as an autonomous family is not the ideal dream life of any Muslim family.
Although the separate nuclear family guarantees the privacy of a married couple and does not suffer the highlighted disadvantages of the joint family, it has a lot of downsides too. First, remaining aloof from one’s own relatives is like altering the true nature of humanity. This system is highly likely to turning brothers into strangers who care little about one another, thus, breeding selfishness and meanness. Second, it creates an overwhelming generation gap between grandchildren and grandparents who are unfamiliar and emotionally detached from one another, thus, undermining the importance of establishing strong family ties in Islam. Finally, in most cases, the task of running a ‘stand-alone’ family is daunting as the moral and financial support which would otherwise have being enjoyed in a joint family is absent. This leads to a lot of tension within the nuclear family and may thus strain the relationship between husband and wife.
Creating a Balance, The Middle Course
Ours is a religion of moderation and undoubtedly, anyone who adheres to the guidelines laid down by the Din will not falter. The ideal Islamic family system creates a balance, allowing us to enjoy the benefits of both the joint and separate family systems without necessarily occasioning the bristly problems of either.
The Islamic system which leaves no room for free-mixing amongst men and women emphasizes separate domestic lodgings for each member of the family:
Lodge them (wives) according to what you reside out of your means, Do not harass them in order to make life difficult for them. [Surat Al-Talaq, 65:6]
The Quran also states:
There is no blame upon yourselves that you eat (without asking permission) in your own houses or the houses of your fathers, or houses of your mothers, or the houses of your brothers or the houses of your sisters, or the houses of your fathers’ brothers or the houses of your fathers’s sisters, or the houses of your mothers’ brothers or the houses of your mothers’ sisters, or in houses of which the keys are in your possession, or in the house of a friend of yours…. [Surat Al-Nur, 24:61]
It is obvious from the above verses that Islam intends for us ease and privacy by recommending separate ‘houses’ for each unit of the family while still encouraging us to create love and friendship by visiting one another and sharing meals. This combines the simplicity of the separate family system and the harmony of the joint family system. It is undeniable that such beautiful and perfect family set-up is only established in Islam. We find many examples of this in the lives of the Prophet and his Companions. It is reported in the Seerah that during his last Ramadan, the Fourth Caliph, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib used to break his fast one day at the house of his son Hassan, the next day at the house of Husayn and then at the house of ‘Abdullah ibn Ja‘far, his son in-law.
It is therefore concluded that as long as the limits of Allah are being respected and everyone’s right is guaranteed, living in separate houses that are physically not far away from each other is the best way to create a loving close-knitted family without compromising anyone’s personal privacy. This will ensure that the bonds of kinship are maintained and the extended family can all dwell in mutual peace, tranquility and respect.