The Social Bomb - Destruction of the Traditional Family
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Human civilization has gone off on a tangent and has created not one but multiple threats to its own survival. Of these, the nuclearization of the family has by far the greatest potential for destruction. Global warming, ecological destruction, and excessive consumerism are other well-known threats.
The family is the first building block composed of individuals. The structure and stability of the family determines the strength and stability of the social edifice that it erects and ultimately the stability and survival of the civilization that it seeks to build. When the family is strong, a civilization endures. When the family comes apart, a civilization unravels.
Families emerge from a multitude of reasons. Some are no more than a matter of convenience. They are like froth on the ocean and disappear just as the wave that generates them withdraws into the womb of the ocean. Their stability is uncertain as is the outcome of a cast of dice in gambling casino in Las Vegas.
Then there are marriages that are built on contract. On the global scene, by far the largest number of marriages that take place, and the families they generate, are based on contract. A large number of Muslims have also come to accept marriage as a contract between a man and a woman.
However, marriage in Islam is more than a mere contract. The Quran describes men and women as garments of each other, meaning the two are intertwined like two bundles of light sustaining and reinforcing each other in their march towards divine presence.
A contract cannot be a substitute for spiritual bonds. How can a contract capture the love between a parent and child, or the bonds between a brother and sister? Contracts may be nullified but love endures.
The family in Islam is based on marriage between a man and a woman. It is a covenant before God in accordance with the Sunnah of the Prophet. It has the elements both of a contract and a spiritual union. It is sanctified by Law, ratified by contract and sustained by the goodwill of the extended family and the community.
Even the rituals that are observed by a family and the community serve to reinforce familial bonds. They serve as occasions when the individual reinforces existing social bonds and develops new ones so that when the family comes under pressure, these bonds sustain the marriage and the family.
Rituals and customs give life to a culture. The diffusion of Islamic spirituality into local traditional cultures have knit them together into a global Islamic labyrinth so that there is a recognizable taste, feel and aroma to Muslim culture whether it is observed in Malaysia or Nigeria. A Pakistani can marry a Moroccan and maintain a family within the rhythm of an Islamic life. This is so because regional cultures have absorbed and internalized the transcendental values that have knit the Islamic civilization together.
It is unfortunate that under the double hammer of Western culture and internal extremist pressures may of the traditional social customs and ancient rituals are disappearing among Muslims. Stripped of the multiplicity of support systems that customs and rituals help nurture and sustain, the individual is thrown back to his own wits to weather the storms of life. He is like a tree that stands on a single root. A single waft of turbulence from a strong wind knocks it down. Marriages come apart and the family disintegrates.
The weakening and disappearance of traditional support systems for the family is one of the greatest threats to human civilization. Muslim societies are no exception to this. Broken marriages, disintegrated families and single parent families are no longer rare among Muslims.
The shock waves produced by the intrusion of technology in modern life have destroyed the traditional family and have given birth to the nuclear family. Economic pressures stifle social interactions. Mass media have invaded the space that was once the exclusive preserve of the family. Working men and women cannot take care of their aged parents and send them off to old age homes. Children return from schools to empty homes. The television takes the space that was once occupied by the grand parents. Mobility destroys the social bonds that once sustained community life in towns and villages. Where there once were a thousand hands sustaining a family, there are now just those of the nuclear family, of the husband the wife or those of a single parent.
Islam offers a balanced spiritual, social and cultural framework wherein the family may yet escape the destruction that is wrought by modern centrifugal forces.
A civilization is held together by a transcendental idea which acts as its cement. Ibn Khaldun postulated that this cement was none other than Asabiyah, the racial and ethnic cohesion born of blood relationships. The nomads of the desert possess this characteristic in abundance which fosters in them the virtues that moves a civilization forward. As the nomads settle down in cities, they lose these virtues and are ultimately overcome by a fresh wave of nomads.
While Ibn Khaldun’s theory may explain the formation and disintegration of tribal societies, it fails to explain the rise and fall of global civilizations. Islam, for one, condemns Asabiyah. “I evolved you into tribes”, extols the Quran, “so that you may know one another”. What has welded Islamic civilization is its innate spirituality which is based on the continual consciousness of Divine presence. This innate spirituality has provided the reservoir for internal renewal when the community has faced global challenges.
Spirituality molds the Islamic personality. On the one hand Islamic spirituality accepts and extols the individual worth and the individual responsibility to himself and to divine creation. On the other, it captures the individual ego within an infinitely elastic shell of divine presence. Man was created to know, serve and worship the divine. For the execution of this grand design man has been provided guidance and has been anointed the khalifa over all creation. The resultant personality represents a just balance between the spiritual and the physical, between the internal and the external, between the self and the selfless.
The Islamic community is a composition of such individuals who derive their sustenance from a consciousness of divine presence and observe divine commandments based on justice and balance to create divine patterns on earth. Each individual is like a brick that becomes a part of a grand edifice fulfilling the divine plan.
In the global village, where civilizations interact and learn from each other, Muslims have a unique opportunity to make a contribution towards the preservation and sustenance of human civilization.
Whereas the basis of marriage and family in the West is contractual, and exclusively spiritual in the East, in Islam it is both contractual and spiritual. The stability and permanence of the family will be the ultimate barometer of the survival of our civilization. In this struggle, custom and ritual have an important role to play. Let us not discard what is traditional under the pressures of modernity. If we do, both tradition and modernity will be the losers
The Social Bomb