Strengthening family bonds: Islamic teachings on maintaining family ties

Huma Munir, USA

There is a general misconception among youth that authentic relationships just flow naturally and do not require any effort. In fact, at least in the West, this notion is gaining prevalence in almost all aspects of people’s lives. The more “authentic” we try to become, the more we are encouraged to speak our minds and do things that bring us happiness.

The internet is rife with quotes that encourage us to be more “honest” and “speak our truth.” It reminds us that people’s perception of you doesn’t matter and that you should live your life the way you want to. Basically, the “self” has become our focus as our societies become more individual-centric — forgoing a sense of community and kinship.

What this culture of selfishness neglects is how our personal happiness, thoughts and words impact others. It forgets that we don’t live in a vacuum. It also encourages us to let go of relationships that are not “working” for us. In fact, this culture believes that people are meant to be discarded at a mere whim.

As Muslims, however, we are commanded to do the opposite. But as we build our lives in Western society, all kinds of ills will find their way into our lives if we don’t guard against them. We have to keep reminding ourselves that relationships hold a great deal of value and that maintaining strong ties of kinship has many benefits.

The Holy Quran provides a perfect source of guidance on how we should conduct ourselves: 

اِنَّ اللّٰهَ يَاۡمُرُ بِالۡعَدۡلِ وَالۡاِحۡسَانِ وَاِيۡتَآئِ ذِي الۡقُرۡبٰي وَيَنۡهٰي عَنِ الۡفَحۡشَآءِ وَالۡمُنۡكَرِ وَالۡبَغۡيِ ۚ يَعِظُكُمۡ لَعَلَّكُمۡ تَذَكَّرُوۡنَ

“Verily, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency, and manifest evil, and wrongful transgression. He admonished you that you may take heed.” (Surah an-Nahl, Ch. 16: V. 91)

In another place, Allah says: 

وَلَا يَاۡتَلِ اُولُوا الۡفَضۡلِ مِنۡكُمۡ وَالسَّعَةِ اَنۡ يُّؤۡتُوۡۤا اُولِي الۡقُرۡبٰي وَالۡمَسٰكِيۡنَ وَالۡمُهٰجِرِيۡنَ فِيۡ سَبِيۡلِ اللّٰهِ ۪ۖ وَلۡيَعۡفُوۡا وَلۡيَصۡفَحُوۡا ؕ اَلَا تُحِبُّوۡنَ اَنۡ يَّغۡفِرَ اللّٰهُ لَكُمۡ ؕ وَاللّٰهُ غَفُوۡرٌ رَّحِيۡمٌ

“And let not those who possess wealth and plenty among you swear not to give aught to the kindred and to the needy and to those who have left their homes in the cause of Allah. Let them forgive and pass over the offence. Do you not desire that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.” (Surah an-Nur, Ch. 24: V. 23)

In verse 2 of Surah an-Nisa, where the Holy Quran mentions the words “respect for the ties of relationship” it joins the words with the phrase “the fear of God”. (Five Volume Commentary, Vol. 2, pp. 612-613) This highlights the importance of treating our relations with kindness and benevolence. However, doing so can require a certain amount of “forced” effort.

Does that mean we are being inauthentic or not true to ourselves? As Muslims, we have to reject such a notion. Righteous deeds require a certain amount of struggle and without this struggle, we would have no reward.

Keeping relations intact can be very challenging. In fact, differences in personalities and dispositions can bring about many conflicts. Ego, resentment, and jealousy can get in the way of maintaining a good relationship. All of these things must be overcome if we want to maintain good ties in our relationships. And doing so can require a “forced” effort in which we let go of our petty emotions and move to higher moral ground.

In fact, this is the very definition of being a “muttaqi” as described by the Promised Messiahas that someone who engages in “forced or strained effort”. (Malfuzat [English], Vol. 1, p. 193)

The Promised Messiahas further elaborates:

“This demonstrates that a righteous person is forced to struggle immensely and exert an effort in doing good; and in this state, the soul reproves him for committing evil. When a person is living a beastly life, they are subject to the self that incites to evil, but when they emerge triumphant over the state where struggle is required, they enter a state of rest.” (Ibid)

There is a saying that we do not choose our families, rather we are born into them. Same applies to our in-laws. While we look for compatibility between the husband and wife, we cannot guarantee that that compatibility will extend beyond that relationship. Many times, marriages are fraught with conflict because in-laws fail to understand the new addition to the family and vice versa.

