COMMENT - by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Islam and the family
, December 18, 1999
Strong family ties in the Islamic world have helped to ameliorate some of the serious social and economic difficulties associated with urbanisation and modernisation.
Madame Jehan Sadat, the widow of the assassinated President of Egypt, has founded, headed, and supported numerous charitable organisations and has gained the title, 'First Lady of the World.'
At the World Congress of Families II held in Geneva last month, she explained the central position the family holds in her culture.
For many years now, the sanctity of the family has been receiving severe criticism and attacks from many different quarters. As a result, there are some who question the ability of the family to survive into the next century. Considering the conditions being imposed upon parents and their children by poverty, illiteracy, war, technology, and rapid social changes; I can understand why scholars as well as ordinary citizens are cynically predicting the traditional family will soon go the way of the dinosaurs.
When I think about all the family must endure on a daily basis, I can understand why someone might think it a diminishing force in society, impotent in shaping its own future. In light of all the reports about the violence being inflicted upon children in their schools, in their homes, and by the entertainment industry; I can see why one could think that the family, as we once knew it, no longer exists. Although I understand these things, I will never agree with anyone who says the family is a relic of worn-out virtues and values that can no longer be applied to modern society.
The family today, and as it has been since the beginning, is the most basic and critical element of any society whether it be a thoroughly modern one or one of the few remaining primitive, isolated societies existing in the world today.
Regardless of the degree of international turmoil and domestic unrest, the influence of the family is beyond measure, standing alone in its position of prominence in determining the quality of life. With every fibre of our being, we must preserve the family!
On the other hand, we cannot ignore that the institution of the family is being threatened and will continue to be threatened by both external forces beyond human control and internal ones arising from our own human imperfections. We do not have to look far to find families of every creed and culture who are suffering from economic deprivation, emotional depravity, and the tragedies of conflict and natural disaster.
At the same time, we do not have to look far to see the compassion of the human spirit.
Every day, somewhere in this world, there are mothers and fathers and children who are being challenged by the environment in which they live, struggling to survive with limited, or in some cases, no access to education, health care, and employment.
In the worse situations, there are families trying to exist without proper food, shelter, and clothing, things those of us in this assembly take for granted.
And in every nation, there are families drowning in despair, because they have lost faith, thus allowing the ordinary problems of life to creep into their minds and souls, devouring them from within, stripping away their ability to love and care for each other.
If only these despondent souls understood that we are all imperfect human beings on the same journey from this life to the next.
If only they accepted that with God, they could deal with the trials and tribulations of this life with fortitude and courage. When my husband decided to follow the path of peace, we both knew the risk he would be taking. We both knew that whatever he did would change our life forever.
Without God, without the family, mankind is lost, left to wander and stumble blindly in a wilderness of desperation. Without God, we will never be able to realize the beauty of peace and the wholeness of life.
When the family is sound and the relationship between its members is rooted firmly in mutual love, trust, respect, and dignity; then, and only then, can the entire community hope to be strong and weather the storms of life. Under any other conditions, society, no matter how developed or how prosperous, is doomed.
Having divided my time between Egypt and the United States for the past fifteen years, I have become quite comfortable with the American way of life. But I must tell you that at first I felt like I had landed on another planet. It is to Egypt, however, that I must turn in order to illustrate my religious, cultural, and social attitudes toward the family.
To us, the centre of life is the family, an attitude validated by the depictions of daily activities that are found on our ancient temple walls and in our museums.
From our agrarian background, we developed strong bonds to the land and to the family, creating within us a deep sense of social responsibility that is prevalent in our modern way of life.
The Holy Month of Ramadan best illustrates this. No one can grow up in such an atmosphere and become immune to the condition of life for others. As we say in Egypt, 'Paradise without people is not worth having.'
When a Westerner describes the family, he is speaking of the father, mother, and children. But when an Egyptian speaks of family, he means the father, mother, children, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and scores of cousins. And there are no strangers in Egypt. Everyone is generously welcomed whether by a rich uncle in Cairo or a distant and poor cousin in Aswan. We think of ourselves as belonging to one big family.
Like families everywhere, the Egyptian family has had to adjust and adapt to the times; nevertheless, our bonds of family run deep and wide. We rely upon each other in happiness and in pain. I could have never survived the sorrow of losing my husband without the love and support of my family.
By the same token, the weddings of my children and the birth of each of my eleven grandchildren gave cause for celebration. I would not be doing what I am doing now without the support of my family. As Egypt continues to develop, the rituals of family life will naturally change. They will not, however, be replaced or forgotten.
We will never allow our ties to family and our connection to the land to be completely and permanently broken.
Although the world has undergone many changes, both good and bad, in the past century; change need not imply the loss of traditional values.
Nor is progress another word for moral decay. It is not development and progress which jeopardize values and morality but rather the absence of a strong and secure moral foundation developed first and foremost in the family.
