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The Islamic Perspective on Family

By: Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn at-Tabataba'i

Question
What is Islam’s view concerning the institutions of marriage and family?

Answer
A detailed explanation regarding Islam’s perspective on marriage, family, and the general principles that govern familial relationships is beyond the scope of this letter. However, I will very briefly touch on some of the important topics.
Islam recognizes marriage as the fundamental building block in the formation and the preservation of society. In order to organize humankind into societies, the Hand of Creation has split the human species into two genders, implanting in each gender an instinctive gravitation toward the other. The lowest manifestation of this mutual gravitation is the presence of distinctive sexual organs in the two. It is this mutual gravitation that brings the two genders together to beget children.
Out of this union a child is born whose substance derives from both parents. Due to the intense affection the parents feel toward this creature, they endure the pains of child birth and the hardships involved in rearing it. These difficulties savored by the accompanying emotional pleasure only serve to strengthen the emotional bond between the parents and the child, and this in turn invigorates the parents to multiply their efforts in training their child. These parental emotions, in return, attach the child ever more strongly to his parents. Thus, the family is forged—the building block from which cities and nations are constructed.
It is obvious that in order to preserve the society, the instinctive sexual drive must be curbed. The way to achieve this is by confining each gender’s sexual gratification to its formal partner from the opposite gender. This will ensure that the father of every child is identified (the mother, of course, is not in need of such a measure, as her pregnancy is the clearest mark that she is the mother of the infant she is bearing). Without such a formal arrangement to curb the sexual gratification of the two genders, young adults would seldom agree to suffer the hardships of forming a family. Absence of formal families would lead to uncertainty in determining the real fathers of children born into the society.
This uncertainty will in turn weaken the emotional bond between the parents and the children, which is the fabric that holds the family together. In time, the prevalence of fornication in society—in addition to the numerous hygienic, social, and moral problems that such unrestrained sexual relations engender—will utterly destroy family affections, a fact already evident in countries where sexual relations are given free rein—a trend that threatens the survival of humankind. An article I read some years ago reported that annually three hundred thousand infants are born to single mothers in the United States as the result of promiscuous intercourse done in the heat of the moment and without prior engagement.
Hence, Islam forbids sexual gratification between the two genders outside the institution of marriage and makes the expenses of rearing the child a responsibility of the father as the child’s guardian. In addition, Islam prohibits marriage between family relations who have frequent contact with one another. Thus, it is considered incestuous for a man to marry his mother, sister, aunt, or niece. The following are other females whom a man is prohibited to marry: daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, stepdaughter (if he has had intercourse with the stepdaughter’s mother), sister-in-law (as long as her sister is married to the man in question), and women married to other men. The same rule applies to the relations-by-suckling.( In Islamic law, when a child is suckled by a woman other than her mother, the woman is legally her second mother and her children the siblings of the suckling. As such, the same marriage rules that apply to one’s real mother and siblings apply to one’s mother- and siblings-by-suckling. [trans.]
(All of the rules mentioned here are derived from the Qur’an and the tradition of the Noble Prophet and the Imams as recorded in books of hadith.)

The Question of Divorce

Question
How does Islam view divorce?

Answer
Islamic law does sanction divorce but only as a last resort for terminating a miserable conjugal relationship plagued by disagreement. This is one of the distinctions that prove Islam’s superiority to all other faiths. Islam sanctioned divorce centuries before Western “civilized” countries realized its necessity.

Women’s Right in Choosing their Spouse

Question
Does Islam grant women the right to choose their spouse freely?

Answer
Islamic law requires the wholehearted consent of the woman for the validity of a marriage contract. Thus according to Islam, women are free in choosing their spouse.

Children Being in the Custody of Men

Question
In the event of a divorce, to which party does Islamic law grant the custody of children?

Answer
Divorcees have the right to keep the children up to the age of seven, but even if the children remain with their mothers, the male guardian is in charge of paying their expenses. (To explicate the reasoning for this rule is beyond the scope of this letter; you may refer to the corpus of Islamic jurisprudence to find the reasoning.) I must reexamine what comes before this point (the first part of this chapter and the previous chapters) to make sure that subjunctives are used correctly. [note]

A Saying from ‘Ali

Question
It is reported that Imam ‘Ali said that parents must train their children with an eye to the future? If this report is correct, one can extrapolate that Islamic regulations should also be modified to make them compatible with the changing circumstances of time and place?

Answer
First of all, it should be noted that this saying is attributed to Imam ‘Ali in “Nahj al-Balaghah” with a discontinuous chain of transmission. A discontinuous chain of transmission is one in which one or more transmitters are lacking. In the science of hadithology [‘ilm al-dirayah] such a chain of transmission is considered a defect that reduces the possibility of it’s being authentic. [trans.]
Assuming that it is authentic, the meaning appears to be that we should refrain from imposing on our children the habits and customs with which we were raised, for it will constrain their imagination and innovativeness, consequently hindering their capacity for progress. If in our time, horses and donkeys were means of transportation, we should not force our children to use the same.
The saying, however, is not in reference to Islamic law (whose irrevocability is explicitly affirmed by the Qur’an and the Sunnah); if it were, it would be inacceptable as it would contravene the Qur’an, which affirms the permanence of the shari‘ah. (There are numerous hadiths narrated from the Imams that state that hadiths must be dismissed as unauthentic if they contradict the Qur’an.)

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