In these strained circumstances, emotional intelligence, in light of Islamic teachings, can help us avoid many conflicts. What is emotional intelligence? According to the Mental Health America organisation, it’s the ability to understand your own emotions as well as the emotions of other people. This skill is vital to maintaining strong and lasting relationships.

According to the author and psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote the book Emotional Intelligence, “Much evidence testifies that people who are emotionally adept—who know and manage their own feelings well, and who read and deal effectively with other people’s feelings—are at an advantage in any domain of life. […] People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity”. (Emotional Intelligence, underPart Two, The Nature Of Emotional Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence And Destiny, Bloomsbury, 2009)

Psychology is rife with the idea that relationships require effort. Many articles suggest ways to improve relationships between spouses, parents and children and even in-laws. There is a reason Islam believes in “maintaining” ties of kinship. Maintenance requires effort and science completely agrees with this notion.

In fact, if relations had no value and could be discarded at any moment, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, would never have said that the one who maintains a relationship with their relatives only because they maintain a relationship with them is not truly upholding the ties of kinship. The one who truly upholds those ties is the one who does so even if they break off the relationship. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Adab, Hadith 5991)

In other ahadith, it is mentioned that Allah comes to the aid of the person who tries to maintain broken ties. Hazrat Abu Hurairahra narrates that a person came to the Holy Prophetsa and said: “‘I have relatives with whom I try to have close relationships, but they sever (this relationship). I treat them well, but they treat me ill. I am sweet to them, but they are harsh towards me.’ Upon this, he (the Holy Prophetsa) said: ‘If it is so as you say, then you in fact throw hot ashes (upon their faces) and there would always remain with you on behalf of Allah (an Angel to support you) who would keep you dominant over them so long as you adhere to this (path of righteousness).’” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-birri wa s-silati wa l-adab, Hadith 2558)

Notice that the teachings of the Holy Quran, and the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, all speak about an effort to maintain ties. Psychologists today are also realising that lasting relationships are the result of effort. Books upon books are written about managing emotions and avoiding conflicts. Couples share stories about how they were on the brink of divorce, but changed their minds because of making adjustments in their marriage.

Making these adjustments is true for all relationships. Without effort, the health of our relationships deteriorates and often ends in heartbreak for everyone involved. There is a verse of the Holy Quran that beautifully explains what happens between the hearts of believers when they are kind in the most difficult moments.

وَلَا تَسۡتَوِي الۡحَسَنَةُ وَلَا السَّيِّئَةُ ؕ اِدۡفَعۡ بِالَّتِيۡ هِيَ اَحۡسَنُ فَاِذَا الَّذِيۡ بَيۡنَكَ وَبَيۡنَهٗ عَدَاوَةٌ كَاَنَّهٗ وَلِيٌّ حَمِيۡمٌ

“And good and evil are not alike. Repel [evil] with that which is best. And lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity will become as though he were a warm friend.” (Surah Ha-Mim as-Sajadah, Ch. 41: V.35)

Now that we have established the importance of maintaining relationships, we must answer, “why”?

As Muslims, we look to the Quran for this answer. First and foremost, Allah has commanded us not to break our ties of kinship and the Holy Quran repeatedly admonishes those who take this lightly.

But what is the wisdom behind such teaching? The answer is that, as humans, we simply need support networks. Without social support, we are more prone to developing mental health issues. Martin E Seligman, a renowned psychologist who wrote the book Learned Optimism, talks about many factors that lead us to develop depression. According to him, dwindling family structure and a lack of stable relationships, contribute to higher levels of depression and anxiety.

“Because of frequent divorce, the family is no longer the abiding institution it once was, a sanctuary that would always be there unchanged when we needed balm on our wounds. Easy mobility— the ability to pick up and move great distances— tends to shatter family cohesion.” (Martin E Seligman, Learned Optimism, p. 285)

All the evidence from the Islamic teachings as well as science points towards building relationships and maintaining them. Ties of kinship are a cushion against life’s hardships. Our relationships help us fight isolation, depression, and all kinds of mental health issues.

Granted, there are exceptions to this rule as well. Hence, in extreme cases, one should seek help and try to cut the relationship loose in an amicable manner. However, most relationships that only require suppressing our ego, anger, and other petty emotions require us to try harder to maintain and preserve them. And none of this is possible without true effort and humble supplication before Allah the Exalted.

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