Surely, it is possible for one to enjoy the conveniences of modern life - airplanes and automobiles, computers and cell phones, microwaves and VCRs - without losing one's sense of values. When we love God, love our families, we can enjoy life without betraying the practices of decency, without abandoning the traditions of our cultures.
To me, tradition is the accumulation of past experiences, social standards, and technology and is, therefore, dynamic in nature. For a society to be fully developed, it must comprehend and accept the relevance of both social and religious traditions to the welfare of its people.
My religion, Islam, is more than 1,444 years old; yet it remains a living system of beliefs, setting forth the principles and code of ethics that have sustained and will sustain generation after generation of believers. This is also true of the other great religions whose codes of conduct are practised today.
Compassion, integrity, justice, tolerance, and love do not belong to one people or religion; nor will they ever become irrelevant and obsolete.
The Holy Book of Islam, the Qur'an, clearly prescribes how we are to treat each other, especially parents. It tells us to be kind to them, obeying, respecting, and loving them, with an attitude of humility and tenderness. Treatment of parents is second only to the worship of God. And mothers hold a very special place.
There is a story in my culture that tells of a Muslim who asked the Prophet, 'Who is most deserving of my compassion?' The Prophet replied, 'Your mother.' When the man asked his question two more times, the Prophet responded, 'Your mother.' But when he asked the fourth time, the Prophet answered, 'Your father.'
Mothers are the ones who give us life, carrying us for nine months, enduring great pain to bring us into the world. They are our first teachers, giving us the lessons and values we will carry for the rest of our lives. A mother's greatest gift to her society is a righteous son or daughter. Our Prophet said, 'Heaven lies at the feet of mothers.'
It is also written that if of our parents attain old age in our homes, then we are to show them no sign of impatience or reproach, but rather speak to them with kind words. When caring for our parents, we are being given the opportunity to show our own children how they are to treat us. Through our example, they will learn how to act toward us when we are in the same stage of life. In fact, they will also learn how to treat all of their elders.
Behavior in marriage is also addressed in Islam. The relationship between a husband and wife is one's of God's signs; therefore, there should be an atmosphere of peace and quiet, kindness and mercy. The Qur'an states, 'Your wives are your inner garments and you are their inner garments.'
This does not mean that a spouse is as common and ordinary as a favourite sweater, but rather each partner is to protect and cover the mistakes of the other. Husband and wife should never expose the deficiencies and shortcomings of the other, but rather complement and beautify each other. The foundations of the marriage are nourished by loyalty and love, growing ever stronger with experiences and wisdom that only time can bring.
In Islam, men and women bear the same responsibility toward God, thus each must account for individual deeds. Within marriage and the family, each has a particular role and function to play. Man is the head of the family and has the duty to fend and care for his wife and children, while the woman is to be queen in her home.
It is her duty to raise her children properly, assuring their education and instilling the correct values, nourishing them not only with the food of the flesh but also the food of the soul which is love and faith in God.
This does not mean that the husband plays no part in the development of his children or that he is superior to his wife. Never! Husband and wife must work together, in a loving way, in order to bring peace and happiness to the family.
Sometimes, however, the marriage may fail, and they must divorce, but children should not suffer because their parents cannot live together in harmony.
My husband came from a village not far from Cairo but worlds apart in style, what one would call primitive with large, poor families and limited resources. To the casual observer, Anwar Sadat's life was full of hardships and empty of opportunities. But in reality, his was a life overflowing with love, faith, and family. My husband wrote, 'I could never turn against or show the least lack of loyalty to my family, since this is in sharp contradiction with the family values I was brought up on - the values that continue to sustain my lifeblood and determine my mental life more effectively than anything else. Indeed, the faith I have in these values deepens day after day, so much that I have come to believe that only adherence to such values can save society - that there can be hope only for a society which acts as one big family and not as many separate ones.'
The same was true for me in Cairo.
Salam, peace, is at the very core of Islam which places great emphasis on democracy, compassion, justice, tolerance, and the sanctity of the family. It was Anwar Sadat's uncompromising faith in God and his love for the people, Arabs and Israelis, that lead him on the path to peace in the Middle East. For peace, he paid with his life. And for peace, my children lost their father, and I lost my husband.
Despite the years of grief we have endured and the emptiness left forever in our family, we have no regrets for what Anwar Sadat did for Egypt, Israel, and the whole world. We are proud to be his family, proud to know that he gained his place in history by being a man of peace.
My husband also wrote: 'In Mit Abut Kum ... I learned something else that has remained with me all my life; the fact that wherever I go, wherever I happen to be, I shall always know where I really am. I can never lose my way because I know that I have living roots there, deep down in the soil of the village, in that land out of which I grew.'
I feel the same. No matter where I may go in this world, Egypt is my breath and my family is the beating of my heart. My love for my family, my country, and my God give wholeness and peace to my life. The love given me by my children, grandchildren, and Anwar Sadat give me great satisfaction, pride, and happiness. I will leave you today with this final thought: Preservation of the family is the enactment of God's will and is, therefore, the promotion of peace that brings the wholeness and happiness of life.